A Winter Cruise On The Shropshire Union Canal
“I want to be able to relax more. I’m fed up working so hard. I’m going to sell my house and use the equity to live a life of leisure on England’s inland waterways. My lifestyle will be so much easier than the hectic pace I endure at the moment.”
I’ve received dozens of emails like this over the years. Looking at canal life through rose-tinted glasses is easy when you walk along a summer towpath admiring brightly coloured narrowboats chugging slowly past, crewed by sun-bronzed boaters enjoying a leisurely cruise. You might see the same boat further along the canal moored against a grassy bank, the owners relaxing in comfortable chairs, sipping from wine filled glasses. You can’t wait to return home, turn on your computer and spend a happy evening daydreaming as you browse through endless adverts selling the promise of an idyllic life afloat.
It’s true. Living afloat can be a real joy, providing you don’t mind far more physical work than you’re used to in your spacious bricks and mortar home. I love the lifestyle. I treat the occasional hard labour as much needed exercise, but not everyone feels the same way.
This was my morning earlier this week. What do you think; pain or pleasure?
I woke at 7.30am following a restless night. We have two “double” beds on Orient. Both of them are designed for dwarfs. At 5’10” I’m not the tallest of people, but lying on either bed makes me feel like a giant. I can rest on my back on the main cabin’s cross bed if I don’t mind head and feet rammed against the hull under the gunnel. There’s a couple of inches less space in the boatman’s cabin cross bed. The only way I can lay on my back there is by sleeping diagonally with my ankles crossed and my head jammed against a pine beam. There isn’t really enough room for two people to sleep on either bed. Cynthia has the more spacious bed up front. I have the cramped but cosy den at the back of the boat.
Sleeping isn’t always comfortable, but waking to the sound of water rippling against the hull is a joy. I can’t relax and listen to the soothing natural sounds for too long though. There’s too much to do.
Orient has a Morso Squirrel stove in the main cabin and a Premiere range in the boatman’s cabin. We use coal briquettes on both. I load the Squirrel with briquettes and reduce the stove’s airflow before we retire for the night. There’s not much unburned coal left the following morning, but what remains is still alight. My first morning job is to empty the stove’s ash pan. I make sure that I remove the ash before I riddle the grate. If I don’t, I’ll have a steel tray full of red hot embers producing deadly carbon monoxide. Emptying the burning embers into the marina’s waste bin would cause a fire, and leaving the ash anywhere inside the boat could poison us. I tip the cold ash into the site wheelie bin, riddle the grate, load the stove with fresh briquettes and open the vents to get the fire blazing and warm the cabin. Then I scurry to the stern to tend to the boatman’s cabin range.
This one takes longer.
I can’t leave the Premiere range burning overnight. I would be boiled alive, so I wake to a cold stove. Once I’ve emptied the ash pan and riddled the grate I throw in a firelighter, light it, add a handful of kindling, wait for that to reduce to a glowing bed of embers, and then add a few coal briquettes. I add some more once they’re burning well, providing I have some more to add. I didn’t on the morning in question.
Restocking our coal supply involved a three hundred yard walk to the marina office towing a two-wheeled steel trolley and then hauling the cart back to the boat loaded with two hundred pounds of coal. Coal which needed putting away. There isn’t much space on a narrowboat so storing large fuel bags is always an exercise in ingenuity. The contents of one went in a coal box on top of the well deck locker, and then I tucked another two bags into the well deck corners. The final two went in the bow locker, which involved taking everything crushable out first so the forty-four-pound bags could lie in the locker bottom without crushing everything else. This exercise was more exciting than usual thanks to the thick layer of ice on the bow which made trying to stand on it holding a cumbersome bag of coal a little tricky.
Having worked up a healthy appetite for breakfast, I walked into the cabin and another job.
“The red light’s just lit up on the toilet,” Cynthia revealed, pulling up the hood of her fleece jacket. The Squirrel takes a while to heat the front of the cabin and struggles to provide any meaningful heat to either the bathroom or the bedroom. Our new Kabola pot should solve that problem if it ever arrives. In the meantime, the boat is a little chilly when we wake.
The Thetford toilet red light is a warning that the cassette is filled to the brim with forty pints of a toxic slurry. To ignore it is to risk a flood of the very worst kind. I ignored it once as a narrowboat novice. Never again.
So I made my second trip of the day to the marina facilities block and endured five minutes in the enclosed Elsan cubicle thanking my lucky stars that I have a terrible sense of smell. I made both journeys to and from the marina office with my head down to avoid stinging windblown sleet.
After a quick breakfast, brunch really thanks to my long list of morning jobs, I battled with our Kabola boiler again. We think it’s the original boat boiler, seventeen years old and a bit of a pain to light. The instructions are simple enough. Open the fuel cock to allow a fifty pence piece pool of diesel to form in the bottom of the boiler pot, drop in a sliver of burning firelighter, wait until the diesel has ignited and is burning well and then open the fuel cock again.
The first problem was monitoring the fuel flow into the pot. There’s a tiny door on the boiler’s front face. Despite my very best contortions and a faceful of soot from trying to get my head through the little opening, I couldn’t see the pot bottom. The only solution was to confiscate one of Cynthia’s makeup mirrors without her noticing. Then I went through the kind of double-jointed bending that made Harry Houdini famous trying to angle the mirror towards the pot base and simultaneously attempting to illuminate it with a torch.
That was the easy part. Checking that the correct amount of primer diesel flowed into the pot base wasn’t easy, but slipping a blazing sliver of firelighter through a narrow opening in a cylindrical wire cage in the pot centre would have tested the patience of a saint. Getting the diesel to stay alight has defeated me on each of my four attempts so far. The pot’s condition doesn’t help. It’s been attacked with a variety of industrial-strength liquids, wire brushes and even a small hammer. Many of the pot’s air vents are still caked with calcified deposits. The boiler can’t suck in enough air to stay alight. There’s a new pot winging its way to us from Germany. We hoped it would arrive before we left for Calcutt Boats. It didn’t.
My morning jobs took until lunchtime to complete. Then I made four more trips to the marina facilities block to take, wash and dry two large bags of dirty laundry. We had a working washing machine on board at the time. It washed but didn’t dry. Drying wet laundry in the tight confines of a narrowboat isn’t the easiest or quickest of jobs. Using the marina’s facilities costs more money but saves on time and effort.
The washing machine sprung a leak towards the end of the week. It’s packed so tightly into a wooden frame to stop it leaping about when it spins that I can’t remove it. Yet another piece of Orient’s machinery to bite the dust. Yet another entry on our we’ll-fix-it-when-we-have-money to do list.
There you go. Not all of these things need doing every day. Some of them are seasonal. Some can be eliminated by using better systems or technology. None of the daily chores are a problem if you have the right attitude. Do YOU have what it takes? Of course you do. The point is, does this way of life appeal to you?
All of these tedious tasks paled into insignificance midweek. Wednesday was a sad day for the Orient Smiths. hur family of four became three.
Twelve-year-old Tasha had been off-colour for a few days. Her health appeared to improve on Tuesday when she showed an interest in food and smelling anything foul on her short walks. She curled up on a fleece lined bed next to Cynthia that night. We woke to a cold boat and an even colder dog in the morning and then worked through the logistics of moving her to her final resting place without a car.
Sleepy Meadow Pet Cemetery in Sandbach saved the day. Owner Sue and her husband Terry collected Tasha within a couple of hours of calling them. They charged us a reasonable fee for cremation and then returned the ashes to us twenty-four hours later. Sue read a poem over Tasha’s covered body before they took her away. The reading pleased Cynthia as much as it embarrassed me. Given the difficult circumstances, we couldn’t have been treated better. Tasha will be resting in that luxurious boned filled kennel in the sky now. I hope she remembers us.
With all of our planned remedial work done by Thursday, and Tasha’s loose ends tied up, we set sail for our Calcutt Boats base at first light on Friday. I looked forward to the cruise. I couldn’t wait to tackle the four locks which thwarted my single handed boating attempts a month earlier.I had come to the conclusion that patience was the key. I failed at these four locks on my first attempt because I tried to open the lock gates far too quickly. I had to resort to nudging the upstream gates with Orient in gear. Even then, I needed the help of dog walkers and hikers to get them open.
Patience. It doesn’t come readily to me. I needed focus on the journey rather than the destination, stop and smell the roses, and all that good stuff.
So I exercised a great deal of patience. I opened both upstream paddles of the first lock, climbed into the cabin to make myself a coffee, brought the coffee outside, sat on a balance beam and enjoyed the landscape of rolling hills around me. I finished my coffee, polished some brass, read a few pages of Pearson’s excellent guide to the Shroppie and cleaned some more brass. After waiting for half an hour for the water level to rise the last difficult inch, I gave up. I managed that lock and the three which followed thanks to our Lister’s underwhelming twenty-one horses.
Apart from the initial challenging locks and the frustration of trying to hold a steady line going through the strong cross-current from the weir at each lock mouth, the cruise was a delight. I passed just four moving boats on the first day, none until early afternoon. I had the waterway to myself on day two. Not a single cruising boat on my twenty locks, nine-mile route. Maybe the weather had something to do with it.
Yesterday was as mild as it was wet. Standing on Orient’s back deck in the rain, even torrential downpours isn’t a problem. I wear warm clothes under a set of bombproof Guy Coten deep-sea fisherman’s waterproofs. I stay as dry as a bone all day, providing I don’t work up a sweat. If there are locks along the route, Saturday’s journey included twenty of them, the inside of my plastic waterproofs quickly turns into a sauna.
There’s been a lot of rain recently. The towpath along much of the route was liquid mud. Unpleasant to walk through but not as much of a problem as rain-slicked, moss-covered steps and narrow lock walkways. I slipped half a dozen times on Saturday’s cruise.
There’s snow forecast for three out of the next ten days. I will average fourteen locks a day. Snow covered lock gates will need to be tackled with care.
The weather worsened on the last hour to Market Drayton. Black clouds scudded overhead, blown by an increasingly fierce northwesterly. Heavy rain bounced inches off Orient’s roof and ran in rivulets down my glasses. Still, I was a very happy bunny, especially when Cynthia brought me lunch.
There’s not enough light at this time of the year to afford the luxury of a leisurely meal on a convenient towpath mooring. I’ve been starting at first light and cruising all day. I eat meals as I travel or while I wait for a lock to fill.
I ate Saturday’s meal in driving rain. I had the tiller tucked under my left arm, an insulated pot filled with stir fry Thai beef in my left hand and a spoon in my right. Food never tasted so good. I had the canal to myself. I was at the helm of a beautiful boat listening to the heartbeat of its Lister engine cruising through some of England’s most beautiful canal scenery. Heavy rain couldn’t spoil the day, but a gale force wind could make cruising very difficult.
Today’s forecast wasn’t encouraging. Thirty mile an hour winds blowing rain, sleet and snow. Winds above 20mph are challenging in a narrowboat. Couple thirty mile an hour winds with the strengthening cross current from the Shroppie’s rain saturated canal, and you have the recipe for an extremely unpleasant day. We decided to wait it out.
With my continued inability to light the Kabola boiler, the only way we could have hot water was by running the generator to power the calorifier’s immersion heater. After running for an hour last night, the generator suffered a heart attack. It squealed and groaned, flickered and died.
Fortunately, we still have our Honda suitcase generator to help us heat water. Orient’s generator is the latest entry on our to-do list. We’re not letting that get us down. Cynthia and I are still in love with the boat. We’ll get all these teething problems fixed sooner or later. A lottery win would help. Maybe we had better buy a ticket. In the meantime we have the adventure of another sixty hours winter cruising ahead of us, a diary steadily filling with Discovery Day bookings and the joy of returning to work on Calcutt Boats’ beautiful grounds as the first spring flowers appear. Life is good.
Do You Want More Videos On This Site?
I’m playing around with videos at the moment. I don’t know what I’m doing, and I don’t have the equipment to do it with. It’s probably not the best combination, but it’s a start. The video below took me a few seconds using a free iPhone app. It’s far from perfect. I know the first clip is out of focus, I know the first few clips are far from smooth, I realise that the colour needs correcting and, yes, I know that there’s a bit of muck on the lens in one of the clips. Still, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Do you want to see more along these lines?
I want to hear from you if you have any experience making professional quality videos for YouTube with low cost equipment. Is that even possible? Using an iPhone 7 Plus is handy for me because I always have the phone with me and it fits easily into my pocket. Can I use this to produce decent videos? What other equipment do I need? Please remember that, given our recent boat purchase and repair, money is very tight at the moment. Maybe I’m being too optimistic. I want you to share your words of wisdom.
From a consumer point of view, what video content would you like to see on the site; gentle cruises through beautiful countryside, instructional videos on different boating techniques, or videos of me droning on ad nauseam? Again, I would like to hear from you. Please click on this link to send me an email, or simply reply to this week’s post’s introductory email. Thank you.
Discovery Day Update
The winter’s longest day is behind us. Days have been lengthening for the last three weeks. Easter and the unofficial start of the cruising season is three short months away. Easter is a wonderful time of year to be on the cut. Canalside fields are alive with wildflowers, hares box, rabbits bob and buzzards circle overhead. On my Discovery Day route from Napton Junction to Braunston Junction there’s even a chance you’ll see escaped deer from the Shuckburgh estate. If you don’t fall in love with the lifestyle at this time of the year, there’s a chance that the lifestyle isn’t right for you.
Spring weather can be cold cruising weather… unless you have a boatman’s cabin equipped with a blazing coal burning range. You can stand on Orient’s back deck in complete comfort while passing boaters shiver under mountains of clothes.
If you want to learn about the live aboard lifestyle (and spend eight hours listening to the engine below) while you learn how to handle a 62? narrowboat, click on the link below to find out more or to book a date.
A few potential guests have emailed me to ask if they can see my available dates without committing to one. Of course you can. Just click on this link and choose the type of day which suits you. You can browse through the available dates. You can reserve one for twenty for hours before you have to confirm the booking with payment.
I hope to meet you soon.