The Way it was – a cruising retrospective May.

Sitting in my comfy deckchair this year in the safe rays of the Lockdown sun I have started to realise that ‘the boat’ might be sinking. Time to smell the roses and get back to reality ashore.

Locked gate. Caversham Court Gardens.

May has always been my favourite – something about this month’s early morning birdsong makes me feel privileged to be alive. Celebrating our wedding anniversary and my Mother’s birthday were also regular pleasures, until this year; No meal out; no family picnics.

For our 36th wedding anniversary we stopped off for lunch at the Rowbarge Inn in Thatcham on our way down the Kennet and Avon Canal ending up that evening colliding with ‘Young Adam’ who had gone aground at Bull’s Lock. No photo record of that to be found! – though we did have my Mother aboard later for her birthday which we celebrated at Kintbury.

Have piano, will play.

On our 37th we stopped off for Lunch at the Bel and Dragon in Reading at the start of the K&A and celebrated whilst Keith serviced our Isuzu engine and, afterwards, we did the Huntley and Palmers Island circuit – not really to be recommended. Our 38th never happened as Pam was away in Ohio and I, confined to life alone in the T&K Marina, celebrated by driving down to Val Wyatt Marine to buy a new pump switch for the shower.

Clean and tidy, and still quite new.

Our 39th found us back on the Kennet and Avon Canal having lunch at the community run Barge Inn at Honeystreet – and very good it was too – after which we moored at All Cannings overlooking Milk Hill and the White Horse.

A Wiltshire view on the K&A Canal.

For our 40th we ended up in Selby Basin, Yorkshire, where we booked a passage for the next day to get up the River Ouse to York. On our way to see the Abbey in town we spotted Jinnah, due to open for a Indian Buffet Sunday lunch at 12, but on our return at 12.30 it was like the Marie Celeste – doors open but no one in, so we just sat at a table and waited until a surprised manager appeared with profuse apologies and on learning about our special anniversary stood us the first two pints and summoned the piano player – who it turned out was a student and only did requests if they were Adele songs. The lunch was OK and we made it to York the next day and later that month left Xenia at York Marina and spent a week in Orford, Suffolk, in a rented house with all our family visiting to celebrate.

A family resemblance on the beach at Aldeburgh.

In 2014 we descended down a rather fast flowing River Somme to arrive at Abbeville in time for a celebratory lunch – only to find, it being a Monday, that the town was mostly closed. However, we were given directions to ‘L’Etoile du Jour’ which had a set menu (2 choices on each of the three courses) for €15. I chose the fish main, which unfortunately I failed to notice came on a huge bed of choucroute (which I hate).

Abbeville on the Somme.

Well we didn’t dance on or under the famous bridge at Avignon and I seem to have lost count of on which anniversary this was,

The famous bridge.

But we did find the Vietnamese restaurant ‘Nem’ open in St Pierre Square, nice location, OK lunch.

Vietnamese on this occasion in Avignon.

On the River Lot we spent a very solitary May being harassed by hostile fishermen at the few rather derelict moorings available and finding no-one much at home in the almost deserted towns along the way. The choice of restaurant for our 43rd anniversary was down to one, ‘L’Ecuelle d’Or’ in Clairac, where we had a nice lamb curry, special of the day. The others recommended in Hugh McKnight’s ‘Cruising French Waterways’ (he lives in Clairac) had long gone.

Nobody much about in Clairac.

In 2017 we were travelling along the Midi on the day, on our way into Toulouse, and forgot to celebrate but next day had a day out to Airbus as a treat. We did however fly back to England to celebrate my Mother’s 90th Birthday with a large family picnic in Lacock, Wiltshire before returning a week later to continue cruising.

Party barge Samsara in Toulouse.

Back in an English garden for our 2018 anniversary, spending the day on the Caversham Arts Trail, with lunch at Papa Gee, we were saddened by an afternoon phone call to let us know of my best man’s death that day, 45 years on.

Pam in an English Garden. Caversham.

We made our move ashore in May 2019 and prepared Xenia for sale. All good things have to come to an end sometime,

An idle Caversham Lock on the Thames.

but then there are new beginnings.

Some well travelled herbs settling into their new border.

And there’s always Croquet – we’ve found the Caversham Croquet Club on one of our ‘exercise’ hour outings and we’ve joined. Last year it was Bowls, but there is a problem this year with ‘social distancing’ on the boat needed to get us over to the Island!

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The Way it was – a cruising retrospective April.

Over the years April has been a month of many beginnings and some endings of journeys for us aboard Xenia.

Our first meal in Belgium April 2014 in hot sunshine in Nieuwpoort awaiting Xenia’s arrival from Wisbech

Our last meal in France waiting for the Eurostar April 2018 having shipped Xenia from Migennes to Reading

It has also been a month of tunnels and summits,

Foulridge Tunnel on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal April 2013

The Riqueval Tunnel on the Canal de Saint Quentin April 2014

L’Escapade passing us on the summit of the Canal du Centre April 2015

Le Segala on the Summit of the Canal du Midi April 2017

And of meeting new friends and passing interesting boats,

Horsepower at Kintbury on the Kennet and Avon Canal April 2012

Leeds and Liverpool short boat Kennet at Skipton April 2013

Convivial friends Esme and Friesland at Cambrai April 2014

Hotel Boat with a pool. Amarylis at St Leger sur Dhune on the Canal du Centre April 2015

An organ recital at Musee des Augustins, Toulouse, with new friends June and Albert April 2016

Waiting for our pilot to cross the River Garonne from the River Baise to the River Lot April 2016

And so often April has been full of warm sunshine and very few boats moving, a tranquil early start to the boating season almost everywhere.

Our first day out on the Thames April 2009

In Lyon April 2015

In Toulouse 2016

A favourite view on the Canal du Midi April 2017.

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The Way it was – a cruising retrospective. March.

Never a fan of ‘being busy’ I found cruising to be a great way of looking occupied without really doing anything in particular. But waking up now at home faced with another day of enforced idleness and lack of social activity I feel exhausted before I even start. It is time to get back on board (even if only metaphorically) with a blog.

March 2009. Early days aboard, and cold.

Over successive winters spent aboard Xenia in moorings on the River Thames, in Abingdon and Caversham, on the Bridgewater Canal in Worsley, on the River Nene in Northampton, on the River Cure in Vermenton, on the Midi Canal in Carcassonne, and on the River Yonne in Auxerre, we usually found ourselves in March preparing to launch into a new cruising itinerary.

A cold winter in Worsley. 2012.

Some years we got off to an early start. In 2013 we braved the cold weather on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and made it down to Liverpool for a 10 day stay in Salthouse Dock.

Going down to Liverpool.

We had had to book the trip well in advance and were escorted down in a convoy with British Waterways staff operating the locks (which are kept padlocked against vandalism).

 

Salthouse Dock at night.

It brightened up at night – but there were more than a few late-night drunks about. There were still icicles hanging from the low bridges as we left at the end of March and next day we woke to a frozen Leeds and Liverpool Canal.

Northampton Marina and a very tall crane in the background lifting out a widebeam trip boat. Expensive!

In 2014 it was flooding that was of concern with our plans to get to France. On March 4th, the day of my Inland Waterways Boat Handling River test, the Red flag (strong stream) warning was up at Northampton Lock and so we could only cruise as far as Rush Mills but still were able to complete our Man Overboard simulation and I learned how to spring on and off a jetty and how to handle a strong flow. And we both passed our CEVNI tests too.

Elton. River Nene.

Travelling the entire length of the River Nene to get to Wisbech by March 31st was an anxious time. When would we be able to get through Islip Bridge? We needed the water level to go down to give us 1.9m air draft clear and it was a matter of waiting to get through at the first opportunity. Once through we rested up at Elton waiting for the RYA ICC (International Certificate of Competence) to come through Poste Restante to the Post Office. We celebrated at the local Loch Fynne – crab, oysters, langoustines, prawns. A taste of things to come.

Waiting for the guillotine at The Dog and Doublet.

Getting to Wisbech on the tide required some precise timing on the day and an overnight stay at the wonderfully named Dog in A Doublet Lock and then again getting into the hoist, when the tide permitted, required timing and good positioning against the flow.

The Crane at Wisbech, River Nene.

On St Patrick’s Day 2015 we set off from Vermenton, France, but didn’t get far before being held up for 3 days whilst VNF filled the canal above Mailly-la-ville.

Waiting for the Nivernais Canal to fill at Mailly-la-Ville.

We reached the summit of the Nivernais Canal by March 26th. It was cold and miserable and quite often wet and, on our way down the other side, we shared locks with David Piper (of Piper Boats) who was having to make a detour to get his show barge from Paris to St Jean de Losne. The Burgundy Canal had failed to open on time. We didn’t meet anyone else.

On our own at Baye on the summit of the Nivernais.

The following March on St Patrick’s Day we flew back to England for a break and only returned to the boat in Carcassonne on the 31st – the day of a French Strike, with planes delayed or diverted, trains not running and a long delay for us spent sitting in the Hotel Bristol in Toulouse waiting for a bus. The food was good though! We stayed in Carcassonne the following winter and spent some of March visiting the Vermillion Coast and Spain by train and car. Our winter neighbour, Si Solo, was the first to leave port on the 19th but we set off that year on April 1st.

Si Solo, our winter neighbour, leaves Carcassonne early.

In March 2018 we again had to get our timing right to make it further down the Yonne, prone to flooding, to Migennes for a date with a crane and boat transport on April 4th. The first Auxerre lock finally opened on March 27th and we decided to head through early on 29th to make the trip in one day and wait a week at Migennes (a good move as the river closed again shortly after).

The waterfront Auxerre. March 2018.

March 2019 was our last on the boat – safely moored up at Thames and Kennet Marina in Reading on the Thames. Our only worry was completing on the sale of our house in Reading and on the purchase of a flat in Caversham. Thank goodness we are not attempting that this year.

 

Cranes over Vermenton. Harbingers of Spring.

Cranes of one type or another have often featured in our March activity over the years!

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Xenia is sold.

It’s the end of an era, a decade to be precise, and Xenia has now gone to a new home somewhere near Rickmansworth, having been surveyed for the first time and had her bottom blacked for the fourth.

April 2009 001

Early days. April 2009 on the Thames at Goring.

This leaves us shore-bound, although I have volunteered to train up as a boatman to operate the little ferry that transports members of the Island Bohemian Bowls and Social Club to and from north or south bank to De Montford Island – the site of a famous duel in 1163, witnessed by Henry the second, between Robert de Montford and the Earl of Essex, who, left for dead on the island, was rescued by the monks from Reading Abbey and lived out the rest of his life in their order. The bowls matches seem to be altogether a less risky challenge – but competitive none-the-less.

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Bowls on the Island. A more gentle form of combat than that of Knights of Old.

Everyone says “but, oh, won’t you miss the boat?”. “Well, not yet” is the current answer. Admiring the lovely landscapes between Reading and Oxford yesterday, from one of the few trains that was both running and had working air-conditioning during the hottest day on record here in the south of England, I did reflect on those days spent in the relentless heat of the Midi summers trying to find shade and to sleep in a hot steel boat whilst fighting off the mosquitos!

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The neighbouring herb garden at Caversham Court – gives me something to aspire to!

So far, we are enjoying life ashore. I still have to stop myself from instinctively checking for when the next pump-out is due, whether we need a water-fill and what state of charge the batteries are in. It seems strange not to have to be aware of how much water or power we are using or how much waste we are generating and not having to worry about what supplies we are going to need, for how long and where we will find them. Everything we need is here within walking distance, just around the corner!

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Sharing a BBQ in the garden with our neighbours.

This leaves quite a bit of time for social activities and being able to commit to things on a regular basis – although I suspect that there will be days when I just wish we could untie the ropes and cruise off to a new horizon. But for now, we’re loving our large shared garden, and being able to make our contributions to its upkeep, meeting and getting to know our several neighbours, and learning a new sport, bowls. And it will be easy to lock the door and fly off at a moment’s notice as we did in June to look after Nigel’s garden in Laure Minervois and to travel the entire length of the Midi Canal in just a few short hours – recognising every twist and turn of the canal and catching up with old boating friends.

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On the way to Sete, George Brassens and his cat. On our way to have lunch with David and Evey of DB L’Escapade at Frontignan.

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Away with the Fairies.

The reality is hard to grasp – we are moving ashore after ten years of life afloat. It has taken us the last year whilst based in the Thames and Kennet Marina to get this change in lifestyle organised – the final result being a slightly bigger than boat-sized retirement flat in Caversham.

The Fairies beckon.

Packing everything up into boxes has been a challenge – and a revelation as to where those things, like the spare fuel filter, got to but couldn’t be found when needed and those things, like Real Tennis Rackets, that never moved and were never needed. The silver definitely could do with a polish.

Xenia cleaned up by the Fairies.

But we are no strangers to ‘moving on’. In fact this will be the sixteenth move in our forty six years of marriage, making our time afloat our longest residence – although travelling in our home we do not count as staying put. In fact we have been on a ten year voyage – which does now sound like one hell of a trip! So we are looking forward to a fresh start and giving some of our ‘treasures’ a new home and fresh lease of life whilst at the same time being sad to leave Xenia and the peripatetic lifestyle she has so generously provided us with.

Moored in Douai at the end of our first week in France. April 2014.

And what fun it has been – an adventure and a challenge; new friends, new culture, new language, new climate, new places, new food and drink, new pace of life. They will all now convert into fond memories of years well spent, in a kind of neverland.

On the Garonne Canal.

Back to reality though and the art of quitting whilst still ahead and moving on to new pleasures and revisiting old pleasures. As with comedy, so in life, timing is everything and it is time to say goodbye to Xenia and find her a new owner. She has been cleaned up by the Boat Fairies and Clean 2 Gleam and is now on the Sales Pontoon at the Thames and Kennet Marina.

The last of the Chateau de Santenay to warm the new flat.

And as it happens we are returning to the Midi for 3 weeks in June to housesit for Nigel at Laure Minervois, so will be able to visit old haunts and see old friends all with the speed and comfort of a hire car whilst still being able to remember the delights of a slow life afloat.

Nigel’s shady terrace at Laure Minervois. 2017.

La plus ca change.

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A change of pace.

At the peak of our waterway travels we averaged over 2,000 kilometers (1250 miles) a season, some 500 hours of engine time, for 5 consecutive years travelling through first England and then France. That was until we reached the south of France where, inevitably, we slowed down to half that pace for a couple of years and enjoyed the warmth and the sunshine. This last year in 2018 we almost ground to a halt on our return to England and have only travelled for 125 hours, barely covering 600kms (370 miles) up and down the Thames – remarkably though still enjoying warmth and sunshine for this last summer at least!

At a crossroads in Caversham.

We hadn’t planned on quite such a dramatic slowdown – it was the quietest year in Xenia’s now 10 years on the water. Like us, she is beginning to feel her age and we had decided to take a year’s mooring at The Thames and Kennet Marina to catch our breath and get ourselves re-established into a home address ashore and to take advantage of nearby technicians to give Xenia (and ourselves) a thorough health check in all departments. On both scores it has been slow but steady progress but this has taken a lot of waiting time to get things done – booking service visits, waiting for parts, NHS appointments – keeping us moored up at base and not able to get away for a prolonged cruise.

  Licence fees Mooring costs Insurance Diesel – litres used Engine hours Km travelled
2009 £900 £3,800 £380 487 228  
2010 £1,000 £5,600 £400 328 140  
2011 £1,100 £3,700 £420 856 450  
2012 £1,280 £1,500 £440 1,070 500  
2013 £1,341 £1,348 £479 1,146 550  
2014 £206 + €509 £474+€1,339 £582 1,333 550 2,280
2015 €540 €1,890 £501 1,252 450 2,100
2016 €560 €2,168 £528 715 250 1,100
2017 €532 €2,557 £542 1,000 265 1,500
2018 €109+£1267 €402+£7120 £432 330 125 600

 

When we initially discussed the option of a life afloat Pam wasn’t sure about the prospect but generously gave it the benefit of the doubt for a trial of 10 years. We have enjoyed every minute of it (well bar a few choice moments) but the time for a review is upon us!

Ready to launch. Eynsham Feb 2009.

Some of the few choice moments that we haven’t enjoyed so much have often involved mechanical breakdown of one sort or another. There is a lot of equipment on a boat to go wrong! Here is the list of servicing and repairs for 2018;

Rescued from grounding on the Rhone by Udi. (Bill for £69 for repairs to his winch followed a year later).

4 new sacrificial anodes (£400), Boat Safety Certificate and Gas check (£350), Webasto burner tube replacement and domestic heating service (£485); parts and servicing for Stovax multi-fuel stove (£200); replacement of gas cooker (£400); replacement of faulty battery monitor and electrical checks (£670); new domestic batteries and wiring (£1460); regular engine service including flushing keel cooling system and fresh anti-freeze (£440); refurbishing the Travelpower alternator (£848); new fan belts (£80); replacing the electric immersion heater (£250).

Sacrificial anodes – one old one new.

So, all should be in good order mechanically but after a neighbouring boat’s flying solar panel in a recent high wind scraped across our roof, taking some paint with it, I am once again reminded of all the paintwork that needs touching up (or more than just touching up). Sanding and rust treatment and painting I find to be a chore because as soon as you have done it, it needs doing again – and I just wish someone else would do it!

Three generations at the tiller.

Our plans for 2019 are a work in progress. Firstly we have to sell our house (now under offer) to pay off the mortgage (before we reach 70) and downsize with the difference so that we have a secure land base, hopefully here in Caversham. Then we have to decide whether to keep Xenia (the considerable Thames mooring and licensing costs will no doubt be the big factor) or whether to look for a new source of entertainment. We are already missing being ‘on the move’ so perhaps a change of pace on wheels might be on the cards with some visits to places we haven’t been able to reach by boat and some flying re-visits to some of the places we have – Brexit permitting. From the day of the referendum result, when we were deep in the Gers region of France, we have been preparing for a ‘hard Brexit’ (although the Minister of Tourism for the Region did personally assure us on the day that we would always be welcome in the Gers to enjoy ‘the slow life’) and my forecast then of a no-deal still seems to be a safe bet!.

In the Gers – the night before Brexit.

Only time will tell….

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Not doing much on the Thames

After such a glorious spring and summer, late August and early September have brought disappointing weather and we have occupied ourselves mainly in port apart from a week with a hire car visiting Wiltshire and The Calder Valley in Yorkshire to see Lili’s Yurt, meet Tom, and inaugurate her home made pizza oven.

Pam and Tom keeping an eye on the new Pizza Oven.

 

Lili’s Yurt home.

A delightful few late September sunny warm days tempted us out as far as Goring-on-Thames where Nick (same term at prep school) and Caroline joined us for lunch and a cruise to Beale Park.

Whitchurch Lock on self service.

A couple of nights moored in Pangbourne Meadow and a visit to the Cheese Shop made for a good finish to an otherwise dull boating month.

Whitchurch Toll Bridge viewed from Pangbourne Meadow.

Our pontoon neighbour Tim, on Argy Bargy, threw a farewell party before leaving for his new mooring at Shillingford Bridge. It made us realise how much we have missed our normal pattern of ongoing daily social activity whilst constantly cruising throughout the summer – and for the first time we met some of our neighbours of just a few berths away.

Argy Bargy passes use at Pangbourne.

One neighbour’s boat caught fire earlier this year whilst it was out for work on the hard standing – making them homeless. But their insurance paid out and they have been able to buy a bigger ex-hotel boat. That’s the second boat fire that we have heard of this summer.

At Mapledurham Lock.

Our last cruise, alas, also confirmed that the state of our domestic batteries has declined further and now they won’t even get us through the night without sounding the ‘low battery’ alarm, so something will have to be done before we venture out for any more extended cruising. After more checks it is confirmed that the batteries are dying and so we have decided to replace the 6 Gel 12v (660 ah) with 4 Rolls 6v S6-275AGM (550ah) – which at £300 each should give us a far greater total number of cycles and therefore a much longer life despite a slight reduction in overall capacity. In the process we have also discovered that THE bolt securing the Travelpower alternator to the engine housing has sheared in half again (this was the third replacement and thicker extra strong bolt installed at Entente Marine last September) and furthermore the actual engine bracket now needs replacement. So the alternator has been sent off for servicing and to repair the electrical connections which were badly worn.

3 men in one boat. Tim enlists help from Tingdene neighbours David (Helianthus) and Martin (Nemo) to move to his new winter moorings.

Our new gas cooker, with eye level grill, has been delivered and installed, so that has been a step forward even though it took a couple of false starts to get the damaged grill handle replaced. And with this year’s annual engine service we have, for the first time ever, changed the antifreeze. The oil pressure gauge is now on the blink and we are due a new set of fan belts (again) so there’s more work to be done – it never ends; and I still haven’t even opened the tins of paint that I ordered last September and had shipped out to France!

New gas cooker successfully installed.

After a bit of tidying up and a fair bit of research we have come to the conclusion that extending and renovating our little terraced house in Reading will simply be too much hard work, too expensive, and yield limited value – so we have just put it up for sale, but it seems that the market is very sluggish and fingers crossed that the Governor of the Bank of England’s recent prediction of a 30% drop in UK house prices hasn’t already started before Brexit.

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