One or two of the practicalities, and their usefulness in social cleansing #offgrid #narrowboat #england

The canals, eh?

Nothing to do but totter around occasionally waggling the tiller and calling down to the engine room for “full astern ahead all stop finished with engines give me all you’ve got” and “ramming speed if you please, Mr Oily Wragg”.

Well, yes – and no.

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Living on a boat boldly going around the canal system where only a split infinitive has gone before is something of a manual process. Water comes out of the taps, but only if I fill the tank once in a while.

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The toilet does whatever it is that toilets mysteriously do do, but only if I empty it once in a while. The stove heats the whole boat, but it needs me to find and feed it firelighters and kindling and coal. With some cunning woodwork changes the Cardinal (now) has room for five sacks of coal to be hidden away in inside storage, along with the necessary miscellaneous fiddly bits.

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The rubbish bag in the galley would expand to a quite disconvenient size were I not also to find somewhere to rehome it once in a while. The only thing that sort of almost comes in without my having to fetch it is the solar power.

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The panels do have to be kept free from tree-dandruff (falling twigs, leaves and sap), from avian digestive-tract deposits and from the discarded underwear of squirrels and voles during mating season (January to January with two weeks off in early April for a quick snack, a breather and the application of cooling salve to the gonads) – so even they need a bit of attention. First thing every morning while they are still wet with dew I stand on the towpath with my trusty extendable mop-squeegee and use the dew to give them all a wipe over and a dry (keeping them cleaner than the rain alone does makes a circa 5% improvement in their capture rate).

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The Cardinal’s crew of solar panels consists of three 135w panels dedicated to the domestic batteries and one 30w panel that has the sole job of keeping the engine starter battery as happy as a pig in ShihTzu dogs are weird, aren’t they?

There are days when none of these jobs need doing, days when one or two are demanding attention and some days when everything has to be done! On one such day recently I went out to shoplift fetch comestibles, chemicals for the lavvy, kindling, coal, water and to dispose of rubbish. By dint of careful planning aforethought I cut the walking down to just nine miles in total, half of that with my old hemp shopping bags creaking at the seams.

For items heavier than pickled figs, roasted artichoke hearts and bottles of vintage port – such as 25kg sacks of coal – I call upon the services of my dear friend, Mr Big-Trolley.

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Mr Big-Trolley hefts and totes wood, coal and even those damnable gazunder cassettes. When not helping, Mr Big-Trolley folds up and lives in a purpose-built kennel indoors, taking up slightly less than no space at all really.

Mr Big-Trolley will soon, once Mr Pension has accrued sufficiently, be joined by Mr Shopping-Trolley, the better to fetch comestibles. There I have my sights set on a Teutonic model with pneumatic tyres, insulated freezer compartment and a design that owes more to expeditions up K2 than to the tartan OAP trolleys of yore.

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England has some two-thousand miles of canals and, as is the custom in England, their existence and future has been passed into the whims of …somewhat eccentric circumstances. Quelle surprise. Officially the canals are still a National asset, owned by the taxpayer, but whereas they used to be overseen by “British Waterways” in the current obsessive ideologically-driven fervour to sell off all public assets, they are now overseen by a private company masquerading under the guise of a “charitable trust” – The Canal & River Trust. This august body is the usual mix of new and old, of the brilliant, energetic and dedicated (the foot-soldiers) and of the self-interested, anti-boater Metropolitan-based high-salary “omni-professionals” (the “Board” and senior management).

You will pardon me for noticing it, Claude, but some senior upon whom has been laid the burden of Administrator and of Caretaker seek to conflate burden with privilege and they mistake the roles of maintenance for that of Authority. It is as it ever was, and any lazy acquiesence in the matter is taken as eager and contented capitulation.

The aims of the “top” dogs are crystal-clear and neon-bright, but where the canals are headed is altogether more foggy territory. The best guess that I can make is towards some sort of linear-ribbon theme park for occasional & weekend boaters, for cyclists, joggers, dog-emptiers and canoeists. It is evident even from my twenty months’ of experience that a certain, if not ethnic then social cleansing is underway. To live aboard one’s boat is to be, at best, disregarded by the system, and in more general, to be wholly unloved in much the way that a farmer unloves weeds among his crops. I do feel as though if CaRT could spray us away with Weedol, they would, and without a second thought.

There is a certain driver for this, and that (as ruddy usual) is a city problem – London and Bath and other metropolitan areas where the insane housing system has driven non-boaty people to live cheek by jowl by log-jam on boats as a “cheap” alternative. With all of the usual skill and judgement incompetence of Metropolitan-based high-salary “omni-professionals” – the sort who think that a job is a job is a job and have but one approach to any job in their personal toolkit – a national sledgehammer is being used to crack a city-nut.

“Outsourcing” has always saved these folks’ “careers” in the past, and it’s all that they know. What they can’t outsource, they seek to ban. Outsource maintenance to third-party companies (their mates? Tsk-tsk, as if…) and outsource boats to commercial marinas (ditto). Call me old-fashioned if you will, but outsourcing just means that you’re incapable of managing the job yourself and it shrieks that you don’t mind forking over cost+profit to someone else who can. If you were capable, you’d do the job in-house and save the profit element. It’s the usual scat and spoor of the mediocre.

One of the techniques being used to cleanse the system of live-aboard boaters is, to coin a phrase and embugger a word, the disprovision of services. Dotted around the system are service areas where potable water is available, there are sluice rooms wherein to empty toilet tanks, and rubbish and recycling facilities (for which boaters pay a substantial annual licence fee). These are being systematically neglected, falling gradually into disrepair and are not then repaired. What possible “better” way of cleansing the system of an unwanted demographic than by ever so gradually removing the essential services that allow that demographic to live civilised lives? Simples. No-one could possibly cry discrimination because, after all, it’s just economics, isn’t it?

Cyclists, joggers, dog-emptiers and occasional boaters need none of or very little of these services, so the core target audience is unaffected. There’s enough of the system left, for the moment, to work, so the foot-soldiers and even to a great extent, the great unwashed, don’t pay much heed to the changes. Slowly, slowly catchee monkey… or, if you prefer, frogs ought always to be brought to the boil slowly and only seasoned at table.

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The (wanted, welcomed) holiday-makers and the weekend boaters all begin life or live full-time in commercial marinas and obtain their facilities there. These are open to the great unwashed as well, of course, generally, but at a cost. They are also fewer and farther between than anyone truly roaming a large part of the system would need.

The Cardinal thus perforce performs his bunkering at a mix of “official” service areas, in commercial marinas and small towns local to the canals.

My task as ship’s cat dog, stoker, navigator, captain and powder-monkey is to make sure that as I cruise around I put myself within reach of the necessary at times when it becomes necessary! This includes choosing my mooring spots so as to present a favourable amount of Mr Sunshine to my solar panels, when he shines. It’s a bit of a juggling act, and a juggling act performed within the strictures of the Canal & River Trust’s …interesting notions, regulations and requirements, based, one hopes, although with more hope than evidence, on the only legal requirement in town, the British Waterways Act of 1995, which requires simply that I remain in no “place” longer than 14 days and that I be undertaking “bona fide navigation”.

The shopping? Well, I do that where normal people do their shopping (except that I almost certainly do it more carefully than most, picking and choosing what I buy and when, from where). I buy fresh food whenever I can, but the Cardinal also holds a stock of emergency packets, tins and jars…

The Cardinal’s water tank is 545 litres. A shower – using best “submariner” practises – uses roughly 25 litres. A week’s worth of laundry in my (superb) rinky-dinky old-fashioned wee twin-tub washing machine uses maybe 30 – 35 litres. The solar panels generally supply all of the electrickery needed to run the beast.

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This little chap cost me just shy of £100 two years ago. Contrast that with a weekly commercial laundrette cost of between £10 and £15, perform a spot of arithmetic and see why I love him so.

I thus have something on the order of two week’s of main tank water on-board.

To one side of the washing machine is 60 litres of potable water in separate containers – I use this for coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee and cooking (generally, steaming vegetables to death and boiling the life out of pasta moulded to the shape of the heads of metropolitan “omni-professionals”). There’s enough there to last me for the two weeks of the main tank.

The gazunder takes cassettes, and I have four of those – and I call them Thunderbirds I, II, III & IV. Without going into too much detail, they’ll see me right for up to three weeks.

Coal – in Autumn and Winter and Spring – comes in 20 or 25kg sacks, and with some tender loving care and a poke with a stick, 5kgs will see the stove lit a day and a night, ish, give or take, dependant upon the whether of the weather. Being able to stash five sacks indoors I can thus carry roughly three week’s supply. One beautiful, beautiful aspect of “The Coal Question, m’Lud” is that it may be obtained from the fuel boats – narrowboats that ply their trade as individuals up and down the canals. Flag one down and buy coal while afloat (coal and also diesel and toilet chemicals and ropes and mooring pins and and and…). One source of coal (and one that I used a couple of days ago) is garage forecourts – although these must be regarded with suspicion. Most sell fuel as some sort of impulse buy and for ridiculous mark-ups. The one I found locally is good – it sold me kindling for £2.75 a sack, and house-coal for £12 for a 25kg sack. A mark-up, yes, but not an unreasonable one.

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Price of road-fuel per litre of course, not per gallon…

Cooking? The Cardinal has a full-sized cooker with oven, grill and four burners (two regular, one simmering, one “wok” size). I have room in the bow gas-locker for three 13kg bottles and they each last for months. Quaintly, they last longer in winter than in the other seasons, since I cook on the coal stove-top whenever it is lit. There’s nowt like a bubbling billy-can of bloke-curry to make the boat smell homely!

His Grace, the Cardinal, has a bubble-tester, two wholly separate gas alarms with remote auto-off and a manual off-switch in the galley approach in case a human being wants to turn the gas off in any emergency.

Diesel, I hear you cry, diesel! Yes indeed, the Cardinal’s propulsion is diesel, and he snorts about a litre an hour or, for the Imperially non-de-reconstructed among us, about 8mpg while moving. His tank is 160 litres or roughly 35 proper gallons. The Cardinal also has, for occasional and emergency use, a full central-heating system of four radiators running on diesel, and that uses about a litre an hour on full-chat too. Hot water comes from the propulsion engine running or from the diesel heating. Once hot the well-insulated tank will stay shower-hot for two days and hand-wash hot for three. Diesel may be bought, generally and according to purpose (heating versus propulsion) for between 80p (reduced tax) and £1.30 (full tax) a litre (£3.63 ish to £5.90 ish a gallon), from commercial marinas or laboriously by can from any garage within reach of Shank’s pony.  The very best place from which to buy boating diesel is the independent fuel boats (see earlier paragraphs).

A gentle cruise – and I refuse to be rushed in any way by anyone (subject only to the strictures of not overstaying my welcome at the various 48-hour, 72-hour & 14-day et al moorings) – thus requires a modicum of thought and planning to meet all of these requirements, especially when I insist that it also includes time to watch the clouds, read the books I scavenge from charity shops and leisure to wander off to either side of the canals, taking in the sights.

The best thing is that whenever I get it all synchronised, wherever the Cardinal and I stop, we’re both already home.

The Cardinal gets to snooze while I explore. I get to pick up my book from exactly where I put it down and to carry on reading – or cook a curry or take a shower or write blog posts. So nothing comes in via “mains” services and has to be obtained manually – big deal, it’s great exercise and a small price to pay for two-thousand miles of English country garden to enjoy.

Now, enough of this meandering ramble, I must plan for tomorrow. Jeeves, fetch me my sextant, my compass, protractors, several sharp pencils, the latest charts of reefs, shoals and corporate-shark-activity – oh, and my slippers…

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  1. The practical aspects of all of this are fascinating, and quite exhausting. I was just trying to wrap my brain round the idea of someone wiping down squirrels and moles with a squeegee when you got onto the topic of overpaid wallies. So nice to hear someone suggest that public services can’t be run in the same way as a commercial business – and I speak as an opponent of socialism. The clue is in their purpose. But nothing is black and white. And, frankly, it all seems a bit rudderless sometime – except for your goodself, of course.

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    1. Oh, but on the days when all of the jobs are done and I can bob up and down on the water, doing only what I please… on such a day I shall paint the Cardinal pea-green and give both an owl and a pussycat a brief cuddle.

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  2. Roads are no substitute for the waterways. One would think that full facilities would be constantly added to enable the growing number of ‘regulars’ or ‘full-timers’ to subsidise increased canal-based tourism.
    For shopping? A bicycle on board with a large carrier or a fold-up trailer seemed ideal when I was wandering!

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    1. It would seem sensible, wouldn’t it? Adding functionality rather than removing it would be my choice, but nope, it’s being run down and “re-purposed”. Ugh! The crazy thing is that just about everything that I do spend goes directly to shops and businesses local to the canals – you’d imagine that this would be welcomed rather than discouraged.

      A bicycle would indeed be useful, and I have tried them – the trouble is that I look and feel like an escaped orang-utan whenever on a velocipede – slightly ridiculous. Walking is good, and with the trolleys I can drag home anything from a packet of Polo Mints to a whole human body. Did I just say that out loud? Please disregard the bit about human bodies.



      1. The whole system of appointing officialdom seems to have gone awry. The whole lot should be turfed out on their ears, as hard as possible, and some sensible replacements shipped in on almost all fronts.
        Bikes are good for bodies, too, and for curvy ones consider a tandem.

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    1. It’s still a brilliant place to live, it’s just that there’s more to it than there ought to be. 🙂 At the moment there’s a constant feeling of surveillance and less than welcome, which is a shame – but they’ll need wild horses to take me away, and even then they’ll struggle! The canals are just a(nother) victim of the craziness of society and “government” in this era – hived off and run by the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Come the revolution, when I am Lord High He-Who (Must Be Obeyed) this will all change… 🙂


  3. Outsourcing – the ultimate description of the problematic nature of capitalism. If it’s cheaper to outsource it, then one wonders (and is subsequently shown) what sorts of measures were taken to cut costs so that both companies manage a profit where only one needed to before.

    Capitalism has some very fine points and I’m happily living with many of them. But there isn’t any doubt that it also has it’s negative ones. And the growing trend that government services should be run in the same manner that capitalism runs is going to be the ultimate ruin of society. As your beloved canal system is showing. The minorities are always marginalized in capitalism because it has no ethics except greater profit and less expense.

    Governments are supposed to be about providing services to all the citizenry. To provide civil and criminal justice. To provide infrastructure to all. There is an entirely different set of priorities there than business embraces. I wonder why people continue to think governments should be run like businesses.

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    1. Absolutely and exactly so. There’s a problem with money, and I do wonder if it is caused by the vast intrusion into the economy of “businesses” that have no real or useful work-effort or value behind them – syphoning aside money for money’s sake without adding anything. It devalues all other currency. The explosion of banking, of trading in currencies, the artificial inflation of otherwise sensible and sane artifacts such as shelter, health and food.

      Tis my opinion that governments should never be run like businesses. A government’s only reason to exist, the only excuse it has for interfering in my life and the lives of others is if, and only if, it protects the weak, looks after the sick and elderly, keeps the lights on and the drains flowing freely – other than that I’m not interested in its existence. The tail (the process of government) thinks and behaves as though it is the dog itself these days. Government has forgotten that it is owned by and exists only to serve the people, and not vice versa! No wonder such discontent lurks beneath our thin veil of opiate-induced acquiescence.

      Here endeth my sermon for the day. Tomorrow’s opinions may be totally different!


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  4. Interesting. I use to live in a 40.4 foot fifth wheel RV with four slide out sides that expands the rooms when parked. I loved it. I had a huge diesel truck to pull it. I had all the tanks you mention for water and waste, tanks for propane gas, storage and all the comforts of a home. I loved it and it was a much cheaper way to live than a stationary home in a building. There are RV parks everywhere. DO you have a similar option on land should it become no longer able to live on the canals.

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    1. Hi Scottie! I think that the geography of England (and of Scotland and Wales) make van living even more of a “stealth” activity. Every last postage-stamp-sized scrap of land is either controlled National Park or it is privately owned, and there’s no “right” to stop anywhere overnight. There are camp-grounds, but they are very much seasonal and holiday-orientated. I do know people who live in their vans, but to look at the vehicles from the outside you’d never guess it! The laws in parts of Europe vary from country to country, but of course “we’re” in the process of leaving Europe, so goodness knows how that will translate. If I get forced off the canals it’s an option I’ll consider though… 😉

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      1. I admire the way your living and I so enjoyed the RV. But Hubby needs a house to feel secure and so …here I sit. Hugs

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  5. I didn’t realise there was such a politicals of the waterways! And I get annoyed when the dustbin man leaves my bin half way up the close given how much I pay in community charge and extra for the green garden bin! Makes me tired just thinking about all the stuff you have to do, bet you are fitter than a butcher’s dog! That stove would make me very sle….Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!

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    1. Hi Pat – it’s a complete microcosm. There are live-aboard boaters who take the… um, extract the… well, who forget to give anyone else any considerations, and there are weekend warriors who think that they own the whole system personally – and the usual mix of inbetweeners! The caretakers, the CaRT seem to think that they own the whole arrangement, and their view for it appears to be as some sort of sanitised theme park with just enough neat and tidy boats to put the occasional ripple on the water for tourist photographs! As far as I’m concerned the Nation owns it and I am privileged to live on it – but I’m also (very much) not a theme park “attraction”, and I do have certain “rights” (at least as much as any of us have rights, anyway)! The “top dogs” are of course all of the London variety, on mega-salaries and with little to no care about anything other than their own positions. Generally I ignore this and just get on with it, but today I am channelling Citizen Smith with a vengeance… 😉 Power to the pee-pul…

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    1. Thank’ee kindly, sir! I am in the grip of some sort of “Citizen Smith” mood today, and I feel the need to brew some (non-flammable) Molotov cocktails and roam about calling for revolution and suchlike. I think that if I just sit quietly for a while the feeling will pass… 😉

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