Hartley Wintney (family times)

Since the last blog update, we have moved from the Airbnb in Reading to what we call our ‘Christmas family home’ in Hartley Wintney.  This is the fourth year we have rented this house where, for a couple of weeks or so, the children come and go as they please.  Needless to say, there is never a dull moment and most rooms are taken most nights 😊

On Christmas Eve, we had a happy flashback to the summer when our friends Ian & Lisette published an update to their blog.  One of the pictures showed our home when we left it in Migennes during the second heatwave when we returned to the UK for a few days for our annual family camping trip.

Thanks Ian, for the picture (his blog is a good read)
One thing we have always noticed about the older housing stock in Reading is the pleasing use of the different coloured bricks manufactured in the area.  Reading had many brick kilns in its day, and it is also good to see that new town centre developments have to emulate the old styling.
Some of the original housing near our Airbnb
It certainly feels like it has rained every day since coming back into the UK, although it has been dry since Christmas.  It’s been a bit worrying really as the narrowboat we are borrowing for the first couple of months in the new year is currently moored just off the River Kennet.  Our walks over the last couple of weeks have often taken us along the Kennet as it flows through Reading.  If the levels stay like they have been then we certainly won’t be cruising for a while.

Riverside eating area under water in the town centre
Rough water at the tail of County lock, also in the town centre - not really suitable for a narrowboat
Many people, knowing of our obsession with Victorian post boxes, send in pictures of boxes they have spotted and some of the notable ones this year have come from the Isle of Man, Edinburgh and Chester.  On Christmas Day Saskia, a friend of Jo’s, sent in our first box from Northumberland whilst out on a walk in Hexham.  Steve, who is an avid spotter being 20 ahead of me, also found a new one on Christmas Day on his way up from Sussex to stay with us.

Mentioning Christmas reminds me that our fellow boaters who have stayed on board in Châlons-en-Champagne for the festive period sent us some pictures of their decorations.

Nikki & Gorete’s Puddleduck with us tucked behind them

Bill & Jane’s Lazybones
The first Saturday after Christmas was our annual family curry day and great fun was had by all as usual.  We made sure that we got the traditional family pose albeit with not so many orange tee-shirts this year.  The orange tee-shirt tradition started over 10 years ago so many are now beyond wearing 😉



We did our secret Santa before eating and Karen was particularly pleased to receive her present:

😊 😊
This is the last blog entry for 2019 so may we wish you all a coming year that brings you happiness and adventures.

Reading (changing plans)

Since the last blog update Karen hurt her back and finds it very uncomfortable to travel any distance in the car.  This caused us to change our plans and centre ourselves for a couple of weeks in an Airbnb in Reading which is home to some of our children.  This turned out to be rather fortuitous because our first grandchild was born on election day morning.  Ellis arrived ten weeks early weighing just 3lbs 3 ozs, but both he and Lauren are doing really well.  He will be in Reading hospital for a few weeks before being allowed home but with so many of the family living in the area, he will get plenty of visitors.  He is very strong for his size and age and was breathing unaided after a couple of days.

Lauren, Lewis & Ellis
The following day we met up with Ken & Annie to get acquainted with their narrowboat on the Kennet & Avon just outside Reading.  They are known by their friends as K&A on the K&A or I suppose they could be AKA K&A on the K&A.  We are borrowing their boat during January and February so we have somewhere to live before we head back to France.  They are a lovely couple who have been liveaboard ccers (continuous cruisers) for the last five years but are moving back to dry land for grandparenting duties – ominously coincidental lifestyle to ours 😉

On Saturday we went for lunch with Jake, my youngest son and Dominique, his wife.  We then had a walk along the Basingstoke canal, partly to ease Karen’s back and partly to give Buddy some fresh air as he had been cooped up in the car while we were in the restaurant.  When we bring our boat back to the UK, we hope to cruise along the Basingstoke canal as it is one of the waterways we have yet to visit.  It’s one of those canals that is open some years and not others, depending upon the state of the infrastructure of the waterway, so we may or may not be lucky.

A waterway we have yet to travel
The patch we walked along was drained as a new bridge was being installed.  At least it meant we would find a stank if we got to the end of the dry section.  Sure enough, under the first bridge we found where stanking planks had been used to form the dam.  We spent a happy 15 minutes or so while Jake & Dominique took the mickey out of the stanking plank obsession 😊


Stanking planks in use on the Basingstoke canal
The Airbnb we are staying in is in the centre of Reading just off the Kennet & Avon so is ideal for walking Buddy.  The water flow is still very strong from all the recent rain, and the canal is currently closed to navigation as is the River Thames that it joins at the far side of Reading.  When we have cruised through Reading in the past, we have always been puzzled by a small narrowboat that stands in the garden of one of the rows of terrace houses that back onto the waterway.  We have been puzzled because it has looked unloved and unused and seems to be kept out of the water permanently.

When we walked past it this week, we noticed that it has now been painted and looks like it’s being used as a garden shed.  The odd thing is that the bows have now been cut off and are laying on the ground next to it.  Karen’s suggestion was that CRT were probably charging mooring fees as the boat was overhanging their water.  By cutting the front off, the owner may now be avoiding those fees.  We also got to thinking how the boat was lifted out of the water in the first place and Karen had the thought that during a flood (when water rises into the gardens), they took advantage of blocking up the boat while it was floating above the lawn.

Who knows, Karen may well be right



Forest of Dean (when is a holiday a holiday?)

After a brief sojourn in the north west we travelled back down south to stay in Reading for a few days.  With three of our daughters living in the town we had plenty of family time over our stay there including catching up with developments on our forthcoming grandson who is kindly being provided by Lauren & Lewis 😊

Unfortunately, I had a day indoors suffering from a bout of food poisoning and poor Lauren had the same issue.  We had had a pub meal on our way back from a trip to Oxford and Lauren and I had both eaten something dodgy; Karen & Lewis escaped though.  Whilst I was laid up, Karen took Buddy for a walk along the Kennet & Avon canal that runs through Reading and was reminded of an unfortunate incident that occurred to us on one of our many trips through the town on our old boat.

The lock & weir by the Oracle centre looking rather benign last week

We had been stuck outside Reading for a couple of months during the wet winter of 2012/13 due to the high water levels.  When the levels were deemed safe enough the locks were opened, and we were the first boat to head through Reading and onto the Thames for nearly three months.  We soon realised that the river had been opened too early and when we reached the weir in the picture above, our back end was pulled towards it and the front became stuck over the lock entrance.  As luck would have it, a group of firemen were having diving lessons in the weir and, after taking our lines, they had enough manpower to pull us off the weir and into the lock.  Click here for a link to the blog entry for that day.

After our stay in Reading we went off for four nights in the Forest of Dean.  People with similar lifestyles to ours often agree that they no longer know when they are on holiday; for us, popping to the Forest of Dean was going to be a mini-break not a holiday.  For those of you who don’t know the Forest of Dean, it was once occupied by collieries, iron and wire works, mills and quarries.  As you can imagine, tens of thousands of people were employed in these industries and, although most signs of the industries have long gone, the tiny workers’ dwelling houses abound, whether along the valley floors or perched precariously on the hillsides.

Nowadays, as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it is a tourist area popular with walkers and the hillsides have been taken over by the Forestry Commission with the rides through the woods left open for public access.  The beautiful River Wye, that forms a large part of the border between England and Wales, runs through the area and the villages and towns on its course are also popular tourist spots.  Barges used to be towed along the river to convey goods down to the River Severn and boats were built at several places along the route.  Neither of us knew that, at 134 miles, the River Wye is the fifth longest river in the UK. 

Many railways and tramways were constructed to transport produce away from the area.  These were removed long ago but have left ‘green’ lanes offering pretty walks for the public.  They also offer easier walks for the older or infirmed compared with many of the woodland rides on the steep hills.  Talking of steep tracks, the cottage we had rented was at the end of one of these tracks and when we were looking for it, we arrived at a junction where the road split and both ways looked too steep for cars to use.

Steeper than it looks - our cottage was up the left track

The morning view up the Lydd Brook valley from our bed
On one of our many walks we were reminded of our walnutting friends we had left behind in Châlons.  Once the walnut season had finished in France, the sweet chestnut season began, and Nikki challenged us all to find the first sweet chestnuts. From that day, until we left France just over a week ago, we couldn’t find a single sweet chestnut tree and came to the conclusion that they don’t grow near water.  Our first walk after arriving in the Forest was through a sweet chestnut wood with the ground covered in the distinctively shaped leaves and old chestnut cases!

Sweet chestnut leaves in a wood in the Forest of Dean
On Saturday we visited Ross-on-Wye, a town neither of us had ever been to before.  It was a pleasant place with many independent shops on the high street and it was good to only see a couple of places that were closed for business – probably a result of year-round tourism.

Top end of the high street
We had parked down by the River Wye to give Buddy a walk before and after visiting the town.  The river was quite high from the recent rain and carrying a lot of flotsam and jetsam.

Walking along the river with Ross-on-Wye ahead of us
Coincidentally we were both asked to take pictures of groups of people.  We joked that it was because we were being recognised from our recent (and only ever) appearance on a YouTube film 😉

Karen doing the honours in front of the market hall

I got my turn when we popped into a pub for some refreshment
The beauty of having a dog is that we can avoid actually shopping although we did pop into an antique shop to buy some earrings for Karen and a footstool.  Karen has now given herself a Christmas project to re-cover the footstool before we take it back to the boat.

After we had looked at all the buildings in the shopping streets, we wandered a bit further afield to do some VR boxing as there were some likely looking areas of Victorian villas.  We were rewarded with a couple of boxes, including a pillar that over the years had become shorter as the road and pavement were re-laid and raised around it.

Even a shorty like me could lean on it
People have asked what we find different between France and the UK.  Clearly there are many things as would be expected between different cultures and countries but two things struck us immediately: not acknowledging every person we walk past and being constantly aware of the volume of traffic on the roads. 

Before we finish our mini-break, we will probably pay Symonds Yat a visit and find a walk or two further to the north of the Forest.


Northwich (Is that a bomb in the car?)

Monday was a day of getting things done so that all we had left to do on Tuesday was pack.  Included in the job list was sawing up the remaining logs that we have collected from the canalside over the last few weeks and been storing on the roof.  The most important thing was a trip to the vets for the requisite re-entry tablets for Buddy and to get his passport stamped so he would be allowed back into the UK.  Goodness knows what the regulations will be next time we re-enter as yet another Brexit deadline will have passed.

After all the jobs were complete, and the car packed to the gunwales, we spent a pleasant few hours having drinks on Guy & Ardon’s boat.  Main topic of conversation being the different ways of life between the UK and Oz but also how we are now sharing a similar life living on the waterways of mainland Europe.

The port roundabout at the entrance to town
So, the big day arrived and all the lists that Karen had been preparing for the last few weeks came into play.  Until we move onto the narrowboat we are borrowing in January & February, we are going to be road rather than water gypsies, rarely spending more than a night in any one place.  This entails a great deal of planning for various reasons, e.g. each place will have different levels of amenities.  This leads to many questions like do we need our own bedding, what cooking utensils are available etc.?  This also means that the car has to be packed in such a way that the items we need first must be easily accessible.

Goodbye Châlons boats for three months
We are fortunate in having a 30-year-old ski box which greatly extends the storage space when on the road.  Packing was a success and the back seat didn’t have to be utilised meaning Buddy could stretch out in his own space.

Travelling by boat has many advantages and probably the best is that home remains the same even if each day we go to bed in a new location.  Travelling by road means that both ‘home’ and its environs change on almost a daily basis.  Of course, the main draw to return to the UK for a while is to see family and friends especially as the family is now extending 😊 

The cathedral is just behind our mooring
Being in north eastern France means we’re only just over three hours from the tunnel so we didn’t have to set off too early on Wednesday morning to catch the 11.20 train.  For the first time in all the years we have been using this route we were stopped by French customs for an x-ray search of the car.  This entails us and Buddy having to get out of the car whilst it is put on a conveyor that takes it through a large scanner.  Once through we returned to the car and had to wait in the middle of three lanes for a barrier to raise before driving off.

We waited about 15 minutes and all the while cars were going through the lanes either side of us as their barriers lifted.  Two guys then came over and asked me to empty the boot as there was a suspicious package there.  I knew straight away that they were referring to the empty UK propane bottle we were taking back to leave at Karen’s mum’s house.  These bottles are allowed through the tunnel with a limit of 57kg; if ours had been full it would only have been 13kg, so we knew we were within the limit.  The customs guys weren’t happy and went off to check the rules.  Two girls arrived after another ten minutes or so and they also weren’t sure so called up their manager.

When the manager finally arrived, he laughed when he saw the bottle and said we were free to carry on.  With the number of people who go caravanning and camping on the mainland we were really surprised about the lack of knowledge of the rules.  I suppose our bottle was larger than the normal camping gas bottle, but we cannot have been the first.

Back in the UK we went for a scout around Folkestone and Hythe.  Knowing these towns have a large density of Victorian buildings we spent a happy hour or so following one of our passions; VR boxing.  Living in France means we have been deprived over the last few months and we were rewarded by finding a dozen boxes in a small area.  In some towns the Victorian boxes have been replaced by more modern ones, but they seem to have been left alone in this part of Kent.

Not wishing to bore you with lots of pictures of post boxes I will, however, include a couple of interesting finds.

A Penfold type box dating from c1870
My favourite type of Victorian box, a lamp box
Many lamp boxes have been stolen over the years because when they are attached to lamp posts they are relatively easy to steal.  Because of this, the remaining ones have been placed in museums and replaced by modern lamp boxes.  The only Victorian lamp boxes still in use are those that are set into walls like the example we found today.

Another view of the lamp box
We spent the evening at Lauren & Lewis’s and some of our other children joined us too.  We did a few DIY jobs with Lauren on Thursday morning and then made our way to Wendover to stay with Ann, Karen’s mum, for the night.  We have our mail redirected to Ann’s house so the first and longest task was to sort through the mail that has built up over the last few months.  Unbelievably, in this technological age, there are still some financial institutions that insist on communicating via physical mail.  It has got to the point that when looking at new companies for savings or investments we will only consider those that will communicate electronically.

In the evening I received an email from the guys we rescued when they ran aground outside the port.  Not only were they thanking us again, but they sent us a link to their YouTube update for that week.  I think I mentioned it before because we were impressed that they have given up working for a while and are planning on sailing around the world.  They are posting a video diary each week of their travels and the rescue can be seen from minutes three to five after clicking on this link. 

We had a couple of appointments first thing on Friday and then headed north up the M6 to an Airbnb we had booked at Northwich for one night.  We were off to see one of Karen’s bands from the ‘70s, The Stylistics, at the Liverpool Philharmonic and the Airbnb was an ideal place to leave Buddy while we were off galivanting for the evening.

The Stylistics
Like the band we saw in Épernay last week, more for my benefit, these guys were also in their 70s.  The crowd loved them and many women who, to be fair looked older than Karen, couldn’t help but dance in the aisles even though the stewards (spoilsports) kept trying to get them to sit down.

We awoke to a frost on Saturday that was so heavy we thought at first it had snowed overnight.  After packing up and taking Buddy for a walk we drove to the Middlewich branch of the Shropshire Union canal to meet up with Dave, Karen’s cousin, & Barbara on their boat.  It was really strange being back to normal and seeing a narrow canal, narrow locks and nothing but narrowboats.  We had a good old catch up on our respective travels over the year and hope to meet up with them again in the new year before we head back to France.