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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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A Strange Request in a Remote Countryside Car Park

 

If you are one of the many, many hundreds of subscribers who completed last week’s survey, THANK YOU! Your comments were as useful as they were inspiring, apart from the solitary individual whose sole comment was ‘how do I unsubscribe from this smug and inane drivel?’ After I spent a few minutes weeping into my Belgian beer, I took that comment on board too. I forgot to add an unsubscribe link to the introductory email. If you are one of the few who actively object to the emails I send, you can click on the link at the bottom of the introductory email to banish me from your lives forever.

The comments were many and varied, but the overall theme was ‘carry on doing what you’re doing but, if you have time, a few more photo’s would be much appreciated’

Only 48% of respondents expressed an interest in motorhomes, compared to 71% interested in the Dutch network, and 91% who want information about living on the UK network.

That leaves Cynthia and me with a bit of a quandary. Do we move afloat for twelve months of the year, and spend our winters breaking ice with our nicely painted bow when we’re not huddled around a flickering candle flame for warmth? Alternatively, do we repeat what we did last winter, drive south the France’s Mediterranean coast, and spend the cooler months of the year in tee shirts and shorts soaking up the Mediterranean’s welcome winter sun? It’s a difficult decision to make. We’ll have to think long and hard about it.

The survey results were very useful for a number of reasons. One comment repeated several times was that it’s a shame that some of my older posts aren’t still available. I didn’t really understand what this meant until someone pointed out that clicking on some of the links in my introductory emails results in a 404-page-not-found error.

The error has been caused by me ditching the ridiculously expensive newsletter and CRM software I used for several years. It had more features and functions than I could ever hope to use, so I switched to a much simpler online application. The switch reduced my site maintenance costs, but created a bit of a problem for anyone who had saved the introductory emails, hoping to read the associated newsletters when work commitments allowed.

The good news is that the newsletters linked from the emails haven’t been deleted. They are still neatly filed away in the site’s newsletter archive. The ten most recent newsletters are in chronological order at the top of the column to your right. If you want to read any older posts, you will find every newsletter I’ve written since Christmas 2012 in the Newsletter Archive. There’s a link to the Newsletter Archive in the menu at the top of this page.

If you can’t remember the date of the newsletter you want to read, try the Google Custom Search box at the top of the right hand column. Just enter any phrase or word to produce a list of relevant posts or pages within the site.

A number of survey respondents also pointed out that the newsletter link from my email on 7th May didn’t work, which probably accounted for what I thought was an unusually poor response. If you haven’t read the newsletter yet, which includes details and photo’s of our new boat, you can read Playing the Waiting Game here.

OK. That’s the admin out of the way, so upwards and onwards!

Julisa out of her element again

Julisa out of her element again

We visited Jos at his boatyard on Tuesday to check progress. We were delighted to see a little progress. Julisa was out of her element again, this time on the hardstanding close to Jos’s workshop. The sea toilet and its attached hand pump had been removed, as had most of the electrics in and close to the engine bay. The boat looked a mess. The old adage, ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’ sprung to mind. The eggs in this case were well and truly broken.

Jos was still waiting for the new fridge, four AGM batteries and our replacement Eberspacher heater. The heater and batteries were due to arrive later in the week, but he had no idea when the fridge was due. The work is not going to be completed by 20th May as Jos first suggested. They delay is very frustrating, but at least we’re now reasonably confident that when we set off on our cruise we’ll have a boat which will stay afloat. If we hadn’t asked Jos to replace the sea toilet with a cassette, that might not have been the case.

Once we’d spent a few bewildering minutes tiptoeing around what looked like most of julisa’s component parts, dismantled and scattered in haphazard heaps about the boat, Jos lead us to a storage area to the rear of his workshop. “You’re lucky I took the sea toilet out when I did,” he told us as he bent to pick up a short section of cylindrical steel. “Look at this piece” He pointed at a patch of rust bordering a jagged hole. “I needed to loosen this pipe with two or three light taps with a hammer. The hammer went straight through the pipe” He pointed to a discoloured area circling the pipe slightly above the hole. “That’s the waterline. This hole is below it. You’re lucky the boat didn’t sink!”

A rusty submarine section of toilet

A rusty submarine section of toilet

Jost also showed us a mess of cracked filler between the sea toilet and the vertical soil pipe it rested on. The toilet fell off the pipe when I lifted it. We couldn’t have used the sea toilet even if we wanted to keep it The first time either Cynthia or I sat down to attend to business, the weak filler would have given way along with the toilet bowl and whoever was sitting on it. The end result wouldn’t have been pretty.

Our broken toilet - This wouldn't have taken Cynthia's weight for long (Just kidding Cynthia!)

Our broken toilet – This wouldn’t have taken Cynthia’s weight for long (Just kidding Cynthia!)

We considered ourselves very lucky. Two weeks earlier we cruised for two and a half hours along twenty kilometres of wide and deep waterways, with the hull regularly bouncing across choppy waves. The shock and vibration could easily have holed the rust weakened toilet outlet and given us a novel submarine view of the Dutch waterways.

We considered ourselves lucky with the heater too.

The Eberspacher heating system wasn’t working when we took the boat for a test run with our surveyor. The agreement we reached with the owner, Piet, was that he would pay for a service which, he thought, would be enough to resolve the issue. However, if the service failed, he agreed to pay half the cost of a new heater.

A service couldn’t be done. The heater’s internal components disintegrated when the casing was opened. We needed a new heater. A direct replacement for the defunct Eberspacher costs €1,900. Piet refused to pay. He told us that he had found a brand new Eberspacher on the internet for €900. He offered to pay €450 for his half share.

After a little investigation and discussion with Jos, we discovered that Piet’s heater was designed for use in trucks. It wouldn’t fit in Julisa without extensive adjustments and labour. The additional parts would cost €550, plus another €350 for labour. The ‘cheap’ heater, after much adjustment, would cost just as much as the direct replacement.

Our beast of an engine

Our beast of an engine

I’m delighted to report that Piet is an honest man. When he finally agreed to pay his half of the €1,900 Eberspacher, Cynthia and I breathed a sigh of relief. We realised that we would be able to buy food this week after all.

Who wants to make the first deposit?

Who wants to make the first deposit?

Apart from an hour or two at the boatyard, we’ve continued to explore the Netherlands. The scope of the Dutch waterways continues to astound us, as does the way that they are integrated with Dutch society. If you cruise along an urban canal in England, you often have to endure shallow and dirty waterways filled with old bicycles, shopping trolleys, the occasional joy ridden car, and a sea of plastic. The canals regularly skulk through dirty, graffiti covered industrial areas dotted with abandoned factories and with towpaths frequented by furtive, hoodie wearing youths. Of course, not all English city canals are unpleasant, but there are relatively few areas where city waterways are embraced.

The Netherlands is very different.

The Netherlands canals still have their fair share of bicycles thrown in them. The Dutch have one of the most bicycle friendly countries in the world. There are 16,500,000 bikes in a country with a similar population total. Nearly everyone in the country has a bike. Unfortunately, as many as one in five bikes are stolen each year. Many of them are dumped in the canals.

The difference in the Netherlands is that the waterways are generally much deeper than the shallow canals in the UK, and the city authorities are far more proactive in keeping the waterways clear, which are used extensively by commercial boats as well as a high number of leisure craft.

The waterways surrounding our Den Ilp car park. The blue dot shows our location.

The waterways surrounding our Den Ilp car park. The blue dot shows our location.

Everywhere we visit we cross or skirt a wide variety of rivers, canals and lakes. We spent much of this week overnighting in a car park at Den Ilp overlooking a lake at the edge of six square kilometres of lakes, canals and parkland, devoid of traffic apart from a multitude of horse riders, bicyclists, skaters, dog walkers and hikers on an extensive network of superb bicycle paths, bridleways and footpaths, all of which often crossed or ran close to the endless waterways.

We stopped overnight on this causeway near Marken

We stopped overnight on this causeway near Marken

The astounding amount of bicycle theft aside, the Netherlands feels incredibly safe. Cynthia and I regularly stay overnight in remote car parks which, in the UK, would often be the haunt of noisy and sometimes drunk and aggressive teenagers driving hot hatches. That’s if we managed to get into the car parks at all. Far too often, the English car parks would have height barriers preventing motorhome access, signs prohibiting overnight stays, or traffic wardens or car parking officials knocking on our door, usually while we were eating, asking us to leave. Wild camping, even when it was possible, often didn’t feel very safe.

Sometimes I find adjusting to the far more peaceful countries we’ve visited in Europe quite difficult. After living for fifty five years in the UK, I often judge strangers by the same standards I experienced there. After a lifetime in the USA, Cynthia has a similar problem, but to a far lesser degree.

Two incidents earlier in the week proved us both wrong. The first was at 10pm one night. We were laying on our bed, watching a DVD when Cynthia stiffened and stared intently at a shadowy figure outside she struggled to make out in the fading light. The figure approached. A shaven headed, heavily muscled and tatooed man in his mid twenties beckoned to us through the open window.

“Don’t go out there!” warned Cynthia. “You don’t know what he wants.”
I glanced at the kitchen drawer where we keep a selection of razor sharp knives, and decided against weapon carrying at this stage in the proceedings, but put on my shoes before I answered the door. I didn’t want to have to deal with an unwelcome guest with my bare feet. I find that I can run away much faster if I’m properly shod.

I opened the door and glared at the guy suspiciously, which was a shame, because he couldn’t have been more pleasant. He was Dutch, but, as usual, he spoke perfect English. “I’m really sorry I’ve interrupted you at this time of the night, but could I ask you a favour?” I hesitantly nodded my head. What could he want this time of the night? Money? Drink? Drugs? Somewhere warm to sleep for the night? Cynthia?

“I’m night fishing with my friend,” he gestured to a mountain of camouflaged bags and boxes piled neatly beside a car on the edge of the car park. “We have everything we need for the night, apart from a toilet roll. Could you spare one?”

After expecting to be robbed or beaten, being asked for a solitary toilet roll came as a very pleasant surprise. I almost invited him inside to loosen his bowels, but I suspected that he might reach the wrong conclusion.

Our second surprise was the following night, a humid evening after a hot and sunny day. We had all of our windows and both of our skylights open to stop us from melting inside the poorly ventilated Hymer, so we could hear every sound from the car park outside.

A three vehicle convoy pulled into the car park and skidded to halt on the gravel close to us. Six stockily built eastern Europeans exploded from the two cars and a van, collected several cases of beer and barbecue paraphernalia from the back of the van, and then set up camp on a lawn-like area next to a lake fifty feet away from us.

For the next three hours we listened to the group’s conversation and laughter at an ever increasing volume, interspersed with grunts, thuds and splashes as they wrestled by the water’s edge. I dreaded their return sometime in the early hours of the morning. I remembered all the many occasions during my pub management days when similar heavy drinking usually resulted in flying fists and feet, usually aimed at innocent bystanders. Given that we were in the only other vehicle in the secluded car park, I imagined that they would consider us an easy target.

Once again, I was wrong. They diligently collected their post party debris at 10pm, returned to their vehicles as quietly as church mice, waved a cheery farewell at the backlit figure staring intently at them from a motorhome window, and drove away slowly and carefully.

The Netherlands is a very peaceful country.

We stayed in our Den Ilp car park for several days so that we could buy two more bikes. At the beginning of the week, I still had my big sit-up-and-beg Dutch bike. I bought it last August when I visited Cynthia at the house she rented near Drachten in Friesland, while she waited for me to finish my season’s work at Calcutt Boats. Cynthia bought a similar bike in Drachten, but the bike was stolen during our brief visit to Malaga at the end of November last year.

I hadn’t used my bike once since then. Preparing it for a ride was just too laborious. The Hymer’s bike rack is fitted higher than on most motorhomes, so I needed to use a set of steps to lift bikes off the rack. The steps were buried deep in the motorhomes cavernous garage, so even unearthing the steps was a painful process. Then I had to removed a tightly strapped bike cover, and then find three keys to three separate locks. I could spend as long preparing the bike as actually riding it.

I part exchanged the bike for a Takashi folding bike at Cool Biking in Landsmeer, a hop, skip and a jump from our Den Ilp car park. Both bikes will fit in the fit in the Hymer’s garage, after some ruthless pruning of the ‘essentials’ which we crammed in there at the end of last year, including my well stocked tool box.

I don’t know what possessed my to bring a comprehensive range of tools with me. I didn’t use them on my narrowboat. I don’t actually know what some of them are for. I brushed the dust off the bag once four months ago when I needed a 13mm spanner to tighten a loose windscreen wiper. I’ve kept the spanner and a single flat-headed screwdriver and transferred everything else to the boat, where it will no doubt gather dust until we move everything back to the motorhome in September.

When we transferred some stuff from the garage to the boat yesterday to make room for the bikes, we checked progress on the boat. It’s still a mess, but we can see a dim light at the end of a very long tunnel. Jos has missed his 20th May deadline, but he’s confident he can complete everything now by next Thursday. We live in hope.

Five weeks after having the survey done, we should be able to begin our summer cruise. All we have to do is shoehorn everything which is so carefully organised in the Hymer into a boat with much less storage space. Then we have to decide where to go. We don’t have a clue. Do you have any suggestions?

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I enjoy writing newsletters which, I am often told, are very useful to anyone considering living an alternative lifestyle either afloat on the English or Dutch waterways, or leading a nomadic life on the road in the tiny living space offered by a motorhome. The downside is that adding content to the site, maintaining it, and answering dozens of emails each week takes a considerable amount of time. I invest up to twenty hours every week on the site and, over the course of the year, many hundreds of pounds. I can’t afford the investment in either time or money without a little help. If you are in the fortunate position to be able to afford a small financial subscription or one off donation to help with the site’s running costs, please click on this link to find out more. If you are one of the generous souls who already support the site, thank you!

Cynthia says…

“Verse Munttee* and other Dutch Delights”
Both Paul and myself have lamented over the fact that the work on Julisa has been extended due to “circumstances beyond our (and Jos’s) control”—delivery of parts being the main culprit.  We had hoped to be back on the water long before now—–
But as always, every cloud has a silver lining, and we have found that silver lining this past week in the form of wonderful places to discover and enjoy.
My brother Jeff, who introduced me to the Netherlands several years ago, has suggested several places he thought we would enjoy visiting, so we have started doing that, and this past Sunday, Mother’s Day we found ourselves exploring the delightful little village of Broek on Waterland, just a stone’s throw north of Amsterdam.  He thought we might like to spend some time exploring the canals there in a whisper boat, which is like a medium sized row boat with a small electric motor.  The idea sounded like a great one until we found out they cost a whopping €50, which was way out of our budget.  So we just collected the girls and set off on foot.  We found a quiet lagoon and a bench beckoned to us so we sat and just enjoyed the quiet tranquility that stretched out in front of us.
The Dutch weather is quite fickle, so what started out as a warm and sunny day, soon turned cool and breezy with rain on the horizon.  As we made our way through the village we discovered a beautiful old building that had a lovely court yard dining area.  We decided to deposit the girls back in the Hymer and come back for a Mother’s Day lunch.
The food was very good, but we thought a bit pricey given the fact that our sandwiches had no accompaniments, making the plates look rather bare.  This is the only meal we have had in the Netherlands that we were somewhat disappointed in.  But the staff were delightful and the surroundings wonderful.
On our way back to the Hymer, we found the most beautiful tree shaded cemetery so we took a quiet stroll through it, enjoying the serenity.  As we exited the cemetery, there was a community garden area along the path back to home.  We both looked west at the same time and remarked how dark and foreboding the sky looked.  We knew we only had minutes to hot-foot it back to the Hymer.  We were pelted with a few raindrops, but lucked out making it back just before the big deluge occurred.
We needed to fill the coffers a bit, and found that the Jumbo that is almost next to the Cool Biking Company had Sunday opening hours.  Just as we pulled up and parked, Rene who owns the bike place was at our window.  We told him we had just been to Broek in Waterland and he gave us a thumbnail sketch of the history.  Evidently a woman back in the 1600’s, who was the richest person in the world at that time, built the village and owned every house in it.  We found out that the building where we had just had lunch was once an orphanage of all things!
One of the places that Paul found a week ago, just a short drive from Landsmeer in Den Ilp, turned out to be one of our favorite places of all to stay.  It is truly magnificent and each time we land in the parking lot there are no other campervans/motorhomes to be found–amazing!  There are the assorted dog walker, horseback riders, inline skaters and bikers among other people taking advantage of this fine spread of country replete with lakes, beaches, walking paths, biking paths and horse trails.  Something for nearly everyone.  I still have a hard time believing all of this is just minutes from the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam.
As we look out our window we can see a lovely pond with ducks of various kinds and their young, and a lovely freshly mown plot of grass that invites us to come and sit a spell.  So we do!
This past Wednesday turned out to be a splendid early summer day with temps in the mid ’80’s Fahrenheit.  It was an amazing day that brought out many people to enjoy the lovely vistas.  We picked up my bike that day and once we returned to our parking spot by the pond, I set off on the bike and Paul set off on one of his solo walks.  We ended up returning home at almost the same time.
On my ride, I came upon a delightful cafe right on the water that also had a great outdoor sitting area.  I vowed I would return with Paul in tow, as I knew he would like it as well.
And return we did, this time in the Hymer.  I had found a small and lovely beach just around the bend from the cafe and we had the place to ourselves, so we let the girls off the leads and away they went running and having a ball together.  A few minutes later a young couple with their baby and bulldog/terrier mix showed up.  The husband would throw a stick in the water and the dog, Lola, would leap into the water with great abandon and fetch it.  We watched for several minutes and then noticed Tasha heading over to greet the dog and the owners.  Neither she nor Florence have anything to do with other dogs other than the occasional sniff, so Paul and I were wonderfully surprised when they all started to play together.  It was fun talking with the owners as well.  We have met many delightful Dutch people during our travels about and have even more to look forward to meeting once we are ensconced on the waterways.
The other thoroughly delightful person who has shown up in our lives is Rene, who owns The Cool Bike Company in Landsmeer where we bought our bikes.  He specializes in  fold up bikes and I found out about him through–of all places!–a bike shop in North Holland whom I had called a week ago requesting if they had fold up bikes.
This guy is THE most wonderful, happy and energetic person and does a phenomenal job.  We were given a number of items for our bikes gratis, and he helped Paul with questions about the Dutch SIM card, taking time from his business to do so.  We discovered that he began the business when he was just 17!!  His customer service is THE absolute best and I would recommend him to anyone.  Check out his business at thecoolbikingcompany.com.
So.  That’s been our week, and a good one it was.  The Cuckoo bird is calling the alarm outside, so it is time to close and move on with the day.  Can’t wait to see what the coming week brings—with a bit of luck we should be writing next weeks newsletter to you from Julisa!
* Verse Munttee is fresh mint tea, which is available everywhere in the Netherlands.  It normally is served in a clear mug with the bright green mint leaves showing through.  And a side serving of honey on the side….this is my favorite drink here in the Netherlands.
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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.

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