Life on a canal boat - Part I

Paul Miles at a canal lock
In the first of a three-part series, a repentant travel writer trades in his longhaul flights and luxury holidays for three months living on a narrowboat

The winter of 1963 was exceptionally cold. Canals and rivers in Britain froze, and thus ended the era of cargo-carrying on the inland waterways. The boats were frozen in and couldn’t move. Until this winter past, that scene seemed like one from another age.

I was born in 1963 and the picture of coal and steel, bricks and sand being transported by canal similarly seems truly historic. Perhaps I am deluding myself about how many years have passed? Forty-six, if you haven’t worked it out already. It sounds old. I am ready for a change. I’ve lived in London for the past 10 years and, rather exotically, in the South Pacific for five years before that. I’ve never bought a home, thinking it more important to make the most of life rather than be enslaved by a mortgage I can’t afford.

I can fit all my possessions into a transit van. Even that seems too much. This may seem odd coming from someone who has been writing for publications promoting consumption. One  magazine has readers who, according to surveys, spend an average of $11,000 a year just on jewellery and watches. Perhaps now their time is up? I find it hard to empathise with the super-rich who have found themselves a few million pounds poorer because they wanted more and trusted their money to a man with a satirically suitable surname.

While crooked Wall Street businessman Bernie Madoff was busy fleecing investors and everyone was living on the never-never, I have been guilty of fuelling the dreams of those who, in the same reader surveys, state that their most valuable luxury is free time. How have I done this? As a guest of tour operators and airlines I have swanned around the world, writing on travel, much of it luxury and, incongruous as it may seem, various shades of green (or should that be greenwash?) I have stayed in a vast tented room with elephants wandering into my outdoor shower and been chauffeured by helicopter to an alpine eco-chalet with personal cook and guide. Now, in complete contrast, I am about to live on the British canals in a boat just 68ft long and 7ft wide.

‘All of man’s unhappiness stems from his inability to stay alone in his room,’ said 17thcentury French philosopher Blaise Pascal. I quoted this in a feature about travel in the January edition of the Ecologist (Out of this world?). It is a favourite aphorism of modernday philosopher Alain de Botton. I began to wonder whether my constant wanderlust was symptomatic of an underlying search for myself? Could I stay alone in my room for several months? The joy of living in a narrowboat is that I can stay at home and still be on the move. Is that cheating? Anyway, I’m not sure how much I agree with Pascal. Yes, we need to be comfortable with ourselves, to be able to be alone and think, but what an impoverished and antisocial world it would be if we all stayed inside on our lonesomes all of the time.

I’ve been struggling to read The Ecology of Wisdom by Arne Naess, the Norwegian philosopher who started the ‘deep ecology’ movement. It is about putting nature – or as he calls it, ‘the ecosphere’ – first in everything. He thought and wrote while living at the top of a mountain in Norway. It took more than 60 trips with a horse to carry the building materials to construct his simple hut, Tvergastein, Europe’s highest dwelling, at an altitude of 1,500m. By comparison, my narrowboat won’t take any effort. I’ll just have to collect it from the hire company, appropriately named Cruise Free Spirit, and cruise off into the waterways. Yes, there will be muddy towpaths to contend with, a toilet to pump out and water tank to fill, but there will also be a cosy wood-burning stove and ducks outside my window.

Slow boat to Staffordshire

Last summer I spent a week on a narrowboat, steering a circuit through Staffordshire, Worcestershire and the Midlands. The green arteries breathe life into decayed industrial areas. Even in the middle of cities, as well as bobbing plastic bottles and drug paraphernalia there were herons flying ahead. Moored on the Severn one night, a salmon leapt through the water and a mink crept aboard. It was like Tales of the Riverbank.

In the film Australia, the character of the Drover, played by Hugh Jackman, says that he only owns what he can carry. To him, it is not possessions but a story that is important in life. Perhaps if those of us who love travel gave up owning anything more than we can carry and travelled the world as lightly as a drover then our carbon emissions may be excusable? We would travel slowly and overland wherever possible, of course.

We all know emissions at altitude are far more damaging, and it wouldn’t be a penance to take more time.

By living on a boat for the next few months and exploring a slower, parallel world, one that harks back two centuries – a system of canals and locks and winding holes – I expect to find lots of that greatest luxury: free time. I want to think, read and find direction. Please step aboard and accompany me on the journey.

Paul Miles is a freelance writer and photographer.

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