Tag Archives: Narrowboats

Lock Lore

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A lock near us.

One thing I know for sure about living on a narrowboat in England. A lot of work is involved in maintaining it and cruising on it. If we could simply cruise along the canals, unimpeded by obstacles that get in the way, things would be jolly. Some of those obstacles are natural, while others come in the form of locks and swing bridges.

If all this sounds like boat-speak, you’re right. When I first got into this lifestyle, I knew nothing. And I’m still learning. What is a windlass, you ask? What are gate paddles? What is a pound (not money)? What is a cill? All questions I know you’ve been asking yourself. Expat Larry is here to answer all your queries about narrowboating. If only he had all the answers.

Be that as it may, he knows about locks. Last summer, a few of us spent our days moving other people’s boats from here to there to get work done. Every so many years, the bottoms of our boats need to be blacked. This is a process that uses some form of bitumen that is applied with brushes and rollers to the hull that first has to be blasted clean of the old black. The blacking protects the bottom of the narrowboat’s hull. Most people pay to have it done. Our boat is due this year and we’ve decided to do it ourselves.

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One of the boats we moved in a lock.

You can’t just do it any old place. Some marinas have facilities for maintenance. Ours doesn’t, so it’s off to places north or south to do the work. In our case, last summer, a few people needed work done and some of us provided the crew to get them there and back. We became the lock crew. And we were good. 2 of us got the lock ready for the boat to go in, then walked to the next lock to get it ready. The other 2 crew waited until the boat left the lock and closed it up for the next boat that would eventually come along. We had our system.

But, if you can share the lock with another boat, all the better. Locks on the Grand Union Canal (where we live) are double locks….2 narrowboats or 1 widebeam. If you can travel in 2s, you save water, a vanishing commodity in the canals these days. You’d never think that living in a country known for its abundance of rainy days. Apparently, it’s the wrong type of ground in this country to retain all that rain water. Don’t worry about it or try to figure it out. I never do.

Approaching the low side of a lock. Two of the intrepeid crew wait to open the gates to let us in.

Approaching the low end of a lock. Two of the intrepid crew ready to open the gates to let the boat in.

So, here we are, a couple of locks down the way on one of the trips, when we meet up with a couple on one of those what we call plastic boats, the kind you find on lakes. Anyway, the folks navigating this craft were, well, not quite entirely with us if you know what I mean. They were away with the fairies, on some kind of mind expanding substance, not a care in the world. “Where you heading to my friend?” I asked after about the 3rd lock. “Huh? Heading to? Uh….not sure. What direction is this?” “South” I said. “South? What direction to Birmingham?” he asked. “North” I said. “Oh yeah? I guess we’re going the wrong way. ” “I guess. What’re you going to do?”

He just shrugged his shoulders. He insisted on pulling his boat into the lock rather than cruising in. It took a lot longer. He said he was afraid the boat we were moving would crush his if he drove in. No logic there, especially since he had fenders the size of a pilates ball. But he kept up this odd behaviour, heading in the wrong direction with no plan. He decided to moor up after the next lock anyway. Thank da Lawd.

By the end of the summer, we became the best lock crew anyone could hope to acquire. We decided not to get back on the boat between locks as we can walk faster than the boats are allowed to go on the canals. In total, we walked about 50 miles that summer, rain or shine. Many locks and many good laughs. And quite a feat considering every one of the lock crew have bad knees and bad backs. Brave bunch….but no medals.

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Lock gates open, ready for the boat to enter.

We got to know each lock very well along this stretch of the canal. Some of the paddles are buggers to open and the gates are heavier than hell to open and close. Some leak badly while others are just plain old and falling apart. This is why we have the CRC, the Canal and River Trust. They are the organisation that looks after the canals, most of them anyway. And the locks.

The locks are getting older too. Some of the gates are from the later part of the 19th century and early 20th. They have been serviced here and there, but there are a lot of them and budgets don’t allow for a complete overhaul of the system. Well, budgets and money wasted on ridiculous salaries for the top dogs and some frivolous projects. It seems the only time locks get serviced is when they completely fail, through age, overuse and vandalism….mostly age.

It was a relief when news came that a lock near us, that has been leaking badly, was going to be fixed. The notices went up and then the materials needed began appearing. Barges with water pumps and cranes then appeared and finally the steel fencing to keep us out and the workers in went up. The work began. The top gates were replaced and the bottom gates repaired. What fascinated me was the junk on the bottom of the lock once the water had been drained away. Treasures galore, mostly of metal that had fallen off boats over the years and tossed in by locals….like car hub caps and road signs of one type or other.

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Stuff at the bottom of our local lock.

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Preparing the lock for work.

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The new gates at the top of the lock.

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Finishing things off in the repaired lock.

This work went on for a few days. On one of those days, I was walking along the towpath to shop at the local Sainsbury’s (Supermarket) and noticed a narrowboat inching up to the barrier put up to shut off the lock. An older gentleman, who had the demeanor of an original boater, complete with old, unattended boat, stood at the tiller, grumbling to himself.

I stopped and stated the bleeding obvious. “The lock is closed for repair” I said. “I can see that” said he of the Cut. “Did you check the online lock closure reports?” I asked. “Don’t have a computer” he said. “Did you see any of the signs as you were coming along?” I inquired. “There’s always signs for this and that” he said, “But I didn’t see any of them.” I asked the next obvious question, “Did anyone along the way warn you this lock was closed?” “Yeah” he said, “A few people did, but I didn’t believe them.”

He did now.

 

 

Mad March in the Marina.

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Mad March in the Marina.
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Snow between boats on the first day.

You’d think all my years living in Canada would have prepared me for winter weather in England. Well….it didn’t. My 12 years living over here have turned me into a giant wuss. All I’ve had to do is get used to the wind and rain. I don’t mind rain. The wind I could do without, those 70mph winds that is. Even 50mph winds become tiresome. And I expect some cold weather and maybe a dusting of snow when it’s wintertime. But this? In March?

It all began on a Monday near the end of February, leading into March. Calls for big snow and ice storms for Britain, coming in from Russia. They don’t need nuclear weapons. Just send us your weather. Usually, the media plays up this kind of doomsday weather. Everyone knows that snow, any snow, cripples the infrastructure of Britain, especially the south of England. So when the weather gurus (Met Office) get it right, all hell breaks loose. Mostly, it hits in Scotland. Not this time.

Right about now, all my compatriots in Canada are laughing their collective faces off because of our whining and moaning about a little bit of snow. But this time it was serious. High winds, drifting snow, ice rain and ice pellets, the lot. All for several days. As I write this on the 2nd of March, the snow continues to fall. My best friend and I braved our way to Sainsbury’s this afternoon for a few needed comestibles and returned in a hail of pellet-like snow balls whipping our faces and pummeling our bodies.

It all adds credence to the old saying about March weather, ‘In like a lion and out like a lamb’ and vice versa. In like a rampaging elephant here. For the south of England anyway. Kids love it. Schools are cancelled, snowmen made, sleds and toboggans dusted off and hot chocolate served. Unless you have to drive, it’s very pretty out there.

 

Wildlife seems confused on stormy winter days. Some ducks sit on the frozen surface of the marina or on the cut wondering where the water went. Swans and geese slide around like very bad skaters. Finding shelter isn’t easy for these foul. Good thing they have feathers and all that down. Nature’s way of looking after the defenceless.

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Birds on ice.

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The frozen marina.

Here in the marina for we mammals, things go on as usual except that getting on and off the boat can be tricky. More on that in a moment. But the thing that gets used overtime is the old solid fuel burning stove. Day and night we stoke the fire and keep things positively cosy in this 60 foot long, 6.6 feet wide narrowboat. This week we decided to burn wood. Usually it’s coal, but that blows back when it’s very windy and has a thick choking quality to it. So wood.

We don’t live out on the cut where boaters gather up any wood they can find along the towpath from felled trees and tree branches to broken fence posts. Wooden pallets (skids) are a favourite if they can be obtained. A few people buy peat to burn. Smells terrible. The little shop in the marina sells wood. Not cheap but dry and useable. Wood burns much more quickly than coal. You use a lot more of it. And it smells better. Everyone has a preference.

We had to learn about coal too. Some burns more slowly but produces more ash. The one we use burns more quickly but is cleaner. There are a lot of things to learn when you go from a regular house to a boat. Keeping warm in the winter is a big one. It’s surprising how warm these boats get when the stove is on with the central heating. We have that too. It’s run off the boat’s diesel fuel. Sometimes it gets so warm on the boat, we have to open windows.

No one can figure out who is responsible for spreading salt and grit around the marina when the walkways and jettys become icy. Seems to be up to we boaters. There is a container at one end that contains grit. We help ourselves. Of course you have to get to it first. And therein lies the problem on very slippery days.

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Snow at night. 5 inches this time.

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Car covered in snow in the marina.

 

And so back to that thing I mentioned about it being slippery getting on and off the boat on such days. My best friend had a meeting in London and I was left to do the laundry. She slipped on the jetty as she got off the boat, but walked off to the train station unscathed. I got off the boat to check on the laundry and slipped on the same spot. This time, I was heading into the water….the very cold, icy water.

But I was determined not to fall in all the way. Only one leg went in. On the way down into the abyss, I shot out my arm toward the jetty and threw my other leg back toward the boat. The result? A badly bruised and wrenched right arm and a twisted left leg. I was stuck. I couldn’t move. And I was in pain.

To the rescue, my good neighbour Eddie the Brave. He heard the thud as I collapsed between boat and jetty. Out he came and gingerly lifted me up, battered and bruised and shaken but very much alive. Instead of doing the smart thing, I thanked Eddie and continued on to the laundry room, sloshing along on my soaked and frozen leg. Stupid boy.

When I got back to the boat, I changed into dry jeans. I was still a little bit in shock but surprised I felt as good as I did….that is until the next day. Amazing what stiffens and shows up overnight. Stupid boy. Even after all that, the snow continued. A crazy week in March. Bring on Spring.

 

Sad Goodbyes

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Sad Goodbyes

You get used to people being around. If they’re nice people, you even enjoy running into them here and there. In this day of neighbours who never speak or not even knowing your neighbour, it’s refreshing to live in a community that cares for every person in and around that community.  That doesn’t mean everyone gets involved in caring. Some don’t mind being cared for, they just don’t get involved. But, if you have enough people who care, even one, then community has a chance.

In our old neighbourhood in Kent, we hardly knew anyone on the street. Even when we did meet some to say hello, that would be the extent of our contact. Not many people there had anything in common with his or her neighbour and, sometimes, there were those who made life miserable on our street. We had a recluse I called Elvis because of his apparent love of the king. Another had kids that screamed all day. Across the street, lived the family from hell and down the way was an old perv whose language would make a sailor blush, as my mum used to say. Mostly, we left each other alone and got on with our lives.

Not so in the boating community. I mean, we have our share of old curmudgeons on the cut who just want to be left alone, but boaters are a special bunch and even the toughest old bird will help another boater in trouble. Out on the cut (boaters name for the canal), people are constantly on the move, but over time end up running into people they’ve passed on any number of occasions, people they have moored near for a time or those they’ve helped over time. Even the times we’ve been out of the marina, we have passed boats we’ve seen before and give the friendly wave and greetings.

Marina life is another animal altogether. You live in close proximity with other boaters for an extended period of time. Some come and go more regularly, but the majority stay and you see them almost every day. Some work, some are retired and others only come to their boat occasionally to do work or go out on the cut for a while. In our marina, we have 12 boats out of 60 that are residential. We 12 live on our boats full-time. Sounds downright Apocalyptic, don’t it? Well, it isn’t, just happens they designate 12 spaces for residential which means we get a post box and a longer, wider jetty than the others and a couple of other perks.

The  other  48 boats are supposed to be leisure, but people still live on them….quietly.  The rules are a bit vague about liveaboards (as they are known), so no one ever really knows who can actually live on their boats and all that jazz. Anyway, beyond our boat (the last in the line of residents) people do live aboard. And we are glad they do because there are some quality folk you love to have around you. Two of these people are Lynn and Keith, longtime residents of this area both off and on a boat.

Lynn used to work for the Dickinson family when this whole area was paper mills and the admin offices attached to them. Keith did the same but was also in the Royal Navy for 9 years, a real sailor and looks like one these days too. Lynn was in the army when they met. Their children were born, grew up and have moved on over the years, some as far away as Australia. Both have long since retired and have enjoyed narrowboating for these past 8 years. Their boat, ‘Eight Bells’ was in the marina when we arrived just over 2 years ago.

The only way I can describe Keith is by his humour. He always has a quip about this and that. When he takes his cassette shitter to be emptied at the Elsan Point, he tells us he’s just going to the Post (Office). And he loves to comment on the weather. That is very English. But one day a woman came to the marina looking for Keith, as it turned out, but didn’t know his name. All she could say to describe him was she was looking for the man who loves to talk about the weather.  Only one person it could be….Keith.

While on duty in the navy, he was chosen to serve the Queen at a military event and practice d endlessly with a silver tray and champagne flute before the big day. When it came, Keith approached her Maj with the tray and the champagne and bowed as he said, “Ma’am”. But the Queen said, “Oh no, I never drink Champagne at lunch.” Keith says he almost said, “Oh shit!” as he turned away, but somehow restrained himself. Great story.

Lynn is a little more subdued, but after a glass of her favourite white wine, she opens right up. She is one of the most pleasant people I have ever encountered on this old earth. Keith is too, of course, but Lynn has a smiling quality about her that can make my day as much as Keith’s quips make me laugh. She is a very patient person in my estimation. We men can be a trial to live with at times….and that’s all I’m going to say about that. A great couple. Love them as we all do in the marina.

Keith’s health has not been the best this year so far. They both said it was time to call it quits and live on land. So, their boat will be taken to a broker next week to be sold and that, as they say, shall be the end of another era. They say they aren’t going far. They’ll return from time to time to see us, but you know what happens. People get busy. But I’ll miss the day-to-day  presence of both of them. Still, they say they are coming to our marina Caribbean night at the beginning of September. Keith quips that he hopes the weather reflects the atmosphere of the soirée.

Today, when I went over to their boat to take the photo you see at the head of this Blog, Keith pulled his blue shirt up over his belly and gave me a cheeky smile. Lynn made him pull it down and told him to behave. They are going to be missed around the marina.

 

Crick 3 Rikky 2

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Crick 3 Rikky 2

I am not in the habit of publishing football (soccer) scores in my Blogs….although Arsenal beat Chelsea 2-1 to win the FA Cup this year (naturally). So, don’t be misled by the title of this Blog. It’s no footy result. But there is a winner involved. And not a likely winner at that. I am referring to the 2 canal/boating events we have attended for the past few years leading to a decision to live aboard one of these fine narrowboat craft.

Both functions occur near the end of May. They basically kick-off the boating season as far as I’m concerned. The first is the Rickmansworth Canal Festival and the other is a week later, the Crick Boat Show. The first is affectionately known as Rikky. “Going to Rikky this year?” We all know what it means. A number of boats went from our marina as it’s only about a 6-7 hour journey by boat (10-15 minutes by car). Every January you have to apply to have your boat there. Only so many boats are selected. Your best chance is to own one of the Historic boats.

A chap we know, who moors his 4 boats near our marina, takes all 4 of his and his partner’s boats to Rikky because every one is a historic boat. The oldest is 134 years old. Lots of upkeep on that one. Another is a pump-out barge. It takes the poo and pee off your boat (if you have a poo tank under your boat….we don’t, we have a cassette and dump it ourselves) and transfers it to tanks on his boat. Where it goes from there I dare not ask. Then he has a boat for living and one for arts and crafts.

The rest of the boats at Rikky are regular boats like ours and some are artisan boats selling everything from cheese to jewellery. Boats are usually 3 abreast, leaving a narrow lane for boats that want to continue cruising. Then there are the artisans on land. The last 2 years we attended, the same bunch sold the same old stuff and the fairground (midway) catered to the young. The food was expensive, as it is where a captive audience is found, though a good variety was offered.

But we didn’t go this year. We had planned to. Just didn’t work out. The weather was dodgy and the rum on our boat tasted good. Besides, we’d been to Rikky the last 2 years, as I said, and the novelty had worn thin. Our good neighbours, Eddie and Mimz decided not to go. Other boat neighbours who had a spot for their boat at Rikky decided to forego the pleasure and so we all stayed put, looking at our gardens by the boat and drinking our rum.

We had tickets for the next Sunday at the Crick Boat Show. We had decided with Eddie and Mimz to go together and stay overnight, returning on Bank Holiday Monday. Crick’s boat show is a more practical event. You can get stuff for your boat, not just clothing, baubles and beads, jewellery and crafts. And you can get that frivolous stuff too. Boats to view and experts to talk to, a beer tent and entertainment all day. All of the acts were stirling. Very folky and very good.

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We had been for the past 2 years and had originally decided not to go this year, but we had questions for the stove man and other marina representatives there and a gripe with the Thetford cassette toilet guy. “Why,” I asked, “did you put plastic wheels on the cassettes (where the poop and pee go)?” Info brackets there dear reader….I didn’t actually say poop and pee.

He looked at me oddly. “Well,” he said, “it seems to be a practical solution to getting your cassette to the Elsan point.”

“To what?” I asked, “What solution? You’ve put on wheels that have to be cleaned off before you put the cassette back under the toilet.”

“Why would you have to do that?” he asks, as if bubbles were floating out of my ears from my brain.

“Because none of our marinas or towpaths have carpeted walkways. It’s all grit and shit and you can’t put that in the tray below the toilet.”

“Well, it can’t take that long to clean,” he said. “Just a quick wipe I’m sure.”

“That’s not the point.” I  retorted, clearly annoyed that he didn’t understand, as most English people working in retail or the public sector suffer from, and ready to punch the twit in the nose. “Look, we use trolleys with bungee cords to get the cassettes to the Elsan point and back. We don’t need wheels.”

“Is that the only complaint?” he asked, a little smugly I thought.

“As a matter of fact, no.” I said, oh so politely with an edge. “Because you put wheels on the damned thing, it cuts back capacity in the cassette.”

“Only by a half litre.” he replied.

Now I was getting riled up (North American for pissed off). “Look,” I began, “when you have to empty the damned things, that extra half litre gives you that extra time between cleanings! We don’t want wheels, we want capacity!!!”

All he said was, “Sorry.” and turned to the next customer. Useless twit.

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The rest of Crick went well. It was a very hot and humid day. Even the beer tent was more like entering a sauna than anything remotely comfortable. But my cold pale ale went down very well. And the music was good. All the marquees were hot. The poor folk working at the booths were wrung out. No fans in these large tents. Usually the weather during the boat show is miserable. Not today or the day before apparently.

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The thing I look forward to the most at the boat show is the giveaways. Cloth bags filled with boating trinkets and such. A little info sheet on the product offered….sure….but pens and sweets, water bottles, boater key fobs, even a small torch (flashlight). I have a collection of boating cloth bags I cherish. Never use them but I love them.

Just one snag. We were in the Canal and River Trust (CRT) members tent and CRT cloth bags with water bottles  were laying on a table. I took one for me and one for my best friend. No one was around to stop us. Then I saw them. Little gloss covered books on canal walking paths. I took one.

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“Sorry.” I heard a voice say as I was putting the book into one of my bags of freebies, “Those are for new members only.” I had to grudgingly return the stolen item. How was I to know? Officious little twit. I slunked away, tail between my legs. It was hot. We decided to leave. Never got back for the evening show featuring Fleetwood Bac, a Fleetwood Mac tribute band endorsed by Mick Fleetwood himself. Everyone was too tired. That I would never have allowed if the real Mac had been there.

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