I wrote my last blog post at the beginning of March, shortly before the world closed down to slow the spread of Covid-19. The last three months have been a traumatic time for many as they lost freedom, livelihoods and lives. Please accept my sympathy and condolences if you have suffered financial hardship or the loss of a loved one. We live in a time of uncertainty, frustration and unrest, hoping that the ‘new normal’ will be normal enough to allow the global economy and the world’s population to flourish. But not everyone has found the last three months taxing.
I haven’t written anything for the site recently for two reasons. Firstly, with the canal network locked down and the majority of boats confined to marina moorings, I haven’t had anything exciting or constructive to document. Secondly and, more importantly, I haven’t felt comfortable writing about my circumstances.
My blog post notification email goes out to 5,000 inland waterways enthusiasts. Some are statistically likely to have lost a family member to coronavirus or know someone who has. My intention is not to make light of this devastating pandemic or the damage done to the economy by worldwide restrictions on trade and personal movement. Recovery from the virus and the attempts to control it will take many years. But life for some hasn’t been bad at all.
The pandemic has inconvenienced me rather than caused me hardship. Like most waterways services, my Discovery Day familiarisation and training cruises had to stop in March. I missed but didn’t need the income from these days. I missed the company of people like you more than money. I managed during the lockdown’s dark days because I had another financial string to my bow. Thanks to the ever generous and considerate Preen family who own and control Calcutt Boats, I continued to work maintaining the company’s beautiful forty acres.
Rather than struggle during these last few months, I have thrived. Forgive me for saying this if you are struggling with financial or physical loss or a feeling of isolation or depression, but England’s national lockdown has bracketed one of the happiest periods of my life.
Boaters are a peculiar bunch. They are both gregarious and insular, as happy to party with new friends as they are to spend extended periods alone. Alone but not lonely. I am one of those fortunate people.
Calcutt Boats furloughed most employees but retained a skeleton staff to maintain the sprawling site. My job has been to keep forty acres of spring growth in check. Several of those acres are designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Three meadows filled with more varieties of wildflowers than half a dozen naked boaters can count on their exposed extremities. We have a lot of different wildflowers here and most of them are at their colourful best at this time of the year.
My days have involved gentle mowing and trimming on a private estate in a beautiful corner of rural Warwickshire, often under a cloudless and quiet blue sky. Another lockdown bonus, for me, has been the absence of noisy aircraft roaring to and from Birmingham and East Midlands airports. The planes have been replaced by circling buzzards, honking geese and the occasional hawk. A red kite with its distinctive forked tail graced us with its presence one afternoon. I feel blessed to live here.
With the site closed to boat owners in the lockdown’s early weeks, our abundant wildlife became increasingly bold. A fox pack regularly sprinkled our lawn with half-chewed bones, timid muntjac deer flitted through the shadows of our seven-acre wood, and berry-filled badger droppings littered the marina banks. Our rabbits did what rabbits do, untroubled by meddlesome people. Bobbing white tails filled the woodland fringes at dusk prompting excited yapping from lead-restrained pooches.
Life has changed for me recently. But, unlike the restricted lives of much of our country’s population, my life has changed for the better.
Those of us still working at the marina also live here. We’ve worked together and rarely left the site. I’ve made just three brief visits to our local village store in the last three months. Being anti-social most of the time has its advantages. Self-isolation is a natural state.
We’ve worked together, so we’ve socialised together too. I’m sure that some would argue that we’ve been breaking the lockdown guidelines. However, when I see media coverage of protesters standing shoulder to shoulder or thousands of half-naked sun worshipers wedged together on crowded beaches, quite frankly I don’t give a shit.
So we’ve barbecued, drunk to excess, argued, debated and bonded in equal measures. We’ve read and watched reports about society unravelling across the world, and we’ve thanked our collective lucky stars that we live and work on England’s inland waterways network. And we’ve concluded that we’ll be welcoming many more to our happy little band in the coming months.
One of the few positive developments to come out of this global mess has been the realisation that there are millions of people worldwide who don’t need to return to full-time work in a distant office.
Working from home, wherever that home may be, will be the new normal for an increasing number of people. In my immediate circle, two fortunate boaters have told me how their lives have changed for the better. One is a project manager for a new factory somewhere in troubled Trump land. The other is a mental health nurse. Both can now perform most of their duties remotely, all but eliminating tedious travel, and work while they cruise. They are both very happy bunnies.
Living on a narrowboat offers a unique opportunity to explore much of England and parts of Wales at a relaxed pace far away from the stresses and strains of modern-day life. And a well-appointed narrowboat costs much less than the smallest brick and mortar homes.
I read an article in The Telegraph recently which reported that the cheapest property in London in 2015 was a studio flat in Clapham. You didn’t get much of a home for your hard-earned cash—a claustrophobic space without a view, garden or any sense of tranquillity. However, the seventy-five thousand pounds needed to buy the Clapham float will buy you a stunning narrowboat. Orient, my pride and joy, cost less than that and is one of the most aesthetically pleasing and comfortable floating living spaces you could wish to call your home.
Narrowboat Experience Days
Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discovery all you need to know about living afloat
Living afloat isn’t for everyone. I’ve written extensively about the downsides of living on a narrowboat. The most recent post is here. However, in light of the worldwide pandemic, living on England’s inland waterways is an increasingly attractive and viable proposition for many.
Social distancing is easy for liveaboard boat owners. Most narrowboat owners moor at least a boat length apart. Towpaths are rarely crowded so avoiding strangers is easy. I’ve read some angry posts on Facebook written by outraged boaters driven to distraction by towpath users. They’re apoplectic at the sight of walkers, joggers and cyclists passing less than two metres from their steel-clad cabins. Why? The virus can’t penetrate metal. The canals and their towpaths offer a safe and aesthetically pleasing playground far away from crowded pubs, streets, parks and beaches.
The playground was filled with the sound of merriment yesterday when the government lifted holiday accommodation restrictions. Hire boat owners through the network have been working flat out to prepare for the late start to this year’s season.
Here at Calcutt Boats, that meant making quite a few changes. There’s a one-way system for both the wharf and the chandlery, more cleaners on hand for changeover days, PPE for wharf staff and video tuition for new hirers. But the hard work has been worthwhile. The office phones are continually ringing as holiday-deprived families book a boat for a few days in paradise. The wharf feels alive once more and echoes with the sounds of happy boater banter.
I’ve been busy with my little boating operation too. If you’re new to this site you may not know about my Discovery Day service for aspiring narrowboat owners. You can discover more about my experience days here and check availability here.
I haven’t hosted training days on Orient since early March, but I’ve joined several new narrowboat owners for training days on boats they’ve recently purchased but haven’t had the confidence to use.
The last of these away day training trips was yesterday. I joined Graham and Maureen on their cosy floating home, September Star, for a cruise on the first day of the coronavirus boating season.
We enjoyed an enchanting cruise on a thin and twisting ribbon of sparkling water between Napton and Braunston junctions. Maureen and Graham grinned like Cheshire cats throughout, supremely happy to have achieved their narrowboat ownership goal.
We passed two dozen hire boat on our travels, crewed by mainly happy holidaymakers. Some looked as though they would have been happier moored immoveably to a grassy bank. Threading twenty tonnes of steel through boat width gaps using a brass bar anchored to a platform sixty feet behind the boat’s bow takes a little practice.
Thanks to Covid-19 precautions, practice for novice narrowboat hirers is now in short supply. “If you want the front of the boat to turn to the right, push the tiller to the left”. That’s all the advice many hire boat company instructors offer before unleashing their quaking charges. This unavoidable response to social distancing requirements means that many novice hire boat crews will be even more unprepared for narrowboat handling than ever before.
The wind buffeted 65′ September Star throughout the day. As we dropped through the Calcutt flight, the breeze strengthened. Calcutt Boats’ marina entrance is a challenge in windy conditions. The weeping willows either side of the narrow opening give boaters a reliable indication of wind speed and direction. The trees looked like Bobby Charlton caught in a wind tunnel as we left the bottom lock. My heart sank, and I was thankful that I stood at the helm of a boat with a powerful engine.
I live on a beautiful boat. The soothing thump of my vintage two-cylinder Lister JP2 turns heads wherever I cruise. But my engine is better equipped for posing than practical boating. Orient’s modest 21hp isn’t enough to get me out of trouble when I need a burst of power. And because of the boat’s deep draught, reversing on shallow canals and marinas is an exercise in frustration. I would have struggled to push Orient through the marina entrance’s howling wind yesterday.
Function over form won the day. September Star’s classic 1.8l BMC pushed us through the narrow gap without a moment’s hesitation. Power without posing. There’s more to life on the cut than owning a pretty boat.
I’ve had a day off today. It hasn’t been a very productive one. I can hear passing boats from my mooring close to both the marina entrance and Calcutt Bottom lock. The wind is blowing even harder than yesterday, so I’ve heard an endless surge of narrowboat engines as helmsmen and women fought a losing battle against the buffeting breeze. The stretch of canal beneath Calcutt Bottom lock was called ‘Windy Corner’ by the old working boatmen for good reason.
My day followed a predictable pattern. I heard the roar of a narrowboat engine and a windblown curse, so I closed my laptop, climbed out of my boat and watched the action. A frustrated boater pushed his bow from the towpath towards the canal centre. The wind blew it back again. He repeated the exercise half a dozen times before climbing wearily onto his stern, ramming his throttle forward and grinding along the concrete canal siding until he reached a stand of trees and respite from the wind. As soon as the hapless boater careened around the first bend, I returned to my work until the next helmsman announced himself. Ah, the simple joys of living afloat!
I gave up gongoozling for a spell to help a couple of friends through the flight. Here’s a friendly warning for you. Boating is an addiction. Many boat owners moored near a flight of locks set out on a canalside walk equipped with a windlass. They can’t help themselves. Boating is fun, and lock passages offer an opportunity to talk to people who share a passion for the great outdoors. Buy a boat, and you’ll probably join this happy band.
I’m making the most of my lazy windlass-waving Sunday. It’s the last I’ll have for a while. I’ve received a steady stream of enquiries and bookings for my Discovery Day service over the last couple of weeks. My diary is filling for the remainder of the boating season.
I’m looking forward to welcoming the first of those guests into my home next Saturday. Despite having cruised between Napton and Braunston junctions at least three hundred times, I’m looking forward to two more enchanting experiences next weekend. I’ll listen to the dreams and plans of four more narrowboat enthusiasts and hope that I’ll help them in some small way to move towards a more tranquil lifestyle. If you’re an aspiring narrowboat owner maybe, one day, I’ll have the pleasure of your company too.