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Life on a narrowboat can be as peaceful as it is idyllic BUT you need to understand the pros, cons, highs, lows, and day to day logistics in living on England's inland waterways. Let me help you find out all you need to know before you commit to what could be a very expensive mistake.


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2016 07 10 Newsletter – A Honeymoon Without A Wedding

“Don’t come any further over to the right,” Cynthia warned me. Crunch. “Trust me, there’s no room over here. Move over to the left.” Scrape. “The other left. You’ve hit the bridge wall!” Bang.

So, several contacts too late, I moved over to the left, flipping a row of plastic cones into the air towards a trio of startled workmen. Cones to the left of me, steel girders to the right. It was all a little too stressful for my liking.

Changing locations is much more relaxing on a narrowboat.

We were on our way out of the Danish town of Middelfart – a much more pleasant place to stay than the name suggests – at the beginning of our long drive back to the UK. The narrow steel suspension bridge, the Den Gamle Lillebæltsbro, had unnerved me on the way into Middelfart. Two wide vehicles could only pass at walking pace and with great difficulty. On the way back, at the bridge entrance and with no prior warning, a sign announced that the maximum width permitted was two metres due to maintenance on the westward lane. I don’t know exactly how wide our Hymer is, but I’m sure that it’s more than two metres.

With a stream of cars behind us, and a twenty mile detour if we couldn’t cross Den Gamle Lillebæltsbro, we had to force our way through. Despite a middle finger waving session by the workmen, a number of impatient toots from behind, and a temporary breathing problem for me, we crossed the bridge without too much trouble.

I’m pleased to report that the rest of our time in Denmark was much less stressful.

We spent two peaceful days parked next to Silvso lake. The lake is a nature reserve popular with birds, but not with the local Danes. We had the car park and the lake to ourselves for most of our time there, apart from a brief visit from three distraught members of Silvso model flying club. They lost sight of their 10’ wingspan plane in low cloud and suspected that it had crashed into the lake. They searched the lake with binoculars for an hour without success.

With an empty water tank and a full toilet cassette we drove forty miles north looking for somewhere scenic with motorhome facilities.

Did you know that when turning right on a road in Denmark, pedestrians have the right of way? Nor did I until I had to remove one stuck between my rear axles.

Only kidding but, when we entered Denmark,  I had one or two fists shaken at me when unsuspecting Danes stepped confidently in front of me at street corners.

We found the perfect nighttime parking spot at Middelfart Marina. The location was listed in our Camperstop Europe guide. The book lists nearly 1,000 low cost alternatives to fully serviced campsites. Some of the locations listed aren’t terribly low cost. Middlefart Marina was one of the more expensive, although the cost was difficult to tell or even to pay initially.

A Middelfart marina boat with a silly name for the schoolboys among you

A Middelfart marina boat with a silly name for the schoolboys among you

The marina has an automated payment system. There’s a ticket machine next to the rarely open harbour master’s office. The machine prompted me to choose my language and then displayed a bewildering number of options.

I eventually figured that I needed a campervan pass and, with a sigh of relief, slipped my Visa debit card into the indicated slot. The card was rejected. It’s my only card so I raced two hundred metres back to our tree lined parking bay to ask Cynthia for one of her cards.

Back at the machine, Cynthia’s Visa card was also rejected. Another mad dash back to the van to swap Cynthia’s Visa card for a Mastercard. That was rejected too.

Fortunately the harbour master was having a rare moment in his office. I told him about my problem. With a grave face he informed me that now that the UK has left Europe, English Visa cards aren’t welcome anywhere… and then, seeing the look of horror on my face, he collapsed on his desk in fits of laughter.

The ticket machine was faulty, so he allowed me to use a credit card machine in his office to pay for my night at the marina, and to pay for a “harbour card” which, once loaded with Danish Kroner, would allow me to use the harbour’s water, showers and laundry facilities.

Next on my to do list was to empty our bulging toilet cassette. When we purchased the Hymer, I bought a spare cassette. It’s too clean and shiny to use, so we’ve made do with just our old one. It’s rarely a problem as the period we can stay away from facilities is usually governed by our fresh water supply rather than our cassette capacity.

The motorhome facilities at the marina are first class, but it was a marina with many  far more important boat owners to keep happy. This wasn’t particularly good news for the dozen motorhome owners there because the Elsan waste disposal point was a quarter of a mile drive to a boater’s facility block on the sea wall.

The dangerously windy Elsan point at Middelfart marina

The dangerously windy Elsan point at Middelfart marina

Can I pass on a valuable and very painful lesson I learned on the exposed harbour wall?

Always, always stand upwind of your cassette when you empty it, especially when there’s a force eight gale blowing. Apparently, large brown polka dots do little to enhance my looks, or the way I smell.

Fortunately the harbour wash room was next to the Elsan point so Cynthia was prepard to let me back into the Hymer after a fifteen minute session with a bar of soap and a box of tissues.

We stayed at the marina for two nights, enjoying long walks through the woodland which fringed the rocky shore towards a headland close to the 4km square wooded island of Fænø. The island is home to 700,000 trees and just two full time residents. The headland opposite is a very peaceful place to walk. We also discovered several days later that it’s a delightful place to spend the night.

On our second day at Middelfart we drove into town to shop for essential supplies and to enjoy a rare meal out. Following a recommendation from a high street pharmacy customer, we enjoyed a superb early evening meal at Teza’s.

Teza is a Danish and English speaking Iranian. He left his home country twenty five years ago to escape the violence there. He now owns a high quality and very popular pizza restaurant. Our meal was superb, enhanced no end by Teza’s charm.

Covering one of his restaurant walls is a wonderful landscape of sea, beach and endless sand dunes. He told us that the photograph was taken at Grenan, Denmark’s most northerly point. We didn’t know the distance to Grenan, but we decided to go there the following day.

We don’t like using arterial roads. They divorce us from the counties we’ve come to explore, but if we have many miles to cover, they are a necessary evil.

After four hours and two hundred and five tedious motorway miles, we arrived in charming and colourful Skagen where nearly every house has yellow walls and an orange roof.

The yellow houses of Skagen

The yellow houses of Skagen

Grenan is a ten minute drive from the town. There’s nothing there other than a large car park with a section for motorhomes, a visitor centre and two Sandormen (sand worm) tractor/trailer combinations for taking visitors through the dunes to the point on the beach where two oceans collide. The Skagerrak (part of North Sea) and the Kattegat sea meet at a 4km long sandbar.

There appeared to be a fee for overnight motorhome parking here, but no one appeared to be interested in either paying for it or enforcing it, so we didn’t bother either.

Grenan has been a popular destination for artists for many years. The light there is wonderful which, I’m told, has something to do with the two seas meeting and bouncing light upwards.

Skagen landscape

Skagen landscape

We stayed away from the tourist and jellyfish infested beach until early evening when the sandworm service ceased. The walk through the dunes was just over a mile to the obvious meeting point of the two seas. Waves thundered into each other for hundreds of yards out to sea. A mass of sea birds wheeled over the sand bank between converging oceans and two dozen tourists posed for photo’s by the water’s edge.

Here’s Cynthia, standing in the golden light which has drawn artists from around the globe. 546 miles to

Cynthia straddles two oceans

Cynthia straddles two oceans

her right is Inverness, Scotland. 48 miles to her left is Gothenburg, Sweden. 148 miles behind her is Olso, Norway. In front of her is a life spent exploring the English waterways with me. Unfortunately it’s the only distance we don’t know.

The following day we dodged heavy showers on our way to Skagen. Cynthia needed to find a post office to post a batch of postcards. The town was a mass of merry musicians and their fans enjoying the four day folk festival. Pavement cafes and bars were awash with jolly revellers. We couldn’t resist stopping for a while to soak up the atmosphere, and to enjoy a leisurely lunch under the heat lamps of a cafe garden.

The food was excellent but, like everything in Denmark, it wasn’t cheap. A coffee, a bottle of mineral water, two simple main courses and a bowl of ice cream for me cost £50, probably twice as much as in the UK.

We spent another night on our secluded corner of the beach car park before our dreaded 1,200 mile dash back to Warwickshire. A journey we had to make without marrying. Sorry, my dash back to Warwickshire. The UK authorities don’t want Cynthia at the moment. They let thousands of useless freeloaders cross their borders, but not someone who is quite capable of supporting herself.

All of our careful planning for our continental trip was in vain. On Thursday we discovered that, once again, the English court system had beaten us.

We travelled to Denmark expecting that my decree absolute would be issued by Coventry County Court on 24th June, over six years since my separation and fourteen months after the application was submitted to them. The decree would then be sent to my solicitor who promised to forward it to Cynthia’s friend Cecilie in Odense.

On Thursday, after contacting the court every day since the previous Friday and being told rather unhelpfully that “We haven’t received your application yet”, we were told that the court had in fact received the application, but that they wanted an additional £50 fee to process it.

The result was that the decree would take an additional week to reach us.

Neither of us had a week to spare, so we had to switch to Plan B. We weren’t sure at that stage what Plan B would entail, but we knew that the first part was to abandon our plan to marry in Denmark and return to our respective home countries.

The journey began with a 279 mile leg back to Middelfart via Odense where Cynthia’s documents had been delivered several days earlier after I realised that I had forgotten to bring Cynthia’s divorce paperwork with me when I left the marina.

After a panic phone call to Calcutt Boats, the ever helpful staff there saved the day. Thank you to Russ Fincham for finding the paperwork on the boat for us, and thank you to Chris Collinson for sending the package overnight to our Denmark address.

There was an accident on the opposite carriageway resulting in a four mile tailback on our way to Odense, so we picked a more scenic route on the way back.

Unfortunately the new route involved squeezing through an impossibly narrow gap over another steel bridge which left a little more of the Hymer behind. There’s not a great deal left of it now.

After driving all day, reaching Middelfart marina was a relief. I still had my Middelfart marina harbour card with a little credit left on it from our last visit, so I emptied our cassette, standing upwind of it this time, and then had a hot shower. I drove three miles to the headland opposite the island of Fænø before collapsing into an untidy heap for the evening.

Too tired to enjoy the view, we retired for the night

Too tired to enjoy the view, we retired for the night

And then I started the engine again.

We didn’t have a connection to the internet. Cynthia needed to email her real estate broker about her house sale, so I drove back to the marina where we knew we could get online.

At 9.30pm we returned to our headland parking spot and promptly went to bed. So much for relaxing while we enjoyed the view.

A marina walk rest stop

A marina walk rest stop

We were off again at the crack of dawn on Saturday for a 370 mile dash from Denmark through Germany and into the Netherlands. We stopped off for an hour in Flensburg close to the Danish border to have Tasha wormed and to have her pet passport stamped. My tunnel ticket was booked for 7am on Monday so Saturday was the last opportunity to have her treated before the crossing.

We had to skirt Hamburg on the way back. On our route through Germany a week earlier we had endured two hours of almost stationary traffic on Hamburg’s western ring road. Cynthia thought that we would suffer less on the way back by choosing the eastern ring road. The route was just as bad, so if you’re passing through Germany on your way to Denmark, stay away from Hamburg at all costs.

We crossed the border into the Netherlands in time for a well earned meal out. We stopped at the first likely looking place on the outskirts of Denekamp. “Pannenkoekenhuis Bolle Jan” was its name which, I know know, means Bolle Jan Pancake House. The fact that all their meals were baked in batter should have given it away. I don’t particularly recommend their mixed grill served in an inch of stomach busting pancake, but the place appeared very popular with its stout Dutch customers.

We were allowed to stay in their car park for the night. It wasn’t particularly scenic, and the deep bass throbbing until 2am from a nearby rave wasn’t very relaxing, but at least the parking was free.

I said goodbye to Cynthia on Sunday. I dropped her off at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport in plenty of time for her Sunday afternoon flight back to New York. Bags of time as it turned out. Cynthia phoned me half an hour after I dropped her off to tell me that her flight had been cancelled.

She considered another flight later in the afternoon, but that would have entailed flying to Heathrow where she would have endured a lengthy wait before her onward flight to the States. She sensible decided to book a local hotel and take the same flight the following day.

In the meantime I endured several more hours of motorway travel. The route to Calais from Amsterdam is mainly through heavy industry. It’s neither pleasant nor pretty.

I left the A16 half way between Dunkirk and Calais so that I could find a quiet waterside spot for the night before the following day’s channel crossing.

I drove for miles without seeing anything remotely suitable, but I could see from my TomTom that a road passed very close to the coast just to the east of Calais.

My plans were thwarted though by two Gerdame filled riot vans parked across the road next to a shanty town of canvas covered makeshift buildings. The coast road between Calais and the shanty town was populated mainly by haunted looking Africans.

With the windows wound up and the doors locked, I turned on my TomTom again and headed for the channel tunnel, hoping to stay in their car park for the night.

I was tired and distracted when I eventually reached the check in area. TomTom directed me to the freight terminal first, which is several miles away. I am now quite familiar with the industrial zones around Calais.

After queuing for half an hour to reach the head of the check in line I was reminded that I needed to process basset Tasha first. I was ushered through an emergency exit and directed to the pet reception centre.

I had another problem when I presented Tasha’s passport. The Flensburg vet had stamped the wrong section. I had to wait an hour while the French official copied her passport and then filled in a dozen forms before asking me to join the check in queue again.

When I eventually reached the head of the queue for the second time, a frustrated official again refused me entry because pet reception had forgotten to give me a window sticker.

Back to pet reception again.

Tasha’s paperwork was fine on my third return to the head of the check in queue. Unfortunately mine wasn’t.

My ticket was for the following morning. I was told that I couldn’t stay overnight in the car park, but I could travel on a later train on Sunday evening if I paid and extra €20. I told the lady official that I would find somewhere else to stay for the night. She told me that, if I did, I would have to check Tasha in at the pet reception again in the morning. I reluctantly paid the fee.

At 10pm I drove off the train at Folkestone, dog tired, but determined to find quiet waterside parking for the night. I had conveniently forgotten how difficult wild camping is in the UK.

I spent the next hour searching for somewhere, anywhere, to park. After half an hour I gave up on the coat and headed inland. I couldn’t find a layby, car park or even a large enough road-side space.

My night ended in a Tesco superstore car park on the outskirts of Ashford in Kent, sandwiched between the A20 and the M20, both literally a stone’s throw away. It was the noisiest night of my two weeks away.

My last day’s travel, a mere 162 miles, was all tedious motorway; M20, M26, M25, M40. Motorways are easy on the nerves, but hard on the eye. I was delighted to leave the M40 at Banbury for the last fifteen miles to the marina.

I’ve been back now for six days and working on the grounds for four of them. I never thought I would say this, but my boat feels so spacious after seventeen days in the Hymer. It’s a tranquil haven after 2,497 miles, 4,018 kilometres, on the road. And no wedding certificate at the end of it.

We’ve fleshed out Plan B now. This coming Wednesday I will fly to Vermont for a simple ceremony on Saturday in Cynthia’s home town of Arlington. I’ll return to work in the UK at the beginning of the following week and focus on tackling the mountain of paperwork necessary to allow Cynthia into England for good. Please keep your fingers crossed for us.

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Site Upgrade

Thank you if you were one of the many, many site visitors who emailed me to let me know if there were any issues with the site after I switched hosts three weeks ago. There were a few problems, But I’m happy to report that they have all been resolved now.

Site security has been upgraded, so if you are a Narrowbudget Gold user, your online data is now super safe.

Aspiring forum users were frustrated for a while by a faulty registration form which didn’t email login details to new registrants. That problem has also been fixed.

Last but not least, I have enhanced the site for the more mature narrowboat enthusiast among us. The font was too small for comfortable reading, so I’ve increased the size. If, like me, your eyes aren’t quite as sharp as they used to be, I hope that browsing the site is now a more comfortable and enjoyable experience.

Please let me know if you experience any problems on the site at all.

Can YOU Help Maintain This Site?

I wrote about the ongoing and often crippling costs of maintaining this site in the last two newsletters. My total annual outgoings just to maintain the site and pay for the software to send out my weekly newsletters is over £5,000. It’s a cost I simply can’t afford any more.

I just about cover my day to day running costs through my Narrowbudget Gold package and my discovery day service, but there’s very little left to put towards the site. I’ll be returning to work at Calcutt Boats for all of May to help top up my dwindling bank balance. I’ll enjoy the working around the two beautiful marinas, but finding time to run the site and work a forty five hour week will be a struggle.

The only way I will be able to keep the site’s 9,000 posts and pages online in the future will be through voluntary subscriptions. These subscriptions will be just that; voluntary. If you can’t afford to pay, or you simply don’t want to pay, the wealth of information that’s taken me, and a host of experienced boaters on the forum, six years to write will still be there for you completely free of charge.

Over the last two weeks I’ve asked for voluntary subscriptions. Some very kind site users have already agreed to help, but I need many more if I am to keep the site running. I can’t maintain it any other way.

If you have been following this blog for any length of time, I’m sure that you realise the time and effort which goes into it. I receive dozens of emails every week from aspiring boaters asking for advice. I answer every one of them as quickly and comprehensively as possible. You may have sent an email or two to me yourself.

I enjoy helping others move closer to the life I enjoy so much every day. I don’t ask or expect payment for this service. It’s a labour of love. Paying bills each month is not such a pleasant experience. Please help me continue to help others by subscribing to the site. The subscription form is here.

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For the price of a cup of coffee or a pint each month you can help keep a very useful inland waterways resource online. You can subscribe here.

Discovery Day And Narrowboat Helmsmanship Training

If you’re new to this site you might not know about the service I launched in June 2014. I host narrowboat experience days on board my own 62? long narrowboatJames No 194. The ten hour days are a combination of discussion about the pros and cons of living on board, narrowboat designs and the best equipment for live aboard boaters, and a six to eight hour helmsmanship training cruise along the Oxford and/or Grand Union Canals.

I run my discovery days roughly on the first ten days or so of April, June August, October and December.  I realised this morning that I hadn’t added all of my dates for the first half of the year. All the dates for April and June are there now. If you are interested in joining me for a fun and information packed discovery day next year you can do so by viewing the diary here. You may want to stay locally the night before, the night after or both, in which case I highly recommend this B & B. It’s a five minute stroll from the mooring where I begin my discovery days.

In the meantime, meet recent discovery day attendee Peter Martin who kindly produced a short video of his discovery day experience for me to use on my site. The video is below followed by his comments.

“With two and half years before I can pick up my work pension, a break up of my marriage, kids now independent and need for downsizing, now seems like the time to plan what I’ve often dreamed about over the years.

Living on the cut seems to fit in very well with my lifestyle. I like the outdoors, love boating, independence and getting back to nature.

Having not spent any length of time with live aboard boaters, the Discovery Day was was really just an opportunity to pick up the vibes that go with life on the inland waterways. I needed to do this before committing myself further in the discovery process. Easier to nip things in the bud now if it didn’t appeal before my imagination runs away with itself!

It was a very enjoyable day. I particularly enjoyed the warm welcome of coming in out of the cold to sit in the heat of a toasty, warm cabin. That sold me the lifestyle straight away. It also confirmed that I definitely need a solid fuel stove as primary heat. I know it means hard work lugging coal etc., but what better way to get some outdoor exercise.  I’m also now sold on composting toilets! I never imagined I’d spend the following  week viewing endless YouTube videos of people’s loos!

The helming and boat handling were great experience. By the end of the day I had got over the intimidation of  controlling  60 feet and 20 tons of metal.  A very worthwhile 10 hours and it has confirmed that I’ll continue along this pathway.

The hard work now begins in downsizing, straightening out the finances and then the enjoyable part of finding the right boat.”

You can find out more about my discovery days and availability here.

I Need Some Help!

Each time I write a newsletter, I tick another subject off the list of things which those new to boating have told me that they want to read about. The hardest part of the process isn’t the writing itself, it’s constantly thinking of new content for each issue. The trouble is, I don’t know what you want to read. I think I keep the newsletters reasonably interesting but I don’t know for sure. That’s where I need your help.
Can you let me know what you would like to read in the future? Are there any areas of narrowboat life you don’t think I’ve covered enough or areas which I’ve missed completely? Please let me know what you want to read about. Thanks for your help.

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Please Help Keep This Site Online

If you enjoy reading these posts, if you find the masses of information on this site and my new motorhome site, rvblog.co.uk both useful and entertaining, please help keep it available for those who both want and need it. There are eight years of painstakingly written and researched information on hundreds of posts and pages on the two sites. They may be lost forever if I can't find a way to maintain them. Click on the button below to find out more.


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Paul Smith
 

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia now wander Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 32' Dutch motor cruiser.