It’s Not All Roses And Castles
Pauline Roberts lives aboard The Woodsman. She loves the lifestyle but her family and friends don’t understand what it’s all about. She wrote the following to try and explain it to them…
Hello all you land-living house or flat dwellers. Ever strolled along the cut on a sunny summer’s day and seen tanned healthy-looking boaters sitting along the towpath or on their back decks clad in shorts, enjoying the fresh air and the sound of birds singing, eating their sandwiches or tucking into a hearty meal, glass of wine in hand, smiling and looking stress-free? Yes? Well, it really IS like that for much of the warmer months. It can be even better when we have company, those friendly dog walkers, strollers and sometimes the occasional cyclist with a punctured tyre. All ready to spend a few minutes talking to boaters and asking them about their idyllic lifestyles. Us water gypsies DO feel we are blessed to be able to live like we do and the enthusiasm often rubs off onto others. A guided tour round one of our vessels and a lot of people feel this is exactly how they’d like to live, too. If only I had a pound for each time I heard this…..ahhh.
It’s not all roses and castles, though. And I can say categorically that in the deep mid-winter it can be bloody hell. It gets cold, and I mean COLD in our steel homes. We have carpets but the floor is freezing a lot of the time. Bear in mind that when seated our lower bodies are below the level of the water. Or below the ice as we have experienced since November. I have thick socks on and sturdy leather boots – I wear them all winter (not the same socks, just the same boots may I add) inside as well as out. Thermal underwear is a must as is having many layers of clothing (vest, T shirt, jumper, fleece….and that’s just indoors.
There are cold spots on most boats. Mine is the bedroom which is the furthest place from the fire. Bedtime usually means heating up my stone hot water bottle (thanks, Julie) and a pan of water for the rubber ones. These go in to take the chill off the bedding then a quick dive (sometimes still with thermals on) and we are settled for the night. Hopefully… Often it gets colder in the middle of the night so as well as a lovely down-filled duvet I have a blanket or two on top, just to be on the safe side. Most windows are closed but there are ventilation mushrooms (is that what they’re called?) which, because of Boat Safety must be unobstructed. Don’t forget all the door vents, again a Boat Safety requirement and sliding hatches which leave gaps on either side. The list goes on but it’s to make you aware that cold draughts find their way in everywhere. To recap on this – metal boats (brrr…), draughts, cold spots, cold bloody feet, lots of clothes needed.
Another subject, and one boaters talk a lot about, is toilets. We tend to be closer to this subject than people who can flush and forget. We can flush but not forget. What goes down the hole has to come back out. No sewer system for us. We have holding tanks for our poos or we use Portapottis, or both. Portapottis have to be taken to a sanitation station and emptied, rinsed out and returned. Pump-outs need to be, well, pumped out. And both these methods are a fat lot of good when you’re frozen-in somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Or as we were last year, moored in a town beginning with ‘B’ where the one and only sanitation station had been out of order for months. It was in the grounds of a pub with outdoor tables all round it, no way of mooring except by roping onto a table leg (not recommended) and a blocked pan / water off / no-one admitting responsibility for maintenance. We campaigned to get it back into working order and the last we heard it was being rectified. Anyway, it’s a long and gory story (well I AM a poet!) which we will discuss with other boaters as we exchange toilet tales on our travels…. Getting back to the main subject what would YOU do if your toilets were full and there’s nowhere within miles to empty them (and the canal is frozen) ? I could come up with some solutions you don’t want to hear but I can tell you that supermarkets, pubs and friends’ houses often are saviours when you have your legs crossed and wear a pained expression, and ofcourse there is that understanding that you can dig a deep hole and bury the stuff. Try it in mid-winter!
In a similar vein we have the hazard of doogy doos. Many dog walkers use the towpath to exercise their four-legged friends and why not? And most of them do pick up after their dogs. However, there’s that minority who don’t. And for some reason there’s always a space just where I get off my back deck that has an invisible sign saying “Doggies, do your doos here.” And they do do. Their doo doos. Barry’s boots have an affinity with it too. He HAS to tread in it. It’s compulsory. Joking aside, it’s a health risk, offensive and a nuisance to clean off.
Now we come to water. I never appreciated it much when I lived in a house; it was something that came out of my taps and that was that. It still comes out of my taps now that I live on a boat but I have to go and get it. It doesn’t come to me. I have to travel to a water point, sometimes going for miles and through locks, and hope that the taps are working / not frozen and that there isn’t a queue for the water point. I have to moor up, get a hosepipe out and wait for up to an hour (depending on how quick or slow the tap is) to fill up my tank. It can have its hazards; my tank is perched right at the front of the boat and I have to be as agile as a monkey to get to the fill-up hole. During the big freeze we could not move our boats. Water became scarce or ran out. Bottles and water containers were seen being trollied along the towpath in all weathers to get that most precious of commodities. Friendly householders were appreciated when our water point taps were frozen solid. And we had to be so frugal with the use of water. Hot water bottles were emptied into a big pan so that the water could be heated up and re-used over and over again. I actually melted clean snow to use for those, and things like washing floors.
Personal hygiene can suffer when we have to go easy on the liquid stuff. It would suit many a schoolboy, I dare say, but personally I can’t stand smelly bodies. Having said that, it’s amazing how far half a kettle of hot water goes. You start with the cleaner bits and then end up with your feet. Coal dust gets everywhere and hands are sometimes a little discoloured, too, when you’ve been down the engine ‘ole (and yes, that is what it’s called, an ‘ole). Just washing your hair can be a little disconcerting when you see the colour of the water. We survived the water shortage. But my domestic water pump didn’t. That’s another story….
What about space? Not THAT kind, where planets revolve and stars go bang, but the space inside a boat. Like where to store clothes, bedding, food, hobby stuff and, in my case, a record player and all my vinyl. Moving from a three-bedroomed house onto a boat had a few problems for me, being a lady. Where to put my 40 handbags, pairs of shoes to match, clothes to match the shoes…etc? A good analogy is an hourglass with a large top and a minute (minute – get it??) bottom compartment. It just can’t be done. The charity shops got a good deal out of me. And moving about isn’t easy, either. Often one person has to whip into the bathroom to allow another person to go along the hallway. Or to move out of a chair for someone to get to the fire. A four foot bed with a little gap at one side (which doubles as a corridor) won’t accommodate two hefty water gypsies (unless it’s midwinter in which case they would snuggle up very close to each other for warmth). Making the bed each day is a muscle-builder; sheets seem to come adrift if you just look at them the wrong way and the duvet inevitably slides onto the floor. Smoothing a sheet flat whilst kneeling on it can be a bit tricky.
Lack of privacy is a sore point. I know how hard it is NOT to look straight into boat windows and I have trained my eyes to look forward when passing a boat but you just wouldn’t believe what some people do. A group of visitors from another country (I’m assuming they were visitors) came off the towpath, walked across a bit of grass and placed their heads against the bedroom window, shielding their eyes with their hands to get a better view. There they were, pointing to things and talking amongst themselves as if they were at the London Boat Show. How rude. I could have been getting dressed – that would have scared them! Hmm..
Recently a Pension Service advisor asked if we had letter boxes on our boats! I won’t go into all the ins and outs but she had erroneously told us that without a postal address a pensioner would lose not only their winter allowance but their actual pension itself. I digress, and it’s a long story anyway (see the Leighton Buzzard Observer 11th January 2011, page 7 for details) but the vision of a postie searching thousands of miles of canal and river to pop a letter in our “letter boxes” had us in stitches. But the hard fact is, we need somewhere for our snail mail to be delivered. Most of us are lucky; a willing daughter (thanks Helen) or other relative, or a friend, is greatly appreciated. Living in a marina could solve the problem of a postal address and make collecting mail a piece of pee. I would need to win the lottery or come into an inheritance to be able to afford that, though. My pension doesn’t go far.
Anyone noticed how, when you register at a surgery, the first thing they ask you is “What’s your postcode?” Unfortunately if your postal address is in, say, Liverpool and you are moored in, say, Leamington Spa, a letter may arrive to let you know that you have been struck off for being out of area. You don’t believe me? I know someone who was struck off two GP’s surgeries and a big local hospital because his postal address was about 20 miles away. A visit to his last GP ended with “You’ll have to register and that will take a few days to be put on the computer.” The man could hardly stand he was so ill. I have to keep reminding him now that he needs to give lots of notice when he intends to be ill in the future. And what about those solo boaters and there are a lot of them, nearly all men. They can’t bang on the wall and alert the neighbours when they think they are about to have a heart attack. Their only recourse is to use their mobiles…..if they can get a signal, that is. More about that later. Assuming they were able to call for an ambulance would the paramedics find Old Jim who is moored beside a field near what looks like a farmhouse just south of Fenny Stratford. Methinks this could have serious repercussions. Especially for Old Jim.
Signals… Mobiles, internet, TV, radio. Our boats are often like Faraday cages and conversations on the phone often sound like something out of a Carry On film. Today I had to dash through my boat and out the other end four times to be able to answer calls. Infuriating when I’m just about the turn the fried eggs over. Worse if I am in the ‘little room.’ TV aerials are constantly being turned to get a picture when we have travelled though nearby houses are handy to copy the direction of the aerial. And the internet often cuts out when there’s a poor signal. I never had that problem in a house with a landline phone. Graham up on the Llangollen has to climb up a mountain when HE wants to make a phone call. I can’t remember the name of the mountain but I think it starts with the letter ‘f.’
Vandalism occurs everywhere. We get our share living on the cut. Trouble is we can’t lock things away in a secure garage or shed so some of the stealables are on the back deck and on the roof. And no matter how secure you think a generator is, it can be gone in minutes, thick chain and padlock not a deterrent to some. I heard of a man who was running his generator and when he stopped he thought it had run out of fuel. But no, it was whipped away in broad daylight right under his nose. And talking of light, when the light goes and the night darkness closes in it very often is pitch black especially away from housing areas. A good time for yobbos to do their dirty deeds without risk of identification. Shirley and Brian had a window smashed weeks after moving onto their boat. And I have actually seen a man teaching his son how to float large metal ashtrays full of burning material out across the cut. I spent that evening praying one of them wouldn’t reach Barb’s boat, which it nearly did. As she wasn’t on board I had a bucket handy just in case. I’ve seen a few burnt out boats already. I’ve had missiles thrown at my boat on several occasions, too. In one case I had apples lugged at my windows while going through Birmingham.
You can buy groceries online from Tesco and get your order delivered direct to your front door. All very well but try doing this when you’re moored next to a pub car park. Or in the middle of a park area. OK for people with a static home but I wonder what Tesco and other stores would do if a boater placed an order. Has anyone ever done this? I’d be interested to know what happened. Often, too often, it’s a long trek for me and my peer group to get to a shop.
And that takes me onto the next subject – towpaths. We do have some wonderfully neat tarmaced towpaths. Ideal for dog walkers and joggers. Also a great place for those irritating young b***** who want to practice their motorbike skills, at top speed ofcourse. Have you noticed that they don’t wear crash helmets and the bikes don’t have licence plates? I’ve seen dozens of the little buggers. Or should I say heard them because it’s mostly during the hours of darkness when I’ve just got off to sleep. I’d love to hear a big splash after they’ve roared past but so far I’ve not had the pleasure. Some towpaths are just quagmires. Worse after the rains. Many a time I’ve lugged shopping or bottles of water along these paths with my bright pink trolley (with flowers on) only to have to wash the mud off the wheels and the bottoms of my boots in the cut before getting on board. Not to mention any doggie doos. And what about those men who come along in three and lawn mow and strim… Every time I hear them I’m out like a flash, telling them that I will do the bit alongside my boat. Yes, British Waterways will tell you that the workers have shields on their machines but the chipped paint on my boat, caused by flying stones, bears witness that these are not effective. Grass thrown up by the strimmers sticks to the blacking like glue unless you get out there with a mop straight away. Not so much of a problem as ruined paintwork, though.
I used to have a car. Handy for whipping out to Beds Batteries, Tesco or to see my little angelic grand-children but a pain in the exhaust pipe when you need to park it. Garages are ideal but not easy to move so a pub car park, industrial estate or housing area street have to do. In the worse case scenario a little country lane or isolated car park where anything can, and does, happen to the car windows, tryes etc. Whilst visiting my mate at the Wendover Festival one year I parked near a little hamlet and so did several other people. When I went to leave I found that six of the eight cars had had their windows smashed. I was one of the lucky two. And recently both my sisters (they’re boaters, too, as is my grandson Anthony – must run in the family) had their vehicle windows smashed. One also had the number plates removed and stolen not long ago. When you have a boat AND a car there’s always the problem of moving one when you move the other. I got fed up with walking miles to go fetch the car after travelling. Or begging a lift from someone. I now have a bus pass, yippee, and make full use of it. One of the perks of being an old age pensioner. My bones ache at bus stops but the advantages out weigh the disadvantages. And ofcourse, no tax, insurance, MOT,…..
Things go wrong on boats, I have found. There’s always something that needs repairing or replacing. Or painting, de-rusting, tightening, greasing. How many times have I had something wrapped round my prop? I’ve lost count. Usually it’s because I’ve been careless and not wound the stern line round my tiller. Stupid me. But I can’t be blamed for the many plastic bags, fishing line or pairs of trousers. And I haven’t had the unfortunate experience of cutting off a rotting fox carcase like Arlene had to do one time. Yuk. Last summer Barry had a rope wrapped round his prop and I stopped to help. I threw him a line but this didn’t work and I ended up with it round MINE! Two boats, drifting about, both of us down our engine ‘oles…I ended up breasted alongside a total stranger, apologising profusely for any inconvenience I’d caused. Luckily he was a nice chap. But then most boaters are. Don’t mention pumps, especially domestic water pumps. I’ve just had mine replaced (it was still under warranty, thank goodness). After weeks of scrounging water I now have it coming out of my taps again. You don’t know what you’ve got till it gone, they say. Now my batteries are playing up. Not holding their charge. I only replaced them, at great cost, about a year and a half ago. It’s not as if I use a lot of power. The halogen lights I had on the boat when I bought it have all been replaced by LED lights using a tenth of the power. My electric fridge is on only when it needs to be (and usually when I’m travelling in warm weather) and although I have a superb washing machine I only use it to spin out the laundry. “Let your fingers do the walking” is an old slogen; mine is “My hands do the washing.” Alternator belts need checking and tightening if need be. Stern glands need greasing, and greasers need filling. Weed hatches need to be waterproof and that sometimes means new sealer. A friend of ours took his weed hatch cover off to check his prop but felt he could do without it so disposed of it. He then moved off. And sank. Absolutely true. Lots of little jobs. And then the biggies. Boats are metal (well, GOOD ones are!!). Metal rusts. And boy do we have a lost of rustable metal. I spent all of last summer, in between the rainy days, rubbing down the whole length of my roof and putting down primer, undercoat and several layers of topcoat. I have noticed a couple of rust patches already. Damn. And there’s always the strakes to be Fertan’d and re-blacked. Locks do horrendous things to our blacking. And Barry reckons the Woodsman does horrendous things to Sunflower but I think I’m quite a good steerist, if that’s the right word. And if it isn’t then I’ve made it up. It’s mine. Mooring pins and mallets get rusty. Well, mine do. Leaks and damp. Oh, bloody hell. I keep peeping into my engine ‘ole and sighing with relief when there’s no water in there. Barry had a leak once – no, I’m not being personal – and ended up having to throw away all his diving books which were in the compartment under his wheelhouse (he’s got TWO compartments, cocky sod). You’ll find damp on boats. Mattresses need airing where they touch the sides and things under beds / seats will need checking periodically. Sucky-out bags are handy for storing bedding, clothes and photos. John told us that Sandy’s sewing machine stored under the bed had mouldy dust on it – a sucky out bag might not be practical for things like that. In general we keep an eye out for damp and mould. Food gets damp quickly on boats if not stored well, especially biscuits and crispbreads.
Talking of which, Shirley had a mouse on her boat. Nibbled it’s way through all the bags of flour, nuts and anything else he could get his teeth into. Was heard scuttling about in the night and it was some time before he was caught, sadly, in a trap. The squirrel climbing into her window was shoo’d away very sharpish and the rat sitting on the gunwhales looking in didn’t get a look in, if you get what I mean. I had a wonderful experience on Plod one day. A massive snake swam across the cut and climbed up through the drainage hole onto my front deck. It lay there, all four feet of it, in the sunshine. I felt privileged to have it aboard. However, with the front door open I was anxious that it didn’t get inside because with all my clutter I’d never have found it again. Luckily it slid out and swam back. A marvellous sight all the same. Helen wouldn’t agree; tarantulas are more to her liking (eeeugh) but that’s by the by.
We tell people that living on a boat is cheaper than in a house. I think that’s true. But there are still expenses which must be paid. Boat licence, insurance, Boat Safety costs and then the massive increase in the price of diesel. It has doubled in price since I started boating. It’s something we need to propel us or to run the central heating so gotta buy it. Coal / smokeless fuel needs to be bought although we have the fun of going out logging and sawing to supplement our heating costs. Multi-purpose fires are wonderful things. They keep us warm, boil the kettle, cook tea and create a cosy atmosphere. But they need feeding. Money goes to replacing parts and paying for repairs, too.
And lastly, it’s said that a boater isn’t a boater till he or she had been baptised – that’s falling in the water. Someone once told me you have to fall in 67 times to be a proper boater but I think that’s going a bit overboard, he he. Not too bad if done in shallow water in the summer. I fell in on the flooded River Severn and got swept along towards the weir at Gloucester docks. I lived to tell the tale. I know of several less fortunate people. Steve, a homeless man living under the bridge at Fenny, died the second time he fell in. And Shirley slipped while pushing Plod off the bank and ended up with a bad injury causing her to be unable to work for a long time.
Having said all this I hope it hasn’t put you off boating. It’s a lovely life that I have chosen. I’ve grown into it and wouldn’t dream of moving back on land. There are so many advantages in this lifestyle, wonderful things to see and hear, interesting, warm, friendly people to chat to. Most of us don’t have big bank balances but we do have big hearts. And in spite of what I’ve written it’s well worth it. I’m staying put!
As a result of Pauline’s article, continuous cruiser Peter Earley emailed me. Peter wrote an article for the Residential Boat Owner’s Association about four years ago. He though it would be a good counter argument for what many consider unneccessary pessimism in Pauline’s post. Peter is one of the 2,000+ registered continous cruisers on the system. You can read his post here