Slow travel on the French canals.
“YOU’LL BE DIVORCED within weeks!”
“Are you crazy – no TV?”
These were the most positive responses I received on announcing that I was to “give it all up” and escape London on a boating adventure with my husband and two children under two – one of whom couldn’t walk and the other barely talk. We’d travel through the network of French canals and rivers to the Mediterranean Sea.
The reason for this radical decision was simple. Our life had been moving at breakneck speed for years. My husband’s twelve-hour workdays in advertising meant little family time together during the week. We looked forward to real life at the weekends: fast food, pounding the fast lane on the M4 for snatched moments by the sea. There wasn’t time for being slow and both of us were ground down by our lifestyle, comfortable as it was. I worried about our future if we continued living at this pace and craved a different way to live our life as a family. To discover what we wanted, I argued, we needed to escape London life and venture into the unknown with no fixed address, no plans and no salary. It wasn’t simply to be a holiday. We needed to slow down and reflect on what shape we wanted our life to have.
And so the idea was born. A boat trip with a top travelling speed of around four miles an hour – certainly not for speed freaks. Our vessel was to be a small 1960s wooden fishing boat that had lain in a boatyard for years. She was called Friendship.
The fact that she was only 10 metres in length and had never been out to sea didn’t, strangely, put us off. Even the threat of divorce didn’t deter us. My husband quit his high-paid job; we rented out our flat and gave away anything that didn’t fit on board.
We were to find out that leaving London was the easy part.
From Calais to Compiègne we grappled with living aboard a small boat, pounding grey rain soaking into the canvas boat awnings, the four of us jammed down below in a muggy space six feet by eight feet. We ate, slept, showered, played Lego and read stories in that tiny wooden cabin cluttered with our baby bath, toys, books and spare clothes. We were never more than six feet away from each other, depending on each other for company, safety and entertainment.
That time aboard was like some kind of strange game show, where the torture is relinquishing your personal space. Plunged into each other’s company 24/7, it was like being retired. We bickered about everything, from how to tie up the boat to the maximum length of a shower. From when to harness the children to how to read the canal maps. The days were hell.
At night I’d brace myself for the arduous task of making our bed, piecing together seven plywood sheets and an assortment of cushions for comfort. On it we’d both lie stiffly, pretending to sleep, wondering what on earth we’d done.
Instead of an idyllic cruise it felt like a soggy camping holiday. We couldn’t appreciate the aroma of freshly baked croissants, the haunting beauty of the grey herons perched on the canalside, or our changing back garden of grassy banks. I struggled to adapt to a basic way of life without washing machine, dishwasher or fridge. My husband stumbled through his days as a full-time father.
Out of our depth and floundering, we both had moments when we’d gladly have hopped on the next ferry home. But our optimism that this voyage would help us find a new formula for our lives drove us southwards despite the grinding rain and punishingly different daily life.
In fact, without realising it, we were slowing down and focusing on each moment: tackling each lock as it came up, stopping when a pretty village caught our eye, sometimes travelling only a few kilometres a day. Canal towpaths became our world on which the children played all day with sticks, stones and buckets. When the rain finally abated we slept in the cockpit looking up at the stars. Meals of saucisson and baguette were carried with us on long cycle rides beside fields of poppies. With no television at night we’d read and talk, discussing everything from how we each coped with the kids to the best method for opening a lock gate. From what we thought of Cloud Atlas to what we each wanted from our lives.
Living and travelling like that brought about fundamental changes in us. A strong sense of belonging to Nature started to creep into us. Seeing big skies daily, smelling morning mists and hearing the soft sounds of water rather than car engines had a profound effect on our state of mind. We were forced to slow down to meet speed restrictions – and also because the locks closed every day for a two-hour lunch break!
Living a more ‘outside’ rather than ‘inside’ life was good for all of us. We began to sleep better, to argue less and to reflect more. As we travelled on through France the real journey began to happen within us.
We spent a lot of our newly gained time with wonderful people along the waterways whose lives followed patterns unlike those of anyone we’d known in London. In Paris we met an eighty-year-old bargee called Jean who remembered the days of horse-drawn barges and had lived his whole life on boats. Then there was “Le Capitaine”, who had traded life in a shop for life by the river. Many evenings we’d share with fellow boaters on the banks, often retired couples, and we’d listen intently to why they had swapped ‘normal’ retirement for boat life.
One couple urged us to redefine our work life… Several of their friends had recently passed away at the age of sixty, and they warned, “There’s no time to be doing anything you don’t want to be doing.”
About half-way through France, somewhere along the beautiful and remote Nivernais Canal, we realised that we didn’t want to go back to our past, hectic life. We wanted these new feelings to last. There we both were, our fortieth birthdays on the horizon, looking at our next forty years with fresh eyes. We had rediscovered the simple pleasures of more time and fewer possessions.
As the Rhone pushed us south towards Provence we made plans to continue our journey abroad, my husband picking up freelance consultancy work that he could dispatch via the internet. By the time we reached Van Gogh’s famous sunflower fields we had mapped out a new way of life. One that meant we would both share in the childcare, spend more time as a family and continue a more simple, slower pace of life.
Puttering out into the Mediterranean Sea in late November was an emotional moment for me. We had travelled over a thousand kilometres, traversed a country by boat, moved closer as a couple and as a family and gained a fresh perspective on life. And all because we’d chosen the slow lane.
For more information visit: www.forbetterforworse.info For Better for Worse, for Richer for Poorer by Damian Horner and Siobhan Horner is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2009), ISBN 9780297854234. www.orionbooks.co.ukFor Better, For Worse will be published in paperback on 10 June 2010.