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Monday, May 07, 2012

Growing Old Aboard

"Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made..." ~Robert Browning

   I was inspired by Del and Al's post titled Just living It on Derwent6. They said, "'This is a lovely life, but one question we always get asked is "What are you going to do when you get older?"'
   We returned from our wedding and the frenetic pitch of wrapping up my Stateside life in early September. NB Valerie was moored for the summer at Napton so we headed out for some countryside quiet, mooring up around bridge 101 on the North Oxford.
    Blackberries were in abundance and we were delighted by the opportunity to fill a bucket. As the two of us worked our way up the towpath picking fat, black berries, we met a woman berrying alone. A boat was moored nearby.
   She looked to be in her late seventies or very fit early eighties, with long white hair pulled up in a soft bun. Thins wisps escaped to curl around her face. She wore a blouse with a faded, small flowered print, and a pair of faded denim pedal pushers. Plain white sneakers graced a pair of small, agile feet. In her tanned, gnarled hands she held a small blue bowl half filled with berries.
   As we gathered berries together we conversed. She asked us how we came to be berrying on the towpath and we told her about our love story--how we met, fell in love, married, etc. etc. Her pale, blue eyes grew misty as she listened to Les. I asked her if she lived nearby. Her face folded into a lovely smile.
   "Yes," she replied. "I live right here." She turned and pointed to the boat moored nearby. Smoke curled from the stove pipe. The windows were hung with lace curtains, closed to the mid day sun. She no doubt noted the expression of surprise on my face.
   "My husband and I have lived on our boat for sixteen years. He is ill now with an incurable illness. He wants to die at home and I promised him he could. I will do whatever it takes to keep my promise."
   Her eyes look deep inside mine, searching for...something. Perhaps she thought I might be shocked by her declaration. She could not know that I have faced my own death more than once, in fact quite recently. I wondered if her husband's incurable illness might be the final stages of cancer. I stood in awe of her courage and love.
   "That's would be the way I would want to go--in my own bed, in my own home aboard," I said, and we wished her well. In the morning their boat had gone, moved on toward Braunston and her husband's final days...
   As the wheel of the year turned towards the longest night, Dear Sir steered us back up the Grand Union canal on our way north from a visit to London, with stops in Watford and Luton to visit family.
   We came in to Slapton locks in the waning light of a brittle, windy afternoon. A local boater on a permanent mooring stopped for a chat on tehway to his car.
    Garbed in baggy black jeans, he was wrapped in several warm layers including a large shapeless jacket, maroon knitted scarf tied close around his neck, and a black knitted cap. His face wore a hungry, curious expression under the grizzle of a three day growth of beard. 
   Those big double locks on the Grand Union take a while to fill. In the course of the conversation regarding whether or not the coming winter would be as severe as the two just past, the bloke mentioned that his nearest neighbor on the next mooring was a woman in her nineties, confined to a wheel chair. Her sixty seven year old son lived aboard and looked after her. She found it easy to get about on the boat since the narrowness allowed her to reach out and hold on to something on each side.
    "Last winter at the holidays, the ice was thick on the frozen canal and the lock gates were quite slippery with ice. Usually," he said, "the son carries his mum over the lock gates and I get her chair for her. They go home to family each Christmas for two weeks, but last year it was too dangerous to walk across the lock gates so we towed her in her wheelchair across the ice!" The bloke's friendly brown eyes crinkled at the corners as his laughter echoed in the cold, crisp air...
   Winter's dark, short days came and went as we cruised through them. At Braunston we came across a lovely couple in their mid-seventies, headed out for the bus into town.
   They were a dapper dressed pair; he in pressed black trousers and a warm fleece coat, his wife in dark plaid wool slacks with a mauve jacket. Her hair was nicely styled, earrings dangling from each ear. She hooked her arm through his as he walked along with a cane.
   They knew Les in passing as a fellow boater and stopped to say hello. She had a Scottish accent and sharp eyes that didn't miss a thing. Her husband had a small, neatly trimmed moustache which framed a lively smile as they said hello. They were on their way to a follow up doctor's appointment for his leg which had undergone recent surgery.
   Dear Sir introduced us, offering a brief synopsis of where he had been and why he hadn't been about on the cut much for the past year! After they offered congratulations on our marriage, I asked if they lived aboard their boat NB Relaine.
   "Oh yes," she assured me. "We've lived aboard as continuous cruisers for twenty six years now." We talked briefly about all the changes they had seen and how much they loved their lives aboard. We said our goodbyes as she slipped her gloved hand through her husband's arm and off they went.
   I must admit I found myself envious of them. Oh! To have been living on the cut all that time! It just goes to show one can age well in life aboard a boat on the cut. I think the lifestyle lends itself to longevity with the lack of stress and slow pace of a very simple life.


Nev Wells said...

Another truly absorbing post, the topic of great interest to many myself included. Thank you

Take care and enjoy

Nev NB Waterlily

Anonymous said...

Wow ... what beautifully rendered stories (not stories - they are real) what's the word? reports? on growing old together on narrow boats. Thank you for sharing Jaq.. Karen in Pullman

Nick Holt said...

Thanks you so much for sharing this post... oddly the thought of what'll happen later on in life has been something that Claire, my wife, and I have been talking about a lot recently. You may wonder why, given that I'm only approaching 50 and she's just arrived at 30! But, in buying a wonderful new (very old) boat this year to travel the waterways with our young family, one of the things we've been thinking about is the future, and how thing'll pan out as the years pass. I found your description of these wonderful couples both inspiring and as you say 'enviable' . A wonderfully life-affirming post - thanks

Chas and Ann said...

We have known the couple on RELAINE since 2000. First met them at Braunston when we had just got our first boat from Aynho. The Foot n Mouth out break prevented boat movement then so we got to know many boaters then.
We saw them up at Hawkesbury Junction only this month.

Carol said...

great post Jaq!

Wozie nb Oakfield said...

What lovely descriptions of the fellow boaters you have met.
We moored by an elderly single-handed boater who told us he had lost 'his crew'. He was a very independent soul from what he told us. He was delighted when I gave him some home-made cake for his tea. After he moved off we learnt that he was 89!
Life afloat is rather like life in a village, if you take the time to chat to the people you meet.

Les Biggs said...

Hi Nev,
Thanks--Hope we catch up with you sometime this year!!

Les Biggs said...

Hi Karen,
Lovely to hear from you. Did you get the pics we sent?
Love Jaq

Les Biggs said...

Hi Nick (and Claire),
Lovely to hear from you. Welcome to the waterways! It is a lovely life made all the better for the very fine people we've met along the way. I wish you and your family the best--and I hope you will start a blog of your adventures!

Les Biggs said...

Hi Chas and Anne,
Aren't they something? It's great to meet folks from all walks of life and all ages. Hope you are both doing well.

Les Biggs said...

Thank you Carol!

Les Biggs said...

Hello Wozie,
89! We've met such wonderful and interesting people all along our way. The water world community has truly blessed us with great comaraderie and friendship--with folks that in that other world, we would never have chanced to meet.

I think life aboard a boat on the canals is the fountain of youth! I'm amazed more folks don't figure it out and go for it. :)

Anonymous said...

Del and Al's posts are cool. Thanks for the Robert Browning quote;
love it!! Happy May my adventurous friend. Love, G

Les Biggs said...

Hi Gina!
Del & AL are lovely people--and a couple very much in love and romantic--like me and Les.
Happy May to you and Steve. Watch out for the fairies!
Love JaqXX

Nick Holt said...

Hi Les, Hi Jaq

We did indeed start a blog last September when we bought the boat... I think I've written some 250 entries since!!!

You can find us at



NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs