Learn about life afloat the easy way

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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Celebrating Shared Experiences And Moving Forward

All is quiet on board. The silence is broken only by the ticking of the galley clock and muted quacks from two squabbling mallards. Gone are reassuring sounds of domestic bliss; Cynthia’s tuneless humming and occasional curse as she juggled pans in the galley, creating another of her many gourmet delights. And there’s no more click-clack of iron hard basset nails on the hardwood floor, no more gentle while from Sadie at my feet, begging for the comfort of a warm lap. My three girls have gone, one to her maker, the others to better homes.

I am alone.

I am alone, but not as lonely as I feared because YOU, dear reader, have generously lent me a virtual crutch. I’ve received hundreds of supportive messages since my last post, emails offering condolences, advice and hope. They’ve all been much appreciated, even if the contents were sometimes a little sad.

We waterways enthusiasts are a peculiar bunch. By the time we reach the age that most of us can afford the cost of a narrowboat or the time to appreciate one, our health often prevents us from enjoying the lifestyle comprehensively, or even at all. Bits of us begin to fail or need repairing or replacing. Sadly, sometimes the solution is beyond the marvels of modern medicine. We die and leave those around to deal with the emotional trauma of our loss.

There was a recurring theme to many of the email I received. “I feel your pain. I’ve just lost my wife/husband/father/mother/brother/sister…” They told tales of traumatic bereavements months or even years ago. “Time will heal, but the pain will endure,” appeared to be the theme. For many, each new day has been an opportunity to mourn the loss of a loved one. While I fully understand the sentiment, I’m trying to avoid following that unhealthy route.

Cynthia taught me many useful lessons. One of the best was to always view a glass as half full, to see the positive in any situation, to search for the silver lining of the darkest of clouds.

So I’m not going to mourn Cynthia’s loss. I’m going to celebrate our time together, the adventures we had, the fun places we explored. I have hundreds of photos of Cynthia in exotic locations; in endless forests, on high mountain tops, on deserted beaches, by lakes, rivers and canals. In each and every one she’s smiling, imploring me to embrace all that life has to offer. So embrace it I will as I slowly but surely adapt to my new lifestyle.

Orient's tranquil mooring on Locks marina

Orient’s tranquil mooring on Locks marina

Cynthia’s possessions have, like the dogs, gone to a better home. My wife liked to dress well and, some would say, oddly. One of her favourite ensembles was a red cashmere cape and yellow Wellington boots, with appropriate clothing in between of course. Stylish in a strange kind of way. Cynthia made her mark wherever she went.

I crammed all her shoes and clothing into two dozen black plastic bin bags for the four-mile journey to a Myton Hospice shop in Southam. The charity offers superb end of life care to people suffering terminal illnesses. I know Cynthia would have approved.

Abbie and Sadie, basset and Coton du Tulier, left me last Saturday. They have gone to separate but equally loving homes. Basset Abbie has joined a similarly lugubrious pal at a beachfront property in rural Devon, a house surrounded by miles of car-free walking. Her new owners manage their own holiday property during the summer and explore Europe by motorhome in the colder months. Abbie will have the time of her life.

Sadie will be similarly happy. She’s been adopted by Sam, the founder of the basset charity who collected both dogs. Sadie jumped on Sam’s lap the moment they met and then stayed there throughout Sam’s brief stay on Orient and the two-hour car journey to her new home. I will miss both dogs, but they have gone to homes with owners who have the time to look after them properly. I made the right decision.

Orient on her spacious berth

Orient on her spacious berth

I am alone now but not particularly lonely. I don’t have time to focus on unhealthy thoughts, and Cynthia’s ever-present voice warns me against self-indulgent misery. I have the joy of working on Calcutt Boats’ beautiful grounds during the week and hosting Discovery Days at the weekend. And, if I don’t have weekend bookings, there are five acres of rural Warwickshire at my boss’s country pile to maintain.

My evenings are a potential incubator for dark thoughts. To ensure that misery can’t make its mark there, I fill my time with blog post writing and web site development. If all else fails, I have a television. I just need to work out how to turn it on.
All things considered, I feel better now than I did a month ago. Cynthia had left me four weeks earlier to return to the States on her perpetual quest for better health. Her condition, quite rightly in hindsight, worried me. As did a perceived lack of interest in this website. I wrote in my last post about my inclination to stop blogging and indulge in a more rewarding pastime, maybe stamp collecting, train spotting or dogging.

Your thoughtfulness overwhelmed me. Over two hundred emails offering support and feedback landed in my inbox since that post. I appreciated and replied to every one of them.

Because of them, I will continue with the blog, doing what I can to give aspiring narrowboat owners an insight into the often challenging and always rewarding life I lead afloat on England’s inland waterways. I know that many of you live aboard like me. We face and usually overcome similar challenges in our day to day lives. Some of you have been forced by unhappy circumstances to move back into a brick and mortar home and away from an idyllic life afloat.

How sad.

There’s no denying that living on a boat can be hard work. One of life’s ironies for many boaters is that when they are most able to afford the lifestyle, they are least able to deal with the physical demands. There are heavy lock gates, stiff paddles, steep climbs up and down lock ladders, straddles over high sided decks, stoops under low covers, bends through low doorways and squeezes into engine room crawl spaces designed for midgets. It’s not an easy life with stiff backs, hips and knees.

And then there are the daily weightlifting workouts.

Narrowboats with multi-fuel stoves are more common than those without. Wood is an aesthetically pleasing and aromatic fuel. It’s also impractical for boating purposes. Unless a boat owner wants a creosote-soaked roof and tar lined flue, the wood must be both seasoned and burned at temperatures high enough to make the inside of the boat melt. It burns too hot, needs topping up too frequently and uses storage space the average boater simply doesn’t have. The sensible and widely available alternative is coal briquettes.

These bags weigh fifty-five pounds, four stone in traditional English measurements, half a woman or a whole basset hound like our girl Abbie. Each bag is as heavy as it’s unwieldy. Each one needs lifting and tipping, manoeuvring onto decks, through narrow and low doorways and, finally, decanting into a coal scuttle close to the stove.

Propane cylinders are just as heavy, just as unwieldy and often far more of a challenge than coal bags. Most narrowboats use propane gas for cooking, some for water heating and occasionally, if the boat owner is strong of heart and deep of pocket, for central heating. On traditional stern narrowboats like mine, the gas is stored in a small locker only accessible to boaters prepared to leap gazelle-like onto the boat’s tiny bow, a steel surface often coated with dew, rain, ice or algae and slipperier than an Olympic ice rink. Changing a gas bottle is always a test of both nerves and strength.

And then there are the ever-present dangers associated with using the boat for its intended purpose.

If you see a narrowboat gliding towards you through the murky water of a reed-fringed canal and spot a person or two walking casually across the steel cabin roof, you can bet your bottom dollar that the brave boaters are novices. Any seasoned cruiser on the cut knows better. A boat roof is slippery, liberally adorned with trip hazards and far too close to the uneven brickwork of low bridge arches.

Locks marina from Calcutt Bottom lock

Locks marina from Calcutt Bottom lock

Moving from bow to stern along a boat’s narrow gunnel is asking for trouble too. If you’re a narrowboat newbie, the gunnel is the thin horizontal steel strip between the boat’s hull top and its cabin bottom. The gunnel is rarely more than four inches wide, sometimes is painted with a non-slip coating and occasionally, much to the dismay of careless crew, slopes away from the boat towards the canal’s muddy bed.

Gunnel walking is an irresistible challenge for young and invincible hire boat crew, as is the temptation to jump on and off a lock enclosed boat roof. Locks are accidents waiting to happen. Fast flowing water, moss and algae coated edging stones and ladders, slippery steel boats and inexperienced crew, newbie boaters often more careless still after a holiday drink or two.

Lock accidents are common; slips, trips and falls, tumbles between moving boats and solid walls, graceless plummets into the frothing water of a turbulent lock and the rare but far too frequent collision between soft flesh and spinning steel.

Gongoozlers sometimes risk life and limb too. Falls into locks while waiting for pretty boats to chug through are common. I stood at a lock on the Foxton flight with Cynthia a few years ago. We watched in horror as a pretty young mother wearing a set of inappropriately high heels tottered along a lock lip to amuse a toddler in a pushchair. She stepped on wet moss and with a frantic windmilling of arms disappeared into the murky water of the lock beneath her feet. “There’s no point in crying over a spilled MILF,” is what Cynthia didn’t say when she saw my look of consternation.

These are the dangers we can see and avoid. More worrying is the silent and invisible threat, the killer which nearly caused my early demise last month; carbon monoxide.

The risk to boaters is discussed occasionally. Boaters understand both the problem and the solution. The solution is to fit both smoke and carbon monoxide detectors at some stage of their boat ownership and then, all too often, ignore both the detector’s warning and its maintenance. Here’s an email I received after last week’s scare.

“As an LPG/NG engineer, I cannot stress enough the importance of a working and in date carbon monoxide alarm or three!
Caravan owners of a certain age, because “they’ve always done it” don’t think it’s important. I’m sure boat owners are the same.

This season alone, in fact, yesterday, I found six carbon monoxide units with no batteries in. Most of these were older than the “replace by” dates printed on the units!

Even with good batteries, they would be useless. You don’t have to be told how lucky you were. Very glad that you are safe though!
In your next blog, please reiterate the fact that a “working “ carbon monoxide alarm may actually not actually be working. Each unit has a replace by date. This MUST be adhered to!

Personally, I stamp out of date units underfoot in front of the owners. Most I know will put them back up if I don’t once I’ve left! Silly I know, but they know best. “

Are you guilty as charged? When did you last check your alarm batteries or dates? Do it now. While you’re at it, check your smoke detectors too. A ten-minute break from an enthralling blog post could save your life.

I’ll tell you a secret. My cooking doesn’t always go to plan. Sometimes there are clouds of smoke which I’m pretty sure aren’t part of the recipe I’m trying to follow. Naturally, the smoke sets off the smoke detectors. They carry on shrieking as long as there’s smoke in the boat. The air can take an eternity to clear at a time when I’m trying to concentrate on a variety of bubbling pans. The easy solution is to remove the offending alarm’s batteries. And then forget to replace them. I’m sure that you are more responsible than me. Your life is more important than the temporary inconvenience of a shrieking siren.

Or is it?

You can read more about carbon monoxide monitoring requirements on the Boat Safety Scheme website

I sincerely hope that this post, and the one detailing my rude awakening in the middle of the night by a shrieking alarm, triggers the replacement of a few out of date or faulty carbon monoxide monitors across England’s waterways network.
Despite the occasional risk to life and limb, and my recent unhappy transition from family to a single life, I love living afloat. I don’t particularly like living tethered to a marina, but if I need to work and if I have to work, there’s nowhere I would rather work than on the beautiful grounds at Calcutt Boats. The aspect of my working day which appeals to me most is the constant and ever-changing variety.

There are the usual grounds maintenance tasks; tree felling and trimming, ditch clearance, fence repairs, painting and replacement, marina pier and reed management and, as the thermometer rises and the sky fills with rain-filled clouds, endless grass cutting. We have a ride on mower for cutting most of the site’s forty landscaped acres. It’s a magical task at this time of the year to sail through a sea of green peppered with cowslips, buttercups and dandelions, enveloped by the heady aroma of cut grass and freshly minced dog shit.

Acres of grass cutting to keep me busy

Acres of grass cutting to keep me busy

We also have a delicate machine for cutting the wharf’s lawn, a three-wheeled monster for Meadows marina’s sloping banks and a new Flymo for my least liked weekly task. There are three high and steep banks adjacent to Locks marina which are too steep to cut with conventional machines. Each cut involves six hours hauling the wheeled Flymo up and down the banks on a length of rope. It’s hard work, so I’m always grateful when my radio crackles and a distorted voice asks me to pause my brutal task and start another, more urgent job.

I might be asked to move a boat or offload a palleted delivery with the site’s Merlot forklift truck. The call might be to repair a pier hit by a poorly steered boat, provide visiting boaters with coal, gas or a pump out or two or, the one I really don’t like, wade shin deep in raw sewage to clear a blockage in the pipe to our reed bed filtration system.

Each day is filled with variety and rural tranquillity. I love it.

I’m keeping myself busy with two goals in mind, one financial, one emotional. I don’t regret the recent adventures I had with Cynthia for a moment. We really had a blast. Cynthia went out in style. She managed to indulge her lifelong passion for exploration despite her failing health. I am happy to have done what I could to help her live her dream. However, two and a half hedonistic years and a frenzy of boat buying had an inevitable effect on our bank balances. Six or seven-day working weeks for the rest of the year will help to clear the debts, and they’ll help me focus on more positive thoughts than of life as a widower. Onward and upward. That’s my motto. Onward and upward towards financial and emotional stability and another adventure on the far distant horizon.

A spring storm sweeps over Calcutt Boats

A spring storm sweeps over Calcutt Boats

New life on Calcutt Boats’ Meadows Marina

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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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