So on April 1st we left the marina and moved out onto the towpath. We’ve had a lovely month- we’ve made new friends, deepened existing friendships and really benefited from our floating neighbours. So far our travels have brought us to Purton, where the canal is very close to to the River Severn. It’s a beautiful area, with stunning views across to the Forest of Dean, and really only a few metres from the river itself. This area is famous for its boat graveyard, which helps prevent erosion of the banks which might otherwise threaten the canal itself. I must try to get some photos to include because it really is quite lovely.
We are very much enjoying life outside the marina. Each new place brings new views, new bird sounds (this canal is amazing for twitchers!), and new surroundings. The challenges are much less challenging now that the weather is a bit kinder, the days longer and the bridges open all week for ten hours a day. The solar panels work brilliantly at keeping the batteries topped up. The composting loo is easy to use and maintain. The only (very first-world) problem I’ve encountered really are that my fairy lights don’t like the 240V power coming through the inverter, and they strobe so that I can’t use them! And it’s a frustration that we can only get hot water from running the engine; I would love a solution for this.
It’s been fabulous to actually boat along, to remember that lovely sense of freedom and to smell the clean-water smell of the canal. We are looking out for otters now; apparently there have been several sightings and signs of them.
So I took the boat over to the pump-out station a couple of weeks ago, to empty the tank for the last time before we started using the new composting loo. L volunteered to help me: the weather was quite calm, but I hadn’t moved the boat since October and I find that I lose some of my confidence after a while. She was there to help cast off, moor up and to provide moral support. So I got everything ready (so I thought) and the tiller in place, the dog shut in, the engine on and the gears engaged; I cast us off at the stern and L at the bow, which was the end nearest the pontoon. As we reversed away, she said suddenly, “Did you unplug your shoreline?”
That moment when your stomach turns over and then drops like a stone. No. I hadn’t.
I put the boat forward back to the pontoon and L gathered up the lead, which had been pulled right out of the plug socket. We carried on with the job of steering across the marina, reversing into the service bay, sorting out the payments and so on; an hour or so later we were back and tying up (I reversed in this time, as it’s slightly easier to come out forwards than backwards. It also makes a shorter journey for carrying things in through the main stern door- though a longer trip with coal and wood, which both live in the well deck). When we inspected the electric bollard, we found that a large piece of the plastic had been ripped off, exposing the wires inside. Sadly, I’d just pushed my topup card in: the meter was reading an accurate total, but the plug itself wasn’t working at all. I covered the top of the pillar with a plastic bag to stop water getting in, tied it on with some string and nervously rang the office to confess what I’d done.
“You’re not the first,” said C, laconically. “And I doubt you’ll be the last.”
As a result I’ve been two weeks on battery power and solar power. It’s been fine. Small irritations, no more than that, but good to know before we go out on the cut in April:
there’s no way of heating water without running the engine, even though when it’s fine the solar panels keep the batteries nicely topped up- irritating because it’d be nice to avoid running the engine every day. Perhaps I should look at getting a generator- but I’m not sure that’s any better.
my fairy lights don’t like the inverter- it can’t be a pure sine wave one- and they behave like disco strobe lights when I try to use them.
Anyway, the batteries have coped well with the systems and it isn’t too arduous to make sure I run the engine each day. I’ll be glad when we can plug back in and use the immersion heater and the fairy lights in the lounge though (hmmm, priorities…)
The worst thing and the most annoying thing- because it was so totally avoidable- is knowing I’ll be billed for the new bollard. An avoidable expense. Grrrrrr.
I thought it’d be good to list a few pros and cons of boaty life. Anyone looking for a few things to consider if they’re thinking of moving onto a boat could have a read through. These aren’t in any order of importance but in the order they occurred to me!
Contact with the outdoors. Even at this point in the year, when it’s dark by 4:20 and often dank, dreary, and miserable, we are aware of the seasons, the weather and the cycle of Nature. Temperatures in houses can feel uncomfortably warm at night. Outdoor temperatures, and morning ones on the boat, can be surprisingly acceptable. I love having this contact with the outdoors and September was hard because I was suddenly spending hours and hours indoors instead of outside, as over the whole summer. We don’t sit out much at the moment (all the seats are damp!) but we do walk and cycle when we’re not at school and work, even just over to the block to do washing or use the showers or the loos. When you do this routinely, you also see beauty as part of your routine. Mist rising off the water. The smoke from a flue hanging in the still air. Sunrise. Sunset. Moonrise. Enormous skies, down here on the flats near the river. We have little traffic noise, no neighbour noise. There’s a tawny owl nearby who we hear more regularly than our neighbours.
Community. We’re massively supported by our quiet neighbours. People are always willing to chat- or not to. To advise. To help. To lend tools and equipment, onions and eggs. Check your battery charger. Steer you back to safety when the wind takes you broadside and you get stuck somewhere you don’t want to be. To make tea or drink gin with you. Help you change your tiller handle when you accidentally break it on a plastic boat, while you were trying to leave your berth on a windy day. One of our neighbours plays the harmonica and the sounds drift gently across sometimes adding a very filmic vibe to living here. Another neighbour plays folk guitar at the local pub. I’m invited to pub quizzes and to swimming (I can’t often go because of Boat Girl, but it’s very nice to be asked). Boat Girl has many friends who look out for her- old, young, human, dog and cat. It’s a real village.
Friends. There’s Single Dad, who likes to do things with us when his boys are around. He gave us a canoe which I really must get a paddle for! There’s Single Mum, whose daughter and Boat Girl are great friends. Single Mum and I are something of kindred spirits, I think- she’s a real friend to us. There’s B, who does joinery and fits kitchens. I want her to come and make mine better, but I’m delighted to have met her properly because she’s another kindred spirit. We’ve shared a couple of drinks once or twice and had a good natter. Then there’s Tattooed Bloke who came and drank a lot on my boat a number of times over the summer, but who’s been busier of late with a new job and some courses. We’re considering a Boxing Day festive drink. In fact I’m hoping to have a festive drink with most of these guys. That’s without even mentioning our other friends, the bird watcher, the older people who treat me almost like a daughter, the guys who look after our maintenance and the familiar faces who nod and smile when we pass.
Nature. We see tons of birds- a couple of weeks back we were late for school because Boat Girl spotted a kingfisher sitting on a post not three metres from our window, and then moments later we saw a grey wagtail using the dead nettles to get down to the edge of the water. I don’t know what it was doing- having a drink maybe, or looking for spiders and aphids or something? It was a gorgeous bird though, really beautiful. Herons are common for us and we’ve seen a family of cygnets grow up to, by now, be almost adult birds, with their white feathers dominating the greyish-brown ones. We also see a huge number of fish- perch, rudd, bream, and even pike hanging in the water just outside the kitchen window.
Cosy times. I love my boat, its cosy saloon with the stove, the gorgeous look of it. I love feeling the slight rock as I get into bed and I tie my ropes slightly loose just so I can feel that 🙂
Flexibility. I can just get up and go whenever I want to- to be alone, to be with friends, to go to the pub for a meal, to change the scene or to change the neighbours.
Sustainability. We are both far more conscious of the water we’re using, the lights we’re leaving on. With grey water going straight into the canal, you can’t just buy any old washing up liquid or soap full of perfumes and parabens. You have to get something biodegradable, that doesn’t harm the ecosystem. We’re also getting a composting loo to further reduce our dependency on marina facilities and our use of potable water for unnecessary purposes (more about that another time!).
With every good comes some bad, so for the purposes of balance…
It’s harder work. You have to be conscious of the water you’re using- how often do you want to fill the well? (Equally, how long do you want your water to sit in the tank?) You have to be conscious of heating the space- if you’re out all day do you leave the fire in with coal, or do you light it from scratch each evening? You consider your batteries. They need charging up every time you use your lights, or the shower pump, or the water pump to any of the taps. In the marina you can connect to shoreline power but on the canal you have to run the engine. You think about when you use the loo, when to charge your phone (can you do it at work?), whether to watch a DVD or read a book instead. Things we take for granted on land all have much greater impact on a boat. (This could be a positive instead- I do think if more of us had to think in this way, we’d be getting somewhere faster than we are at present…)
Sometimes it’s a pain being in such a small space. There’s nowhere to put things (or we have too many things). Guests have to be carefully considered. At present we can’t eat at a table, though I’d like us to. We just don’t have a suitable space at the moment.
Things do break quite regularly. I had to buy a new battery charger last week. Luckily for me, my friend fitted it and didn’t charge me to do that (see “community” and “friends” above). But in August it was the diesel polish; in February it’s the dry dock and blacking (and hopefully nothing else!). There’s always something to pay for.
Heavy, prolonged rain induces mild anxiety. Where will the water get in?
Cold weather brings a different water problem: condensation. We’ve got the heater but Aussie Boater says we should have asked for a dehumidifier as well; it pumps out the heat while sucking the wet, she says…
Single handing makes mooring really quite tricky at times. Windy weather is particularly challenging. Community helps but sometimes there’s really no-one around and you have to cope on your own.
Changing the gas.*
I think that’s really it for the cons. At the moment I have to say I wouldn’t go back. Every day I feel more ‘boaty’ and I miss it more when I stay on land. I feel it’s a positive choice I’m making, where maybe back in February when I started looking, it felt more Hobson’s choice or making the best of a bad hand. I feel like Boat Girl and I both benefit enormously from it. The list of pros massively outweighs the list of cons- for us, for now. Never say never, I suppose, but I’m happy to be boaty.
I can’t believe it’s been so long. And a lot’s happened: Boatgirl learned to ride her bike, taking nine days (no stabilisers). She quickly managed to cycle several kilometers and is now confident and stable- a true cyclist!
We did lots of lovely things in the summer: watching Morris dancers outside the pub, pint of cider in hand; a festival or two; a camping trip or three. However it wasn’t until autumn started that we managed to get out on the cut- I had a diesel leak into the engine bilge (a separate section to the main stern bilge, luckily, so diesel wasn’t pumped out into the canal when I pumped the bilge). I also needed my diesel polishing- who knew that you can polish diesel? Anyway, when they started the job my diesel was so gunky that it broke the filter, so there was a delay while they fixed it. There was a leaky return pipe. There was a pressure outlet from the calorifier dripping into the bilge which should have been routed to the outside, so they did that, too. I now have a bitumen-lined bilge which is bone dry, and shiny red diesel with no bugs inside it!
The guys also fitted my solar panels. I’m so pleased, these things are efficient enough that I’ve managed to charge my phone overnight! Even now, in November, the batteries are fully charged when I get home (even though I’m not convinced my battery charger is now working- it used to make a lot of whirring noises and now it’s silent.). Two 100W monocrystalline panels. Even out on the towpath, with the awful cheap fridge I’ve (still) got, I could go out and leave the inverter on and come back to charged batteries. The only thing I can’t do is run the immersion, so at the moment I still need to run the engine to heat the water- it’s progress though!
It’s true that boating’s expensive. The work on the engine plus the panels cost me the best part of a grand, and I’ve just booked dry dock and blacking for February- that’ll be another nearly £1500. I’m trying to save, but life likes to keep us on our toes, so we had a car repair bill last month, and Christmas is coming, and…
But to be honest, living on the boat I feel so rich. So very blessed in our lives: I wake up and climb out into the dawn and feel incredibly thankful that this is my life, my place. I wouldn’t swap it now- well, maybe I’d grab a bit of bank to put a shed on with a decent kitchen, and a couple of chickens! But I feel the boaty life is for me now. Boat Girl saw me deleting an email from Rightmove recently- I haven’t cancelled my updates, I really must- “Mummy, are you looking for a house for us?” she asked. “No,” I said, “would you like me to?”
“No,” she said. “I like our boat.”
She’s not the only one. Everyone who’s been aboard has fallen for her (despite our clutter. Or maybe they’re very kind liars!) and some of the children at school have been desperately imagining what it might be like. Some of them have found out, but we can’t invite people when it’s wet- only in the dry weather. It would have to be a fairly linear party otherwise!
It’s a wonderful lifestyle. I’m missing my outdoor time now that I’m back at work. Autumn here is stunning. The towpath was calm and quiet and peaceful. We started needing a fire in in the evenings, despite the warm days; I don’t mind those chores, the lifting and carrying and sweeping, I relish them for the practical and immediate value they have in warming us, and in the sensual value of the smell of woodsmoke curling from the chimney, the lovely fragrance lightly perfuming our hair and clothes.
We get lovely early-morning mists, we’ve had heaps of blackberries, hips and haws and mellow fruitfulness, and the gorgeous trees in their colours, all accompanied by the incomparable smell of autumn. Last night we had a little Hallowe’en party/ Autumn celebration for some of the boat children and a few from school, with soup and sausages and buckwheat pancakes, cooked partly over the fire bowl and partly in my little kitchen. The dew came down suddenly, with the darkness at five o’clock, after what had been a mellow and golden afternoon, but that was perfect for the celebration. The children loved it, and as we went to bed, our pumpkins guarded us from the spirits wandering the world of the living…
C and her family once again came to my rescue, giving up their bank holiday to help me down the lower part of the Avon Navigation to Tewkesbury. With the three children helping and hindering (it varies according to how recently they’ve been fed, and how close it is to bedtime) and swapping clothes (don’t ask), we got from Evesham to Pershore on the first afternoon- a short journey by road, but a good four hours by boat. The locks were quite unmemorable, although I still don’t like the weirs!
On the following day it was me and C and Boat Girl (her disappointment at not getting a sleepover with C’s children was tempered by the realisation that we would be an all-female party on board Dreams… We took a little time getting started because of Pershore Lock, but that was probably the easiest one of the day. There were some beautiful stretches of countryside (pics to follow) but the wind picked up, and some of the lock entrances were not terribly straightforward: the warning and information signs are very small and quite close to the lock/weir partings, so there isn’t always a lot of notice of which side you’re making for, or when you need to turn. At Nafford we had a difficult time mooring up to open the gates and the bridge across, and we were disconcerted to see this boat, which came to grief in the recent high waters; its present was quite off-putting:
I later heard its story and was happy to hear that nobody was on board at the time, although some poor people lost their boat which is always sad.
Anyway, after that the last lock of the day was the trickiest but because of the wind rather than anything else. A boat was already in the lock as we approached, but slowing down and reversing to allow them out, we were almost blown into the plastic (GRP/fibreglass) boats moored directly above. We got turned around and had to perform the same manoeuvre again (though knowing what to do meant it was much less stressful than it was the last time) and nearly went across to the tubs again….
After that it was straightforward to the marina, and we tied up on the visitors’ pontoon as it was too windy for us to risk trying to manoeuvre inside the basin (we were told!). Tewkesbury is a nice marina and very smart. We could hear ewes and lambs calling to each other as we went to sleep- always a soporific sound for me, since I was little. It was also a relief to know I was at the end of the Avon, that there was just one more river to navigate, and that we were at last in the right county.
So on Sunday, it dawned rainy, but there was blue sky on the horizon and after my early start with the ducks and swans, I was able to have a couple of cups of coffee and be raring to go. I drove down to Evesham to meet Ian (the canal car shuffle means leaving one vehicle at your destination point, and another at your starting point, then using the one to get back to the other). I was early and wandered about the little marina, which is small and quiet, with the wide river meandering past. It looks a nice place to be.
Back in Stratford, we met J and boarded Dreams, set sail and got ourselves onto the Avon. The Avon Lock is the most public one I’ve done but it was pretty straightforward and we all managed to get back onboard without falling in, emptying the pound, hanging the boat up on the cill or any of the other disasters which could happen. I remembered just in time that I hadn’t sorted the anchor out, so with J at the helm Ian and I fixed the rope to the chain and the chain to the anchor point. Phew. If we needed it, it would be more than a huge and heavy ornament. The sun was shining and at the Colin P. Witter Lock, opposite Holy Trinity Church, we picked up a lock partner to go down with (although they stayed on their boat and allowed us to do all the work on the lock… don’t worry, we allowed them to set a lock a bit further down!).
Boating on the river was really quite lovely. The town quickly fell behind us and apart from the odd glimpse of a marathon runner, there was very little urbanisation along the Avon. Several amazing, footballers-wives type houses, with boathouses and rolling lawns mown into perfect stripes- but very little other habitation. Ian played a bit of guitar and it was a perfect, lazy-Sunday mood. However, despite the lazy appearance, the flow of the river is really quite swift and we fell foul of this near Welford.
It was lunchtime and, thinking I’d be shouting the boys a pub lunch, I hadn’t brought more than crisps. The decision was made to push on rather than moor up for lunch, with the aim of eating properly in Evesham by 3pm as I’d been told by several different people that the journey was around 4-6 hours, and we left at 10:30. So Ian volunteered to hop off and run into the village to get some sandwiches, then meet us at the lock to get back on board. This he did, with perfect timing, but the lock was on the opposite bank to him and there was no bridge. J and I thought we’d pull in to pick him up so he made his way to a point from which he could jump onboard- but by the time he had done so, the stern, midstream, had been caught and pushed by the current in front of the bows… we were facing the wrong way. We attempted to perform the same manoeuvre in reverse but doing it on purpose was much harder than doing it accidentally had been.
Hunger is never a good companion to stress. Thankfully Ian had made it back with a selection of crisps, sandwiches, nuts and Scotch eggs and we tucked in while we debated what to do. The area above the weir was wider and we eventually decided to go back upstream, through the lock and turn around above it. This we did with no real problems- though Ian, on the bow, got seriously brambled!
Still, after that little excitement we had quite plain sailing to Evesham. It was, however, a lot further than I’d been led to believe, and we didn’t arrive until half past seven. Luckily Boat Girl had stayed with her father (she’d been going to come, but when I told her that neither Ian nor J were bringing any children to entertain her, she changed her mind) and was put to bed at home on time. She’d have been bored- for little ones, too small to work the locks and too short to see and steer, boating isn’t very interesting in itself.
The weirs are quite a thing. Although they are signed, you often don’t get much of a sight of the sign until it’s the moment to make the manoeuvre into the lock cut, and many of the weirs are unprotected so if you’re inattentive, or inexperienced, it would be very easy to come to grief. Basically the river will split into two, with one part being the more natural course with the weir, and the other part being canalised with a lock. The river locks are big- wide enough for three narrowboats- and lined with metal, and the gates are also metal rather than then brick walls and wooden gates you get on the canals. The drop isn’t always deep but the lock chambers themselves are quite deep and menacing-looking (to me). As if you could enter Mordor through them! Being so large they take a big effort to open, although the paddle mechanisms are well looked after in general. As the river reunites under the lock and weir, the stream is obviously much faster for a while and you have to factor this into your navigation, especially with some of the channels which have quite a turn to enter or leave. You also need to be aware of the pull of the weir at the top- I think if you were running on amber boards you could have a few hairy moments.
During the nine hours of navigation, we spotted quite a bit of wildlife: a heron, which had caught an eel; several swans, one of which wanted to take on Dreams in a fight; and these little cuties:
J and Ian also spotted a kingfisher, but I missed it because I was getting the drinks from below- so here’s a picture of that!
I’m incredibly grateful to Ian and J, they were calm and collected when I threatened to diva off and have an attack of grumpiness or back-seat-helmsmanship and they didn’t bail out when the day stretched out and out and they remained unfed. I definitely owe them both a meal and a pint or several!
I appealed on Facebook this week for people who fancied a bit of boating. Out of the blue my friend I offered his help for Sunday- so on Saturday I went back up to Stratford to check on Dreams. I’d had an Overheard-in-Waitrose sort of morning (yoga, followed by a falafel wrap bought in Stroud’s farmers’ market) and I called in at Evesham Marina on the way up to confirm my mooring for the Sunday evening and the week. Noel suggested there might be the possibility of the battery centre having a look at the batteries while she’s moored there, so I’m crossing my fingers on that. I got to Stratford at around 12 and as it was Shakespeare’s birthday celebrations there was nowhere to park so I left the car in the retail park and walked into the centre. I met up with my friend N and her two children, who wanted to see the boat- we had a lovely catch-up and a cup of tea, then we wandered around to the information centre to get my Avon licence (and a Stratford Canal badge for the door). N and the girls had to go after that so I had an early tea at the Red Lion, put up my new badge (no pictures, sorry!) and went to bed at half past eight.
A female duck was quacking non-stop from about 6pm and I’m sure she quacked all night long. I don’t know whether she’d lost a clutch of eggs or chicks- I’ve seen a rat climbing the trees opposite the mooring, so it’s entirely possible. I woke up at half past eleven at the climax of the fireworks show (it was lovely, what I saw of it) and she was still quacking, and she was still quacking at 5:30 the following morning when the swans both sprinted along the canal by Dreams slapping their wings on the water- also very noisy. At this point I gave up and got up for some coffee!