Living On A Narrowboat
by Fran and Rich

In the beginning

It began on a cool Norfolk afternoon in September 2017. We were living the dream in a three bedroomed house with a third of an acre garden filled with flowers, vegetables, chickens and bees all being overlooked and sometimes overturned by our two dogs Archie and Jess. Our days consisted of picking flowers, harvesting and preparing food from the garden, selling excess produce from our doorstep shop and country markets, going on country walks sometimes accompanied by one of our doggy bed and breakfast guests, and doing the occasional gardening job.

We had only been together for a short while, and having both been through a difficult time, we were now enjoying shared dreams of living a simple ‘good life’. Both now in our fifties and keen to make the most of our time together we gradually realised that after a lifetime of spending our time working for others, with careers between us ranging from pathology to printing and sales to gardening, we were still at the beck and call of others. We were looking after other people’s gardens, other people’s pets and growing food and flowers for others to enjoy just so that we could pay our bills and keep our truck on the road.

The change

Rich’s depression re-surfaced and after spending many hours on the sofa watching YouTube videos about these strange people who lived on the water in six foot wide boats, Rich sat me down one day and said ‘shall we buy a boat?’ After I had put the chickens to bed, checked the bees and watered the garden I spent the rest of the night pacing the floorboards stopping only to do some sums with pencil and paper. By the morning the decision was made, life was too short to waste any time, and we would give it a go. We already had a holiday booked on a Norfolk broads cruiser so as long as we got through that in one piece and knew that we could survive with two dogs in a tiny space, we would be ok. On the fourth day of our holiday I went to the shops and came back to the boat armed with canal boat magazines – it was go, go, go.

Making it happen

So how do you move from a three bedroomed house to a narrow boat? Our original plan was a good one – sell the house and buy a tiny cottage to let as an income and use the balance to buy a second hand boat. We put the house on the market, sold everything which wasn’t compatible with boat life, re-homed the bees and chickens, and packed a few boxes of personal things which we couldn’t bear to part with and piles of books to go into storage. We found a lovely little cottage in Herefordshire which we knew would be a perfect home for us if boat life didn’t work out, but would also make a great holiday cottage to let out. All went according to plan until the cottage purchase was delayed. We went ahead with the house sale anyway and made ourselves homeless. Contents were packed into boxes labelled ‘cottage’, ‘boat’ or ‘lock up’ and everything except for a bag of clothes each and the dogs went into storage while we went into a hotel. With money in the bank we were now able to seriously look for a boat.

Two days into homelessness, luck went our way. Boatman Benjamin who we had been following on YouTube announced he was selling his boat and one week later we were the proud owner of “Rum Smuggler”, very soon to be renamed “Constanze” after Mozart’s wife. There was no need to wait for a survey to be done as we had been watching “Rum Smuggler’s” progress on Ben’s Youtube channel so two days after first seeing the boat, and after a quick lesson in driving her, filling with water and pumping out the waste, the keys were handed over to us and we were boaters.

A quick trip to Ikea was needed as we had nothing on the boat. We returned armed with bed linen, a few kitchen essentials and a folding table and chairs and lit the fire ready for our first night on board. The ‘beast from the east’ was in full flow and the next day we hired a van and drove back through snow to the lock up only to realise that all the boxes labelled ‘boat’ seemed to be at the very back of the storage unit – great planning! We returned to Rum Smuggler with our ‘boat’ boxes and it was then that we realised just how small a 50ft boat is. We soon learnt to roll and fold clothes, cook and prepare food with the minimum of pans and equipment and pass around each other in such a tiny space.

Becoming boaters

We spent the first few nights on the boat during subzero temperatures with holes in the flooring and the wall panels, nowhere to sit but on camping chairs and just one saucepan and a kettle but we loved it. Once the fire was lit we were cosy and happy. I was quite nervous of driving the boat especially when a bridge and a bend appeared at the same time, as they often do and with a boat approaching in the opposite direction. Rich’s idea of curing me of my fear of driving into a lock was jumping off the boat before a lock and telling me ‘it’s my turn’. I wasn’t just scared of being in a lock behind a wall of water, although that was bad enough, but, after all, this fifty foot long metal capsule was our home and sinking in a lock is every boaters’ nightmare. But I needn’t have worried. We took our time kept our eyes on each other and everything was fine. We are not prone to give advice to new boaters but the one thing we would advise is make sure you both learn to drive the boat, you never know what can happen.

It was a steep learning curve adjusting to boat life. Showering in a two foot space with a plastic curtain which clings to your body, getting dressed in freezing temperatures as we hadn’t managed to keep the fire in overnight, storing enough food in one cupboard and no fridge. Yes, that’s right – no fridge and it can be done as we managed perfectly well without for the next three years! We had a few really scary moments such as rescuing both dogs from a filling lock as we hadn’t locked the bow doors properly and they had been thrown open as the boat was thrown against the front of the lock by the force of water.

Although we found it challenging at first, each time we returned to the boat from a trip to the cottage we would just sit and sigh with relief at our new-found peaceful way-of-life.

The first two years

Those first two years were manic. We travelled around the canal system as if it was going to disappear any day before we had managed to seen it all. Rarely staying anywhere longer than a couple of days and although we still did plenty of walks, they were usually right next to the canal. So many beautiful towns and villages were seen only from the boat. I have always kept a cruising journal and looking back recently we can see that we arrived in Stratford–upon-Avon at 3pm one day, had a quick tour of the town the next morning, then left at midday, crazy!

During the first year we went from The Midlands as far as we could along the upper Thames, to Bath on the Kennet and Avon canal and then through London and returning to The Midlands in just nine months. It was a wonderful summer but we had not learned to completely slow down. Years of working and having pressure on us to achieve something each day are hard to shrug off. We loved the peace and quiet of the canals, the changing scenery, the simplicity of having just as much as we needed and no more. Our focus on each day was to have enough heat, water, power and food and we really had no other demands upon our time. Neither of us had expected that living on a canal boat would tick so many boxes in our search for a simple happy life. It felt like this was really living and the world of houses, shops and traffic seemed so far away. Eventually we’ve learned just to ‘be’.

Moving on

We had said at the beginning of our adventure that we would give it two years and then decide whether we would continue boating or go back to land. We began to realise that as much as we loved our life, we still did not feel free and had some decisions to make. Managing the holiday cottage had become too much of a burden, constantly checking emails and messages and fretting if the housekeepers were keeping the cleaning standards up and the gardener, when he did turn up, wasn’t cutting back the wrong plants. The cottage was always on our minds and we were constantly waiting for the next problem to arise. Sometimes we had to travel back to clean the cottage but as we were car-less by then, this meant hiring a car which made a nonsense of the whole process. As much as we loved it the cottage would have to go.

We had a big decision to make. To continue living on a boat long term, lovely “Constanze” would need a lot of upgrading and the one big thing we had learned was that we do not enjoy boat DIY! We had never liked DIY in a house but thought it might would be more fun on a boat. Wrong! It was a bit of a novelty at the beginning and we even enjoyed blacking the hull, but fitting a new bathroom or replacing leaking windows was beyond our desire or capability. We also had learnt that it is ridiculously difficult finding people to carry out work on a boat. A change was needed.

We never really regret anything we do and we certainly don’t regret having bought “Constanze” for one minute. She was a wonderful first boat and having lived for two years with such a basic boat with no hot water apart from engine heated water, no heating apart from the stove and no fridge, we felt really well qualified to call ourselves proper boaters. But, we had learnt the things that were important to us and what we needed to make boat life comfortable for the foreseeable future.

We had always said that we would never buy a brand new boat, so started looking for another slightly bigger and newer used boat. Then one day while negotiating a particularly difficult manoeuvre into Elton Moss’s boatyard for a pump-out, we spotted a shell waiting to be fitted out, and after an hour’s chat with them we had bought a new boat.

Laura Maisie

Having a boat fitted out to our own specifications was the most exciting and frustrating thing we have ever done. Lock down had just begun bringing with it a ban on us visiting our boat and build delays. We had to choose nearly everything on-line including upholstery, paint finishes, tiles etc. but the end result was perfect and amazingly everything matched! We had also always claimed that our adventures were not all about the boat and that is still true but suddenly we had a shiny new boat where everything worked at the flick of a switch.

There was somewhere comfortable to sit to eat or work without having to pull out a table blocking passage through the boat. The saloon was big enough to sit and relax even when the weaving loom was being used and we had the builders fit in extra book shelves for us to retrieve some of our favourite books out of storage. Suddenly we could heat water for a shower whenever we wanted without running the engine and could stand in the shower without being attacked by the curtain. The shower is actually better than any we have had in a house. After three years of living without a fridge, imagine what a difference a little freezer made. Rich could now have ice cream again and though I loved my characterful little twin tub washing machine on “Constanze”, I could now just push a button and enjoy the cruise instead of being stuck inside wrestling tubs of laundry. Cruising was a much more sociable event and we could stand and sit together with the dogs safely at our feet instead of being locked inside the boat.

Named after our Mums, “Laura Maisie” was launched in April 2021 and the first cruise was nerve wracking. Neither of us wanting to be the first to put a scrape on our shiny boat, but once that had happened, which was actually in the first lock, there was no stopping us. We had spent so many months around Middlewich, waiting for our new home, we shot out of town and soon found ourselves on the Anderton boat lift one of the seven wonders of the canal system, going down onto the river Weaver, all ready for new adventures.

New Adventures

Our new adventures had just begun and, after a chance meeting with our friends Colin and Shaun from Foxes Afloat, we decided to take our brand new boat across the river Mersey to Liverpool with them. This was the scariest but most exciting thing we had done up until then. T­ravelling along and across a river normally used by huge ships, our 58ft narrow boat suddenly felt so small and vulnerable and, if that wasn’t enough, later that summer we handed the tiller over to Dee Caffari, round the world Yachtswoman, to see how she could cope navigating a narrowboat, for two videos made in conjunction with Haven Knox-Johnston insurance. Since then we have been on new canals and on the tidal river Trent which was actually scarier that the river Mersey. On the hottest day of the heatwave we were moored in the hottest place in England and then had to reverse three miles down a navigation of weed soup after getting stuck in low water and finally after four years of trying we finally made it to the Leeds-Liverpool canal where we were in one of the coldest places in England completely iced in.

Five years of continually cruising had left us desperately missing our garden but not missing bricks and mortar. The perfect solution, so we thought was a garden mooring. We found a lovely spot in Yorkshire and it took us just three weeks to harvest our first salads. We thought we had found our little bit of heaven but within three months our feet were getting itchy. We missed waking up to new vistas and exploring new places daily, so we once again pulled up the anchor and cruised into the sunset.

Now and Next

Five years of continually cruising had left us desperately missing our garden but not missing bricks and mortar. The perfect solution, so we thought was a garden mooring. We found a lovely spot in Yorkshire and it took us just three weeks to harvest our first salads. We thought we had found our little bit of heaven but within three months our feet were getting itchy. We missed waking up to new vistas and exploring new places daily, so we once again pulled up the anchor and cruised into the sunset.

 

Keep following Fran and Rich’s journey on their YouTube channel Floating Our Boat

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