Monday 29 June 2020

Caversham (time to return to France?)

Now we’ve got the flat sorted out we are finding ourselves at a bit of a loose end on dry land.  This wouldn’t have been the case if our social activity wasn’t being restricted as we would have filled much of our time looking after grandchildren.  At least it gives me a chance to bring the blog up to date with our final few days before we returned to the UK and include a few other things like our plans for returning to France on Thursday 9th July now that the pleasure cruising ban has been lifted.

Just before we left for the UK, the River Marne water level was so low that there was hardly any water flowing through the barrage in town…

...compared with March when the water level was over the top of the barrage

Taking advantage of the low water level to carry out some maintenance just before we left:

As we had been in lockdown, we hadn’t been able to go out and find more lavoirs to add to our collection, but our daughter Catherine made us smile one day.  She lives in Spain and, on one of her first walks after their lockdown was eased, she found a lavoir and sent us this picture ðŸ˜Š

Catherine’s lavoir in Tavertet

We said in an earlier update that people are now able to cruise in France so all the people who were stuck in the port with us in Châlons en Champagne have now set off on their travels.  The girls on Puddleduck had headed westwards on the Canal de la Marne au Rhin but had to turn around because the weed was too thick due to a warm spring and lack of traffic – very few commercials use the western end between Châlons and Nancy.  Since then we have heard from Alistair on his narrowboat, Vector, saying he is attempting the same journey.  Being a narrowboat, he has a shallower draught than Puddleduck but has still had difficulty getting through as you can see from his pictures.

Troublesome cruising on the Marne au Rhin

Alistair has had help from several quarters including being towed by a VNF van, local residents and even a péniche which is a rare sight on the western end of that canal.

The péniche that helped narrowboat Vector on part of its journey

After the girls turned around, they went back through Châlons and stopped for a couple of nights.  We were back in the UK by then, so they tried to make us feel jealous by taking a picture sitting by our boat.

Our flat in Caversham is not far from the River Thames so we are able to go for a walk along the river most days, usually accompanied by daughter Lauren & grandson Ellis of course. We quickly realised that we had forgotten what a menace the Canada geese are in England with their mess all over the paths and terrorising young children and dogs that walk past.  I know it’s the fault of humans as they feed them which encourage the birds to become relatively tame.  There was a particularly large family opposite the mooring where we had to stay on our first boat for a while when the Thames was in flood one winter:

At the beginning of this blog entry, when I mentioned that we’re currently on dry land, it brought to mind the differences we have noticed between living on a boat and in bricks and mortar.  The main thing we have both noticed is that it’s a much simpler way of life on a boat but that it’s not so easy to pinpoint objectively why that should be.  What is very obvious is that boat living lends itself to being ‘green’ whereas it takes a conscious effort to do this on land.  I know that many people consider themselves green and have been naturally like it for years, but we have to admit that when we last lived in bricks and mortar six years ago we were nowhere near as green as we are now.

With a finite sized tank on the boat and working out when and where we can top up, we are used to being extremely frugal with water.  This has become second nature such that our habits have continued in the flat, e.g. in the morning, overnight water glasses are emptied into the kettle rather than down the sink.  Similar comparisons can be made when considering the use of electricity and gas.

Of course, there are other physical differences that make flat living different:

  • Mains drainage: not having to find somewhere to empty the storage tank, although in France it goes straight into the water
  • Mains electricity: no solar panels on a block of flats and generator not required  
  • Conversation: we can’t always hear each other like we can in the confines of a boat, whichever rooms we are in
  • Side hatches: cleaner to tip dirty saucepan waste into the water rather than down a sink  
  • Food storage: not worrying about how to keep food fresh as there’s space for a decent sized fridge and freezer in a house

If you asked Buddy about the differences, he would tell you that he’s ecstatic because he loves the flat because of its carpets; rolling around on a wooden floor of the boat isn’t quite the same for him 😊

There hasn’t been much to report on the butterfly front I’m afraid, just the usual suspects on the local dog walks from the brown, white and vanessid families.  We did look for purple emperors in Pamber Forest with Sophie & Yanos one day but didn’t spot any; we saw some silver washed fritillaries though, one of my favourite butterflies.

Male silver washed fritillary

Paul & Sue are currently cruising in France and heading to meet up with us when we return.  The same day we went to Pamber Forest they had a butterfly visit their boat and they sent me a picture for identification.  Coincidentally it was also a silver washed fritillary.  The underside depicted in their picture shows the sliver washes after which the butterfly is named.

Paul & Sue’s silver washed fritillary

How have we felt being back in England under the lockdown? Well, we have to admit that we felt a lot safer in France but then the two countries approached things quite differently.  France took an authoritarian stance once they realised, after the first weekend, that not everyone was taking it seriously.  Whereas, over here, it seems a very soft approach has been taken almost to the point that it feels like the rules are mere suggestions.

To finish, here’s a pyramid orchid we found just around the corner from our flat:


Tuesday 23 June 2020

Caversham (two weeks of English lockdown already)

We started this blog so we could record our travels around the waterways and have seen its focus change as we have progressed through different styles of boating.  Before owning a narrowboat, we used to take canal boat holidays where we would hire a narrowboat for a long weekend or a week or two at a time, usually with many of our children with us.  When we bought our first narrowboat in 2010, we were both still working and moored it at marina on a small island in Newbury on the Kennet & Avon canal.  The boat was called Kennet Lock and was a 25-year-old, 70’, ex-hire boat that we slowly fitted out to suit our needs opposed to meeting those of short-term users. 

Kennet Lock at the end of 2010 in Newbury

It wasn’t long before we found that we had become ‘weekend dumpers’ where we would drive to the boat on a Friday evening, cruise somewhere new over the weekend, cycle back along the towpath to fetch the car and then drive home on Sunday evening.  Being an old hire boat, the paintwork was in a terrible state and for some weeks the dumping ground was under the A34 outside Newbury while a couple of boater friends repainted it.

Chalkhill Blue in Paddington basin after the paint job

Cruising as weekend dumpers wasn’t economically efficient because we were paying marina fees without using the facilities, so we became ‘continuous cruisers’ where a different licence is required as we no longer had a home mooring.  As we were enjoying boating so much, I gave up work in 2014 and Karen took a year off so we could live full time on the water cruising around England and Wales; there is no waterway link with the Scottish system. We were so happy living on the boat that we decided to continue when Karen’s year out was over, and she returned to work.  We rented out our house in Kent, bought a flat overlooking the canal basin in Aylesbury so the children or us could have a base if one was needed on dry land, and started a new phase of our life.

Each morning Karen would drive to work in Warwick while Buddy and I would do all the domestic stuff. The rules of being a continuous cruiser mean you have to move at least once every two weeks, so I became a single hander moving the boat whilst Karen was at work. In reality we moved more often than every 14 days as, with so many canals and rivers in commuting distance of Warwick, we were able to carry on visiting new places even though Karen was working.  It did mean that on moving day Karen wouldn’t know where to come home to, so I used to send her a text of the postcode of the nearest bridge for her to park at.  Of course, the best commute for her was when we were moored within walking distance of Warwick which really meant anywhere from the bottom of the Hatton flight of the Grand Union along to Radford Semele.  We still have wonderful memories of those times that are always evoked when we are in the Midlands.

During Karen’s year out we realised that we wanted to continue our new way of life and decided to design our own boat and have it built up in Aintree near Liverpool.  One of the drawbacks in having a 70’ boat was that some parts of the system couldn't be reached because the locks were too short.  Ironically this included the Leeds & Liverpool canal.  I say ironic because my parents lived on its northernmost point in Gargrave, North Yorkshire and it meant we couldn’t visit them by boat so an essential part of our design was that the new one would be shorter, at 57’.

While we were having the boat built, my Dad sometimes caught a train to meet us at the builders so he could see the build process at first hand.  After the shell was built it was transported by lorry to Lostock Gralam near Northwich on the Trent & Mersey canal where the fit out would be completed. My father continued to visit but, unfortunately, had an incapacitating stroke just before the boat was launched so he has never seen it in the water. 

We entered another phase of our boating life during this period as we needed to be based up north to oversee the build.  Karen became a weekend commuter, staying in B&Bs, whilst Buddy and I would move the boat during the week until we reached Northwich.  We had a week where the two boats were moored alongside each other as we moved our belongings across, and snagging works were completed. Buddy was really confused; he would spend as much time as possible sitting on the back deck of the old boat and only venture into the new one when it was his bedtime (five o’clock, which it has been all his life and still is!).

Chalkhill Blue 2 at Bank Newton on the Leeds & Liverpool

We moved the new boat down to the Midlands as Karen was still working but, as we now had a shorter boat, we were able to visit those waterways that were out of our previous range.  The draw of the north, where most of the canals with shorter looks are, was too much and Karen stopped working.  We headed first for Liverpool and then spent the summer of 2018 on the Leeds & Liverpool canal.

During 2014 we had first met Mike & Aileen, who were also living on their narrowboat and travelling the waterways.  They were full of their plans to move to France and this planted a seed in our minds that slowly grew over the next couple of years and we decided in 2018 that we would do the same. March 2019 saw our own plans come to fruition and we were dropped into the water in Burgundy.  What a new way of life started then; we couldn’t believe how different cruising and living in France was compared with the UK.

Travelling through Paris on the Seine

We were back in the UK during winter 2019 to spend time with the family and lived in Airbnbs for a while followed by a couple of months on a narrowboat that we borrowed from Ken and Annie.  We did find this way of life a bit stressful, continuously moving our belongings from one place to another so decided to look for a flat in Reading that we could use as a base.  I know we had one in Aylesbury, but we had let that out soon after buying it as we realised it was in the wrong place to be used as a base and wouldn’t be used by us or the children. Reading, on the other hand, is ideal as four of our children live in or around the town and it’s easy to get to by the others if they need a bolthole.

We returned to France at the end of February this year to get ready for another year of travelling there.  This was a week before their lockdown started and we ended up spending three months in Châlons en Champagne.  In retrospect, we were more fortunate than most during the lockdown as we were living on a boat which is a much simpler way of life than being in bricks and mortar.  During lockdown we went ahead with the purchase of a flat in Caversham which, coincidentally, is close to Pam & Charles who also spent several years cruising on their widebeam in France before returning to dry land.

At the beginning of June, we travelled back to England to move into the flat before continuing our adventures around France.  We haven’t yet firmed up on our plans for the future but will return to France to continue cruising and probably bring the boat back to the UK at the end of next year.  At least with a home in Reading we can return every couple of months or so to be with family which, of course, now includes grandchildren 😊   

During our boating life we have met many wonderful boaters and it would be unfair to start listing names as I’m bound to miss some out. They have all helped us in many ways from advice on how to live as continuous cruisers to having a day away from their own boats by lending a hand through a lock flight or two or being our family during the lockdown. Of course, the blog has followed all these changes but, like other boaters’ blogs during lockdown, has had fewer updates as travelling has been banned across Europe.  We particularly like the approach Charles has adopted by publishing, each month, a retrospective of that month over his and Pam’s boating life.

Thanks for reading this far and we hope you continue to dip in and out as we resume our wonderful and fortunate life afloat.   Details of all our adventures can be found by clicking on the relevant waterway to the left or the dates on the right of the page.

To finish here is a picture of us with our nine amazing children taken a good few years ago at one of our traditional annual New Year curries complete with orange tee-shirts, the origin of the tee-shirts is another story in itself!

Wednesday 10 June 2020

Caversham (back to the UK for a while)

Gorete made a gorgeous paella for the girls’ last night in the port

The canal latéral à la Marne, where we have been stuck in Châlons for the last three months, finally opened to non-commercial traffic on Tuesday last week, after being closed to pleasure craft due to the lockdown.  The girls were determined to make the most of it and planned to leave during the morning, so we obviously had to have a final meal with them on the Monday evening. It was quite an emotional day that last day as we had lived as a family group for over three months and knew the change was going to be quite a shock.

Puddleduck setting off on Tuesday morning

They were heading down towards Vitry le François where they would turn onto the canal de la Marne au Rhin and head east towards Nancy and Metz which was where we were going to head first if we had started cruising at the beginning of March.  Like Chris Hutchins, who always gets rained on when cruising, the lovely weather was due to break later in the week and by time the other boats in the port left it was decidedly a lot cooler as well as being grey and dismal.

Sid & Jan on Sherborne left on Wednesday morning for the South of France

Bill & Jane on Lazbones left on Thursday morning in the opposite direction

Guy & Ardon on Vindi left on Thursday too, also heading north

As we were heading back to the UK for a few weeks we moved our boat into the slot vacated by Puddleduck.  We are technically too long for the finger pontoons and since we have been here we have had our front tied to the front of Puddleduck to give both boats some stability in the wind that can whip along the channel here.  With no boat beside us any more we had nowhere to secure the front to so felt safer being on the inside of the pontoon with just centre and rear lines.

Now moored on the inside

You can see from the picture above that I have given the roof its final topcoat of burgundy and blue. I have also prepped the hatch but unfortunately, as we have run out of both burgundy and blue paint, we have to leave it in its grey undercoat until we return later in the summer.

As I alluded to above, it was a strange last few days in the port without the girls and also very bare at the other end following the departure of the other three boats.  Apart from one evening with a tremendous thunderstorm the predicted rain didn’t really materialise, but it was definitely a lot cooler.

Before we left, we had a few productive walks as far as painted drain covers were concerned and had quite a flurry bringing our total up to 160. 

Quite appropriate for our 150th decorated drain cover

One of the two port swan families, who had disappeared for the last week or so, reappeared to say goodbye on our last day   

The family still with six cygnets with one hitching a ride

On Friday morning we received the news that we had completed on the flat we were buying in Reading and thus the reason for going back for a while.  The warm weather had returned so we packed a picnic and spent a happy few hours in Cumiéres, a lovely Champagne village we enjoyed mooring at for a while when we were on the River Marne last year.  It felt weird driving somewhere as it was the first time we had left Châlons during the lockdown, the roads were very quiet and Cumiéres was dead other than the champagne houses and vineyards.  The vineyards were full of workers and the vines and champagne houses looked in tip top condition.  It really looked like they hadn’t been affected by the lockdown at all.

We set off for the channel tunnel early on Sunday morning and the autoroutes were definitely quieter than it would normally be.  We usually see lots of Brits heading for Calais once we reach the Autoroute d’Anglais but this time we passed just one UK registered van.  We knew there wouldn’t be many but expected a few trying to get back before the quarantine rules came into force the following day.

It was a bit of a shock when we got to the tunnel as the terminal area was packed; probably a third of the cars were Brits and the majority of the rest were eastern European.  We assumed the Romanians etc. were fruit pickers and many of the others like Belgians, Germans, French and Dutch were commuters but there also seemed to be quite a few holiday makers.  The strangest looking group were half a dozen large cars filled with families of Orthodox Jews – we couldn’t work out what reason they would have had for travelling.

The lockdown meant that the normal three or four trains an hour had been reduced to one an hour and, even though we had booked, we still suffered a four-hour delay.  On our way back through Kent we stopped in at our house that we have been renting out since we moved onto the boat nearly six years ago.  The original tenants moved out last weekend and a new family were moving in next week, so we took the opportunity to check things out.

We eventually arrived at the flat having popped in to get the keys from Lauren & Lewis who had picked them up from the estate agents for us.  We had a socially distanced chat in their front garden and it was lovely seeing our grandson (and his parents of course) for the first time in a few months; Ellis is nearly six months old now!

We spent Sunday night in the empty flat on an airbed and the removal van arrived from our storage unit early on Monday morning.  We had been told that the men would be wearing full protective gear and masks and that we shouldn’t offer them anything to drink.  We were quite surprised when they turned up as no protective equipment was in view – they explained they found it impossible to move furniture dressed like that.  They also intimated that they were desperate for some coffee after their drive down from the storage unit in Solihull.

Even though we are on the first floor, we have opening French windows where Buddy has spent hours just sitting watching the outside world.  To him it’s probably just like the hours he has spent lazing on the pontoon watching the French world go by for the last few months.  We have four children living in the area and it’s going to be odd not being able to mix while we are self isolating.  Pam & Charles, who have now finished boating in Europe, also live here in Caversham, so we are looking forward to meeting up with them too when conditions are more normal. 

The canal de la Marne au Rhin that Nikki & Gorete are travelling on towards Nancy is not a commercial canal and because it hasn’t been used since the winter closures they have found it absolutely choked with weed.  The éclusiers had warned them that this may be the case and sadly they have had to turn around and head back to the commercial canals and rivers of northern France.  We wonder what conditions will be like when we go back later in the summer.  No doubt there may be water shortages as well as the weed

Weed in the Marne au Rhin