There is another lifestyle available on a boat: that of the nomadic boater who travels the waterways constantly, never mooring up in one location for any length of time, here today and gone tomorrow.
I met only a few people during my five years afloat who lived this way and only experienced it for a brief time myself, when moving from London to Lincoln. What was it like? Well the only way I can try to describe it is as if I’d spent five years wearing welding goggles and then, for my trip “up north”, taken them off and walked out into the sunshine. Fantastic. Awesome. Epic. Words just don’t do it justice.
After years living a fairly static lifestyle, albeit on various different moorings in different areas, I had to move my boat from London to Lincoln and unfortunately didn’t have much time to do it in. Normally, having to relocate from one part of the country to another would take a great deal of planning, maybe a house to sell in the old city or a home to rent in the new one, estate agents, removals to organise, but with a boat things are far simpler. If the two places are linked by the inland waterways network and there are no major stoppages (these usually happen in the winter when scheduled maintenance isn’t too disruptive as there aren’t as many boaters out and about) it’s a case of untying the mooring ropes and setting off. It was a strange feeling. Although I’d felt so free previously, now that I didn’t have a permanent mooring anywhere in the country it was as if my mooring ropes had tied me more than physically to one place and I now felt a sense of freedom that was far, far greater than anything before. The first evening was probably the most exciting in this respect, I was gliding almost silently past boats moored up semi permanently where people were coming home from work, switching on lights, cooking dinner, washing dishes, getting ready to go to bed in order to do it all again tomorrow. I was free from that, if only for a little while.
I found the notes I kept from the journey and will share a few thoughts here.
Day 1 was warm and sunny. Bought a gallon of engine oil and a tub of grease for the journey. I had a final cup of tea with Gerry, an elderly gentleman who lived at the marina and had become a great friend during my stay there. I then cruised up the Grand Union Canal until it was too dark to see much, and found a mooring spot which turned out to be too shallow to moor a punt. After a precarious leap back onto the boat I continued up to the next lock, where there was a convenient pub. Had a quick wash then walked the dog up to the lock before going for a pint. As I had a torch I could see a note pinned near the lock saying it was closed for emergency repairs. My exact thoughts aren’t recorded but this was not the start to my trip that I wanted. Off to the pub.
Day 2. Found a nearby marina where I purchased 20 gallons of diesel for £18, almost twice the price I’d been paying at the scrapyard, though for 50p a gallon you had to supply your own containers and carry them yourself. Walked a few miles back towards London to take some photos of a lock I’d used the previous day (wish we’d had digital cameras in those days), then had a pot of tea and some cake at a cafe. By the time I got back to the boat the lock had been repaired and was open, so I headed north until after dark.
Day 3. Woke up hardly able to move due to the unaccustomed exercise of working through so many locks single handed. Had to stop for an hour after lunch as bloody knackered. After 17 locks found a nice pub next to the canal so stopped for the night.
Day 4. Slept in late, got up even later as most muscles screaming abuse at me. Found a waterways yard to empty toilet and dispose of rubbish as next point indicated in book at least a couple of days away. Then did 20 locks in 11 hours.
Day 5. Crossed the Tring Summit level, a beautiful wooded area, then down the Marsworth Flight of locks with a family whose teenage sons did most of the work: bliss! They headed off up the Aylesbury Arm of the Grand Union (which may have been because they didn’t want to do any more locks for me) so I was alone again. Passed a marina where a man wearing a captains hat was transferring what seemed like dozens of suitcases from his car to a hire boat, I thought Captain Pugwash was an apt name for him.
Day 6. Passing a pub I spotted a boat I recognised from a marina about 150 miles away and stopped to investigate. I found Ray in the pub enjoying a holiday drink. Life on the water was full of unexpected meetings like that, you’d see someone going past that you maybe last saw hundreds of miles away and a couple of years previously and stop for a chat as if it was only yesterday.
The rest of the journey passed similarly, though I think that the muscle soreness disappeared after a few days and I felt fit as the proverbial butchers dog. I remember the bustle of London giving way to peaceful scenery, then going through various towns and cities, with different types of countryside in between. There were fun times, quiet times, and one particularly spooky time in the middle of a misty tunnel where it seemed as if I’d been transported back 100 years. I passed by the back gardens of houses that cost millions of pounds and saw the sort of lifestyle the “privileged” classes had but felt far more privileged than them on my small, inexpensive boat. I was careful to check the engine oil, stern tube grease, diesel level, charging level, battery etc every day and the engine performed faultlessly. The only mechanical problem was when the engine stop cable snapped but that was easily rectified after a cup of tea and it happened in such a beautiful place I was quite glad of the excuse to stop for a while. Above all it was amazing fun and gave me a thirst for living on the water as a nomadic traveller, rather than the static on-moorings life I’d had. Whether I will ever return to the water I don’t know but it’s definitely high on the list of things I’d like to do in the future, once the kids have “flown the nest”.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about a slightly alternative lifestyle and that the information I’ve given about living without mains services might encourage some people to give it a try themselves.