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A Christmas cruise from Market Harborough to Calcutt Boats

Filthy, stinking cold. I was a snot fountain, a drool reservoir, an old geezer with a red hooter and a hacking cough. On a cruising rest day moored at Union Wharf, Market Harborough, I had nothing to do but transfer bodily fluid to endless tissues and feel sorry for myself.

Oh, woe is me.

I didn’t have the energy to do anything constructive. I woke with a fever and a leaking nose and went downhill from there. The problem with boating on your own is that if you can’t do something, it doesn’t get done. There’s no “I” in team, no helping hand, no one to bail you out. You’re on your own through thick and thin. Most of the time I like it that way.

Thanking God that I didn’t have to cruise, I pulled a rucksack from a dusty cupboard and stumbled a mile to Market Harborough’s Sainsbury store. I needed enough fresh food to last me a week and to treat myself at my one-person New Year’s Eve party. Chilli with dark chocolate washed down with a good bottle of red. Simple food but tasty and cheap.

After two days rest, feeling slightly better but still leaving a slug-like snot trail wherever I walked, I started my return cruise. I stopped at Union Wharf’s service point to empty two cassettes and get rid of my rubbish, then cruised back through reeds and floating logs back to Foxton, dragging silt all the way.

The only real problem was an impossibly shallow reed bed restricting the navigation next to the swing bridge at the bottom of the Foxton flight. CRT has removed the visible reeds but left an underwater bed of impenetrable stumps. I tried to give them a wide berth but still grounded slightly. I noticed that the boat behind me, helmed by a guy with apparent local knowledge, pulled over to the CRT workboats opposite the reed beds and dragged his boat along them. Surely it’s time for a little dredging. Come on, CRT!

I negotiated both swing bridges without incident. A feisty mob of eight retired lady ramblers kept approaching cars at bay with brandished hiking poles and opened the swing road bridge for me. Then a dog-walking boater with his own key saw me through the footbridge. “Keep away from the reed bed,” he ordered as I crept past. “The canal’s really shallow there,” shouted an elderly lady, out for a walk with her Zimmer frame. “Ha, ha. Look at that boat leaning over,” screamed a shrill and spotty-faced teen. CRT, don’t make the reed bed an entertaining diversion for Foxton residents. Get rid of it, please!

Preparing for a Foxton flight ascent on a cold winter's day

Preparing for a Foxton flight ascent on a cold winter’s day

The Foxton flight was as easy going up as it was coming down. A little too easy actually. I managed to do the first three on my own, enjoying chatting with bystanders, relishing the company and having a laugh, when a lock keeper insisted that I stay at the helm. “You wouldn’t believe the paperwork we have to fill in if you have an accident!” That’s the third time I’ve heard a lock keeper say that on this trip. I think that they’ve been ordered to keep solo boaters on their boats.

I moored within walking distance of the flight summit’s bacon bap supply. I sat for an hour hiding from an icy wind behind the cafe wall, boat watching, drinking coffee and eating pig.

I moved an hour away from people and distractions the following morning. New Year’s Eve and a time for me to sit quietly and think about an eventful 2019.

The year began well enough. Cynthia and I had owned Orient for a week. With our possessions on board and a boat we thought was fully operational, we started a cold winter cruise south from Chester to Napton Junction and Calcutt Boats.

We didn’t get far.

Orient’s battery bank died at Market Drayton, so we limped sixteen hours back to Tattenhall marina to have a new set fitted. We began our second attempt twenty-two days later, and what an adventure we had. We raced to beat Birmingham stoppages on increasingly icy canals. Five weeks after blacking our new boat, I stripped the waterline back to bare metal. And I frequently grounded, often for half an hour, straining with a wooden pole to push our flat bottomed girl off raised mudflats.

I reached Calcutt Boats after eighty-eight hours at the helm. After twenty-six months of driving and cruising across Europe, I returned my spiritual home, ready for a gruelling work slog. Two years of hedonism cost us a fortune. We purchased a motorhome and two Dutch boats. We’d sold one of them, and part exchanged the motorhome for Orient. Cynthia and I still owned one of the Dutch craft, Dik Trom. Its maintenance costs and mooring fees were bleeding us dry. Returning to work, even in such a beautiful setting, was a necessary evil.

The months passed, Cynthia’s health declined, and her feeling of isolation grew. She flew back to the USA in April to visit friends and relatives. And to search for a cure for her worsening condition. She died there two weeks later, alone in a friend’s house, far away from the company she craved.

Life for me continued. Despite loneliness, devastation and a hopeless sense of loss tinged with more than a little guilt, I couldn’t have been in a better place to grieve. The boating community looks after its own. I had company if I needed it, tranquillity if I didn’t. Months passed as I came to terms with my loss.

Money has little regard for personal feelings. I still needed to earn enough to service the three loans I needed to buy Orient. And I had a surplus boat to maintain in Holland in addition to Orient’s essential maintenance, repairs and modifications.

Reducing my overseas boat maintenance obligations was a costly but straightforward affair. Cynthia’s estate executor insisted on a considerable lump sum for Cynthia’s share in both boats. He hinted that a no-win, no-fee probate lawyer waited in the wings ready to obliterate the estate with an endless stream of legal demands and bills.

The simplest solution for me, both financially and emotionally, was to give Dik Trom to Cynthia’s estate and walk away from endless debate and heartache. 

Resolving Cynthia’s estate issues and disposing of Dik Trom lifted an unbearable weight from my shoulders. Life settled down into a familiar and welcome stress-free routine. I worked at the marina during the week, wrote blog posts before and after work, and hosted Discovery Day cruises most weekends. Although the work was physically taxing, the distraction helped me through the following months without too much quiet time navel-gazing.

A seven-day working week income allowed me to meet my financial obligations and transform Orient from a cold and neglected boat into a warm and welcoming home. My winter cruise was a fitting reward for reaching the end of a challenging year. By late December, I was £500 short of debt freedom and reconciled to life as a solo boater. Despite being wifeless, dogless and occasionally legless, I could see a welcoming light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

2019 was all about simple survival and overcoming adversity. This year’s looking much more promising. A friend recently reminded me that 2020 is auspicious. “20/20 vision allows you to see clearly,” he told me. I don’t know about that, but I intend to plan clearly. I don’t make New Year resolutions. However,  I’m a big fan of setting balanced goals and working relentlessly towards them.

My number one priority for 2020 is to save enough money for an essential foreign holiday.

My parents and my brother live in Australia in one of the few areas not burning at the moment. I haven’t seen them for nine years. Nine years is nine years too long. Getting to and from Australia is painful. Endless hours sitting in a cramped seat watching awful television. It’s too far away to travel to for a short period. I plan to go for at least a month and then take a break in Bali on the way back. A boating mate, Ian, who spends his winters in Indonesia, has invited me to do some volcano hiking. It’ll be a far cry from the gentle life I live on England’s muddy ditches and a welcome break from ankle-deep towpath mud.

Another friend, Alan, has suggested that I should join him for a week cruising in Ireland on the mighty River Shannon. It’s boating on a grander scale than on the English waterways; lakes with islands studded with ancient relics – besides Guinness-soaked village elders – lively pubs and friendly faces. All reached from the comfort of a “yoghurt pot”, a plastic motor cruiser, or a wide-beam canal boat. Another boating experience to enjoy.

DISCOVER ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT LIFE ON ENGLAND'S INLAND WATERWAYS

Join me on a gentle cruise through rural Warwickshire. Experience life in the slow lane, learn how to handle a 62' narrowboat, either on your own or as part of a crew. Find out all you need to know about live aboard narrowboat designs, features and equipment. Understand the logistics and the costs involved. Treat yourself to a canal experience you'll never forget. 

Much as I’m excited by the thought of foreign travel and cruising new waterways, paying for the trip will mean another gruelling work year. But life is for living. I don’t know how many active years I have left in me, so I intend to make the most of every one of them.

In the meantime, I have continued to adapt to life on my own again. It hasn’t been much of a stretch. I’m generally an anti-social git, so life as a solo boater suits me well enough. I have enough friends to keep me entertained when I need company, and wind, water and tranquillity when I don’t.

I have just two expensive items remaining on Orient’s original to-do list; replacing my worn cratch cover and fitting a solar array. I don’t need solar power until I begin cruising continuously, and I can’t do that and afford to visit my parents. I’ll put the solar array on the back burner for now and concentrate on the cratch cover.

My black canvas front deck cover is on its knees. There are half a dozen ever-widening splits in its two plastic windows. Added to the rips and frays along the bottom edge, and an unappealing green sheen which I can’t remove, my cratch cover is a bit of a mess. And I get water seeping through each of the six zips in heavy rain. It has to go.

A fellow boater recommended a reasonably priced cratch cover supplier last year. I phoned him to offer him the work, he agreed to take it on and promised to visit me to take measurements. That was five months ago. I have to assume that he’s not interested.

I contacted our local top-end cratch cover supplier, AJ Canopies. They quoted me £1,500 over the phone. When I regained consciousness, I asked Kinver Canopies to quote. Their price is much more reasonable. For £1,000 I get a heavyweight canvas cover with six zips. I don’t want windows this time. Canopy windows offer wannabe thieves a sneak peek at all the goodies I store on my front deck. I want to save these low life predators the discomfort of coming onto my boat and having an anchor chain wrapped around their scrawny necks.

Anyway, that was New Year’s Eve planning out of the way. I ate my chilli, drank my wine, finished with a sneaky Remmy Martin and hit the sack at 10 pm. The last night of my first full year aboard Orient.

I woke to a new year, a momentous year, ninety days away from the start of my seventh decade on planet Earth. How did I get this old? My mind’s as agile as it was forty years ago. My body isn’t. It regularly complains, bitching if I take a long walk, grinding to a halt if I swing a chainsaw about all day. I’m shorter, fatter and hairier than I’ve ever been. If I carry on in the same vein, I’ll be a knee-high fur ball by the time I’m seventy.

I stopped for another day on my quiet mooring near Husbands Bosworth, enjoyed a couple of short circular walks, obsessively polished my brass and smiled a great deal. I lead a simple life.

An quiet New Year's Even mooring - Perfect for planning the year ahead

An quiet New Year’s Even mooring – Perfect for planning the year ahead

I covered thirteen miles in 5.7 hours on my first cruising day of 2020. My underwhelming 2.3 mph average is usual for me. Orient is often forging through canal bed silt. The more I open her up, the lower the stern sinks, and the slower I go. Easing off the throttle gets me to my destination faster and saves eroding passing canal banks. And gives the impatient boaters behind me something to bitch about.

I’m always a little nervous when I stray from the channel centre, usually when I have to make room for oncoming boats. The highlight of the day’s gentle cruise was an unexpected slide on a slippery slope. I moved over to avoid a rare hire boat, helmed by a man convinced he was piloting a jet fighter. He pushed a tidal wave before him, creating wash which forced canal-side waterfowl to run for cover.

I didn’t respond to his cheery wave as he flashed by. Orient’s starboard side reached for the sky. I heard the thud and clink of falling bottles inside, but the wind was blowing too hard to stop and investigate. I hoped that I wouldn’t finish my day drinking whiskey through broken glass on my hardwood floor.

I enjoy winter cruising more often than not. I didn’t enjoy this particular experience. Not because of the hire boat incident. I was cold, despite having the range burning beneath my feet. A frigid and gusty wind didn’t help, nor did standing motionless on the back of the boat all day. Without the welcome distraction of a lock flight or two, winter cruising can become a chilly and monotonous affair.

I looked forward to reaching my goal; an overnight stop at Yelvertoft to get some margarine from the village post office and a tasty treat from delicatessen Squisito. Alas, Yelvertoft was closed for business. The post office had shut for good, Squisito for Christmas and the Knightley Arms because they felt like it. The pub has been closed more often than open on previous visits. I don’t know how they manage to stay afloat.

I woke late the next morning with a headache, thankful that two weeks of celebrating Christmas on my own had come to an end. I like a drink but have to control my indulgence. My drinks cabinet will remain locked now, opened only for high-days and holiday. There are too many hard-drinking single middle-aged men on the cut. I don’t want to join their self-destructive ranks.

The highlight of my day was an easy Watford flight descent. I had company for forty minutes. A particularly friendly lock keeper helped me down the flight to keep me ahead of three following boats. No matter how quickly I work, I can’t negotiate locks as fast as an experienced couple. It’s rarely a problem, but in a navigation bottleneck like the Watford flight, even in the quieter winter months, CRT staff have to keep the traffic moving.

This guy was an ex narrowboat owner. He sold his boat because he was spending up to four weeks at a time away from his wife. She didn’t like it and told him that he was getting too old for solo boating. He capitulated and sold his boat. But he’s regretting that now. He has to spend all of his time with his wife. Four weeks of solo boating has become an unattainable dream.

I hope that I don’t ever bow down to peer pressure to sell Orient. I don’t know what I would do without a boat in my life. I don’t think that situation is likely. I need to earn a living for the rest of my life. What better way to do that than by hosting my Discovery Day service?

A sunken narrowboat near Braunston tunnel's eastern portal

A sunken narrowboat near Braunston tunnel’s eastern portal

Nearing the start of my sixth and final tunnel passage, I passed the boat above. The sad end to someone’s floating home. Death by fire and water. I can only hope that the owner wasn’t on board at the time. Sights like this make me feel physically sick, and eternally grateful for Orient, my health and my lifestyle.

Yin and Yang, bad and good, The Boathouse and the Admiral Nelson. My meal at The Boathouse on my outward cruise was dismal. And then I enjoyed a fabulous meal at the Admiral Nelson on my return trip; whitebait starter and ham, egg and chips for the main course. The Wiltshire ham was as plentiful as it was tasty. Lovely, as was the bottle of merlot I had with the meal. I enjoyed listening to snippets of parental advice coming from the table next to me too.

A dreadlocked lady boater counselled her teenage daughter. “No, darlin’”, she confided in a low voice, “you want to roll your spliff like this.” And then a little later, “Not too often mind. You don’t want to end up with paranoia like your Dad.” Boat life at its best.

Braunston's Admiral Nelson at night

Braunston’s Admiral Nelson at night

I set off on my final morning without breakfast at 8 am. I planned to drop down two locks from my mooring opposite the pub and stop briefly near the Gongoozler’s Rest cafe boat. I hoped to eat there before heading back to base. The business was closed on my outward journey. I suspected a Christmas break. Sadly, it was still shut, maybe for good. There was a hand-drawn for sale sign taped to a window of the owner’s boat moored next to the cafe. What a shame. I loved their full English breakfasts, toasted cheese and onion sandwiches and potato scallops. Bad for both my pocket and waistline but good for my soul.

I reached the top of the Calcutt flight two hours later, pausing for an hour at the water point to rid Orient of a two-week mud accumulation. I had a Discovery Day booked for the following day, and the old girl needed to look her best.

Mud removed, Orient is ready for a Discovery Day cruise

Mud removed, Orient is ready for a Discovery Day cruise

I always enjoy my Discovery Day cruises. Despite having covered the route more than three hundred times now, each outing is a joy. I have ever-changing company, different people with a similar desire. A quest for a simple existence free of the stresses and strains of modern-day life. They’re enchanted by rural Warwickshire’s rolling hills and green fields. They’re mesmerised by the slow beat of my vintage engine and, at this time of the year, pleasantly surprised by a warm and cosy cabin. Less is more. Boat life is a good life.

Calcutt Boat's Meadows marina on a cloudy day

Calcutt Boat’s Meadows marina on a cloudy day

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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 wandered Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 35' Dutch motor cruiser. However, the pull of England's muddy ditches proved too much for them. Now they're back where they belong, constantly stuck in mud in a beautiful traditional narrowboat.