No 8. What a load of locks.


You may be confused by the chronological liberties we have taken with the blogs so far. I apologise. Please let me start this one by putting events so far into context: we bought a boat in Gayton, Northampton on the Grand Union canal, we had a torrid first night on board disturbed by our inverter woes and we then had a tunnel ‘adventure’ at Blisworth – so far all running in order. In the last Blog Pip turned her thoughts to stocking the boat and, as a result, naturally digressed into her toilet calamity – which actually happened in Newbury, on the Kennet &Avon canal.

So what happened in between you may be asking?

Let me take you back to Stoke Bruerne – our destination after ‘surviving’ Blisworth. You may remember we were cruising down from Gayton to meet Jackie and Neil, friends of Pip’s brother Robbie and his wife Sue, who had volunteered to move The Frog down to Newbury for us. The liaison was important for two reasons. Firstly we had not met Jackie or Neil before and secondly, they had never crewed a narrow boat before!

Neil and Jackie arrived and introductions and coffee duly delivered, we set off South. This stretch of the Grand Union was perfect for the task in hand – we were going to go through seven descending locks and then, at a brilliantly placed Winding hole, turn around and do the locks again – but this time ascending – before going back through the Blisworth tunnel and ‘home’ to Gayton. I reassured Neil that I would take us through the tunnel – having foolishly detailed our adventures of the previous day and watched his face turn white. However, it was important he had a chance to go through the locks and that Jackie – who would probably be doing all the hard work – understood how a lock worked (and the precious lock etiquette).

Our First Lock at Stoke Bruerne – we were coming from the right (copyright

Locks and Lock Etiquette

Many readers will be Boaters themselves and can skip this next section. For those new to canals and possibly our overseas readers, I thought I should explain what a lock is – as they feature very heavily in the life of a cruiser and I didn’t want to assume any prior understanding. So here are the FAQS:

Q: What is a Lock? The British countryside is inconveniently hilly and the history of canal construction is, in part, finding ingenious ways of dealing with this challenge (along with many others). Water flows and the canal’s primary purpose was to facilitate the movement of heavy and large cargoes safely and ‘quickly’ (a relative term in the late 18th century). In order to do this it was important that water flow in the canal was controlled and regulated. When the level of the terrain changed there were various options available to canal engineers: Change course – explaining why many canals meander and follow the contours of the land. This can be the cheapest option but added distance to the journey and ultimately may affect attraction to Toll payers using the canal after construction; Build a tunnel – see my previous Blog on Blisworth. This is probably the most expensive option, has the longest construction time and was the most dangerous during construction. Ultimately, however, it is the least disruptive and most attractive to subsequent commercial users – assuming your Bow Light works; Build a lock – or a series of locks – called a Flight or Staircase. A lock is simply an ingenious way of moving water (and therefore anything floating on that water – like a narrow boat) – from one level to another.

Q: How does a Lock work? This is best described by way of a diagram

The workings of a lock -shown with no water for clarity

So referring to the diagram above. Each lock has a gate (or pair of gates) at either end. The Top gate is at the deeper end of the canal and it follows the Bottom gate is at the shallower end. In between is the ‘Lock Chamber’ – which is where the lifting and lowering takes place. Water flow is controlled in and out of the chamber typically through Ground Sluices, Culverts, or Gate Paddles – or a combination of these. Locks can be single use or wider to allow wide beam vessels or two narrow boats to rise or fall simultaneously (hence two gates).

So a typical cycle is like this: Assuming we are approaching a lock via the top gate and assume the lock chamber is full of water (sometimes it is not and this is where part of the lock etiquette comes in – see later). The top gate should have been left closed and our first task is to open it. As water pressure is equal on either side it should open easily (Pip may disagree as all gates are very heavy (typically made of oak and clearly designed to hold back many tons of water) and the mechanisms are not always well maintained). Anyway I digress. The gate is open and we move the boat in – being careful not to hit the gates or chamber wall (not always achieved!). The top gate is closed behind the boat. It will have become clear that going through a lock is ideally a minimum of a two person job – but many solo cruisers do undertake it – albeit a bit slower. The crew member on the bank then moves to the bottom gate and starts to raise the paddles/open the sluice gates. This is achieved by turning the paddle mechanism using a specially designed tool called a Windlass.

A standard windlass – fits all lock paddles/sluices on the canal network

The speed at which gates and sluices are opened also falls under the Lock Etiquette banner (assuming you are sharing a lock with another boat) and will also vary depending upon whether you are descending or ascending in a lock. Descending is less of a concern when it comes to water speed. The water is effectively leaving the chamber and emptying into the canal beneath the lock. Assuming there is no boat moored nearby the gates can normally be opened fully and the descent be reasonably quick. In these situations I always stay on board and control the boat using the throttle – moving gently backwards and forwards as the water flow out of the chamber dictates. This is important as when descending there is a hidden danger beneath the water called a Cill. The Cill extends into the chamber at the foot of the top gates – which are always less deep than the bottom gates (as the water level behind them is higher) and allows the top gates to close onto it and create a good seal. It’s typically concrete and is a risk if your stern is above it as the water level drops. On the chamber wall the position of the Cill is always marked and as long as you pay attention you should avoid grounding out on it. When the water level in the lock chamber matches that outside the bottom gate, the latter is easily opened and you can pass on your way – remembering to stop and pick up your crew member before cruising on! Oh and of course making sure they have closed all the paddles/sluices and pushed the bottom gates closed – unless another vessel is about to use the lock (see etiquette below).

The Cill is obviously not an issue when you enter an empty lock and ascend but the speed of water ingress is!

Let’s explore this more. When ascending you enter an empty chamber through the bottom gate(s). The bottom gate is closed and the top gate paddles/sluices are opened. Sluices normally open into the base of the chamber but are still positioned on either side. Gate paddles open in the gate and can be above the height of the bow of the boat at the start of the ascent – with a risk of flooding the deck if opened too soon. Both of these facts present obvious challenges. As one sluice is open the water ingress will push the boat back and to the other side of the chamber – risking damage to both the boat and the wall if too violent. The faster the sluice is opened the more severe the impact will be. It follows that these processes need to be controlled very carefully. To mitigate the risk, typically the sluices are part opened and ideally opened on the opposite side to the boat first (assuming a double lock width and no other boat is present). This will push the boat towards the wall it is closest to. I should explain where I am at this point. When ascending I always leave the boat, climbing the ladder out of the chamber and take hold of the Centre line (a rope attached to the middle of the boat roof – as opposed to the Bow and Stern lines). On the bank of every lock you will find conveniently placed mooring pins that allow boaters to secure their craft – using the centre line. I don’t tie the boat up – as this will present obvious problems when it rises in the chamber(!). Rather, I hold the line in place, keeping the boat tight to the wall to off set the ‘wash’ effect of the sluices opening and slowly release the line to match the rise of the boat. When the water reaches a certain level the turmoil in the lock subsides and I can get back on waiting for the top gates to open – then I can move off. Sounds complicated I know but there are some great videos on line that bring it to life. In one of our future Vlogs we will ensure we show you The Frog (and Pip) in action.

Lock Etiquette

Lock etiquette is important. It is not just about respect and consideration for fellow boaters. It’s also about respect for the canal network itself and the important consideration of ‘Saving Water’. This concept may seem hard to understand. Don’t we live in one of the rainiest countries on earth? Is water really a problem? The answer is yes its – all year around but especially in the summer months – when it is naturally dryer and many more users are on the network. Water may be abundant generally but not necessarily feeding into the canal network. When they were constructed huge efforts went into building reservoirs and pump houses linking canals to water sources in order to ‘feed’ the canal. Every time a lock is emptied water is moved from one section of the canal to another and continues on its way. This water needs to be replaced. In some canal sections this is straightforward, possibly with a reliable river feed. However, in many it is not and even river levels can run low at times of peak use. For this reason locks are sometimes ‘closed’ for certain times each day as well as placing an onus on canal users to act responsibly when using the lock.

If a lock keeper is on duty, always follow their instructions. You will usually be expected to operate the locks yourself, but under instruction or supervision. Some locks, particularly rivers are always operated by lock keepers. Most locks, however, are self-operated.

If the water is in your favour (e.g: you are approaching a full lock through the top gate), you have right of way; if the water is against you then a boat seen coming towards you has right of way, as they can make use of the water. You may have to wait a few minutes for the oncoming boat to get into a position to use the lock. So you should always look ahead before emptying or filling a lock just for your use. Even if a boat is some way distant – wait until it arrives so they can ‘use the water’. Equally, if you approach a double lock on your own, look aft and see if another boat is coming. If it is wait until it arrives and use the lock together.

Do not be tempted to use lock moorings for overnight stays or moor there for longer than it takes to do the lock as you will be obstructing other users.

If a boat is coming towards you as you exit the lock, leave the gates open for them – this the only time you will do this as leaving the gates open any other time places additional strain on the lower gates and can increase water loss through leakage. Read all signs at the lock carefully. Some older or deep locks have signs that ask you to leave the lower gate paddles open when you leave – again normally a sin. This will have the effect of taking pressure off the gate and should be obeyed. To do this any other time is not acceptable. When mooring overnight in Newbury recently a boat passed us heading down the nearby lock and left the top paddles open. We did not notice but when we moved upstream the next morning boaters moored further up the canal had seen a noticeable drop in the water level with one owner shouting ‘we were hanging off the bank first thing’. A tight mooring rope would cause the boat to tip slightly in these circumstances – not great!

Anyway – I think that is enough on locks. We will return in future blogs with real examples. the next blog we will return to Stoke Bruerne and out first trip out with Jackie and Neil – and you will now have an appreciation of ‘lock craft’ and appreciate Neil’s natural ability on the tiller having never encountered a lock before!

Speak soon!

No 10. Around the world in 80 days

As mentioned in previous blogs, we were very lucky to find a couple who were prepared to move our boat from Northampton to Newbury, mutually beneficial as we get a free boat move and they get a free boat holiday (normally costing about £1,000 a week in the height of the summer). A win win situation and we were so grateful to my sister in law, Sue, for putting us in touch with Neil and Jackie.

They came to meet us in Stoke Bruerne (see our tunnel horror blog). This was our first weekend out on the boat since completing on the purchase of The Frog. Neil had some experience with sailing yachts but neither of them had ever set foot on a barge until that day. How brave they were but they showed no signs of the terror I would have been feeling in their situation.

You may remember we planned a short trip with them down the Grand Union – taking in 7 locks in each direction (so 14 lock ‘experiences’ in all). We were amazed at how quickly and proficiently Neil got used to manoeuvring the boat in and out of the locks. He really was a natural, cautious but nevertheless, a natural. Jackie was enthusiastic working the locks and caught on very quickly with the order of events when approaching a lock as well as leaving. We were feeling very confident that our boat was in good hands.

Neil took to boat handling like a duck to water.

We studied the online canal planner tool as well as our canal guide books and worked out a route that took them up the Grand Union Canal towards Napton Junction, taking in Braunston Tunnel along the way (remembering to switch on the headlight!). Then on to the Oxford Canal, until The Isis Junction (named for the Romans not the terrorists). Then on the River Thames (non-tidal section) to Reading and then on the Kennet & Avon canal ending up at the final destination of Ham Manor Marina in Newbury.


Canal Planner said that it should take a total of 62 hours or just over 8 days of steaming for 7 hours a day, covering 129 miles. Jackie and Neil are both retired and said that this schedule would not pose a problem. Jackie has grandchildren duties on a Monday every week but was able to outsource this commitment for the one Monday that she would be away. They would start their journey at the beginning of August and aimed to be in Newbury by 9th or 10th.

We all seemed happy with this plan and after a very brief moment of panic at handing over control of our treasured possession and our future home for 12 months, we gave them the keys.

Jackie kindly offered to add me her preferred list as we both have I Phones, this enabled me to track her phone’s movement so that we could easily see their progress. I have to admit that I became a little obsessive over the first couple of days, checking a few times every day. Not a good idea when all I became was frustrated at their lack of progress, worrying that there had been a mechanical failure.

What we had failed to take into account when planning this trip was 2 very vital points.

  1. The canals are extremely busy in August, with lots of people on holiday, most of which are completely inexperienced and consequently, very slow at locks.
  2. That it had been an unexpectedly dry summer and that canals had time restrictions. They close certain sections from 4pm until 9am every night by padlocking lock gates and so making them impossible to use. This causes long queues at the locks by boats waiting for them to be opened.

They bravely pressed on, taking all of the obstacles in their stride. Jackie rearranged her grandchildren duties and they never once moaned to us about the time it was taking.

They picked up my brother Robbie and sister in law Sue in Reading and had them for company while they sailed through the centre of Reading, right through the Oracle shopping centre (fulfilling a wish of Sue’s) and dropped them at Burghfield, just a mile from their house.

Oracle Shopping Centre with a canal running right through it.

Neil and Jackie finally arrived at Ham Manor Marina in Newbury 16 days after leaving. Some minor damage of a broken TV aerial, a few scratches, dented chimney and a chip out of the wooden trim from the cratch at the bow, all easily fixable. Considering that this was their first trip on a canal boat, things could have been a lot worse.

We are so grateful to them and it has made our lives so much easier having the boat at a closer location and we hope that they enjoyed their canal holiday, even if it was an extended holiday.

It has also given us a new appreciation of how impossible it is to stick to a schedule while boating. Something that won’t be a problem once we cast off this spring on our year long adventure. We have the luxury of not having to be anywhere at any given time and can really look forward to going where the fancy takes us.

Bring it on…..

No 9 – I can't help falling in, love

Having allowed Rob free reign to do the last blog, its now my turn so you can expect more humour and less technical stuff. Whilst I agree that there needs to be some technical stuff for those of our readers that have never experienced how boats and canals work, so making future blogs make a bit more sense, but I’m a firm believer that humour can be injected into almost anything. A bit of laughter helps all situations and as things have a tendency to go wrong on a regular basis, its always good to laugh at yourself.

Many years ago I experienced my first canal boating experience with Rob. I had been on a few trips with my children in the past but this was our first shared experience. So we took a holiday with 4 of our 6 shared teenage children and set off to do the Warwickshire Ring. Mark, my middle one, was very adept at driving and steering the boat and so spent almost the entire week taking the tiller, we felt very confident in his hands. Early one morning whilst the children were all sleeping Rob decided to have his morning coffee outside in the lovely sunshine. Whilst enjoying the scenery, he noticed that the centre line on the roof of the boat needed tidying and that it needed doing now. He decided to walk down the narrow gunwale on the side of the boat to sort it out (pronounced gunnel). The gunwale is about 4″ wide and is very useful to enable access along the outside of the boat to the bits that can’t be reached any other way. So, Rob is walking down the gunwale to reach the rope, using the rail on the edge of the roof to steady himself, but for some unknown reason he has his coffee cup in the other hand. It was early in the morning and the sun had yet to burn off the dew and moisture on the boat and no matter how careful he was being, he missed his footing and ended up entering the canal with a huge splash.

Rob has never been a very strong swimmer and his immediate reaction was to thrash about wildly, gasping for air, mildly resembling someone about to drown. I sprang to his assistance but didn’t have the strength to pull him onboard, so I calmly suggested that he see how deep the water was while still holding on to my hand and the side of the boat. Shame he hadn’t done this before his mad panic, as when he stood up the water barely went past his waist! I really should have thought about his feelings before I burst into fits of uncontrollable laughter, but I really couldn’t help myself.

Luckily, the only thing damaged was his coffee cup and his pride.

Rob still cannot resist something that is out of place, not quite shiny enough or generally not 100% perfect. He is not as extreme as someone with OCD but he is fastidious about having things looking their best. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a slob and pride myself on having things clean and tidy also but nothing seems to match up to his standards. Sometimes I come close but he still cannot resist moving something ever so slightly or coming along behind me to sort something that I didn’t do just right.

Shortly after our boat’s arrival at the marina in Newbury we had a weekend up in the glorious sunshine and thought it was the perfect opportunity to give the boat a good wash and polish. We have several portholes that are encased in chrome and they look so much nicer when they’re polished and buffed so they glint in the sunshine.

Shiny paintwork always looks is best when the sun is shining.

I needed some supplies and the marina has some shops very conveniently placed within a short walking distance. We have been able to get almost all of the things that we didn’t even know we needed until the very moment that you can’t do anything else without them. There is a huge B&Q, just behind the fence on the edge of the marina, perfect for screws, tools and all things hardware, next to that is a Dunelm for all our bedding and kitchen essentials and beyond that a Tesco for everything else.

I set off with my shopping bags and left Rob to use the hose pipe connected to the shore water tap, happily leaving him to his washing and polishing. I was gone about an hour as my list was long and I needed to go to all 3 superstores.

Upon my return I noticed that Rob was not wearing the same clothes as earlier. He looked a bit sheepish and then recounted his tale of woe to me.

He had been trying to polish the porthole on the starboard side of the boat, the only way to reach was to go down the gunwale. Annie, the narrowboat next to us was moored less than 3 feet from us so he thought that if he straddled the gap by having one foot on each gunwale as he walked down the side of the boat that this would ensure that he had extra stability. This would have been a very sensible plan as long as the sunshine didn’t cast shadows and make you think that the gunwale was wider than it actually was.


This time, however, I was not there to lend assistance and he was entirely alone. He did have a narrow nylon rope to hang on to though, the same rope that he had tried to grab to stop him falling in in the first place, stopping him going into complete meltdown. A quick stretching of his leg told him that the water was deeper than the last time he had fallen in and he could not touch the bottom. Rob quickly realised that he would have to haul himself out this time, and would need to move towards the back of the boat to do this. He admitted later that he was quite worried that he might drown and would not be discovered for sometime as he was in a concealed position.

After a short time of weighing up his options, he decided that he could use the boat alongside ours to give his feet something to climb up and so he placed his back against our boat and slowly inched his feet up until he was almost horizontal and the same height as the wooden jetty. He was then able to roll out. All of this was done with no one to see his crazy manoeuvres and he thought that he might get away with nobody knowing of his latest mishap. Until now.

Ouch! Maybe using a narrow nylon rope to prevent a fall wasn’t the most sensible thing to do.

A bit more than his pride was hurt in this latest mishap.

Never a dull moment!

Yet more misadventures for us to chuckle at, and whilst we hope that things will run smoothly for us, we hope we never lose the ability to see the funny side of any situation.

No 7. Writers Block?

Turning to things more prosaic, stocking the boat with essentials before we headed out was a priority. Turning to things more ‘poosaic’, the waste system on a boat is unique and nothing like the system in a house – as we were about to find out.

Stocking the boat: we needed cleaning supplies. On the Canal Network, the waste from the shower and sink is referred to as ‘grey waste’ and is dealt with in a very simple way. It goes straight down the plug hole, along a pipe and out into the canal. This has rightly forced us to be far more aware of what we put down the plug hole, much more than we ever used to be. Wanting to keep the canals as clean and unpolluted as possible is now a massive focus of ours. There is a brand of products that are free from harmful chemicals and that are stocked by our local Tesco. ECOVER claim to have the same powerful formula as other recognised brands but they use biodegradable plant-based ingredients and so are kinder to our environment. They make a range of all the cleaning products that we use everyday: washing up liquid, dishwasher tabs, laundry liquid and fabric conditioner, as well as bathroom and even glass cleaner. They cost roughly the same as other well known but less environmentally friendly products, which was a welcome surprise. They all come in lovely fragrances too, way more than I expected: lemon & aloe, chamomile & clementine, lily & lotus, pomegranate & fig as well as a zero fragrance free alternative. Awareness of these products is growing and it’s encouraging to see such a huge selection alongside other more well known products.

Keeping the water clean and unpolluted is essential for the feathered friends who share the canal with us.

We then went in search of shampoo and conditioner but sadly were not faced with the same choices. Our supermarket has a wide aisle dedicated to these two products that the general population use on a daily basis. What we use in the shower at home goes straight down the plug hole and into the water system, having a direct impact on planet earth, yet I searched and searched looking for something suitable for use on a narrowboat. Eventually I managed to find one brand “Love Beauty And Planet” shampoo and a conditioner too. Reading the label I found that it had no sulfates, parabens, synthetic fragrance, phthalates, or PEGs (polyethylene glycol) and was definitely eco-friendly.  But unlike the Ecover cleaning products, these were not cheap. The price was a staggering £7 for each bottle.

This got me thinking. Extinction Rebellion, and other climate change and environmental awareness campaigners, should raise awareness and challenge the producers of these products to think more about making them kinder to our planet. There were shelves and shelves of products with chemicals that are harmful to our planet and a choice of one for those who care about the environment. Shouldn’t the balance be the other way round? Surely safer products should be more prominent and not priced out of a lot of people’s budgets?

Okay, I’ll get off my soap box now (literally).

The dirty bit: our toilet waste is definitely not ‘grey waste’ and is dealt with by a macerator, which basically grinds everything up and takes it down a fairly narrow pipe into a tank, which, previous Blog readers will know, is situated under our bed. Having it working efficiently is vital and so you have to very careful what you put down it. Positioned strategically above the toilet we have a sign which reads: ‘Please do not put anything down the toilet unless you have eaten it’ – a golden rule to ‘GO’ by. You should also never use anything heavier than double ply toilet paper (most is at least triple-ply). My bottom is used to being pampered and I always buy nothing but the higher end quilted toilet paper. It still feels weird to be using the cheapest, thinnest paper but needs must and life is all about compromise. We were advised by a fellow boat owner that the best kind to use was Sainsbury’s own brand recycled paper. I took some convincing that recycled paper was okay to use and I still worry what it is recycled from!

Despite following the rules and only using the right toilet paper, I still managed to block the toilet! Following a visit to the smallest room one morning I confidently pressed the button to flush. The macerator came to life and I fully expected the contents to duly disappear. To my horror the toilet just filled up with water and not just water, brown water! I tried once more and pressed the flush button again. I could hear the motor of the macerator working really hard but things were just not moving at all. After several minutes of pressing, waiting and then utter despair I summoned Rob. He looked at me rather accusingly. He didn’t have to say anything. I knew exactly what he was thinking. How could you have broken the toilet?? His usual suggestion of pressing the button over and over was of no help at all and the offending brown liquid just wouldn’t go away.

Fortunately, we were not far from the marina, so with legs crossed we headed back. Derek at the marina, who is very helpful in all boat-related matters, said he would come and have a look. He already has us summed up in his own mind as land lubbers who really know nothing when it comes to boats, usually rolling his eyes or tutting under his breath whenever we ask him a question that he thinks anyone with half a brain should know. He does it in a good humoured way but we are always left with the sneaking suspicion that he thinks we really are numpties. This latest dilemma would just reinforce his opinion of us.

His professional view was that the toilet was well and truly blocked and that it would require taking apart and a thorough inspection of the pipes. But before he could do that it would need to be emptied manually. When Rob asked him how to do this he was promptly handed a bucket and Derek left mumbling under his breath. Not the nicest job, but Rob being a perfect gentleman took on the unenviable task of scooping the brown liquid into the bucket. Something I am eternally grateful for.

Offending liquid removed, and after careful inspection, Derek found that the pipes were old and that the plastic was so brittle that it could have developed a crack at any moment leaking pooh in places that you really don’t want. An even greater disaster. So actually I did us a favour by blocking it up!

It might take some convincing for Rob to see the benefit though.

We now have sparkly new pipes, a new macerator and a spare. Apparently having a spare is vital and something Derek never leaves the marina without. £700 lighter but a lot wiser.

Oh dear!

As an aside and to make me feel better, Derek also told us that he and his wife Emma used to run hotel boats. New guests were always greeted and welcomed with a social event on the first night and given a dose of high bran flapjacks – that way at least giving the toilets onboard a fighting chance in the week ahead!

I’ll add bran to the shopping list……

No 6. Got a light mate?

Rob’s turn to take over the keyboard…….

Our last Blog saw us leaving the Marina for the first time, pumping out and turning the Frog around to head south on the Grand Union Canal to meet our boat movers, Jackie and Neil, at Stoke Bruerne.

Stoke Bruerne is a beautiful little village – centred on the Canal – with lots of permanently moored narrow boats, selling everything from chandlery supplies, to All Things Spanish, jewelry and cheese – with a floating bar being the highlight. There was only one problem – between us and this idyll lay the third longest navigable tunnel on the canal network at Blisworth.

A boat selling cheese at Stoke Bruerne – see I told you!

Blisworth tunnel took 12 years to construct- finishing in 1805. It’s a staggering 3076 yards long (or 2813 m for the younger/European/Canadian readers, or 1 & 3/4 miles for our American readers). At its deepest point it’s 143 feet (43m) underground and is wide enough to allow two narrow boats to pass each other. It is pitch dark along most of its length and takes approximately 25 minutes to complete – assuming normal cruising speed. Unfortunately, on our trip through the tunnel, we never got anywhere near cruising speed……..

So let’s go back one step – remember the boat safety certificate? Well, one of the prerequisites for any narrow boat is a working bow light – and it is part of the safety check – or at least it should have been! We know that we will learn something new every day on the canals – and today’s lesson was: check your bow light – before you leave the marina and NOT when you reach the mouth of the third longest tunnel in the country!

So much history.

In the words of Jethro (a Cornish comedian) – ‘what happened was’ (said with a Cornish accent): we assumed the light was working, after all the safety certificate had just been issued, and set merrily off towards the tunnel. There is no winding hole near the entrance meaning no way of turning the boat around- so once we were approaching the impending darkness we had crossed the Rubicon and were committed to going through. It was only then that I glibly flicked the bow light switch on the control panel at the stern of the Frog and confidently asked Pip to confirm it was on.

It wasn’t.

Never an electrician, I had no idea what was wrong and simply kept turning it on and off, in a not very logical belief that this may help! It didn’t. So what to do? We were committed to the tunnel and we had no bow light.

I shouted down into the 58′ boat: ‘Pip turn on your I phone and hurry down to the bow’.

Pip, sensing the emergency by the tone of my voice, duly obliged running through, not even stopping to grab a coat, turning on all the interior lights on her way, in a vain attempt to help me navigate.

We entered the chasm into pitch darkness with Pip 58 feet in front of me – shining her I phone torch against the damp walls. Anyone who has an I phone knows that the torch is relatively bright but it is clearly not designed to light up the vastness of a tunnel. I was in total darkness at the stern except for a dim light coming from the bedroom window onto the right hand wall. I could only just make out the light from the phone in the distance and I could not see the wall at the bow at all – which was extremely disconcerting. I shouted forward: ‘Pip – you are going to have to guide me by calling out directions’. Pip – being a purist – started responding accordingly: ‘Port a bit, port, port, starboard – steady’… etc.

To say I was stressed was an understatement. My mind was working at a fierce-some rate as I tried to get every ounce of light onto my retinas whilst listening intently to Pip. The last thing I needed was the added complication of ‘translating’ her directions into ‘everyday English’. I snapped. My language reflected my stress levels:

‘Just say F@#$ing left or right’.

The looming Chasm!

I will spare you the 45 minute real time torture of the full journey – remember the normal passing time of 25 minutes(!) – and cut to about halfway through.

Blisworth was built in a unique way with a series of ‘vents’ sunk down into the hillside. Once at the right depth, the navvies (Navigational Engineers – the muscle behind UK canal building), started to dig sideways in both directions, until the tunnels all met. The vents are now still in place and ensure fresh air reaches the middle of the tunnel. Unfortunately they also bring any falling water directly down on top of the Frog. This had two impacts – one, I got soaking wet – little chance that I could let go of the tiller and seek any protection. Two, Pip who had more flexibility but no coat, jumped back into the main cabin to stay dry – and I was plunged into ‘guide-free’ darkness for the seemingly endless few seconds that we passed under the vent.

No time to appreciate the incredible engineering feat of building a very deep tunnel in the late 1700’s, no time to inspect the brickwork and the sheer history of the place.

Here is it being lit up by a boat cruising the tunnel. This is what we couldn’t see!

The outlet of one of the many vents built above and for the Blisworth Tunnel. Navvies were lowered down through these vents to start their digging.

Being totally in the dark meant that I was drifting too far to the right and a telling ‘clonk’ tells me that I have hit the wall. What I don’t realise is that this noise is the chimney that has taken the brunt of the impact and it will never be the same again. We had to have it replaced shortly after our return back to the marina.

Pip could just make out the light at the end of the tunnel (not a pun) but the brain plays tricks on you when you’re in total darkness and she kept shouting that there was an oncoming boat. It never materialised but it did contribute to the anxiety. Finally we saw a proper light – the problem was it was not ahead of us – but behind. An unfortunate fellow narrow boater, travelling at normal speed – and with a light – was approaching from our stern and we made a very big and very slow obstacle in their way! I did not dare look behind me and put my ‘if I can’t see you then you’re not there’ face on and stared forwards.

An excruciatingly slow crawl continued and finally – for us and our convoy – we emerged into daylight on the South Side of the tunnel – with palpable relief. We pulled over and moored almost immediately, just short of the village and I gave a grovelling apology to the boat behind before also apologising to Pip for my earlier outbursts.

Southern exit to the tunnel – near Stoke Bruerne – our haven

So – at last a chance to relax, get the light fixed (tomorrow we have to reverse the journey) and plan our meeting with Jackie and Neil. We adjourned to the pub and had a good laugh at the disaster of our first tunnel adventure (though we were definitely not laughing at the time) and that we had really earned our drinks.

Life on the canal is anything but dull.

The beautiful Boat Inn at Stoke Bruerne – and a calming pint or two!

No 5. Casting Off For The First Time…..

Its now mid July and we have had our first night on board our new boat. We’ve had all the work done to get our boat safety certificate (a boat safety certificate has to be renewed every 4 years and ensures that each boat is safe to be on the waterways. The best analogy is a boat MOT certificate). Our hull has been blacked and the wood burner has now been installed correctly. We’ve paid in full and now The Frog, as we’ve decided to refer to her, is finally ours.

At this point the Frog is still located in Gayton Marina, near Northampton, a long 5 hour drive from our home in Cornwall. This is not ideal and I have been calling every marina within a shorter drive to find a place for us to keep her until we sell the house and move onboard early next year.

The canal network in the UK was predominately built in the early part of the industrial revolution, late 18th century – and indeed helped power this trans-formative development in the UK. It was a relatively quick way to move commodities such as coal, china etc and development was often funded by the entrepreneurs of the time who would directly benefit. Getting products to ports for distribution was a challenge before the age of the railway and canals provided a solution. As these industries were concentrated in the midlands and to the north, that’s where most of the canals are located.

The most southerly (connected) canal is the Kennet and Avon (known as the K&A) which links Reading (and therefore London via the Thames) to Bristol. Whilst this is nearer than Gayton, it is still a 3 hour drive from Cornwall but certainly preferable to 5 hours in the car, particularly in the summer when UK roads are mostly like car parks. My research revealed that the closer to Bath and Bristol that you are, the more expensive the moorings. They vary in price massively. Most marinas charge per foot of boat and the facilities usually include diesel, pump out for the toilet and boat repairs. The more facilities there are, the higher the charge. Many of the marinas that I called were full with no space for a boat of our size and some would only let their moorings on an annual basis.

Newbury Boat Company

Eventually I found a marina near Newbury that had space and was cheaper than most. Newbury Boat Company . The marina had been run by the same family since it started and is now run by Emma and her husband Derek. Emma was so friendly during our phone calls and full of useful advice. She was happy to let us have a mooring on a temporary basis, renewing every 3 months. This suited us as we are hoping to cast off on our adventures early next year once the house is sold but without a definite date in mind, it was good to find somewhere with this flexibility. Although it was a 3 hour drive from home,one advantage was that it is near to my brother Robbie, his wife Sue and their family, who live in Reading, about 15 miles away.

Our next dilemma was how to get the boat to Newbury from its current resting place in Northampton. Rob is not due to retire until October and has used up all of his holiday allowance and so could not take any time off to facilitate this move. A real shame, as we really wanted to be able to use the boat at weekends and really get to know it before we cast off next year.

We were obviously not going to be able to do this move on our own. We thought about doing it in stages at weekends but it would be hard logistically as most of the locations are rural with no public transport and how would we get back to our car each time? A google search on how to move a boat from one location to another suggested a professional boat mover. Who knew such a person existed? I called the first one on the list and he was very helpful. His fee was over £1,500!

We politely declined but he did point us to a really useful site that he uses for estimating the length of journeys and planning his trips On this site, you are able to select your starting point and final destination or a round trip as well as the length of days that you want to cruise. You can even input the length of your boat so giving you options for places you can turn the boat around, known as winding holes (pronounced like the wind that blows). It then produces a summary of the journey, the number of days /hours that it will take you, number of locks, bridges etc. Its very useful and something we subsequently have used often. We put the starting point of Gayton Marina into it and the final destination of Newbury and pressed the button for the suggested route. The planner said it was 129 miles of waterways, had 85 locks and would take the best part of 9 days.

There’s that phrase again. Everything moves slowly on canals.

9 days to do a journey that could be driven in under 2 hours!

Not a bad earner for a week of cruising on someone else’s boat.

A phone call from my sister in law Sue provided our solution.

Sue had been having coffee with her friend Jacky and was telling her of our plans and all about the boat we had bought. Jacky was particularly interested as her husband Neil had only just been talking about booking a canal boat holiday. A plan started to formulate in Sue’s mind: Jacky and Neil wanted a holiday and we wanted a boat moving, a perfect coincidence of wants. They were both retired and other than regularly babysitting duties for their grandchildren, they were basically free from early August. Sue reassured us that although neither of them had been on board a canal boat before, Neil was an experienced boater being a member of a yacht club and that our boat would be in good hands.

We had a facetime call with Neil and Jacky to talk over details and arranged to meet. We were going to the boat the following weekend and planned a one day trip with them, taking in some locks to ensure that they were happy to undertake this challenge.

Having had the first night on our boat, which we detailed in the previous blog “what does this button do?”, we had our breakfast outside on a beautiful morning looking out at the stunning view from our bow. The now faded but still lingering smell of pooh inside the Frog made dining al fresco an attractive option!

As we had only located one bowl on board. We shared this for our yogurt and fruit. (must put crockery on our list of things that we needed. An ever growing list.)

Curious morning visitors.
Morning cuppas in our boat warming present from my brother Mike and sister in law Sara

Having fueled our tummies, now it was time to refuel the boat and pump out the offensive toilet contents. As we were about to cast off we met the owners of the boat that was moored next to ours. We got chatting, as canal folk tend to do and found out that this couple’s plans were similar to ours, except they were only spending a few months every year on board, and the winter months in their apartment in Tenerife. They had sold their house having fallen in love with their narrowboat ‘That’s Amore’ and that morning was the first day of their adventure. They had also never owned a boat before but thought it would be a fun way to live. We found out we had so much in common and the wife’s name is Philippa too!

Rob was understandably a little nervous handling our boat for the first time and in unfamiliar surroundings. Coming out of the marina was not easy, a very sharp turn to the left but first a swing bridge to move. He managed the manoeuvre with little difficulty and pulled up proudly to the bank. One pump out quickly followed. We certainly didn’t mind paying the fee to get rid of that waste and we also poured in generous volumes of Elsan (a blue ‘gloopy’ liquid that helps de-odorise your sewerage tank – a godsend)!

Having completed all of the necessary maintenance we finally set off for our first cruise, ultimately to meet up with Neil and Jacky the following day but where we needed to go was in the opposite direction to where we were facing. Its not easy turning a 58 foot boat around, steering from the back, so we had to go off away from our destination until we found a winding hole in which to turn around. One hour later we were only just passing the marina again this time heading in the right direction….

Such concentration

Surely nothing else could go wrong.

Did I mention that everything moves slowly on the canals?……..

That’s why we love it.

No 4. “What does this button do?”

All paid for, insured (surprisingly inexpensive at less than £250 for the year), boat safety certificate granted and license purchased. Finally Frog In A Bucket is ours.

We excitedly set off on the 5 hour drive for our very first weekend on our beautiful boat. Dreams of sipping a cool gin and tonic whilst watching the sunset, sat on the bow, moored on a peaceful canal bank filled my head. We had no recollection of what was included in the sale or what we would find on board but we decided to just take the bare minimum of stuff such as bedding and towels and some basic bits of food. You are never far from a pub, especially on the canals so we were not worried.

We encountered the usual summertime traffic in the UK, so we did not arrive at the Marina until just before the office closed. We hurriedly ran in and thankfully we were able to retrieve the keys before they locked up for the night. Wheelbarrows are kindly provided and so we loaded up our stuff from the car and went off in search of our boat.

Coming on board, we started looking at what had been left for us and found some mugs, cutlery and a corkscrew. Essentials covered. The fridge needed some cleaning and refreshing before it was safe to put the food in it so this was my first task. The boat was plugged in to the shore power supply so you would expect that the fridge would have power wouldn’t you? Turing the dial inside didn’t help and so Rob’s first task was to find out why.

Galley, skylight reflected in the granite worktops.

Before he started though, Rob needed to use the facilities. After studying the various options for flushing (even the using the loo is complicated, with 4 different ways to get rid of the contents) he opted for a quick flush and pressed the button. There are various types of toilets to choose from on narrow boats – this one that has a macerator built in which grinds stuff up and deposits it into a tank, situated under our bed. The boat had not left the marina for sometime and the contents of the toilet had obviously settled in the tank. The deodorising fluid had stopped working many months ago and the tank contents were all disturbed with Rob’s flush. I cannot begin to describe the smell that emanated from the bathroom, I would not have been surprised if a green fog had appeared. Oh my god, it was beyond description and caused us to evacuate the boat at top speed, gasping for breath. It took quite a while for the smell to die down even with many air fresheners going at full speed and all the windows and doors open. Another thing to add to our list of things to sort out in the morning.

Whatever you do, don’t press the flush!

Behind our bed is the control panel for the boat electrical system and has almost as many switches as an aeroplane cockpit, okay maybe a slight exaggeration but what most of them did was a complete mystery. Gauges for fuel, waste etc were self explanatory but we hadn’t got a clue about the rest. There was nobody around at the marina to ask either so Rob set about trying to figure it out. I assumed it would be like a car, turn the key and everything should work with simplicity, but it all looked very complicated, 12 volt and 240 volt systems, and what the heck is an inverter?

Finally Rob worked out which buttons to press to get the 12v system working onboard and with the fridge gleaming once again, we duly made up the bed before adjourning to the pub for our dinner and a much needed drink. It was unrealistic to be casting off for our maiden voyage that night so we took the canal guide with us to study and plan our weekend out on the water. We decided to seek some help from the marina staff in the morning and ask for a rundown on how things worked, very sensible before heading off on our own.

Sinking into our very comfortable memory foam bed we lay back and felt very pleased with ourselves and anticipated our first voyage in the morning, trying to ignore the overwhelming smell of air freshener and faint whiff of stale pooh coming from under our bed. We even managed a laugh about the earlier toilet mishap. I put in my earplugs, very necessary when you live with someone who snores like my husband and started to drift off into peaceful slumber.

I started to stir sometime during the night, but without my glasses on I could not tell what time it was. Someone was moving around inside. I pulled out my earplugs and saw a silhouette of a figure in front of the control panel behind our bed, almost at the same time I was deafened by a high pitched shrill. Rob, in his underpants, was frantically pressing buttons using only the torch on his I phone for light so as not to disturb me. Apparently it was 3am and unbelievably I had slept through several minutes of this thanks to my earplugs, Rob being less fortunate, had been up for ages. No matter what he did, what buttons he pressed or how much he swore, the noise would just not stop. We came to the grim realisation that we hadn’t got a clue how things worked and so our only option was to attempt to get some sleep despite the noise. I decided to share an earplug with Rob.

I am partially deaf in one ear due to a benign brain tumour. I’m quite a private person and there are lots of my friends that don’t know that I have this ( until now), it was diagnosed 18 months ago and is fortunately very slow growing. Eventually it will need radiotherapy but for now I feel very lucky that the only symptoms I have are continuous tinnitus, hearing loss and the occasional balance issue. Little did I know that my deafness would be a bonus.

Sleeping with one ear plug each we actually managed to get a few winks and were very very pleased to see daylight.

In the morning, the marina kindly sent someone to explain a few things to us. The alarm that intruded into our night was the inverter alerting us to the fact that the batteries were not holding charge, despite the fact that we were connected to the shoreline. Another thing to add to our list to investigate. In the meantime, at least they showed us how to turn the inverter alarm off. A very valuable thing to know.

Mmmm, maybe there is more to this boating lark than we first thought.

This ordeal has got me thinking. In order to drive a car, you are required, by law, to have many hours of driving lessons and then have to undergo a very rigorous driving test to assess your competence and to ensure that you are safe to be on the road with other drivers. Yet, we were able to buy a 58′ boat, no questions asked and take it out on to the waters totally unsupervised.

Bleary eyed but unperturbed we cast off on our maiden voyage. What could possibly go wrong?

To be continued……