One of the most important things to remember when talking to Chris and Sue Hall about their 4 silver gap years travelling along the waterways of the UK, is not to call their vessel (the “Inisfree”) a longboat. For the uninitiated, longboats are what the Vikings used. And narrow boats – of which there are currently around 30,000 in the UK cruising the British canals – were originally used for transporting coals and pottery.
Lucky enough to retire at the age of 55 from the Fire Service with a good pension (imagine!), Chris Hall and his wife Sue (who was also retiring from her job as a lecturer) made the decision to change their lives completely. Their three children had finished university and they were free at last to indulge their dreams and start to travel.
One day on their way back from Bristol, they went to see a narrow boat, and Chris was surprised and delighted to find that Sue (who had previously felt that life on a boat might be a little to damp for her) had fallen in love with it.
After months of research, visiting the boat shows and a week’s trial holiday in a hire boat, Chris and Sue then took the plunge to build their own narrow boat. They found a workshop in Peterborough which would build a hull for them. They left behind their bricks and mortar and swapped creature comforts for a caravan, living on site and visiting the workshop every day. It took three weeks to build the hull, and Chris then built the rest of the boat himself very slowly and carefully, while Sue made a lot of coffee and tea for the painters (the other self builders) and cleared up every evening. They enjoyed living like travellers after a lifetime of convention, and ended up spending 2 years in the caravan until the boat was finally completed, returning home just once each month to cut the grass.
The end result was a beautiful vessel, 6ft 10 inches wide and 60ft long, which would enable it to go anywhere in the UK (broader beam boats cannot get from the north to the south as the canals are too narrow). The colour chosen was racing green, with mains electrics for a washing machine and TV, lighting, fridge, gas cooker, radiators and a shower. Fresh water was essential , supplied via a tank which lasted around 1 week before needing a refill. A solid fuel store was installed, and (for those who need to know) a macerator toilet which mushes and pumps into a holding tank, followed by a pump out at the boat yard every 3 – 4 weeks. Finally, Chris and Sue decided on round portholes rather than large windows (more secure and, importantly, stops nosy people looking in).
23rd April 2005 was launch day when the boat, now named the Inisfree, first went into the water. Through the summer months, the house was sold and the car given away. Sue’s parents were to receive their post and in September 2005 they set off on their voyage. Chris speaks of a fantastic feeling of freedom: no home and no ties. The plan was to go to London to spend Christmas with their children.
However, like the best laid plans, things did not start smoothly. Engine problems were followed by the arrival of the AA equivalent – River Canal Rescue, and in November there was a three month pause while the engine was deemed as not worth repairing and a new engine sourced and fitted.
Take 2 was in February 2006 when Sue and Chris headed off from the Milton Keynes area and began a 4 year adventure on the waterways, travelling at around 2-3 miles per hour. They visited Oxford, Reading and Bath, then stopping for a hand operation for Chris in Salisbury. Soon after came Manchester, Liverpool, Middleswick (Middlewich) and Chester, taking time out to visit Sue’s parents every 6 weeks or so and hiring a car to do so.
A typical day would entail getting up at around 9am and having a cup of tea and breakfast, then chatting about where to go that day and what to do. This was life lived at a slow pace and without a fixed itinerary, very much dictated by the weather – rain or wind would usually mean going nowhere at all. The same for frozen canals – there was nothing to do but wait. A nice day would mean travel with a lunch stop to be planned. This would involve around 2 hours cruising, with locks to negotiate. Then lunch and of course that important afternoon siesta. And then, chances were that Chris and Sue would decide to stay put for the rest of the day. If a nice mooring was found, that could become a stay of 3 or 4 days. As Sue explained, mooring up is quite hard work so you wouldn’t necessarily want to do it more than once a day. This was indeed life in the slow lane.
Turning around was a particular challenge, which involved finding a winding hole which could be 3 or 4 miles ahead. Over shooting a mooring could involve several more hours cruising – 3 miles upstream, turning around, and then going back again.
Memorable events included spending 3 days in Liverpool in the newly refurbished dock areas and exploring the city. Also Chris had a high adrenaline moment chasing after a mugger who had just robbed a woman of her handbag (full of takings from the local betting shop). And he caught the thief! (retrieved her handbag and takings).
With on-board internet, Chris and Sue made the most of modern day technology, using Google to plan bus stops and timetables which were essential for land shopping trips (and of course their bus passes came in very handy as senior citizens). Satellite TV was another modern luxury, unless a tree was in the way which blocked the signal.
Their adventure was paused in May 2010 when Sue and Chris became landbound in order to care for Sue’s mother. Inisfree is now in Skipton, drained and winterised, while Sue and Chris hope that they will one day be able to return to continue their travels on the waterways.