Lancashire to London

Almost five hundred miles, one hundred and eleven locks, two long tunnels, one drydock, countless swing bridges and one fifty hour sea passage were just some of the challenges we were up against to bring our canal boat from Lancashire to London. We looked into having it craned out of the water and put on the back of a truck but the price was too high, and travelling through Northern England via the canal network in late summer sounded like an adventure.

We left on the 23rd of August 2017 and arrived into the mouth of the Thames river in London in the early hours of the morning of the 25th of September. 33 days. These are some moments from the journey.

*Almost all of the photos here are just snaps from my phone…I’d lost the passion for taking photos (see here) and hardly had any time for shooting properly, I never planned to share these but realised they are the only visual documentation of the journey that I have.

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It was 2.35pm on a sunny Wednesday afternoon when we left Scarisbrick Marina in Ormskirk near Liverpool where our boat had been moored. I don’t think the enormity of the huge journey ahead had really sunk in. We were blissfully unaware of the extent of the hard work that lay in front of us and we spent the afternoon learning the basics of driving our new boat and feeding ducks in the sunshine. In the weeks leading up to this day I had felt desperately impatient for the journey to begin and to transition out of uncertainty into living fully. I was relieved to be moving again.

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Soon after we started the journey our days fell into a sort of chaotic routine. We travelled between eight and eleven hours a day most days. On the third day we had to take our boat up the Wigan flight of twenty-one locks, which involved a lot of hard physical work – by the end of day three I was already wondering what I had got myself into. Some days there were two of us, just me and my dad who had kindly given up a month of his retirement to skipper for us and without whom it would have been impossible. Other times there were three when Chris was around, and sometimes four when his daughter Issy was with us too during the school holidays. Some things were constant – the continuous whirr of the engine, the early starts, the huge number of locks we had to pass through, and other things were in continual motion, like the landscape slowly unfolding and the many different towns and villages we left in our wake.

Things went smoothly until we got to Skipton in Yorkshire. We had problems with our rudder and had to take the boat into dry dock to be fixed. It was frustrating to have to stop as we had been hoping to be in London with the boat for when Issy started school in September, but the dry dock had kindly fitted us in between jobs and within a few days we were moving again.

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My favourite moments were the quiet, unassuming ones. Watching a heron take flight on the shore, sitting alone in the sun on the bow of the boat and being fully present in the moment, watching sunsets over the canal with Chris and a glass of wine, lying in bed listening to my dad and Chris up late chatting, foraging wild meadowsweet and making herbal teas and balms, and putting my things away in their right places after living out of a suitcase for so long.

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I was glad when we finally made it to Boston. That was before I realised I’d be stuck there for almost two weeks. Reaching Boston felt like a milestone, it was the end of our canal journey and the beginning of the sea passage. People had advised us against the sea journey, our boat has no keel and whilst it is sea worthy in coastal waters it is not designed for the ocean, but unfortunately as our boat is a widebeam we were unable to take it entirely through the canal network due to some narrow parts of the canal. Without my dad’s marine and navigational knowledge and experience I certainly wouldn’t have done it, but here we were in Boston and it was too late to turn back.

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I spent quite a bit of time alone in Boston. We had to wait for the perfect weather as we couldn’t risk getting caught in a storm. My dad went back to Edinburgh to wait for the right shipping forecast and Chris had childcare responsibilities back in London. I was ready for the journey to be over and I didn’t really want to be in Boston for any longer than I needed to. I was exhausted from the physical work of bringing the boat through the many locks and swing bridges on the canals and I felt deflated by the depression and anxiety that had insidiously crept in over the past year and which seemed to be exacerbated by Boston. It was mild compared to what many people I know have to endure, but the nightmares, worry, sleep paralysis, and unsettling uncertainty of my current life situation made it feel all the more urgent to get to London and settle for a time, finally. Boston seemed to perfectly mirror my inner state with it’s grey buildings and grey skies and feeling of hopelessness in what was once a thriving port town. It felt like my life was on hold as I waited for the weather to be safe enough for us to go out to sea, isolated from family and friends in an extended state of limbo in a place I found uninspiring and dull. I spent most of my time applying for jobs near London, reading, and thinking too much.

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Our electrical inverter broke down one day so we had no electricity. We bought a new one but there was a gap where we didn’t have anything. We went to the only nearby pub for miles to try to charge our phones and laptops, but when we got there they were using candles to light the place. Ironically our inverter had chosen to be out of action the exact day that their electricity was down too. At times like this sometimes it felt like the universe was against us.

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Something I always hold on to though is that if you look closely enough there are always positives. Being alone in Boston gave me a chance to reflect. I made friends with a dog called Molly who was very needy and would howl on the stern and scratch on the door until I came out to cuddle her. Chris came back from London and we went for walks along the tow path, foraging herbs and making friends with cows. I saw some incredible sunsets where the entire sky lit up on fire. There were a lot of calm peaceful moments, feeding waterbirds, drawing, and doing yoga.

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I had a dream just before we set off on the journey. I was out in the open ocean, perhaps I had fallen from a boat, and the waves were crashing violently around me. I knew I was probably going to die. A particularly enormous wave came, like a tsunami rising from the water, and I thought ‘this is it’ and surrendered my life as I was pushed below the surface and down into the turbulent depths, but then a funny thing happened. Instead of drowning, a pocket of air and safety suddenly opened up at the ocean floor with me inside of it. I could hear the waves still crashing and breaking above me but I was in this safe cocoon, a bubble of sanity away from a treacherous storm above. I woke feeling strangely calm. It felt like a premonition, and a promise that there was a safe place to retreat to within, even when the outside world looked and felt like chaos.

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On September 21st there was finally a good shipping forecast. The waves were supposed to be ‘slight’ rather than the ‘moderate’ which had dominated the forecast for weeks. We decided to go, but we were only a few moments into the open water of the Wash when the waves got bigger and our poor boat was corkscrewing in the swell. The few possessions which we had left out were sent crashing to the floor and we had to admit defeat and take shelter in the Great Ouse river by King’s Lynn. The next day we set out again. Chris had to go back to London to take care of Issy and so it was just me and my dad again. It was a misty morning and we sailed off into the grey fuzziness. I was disappointed that Chris couldn’t come with us because it meant a lot more work for me and my dad, the journey was close to fifty hours in total, so with only two crew sleeping for more than an hour or so at a time wasn’t really possible, but it was what it was and none of us could change the circumstances we had been dealt.

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Before the boat journey I knew nothing about marine navigation, boats, engineering or driving canal boats, it was a very sudden and steep learning curve. I knew nothing of navigating the coastal waters at night, or how to find the safe channels using the red and green bhoys, or how to understand the tides and the effects they had on our speed. However with only two of us crewing I had to learn everything so that I could drive the boat alone while my dad took food and nap breaks. We sailed through the night on two consecutive days, with only a few hours respite in Lowestoft in the middle to get fuel, a total of forty-four hours, and then after resting in Queenborough for the night it took another nine hours to get into the Thames. The weather worsened considerably after the first twelve hours and the rest of the trip was spent rolling and corkscrewing constantly. We tried to do two hour shifts driving the boat so that each of us could rest and eat regularly, but I had pretty bad sea sickness for the majority of the journey so spent a lot of that time curled up on the sofa wondering why the hell I had thought this was a good idea.

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Sailing the boat alone through the night was a surreal experience. Nothing but blackness and rolling waves lit up by our headlights in every direction. It felt like a parallel universe outside the normal laws of space and time. Despite the intense rolling of the boat, sometimes so much so that I had to hold on for my life as there was only a half rail between me and the ocean, there were times when I felt a deep peace out there with no-one. With my dad asleep, it was only me and miles upon miles of darkness, stars and water. The movement was rhythmic and rocked me into a sense of calmness that defied the circumstances. Small concerns lost their importance when faced with this colossal task and I took comfort in the beauty of the entire universe spread out above and in front of me. A lot of the time I could see the coast, which was reassuring, but when the moon turned the tides against us our speed decreased to almost nothing and sometimes we would be travelling past the same piece of land for what felt like an eternity. At one point we were passing Great Yarmouth with it’s bright industrial lights and I left to take a break, yet when I returned to take over from my dad an hour or two later we were still passing the same place. Sometimes the bhoys there to guide us seemed more like menacing monsters, they were huge up close and rang out a solitary and ominous sounding bell to warn of rocks and obstacles as we passed, sometimes too close as my ability to drive the boat decreased in proportion to the hours I had been awake. At some points I felt like I was going completely mad, but I guess that is what the concoction of sleep deprivation, exhaustion and sea sickness does.

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After what seemed like an entire lifetime we were finally coming in to the solace of Queensborough harbour. The sun was just rising and the water danced with yellow, orange and red. The relief of sleep and the safety of the harbour were like bright beacons of light after the dark and treacherous nights.

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After resting at Queenborough we still had to get into the Thames, through the flood barrier and Thames lock, and into the canals. It was another nine hours journeying up river and I was beyond exhausted, but seeing the Thames flood barrier in the distance was one of the best moments. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m about as far from a city person as you can get, but I have never been happier to see London’s skyline with it’s tower blocks and landmarks appearing in the distance through the clouds.

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Almost 500 miles, a month out of our lives and a journey that was both extraordinarily beautiful and also for me somewhat traumatic, but we had finally made it. We were home, and the relief and satisfaction was made all the sweeter by the journey that had come before.

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“The amount of weather you can endure is directly proportionate to the amount you will gain. Weather rises in fierceness and crashes into your shore and then it subsides. The only thing we can hold onto knowing is that it does recede.” Sarah Blondin, Live Awake.

 






 



  

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Land to Water



When I arrived back home in the UK from Australia and New Zealand on the second last day of 2016 I experienced such a wide spectrum of different emotions from excitement and happiness to complete overwhelm and anxiety. When I left home in Scotland in August 2016 for the road, I had no idea where I was going, but I knew that I needed to create a life somewhere new, I felt stagnant and uninspired in the town where I grew up and I was tired of the city I had come to call home – I wanted to be surrounded by nature and to live more simply and sustainably.

I spent the first part of 2017 mostly on the road. I drove my campervan down to my partner’s artist studio in London where I stayed awhile and we spent a lot of the summer travelling South East England in the van. I started volunteering at a tree nursery and found solace from the concrete jungle of London in the parks, woodlands and beaches nearby. That summer felt like freedom. There were definitely hard parts, we didn’t have much money and we didn’t know where we would live or what we would do when the summer ended which created anxiety, but we were rich in love and sun-soaked afternoons and for a time it was more than enough.

It was something I used to romanticise – being nomadic – and there were certainly many beautiful parts, but I missed having all of my things in one place – living between a suitcase and a van wasn’t always what I imagined it might be. As summer went on our thoughts turned to what we would do in the winter and the very real prospect of having no home from August onwards except for the van begun to weigh heavy on us. Chris had to vacate his live/work artist studio and I had no other option except go back to Scotland and move in with family which felt like going backwards.

The houseboat idea came serendipitously to us, it was unexpected and unplanned but somehow all fell into place perfectly (although not without some stressful moments). There were so many reasons that it made sense, from practical things like location and finances, to our shared love for being close to the water, but above all I love the adventure of living on a boat and having the freedom to move around wherever we choose rather than being in a fixed location. Just like living in the van, but bigger and more viable long term.

The perfect boat also came to us through a combination of luck and many hours spent trawling the internet. After only looking at a couple of boats in person we knew straight away when we saw her that she was the one. The only problem was she was in Lancashire and we were in London, so we had to figure out a way to move her – a long story for another time.

Writing here now from our dining table on the boat in front of the wood burning fire it feels like we have come a long way since this time seven months ago, both in terms of physical distance and also in learning and experiencing. It also feels like there is a long way to go before we get everything exactly as we want it and settle in and figure out what we are doing. Owning and driving and looking after a boat is a lot more work than I imagined and we are constantly learning new things.

The deeper lesson that I seem to keep stumbling upon more than anything though over the last few years is to trust in life, in the universe, because ultimately things do work out, even if from where you are standing now it is almost impossible to see. I would never have envisioned myself living on a boat near London a few years ago but life takes us down some unexpected roads and sometimes we have to trust that things are all happening for a reason and it might not make sense right now but one day we will be able to see the gifts hidden in the transitional and difficult times.

“Often change can catch us off guard. It comes like a gust of strong wind and blows away the ideas and structures we have worked so hard at building. Sitting in the rubble we tend to forget the part of us that had been crying out for this very thing. We wish we could take back our secret prayers and scramble to put back the pieces of the comfortable existence we once had. When faced with great change we must trust what comes budding forth. We must quickly release our grasp on the old and familiar in order to plant our new garden. Resisting change is futile. The longer we fight our current and therefore only reality, the longer we remain in limbo, trapped somewhere between the past and future, far from the present.” Sarah Blondin, Live Awake.