A little peep into an (almost) off-grid lifestyle in the UK today
By Leshy of BCUK
When I was asked by Tony, if I could write a small article about what it’s like living on a boat, I was both excited and terrified.
What could possibly interest the bushcraft community, on what life on the canal is like and how does it relate to bushcraft at all?
I’m not entirely sure it’s relevant or even remotely interesting for all the Bushcrafters out there but I thought I’d have a go anyhow.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said: “ ..Nah mate, I can’t live on a boat, I get sick in the bath for goodness sake”.
But fate has this brilliant habit of throwing ‘curve balls’ at you and my few friends that have lived on boats for years, trying to persuade me to do the same, they are now rejoicing and poking fun at me at the turn of events…
In my defense , those comments were made as a result of a particular evening spent on my mate’s boat , after having a little too much to drink and feeling very “seasick” after just a couple of hours aboard…
What ensued was having to be dragged onto the towpath and crawling as far away from the damned boat as quickly (snail pace) as I possibly could.
For years I had convinced myself that it was due to the water motion, and the fact that I might’ve had one too many locally brewed ciders on that eve was merely a coincidence and was completely unrelated… Of course.
Anyhow, I digress …
After a difficult separation from my kid’s mum, I found myself living in a friend’s house that very kindly refused to accept any money for the privilege…so instead, I tried to save a little bit of money towards a deposit on a rental property. I found very quickly that to rent, even a tiny room in a shared house in my local area would completely annihilate my modest weekly wage packet because the local prices are so ridiculously expensive.
So I reached out to my boater friends and asked them to keep an eye out for an inexpensive boat for me to move onto. Within a month or so, they had found me this lovely 62’ narrow boat, that I now call home.
Most boaters will tell you, that the best time of year to buy a boat is in the winter, and I was very quick to find out why …
I moved in mid January, with temperatures between 0°C and -10°C in the daytime, I was lucky to have a decent amount of experience in how to light a fire quickly, there’s no central heating on this vessel and the only way to keep warm is to light the fireplace and keep that going for as long as possible.
The challenge was really to keep it going all night (isn’t that so true…) and eventually I succumbed to the idea of buying coal, as there was no way to keep wood burning all night unless I was to wake up every couple of hours to load up the stove… no chance!
Fortunately, at this time of year, many tree surgeons are drafted to trim the overhanging branches and in some cases the whole tree on the edges of the canal.
My first big haul was a mighty old Ash tree. I’m not sure if it was diseased with the dreaded Ash Dieback or if it was simply in the wrong place and it had grown too much, but I wasn’t going to waste such an opportunity.
Dozens of 6 to 8 ft lengths, ranging from 4” to 8” thick of the finest British Ash, were left on the side of the towpath for the boaters, for one night only, as the boys were to come and put it all in the chipper the next day.
Needless to say, there wasn’t much to chip the next day and I still have plenty on top of my boat.
The beauty with Ash is that it burns green and doesn’t really need seasoning for it to be good fuel.
I’ve marked a few pieces that I will not burn, as I’ve been wanting to make a haft and hang an axe for a longtime, and I’ve got just the right piece.
I suppose having an interest in Bushcraft and wood generally has given me a clear advantage on what wood to forage and how best to process it and recognize a good haul when I see one.
There have been many occasions where I’m driving to and/or from work and I’ve had to stop myself from foraging more wood, as there are so many trees being trimmed and in some cases felled. I won’t dare to put more logs on the roof in case I sink the blooming thing.
There’s really no excuse to go cold on this boat, with all the wood that is available out there, you’d be silly not to forage.
Another great advantage of having an interest in Bushcraft is that, quite early on, you learn how to start a fire even when the wood is wet, when you have no matches or fire-lighters or indeed even a lighter.
In fact, when time is not of the essence and the cold is not biting hard, I take great pleasure in making some feather-sticks (for kindling) and starting the fire with some charcloth or crampball mushrooms lit with flint and steel. Some dried grass to take the ember and voilà!
It’s a chance to practice those skills and at the same time, enjoy experiencing what life in the olden days would’ve been like…
For power, I depend only on diesel and solar energy.
The solar panels charge up 3 x leisure batteries and a starter battery. The leisure batteries are daisy chained and separated from the starter battery by split charge relay.
I like the idea of harnessing most of my energy from the sun (even though it’s rarely sunny in England) and despite diesel not being great for the environment, I believe I’ve reduced my carbon footprint considerably.
Anyhow, sorry I digress again…
I won’t bore you with environmental activist rants and such….
When the fire is lit, it’s time to start the engine to charge the batteries and warm my water up.
It’s nice to have to do that, as it puts in perspective the amount of energy required to warm enough water for a shower and to wash the dishes.
The engine is a Lister Petter 3 cylinder water cooled 70’s engine and it has 30bhp.
Also by charging your batteries, you can charge your devices, thus engaging in the modern world and surfing the Interwebs, researching or watching Neil’s videos on YouTube… The Greencraft channel consistently put out great content for all of us and it’s always great to get free tips from the Pros.
There’s a lot to be said for not having a TV, (not really had one even when living in a house either) as you find that suddenly you have plenty more time to do the things you enjoy doing, instead of just staring at a box which, might or might not enlighten/entertain you… most people tell me “there’s nothing on!” anyhow.
Books and music were always a preferred time thief, but I do spend way too much time staring at screens… life on the boat has already started changing that, there is always something to do here…
By the time you’ve got in from work, lit the fire, started the engine, cooked dinner and washed up, it’s almost time to drift off into Morpheus’s arms and start it all again the next day.
The mornings here are glorious.
Very rarely does the alarm wake me up.
Usually by then the dawn chorus, the crows and rooks and more recently, the Canada geese and the moorhens have started their morning hustle and ensure that nobody gets a lie-in, regardless of what day it is.
Sundays, at daybreak, I often fantasize on how I would cook one of those fat little geese with roast potatoes and chunky root vegetables and how tasty they would be… noisy little quackers they are!
Then I suddenly realise that really I should be grateful for being up early again, so I can get on with the endless jobs that need doing, such as overhauling the engine, converting the back of the boat into a kids bedroom (so they don’t have to ‘camp’ out in the sitting room) and another list of jobs that need doing sooner rather than later.
Always a good opportunity to put the young ones to work and make them earn their way into a bacon and egg muffin …
Joking aside, I feel very grateful for living in this part of the world and in particular so close to nature and the great outdoors, being on a boat makes you practically ‘invisible’ to the fauna and completely integrated as part of the ecosystem.
This gives you a privileged position to observe the wildlife without startling them.
We are blessed with many creatures here, including Kingfishers, the very elusive otters, herons as well as the woodpeckers, the buzzards and red kites and I’m determined to get a decent camera at some point in the future.
Swans, ducks, geese and moorhens are not even that impressive anymore as they are so predominant!
Quite often at night, just as I’m going to sleep, I can hear the Tawny owl calling to his mates and the sound echoing through the night is enough to send me off in no time at all.
Since I’ve moved onto the boat I’ve only been out for overnighters a couple of times and I no longer feel the stress or need to get out to the woods to ‘recharge’… It has really brought me closer to nature and to the peace and quiet that it provides for my own sanity.
Despite having had engine troubles (ongoing) leaks and emulsified oil in the gearbox etc, and having to deal with those myself despite not being mechanically inclined and skint most of the time, it has been fun, educational and really quite pleasant having my own space in such proximity to nature and the elements.
No doubt, spring and summer will be even more pleasant than these last few months and I’m looking forward to not having to use the wood burner at all…
No doubt there will be other challenges forthcoming and the steep learning curve will continue to unravel but I can honestly say this alternative way of living has done wonders for my anxiety and stress and it is a good insight that sometimes less is more.
More time to enjoy cruising at the speed of life …