January 20, 2012


Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 1:13 pm

Long delayed winter has finally come, and the fire is the one chore I cannot neglect. Every few days I heave a 25 kg bag of coal from the roof, carry it the 62 ft length of the boat and drag it onto the covered section of the bow. From there I shovel up several scuttlefuls of coal a day, and, kneeling in front of the stove, pull the riddling arm, fast in and out, in and out. When the grate is clear I swap new black nuggets for the dusty, grey ash.

It is my third winter on the boat and the bags feel heavier than they used to. I’m older than most of the people I know living on board, and much older than any solo woman. I hug the coal bags close to my chest, puff out, and count the steps until I drop my load. One day I will remember to ask Dusty to deliver the bags nearer to the front.

Last thing before bed I bank the fire and turn the vents until they are almost closed. The trick is to keep the fire only just alive through the night, so as neither to waste fuel nor to start again from a stony cold stove and a frigid shell. Pangolin, like most narrowboats, is made of steel. The winter is a fight against the frost, and the summer would be intolerable if it ever really arrived.

I was very cold in the night and slept badly. Last winter I piled the bed with two duvets; it’s time to get the second one out.

In the morning the temperature inside, near the fire, is 5 degrees celsius (41 fahrenheit). At the back, where I sleep and dress, it is much, much colder. Outside there is a thin layer of ice on the canal, and the grass and hedges that line the towpath are white with a frost as thick as snow.

While the kettle boils I am back to riddling, now with the stove air vents wide open. By the time my tea brews the indoor temperature has risen to 8.

The forecast is for a few more days of very cold nights, and while it lasts I am rationing water even more closely than coal. At my old mooring I had to move my boat to fill the tanks, but here in Wolvercote we each have our own water tap, and all I need to do is run a hose from the tap to the bow. Lured into carelessness by such ease and the long, warm autumn, I let the tank run low. Now the tap is frozen and I must wait for a thaw. Usually I am an ant sort of person, but this time I was a grasshopper.

A worse grasshopper than I, paddling a canoe from a narrowboat above the lock crunched through the ice. It looked, and sounded, like hard work. From the half dozen empty plastic water butts he carried I knew where he was headed.

The canoe returned not long after with the water bottles full, so I know that the communal tap below the lift bridge is still running. Meanwhile I am not yet desperate, and I excuse the dishes piling up in my sink.

Far away, the English cricket team falters, and a letter is leaked to a newspaper: the Secretary of State for Education thinks the nation should buy Her Majesty a new yacht to mark her Diamond Jubilee.

The sun shines. It’s our north Atlantic tradeoff — we can have it wet and mild or dry and cold.

I run the engine most nights, but because the domestic battery monitor shows good charge, forgetting that the dodgy starter battery will hate the deep freeze, I decide to save on diesel.

I should have known that in the morning the engine wouldn’t turn over.

I am impressed by how calm I am, since if the engine won’t start I will soon have no electricity at all. I decide to rest the battery for a few hours and then try again, making sure to give it plenty of glow plug (I guess it warms the diesel, but I think of it like the choke we used to give cars).

The barometer is falling and the wind is changing direction.

The outside water tap was still frozen in the morning, but by afternoon I get a dribble from it. I unroll the hose and chunks of ice fall off the coils. An hour later the drip becomes full flow.

As the tank fills, I fetch my jumper cables from the car; I watched the young archaeologist connect the domestic batteries to the starter and jump the engine after new year, and I am ready to manage it myself, without help, but when I try the starter battery one last time it reluctantly springs to life.

I leave the jumper cable stored in the engine room. The battery won’t hold out much longer.

Meanwhile, I notice that the elsan — the toilet emptying point just past the lift bridge to the south — is looking sluggish again (I think it cannot be the frost, because it is already noticeably warmer), so I race to empty my shit suitcase before the elsan is totally blocked.

Now, besides rationing diesel, electricity, water, and coal, I consider my bodily motions. Toilet paper, I decide, is strictly two squares per visit, until the elsan flows freely.

The Prime Minister announces that in these days of austerity it would be inappropriate for the nation to buy the queen a yacht.

In the night I threw off the second duvet, and by morning I hear the soft tap of rain on the roof. The west wind is back, and we have exchanged our sunny, continental frost for the more usual Atlantic, temperate gloom.

I eke the coal out one more day and night. In the morning it will be time to drag another bag from the roof.


  1. Does the Queen really NEED a yacht?

    Comment by Jan — January 20, 2012 @ 3:26 pm

  2. It’s a warm wind, the west wind, full of birds’ cries;
    I never hear the west wind but tears are in my eyes.
    For it comes from the west lands, the old brown hills.
    And April’s in the west wind, and daffodils…
    Ah, John Masefield. I’d almost forgotten it. Thanks! http://www.poetryconnection.net/poets/John_Masefield/17343

    Comment by msmeta — January 20, 2012 @ 4:24 pm

  3. I totally admire your fortitude. And there are great health benefits in weight lifting.

    Comment by Jan — January 20, 2012 @ 4:56 pm

  4. You are doing well, back in your home and living in solitary splendour.
    Living on a boat, perhaps you could ignore the PM and his pronouncements?

    Comment by friko — January 21, 2012 @ 11:11 pm

  5. Wow, you live on a boat! That is so cool! I have always wanted to do that. The peace, quite and austerity. But buying the queen a yacht, I thought she already had a dozen, no? =)
    Happy sailing!

    Comment by Dominy — January 22, 2012 @ 1:41 am

  6. Much of The Horse’s Mouth, by Joyce Cary, (later turned into a movie by – and starring – Alec Guinness) involves surviving in cold weather with little in the way of resources. I can’t decide whether reading it would be a comfort to you or not but I pass on this detail for what it’s worth.

    Comment by Lorenzo da Ponte — January 22, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

  7. You sound as if you are really hardy and I am full of admiration for you. Your kindle (you mentioned it on my blog) sounds a Godsend. I shall think of you the next time I have a power cut.

    Comment by Freda — January 23, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

  8. You have a very busy week and one of your most important tasks is to create fire for the cold season. I haven’t seen snow all my life because I live in the tropic. How low does the temperature usually reach during winter season?
    Thanks for sharing a part of your schedule!

    Comment by Linda Roman — January 23, 2012 @ 8:39 pm

  9. Brrr!!!
    And I think it’s cold if we drop below 70!!

    Comment by Twenty Four At Heart — January 24, 2012 @ 5:47 am

  10. Well, blow me, as my Devon friend is fond of saying, but you’ve started blogging again. Sorry I’m so late to the gate. But I will try to be more attentive.
    I’m struck reading these two posts by what different sorts we humans are. Your description of your life on Pangolin these days sounds like sheer hell to me. In fact, it reminds me my years living in England, with the cold baths and frigid bedrooms. But it’s clearly a challenge you enjoy. Which is probably why you still live there and I don’t!

    Comment by Jane Gassner — January 30, 2012 @ 7:51 pm

  11. Hello,
    I always wonder why people, who probably have a choice, sometimes chose a life like this. I simply cannot answer this for you. I ascribe it to being English.
    I grew up in the woods of Northern Canada. I am a red indian as the english like to call us, and my life was pretty normal with ice on everything and water from a hole in the ice that we would carry with pails or use the dog to drag the sled to the house. I never thought much of it. We had no batteries or hoses or coal stoves yet I cant seem to remember ever being cold. I am not sure how my mother did it but she always cooked huge meals, made her own bread, bannock we called it, and washed the clothes, and chopped the wood, the men did not chop wood, and told us stories with the light of a coal oil lamp when we were poor and a high test lamp with mantel when we were rich.
    I went off to school, had my lunch, had a place to dry my mukluks, and was able to see my homework until the sun went out.
    I would never do this again. I cant stand campers or caravans because they always feel damp to me and the campgrounds are filled with too many strange people. So what I do now is travel to far off places, find a house, rent that and live as best I can. Right now I am well used to tacos and fresh fresh veggies and bbq made from homemade carbon as they call it here. about 8 pennies british a bag.

    Comment by Garry Ladouceur — February 1, 2012 @ 12:21 am

  12. Well, we’ve been freezing abed here in mid-February in a centrally heated house. How goes with you on the cut? I hope you can manage an update soon.

    Comment by Dick — February 11, 2012 @ 1:22 pm

  13. Why oh why do I stay away from blogland, when to do so means missing out on things like this? I know we’ve crossed paths before (your kind visits to me, which I have appreciated but not properly acknowledged) but I really don’t understand why I didn’t realize just how interesting you are. Never mind. It’s not too late. I was on your narrow boat with you, feeling a little chilled and uncomfortable, and feeling rather alone even though you were there. What an extraordinary life you lead! I’m going to spend part of my evening catching up with your earlier posts – much more interesting than the novel I just started. And thank you, yes, very much, for having read me recently and for leaving such a nice comment.

    Comment by Deborah — February 22, 2012 @ 2:20 am

  14. You’re back! I’m so glad. But you’re reminding me of how soft I am in comparison to you. I feel like a wimp.

    Comment by ruth pennebaker — February 29, 2012 @ 9:00 pm

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