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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22

Dark Days on the Dutch Canals

 

We live an idyllic lifestyle; the weather is good, we are fit and healthy, and we have all the time in the world, and just about enough money, to tour or cruise wherever we want in Europe, but there’s a dark and dismal cloud hanging over Julisa today.

After two peaceful days on our island mooring, Oude Kooi on the Klein Kerkegat, we, our happy band of four, cruised for an hour north to Kempers Watersports on the Westeinderplassen to resupply.

The boat’s tiny 200l water tank wasn’t the problem, but our 21l capacity toilet cassette was close to overflowing. Initially we resisted buying a second cassette because of the logistics of finding somewhere to store it securely and out of sight. We’ve now discovered that there is more than enough room in the engine bay.

A second cassette will certainly be out of sight, but possibly not out of smell. Twenty litres of liquid poo slowly cooking beneath our feet as it nestles next to a hot engine as we travel is not a particularly happy thought, but I think the advantage of being able to stay another couple of days away from the expense of marina moorings outweighs the disadvantages of standing above a fetid slow cooker. I think we’ll be ordering a second cassette, and a packet of clothes pegs for our noses, in the very near future.

We both continue to marvel at the size of the waterways over here, and realise once more why narrowboats need to be as tough as they are. I was reminiscing earlier in the week, leafing through the vast collection of digital photo’s I took on my watery wanderings. Sections of canal barely wide enough to accommodate a 6’10” wide narrowboat are common, often through rocky cuttings where a wider waterway would have been a laborious and costly affair in the days when picks and shovels were the builders’ only tools. No wonder then that all narrowboats are a mass of scrapes and scratches.

The vast Westeinderplassan couldn’t be more different. Over fifty marinas circle the three and a half mile long, mile and a half wide lake. A jumble of tightly packed islands form narrow navigable channels through the lake’s northern section. Most are privately owned and used for recreation. Some are still used to grow strawberries and herbs. One, Starteiland, is a publically accessible nature reserve.

After a night at Kempers Watersports marina to top up with water, empty our cassette, and charge our battery bank, we ploughed for forty minutes through white topped swells to the much more placid public moorings sheltered by the small island.

We had the island, and the two hundred feet long jetty to ourselves, until another small cruiser arrived at dusk carrying a father and his two teenage sons. The father, a retired jazz musician from Aalsmeer at the lake’s northern tip, left the the boys and the boat to their own devices when his wife arrived in a second boat to collect him.

His plan was to allow the lads to enjoy a night on their own, fishing from the island using the boat as a refuge in case the weather turned. The reality was far different. After setting up a couple of rods close to the boat, the teenagers climbed into their bunks and slept until morning, leaving the island free for Tasha and Florence to explore at leisure.

After a night on the island, we chugged north to Aalsmeer, the largest town on the lake, and tied up on two hour visitor moorings close to the town centre for food shopping and a two hour cafe visit to use their free WiFi to update Cynthia’s MacBook operating system.

We had a choice of moorings for the night. Another island close to Aalsmeer offered free forty eight hour moorings, but with a lively breeze blowing and just one small space free between two expensive cruisers, we decided to return to the tranquility of Starteiland.

I wish we hadn’t.

That night was peaceful enough, apart from the ever present roar of passenger aircraft launching themselves into the sky from Schipol airport a handful of miles to the north, but the following day was anything but quiet.

At 8am a Dutch waterways work boat arrived to replace a section of broken pilings close to our mooring. The boat mounted excavator hammered in new 25’ long pilings all morning, and then six boats from the local sailing club arrived, each crewed by half a dozen excited children and their patient instructor.

By mid afternoon the work and pleasure boats had motored and sailed away, leaving us alone on the tree studded island again, free to relax and read or, for Florence and Tasha, free to explore the picnic tables for any sailing club lunchtime droppings.

Our two bassets are mischievous little gits. They are living vacuum cleaners, sucking up any morsel left on the ground. Their constant hoovering sometimes causes stomach upsets but, rather than subjecting them to the indignity and inconvenience of muzzles, we keep an eye on them to keep them away from from the inedible and unhealthy.

Neither are terribly active, both are wilfully stubborn, more inclined to sleep than exercise, but they both have huge characters, especially Florence.

Although it was Cynthia who rescued Florence from a basset breeder in Pennsylvania where she was considered surplus to requirements after a difficult birth, and transported her from the USA to the Netherlands after a great deal of paperwork and even greater cost, she always considers Florence to be my dog.

Florence has always been a wonderful companion.

I don’t display emotion easily, other than anger – a trait, Cynthia assures me, which is a result of PTSD after enduring a considerable amount of workplace violence following a decade of managing tough pubs, especially in London. In the short period that this wonderful dog has been with us, Florence has helped calm me considerably.

She is an affectionate clown. Her favourite place is on my lap, which is quite a feat considering she weighs 65lb. The pain in my crushed testicles is always outweighed by the pleasure I feel as she leans her football sized head against me and paws me gently with dinner plate feet.

She grows both restless and mischievous if she doesn’t get enough exercise. In that respect she is very similar to me. I often escape with her for an hour or two. We wander around new towns and villages, stopping occasionally for a drink. The cappuccino brought to me is always accompanied by a bowl of water for Florence. After our drinks we doze and dribble, often in unison, as we relax and watch the world go by. Ours is a very happy partnership.

An idyllic day on the island drew to a close, so we wandered back to the boat for what we expected would be an evening of quiet relaxation.

Both Tasha and Florence are very conscientious with their toilet needs. A gentle whine, or a solitary bark is enough to let us know that they need to go outside. Soon after we climbed back on the boat, after an afternoon of happy picnic bench snacking, Florence whined quietly by the cockpit steps. By the time I put my shoes on, she was pacing restlessly and whining insistently. After opening the sliding cockpit window for her, she hauled her considerable bulk onto a portable step we installed to accommodate her stumpy legs, squeezed herself laboriously through the recently constructed dog door, squatted on the pier’s wooden decking, and shat copiously and at length. She walked a few steps, and then squatted again. Within a couple of minutes she had squatted five times to fire bright brown jets of illness through the decking slats into the lake beneath.

The event didn’t worry me. Both dogs occasionally pay the penalty for their gluttonous ways. To be perfectly honest, I was more annoyed than concerned.

I am not proud to admit it, but I am not very tolerant of anything which makes a mess of what I consider to be a necessarily tidy home, especially one as small as our 32’ long boat.

When Florence jumped back on board and promptly vomited on the cockpit’s highly varnished wooden decking, I was a little irritated. When Tasha followed that by quickly squatting and pebbledashing the rest of the cockpit, I was angry.

“This is too much! We spend all of our time cleaning up after these two. If it’s not dog hair on everything, it’s slobber, vomit or shit! I hate living in a mess all of the time. The dogs are a nightmare!”

While I was busy with my childish tantrum, Florence scrambled outside again to squat and strain, shortly followed by Tasha. Cynthia, ever the diplomat, spoke to me quietly. “When something like this happens, I always ask myself how important I will think it is in a month or a year from now. Is life really THAT bad?” Yes, at the time, I really did think life was that bad. I wouldn’t have done if I knew what was coming.

While she spoke, Cynthia used yards of kitchen roll to calmly clear up the mess, trying to keep up with the regular deposits of watery vomit made by Florence. She constantly soothed ‘my’ dog with gentle and reassuring words and touches, trying to comfort her and ease her distress.

I did my bit by going to bed.

For several hours, Cynthia climbed wearily out of bed every time she heard Florence gag, to mop vomit and encourage her to drink. I did nothing other than lay awake and fume.

Eventually, the storm appeared to pass. The retching stopped and was replaced by the slow and steady breathing of trouble free sleep. I slept too, deeply and without regret, until dawn the following day.

A high pitched heart-rending scream startled me awake. “Oh my God, Oh my God!” Cynthia wailed. “She’s dead. Florence is DEAD!”

I rushed into the cockpit to find Cynthia sitting on the wooden decking above the engine bay with Florence’s limp and lifeless form cradled in her arms. “It’s my fault! It’s all my fault. When I walked with them around the island last night I saw them eating scraps beneath the picnic benches, but I didn’t stop them. WHY didn’t I stop them?!”

Cynthia draped a blanket over Florence, which suited me fine. I couldn’t bring myself to touch her, or even look at her. While the dog which had given me so much unconditional love quietly died on her own, I lay in bed cursing the mess that she made. I felt, and still feel, a selfish, bad tempered, childish prick.

I’m not very good at relationships, feelings or emotional stuff, but give me a clinical task to complete, and I’m pretty much unbeatable.

A pleasant pre dinner stroll around a merman lake

A pleasant pre dinner stroll around a German lake

We had to deal with the logistics of disposing of Florence’s rapidly stiffening husk. We didn’t know the rules in the Netherlands. Did we have to notify the authorities? What did we need to do with her body? We were stuck on a boat on an island in the middle of a large lake, without the transport necessary to move the body of a large dog to a veterinary practice or, as the very last resort, to the closest skip.

My first thought was to call the local police station but, tragic as the circumstances were, it clearly wasn’t an emergency and, at 6am, the small town police station was likely to be closed.

Enjoying a seaside rest in northern France

Enjoying a seaside rest in northern France

We decided to return to Kempers Watersports with its easy access to a main road and ever helpful staff. The cruise was a sombre affair through grey water streaked with bright green algae under a sky filled with ominous grey clouds.

We tied up at 7am, still much too early to call any of the local authorities, so, still unwilling to accept Florence’s death, I stepped over her blanket wrapped body to attend to our practical needs. The cassette needed emptying, our water tank needed filling and our batteries needed charging.

By the time I completed my tasks, the time was respectable enough to start making phone calls. I tried to phone the local police station, but my Netherlands SIM card blocked calls to 09 prefixes. I called 112, the emergency services number, and asked them for an alternative local number. They couldn’t give me one.

This motorhome is MINE!

This motorhome is MINE!

I tried phoning a branch of the Netherlands pet ambulance service. The guy who answered didn’t speak English. I tried another branch. The lady who answered spoke English but couldn’t understand me because of my poor phone signal.

By then, the marina office staff had arrived for work. Martine, the ever helpful receptionist, offered to call the ambulance service and translate for me. They would come, she told me, but there would be a charge for coming, and another for disposing of the body.

A sunny day on the beach

A sunny day on the beach

Back at the boat, while we waited for the ambulance, I took a deep breath and tackled the unpleasant task of carrying Florence’s stiff body off the boat. She was a big and heavy dog who struggled to fit through the narrow door we had made for her and Tasha. Now that rigor mortis had set in, the task was especially difficult.

I gently lifted the blanket off her. Maybe she wasn’t dead after all. She looked like she was sleeping and, when I slipped my hands between her fur and the deck boards, her body felt warm. Cynthia must have made a mistake. She was probably just in a deep and exhausted sleep.

Then I realised that her body heat was because of the hot engine in the bay beneath her. Our big, adorable, affectionate clown had left us good, and I didn’t have the common decency to comfort her as she suffered.

The ambulance driver and receptionist Martine arrived carrying a stretcher between them, offering quietly spoken condolences. The ambulance driver frowned when she heard we were English, checked her phone and told us the bad news. “I am so sorry for your loss, and I’m sorry to tell you that, because you are not Dutch, the disposal charges are very high. You need to pay €25 for me to transport the body, and then €170 for the cremation”.

I haven't been near the pond, honestly!

I haven’t been near the pond, honestly!

We didn’t really have a choice. The only other option was to drop Florence’s body in one of the marina’s half dozen wheelie bins. That wasn’t a consideration as far as either of us was concerned. Cynthia was in favour of cremation after remembering a story I told her about the English waterways.

A few years ago, I met a lone boater standing beside a lock, holding a wooden box wrapped in a tattered plastic shopping bag. I discovered that, after twenty years of saving for a boat to spend their retirement on as they cruised the network, his wife died a week before their custom built narrowboat was launched.

Seeing eye to eye with little fatso

Seeing eye to eye with little fatso

The husband cruised on his own, stopping at each lock he passed to sprinkle a few grains of his wife’s ashes on the water. By doing this, he told me, his wife would be with him in spirit.

When we asked about collecting Florence’s ashes, the ambulance driver had another unpleasant surprise for us. The price she quoted was for a group cremation. If we wanted the ashes, we would have to have a solo cremation, which would cost an additional €100.

We agreed.

I helped carry Florence’s inert form along the marina pontoon to the waiting ambulance and then watched sadly as she was driven away forever.

Florence’s Dutch vet, Anneka, learned of her death through an email from Cynthia. In her reply, she told Cynthia that both people and animals come into your lives for a reason. They are there to teach you a valuable lesson. I don’t know whether I believe this, but I know what I have learned from this sad episode.

I stress far too much about the little things in life so much that I lose sight of the bigger picture. I can’t see the wood for the trees. Rather than focussing on trivial dog hair, muddy paw prints and the occasional strand of drool flicked from a joyously shaken head, I should concentrate on the unconditional love that dogs, especially bassets give so freely.

I don’t think that we will wait long before getting another basset. She won’t ever replace beautiful Florence, but she’ll certainly help.

Florence: gone but NEVER forgotten

Florence: gone but NEVER forgotten

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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 now wander Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 32' Dutch motor cruiser.

Comments
  • Dave Wallbank Sunday,2 July, 2017 at 3:00 pm

    Sorry to hear your sad news. Sincere condolences to you both. David and Sue Wallbank.

     
    • Paul Smith Monday,3 July, 2017 at 7:11 am

      Thank you Dave and Sue. The support from this site has made a difficult time more bearable.

       
  • Lord Tintagel Sunday,2 July, 2017 at 4:03 pm

    Paul and Cynthia, my condolences on the loss of dear Florence, I hope Tasha is coping with her friend gone.

     
    • Paul Smith Monday,3 July, 2017 at 7:16 am

      Tasha is doing pretty well Graham. Bassets like to travel in pairs, so we are making every effort to find her a new companion as quickly as possible. In the meantime, she has to do with additional love and affection from Cynthia and me.

       
  • Alan Cranford Sunday,2 July, 2017 at 4:23 pm

    My heart goes out to you and Cynthia… My wife received a “slightly mixed breed poodle” from her sister who decided she did not want all the problems of a puppy…. and since my wife goes every day to take care of her elderly mother who do you think got to take care of the puppy?? RIGHT! ME! The puppy was never more than three feet from me… sleeping in my office behind my desk chair [where she is right this moment] or “attacking” my feet while I am reading on the couch…. then her sister decided she wanted the puppy back, now that she was “house broken”…. I was angry…. I missed the little shit so much! We used to have “conversations” [OK… now you know that old age brings on some real mental issues!] After two weeks the sister returned the dog…. she barked at strangers was the dog’s crime…Well it has been a year and a half or more… Annie is as constant as my shadow…wanting out to chase the neighbor’s cat when it comes into our yard [She CHASES but NEVER CATCHES… as she is scared to death of a cat!]! At this point, I can’t imagine spending days alone, without my friend!
    Grief, over the loss of your beloved friend will fade over time, but never be forgotten… I think it is an excellent idea to seek out another dog or puppy… YOU will know which is the perfect animal.. and it may not be a basset…. Right now, someplace out there is a dog that is waiting for you to discover him/her so she can be you “new best friend”! Good luck!

     
    • Paul Smith Monday,3 July, 2017 at 7:19 am

      Thanks for some much needed humour at a difficult time Alan. Yes, we are already taking steps to find another mischievous basset. I don’t think we’ll have to wait too long before we hear the patter of eight not so small feet on board.

       
  • bicky Sunday,2 July, 2017 at 4:23 pm

    You have my deepest sympathy – I used to have three Golden retrievers – one by one they went the same way as your Florence.I consoled myself in the knowledge that they all had long and happy lives.
    I now have another – she is now 3 yrs old – I will NEVER forget the others, but this little girl makes me very happy, Hopefully you can do the same in time to come.

     
    • Paul Smith Monday,3 July, 2017 at 7:10 am

      Quite right Bicky. We have already been offered another basset from the same organisation that Florence came from. She’s a two year old who has been retired from breeding. All we have to do now is ship her from the USA to the Netherlands!

       
  • Spanish Andy Sunday,2 July, 2017 at 6:14 pm

    Sorry to here this sad story. We all deal and react to things in different ways, doesn’t mean we loved something any less.
    Andy

     
  • Mrenglish Sunday,2 July, 2017 at 8:10 pm

    Hi Paul and Cynthia.

    How sorry I am to hear of your loss. How is Tasha taking it? I hope you do get another basset as Tasha will miss her companion too.

    I myself have a Labrador ‘Gemma’ and would be devastated if she died prematurely.
    She is 10 years old now. Actually she is my sisters dog, I have been living and caring for my sister for some three years now, after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer early onset.
    As my sister is unable to engage with me now, ‘Gemma’ has become a real companion. I often find myself talking to the dog. How I will miss her when she goes. .
    Ultimately my sister will go into a nursing home, and its then, that Gemma and myself intend to explore a life aboard a narrowboat. So its pleasing and encouraging to hear that dogs are very suited to life on the water.

    Incidentally I have spent hours looking at narrowboats ‘for sale’ and have become quite excited at the prospect of a new adventure.But I wonder Paul. On your journeys through the canals and waterways of Britain, If you could pick a marina you would love to live in, which one would it be? or even a particular mooring perhaps?

    My thoughts are with you both right now.

    Looking forward to hearing from you.

    Regards Bob English.

     
    • Paul Smith Monday,3 July, 2017 at 7:04 am

      Thank you for your kind thoughts Bob. Yes, dogs are very well suited to a life on the English waterways. They are in doggy heaven. New places to sniff every time you stop, and miles and miles of beautiful towpaths to race along, not to mention the thousands of miles of public footpaths which are within easy reach of the towpaths.

      Which marina would I live in? Why, it would have to be one of the two marinas at Calcutt Boats where I lived and worked for half a decade. It’s a truly beautiful location with three SSSI wildflower meadows on site, seven acres of woodland and a total of 110 acres of agricultural land, all of which is accessible to mores. Unfortunately for you, the company only allows recreational mooring unless a boater works there.

      Why do you want to stay in a marina? Much as I enjoyed my time at Calcutt Boats, I had far more fun living out on the cut. Living in a marina is like living in a tightly packed housing estate. Look out of your boat windows, and you’re likely to see the face of another boater staring at you from a distance of about six feet.

      Out on the cut, you have space and variety. It’s easy to find an endless number of beautiful moorings far away from crowds or other boaters. If you aren’t tied to a geographical location for work purposes, consider being a continuous cruiser. You can always book yourself into a marina for a while if you feel lonely or the weather prevents cruising.

       
    • Mrenglish Tuesday,4 July, 2017 at 8:52 am

      Hi Paul and Cynthia
      Thank you for getting back to me. Yes! when I view the marina moorings online, it was a concern that you appear to be quite closely moored together and that as you point out you would almost be able to touch each other through the ‘porthole’. I don’t think this would be for me. So I have noted your comments and will concentrate my research on ‘cruising the cut’
      I propose to hire a boat for a little break to get a feel for this way of life, and to explore some potential mooring sites.
      In my previous life I sailed the oceans for 12 years, and spent 3 years flying around the planet for BA, so I feel mentally equipped for this new adventure.

      Cheers Paul.

       
      • Paul Smith Tuesday,4 July, 2017 at 9:24 am

        I don’t understand your comment about looking for potential mooring sites. Do you need to stay in a particular area for work? If not, you can cruise the network continuously, staying where you want on the towpath for up to fourteen days unless otherwise stated. If you’re free to travel, this is definitely the best way to go.

        If you are going to hire a boat on your own, don’t assume that all companies will hire to you, unless you can convince them that you have narrow boating experience. You may have to be economical with the truth. I know that you have had plenty of ocean boating experience, but a flat bottomed narrowboat on narrow and often very shallow canals are a different kettle of fish.

         
  • MikeLower Monday,3 July, 2017 at 9:21 am

    Hi Paul and Cynthia:
    So sorry for your loss of Florence:
    Having followed your travels for some years, I feel like both of you and your dogs experiences are in some way part of a big extended family that we look forward to reading about each week, Happy or Sad, keep your chin up, this will slowly pass.
    Regards Mike (Australia)

     
    • Paul Smith Monday,3 July, 2017 at 10:22 am

      Thank you Mike. Each day is a little easier. She played such a big part in our lives, something that we – me especially – only realised when she was gone.

       
  • lewiscook Monday,3 July, 2017 at 12:02 pm

    My wife and i send our heartfelt condolences to yourself and Cynthia, try not to be to hard on yourself Paul, you gave her a wonderful life after her horrid start and she was very happy as part of your crew. Hope you find a companion for Tasha soon and wish you both all the best.

     
    • Paul Smith Monday,3 July, 2017 at 6:09 pm

      Thank you Lewis. Yes, Florence was certainly a well travelled dog, with eleven countries of new smells to her credit. She will be sorely missed.

       
  • Mrenglish Tuesday,4 July, 2017 at 5:06 pm

    Hi Paul.. Indeed I have some nerves about narrow boating, and I don’t underestimate the challenge ahead of me, but hopefully that’s all part of the adventure. I definitely want to get some experience in first though.

    I don’t have any work commitments, so I could be free to cruise the canals.If that’s the case then “that’s cool” I think I like the somewhat ‘bohemian’ aspect of narrow boating.

    My comment about finding other more “suitable moorings” was down to my naivety. I assumed I could find somewhere nice along the canal/waterway and moor up indefinitely, but if one can only stay along the canal side for 14 days unless otherwise stated, then that’s fine, when or if I feel I want a more permanent mooring then I can look at a marina?

     
    • Paul Smith Wednesday,5 July, 2017 at 6:51 am

      Don’t delay too long if you want a mooring for the winter months. The UK canals don’t freeze for long periods, but they DO freeze. You don’t want to be frozen into an idyllic mooring if you’re miles away from a decent water supply and black waste disposal point, and you don’t want to force your boat through the ice and strip off your hull paint. Many winter moorings are booked up to a year in advance. If you see one you like, consider booking it for two or three winter months.

      Another aspect of living on board in the winter months to consider is towpaths submerged under inches of liquid mud. For me, this was one of the most frustrating parts of living on the cut over the winter.

       
  • Denny Wednesday,5 July, 2017 at 9:53 am

    Hi Paul and Cynthia
    This is tragic news. I’m so sorry to hear this. My deepest sympathy. Pets are part of the family as much as people and their loss cuts deep. The circumstances leading to this are also tragic. Feel the grief, cry the tears, learn the lessons but let go the guilt. It helps no one least of all the spirit of Florence. If you cannot let it go, sit somewhere quiet, feel it, then hand it over to a Higher Power who will release it for you. These Powers do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

    Ways to grieve are interesting. I think you will appreciate this one. A close friend died last week. She had elected for hospice management of her painso she had quality over quantity of life. As part of this she had wanted to get her boots on and get out there. We were planning on towpath walks, or maybe strolls. It never came to be as her 3 day stay in the hospice for symptom management became 2 months. By chance 10 days ago we passed a boat yard with a sign up for dayboat hire, which we did yesterday. and I realised, we were travelling the canal we had planned to walk. I guess her spirit came too, as between the day of our booking and our trip, she had died. Make of it what you will but connections are stronger than bodies.
    As to other links here, quality of life over quantity of days. Your Florence had doggy Heaven on earth with you. Remember the good times.
    Go peacefully
    Denny xxx

     
    • Paul Smith Wednesday,5 July, 2017 at 10:31 am

      Thank you for your kind words Denny, and thank you for your equally kind site subscription.

      Florence may have gone, but we’ll never forget her. She only had a year with us, but it was a very happy year for her, far removed from the kennel she spent her first four years. We reduced her weight from 105lb to 651b. She was still a big girl, but far from fat. Yes, she had a good life. Far too short, but good all the same.

      I’m not too bad on the guilt front now, and I’ll learn from this episode to be better with the next basset.

      Thanks again for your kind words.

       
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