Winter on a narrowboat – Guest Post by, Ian Hutson…

Now is the winter of our discount tent made glorious summer by… oops, my apologies, I lost it for a moment there. Winter eh? Winter drawers on. Shelley Winters but Ann Summers, that sort of thing. We boaters tend to gibber a lot during winter, and my gibber-gland already was enlarged. Winter happened quite suddenly here on my little patch of the canals in England. Confused weather combined with a school half-term holiday sashayed in a matter of a couple of days into the delicious, slightly eerie quiet that is the result of most hire boats and marina-based boats disappearing into effective storage, leaving only the die-hard, ne’er do well live-aboard boaters chugging around.Where once we live-aboards scurried like spiders from quiet corner to out-of-the-way nook while the happy, shiny people, brandishing their tins of Brasso, zipped up and down at speeds suggesting that they had lost their water-skiers, the tables are now turned. Leisure and pleasure (only) boats and hire boats – something like eighty-four percent of all boats on the canals – are unlikely to venture out again for more than the odd day until spring has fully sprung again. Some won’t venture out again until next summer.

So what’s winter like on the canals? Well, can you remember the very first time that you were allowed to stay at home alone, while your parents went out? The whole house without a responsible adult anywhere in it? It’s a bit like being the kid who stays on at boarding school while everyone else goes away for the holidays. It’s not dissimilar to being a city-centre tramp on Christmas Day or Boxing Day, when all of the suits and ties and briefcases are at their cottages in the Cotswolds, and I, for the season, have my choice of fuss-free doorways to sleep in.

I am still required by the law of the 1995 Waterways Act to move from place to place, staying in no “place” for more than fourteen days, but in some seasonal act of highly uncharacteristic charity, the Canal and Rivers Trust, putatively a charity, removes some of their extra restrictions. Some of the fruitiest, choicest mooring spots hitherto limited to forty-eight hour stays only, in winter revert to the Waterways Act’s more proper fourteen days.

Winter, though, is also the season when some of the more massive items of maintenance are performed on the system, when there is a programme of winter stoppages. Very industrial-looking blue “work boats” sweep up and down the system, laden with hi-vis-clad contractors, workmen and eager volunteers. This can make the planning of one’s “bona fide cruising” a tad interesting, since I must find a route that doesn’t bring the Cardinal to a dead halt at a lock that’s closed while being refurbished or a bridge that’s being replaced… and this bearing in mind that with a narrowboat you can’t just “hang a u-turn” anywhere on the system but only at occasional, specially-widened points.

The Canal and Rivers Trust announce unilaterally when and where the closures will be but the boat licence terms state that it is my responsibility to find some way through that maze in which to fulfil my cruising commitments… So far as I can tell, this year, if I head east for two months, then volte face and head back west and south for a couple of months I shall be able to keep the Cardinal moving and not invoke the wrath, stamped feet, warnings, fiscal sanctions, court actions and general “screaming until they’re sick” disapprobation of Violet Elizabeth Canals Incorporated. As per my Boy Scout oath, I shall do my best.

Does it get cold on a narrowboat in winter? Cor, not half – if I let the stove go out. At the moment, and it was just thirty-two degrees of the Fahrengezundheitings outside this morning, I am sitting here with the doors and side-hatch open because I am too warm.

What does my stove run on? Well, sadly, I burn fossilised dinosaur remains, otherwise referred to as “coal”. How much do I burn? Last winter that worked out at about five kilograms per twenty-four hours, including keeping the stove ticking over through the night. How much coal do I keep aboard? Five twenty-five kilogram sacks, sometimes six. The Cardinal can discreetly store five twenty-five kilogram bags of coal inside the cabin, out of sight and under the extended steps, and sometimes I leave a sack on the front well-deck in case I should become domestically feckless, dissolute and/or profligate.

You may spot from these photographs that the disposition of the morning’s heavy frost is actually a testament to the Cardinal’s spray-foam insulation. There’s a thick white covering (including ice on the solar panels) everywhere except near the stove flue and around the windows. The windows are currently single-glazed, albeit also sporting heat-reflective and one-way glass, and with heat-reflective blinds for the interior. When Hutson gets off his ample gluteus maximus he will fashion glass panels for seasonal secondary glazing. So that’ll be next winter then, at the earliest. Ho hum.

If, for some nebulous or nefarious reason, I don’t fancy keeping the stove lit, then the Cardinal is also equipped with a cunning diesel-fuelled “central heating” boiler that heats four radiators and heats up the water for showers and wotnots. This uses perhaps a litre or a litre and a half of diesel per hour, and is very handy if I want warmth in the morning but want to leave the boat without the stove lit. It’s not the quietest thing you’ve ever heard though, so I am careful to use that only when I have no near canal neighbours or even brick-house dwellers within easy annoying distance.

But what, I hear you cry, of the business of obtaining potable water for thick, black, evil coffees, for cooking, and what of obtaining water for the shower – and worse, what of the matter of emptying the gazunders of …matter, for that matter? Well, business almost as usual there. Assuming that the canal water doesn’t actually freeze (and it sometimes does) then the only change in winter is that if I call at a marina-based service area I must do so during much-reduced “winter hours”, often only between ten of the o’morning and three of the o’afternoon. The relatively-rapidly reducing number of Canal and Rivers Trust-provided service areas are always under lock and key anyway – but that is a key that I have, so they are available when I want them (subject only to being subject to a winter stoppage themselves, no gazunder-emptying pun intended with the use of the word “stoppage”, although that has been known to be the cause of the need for a winter-stoppage)…

Shut up, Hutson, this is getting juvenile. Yes, sir.

Electrickery for the various lights and pumps and controls and phone chargers and laptops and DVD-players and screens? Much the same as with summer. Whenever the Cardinal is cruising the engine (a modern, one point seven litre, four-cylinder Isuzu diesel of some gentle 38bhp) runs one alternator to charge the starter battery, and a separate alternator to charge the bank of “domestic” batteries. The domestic batteries a series of four one-hundred and ten amp-hour lead-acid units in the engine room. My general consumption appears so far to vary between about thirty amp-hours to seventy amp-hours per day, depending on whether I sleep solidly, do nothing but read books in my cabin, or watch ten solid hours of Margaret Rutherford films in a single sitting and/or use my rinky-dinky, magnificent twin-tub washing machine & spinner.

If the Cardinal and I are not cruising then I have two options. I can run the engine anyway to recharge the battery bank, or, which is more likely even in winter, I can just leave it to the solar panels on the roof to do all of the work. The Cardinal sports four solar panels and two separate control systems. One panel is just thirty watts and is dedicated to keeping just the engine starter battery happy. The other three panels total some four-hundred watts and they feed the main domestic bank of batteries. A few hours of even a mildly enthusiastic winter sun and they’ll do the job. In summer I can run everything all of the time, use the washing machine and I’m still throwing away solar power by lunchtime. In winter, if I exercise a certain economy – and I do – then it’s sort of touch and go, with the more dreary days requiring the engine to be started.

Comestibles in winter? Almost like comestibles in summer. My 12v “coolbox” refrigerator, inside in its own compartment in the galley for summer (when the solar panels run it with barely a thought), in winter becomes a mere box outside on the deck where the entirety of England is usually cold enough to act as my fridge, and the function of the box is then just to be proof from foraging wildlife (rats). I am fortunate in being of the extremely vegetarian persuasion, so it’s not as though I am storing eggs, fish and bits of animal carcass (“meat”). The most my fridge-box has to do is to keep spuds and carrots and cabbage confused, and cartons of soy milk and bottles of orange juice cool.

Moving in winter – moving the boat, that is – requires a few more tricks and a load more care than perhaps does moving in the more temperate seasons. For one thing, one of England’s favourite tricks is to rain solidly and to then immediately freeze. Iceland has nothing on us in terms of actual ice. Hopping on and off the boat, most especially at locks and certainly since I am mostly on my own, far from screaming distance of help, is therefore a matter to be undertaken with extreme care and much thought aforethought.

Rubber-soled shoes, one hand for the boat, one hand for me and only actually move the feet when I know damned well exactly where they are going to land next is the order of the day. We all occasionally make vast, underwear-stretching leaps of faith twixt boat and towpath in summer – but never, never, never in winter.
Sometimes the canal itself freezes, I’ve seen everything from a thin pie-crust to a good solid two inches. Narrowboats should not be moved in ice. Some idiots will do so, and that is really, murderously annoying because it’s not just their boat that gets damaged.

The ice breaks into chunks and these batter and clank about on everyone’s hull. At best it takes off the “blacking” coat (protective paint on the hull) and at worst, boats have been sunk by being holed. The Cardinal will not move in ice. We will sit and wait for a thaw. It doesn’t really freeze hard often, so it’s no great shakes – and the 1995 Waterways Act makes the decision to not move for safety reasons my choice.

Basically, I spend winter very warmly, with a sufficiency of electricity, and obtaining water and services much as I do in the other seasons. However…

Winter brings deliciously crisp sunrises, winter brings gales, lashing rains and silvery suns in clear, azure-blue skies. This is England – all four seasons in one day, sometimes twice or thrice each. Winter brings star-studded night skies far away from urban light-pollution. Winter lends that almost apocalyptic, desperately stark quality to the flora and fauna, where everything is on a mission, tending to its own life or death and stubbornly defying the months until what passes for English warmth re-appears in spring. When the countryside is quiet in winter – and that’s most of the time – it is pin drop quiet. When winter is noisy, and provided that I can avoid having human neighbours foisted upon me, the noise is all about banshee winds shrieking, rain splattering on the windows, hail beating on the roof and water slopping against the hull.

Winter is about long, dark evenings with a great book, and a billycan of something spicy and filling gently bubbling over the orange glow of the stove.

The parade of boats moored and passing changes from mostly antiseptically shiny to the more obviously lived-on, with far, far more character and variation. Those aboard change too. I’ve seen so much variety in head-gear alone this week that I know it is winter – hats with pheasant feathers, beanies with badges, Aussie wide-brims with more “worn out” than “worn in” – you name it, someone’s got it on their head. I’ve seen boats towing boats where both boats look like Steptoe’s yard after the horse had bowel problems. In this past week I’ve seen boaters who probably can’t physically bear the full sunlight of the brighter seasons, and I’ve seen what was surely full-blown orcs, hobgoblins and trolls at the tiller.

Winter is not the season of our discontent made glorious etcetera , thank you, Mr Shakespeare – but winter is when all of the characters come out to play. The loonies. The boaters who scare the summer holidaymakers and the weekend warriors.
I’m not entirely certain that I fit in yet, but I’m certainly doing my best.
My hat of choice is still a tweed flat cap, but these days I do wear it at a rather jaunty angle – especially in winter.

Chin-chin. Grr. Argh.

Ian Hutson

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27 thoughts on “Winter on a narrowboat – Guest Post by, Ian Hutson…

  1. Love this! We’ve just sold up and moved onto our boat – yup, chosen Winter to move on! We’re on a mooring at the moment and lots of work still to do on the boat, but do hope to be getting out there cruising soon 🙂 Will be following

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Ah, something quietly sad about the encroaching winter, maybe a little scary at the thoughts of anything not going to plan….but at least there is a plan. At the same time envious of the freedom, the beauty of the surrounds and the obvious appreciation of it all. I couldn’t do it, but am so grateful for the chance to live it through your eyes. Have I ever said ‘thank you’ for your insights? If not, then thank you,

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re welcome, ma’am! There is work involved, and planning, but that’s true of anywhere really. Today here is dull, grey and oppressively drear – so you won’t be surprised to learn that lunch is already on the stove and will be ready when it’s ready, whenever that may be. A hot hot hot vegetable curry and a pot of evil white rice! That ought to improve the day nicely… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Make sure your coal stove is always, always well maintained! We would miss you if you were to die from carbonmonoxide-poisoning. There is a reason (or three) why coal fires have become unpopular – and it’s not only the ashes and the smoke …

    Liked by 2 people

    • I do I do I do – I am paranoid about things like that. One reason I chose this boat is because the stove flue is a straight up and down pipe, no kinks. The Cardinal also sports three separate CO alarms, three separate smoke detectors (and two separate LP gas detectors for good measure)! 🙂 If they were all to go off at the same time the noise would probably kill me faster than the gas or smoke would!

      That said, I hadn’t seen a coal fire between my childhood and moving onto the boat – I’ve had cottages with log-burners, but not coal. I’d forgotten the dust… all of my laundry being grey (or sometimes black) – and I have I mentioned the dust? Still, it’s a bargain I strike, there’s a Yin and Yang to all things. I do wish that 25kg sacks of coal were easier to heft around though!

      Liked by 2 people


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