How I Ended Up Living on a Narrow Boat

I’m 59 and still not really sure what life’s about, but glad to be part of Advantages of Age – I feel like I may have found my tribe. I haven’t met any of you yet but can feel the positive, slightly naughty vibes leaping off the FB page.

A bit about me. In my Life Part One, which goes from birth to fifty years, I was always fairly rebellious, in my own middle-class middle-England sort of way. I was expelled during my A levels – the local boys public school trialled having girls in the 6th form – and I was culled pretty early on in the experiment. Aged 17 I hitchhiked to the South of France with a friend to try grape picking but we were three months too early so I ended up as crew on a superyacht which lasted four glorious years and taught me that I never want to be stupid rich – that, as it happens, has panned out. I got engaged to the engineer, but my parents felt there was more to life than a cockney grease monkey and I returned to England – since then I vowed never to interfere with my children’s lives.

Various other jobs including working privately for a tax-exiled British couple who wanted to develop an island in the Bahamas a-la Richard Branson’s Necker Island. I used to go out to the island with the developers by tiny seaplane but a proper runway was required so that guests could bring more baggage than they could ever possibly use on a desert island, and the Bahamian Government was opposed to it. Apparently, drug runners use these airstrips unless the island is permanently manned. I did offer to permanently man it and keep a close eye out for drug runners but that didn’t work.

In 1992 at the end of the Gulf war, my husband and I moved with Saatchi’s Advertising to the Middle East. I worked as Brand Marketing Manager for Jack Daniels whiskey – I was responsible for the Middle East and African markets. You don’t automatically imagine working in liquor in the Middle East, but the only dry countries are Kuwait and Saudi. I spent a lot of time in Lebanon even during bombings – such a wonderful little country with delightful people and a big heart. Ditto Jordan, where I navigated as a co-driver in the only female team in the Middle East Rally Championships and received a cup from King Hussein which was pretty weird.

Then in 2012 a strange fifty-year-old took over my mind and body. I didn’t recognise her at all. She took one look at the now plastic fantastic exorbitant overcrowded Dubai and said ‘Let’s get the hell out lady.’ So I did. The new me decided that as Life Part Two was about to start, going it alone would be a more dramatic change. I left my lovely home, great job, very nice husband and the dog – which broke my heart. As my two children had just finished school and my daughter wanted to come to England to study, it was the perfect opportunity to make the break. I reverted to my birth name of Hope and choose it daily.

I started my new life with six weeks in Oaxaca, Mexico, during Day of the Dead – a fab way to celebrate and gently say goodbye to my first life and commence the rite of passage into my next. I stayed with a super cool 70 year old American lady who encouraged me to write and started my love affair with Frida Kahlo.

I still travel regularly and cheaply, buses and hostels are my happy place and work away is a great way to meet local people and keep the costs down. https://www.workaway.info/en/workawayer/RachelM62

Since returning to England, I have not owned a home. Not only because I was too old for a mortgage but, because after working for 30 years corporately, I wasn’t willing to get the sort of soul-sucking permanent job that I knew would be necessary. My mother suggested working in nearby Milton Keynes, and that’s the last suggestion I will ever let her make. I have rented here and there but mostly travelled or stayed with family and friends, so it was never a problem. Especially as the only single one of four siblings, you tend to get more than your fair share of parent duties.

But then March 2020 arrived, we forgot about Brexit and the pandemic started. Everyone was told to self isolate and I got caught out – like musical chairs – the music stopped and I had nowhere to lay my head. I had previously thought bubble-less meant flat champagne.

There’s always an upside to life though, and I am now the proud owner of a 30-year-old narrowboat and love it.

A boat didn’t immediately spring to mind, I originally wanted to build a cabin but with no land and can’t build for toffee – that was a non-starter. Then one day, George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces, my favourite TV fix, featured a narrowboat. What’s more, Rosie & Jim and Prue & Tim seemed to be having a blast, so why not me?

At 55ft long and 6ft wide, it’s actually quite spacious, particularly as I don’t have to share it with a ton of coal and a family of eight. I have seven rooms if you count the two front and back indoor/outdoor spaces, nine if you allow for the dining room to double as an office and triple as a spare bed.

The galley kitchen is petite but means I can put on the kettle, wash the dishes and open the fridge all without moving my feet. Aside from having to get down on my knees and roll back the mat to open the oven door – it’s very functional.

The bedroom, bathroom and a sitting room all have doors to separate them and the large rear end – stern deck technically – and small cosy nook in the bow, are full of cushions and plants in the summer, and wellies and coal in the winter. Unless you have some form of central heating, you’re either boiling hot or freezing cold, depending upon your wood burner skills. You are, after all, living in a metal tube that, like trains and container trucks, was designed to move commodities around, and not for your personal creature comforts. As I simply cannot keep my wood burner going all night, I have installed two oil-filled radiators and only light the fire when it’s really freezing or I have enough patience.

The toilet is the compromise. There are two main choices – the Porta Potti or a pump-out tank stored onboard, most often under your bed. Not only do I not want to sleep on top of a load of crap, I do not want to keep moving my boat across to the other side of the marina to pump out. I am a learner driver whose confidence has been shattered by the person opposite who keeps repeatedly shouting ‘Don’t hit my boat, this is not a contact sport’ every time I switch on the engine.

So, Porta Potti it is. It needs emptying pretty frequently and involves splitting the loo in half, lugging the loaded part up the steps to the jetty and onto my sack barrow, that I’d only ever previously used to cart cider across a music festival. You then arrive at the Elsan which is like a giant’s toilet and deposit your goods. One year later and I still hate doing it. Everyone in the marina knows me as the ‘marigold lady’ as I simply refuse to touch it without rubber gloves.

The choice of location for your boat is varied. Canals are colourful and much easier to moor on than rivers, but personally, I like being in a marina. I need to plug into electricity, have a constant water supply and a car nearby. I also am not capable of the gipsy life that requires you to keep moving every two weeks if you don’t want to pay fees or taxes. I am technically and mechanically incompetent and simply would not survive. As soon as anything starts making a weird noise I call the marina manager to come and fix it. We pay £2500 per year for these privileges along with a boathouse and small shop. You then pay approx £1000k per annum for river or canal fees, so it’s a little pricier than some may imagine.

Yes, we live in close proximity. I could hold hands with my neighbour whilst drinking tea in bed, except I don’t think his wife would like it, but, we are right on the river with fields in front of us and a sunset to die for. I hand feed the birds, swim in the river and love the connection to nature. I am mindful – of enough water in the tank before I get in the shower, and minimal – you’re not wasteful as space is precious.

But most of all I get to live alone in my own tiny home within a wonderful community. What more could you ask for.

I’m still work-averse but love my writing. My memoir about muddled midlife is entitled The Dharma Drama – Dharma means purpose and I was rather lacking it when I started my book. This is where I want to put the link to Amazon so you can buy it, but a lot like me, it’s still a work in progress. It seems to have morphed into a journal that will never end. Journaling was a miraculous discovery. As Joan Didion said “I write to know what I think” and that seems to be the case. My pen reveals all sorts of things that I simply did not know.

My other great wonder is the tarot. Halfway through my first course in learning the tarot, my reading partner left me in tears. The teacher consoled me by saying that I really had the knack and uncovered some painful home truths for her. Thankfully this was followed up by a note from her saying that she had faced the issue head-on and all is resolved so thank you very much. Phew. The tarot is unique in that it is a mirror. It reflects back to you and shines a light and what you already know but keep deep inside. The universe then throws up opportunities and some much-needed oomph to set you on an exciting new journey.

I have recently coupled my two passions for journaling and tarot and developed them into a new business, Soul Sisters Community, which hosts retreats for midlife women looking for more. At this point, I am going to unashamedly put a link to Soul Sisters and say please take a look, ladies. And do please come. I would absolutely love to host some of you for a few fab days of self-discovery.

Apologies gents, this one’s just for the gals – but I am looking into running The Best Karma Exotic Funky House of Creation in Sri Lanka next January/February 2022 for all genders to enjoy some spiritual sunshine. If that appeals, please send me a note at: rachelsoulsisters@gmail.com I would love to gather a group who can help me shape it into something wonderful.

Carl Jung says “Life really does begin at forty, up until then you’re just doing research”. Well, at nearly 60,  I am still doing research because the day I stop being curious will be the day I die.

Soul Sisters retreats are happening this July 10th – 13th and July 13th – July 16th. Please check it out, mention AoA and I will gladly give you a super duper discount.

Look forward to meeting you all soon. Namaste!

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