Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Fen Skating

I can't skate. It's something I've always wanted to be able to do, but having only ever had access to temporary Christmas rinks which are always massively crowded and expensive, I've never learnt. But this year, with the help from some friends who work at the "North Pole", Cambridge's temporary ice rink on Parker's Piece, I plan to at least learn to go and stop. The main driver for this is that I want to be able to enjoy one of the Fen's historic traditions: Fen skating. It has been popular in the area since the 19th century, and it sounds wonderful.

In the harsh winters we've recently had, areas of the Fen wetlands have been wet and cold enough to freeze over again, creating natural ice rinks. One of the most popular locations is at Welney, and there's another fen which is often skatable near Whittlesey. The Fenland Skating Centre allows people to hire skates for free at Welney, and keeps a website where the conditions at the various sites are updated daily during the winter. Maybe this winter we will make it out there and have a go!

Images from

There are some lovely videos on Youtube about skating in the Fens.

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Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Meet the Boaters 3 - Mort

This is a new series I've started on the blog - a chance to meet some of  the diverse bunch of people who live on boats on the canals and rivers. I've asked them all to answer a few questions about themselves and their life afloat!

Mort is a friend of ours, and she has a blog at

Mort, 38, Research Scientist

How did you end up living afloat?
My friend, who lived on a narrowboat, went off to Africa as a Voluntary Service Officer and asked whether I would like to look after his boat while he was away for two years. Unbeknown to him I needed somewhere to live so I moved on board. By the time he came home I couldn’t quite come to terms with moving back into the stationary world of the land so I purchased my own boat.

What is your favourite thing about living afloat?

The water is a great place for a tired and weary mind.

And your least favourite?

Other people running generators for hours on end

Has living on a boat changed you at all?

I am not sure anything changes us, it just helps us become who we were meant to be. (I love this - I  think I was always meant to be a boater too! - Amy)

If you'd like to be involved, do get in touch using one of these methods below. I'd love to feature you and your boat!

Monday, 26 November 2012

Floods and Thanksgiving

We have been extremely fortunate this weekend. The Cam has risen a little but nothing that putting out the long plank doesn't solve. The wind was more worrying, and we spent time re-mooring some of the boats on the Common whose pins were loose. One of the Dutch barges further up river came loose and ended up on the weir barrier, but remained floating and was brought back to its mooring fairly quickly. The Yarwoods have blogged about it.

 I really feel for those in other parts of the country where it is much, much worse. 

I spent Saturday doing odd jobs about the boat. I resealed around the edge of the kitchen sink and cleaned inside my cupboards, identified a few things for the recycling shelf and various other bits and pieces. On Sunday after an outing which turned into a circuit training session when one of the rowers didn't show, I had a baking spree. I was making a couple of puddings to bring to a Thanksgiving dinner held by an American friend, so I started by baking a batch of brownies, then having some ingredients left over I improvised a blondie (white chocolate brownie) recipe with figs and brandy. 

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday - I wish it would take off over here. It seems to lack the commercialism  of  Christmas, being more about appreciating what you have than hoping for new things. And then there's the food, which is akin to a Christmas roast, but with more variety and pumpkins! I ate so much and t was all delicious!In addition to the turkey, we had mashed potato, gravy, three kinds of stuffing, green bean casserole and butternut squash salad. For dessert, there was two different types of pumpkin pie, Mississippi mud pie, Baileys cheesecake, and my brownies and blondies. The blondies in particular got a lot of compliments, so I will reproduce the recipe here, as much so that I remember it as anything else!

Fig and Brandy Blondies
125g butter
100g white chocolate
150g caster sugar
3 eggs
75g ground almonds
handful of chopped dried figs
teaspoon nutmeg
shot of brandy

Grease and line a baking tin, preheat oven to Gas Mark 5

In a saucepan, melt the butter and white chocolate, then add the sugar once they are all melted. Allow to cool for 5-10 minutes (use the time to chop the figs!), then add the eggs, followed by the ground almonds, nutmeg, chopped figs and brandy. Pour into the tin and cook for 30 minutes until the top is crispy and a fork comes of of the centre clean. Allow to cool before chopping into squares. 

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Thursday, 22 November 2012

Getting the word out!

Plans are afoot 'round here. We are hoping to start make things happen with trading up to a longer, older boat early next year, and so I am trying get the word about the fact that our 48' narrowboat Lucky Duck will be coming up for sale. I've written a full, detailed description of the boat (linked from the pic in the sidebar too), and I'm starting to publicise the fact that we will be selling up soon. It would be brilliant if we could get a buyer lined up early (wishful thinking perhaps, but we can hope!). It won't be officially for sale and up on Apollo Duck or any other boat sale sites until we've had an offer accepted on the next boat, but if things go to plan, that should be sometime in early 2013.

So, this is where we need your help! First and most obviously, if one of your New Year's resolutions will be to buy a boat, or you know someone who's thinking of getting afloat, and you think the Duck might suit, then do get in touch. We would also be very grateful if anyone would be kind enough to put the word out on their blog, with a link to the description, or on Facebook, Twitter, or simply by keeping an ear out for potential buyers! 

The Duck would make an excellent starter boat for someone as it's all set up and ready to go as a live-aboard or a holiday boat, either on or off the grid. The systems are all in good order, the engine runs well and it is an easy to handle boat (as proven by the fact that I can single hand it!). It's got its Boat Safety Certificate until December 2013, and was blacked last in 2011. 

It's been a good home for us over the past four years, but we're ready for the next adventure!

(P.S As I've said before, sadly it doesn't come with the Cambridge mooring)

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Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Meet The Boaters 2 - Mark

This is a new series I'm starting on the blog - a chance to meet some of  the diverse bunch of people who live on boats on the canals and rivers. I've asked them all to answer a few questions about themselves and their life afloat!

Mark is a good friend of ours, and fellow Cam boater.

Picnic out at Bottisham with Mark and friends
Mark, 31
Outspoken Delivery, Assistant manager

How did you end up living afloat?
I had just returned from a cycle trip to Kenya among other things in Africa. I was looking for somewhere to live, but really hated the idea of renting and living in what I felt was a boring house share (compared to what I had just done).
A few people I had worked with and made friends with at Outspoken Delivery, Rob and Peter, and Andy all lived on boats, so as an unlikely option I had a look at boats for sale in Cambridge. It just so happened that a perfect one was for sale, in term of cost and location (the railings so I could move on straight away) 
Around the same time as this I was diagnosed with Cancer, without a doubt this was the thing that pushed me into buying lovely Susie Q, at the time I didn't know for sure if all would be well with my health after the operation, so the boat was a pretty good thing to focus on, a live for the moment type of thing too. And I have never regretted my decision. The cancer was beaten and I still appreciate living with my feet on the ground!

What is your favourite thing about life afloat?
Without a doubt the community: everyone knows each other along the river, or if not, knows someone who knows them. You see people a lot more than you do normal neighbours on a street, and you have a lot in common, so you have time for people, you help people with what you can and vice versa. Gossip, friendly chat, sharing warm fires and a tea in the winter or cool beers and a river cruise in the summer. River life is always fluid and interesting, challenging and rewarding. Why wouldn't you want to live on the river!?

And your least favourite?
In all honesty, above the cold, toilet emptying and few 'yobs', it's the way the two bodies in charge of the Cam, the Council and Cam Conservators seem to be so hard and unhelpful to the narrowboat community!

Has living afloat changedyou at all?
For sure, slowly helping me appreciate how to live live sustainably and enriched it greatly with all of the friends I have made......

If you'd like to be involved, do get in touch using one of these methods below. I'd love to feature you and your boat!

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Monday, 19 November 2012

The Weekend

Such a busy weekend! On Saturday we were both rowing/coxing in the Winter Head race, and James was coxing two divisions back to back. Sadly neither of us won our categories, but we both came second, with my crew second only to another eight from the same club and squad, with some overlap of rowers, by just 7 seconds!

After racing we spent a couple of hours sawing and chopping up pallets for kindling, before going home to help a fellow boater whose engine has packed up move to the waterpoint to pump out. It was an interesting towing challenge, given that their boat is 70ft! In the evening we headed to the pub to celebrate a rowing friend's birthday, and to give a good send off to another, who is leaving.

On Sunday, James was off to Ely again to try and get the Irene's engine going again. Still no luck with that! One day, maybe, he will come back saying, "it works!" I was rowing in the morning and then my friend Hannah and I went foraging. She's not done it before so wanted some guidance on what to gather and then how to process it afterwards. It was a gloriously sunny day and we had a nice bike ride interspersed with foraging.We made lots of lovely apple, rosehip, haw and redcurrant "Towpath Jam".

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Thursday, 15 November 2012

Meet some More Boaters!

Peggy from The Real Life of a Narrowboat Wife got in touch to let me know that she also had a series running on her blog a while back, where she interviewed some boater families, also called Meet the Boaters! (great minds etc). If you are curious to read about some more live-aboard boater families and some who have now left the boating life, pop over to her blog where you can read them all!

Pictures from Peggy's blog.

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Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Off-Grid Making: Grilled Cheese

I read a lot of American blogs and had come across mentions of "grilled cheese sandwiches" many times. But I assumed that they were referring to what we in Britain call cheese on toast/toasted cheese, i.e stick bread under the grill until it's done one one side, flip over, heap with cheese, tomatoes, and whatever else and then grill that side til it's all melty. According to one food historian, this was the original way to do it, and is certainly still the most common in this country. It wasn't until the 1960s that the second slice of bread was added on top in American cookbooks, but it hasn't been popular over here.

However, and quite confusingly, that which Americans call a grilled cheese sandwich is actually not grilled at all. A bit like what we call a cheese toastie (made in an electric toasting machine), "grilled cheese" is made in a frying pan on a hob by spreading the outer slices of bread with butter before putting it in on the heat. This method is far more boat friendly, as electric heating devices such as toasters are very power hungry. There's something nice about being able to hold it in your hand rather than eat it with a knife and fork too.  Having solved the mystery of what exactly this American dish is, I am now a convert, and regular make them when I need something tasty and hot in a hurry. They are also great for eating whilst boating: much less messy and can be eaten one-handed by the steerer, with a mug of soup as accompaniment. Adding tomatoes, meat, sauces or herbs to the filling makes them extremely versatile. I tried one with soda bread, apple and brie the other day, it was delicious! This blog from A Beautiful Mess has some lovely ideas for variations.

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Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Meet the Boaters 1 - Jo & Family

This is a new series I'm starting on the blog - a chance to meet some of  the diverse bunch of people who live on boats on the canals and rivers. I've asked them all to answer a few questions about themselves and their life afloat!

To kick off, meet Jo, aka @muckyboatlady

Jo's daughter at the wheel

A bit about Jo:
I live on board an elderly Dutch barge with my 3 kids, who are 11, 9 and 6, and our border collie. We've been boaters for 4 years now, and it's finally starting to feel like we're getting the hang of it! I work part time, my oldest is at school and the two younger kids are home educated, so things are pretty full on. Our boat needs a lot more attention than it gets and is looking pretty sorry for itself, was a bad summer for painting.

How did you end up living afloat?
The boat was my dad's, so it's been in my life for over 20 years. My dad moved to France and offered us the boat. I spent the first 18 months constantly on the verge of selling because it seemed impossibly hard keeping everything running, but various fabulous people have helped get things more sorted.

What is your favourite things about life afloat?
I asked the kids what their favourite things were, they said they like the summer, and being in the countryside and moving to new places. I like the people on the canal and being apart from the mainstream. I love the views and the wildlife.

And your least favourite?
We all hate the cold in the winter and the dark mornings, we still haven't got our lighting sorted to run off the batteries in any dependable fashion. We also get very fed up with people staring in the windows and discussing us loudly!

Has living afloat changed you at all?
When I asked my oldest if she thought living on a boat had changed her she seemed to think she was more sensible than lots of other kids her age, she said she thought living on a boat was more dangerous if you didn't listen and obey the rules. I think I'd agree with her, I think all my kids are very trustworthy because there are more dangers, not just falling in but other things like hot stoves, gas, wasting electricity and water.. I think they're very open minded about people and they're part of a pretty mixed community, I feel like there's lots of people looking out for them. We also have a much more outdoorsy life than we used to, we're far more aware of the seasons and the weather. I also think we're much happier :)

If you'd like to be involved, do get in touch using one of these methods below. I'd love to feature you and your boat!

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Monday, 12 November 2012

What We Did at The Weekend - Jam and Engines

James spent most of his weekend doing DIY on other people's boats. Saturday saw him, with John and Mark, *nearly but not quite* get the Irene's engine going. On Sunday, he helped Rob on Friendly Fox put his battery bank back together. 

My weekend, however, was spent mostly foraging and jam making (gender stereotypes? What gender stereotypes?). Whilst out rowing on Saturday morning I'd spotted a few late blackberries and set out to gather some when I got back from doing the laundry. I cycled out along the towpath and along with the blackberries, found an unexpected row of redcurrant bushes. I finished in Cow Hollow Wood, where I gathered a bag of sloes as well. Dusk was falling so I took the train back into town (conveniently I arrived at Waterbeach station 5 minutes before it set off)

It wasn't until Sunday that I had a chance to make the jam. I called it Towpath Jam (although I had been given the apples by a work colleague so it wasn't quite accurate)

The recipe is simple, just gather whatever you can find on the towpath (or hedgerow). The only thing you really have to have (unless you're adding pectin from a bottle) is apples (cores and all):

Towpath Jam

Towpath berries (whatever is in season: blackberries, elderberries, redcurrants, rosehips, haws, sloes)
Apples of some sort (crabapples, bramleys)

Destalk the fruit and chop the apples, but put the cores in as well - they have lots of pectin. Heat the fruit in a large pan until it is soft. Press through a sieve into a bowl, throw out the skins and stalks, and return pulp to the cleaned pan using a measuring jug. For every 600ml of pulp, add 500g sugar. Bring to a rolling boil until the setting point is reached. I use the traditional cold saucer method for this - a drop of jam on a cold saucer will wrinkle when pressed with your finger, once it has reached setting point. Seal in sterilised jars.

In the late afternoon, we went for a little cruise because it was such glorious weather. We picked up our friend Chris on the way (he'd just finished coaching a boat, so when we spotted him we swung past the boathouse and he jumped on!) We stopped at the Plough for a drink, then headed back as the dusk was falling to go to the water point. There we met Kirsty, who is about to buy a boat, and she had a go steering the Duck back to our mooring (this reminded me of when (big) James and Emma used to let us have a go at steering when they went to the waterpoint when we were wannabe narrowboaters, many years ago). Then, we all four went to the Fort St George for mulled wine. It was a lovely evening.

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Friday, 9 November 2012

A very useful new website

The crews of Indigo Dream and Leo No. 2 have responded to the difficulty of finding official information  about cruising the Thames by creating their own website. They have gathered link to info on the C&RT, PLA and EA, plus everything they've learnt from much experience of cruising the Thames themselves and put it all in one easy to navigate place.

It's still in draft, but already it is full of useful information for narrowboaters thinking about doing a bit of Thames cruising. Thanks for putting this together, guys!

Here it is:

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Thursday, 8 November 2012

Trapped in the Fens again

The Fen waterways are effectively cut off from the rest of the Inland Waterways, from now until the end of February 2013. The Environment Agency are carrying out a series of maintenance works on five locks on the river Nene over the winter. The dates overlap such that the only gap is between 21 Dec and the 02 Jan. This would be enough time to travel the length of the river, providing it is not in flood, but at that time of year, flooding is very likely. EDIT: Weekend passage is possible by arrangement with the EA.


Islip - 05 Nov 2012 to 07 Dec 2012
Irthlingborough - 12 Nov 2012 to 26 Nov 2012
Ashton - 26 Nov 2012 to 21 Dec 2012
Elton - 02 Jan 2013 to 01 Feb 2013
Orton - 28 Jan 2013 to 28 Feb 2013

Due to essential maintenance work the above locks will be closed during the periods stated. 
The Agency regrets any inconvenience caused.
For further information please call the Environment Agency on 03708 506 506 
between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday and ask for the Waterways Team in the 
Anglian Region.

The Nene is currently in Strong Stream Advice and navigation is not advised. Additionally, the poor sunken boat at Ditchford lock has yet to be rescued, and so that lock is also closed until further notice.

Picture: RCR
All this also means that we can't sell the Duck or buy another boat until the Spring. However, we hope to be poised to start making exciting things happen as soon as we are able to get things moving in March!

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Sunday, 4 November 2012

My Favourite Finds v.23

These are the boots I bought from the Oxfam in St. Giles Street in the centre of Norwich. They are beautifully soft leather, from Clarks, and cost just £4.99. Not only that but they are fleece-lined so very comfy and warm. New favourite Autumn boots.

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Saturday, 3 November 2012

Last Weekend - Norwich

We stayed over on Norwich on Sunday night, after our Ely trip, taking the train from Ely soon after we'd mooredup. It is half term so there was no school for James on Monday. We love the city - every time we visit we enjoy it more and this was no exception. We'd booked to stay in another one of the MJB apartments we'd used when we went to North Norfolk. It was on Unkthank Road, a big old high ceilinged house, just on the edge of the city centre. For just £20, we had a large living room, with a kitchen/dining area, a big double bedroom and a bathroom to ourselves. It wasn't perfect - neither of the two TVs worked and the shower was temperamental but it was fine. Again, we were given a code to get in to the house and the apartment which worked perfectly. These pared down, concierge-less hotels are a real find and I wish a similar model for hotel management was more widespread. Even Youth Hostels are more expensive! 

We had a lovely meal out at the independent Italian restaurant, Paolos. We were lucky enough to arrive in time for their early evening special menu - for £6.50 each we had delicious traditional pasta dishes. James's carbonara was perfectly buttery and creamy, while my aubergine bake was heaped with lovely melty mozzarella and a tasty creamy tomato sauce. Would definitely recommend it.

In the morning, I cooked bacon sandwiches in the apartment, then we did a spot of Christmas shopping in the city centre. Norwich is full of little, independent shops, some really great charity shops and second hand shops, as well as the fabulous market. I picked up a pair of Clarks leather ankle boots in Oxfam for £4.99, which I'll dedicate a Favourite Finds post to soon.

We stopped for tea in Strangers coffee shop (my favourite cafe, Franks, is closed on Mondays), before walking back to the station through the cathedral grounds, past Norwich School and along the river. So many pretty buildings! 


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Friday, 2 November 2012

Last Weekend - Towing

On Sunday, we had a bit of a job to do. Our friends Anton and Sophie's boat had a broken engine  and so James offered to tow them to Ely where they were booked in to get it fixed (are you noticing a bit of a theme here?). 

It was a challenge to say the least, partly because although the Duck is capable of towing, the 'butty' in this case was 70ft long, and rather dictated where the Duck should go. We tried various different towing techniques: cross straps of different lengths, and a 20-25ft line (known as a snatcher in working boat parlance). Before and after the locks we breasted up. 

On the cross straps we struggled because Anton and Sophie's boat doesn't have a high stem post, crucial for keep the lined centred, so it oscillated from side to side. Several times around bends we ended up jack-knifed, and had to detatch and start again. Eventually we realised that using the snatcher was best, for our combination of boats - we were able to make pretty good progress like that, with the 'butty' steered independently by Anton or Sophie. I felt confident enough to steer the Duck like that myself, while James went indoors for a bit. It was less sociable, but it meant that we made it to Ely from Cambridge in just 5 hours (it takes us 4 hours normally).

You can see the lack of stem post on their bow here.


We were well provided with tea, sausage sandwiches and some delicious thai style curry from our 'butty', and they were very grateful for the tow. I enjoyed being out on the river - having not boated beyond Bottisham lock since the summer. James enjoyed the challenge towing, and practicing the techniques of working a pair, albeit a modern one!

The Duck  in its role as a tug!
Safely moored in Ely. Job done.

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Thursday, 1 November 2012

Last Weekend - Chimmichanga

Last weekend was a busy one! Saturday was a fairly ordinary day for me, with rowing in the morning. James and Mark spent the afternoon helping Rob take his broken engine out to be reconditioned. It was partly successful - they managed to get the engine detatched from the boat but not out of the engine bay (Eventually it was removed the next day, when we were out of town towing another stricken boat).

While the boys wrestled with the engine, I took it upon myself to carry out the most important job - looking after Rob's kitten, Chimmichanga, and making sure she didn't stray near the engine. She is tiny and crazy. A little handful! I fell in love!

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