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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Summer Weather In February On The Grand Union Canal

Orient’s Zanussi washing machine isn’t performing quite as well as we would like. Its primary function at the moment seems to be to transfer the contents of our seven hundred litre water tank into the cabin bilge without washing any clothes.

Removing the excess bilge water has proven a little challenging.

My previous narrowboat, James, was sensibly designed. Bilgewater could flow the full cabin length back to the engine room and then be sucked out of the boat with an electric bilge pump.

Easy.

Orient’s underfloor area appears to be split into several self-contained sections. All of them are inaccessible. Builder Steve Hudson fitted out the engine room and boatman’s cabin. Everything else was done by the first owner. He was a craftsman. The beautifully designed fitted furniture is as substantial as it is aesthetically appealing. He did a great job, but not one which makes remedial work at all easy.

Before he constructed the boat’s many cupboards, shelves and heavy-duty doors, he hauled two tonnes of hardwood flooring into the Orient’s cabin. He secured the long planks with enough over engineered brass screws to open his own hardware shop. Orient’s cabin floor is a thing of beauty, unmarred by unsightly but often necessary inspection hatches. There’s no chance of lifting any of the hardwood planks without dismantling the carefully crafted furniture above it.

Removing leaked water is a problem I haven’t yet been able to overcome, as is removing the appliance which is responsible for the unwanted liquid.

The Zanussi washing machine installation was done early in the boat’s fitout programme. I suspect it was lifted onto a sturdy pine shelf on the cabin’s port side and then surrounded with batons, doors and shelves until it was buried at the bottom of an expansive airing cupboard. The equally substantial Kabola boiler cupboard was built opposite the washing machine. A weighty pine door to the galley opens between the two.
The washing machine cupboard door and the galley door will need to come off before there’s any chance of sliding the washing machine out. And then the appliance will need hauling, sliding and lifting around, between and over a host of cupboards, drawer chests and partitions towards the cabin’s forward doors. Getting the machine out of the boat is going to be a monumental pain in the arse.

In the meantime, life goes on.

Cupboards filled with dirty clothes until a long trek to the marina washing and drying machines became a necessary evil. The pleasant one thousand yard return trip (I’ve just measured it on Google Maps) from Orient to the facilities block morphed into a tedious trudge after the fifth load. Ah, the joys of living afloat!

Banging into the boiler cupboard door as I wrestled with the uncooperative washing machine reminded me that the long-awaited replacement Kabola boiler pot still hasn’t arrived. It was ordered directly from the German supplier at the beginning of January. They estimated three weeks before it would reach our Tattenhall base. We postponed our cruise south to Calcutt, hoping that we could get it fitted before we left. We began our journey potless and without hot water. The third revised delivery date has now passed, so we have to rely on a stable shoreline connection for water heating.

A constant shore supply is a hit and miss affair. One hundred yards of a blue plastic coated cable is buried at the bottom of a shallow ditch between our rusty dump barge mooring and the nearest electricity metre. Somewhere, I don’t yet know where, there is a weakness or a partial break in the cable. Running mains appliances, heating water and charging our domestic battery bank is an exercise requiring patience and a stout pair of walking boots. A saloon table top lamp is our usual indicator. Like a Pavlovian dog, if the cabin suddenly dims, I climb out of the boat reset the trip switch. I’m frustrated but exceptionally fit.

All of these issues are nothing more than minor and temporary inconveniences. They are not third world problems. We have a comfortable and warm floating home, moored at one of the best locations at, for my money, one of the prettiest marinas in the country.

Returning to work here has been a joy. I was employed by Calcutt Boats on and off from September 2009 until October 2016. I enjoyed the work and appreciated the beauty of the hundred plus acres of rural Warwickshire I maintained. However, two years driving 30,000 miles through the varied landscapes of eleven European countries reinforced my love for England’s often spectacular countryside. Especially after spending much of last year in Holland.

There’s more varied scenery in this remote corner of rural Warwickshire than there is in most of the Netherlands (My apologies to Dutch friends Gilia and Edwin who will read this). We stayed in Holland because of the vast network of rivers, canals and lakes. The Dutch are masters of waterway management. They have to be. Much of the country’s reclaimed land is below sea level. Waterways fill many of the low lying areas which, in this exceptionally flat corner of Europe, is most of the country.

The waterways are meticulously maintained. Everything works. On the rare occasion that a bridge or lock fails, technicians are on site in the blink of an eye to fix the fault. The Dutch waterways network operates like a well-oiled machine, a reliable machine with minimal character.

Very few boaters live afloat on Holland’s four thousand miles of connected waterways. If you want to live on Dutch waterways, you usually buy one of the country’s thousands of houseboats, floating homes so elaborate that they often have brick walls and slate or thatched roofs. It’s living on the water, but it’s not boating. There are exceptions of course. The Dutch build beautiful boats. They’re often not insulated, but if you find one that is you have a spacious, comfortable and pretty home. Like Edwin and Gilia’s boat below.

A superbly equipped Dutch live aboard boat

A superbly equipped Dutch live aboard boat

The Dutch are enthusiastic and proud fair weather boaters. A poorly maintained craft on the Dutch network is a rare sight. Boating in Holland is all about aesthetics. Open day boats costing six figures are common, as are forty-foot motor cruisers costing a million or more. Despite these boats’ extraordinary cost, very few of them are suitable for four season cruising or for living on board full time.

Consequently, the Dutch network is lifeless for half of the year. September is a hectic time for boatyards when many crafts are removed from their moorings. They’re lifted from the water, moved to hard standing, sometimes in huge heated hangers, and left until the spring.

Many minor canals shut down for the winter. Not because of essential repairs or freezing weather, but because the bridge and lock keepers aren’t at their posts. There’s no point. There are no boaters to provide a service for.

Major waterways routes remain open from dawn till dusk for commercial traffic. On the waterways near our Aalsmeer base, we could count the daily commercial boats on the fingers of one hand. The work of a Dutch winter bridge keeper must be a tedious affair.

Even though winter cruising is not overly popular on English and Welsh canals, the UK inland waterways network has a very different feel from its continental cousin during the colder months of the year.

Thanks to my work, and our mooring overlooking the bottom lock of the Grand Union canal’s Calcutt flight, I can watch daily events on the waterways as they unfold. I saw more boats moving through the flight on one lazy Sunday morning in February than I did in a week on the Dutch canals before we left the Netherlands last December.

I could hear the sounds from my boatman’s cabin office; the rush of water from raised paddles, the roar of an engine to combat the surge from paddles raised too quickly and shouted banter between lock and helm crew. They’re such comforting sounds.

There are still signs of life on England’s canal and river network on the coldest winter days. Thousands of moored boats line the cut, many occupied by liveaboard boaters. Cruising past a row of moored boats usually creates a burst of canalside activity. Heads appear through hatches, out of engine bays, above towering bags of coal. Some boat owners offer a cheery wave, a friendly greeting or, if the cruising boater passes too fast, a shaken fist and a little heartfelt advice. English canals are alive, even in the depth of winter.

Not that we’ve had much of a winter this year.

Toys for boys. I'm very happy at work.

Toys for boys. I’m very happy at work.

I was able to work in a tee shirt for much of last week as I burned hawthorn stripped from the fence line between Calcutt Boats and neighbouring Napton reservoir. A Colditz style fence complete with stainless steel gates was recently installed to exclude otters from the carp-filled lake. Now the foreign fish eating mink have the reservoir to themselves. Aren’t they lucky?

Calcutt Boats duck house in a pond without water

Calcutt Boats duck house in a pond without water

I hosted my first Discovery Day of the season yesterday. My guest, Paul, booked his day back in December. He told me he wanted to experience a day on a liveaboard narrowboat at the coldest time of the year. He didn’t want to be seduced by a warm day cruising under an azure sky. Although he didn’t show any outward signs, he must have been bitterly disappointed.

The day dawned with a light mist and a seasonal nip in the air. After checking the day’s weather report, Paul arrived carrying nothing more substantial than a light jacket. Standing still on the back of a narrowboat for hours on end twitching an arm occasionally to guide the craft around gentle turns can be a cold affair. I considered offering him a coat, but I didn’t need to worry. A warm sun burned the mist off by mid-morning. Paul stood comfortably at the helm for the afternoon session in a tee shirt and shorts. In February. In England. The weather has gone mad.

Well stocked with coal for a winter we haven't had

Well stocked with coal for a winter we haven’t had

I’m back on our dump barge mooring today, sitting in Orient’s back cabin with the doors wide open. The marina has been an unusual hive of activity for this time of the year. Calcutt Bottom lock behind me has been busy for most of the day as local boaters seized the chance to do a little fair weather boating. They need to make the most of this early season opportunity. If the current warm weather and clear skies continue, the network will struggle to remain fully operational. We need rain and plenty of it if we want to avoid summer lock closures and restrictions. Brits begging for rain in England? It’s not a common request.

The forecast for the week ahead is for lots more sun. Narrowboat owners and daffodils will be out in force. I’ll be working beside the Grand Union canal watching happy boaters chug along wishing that I was one of them.

Discovery Day Update

I welcomed Orient’s first Discovery Day guest on Saturday. Aspiring liveaboard boater, Paul, joined me for a twelve mile, six lock cruise on the combined Oxford and Grand Union canals. The waterway weaves a fascinating route through some of Warwickshire’s finest scenery. 

We began the day at 8am with a hot drink in front of the glowing coals of Orient’s multi fuel stove. We enjoyed an hour discussing essential bits of onboard kit, rules and etiquette on the network’s watery roads, the true cost of living a life afloat, and any other questions about this wonderful lifestyle Paul wants to throw at me.

Fully refreshed and raring to go, we fired up Orient’s vintage engine. Saturday’s weather was unbelievable; a cloudless blue sky and a sun warm enough to encourage Paul to strip off to tee shirt and shorts for the afternoon cruise back to Calcutt.  Even though I’ve cruised the Discovery Day route hundreds of times I never tire of it. Buzzards circling overheard during the day, owls swooping low over the canal at dusk, the occasional trembling muntjac kneeling to drink in the offside shallows and, in March, mad hares cavorting in waterside meadows. The route is as fascinating as it is beautiful. The day with Paul passed in a blur. I tied up at the end of the day eager to greet my next guest and the many more to follow through the changing seasons.

If you want a break from all this Brexit nonsense and escape the stresses and strains of modern day life for a while, come and join me for an idyllic day on the cut. I promise you a truly relaxing day out filled with answers to all your narrowboat questions. You’ll learn how to handle a narrowboat with confidence too. Click on the link above to book your day.

Paul Glover enjoying and unseasonably warm February Discovery Day

Paul Glover enjoying and unseasonably warm February Discovery Day

Graham Davies

Kingswinford, West Midlands

Searching the internet I came across Paul's Discovery Day web site for all aspects of living on a canal boat. I thought, "Wow, that would be ideal for me even though I've been living on a canal boat for 18 months but no experience in cruising the cut"..so i booked a Discovery Day with Paul to gain some experience in cruising. With Paul's experience my confidence grew during the day. Now I'm ready to to cruise the canals.

My son and me had a brilliant Discovery Day. Paul answered all questions regarding living aboard and full instruction cruising the canals. We came away at the end of the day with a lot more experience and confidence.

My Discovery Day showed me a different way of life living aboard. Paul was there to answer any questions regarding all aspects of living aboard and instruction with cruising the cut. I would recommend Paul's Discovery Day who is thinking about buying a canal boat."

Graham was an experienced live aboard boater, but like many people living afloat he used his home as a floating flat. He didn’t have the confidence to explore England’s beautiful and ever changing waterways. A day’s tuition opened up a whole new world to him.

If you’re thinking about buying a narrowboat, regardless of whether it’s for recreational cruising or as a primary home, do yourself a huge favour and begin your boat buying process with enough knowledge and experience to help you make the right choices and decisions. Book a Discovery Day today.

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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.