A Christmas Cruise to Market Harborough
Day one of my Christmas cruise, a day which felt like prison release. This year has been long and hard, filled with endless work and tragedy. Cynthia’s been gone now for eight months, two-thirds of a year which I’ve filled with seven-day working weeks. Everyone copes in different ways. My method, right or wrong, has been to work hard, sleep, rinse and repeat. I think I’ve reached the year-end without too much mental damage, so maybe mine is an acceptable coping mechanism.
I woke late on my first morning and smiled as I remembered that I had nothing to do for the following fifteen days. All I had on my to-do list was cruising and writing a few blog posts. Just two items and I still struggled with one of them.
But my number one goal was to cruise, relax and recharge my depleted body battery. That part of my plan has gone very well. And, after daily rain for far too long, regular dry cruising days have been welcome.
I could get used to this. My boating task list was long. I had brass and copper to shine, cupboards to sort through, paintwork to clean… pottering at its best. I loved it.
What a wonderful cruise from Calcutt. An hour and a half of tranquillity. Nothing but birdsong and the mesmerising thump of my JP2 engine. I watched robins, magpies, a sparrow hawk and the canal’s usual complement of coots, mallards and swans. The perfect end to my first festive day of freedom.
I sometimes wonder if I’m normal. I lost Cynthia just eight months ago and then had to say goodbye to two adorable dogs four weeks later. I switched from a boisterous family of four to a reclusive life alone. And there I was looking forward to an enjoyable fortnight on my own, stopping each night out of sight and sound of people and mainstream life. Even though I’m lonely now and then, I enjoy my freedom too much to want to change my life. I know I’m in the minority, but I’m happy more often than I’m sad, and that can’t be a bad thing.
I moored by bridge 100 at Flecknoe for my first night, gently getting pissed on sloe gin. The gin was quite fast, actually. After half a glass, I struggled to see well enough to type my daily journal entry. A relatively new moorer on Calcutt Boats’ Meadows marina gave me the potent brew. Shaun is a welcome addition to our legion of kindly boaters.
I managed to motivate myself enough the following day to cruise for forty-five minutes to Braunston. Life in the slow lane. What a pleasure. I looked forward to a midday meal in the Gongoozler’s Rest cafe boat, tackling a full English breakfast as I watched the world go by. I settled for a cold sausage roll on a canalised bench. The cafe owner had better things to do than cater for the Christmas wishes of a solo boater.
I treated myself to an evening Christmas meal in the boathouse. Another disappointment. Half a dozen limp whitebait to start and then the meal highlight, a steak and ale pie which tasted like an old boot. However, the bottle of merlot which accompanied the meal was excellent. I slid through liquid slurry on a pitch-black towpath back to my floating home. Wearing wellies and mud-stained trousers, I wasn’t the best-dressed diner in the pub, but I was well equipped for winter moorings on soggy towpaths.
The following morning began with a glorious sunrise. I had been on the go for three hours by dawn, preparing for a full day at the helm.
Life is so much more comfortable in a house. Roll out of bed to a house already warmed by an automated central heating system, climb into a car, turn a key and then roar away. No effort or thought involved. Life on autopilot.
Day to day life afloat requires much more work, especially on Orient.
My morning regime begins with the saloon’s Morso Squirrel stove. If the overnight temperature dips to zero, my thermometer usually registers sixteen degrees in the saloon area and thirteen in the bathroom and in the boatman’s cabin where I sleep. The first job of the day is to generate a bit of heat.
I empty the ash pan, riddle the grate, add more coal from the stove-side scuttle, refill the scuttle from a plastic storage box on the covered front deck and then clean the stove glass with a damp kitchen towel dipped in cold ash.
That’s the front of the boat sorted. Then I have to do battle with my fiddly Premiere range.
The boatman’s cabin stove has a firebox no bigger than a margarine tub and a tiny ash pan. The Squirrel stays alight for months at a time. The back cabin range goes out every night. Not that I want it burning during the hours of darkness. Sleeping next to a glowing stove is an uncomfortable affair.
I empty the range firebox and ash pan and add a Zip firelighter. Then I top that with some kindling and a handful of coal briquettes, throw the back doors wide open to dispel the initial smoke and light her up. Then I tackle my vintage engine.
My Lister JP2M is a thing of beauty. Eighty-four years old, as strong as an ox, as fit a fiddle. I recently asked a vintage engine expert how many more years use I could expect from the old girl. “The world will run out of fossil fuel before she dies,” he assured me. That’s what you call a reliable engine.
My JP2 is a little more time consuming to maintain than a modern engine, but the maintenance regime is a pleasant chore. I use a hand pump to draw fuel from my main tank into the engine room day tank. Then I add a little engine grease, check three different oil levels, stroke the old girl lovingly and tell her how much I appreciate the effort she puts in. I may be single now, but I know that a little appreciation goes a long way with the remaining lady in my life.
With both stoves ticking over nicely, the engine mollycoddled and a substantial breakfast inside me, dawn broke, and I was ready to rock and roll.
I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the cruise. I’ll share a secret with you. Despite living afloat for ten years, cruising thousands of miles and handling hundreds of different narrowboats, tunnel passages have always filled me with apprehension.
I like to feel in control. I am supremely confident that I can avoid possible incidents and accidents if I can see. Put me in a tunnel and remove a clear view of everything ahead of me, and I am scared witless. I am out of control, at the mercy of the confining tunnel walls and any novice boater zig-zagging towards me. I don’t like the feeling at all.
My route for the day included two tunnels, Braunston and Crick, 2,049 yards and 1,528 yards respectively. Two miles, an hour, heading towards a distant light speck, saturated by icy water pouring through a leaking tunnel roof.
But the first of those unpleasant passages was a couple of hours away. A glorious sunrise lifted my spirit, as did a lady boat owner, dog walking through the Braunston flight. She stopped, chatted and then strolled ahead opening gates for me. Small kindnesses like that make solo boating so much more pleasant. As does having the right equipment for tunnel passages.
Braunston top lock is a stone’s throw away from Braunston tunnel’s western portal. I paused briefly to prepare Orient for the possibility of meeting oncoming boats. Orient has three tall chimneys and an equally long exhaust stack. I have to think carefully about their safety wherever I travel. In tunnels, with the possibility of my starboard side being forced next to low arches, this means removing my Squirrel and Kabola chimneys.
I turned on my tunnel light too, although it provides as little illumination as a flickering candle. But on this boat, I also have two things which have transformed my tunnel cruising; a powerful 12V hand-held lamp at the stern and my two-cylinder engine.
My good luck streak continued when I reached Watford’s seven lock flight. I left Orient tied beneath the locks and walked to the top to meet two volunteer lock keepers. “Bad timing,” warned one. “We’re about to start our lunch break, and we won’t finish until half-past three. And then we close for the day.” He relented when he saw my look of confusion. “Just kidding. Are you on your own? No problem. You stay on your boat, and we’ll see you up. You wouldn’t believe the amount of paperwork we have to do if you fall off and hurt yourself. You’ll do us a favour if you allow us to do all the work.” Who am I to argue? Lockkeepers deserve medals, and an ice cream or two in the summer.
I finished the day at Cracks Hill near Crick, where I proposed to Cynthia in September 2015. Four years have passed, and so much has happened. I owned James then and until I met Cynthia, expected to spend the rest of my days on England’s waterways. Three boats, a motorhome and a European adventure later I’m back on the canal network. I’m alone again but enriched by the many experiences I shared with my American wife.
DISCOVER LIFE AFLOAT
Leave the stresses and strains of modern day life far behind on an idyllic cruise through rural Warwickshire. Find out all you need to know about living afloat and learn how to handle a narrowboat.
On Christmas Day morning, I waded through ankle-deep towpath mud to a wooden bridge spanning the canal. A treacherous trudge through livestock churned muddy fields lead me to Cracks Hill summit. I sat for an hour under the old oak where Cynthia and I discussed our future plans, then returned to Orient alone to prepare for a chilly Christmas Day cruise.
Winter cruising is usually a quiet affair. Christmas Day was particularly so. I passed just one moving boat all day, helmed by a middle-aged man who appeared to have spent his Christmas morning sucking lemons. I smiled, he glared, I offered a cheery “Happy Christmas!’, he turned away. Maybe his piles were playing up. I left him to his own devices.
As the light faded from a predominantly dull day, I pulled onto a mooring marked on my Nicholson’s guide. The curse of the deep draughted boat struck again. Orient’s stern slid over shallow mud closer to the bank and then, as soon as I stepped onto the towpath, slipped away towards the canal centre. I moved a few feet, tried again, grounded, sweated for ten minutes pushing myself off the shallows and then gave up two feet from the bank on my third attempt. And there I stayed for two days.
There’s not much point cooking fancy Christmas Day meals for one. My festive fayre consisted of the reheated leftovers from the previous day’s Thai beef stir fry, a can of Stella and a glass of brandy. Fine dining at its best.
At the time of the year usually associated with family gatherings, conspicuous consumption and credit card debt, I saw no one and spent nothing. Alone? Yes. Lonely? No, not particularly.
Loneliness is a state of mind. I have good friends to turn to if I need some company or a helping hand. But I value the sense of peace and tranquillity I enjoy when I’m boating on my own. Solo boating doesn’t suit everyone, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
I didn’t see a soul for thirty-six hours. No boaters, runners, dog walkers or ramblers, just the gentle buzz of my stovetop fan, the tick of the brass clock on my galley wall and the occasional distant pop of a festive farmer blasting wildlife to bits. Merry Christmas little bunnies.
I looked forward to Boxing Day, a period I planned to fill with unashamed self-indulgence.
I began by languishing in bed until 10 am. And then felt guilty for wasting so much of the day. Then I pottered. I sorted through the storage space beneath the back deck, emptied cupboards I haven’t been in since Cynthia’s passing, put my laundry away and cleaned and lit both stoves. Then I polished. The engine has never looked so good. I rubbed and buffed until my arms ached and the copper shone so brightly it gave me a headache.
Then I realised that the headache was from coal fumes from the Premiere range. I flung open my back doors to let in some air and polished the boatman’s cabin brass. I was bored senseless by 4 pm. I’m no good at this relaxing lark. I did my pre-cruise checks for the following day, watched a film on Amazon Prime and slipped into bed early, ready for a few hours cruising to reach the network’s famous Foxton flight of ten staircase locks.
I hoped to find some company there too. By day five of my fourteen-day cruise, I hadn’t exchanged more than a word or two with anyone since leaving Calcutt. I needed more than a predictable conversation with my bathroom cabinet mirror.
I was on fire the following morning, rising at 5 am and ready to rock and roll by 8 am. Three and a half hours cruising on a bone-chillingly cold day. Dank, misty and thoroughly unappealing. So cold, in fact, that I nearly had to resort to wearing gloves.
I pulled onto a mooring above the Foxton flight. Foxton is the perfect place for vain boat owners to show off. I’m one of them, so I made sure that everything outside looked clean and tidy before I left the boat. And I noted my battery monitor reading too.
I had been monitoring my battery bank charge carefully every day. My bank of five 130ah AGM batteries failed towards the end of last year, just ten months after fitting them. Calcutt Boats supplied them, and they replaced the batteries without quibble. I was pretty sure that my charging regime wasn’t at fault. However, a little extra diligence wasn’t going to hurt.
Managing off-grid electricity is the most challenging aspect of living afloat as far as I’m concerned. The popular misconception is that running your boat’s engine for an hour or two a day is all you need to do. That, according to the experts, is not an efficient battery charging regime.
I have five 130ah batteries so you could be forgiven for thinking that I have 650ah at my disposal. According to Calcutt Boats highly skilled resident marina electrician, Dave Reynolds, the average liveaboard boater uses roughly 60ah a day. So, do I have a ten-day supply of electricity if I begin with a full battery bank?
Not a chance.
For a start, depleting the battery bank past 50% shortens their life. My battery datasheet tells me that if I regularly run my battery bank down to zero, they’re likely to fail after just 250 cycles. If I run them down regularly to 20% capacity, my expected battery life increases to 500 cycles. The less I extract from the battery bank, the longer they’ll last. A happy balance for me is 50% discharge which should give me 1,000 cycles.
So, if I can safely take my battery bank down to 50%, do I have half of 650ah at my disposal?
No, sadly, I don’t.
I don’t fully understand this, but I have been assured that, despite being labelled 135ah batteries, their capacity is actually 105ah, so I have a total of 525 amp hours, 262.5 of which I can use.
Not so bad, you might think. If I’m an average boater using 60ah a day, I still have four days supply before I need to recharge my battery bank. Wrong again.
I would have a four day supply if I started with 100% capacity. However, if I’m using my engine alternator for charging, I can’t get anywhere close to fully charged. That’s regardless of the length of time I have the engine running.
At seventy amps, my alternator is man enough. The problem is with the batteries. The more depleted the battery bank, the easier they are to charge. I can recharge my batteries to roughly 80% capacity quite quickly. The remaining 20% takes much longer, far longer than I can justify running the engine. The only way to condition batteries properly is to hook them up to a mains supply. I believe that a decent solar array will help maintain my batteries reasonably well, but I need to do more research there.
I’ll be on a mains hookup when I return to Calcutt, so my off-grid charging regime isn’t an issue for the two weeks I’m cruising. I’ll be travelling full time within the next year or two. Before then, I need to fit some solar.
I popped into the cafe at the flight summit for a coffee and a bacon sandwich at lunchtime. And then, late afternoon, walked to the bottom of the flight to Bridge 61 for one of their excellent beef stews served in a giant Yorkshire pudding. Delicious.
I love the Foxton flight. With its pleasant walks, an imposing flight of ten staircase locks, the remains of the inclined plane boat lift, a cafe and two pubs, it’s a popular tourist destination. There can be hundreds of Gongoozlers on a sunny summer’s day. On the day I dropped down the flight a couple of dozen watched the boats go by. With the on-duty lock keepers doing much of the work, especially for solo boaters, a boat owner’s main job is answering questions.
“How fast does your boat go?” My average speed of two miles an hour doesn’t impress anyone.
“Does your boat has a toilet?” I told one guy that I keep my poo in a box. I thought he was going to vomit.
“Do you get a good television reception?” When I told the enquirer that I don’t own a television, the young mother gave me such a pitying look that I almost felt deprived. Modern-day life without access to dozens of channels of unadulterated crap? Unthinkable.
Did I mention that I love the Foxton flight?
The descent down through the Foxton flight was a dream. More lock keepers deserving medals. They insisted that I stay at the helm as they worked me through all ten locks. All I had to do was stand proudly on my back deck fielding questions and prepare myself for a painful cruise along the Market Harborough arm.
The problems began when I reached the bottom of the flight, starting with two swing bridges. I managed the first without help. “Grandad, look at that old man climbing on his boat like a monkey!” Don’t you just love children?
The second, a swing road bridge, would have delayed impatient motorists too long. I persuaded a couple on the towpath to do the hard work for me.
The real challenge was a shallow canal filled with reeds and leaves. A cruise which should have taken two hours from the bottom of the Foxton flight to Market Harborough took three. I knew I was in for an exciting time as I entered the arm when an approaching boat moved a few feet off the main channel to let me pass. “F*****g canal,” he muttered as his cabin tipped at an alarming angle and he ground to a halt.
“It’s good to see a boat owner taking his time on our canals,” commented one dog walker. I daren’t go any faster for fear of grounding immovably in the reedy shallows.
I grounded twice and listed as I slid over shallow mud flats several times. I crept into Market Harborough at dusk, carefully navigating around half-submerged logs and sunken branches, glad to reach the end of a tedious journey. And happy to get into a warm cabin.
The nasty cold knocking everyone for six back at the marina finally caught up with me. Luckily I had a couple of days to rest and recuperate at Market Harborough before the return cruise. Time to do nothing but eat, drink and obsessively watch my battery monitor.