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What living on a canal boat is really like

What it's really like to live on a canal boat

Living on a canal boat is not everyone’s cup of tea but for artist Julie Weir, 46, and her husband Mark, 48, the move has proved liberating.

The couple, who have two twenty-something grown-up children, were working stressful jobs when they made the decision to quit their careers and trade in their four-bedroom house in Hampshire for life on the water.

“We were sitting in front of a roaring February fire, in 2017, when a programme came on, called My Floating Home,” Julie tells Relax Ya Self To Health. “It showed a couple having a canal barge built, and it looked amazing. The level of luxury, quality and finish on this boat was second to none, so Mark turned to me and said ‘we could live on one of those.’ The best bit was that we could be mortgage free and not give up on our luxuries.”

So the pair bought a wide beamed canal boat on the Avon Canal. This enabled Mark to relinquish 70  hour-plus weeks working as a senior partner at a chain of estate agents and pursue his dream of becoming a writer.

Julie, a former family support worker and 2013 BBC Wildlife Artist of the year finalist, was also able to focus on her painting.  The duo has just celebrated their first anniversary of moving onto the boat.

So, is life on the river really as idyllic as it sounds? Julie shares her story below.

How stressful was your lifestyle before you decided to live on a canal boat?

I worked with hard to reach families in early intervention, as well as families on the child protection register. It was challenging and incredibly stressful and upsetting at times.  Because of the nature of his targets and results-driven job, Mark worked most weekends, and during the week would leave at 7 am and return well after 7 pm, which meant that family time was almost non-existent. Time pressures and the in-depth nature of both our careers meant that relaxation time, meal-times, and time to unwind and switch off from the day were irregular at best. It becomes impossible to leave the stresses of your job at the door, especially if you care about how well you perform your job, so often things would spill over into home life, making relaxation time even more scarce, and this creates even more pressures on your mental health and self-esteem.

You were then offered redundancy. What happened?

I jumped at the chance. It meant that I would have six months income behind me to see if I could make a go of it as a full-time artist. So, I decided to try it for five months and if it didn’t work, give myself the sixth month to look for a job. The rest is history. At the same time, Mark saw the dramatic change in me and my happiness. Gone was the creeping Sunday night depression followed by the dark clouds of Monday morning. Making the change had rejuvenated me, and Mark saw this and I think this inspired him to consider an alternative career as he was spending what little spare time he had writing novels. However, with a mortgage and bills to pay, things weren’t quite that simple. It was too much of a risk for us to both give up our careers, so something had to go. It was either the mortgage or the dreams. That meant selling up the house and moving.

Canal boat view

How did you feel about making the leap to canal boat living?

Elated, scared, nervous, foolish, brave, but the one thing we never lacked was the conviction that we were going to do this. This was our chance to take something back. We were getting our freedom and quality time. In general, people around us were fairly supportive, if a little surprised. There were some dissenting voices, but in the main, it was positive. I suppose, what we were doing was radical, and there’s always an element of doubt when someone tries something new. Some of our friends even said they admired us and that they didn’t dare to do it, even though they would love to.

Had it always been your dream to live on a canal boat?

We hadn’t ever considered living on a canal boat before, not until we saw that programme. We did a lot of research, going to boat shows, and watching canal boat YouTube channels. (Who knew they were a thing?) It also inspired us to start documenting our journey with our own YouTube channel Weir on the Move. Our main concern, with regards to living in a four-bedroom house, was the act of downsizing. We had accumulated lots of material things over the years, and it surprised us how much. So thanks to car-boot sales and family and friends benefiting, we gradually shed our stuff. Mark dubbed it ‘material colonic irrigation’.

What’s the canal boat accommodation like?

The boat has two king-size bedrooms, a shower room with granite work surfaces, as well as an open-plan kitchen/diner/lounge, and the stern deck doubles as my studio space, giving me 360-degree views. There is also a bow deck which is great in the warmer months for sitting and watching the world go by with a gin and tonic. We have central heating, a multi-fuel burner, a fully fitted kitchen with integrated appliances, as well as the best 4G internet we’ve ever had.

What are the worst things about living on a canal boat?

Living on a boat will never be as easy as living on dry land. There are many things that you have to consider: Where does the drinking water come from? Buying gas bottles for the cooker, and making sure we have enough diesel in the tank. Living on a boat means you have to be prepared and always plan. It makes you think about everything, from water usage to power usage, things that don’t enter your head in a house. We always have to plan carefully, especially in the winter. Once you get your head around this, it’s all easy and straightforward. We have to move every two weeks in accordance with the Canal and River Trusts guidelines on Continuous Cruising.

What are the best things about living on a canal boat?

The ever-changing views. We’ve found that we’re more in touch with nature and the changing seasons than we were in our shut-up, busy lives in a house. And of course, if you don’t like where you are, you can move the boat. We like summer evenings sipping a drink, on the front of the boat, as well winter evenings in front of the fire. All of this is possible thanks to the low-cost, low-impact lifestyle we’ve chosen. There is a fantastic community here on the canals. We have neighbours, and sometimes we don’t. If you think about the Kennet and Avon canal, it’s mostly a long channel stretching over 40 miles, with Bristol in the West, and Reading at the other end. You play leapfrog with boats that you know, so inevitably you are going to develop friendships along the way. I can say, that in one year of being on the canal, we’ve made more friends than in the last ten years living in a house.

Julie Weir painting on her canal boat

How has living on a canal boat helped your mental attitude?

It’s an outdoor existence most of the time, and we’ve found that we are much more sociable, and approachable people than we thought. This has had a significant impact on our positive mental attitude and wellbeing. This may sound controversial, but many land-based communities can learn a lot from boating communities.

How did you turn your hobbies into full-time jobs?

I started running art classes in Chichester, West Sussex, and in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, teaching art on a twice-monthly basis to people of all abilities. I have found the art scene in Wiltshire, and the West Country, to be vibrant, which has helped me gain a strong following for my work. Mark has managed to make the transition to becoming a freelance writer and has just released his third novel, Annie of the Point, a historical romance set in Old Portsmouth in 1805. Being able to fulfil our ambitions has given us confidence, and a sense of achievement which has led to an uplift in our quality of life. All of this couldn’t have been possible without ridding ourselves of the mortgage. That doesn’t mean we don’t work as hard as before. We work harder than we’ve ever done, our time is ours, and we do all this for less financial reward, but there are other ways you can describe yourself as being rich.

What advice would you give to anyone who’s inspired to live on a canal boat?

If anyone feels they’re stuck in a rut, living to work rather than working to live, it could be time to take stock. We know too many people that say ‘What if’ or ‘If only.’ But it’s worth remembering that you can only regret the things you haven’t done. I suppose the positive message here is, go for it!

How did you get into art?

I worked closely with both parents and their children who had difficulties with their mental health, and I found that by using art, I was able to help them talk about their feelings in a way that merely asking questions would have failed. I encouraged them to speak about their feelings when they were well and when they were not, and through art, the complicated questions were easier to answer. This method enabled them to avoid giving eye contact, and through magazine images, or comic books, they expressed their true feelings.

I had never painted before 2011, and after our beloved dog died, Mark encouraged me to paint his portrait, especially given how expensive they were to buy. So I had a go, and it turned out quite well. Who would have thought that two years later, in 2013, I would be a finalist in the BBC Wildlife Artist of the Year competition, and in 2018 I’d become a Professional Associate Member of the SAA, a 43,000 plus online community for professional and amateur painters.

Julie Weir hare painting

How does living on the canal inspire you?

Imagine looking out the window and seeing Kingfishers, otters, hares, owls, and bats. Imagine swans tapping on your window for food. These are the things I see every day. It has changed me completely, and the way I paint. The canal inspires my art. I paint more British wildlife than I ever did, especially kingfishers, herons, goldfinches, and long-tailed tits. My new range focuses on birds, painted on a gold leaf background, and they have proved to be very popular indeed. My boat studio is a lot smaller compared to my old studio at the house, but now I can boast about having the best views.

What life lessons have you learned from making the move?

Material goods are generally immaterial. Shed what you don’t need, and it’ll be like shedding an old skin, and very cathartic. We have learnt that we only buy what we need, and not what we would like, so the things we choose have to be exactly right. Also, we would recommend taking a few risks to get what you want out of life. But only take them if you’re that way inclined. Some people are happy with their lot, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But remember; you only get one life, so go for it!

To see more of Julie’s artwork click here

If you feel inspired by this story you might like to read the following:

Meet the woman who is using her MS to save the planet 

Meet the man who is turning barber shops into safe havens to help prevent male suicide

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life, Wellness

20 ways to relieve stress

20 ways to relieve stress

If you’re looking to relieve stress may I suggest not reversing into a concrete bollard and causing approximately £1,200 of damage to your vehicle? Yes, that’s what happened to me the week before last.

Why? Because I was rushing.

I’d taken on too much work. The night before my news shift a last minute commission had come in and the only time the celeb could do the interview was after my shift. Not an issue. I’ve been a freelance journalist for almost 20 years and this is part and parcel of the ‘feast or famine’ nature of being self-employed.

The only snag was that I had to be up at 5am *I am useless with early starts* for an event I was covering in London for a new client the following day so the prospect of burning the midnight oil was not exactly appealing. To make matters worse, I received an email from a different editor at 6.30pm the very same evening asking me to amend some marks on a feature I’d written weeks before. The pages were going to press the following day.

Given that I would be out on a job at the crack of dawn the next morning there was nothing for it but to deal with it there and then.

By the end of the night, my head was spinning. I’d worked my news shift, crashed my car, interviewed the celeb, transcribed the hour-long interview, tweaked the feature and tracked the case study down. I rolled into bed gone midnight yet I couldn’t get to sleep. At 1.30am I was still wide awake thinking I had to be up in 3.5 hours.

 

20 ways to relieve stress

 

Then the words of my nutritional therapist and functional medicine practitioner entered my head.

“Stress management is key when addressing chronic health issues. Why? Because no matter how perfect your diet is, how much you exercise or what supplements you take, if you don’t manage your stress your health will be at risk and you will sabotage all your best efforts.”

She’d mentioned this to me on our first meeting and ever since then, I’ve been doing all I can to try and lead a more peaceful life.

Now we all know that acute stress serves an important function – it protects us from danger via a ‘flight or fight’ response by giving us the means to escape a life-threatening situation or face it head-on.

Our heart rate and respiration increase pumping more blood to the muscles, our pupils dilate to let in more light and improve sight, our focus intensifies, our immune system is activated and ready for action while our parasympathetic nervous system is put on hold.

When the stressful situation is over the parasympathetic nervous system kicks back in and the body returns to balance, resting, digesting and reproducing until the next acute stressor occurs.

However, problems arise when the stressors don’t go away – something known as chronic stress – and the sympathetic nervous system remains activated diverting energy away from normal functions such as digestion, repair and reproduction.

“We all know the mental and emotional stresses we face daily – the commute, long hours at work, impossibly busy schedules, problems with finances, problems in our relationships – on and on the list goes,” my nutritionist explains

“What you may not be aware of are other stresses which elicit exactly the same response by the body. These include poor dietary choices causing imbalances in blood sugar, constant sleep deprivation, chronic infections (often gut infections), inflammation and pain, food intolerances, even over-exercising. All these create a stress response and we lurch through the day going from one stressor to another and the stress response is constantly switched on – our bodies are not designed to cope with this type of chronic stress.”

I should perhaps mention at this point that I was also in the midst of my fourth tongue-swelling reaction in as many days. We were experiencing a  heatwave in the UK and extreme temperature is a trigger.

As some of you know, I was recently diagnosed with Mast Cell Activation Syndrome. In layman’s terms, my mast cells – white blood cells which form part of our immune system and are in every part of the body – are confused and hyper-sensitive and mistake things like high-histamine food, certain medication, and sunlight as a threat.

The cells are filled with chemical mediators including histamine, heparin, prostaglandins, cytokines which are released in varying amounts once triggered. When this happens my tongue or throat usually swells up. Sometimes I also experience severe itching in my scalp and limbs, chronic fatigue, stabbing pains all over my body and behind my eyes. I also bruise very easily – on the day I saw the consultant who finally diagnosed me – my entire right thigh was black.

The reason I mention this is because stress is a huge trigger too and I had not one but EVERY single reaction listed, which is additional proof that I need to get back on track with chilling out.

20 ways to relieve stress

 

So to celebrate National Relaxation Day [15 August 2018], I’ve rounded up 20 ways to find some balance. As de-stressing can only benefit us all, I hope these tips help you too.

20 ways to relieve stress

  1. On waking, wait half an hour before switching your phone on. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve reached straight for my device and ended up responding to WhatsApp group messages or watching an Instagram story, inadvertently wasting precious minutes in the morning, which then made me feel rushed. Give yourself the chance to wake up properly, nourish your body with healthy food and set some positive intentions for the day ahead.
  2. Limit time spent on social media. Things like Facebook groups are great for providing a sense of community for those of us who work remotely but when comments are overly negative, unsupportive or just downright mean they can dampen your mood. Dip in and out and avoid becoming involved in lengthy debates.
  3. Get organised. If I’m working in London or have a news shift booked in I pick out my outfit – right down to my underwear – and hang it on the back of the door. Likewise, I sort out my handbag and prepare all my own food as buying lunch out is no longer an option with my MCAS issues.
  4. Breathe deeply and slowly. Even if it’s just for three minutes. This is instantly relaxing and helps me at night when I need to calm my racing mind.
  5. Employ mindfulness. It’s not as hard as it sounds and there are plenty of guided apps out there like Calm and Headspace. I also visited a fantastic meditation studio in London and also found solace in a weekend meditation/wellness retreat at Chilston Park in Kent earlier this year.
  6. Avoid pointless arguments.
  7. Remember that your time isn’t necessarily set in stone. I’m a bit useless at this and like order (surprising when I’ve been freelance for 18 years and there’s little routine) so I can feel a little flustered if plans change at the last minute but more often than not they end up working out for the best so I try to employ this positive mindset now, which brings me onto my next point.
  8. If you cannot alter a situation, take a different perspective. Think ‘In what way could this situation be positive?’ Or ‘Can this have value or is it useful?’
  9. Keep a journal. Writing your thoughts down can be incredibly therapeutic and help you organise them.
  10. Avoid procrastination which can lead to feelings of not being good enough.
  11. Allow an extra half an hour for everything you do. Meeting a friend? Have a date? Catching the train (in which case I leave an HOUR earlier). Far better to be too early than too late.
  12. Turn your phone off. If I’m on deadline or trying to get a piece finished I put my phone on aeroplane mode.
  13. Create boundaries. I work from home a lot but often friends and family view this time as a chance to pop in for a coffee and a catch-up. I used to feel bad about turning them down but now they understand.
  14. Don’t overschedule. I’m guilty of cramming too much in and have been trying to make every Sunday a relaxation day but for the past two weeks I’ve ended up working. I SHALL get back on the horse!
  15. Stop trying to please everybody and learn how to say no. If not, you’ll end up being run ragged.
  16. Run a bath. It’s cliche. It works. I wrote about it here. Usually, I throw in a handful of Epsom salts, but as part of the day job earlier this year, I was sent Olverum Bath Oil and I’m now a convert. It contains no fewer than 10 essential oils including geranium, lavender and eucalyptus leaving your muscles relaxed and your bathroom smelling divine.
  17. Go to bed an hour early and wake up feeling refreshed, productive and ready to tackle the day.
  18. Move more. Exercise is a great way to clear the mind and was always my go-to for beating stress. I was a former gym bunny and tennis was my main sport. Due to my MCAS, spin classes and running are out, and I can’t play tennis competitively as vibrations – from activity to those felt on aircraft – can cause my mast cells to degranulate. Read here about the time my tongue started to swell on a long-haul flight. Now I’ve found solace in swimming and fair weather paddle boarding when I have the energy.
  19. Take up a new hobby that you love. Blogging anyone?
  20. KEEP. IT. SIMPLE.

What are your top tips for managing stress? How are you relaxing today? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. If you think this post might help someone who is struggling, please feel free to share this post or tag them.

Helen's Health, Wellness