reflections of a narrowboat newbie

reflections of a narrowboat newbie

our first year onboard

My partner and I moved onto our narrowboat one dark evening in late winter. Cocooned in the warmth of a tiny cabin, we awoke to find our new life upon us, serenaded in by an astonishingly loud dawn chorus. 

We peeked out into the marina, a couple of shy newbie curtain-twitchers, intrigued by the orderly rows of narrowboats impossibly sandwiched in side-by-side. It was a strange new world to us and one which we and our boat were shortly due to leave, now the formalities of the sale were complete.

But how to operate this awesome beast? We are both dreamers; we get excited, jump first and think later. Sometimes we land on our feet and sometimes we land on our backsides. Which was this to be?

Step One: to find and buy the boat. Thoroughly researched and now done.

Step Two: the next bit… This had been largely ignored, beyond the wistful fantasies provoked by glossy narrowboating magazines. Now it seemed incredible, irresponsible (downright dangerous, even) that we were allowed to control 20 tonnes of motorised steel with zero experience and no brakes. As if sensing my growing panic, a kindly nearby boater called Ken volunteered to accompany us on our maiden voyage. Ken, if by chance you are reading this, know that I have since blown you many kisses of thanks!

Freshly armed with a few hours of intense tuition from guardian angel Ken, we started the engine and untied our new home. We slowly manoeuvred this ginormous 57ft long creation out of the marina, painfully aware that we were surrounded by watchful eyes and expensive boats, with little room for error. The Gods smiled down upon us and we made it to the canal without incident.

And so our journey through ever-changing landscapes began. The world abruptly slowed down. The sun gently rose and fell, followed by the moon. A rhythm all of their own to light this watery wonderland with two suns, two moons, one still, one dancing.

There were the odd moments of horror amid our newfound bliss. I can still picture the frantically shaking head and wild hand gestures of the poor man inside his boat as we attempted to moor for the first time. All three of us realised during those last painfully slow seconds that we were about to clout hard and fast into his pride and joy. He had the good grace to laugh once I’d babbled my apology and told me at least his whisky hadn’t been knocked flying, or we really would have been in trouble.

Winter drifted into spring, each day holding the promise of a new adventure. We too drifted with the seasons, never knowing what was waiting to be discovered around the next bend. We passed crumbling mills, factories and huge old pottery kilns, still fighting to show themselves above the crazy tangle of brambles clawing their way up like a scene straight out of Sleeping Beauty. These relics were from a frenetic age I had heard of way back in the dull, lethargic classrooms of my childhood where I'd only half-listen, daydream and wait for the bell. Now they were up close and real in glorious technicolour. So many abandoned monuments built and occupied by people who are long since gone. We were wide-eyed and curious, imagining what once was, listening hard and watching for ghosts.

And then out into worlds free of humans and their paraphernalia. Two tiny spellbound spectators perched on the back of a now seemingly tiny boat, drifting through vast, outstretched landscapes, full and rich and empty of anything not created by Mother Nature herself. We would moor up and proudly survey our enormous garden, sometimes so far from new provisions we would have to rummage deep into our supplies and concoct bizarre dishes from what we found lurking there.

Summer was glorious. Deep in ancient woodlands the reflections became so still and vivid it was utterly disorientating and impossible to tell where foliage ended and water began. A thousand shades of green, sprinkled with the vibrant jewels of wildflowers. I would wander free as a bird to plunder these gems, my hoard of multi-coloured treasure carried gleefully back in warm, sun-kissed arms. We were never alone, no matter how far-flung; the slow-motion rise of a heron, the glimpse of a water vole, the startling blue flash of a kingfisher, geese honking overhead, bats swooping at dusk. We delighted in spying them all.

The silent descent of the first few leaves, carried on freshly stirring winds, warned us the spell of summer was starting to break. Soon the air was thick with them and the towpaths buried deep in blankets of gold. Replacing sandals with boots, I would kick my way joyously through, marvelling at their abundance. All the world seemed golden then; the skies, the trees, the flames flickering in the newly lit evening stove.

And so we came full circle, back into winter. The palette changed to silvers, blues and greys. The holidaymakers and fair-weather boaters were long since gone, the canals fell ever more deserted and desolate and belonged to us. Our boat became a retreat; a warm, softly-lit and friendly refuge from the fierce forces of nature doing battle outside her trusty steel walls. We let them fight, tucked up and content, safe in the knowledge that spring would emerge victorious all in good time.


For Anne and Jack Day, who designed, adventured upon and loved this beautiful boat before us.

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About Jane Stuart

Jane worked as a teacher in London for many years before escaping back to the wilds of her Norfolk childhood. She started a business with her partner at the ripe old age of 38, which went on to become a leading UK brand. Once their children had flown the nest, Jane and her partner flew too - to a beautiful narrowboat, where they now roam the canals of England and Wales.