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Welcome!

This is the post excerpt.

Welcome to our travelogue!  This is an in-the-moment account of our travels through France, Belgium and the Netherlands on our Dutch barge – Solstice.  Our journey began in June 2017 when we sailed her across the channel to Dunkerque and set off from there to cruise the French canals.

We hope you enjoy – Please do comment and interact with us on here. It’ll be great to know there’s someone out there!

Dave & Ange Presland

Bristol

Asfeld to Pont l’Évêque. Four canals in one week. 17th to 24th June 2022

The black line shows our journey so far (1st to 24th June). Starting in Toul and currently moored at Pont l’Évêque where the black line meets the orange dotted line on the map.

This week we have covered two short sections of canals that we passed through in June 2017 when we first came to France. We’ve done our best so far to avoid revisiting waterways that we’ve done before, but from Berry-au-Bac to Bourg-et-Comin, we repeated 19km of the Canal Latéral á l’Aisne on Sunday. Then on Tuesday we did just 15km of the Canal Latéral á l’Oise from Abbécourt to Pont-l’Évêque at the end of an epic 40km journey that day.

Last Friday I finished the blog whilst shut tightly away inside the boat in 33° heat because, to avoid upsetting further fishermen, we had inadvertently moored across a wasps nest in the canal bank. Although we managed not to get stung, the angry beasts were buzzing at every doorway and window trying to get in to us, so we had no choice but to close up the doors and rely on our window and skylight insect netting to prevent them getting in. Unfortunately no breeze could get in either, so we suffered!

Thankfully, just as Dave and I were about to expire from the heat, the other two fishermen on the moorings packed up to go home. Then we were able to slowly and carefully go outside, untie the ropes and slide the boat forwards away from the wasps. I can’t tell you what a relief that was.

This was our view from the waspy mooring at Asfeld

An early getaway took place on Saturday to try to get ahead of Casa Nova, the boat you can see in front of us. They had leapfrogged us all week up to that point and always seemed to bag the best (or last) mooring place. Saturday was forecast to (and indeed did) hit 37° and so we wanted to find somewhere shady for the day. Two hours later and we were tied up nicely in the last mooring space on the beautiful picnic site at Variscourt. Not a wasp in sight! Mid-afternoon, the boat in front of Solstice left, and, sure enough, Casa Nova turned up just in time to bag the space, before three cruisers coming in the opposite direction got there.

Peaceful, shady spot at Variscourt where I was able to cook outside. We still had to move a fisherman here too. He was nice though!
Our favourite position on board

After the heat of Saturday, we set off in a slightly chilly wind on Sunday morning, heading for Bourg-et-Comin. This is on the junction of the Canal Latéral à l’Aisne and the Canal de l’Oise à l’Aisne. There’s one pontoon here with space for about four boats, and then nothing, no mooring opportunities at all for another four locks and a tunnel. So, we were very much hoping for a space big enough for Solstice on that pontoon. Here’s the google satellite view of the port. Only one boat on it when this was taken!

We left Variscourt before Casa Nova for the reasons already described, but despite our efforts the pontoon was full when we got there. Luckily the boat at the far end of the line was a steel barge about the same size as Solstice. The rule here in Europe is that boats can tie together on moorings (raft up) when there’s limited space and providing there’s no risk of damage to their vessel, the skipper of the boat secured to the bank must allow other boats to moor alongside them.

We couldn’t raise anybody on the steel barge and so we went ahead and pulled alongside. As I was looping my front rope over their cleat, I heard voices and a kerfuffle inside the boat and the owners appeared on deck. In my best French I asked the lady bargee if we could tie to them. They looked doubtfully at each other and (given our fisherman experiences so far this week) I braced myself for a debate. But, after ascertaining that we’d only be there one night, they relented and kindly helped us to tie up.

The skipper, Jean, on realising that we needed a dual plug (a splitter) so that we could share the electricity supply (something we didn’t have because we’ve never got round to buying one) promptly produced his own splitter and plugged us into the shore power.

By way of a ‘thank you’ I took over a bottle of Crémant. I didn’t say ‘we know you know that you had to let us moor alongside, but thank you anyway for doing it with good grace and sharing your stuff with us’! These lovely people, Jean and Danielle, then invited us on board their boat later for aperos. An evening conducted entirely in French (exhausting for me!) where Jean insisted that Dave try every type of wine and whisky in his store cupboard. We had a lovely time!

Casa Nova had to raft up too!

An uninvited but welcome guest
The southern portal of Braye Tunnel at the summit of the l’Oise á l’Aisne

Pinon was the destination for Monday, 4 uphill locks, a tunnel, and then four downhill locks. We’d had rain on Sunday night and once again the air was a bit chilly. As we entered the 2.3km tunnel though, the damp heat of the air inside hit us, and shrouded Solstice in thick condensation – including the windows!

Zero visibility- eeek!

Dave had to navigate the entire length of the tunnel like this….

Squinting through the bottom of the open tilted window

We found a lovely mooring at Pinon, on the opposite side from the official moorings which were, once again, full. A handy supermarket just over the bridge meant we could stock up for the next few days. Perfect! Then……..

Our fresh water pump failed.

This is the pump that brings water from our fresh water tank to the taps. Failure of this device is a bit of a disaster, especially when it’s searingly hot and the crew need a shower.

Dave carries a spare water pump in his man-cave below decks. Phew! As soon as the engine room had cooled down a little after the journey, he hotfooted it below and fitted the spare pump. Guess what? That didn’t work either. To be fair, the spare was an old pump that Dave had used for various jobs on board and it had clearly pumped its last drop. Ah well. Worth a try Dave.

At our second lock on Tuesday morning there was a fresh water tap. Also in his spares kit (for ‘kit’, read ‘boxes and boxes of stuff in the engine room’) Dave keeps a 30L and a 10L water container. So we filled these up at the lock so that we had, at least some, fresh water.

We extended our planned journey on Tuesday so that we could make it here to Pont l’Evêque, 40km and 7 Locks away. This was so that we could get on a train at Noyon (about a mile away) and go down to the closest chandlery, which luckily is only 16 minutes away (by train) at Compiegne, and buy a new pump. Max Guerdin et ses fils is one of the best stocked chandleries in France and they had one water pump to fit Solstice in stock.

Tuesday night though, before the journey, Dave had a brainwave. He took the head off one of the broken pumps and fitted it to the tail of the other. He’d cobbled together a ‘Frankenpump’ that actually worked! Enough for a shower each anyway. Good. We’d have been sitting in a coach on our own on the train Wednesday I think!

We’d had a bit of a challenge mooring up again on Tuesday evening. There is a small port here at Pont l’Evêque but we could see that it would be too tight to go into, turn around, and come back out again if there was no space. So we were prepared to have to come out backwards.

Unfortunately, when there was, indeed, no space, we found ourselves coming out backwards and meeting this peniche coming in, also backwards, under the only available arch of the bridge.

There’s a ‘Chantier’ (marine engineering business) serving commercial barges in this tiny port, so everything is a bit of a tight squeeze. Here’s what the port looks like without a barge in the foreground:

Still rather a tight squeeze!

After we’d untangled ourselves from the stern of the peniche (no damage to either boat) we stuck ourselves on the opposite side of the canal, just below a lock that we assumed/hoped is disused.

No lights, no operating controls, huge peniche on the moorings – a fair guess is that this lock is not in use

You can see above that Solstice is facing the lock. This is actually the wrong way round but it’s where we ended up after the debacle at the port entrance, so here we stayed. We didn’t really know if we were allowed to stop here, but, no signage is good signage, so we tied up. Nobody has taken a blind bit of notice of us in three days, so I guess we’re okay.

The trip by train to Compiegne was uneventful, but hot! Dave took the opportunity to browse (!) and so we came away with a few purchases in addition to the water pump. Including….

…..A splitter!

On our return from the chandlery we were delighted to find we had neighbours. Eric and Ria on their beautiful tug, Amer, were tied up behind us in the tiny gap between Solstice and the peniche behind.

Aperos on Solstice were a must and we spent a lovely evening in Ria and Eric’s company. (After Dave had fitted the new water pump of course).

We’re staying here till Sunday when we’ll tackle the final leg of this part of our journey, from here to the junction of the Canal de la Somme. We hope to spend the whole of July on the Somme because we’ve been told it’s fabulous. We have visitors and potential meet-ups with boaty friends planned so we’re really looking forward to it.

I’ll leave you with a couple more pictures of this lovely place and our spectacular pre-rain sunsets. Rain is due all day tomorrow which is why we’re sitting tight, then we get back amongst the big boys on the commercial Canal du Nord.

Amer leaving this morning
Pont l’Evéque sunset
10 minutes earlier, a different colour palette

Bon weekend everyone!

A journey through the Ardennes. 10th to 17th June 2022

Canal des Ardennes

After last week’s poor data signal, I just wanted to start with a couple of pictures of the River Meuse that I couldn’t share then.

War damage
Nesting storks
Beautiful weirs

After Friday night (10th June) on the beautiful picnic mooring at Alma, we spent one more night on the Meuse, here at Ramilly.

We had been told about this mooring which is just above the lock at Ramilly, and were warned that the bollards are hidden in the long grass. They weren’t kidding!

We’d planned a barbecue, so Dave got the strimmer out intending to clear a safe area of grass for the fire. And to cut a path to the two mooring bollards to help other boaters find them.

The strimmer lasted five seconds then the cutter broke. *sighs*.

I hate that T Shirt!

After an attempt or ten to fix it, Dave gave up. Threw the strimmer back into the front locker, swore a bit, and then got our old-fashioned handheld sickle out. That worked! He didn’t bother cutting paths to the mooring bollards though.

So we soaked the entire area, put two buckets of water on standby, and got on with our evening.

Sunday we needed shopping. Our map showed a mooring on the river at Sedan, about 50 metres from an Intermarche supermarket at the top of the bank. As we came round the corner after exiting the lock, we were delighted to see a small pontoon exactly where it was supposed to be.

Then we were disturbed to see two vans, with four fishermen on the pontoon and on the bank before it. Fishing lines everywhere! I went to the front of the boat while Dave frantically honked the horn to get them to reel in their lines.

Fishermen aren’t supposed to use boat moorings but they do. You can understand why; its usually a smooth surface, close to the water and often close to facilities. And judging by the state of this particular pontoon, these guys probably hadn’t seen a boat stop there for months.

As we drew up to the pontoon we found out why. The water was so shallow, Solstice had to literally plant herself in a foot of soft mud so that we could get close enough to tie up. Any sudden drop in river level and we’d still be there now I think.

I did a supermarket-sweep dash round Intermarche and after sucking ourselves out of the slime we were on our way again; locking up onto the Canal des Ardennes a couple of hours later.

Pont-a-bar. Cruiser Vanya is in front of us

Contrary to other boaters’ advice, we moored at Pont-a-bar Sunday night because there’s a marine engineer based there and we wanted him to have a look at the bowthruster. He finally got to us first thing Tuesday morning. We didn’t mind hanging around on Monday. We’d had more socialising with Kelvin and Anna from a lovely Linssen cruiser moored behind us, and Reinhard, a German from cruiser ‘Vanya’.

Turns out the bowthruster is probably unfixable without Solstice coming out of the water, either to have bearings changed, or a new gearbox. No great surprises really. The machinery is 20 years old and was immersed in seawater when we crossed the channel. So next time Solstice is dry-docked, a new bowthruster it will be. I’ll be blooming glad when I never have to use that word in this blog again!

Sunset on the Ardennes

We had a delightful trip up to the summit of the Canal des Ardennes on Tuesday,  to the small town of Le Chesne. Canal water levels were REALLY low. About 0.75 to 1.0 metre below where they should be. This made for a slightly worrying night at Le Chesne. We’d managed to get right over to the side of the canal. Often at low water levels you can’t do this because the canal is saucer-shaped and slopes upwards at the sides. Our concern was that the water level (which usually recovers overnight when boats aren’t using locks) would deteriorate and we’d be left beached. So, we went to bed leaving nice loose mooring ropes and with crossed fingers.

Le Chesne. Summit of the Canal des Ardennes before the long journey down the other side
Beer at the bar by the port

Wednesday we were up at 7am to be at the top of the long downhill chain of locks for 8am when I’d booked the lock-keeper to open the first lock.

We waved goodbye to narrowboat Vector, moored in front of us, but Alistair and Sabine (whom we’d spent a pleasant couple of hours with the previous night) were still a-bed.

The passage to the top lock, only one kilometre, was unpleasant. Slow, weedy, and much too shallow for comfort. When we arrived, guess what? No lock-keeper! Nowhere to moor, and with a strong breeze pushing us inexorably closer to the shingle bank where we absolutely did not want to be.

I called VNF and was told that they didn’t know why I’d been given an 8am slot. They never open the top lock till 9am.

Well, that was a bit of a calamity to be honest. We had about 45 minutes to wait. Couldn’t go back to Le Chesne, couldn’t moor at the sides of the canal, couldn’t hold the boat in the middle of the canal due to the wind. The pictures below show what we did…..

Tied a tyre over the stem post to act as a buffer then drove slowly to push the bow against the lock wall
Tied to a post on the lock then very slowly drove the stern round to moor against this beached barge hopefully without going aground
Sat for 30 minutes looking at the ridiculously low water line and waiting for the lock keeper.

When the lock keeper arrived (a very nice man!) we started to untie from the beached barge so that we could get Solstice’s stern into deeper water.  Before we could do this, however, the keeper started filling the lock! This, of course, drew whatever was left of the water from underneath us and immediately beached us. Hard aground on the left bank.

I hurried to the front of the boat shouting ‘arrête! arrête!’ To his credit, the keeper, who’d wandered up to the other end of the lock turned and ran back to the controls to stop the water running into the lock. It then took us about 15 minutes with a combination of our heavy barge poles and careful use of the engine so as not to damage the propellor, to get off the beach. Not a great start to a long, hot, tiring day.

We almost forgot to enjoy the gorgeous scenery down the long, remote and peaceful lock flight. Ironically there’s so much water in the lock flight that it was flooding over every lock gate.

Pictures of Thursday’s scenery:

Canalside homes
Summer roses

We finally arrived at lovely, shady Attigny at about 5pm Wednesday. Free water and electricity, and a nice glass of Crémant made up for the trials of the day.

Late evening at Attigny

Yesterday we took 5 hours to cover just 18km because of the thick weed in the canal and moored in Rethel overnight. Another lovely-looking mooring but disturbed sadly by motorbike noise and evening drinkers at the picnic benches close by.

A bit choked up

And today we have seriously upset another fisherman by needing to moor exactly where he was fishing. It’s a really difficult situation.  We don’t take the decision lightly to disturb someone who has four fishing lines out, a keep-net in the water and all their paraphernalia out on the bank. But he was actually sitting on the middle of three mooring bollards in the only space we could stop. No amount of ‘désolees’ or ‘pardons’ would appease him so we had to just let him storm off in his car, swearing at us. It must be the heat!

There are two other similarly set-up fishermen on these moorings so we’re enduring the dirty looks and waiting until they leave so that we can move up a bit into a more shady and less wasp-inundated spot. I expect it to be dark before that happens!

Ah well. Wish us luck! ‘Til next week here’s a final picture of Solstice on the move today.

À tout à l’heure!

Commercy to Alma. 4th to 10th June 2022

After a lovely evening with the crews of ‘Plan B’ and ‘Alphi’, warm sunshine greeted us on Saturday morning. We’d had no electric hook-up at the Commercy mooring so Dave started the generator so that I could do a load of washing ready to put out to dry when we reached that day’s planned destination – St Mihiel.

Me, Cath and Alison. And Baxter the dog!

The generator ran for 15 seconds, then stopped. And wouldn’t start again.

So that was a small disaster.  No inverter for 240v power, and now no generator.

Dave had run the generator the previous week to warm the oil up so that he could change the oil and filters. So he hoped the fault would be easy to find.

Meantime, Dave tried the old IT trick with the inverter – turn it off and on again. This meant turning the battery isolator switch to the inverter off and then on again. It worked! So the genny had died but the inverter revived. At least we had something.

After a bit of exploration and a conflab with Phil from ‘Alphi’ (who had been a 35-year AA Man). Dave found a faulty seal on one of the new fuel filters on the generator.  10 minutes to change the filter fixed the problem. So we now have fully functioning electrical systems. Phew!

We set off at about 10.30 on Saturday and 5½ hours later arrived at St Mihiel, 21km downstream from Commercy. A distance that would be unimaginable on a UK canal!

On Sunday rain was forecast (and arrived) so we stayed put at St Mihiel. Suzanne and Claude arrived on their barge ‘Escapade’ Sunday afternoon, so we had a lovely social evening with them.

After St Mihiel there’s a series of about 30 locks over 60km that are manually operated by an escort lock keeper. In summer the advisory notice at St Mihiel says that you can just turn up at the next lock and somebody will be available to accompany you through that day’s locks.

Suzanne and Claude advised us that that wasn’t the case. We needed to phone VNF and book passage. *sighs*

We couldn’t phone that day as it was after 6pm and Monday 6th June is a French Bank Holiday. So, in the end we couldn’t move until Tuesday 7th June. No matter, we explored St Mihiel in the sunshine and spent another social evening with Terry from ‘Carol Anne’ who had arrived and moored next to us on Monday.

St Mihiel is beautiful, with a lovely walk to ‘Les Dames des Meuse’ a series of 7 limestone escarpments overlooking the river. We climbed the first of these for a look down at Solstice on the moorings in the distance.

Sunny skies on Monday
Climbing the first of ‘Les Dames’
Wild strawberries by the path

We gained back the day we had lost when we set off on Tuesday.  The lock keeper said that, contrary to our expectations, it would be easy to reach Verdun 37km away in a single day. And so it was, with time to spare!

We arrived at Verdun around 2.30pm which allowed time to explore the city a little bit before the expected rain on Wednesday. Pictures of beautiful Verdun below.

The city gate by day…
And by night
Memorial to the Fallen. 79,000 soldiers lost their lives in the WW1 Battle of Verdun
We could see the memorial from our mooring
The staircase of the ‘grand steps’. To the memorial for both world wars
Spectacular by night

Our first evening in Verdun brought us even more boaters to socialise with. Lesley and Stewart on their barge ‘Calliope’ were already on the moorings when we arrived and we managed to squeeze in front of them so that we only had a short stagger after an evening’s wine consumption.

Solstice and Calliope in Verdun

Wednesday it rained, so we stayed put. In the torrential rain it was impossible to finish our tour of this historic town so we didn’t quite get to soak up all the history.

On Thursday, under cloudy skies we made it to Consenvoye, where we were joined by Stan and Sharon on their barge ‘Encore’. We had met Stan and Sharon way back in 2017, our first year in France. They’re proper champagne connoisseurs  and keep good stocks aboard. So we shared some. Would have been rude not to!

Solstice and Encore at Consenvoye
Sharon and I after many glasses of champers

We parted this morning, Encore heading upstream towards Verdun (like all our other companions this week), Solstice downstream.  Straight into the lock where the keeper was waiting for us at 8.50am.

The Canal de la Meuse follows the river Meuse into Belgium. At the summit where we joined this navigation, and down to Verdun, we were mostly on canal cuttings. Now, the river stretches are way longer than the canal cuttings and we’re enjoying the gorgeous riverside wildlife and scenery.

Our planned mooring at Pouilly today turned out not to exist. As a rule when journey planning, we don’t just rely on our navigation guides because they’re often more than 10 years old. I always look at the satellite view on Google maps too. This showed the Pouilly mooring too, so goodness knows how old the Google photos are!

In the end we cruised an epic 48km and 10 locks today, to end up here in this gorgeous ‘middle of nowhere’ spot at Alma. Boy were we glad this was available. 

One of the disadvantages of our lovely position tonight is that the data signal isn’t good enough to let me upload the last five pictures of the river scenery and our beautiful mooring spot. Never mind. You’ll have to take my word for it!

Right now I’m sitting with a cuppa in the warm sunshine and with my hot, tired feet in a bowl of water.

Hope you’re equally as comfortable!

Til next week. Au revoir!

Toul to Commercy 28th May to 3rd June 2022

On the move at last!

Today is the 5-year anniversary of our trip across the channel to France. On 3rd June 2017 we left Limehouse dock in London; 16 hours and quite a few grey hairs later we arrived in Dunkerque. It’s such a shame that because of the pandemic we’ve only actually spent three summers here instead of five, but we have loads to be thankful for, not least that we are both still here to enjoy our final summer in France.

This week in some very warm weather, the work has continued, to make Solstice shipshape and presentable. After replacing her registration number, two final full wash-downs, hanging the flags and red ensign, servicing the engine and generator, and replacing all 8 fenders we felt ready to set off on this year’s adventure.

From this….
…to this – at Pagny sur Meuse on Thursday 2nd June
New SSR (Small Ship Register) number that we had made about 3 years ago ready to bring back with us.

Solstice looks miles better than she did two weeks ago, but we still came back to a couple of tricky problems that won’t now be sorted until we sail her back to the UK. The inverter (the electrical unit that converts 12v power to 240v) has died. This means we can’t use any 240v power without either running the generator or plugging into shore power. This isn’t a massive issue, it just means that if we wanted to run a fan on a hot night in our bedroom, for example, we can’t do this unless we’re on shore power or away from other boats.

Our old friend the bowthruster doesn’t really work at all. We brought two new batteries for the bowthruster back with us from the UK but they haven’t solved the problem. Incidentally, we also had to replace the generator start battery when we got here, along with both engine start batteries so that’s 5 new batteries we’ve had so far. Our domestic batteries are just about holding up but they weren’t maintained as well as we’d hoped by the marina, so they will also need replacing at some point. Hopefully also not until we’re back in the UK.

You might remember that my cooker blew itself up last time we were here in 2019. We decided not to bring the new cooker back with us this year as we didn’t want any post-Brexit wrangles with HM customs about whether or not VAT would need to be paid, so I am still cooking on two camping gas rings. At least when we had the car last week we were able to drive about 30k to the nearest Decathlon to stock up fully on camping gas so we don’t have to worry about finding that over the next 10 weeks.

We managed to squeeze in a dockside barbecue on Tuesday which saved me having to cook at all!

And finally, the yellow paint on the cabin roof, sides and the wheelhouse needs a complete repaint. It has gone very dull and whilst we’ve patched up the worst bits as best we could, we only had one can of yellow paint with us. Just as well, really, otherwise it would have been another four days before we could leave because Dave would have wanted to paint the whole darn boat!

The varnish on the wheelhouse is also grubby. That will definitely have to wait until next year! Oh, and the horn doesn’t work properly. Nobody really uses proper sound signals out here but next year as we get towards a commercial channel port we will need a working horn.

So we’re slumming it a bit this year. We’re not as fully equipped and sophisticated on board as we’re used to being!

Anyway….. The sun shone brightly yesterday for our first 14 locks (and one tunnel) of the season. Dave was happy behind the wheel…

I was happy in my customary position in a lock – at the bow with a rope…

By the time we got to the tunnel on the summit of the canal de Marne au Rhin we felt as if we were almost back into the routine.

Souterrain de Foug

Just 3km after the tunnel we found this lovely mooring at Pagny sur Meuse where there’s a great boulangerie just five minutes away. We were moored with three other boats but nobody was particularly chatty.

In contrast today, after an hour’s delay due to locks being impeded by weed (and by our own twattery) we have moored behind two other British boats. Unfortunately right now, it’s raining, so although we’ve had an initial chat, we haven’t really been able to spend quality time with them. We’re now in for 3 days of thunderstorms apparently, so maybe there’ll be opportunities to shelter from the rain on each other’s boats and socialise.

We mucked our own schedule up this morning. Leaving the mooring at Pagny at 8.15am we hoped to make it to Commercy by late morning. Commercy is 16km and just 5 downhill locks from Pagny.

We had been given a remote control by the VNF guys at the tunnel. This we were to use down the first 20 or so locks on the canal de la Meuse. The remote control is pressed at a marked point on the canal and triggers each lock to set for us. Here it is….

We marked the little black arrow ourselves later. You can see by the writing that the unit itself is upside down.

As we approached the first lock, which was round a corner from the remote control trigger point, I pressed the button. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that holding the remote control, with the writing the right way up, would be the way to work it?

You know where this story is going don’t you? The remote didn’t work because it was upside down when it was the right way up! We couldn’t see the lights on the lock until we had rounded the bend. When we had rounded the bend we were then out of range of the remote control receiver. So when we got to the lock, it wasn’t working because we hadn’t triggered it, even though we had pressed the remote control.

We then struggled to moor outside the lock because there was nowhere to actually stop and tie up. Then I couldn’t get hold of VNF by phone to help us. Then the call point at the lock itself didn’t work. Then my phone (which, as you remember, had previously taken a dunk in the canal) decided that I didn’t have a data connection so I couldn’t look up an alternative number. So we were left stuck outside the lock with no options.

Finally, after using Dave’s data, I found an alternative number for VNF. The guy came out within 10 minutes. In my broken French I explained the problem to him

‘Monsieur, le telecommand, il ne marche pas’

I held it out, pointed it at the receiver and pushed the button.

He looked at me benignly, took the remote control from me, turned it the other way up and set the lock.

*Sighs*

After nearly three years of lack of use, this canal is pretty choked with weed. The boat movement so far has chopped up the underwater weed (with their propellers) so now, loose strands of weed are floating in great insidious clumps, getting into boat water intakes, around propellers and into lock infrastructures. At the next lock, having called the guy out once, we set the lock with our magically restored remote control.

The lock lights turned green/red which meant the lock was setting. It filled itself with water. The gates opened 90% of the way, and then this happened….

Two red lights means the lock ‘ne marche pas’. A huge clump of weed had trapped itself behind the opening gate which meant that it couldn’t open fully. So the lock mechanism threw a fit and refused to work at all.

We were so frustrated! We were trying to get to Commercy before 1pm when it was due to rain. This would add at least another 30 minute delay to our journey. We were destined to be mooring up in the rain. And, as it happens, that’s how things panned out.

Against all the rules, because there was nowhere to moor outside the lock, we squeezed in through the partially opened gates. I was then able to get off the boat and call the guy out – again- from the intercom on the lockside.

With the assistance of google translate, I managed to explain that we hadn’t caused the fault by entering the lock before it was ready, (it’s a cardinal sin to enter a lock before the light turns green. It mucks up the lock operation mechanism) and that, for safety reasons we had squeezed into the lock on red lights. The VNF guy gave us a typical Gallic shrug and commented that the weed is very bad this year.

A few pushes of buttons in the lock house and he set us on our way again.

We made it to Commercy in the rain and moored behind barges ‘Alphi’ and ‘Plan B’, taking the last place on the pontoon. Both barge owners came out in the rain to help us moor up (we think only native English speakers – Americans, New Zealanders, Australians, and the British really do this). Since my comment earlier about an initial chat, we have spent about 4 hours on Plan B, having a fine old get-together and sharing stories of boating adventures that span about 60 years between us.

So. Now, it is definitely bedtime and I’m going to leave you to your weekends. I’m missing the opportunity to be part of all the UK jubilee celebrations so I hope all those of you who are having your own platinum jubilee parties have fun.

Til next week. Au revoir!

Back on board Solstice. 19th to 27th May 2022

Solstice in all her glory at the end of August 2019.

Hello and welcome to my first cruising blog of the 2022 season. We are finally back on board Solstice, our Dutch barge, which has been laying idle in France since September 2019. I can hardly believe two-and-a-half years have passed since we last saw her.

We had a 4.30am alarm set for Thursday morning, 19th May, to catch the 6.20 shuttle through the channel tunnel. On Sunday 15th May we had both thankfully tested negative after our covid infections so we were able to spend a few days with my Mum before we left for France.

After 2.5 years unattended, in the water and exposed to all weathers, we weren’t expecting Solstice to be pretty. Our expectations weren’t in vain! What we were more concerned about however, was what state the batteries would be in (8 domestic and two starter batteries), how the engine would be, whether the generator would still work, whether our water system would be contaminated and what state the inside of the boat would be in. Boats are really prone to damp and condensation, and we have come back before, after just one winter, to find mould in the cupboards and in all places where there’s no air circulation. So, quite a lot to stress about.

Here’s Solstice on day one, before a jet wash. It’s very disheartening to be power-washing the dirt off and watch a good deal of paint and varnish come off with it!

The skylight had been covered with a tarpaulin but that hadn’t saved the varnish
The streaks down the cabin sides occur every time it rains where water traps in the dirt on the underside edge of the cabin roof. In normal times we clean the streaks off straight away. This is what happens when we can’t clean up.
You can see black spots all over the cabin here. We think somebody else jet washed their boat’s dirt onto Solstice. Very considerate. The mast was almost devoid of any varnish.

The more we looked, the more depressed we got!

Rust streaks under the wheelhouse doors.

We’d arrived here at the port after a 5 hour drive, at about 1pm. We didn’t even unpack the car, we just set to with the power washer (best purchase we ever made!) and a broom.

By the end of the day on Thursday, she looked like this:

Although we felt a bit better, we’d actually uncovered all the jobs that would need doing. The biggest being: rub down and repaint the worst- damaged areas of yellow paint; rub down and revarnish the mast and skylight (3 coats); rub down and repaint the entire deck (3 coats. This already needed doing when we left in 2019); refurbish the gas locker hatch; service the engine; dewinterise and service the generator; clean the antifreeze from the potable water system and flush through (we use potable antifreeze in our domestic water system but it still needs to be well flushed out); remove and clean all fenders and ropes; repaint the step that we use to get on and off the boat.

I won’t go on because the full list is about 3 times as long as this. And every job on here usually is preceded by another job when you find you haven’t got the right equipment, or something breaks and has to be fixed before you can move on. Our boating friends will be smiling wryly at this point. That’s boating for ya!

On Friday morning, we still hadn’t unpacked the car (finally did that on Monday when rain stopped outside play) and the inside of the boat still looked like this:

Even Dave admitted to feeling a bit overwhelmed. That’s unheard of.

But, like everything else in life, you just have to tackle one task at a time and break the big jobs down into smaller jobs. The weather has been mostly kind to us, and all our systems are working (the starter batteries were the exception to this). We’re still, despite everything, absolutely delighted to be back on our boat. We literally couldn’t be happier. The hard work is the price we’re paying for that inner glow that comes when you’re where you want to be, doing what you want to do, and working together as a team with the one you love.

Before I tell you about the starter batteries, here are a few of our ‘little wins’ this week:

Refurbished mast.
2nd coat of deck paint and gas locker hatch waiting for varnish
Patched up yellow paint and 1st coat of varnish on the skylight
Looking altogether much more presentable

We’re about 2/3 through the work, so by next week, fingers crossed, we might be on the move.

Before I leave you to your weekend, I just want to tell you about a couple of other minor issues this week. Oh, and post a picture of our sunrise on Saturday:

And the menacing clouds on Monday:

The storm about to break

After working our socks off on Thursday when we arrived, we fell into bed and slept like logs. Until, at some point in the night, our carbon monoxide alarm woke us. I have no idea what time it was, I hadn’t got round to putting batteries in the wall clocks at that point. We figured that because we had no source of flame on the boat, it must just be that the batteries needed replacing in the alarm.

Anyway, in my half-awake state, I opened the doors, skylights and windows in the boat, just in case. Took the battery out of the alarm and went back to sleep. When we’d arrived, we had plugged the boat into the shore power and switched on the charger for our domestic and starter batteries. Before going back to bed, I switched off the battery charger too. I remembered reading somewhere that heavy duty batteries also give off carbon monoxide when they’re failing so I thought turning the charger off might be an additional safety measure.

The following day I replaced the batteries in the CO alarm. We figured that the worst thing to do would be just to assume the alarm was at fault, so when we went to bed on Friday night, we left the boat well ventilated but left the charger on again to see what would happen.

Sure enough, at 2am Saturday morning (my clocks worked by then) the CO alarm woke us again. This time, though, we could smell a real stink coming from the engine room. We knew the boat starter batteries hadn’t been right because the marina owner had needed to jump-start the engine to move her bankside when we arrived. Dave had also needed to jump start the boat to turn her round, melting his jump leads in the process. But Dave hadn’t got round to checking the batteries properly.

So we knew now that leaving the batteries charging with the boat less ventilated than during the day was causing the build-up of CO. Dave was too busy to disconnect the starter batteries on Saturday, so we just switched the charger off altogether and left the boat ventilated Saturday night.

Sunday morning, at 8.30 the CO alarm went off again! So that was it, disconnecting the starter batteries and getting them off the boat became the priority for that day.

We both appreciate how lucky we have been. It was easy on the first night to put the alarm down to faulty unit batteries. Then the volume of work got in the way of us seeing the potential danger we were in. We’ve heard many stories of people dying on boats due to CO poisoning. Mainly from multi fuel stoves, cookers, gas boilers and gas fridges, but who knew that simple boat batteries could have the same effect? Thank goodness for the alarm. It literally saved our lives.

On a lighter note, I threw my phone in the canal this week. I was climbing onto the roof, phone in hand, to take a picture of the peeling varnish on the skylight. This picture – taken later with Dave’s phone:

My phone just kind of jumped out of my hand. Straight into the water. Luckily it landed on the sloping bank so after a 20-second scramble, I was able to retrieve it. I had one small pack of rice in the cupboard from 2019. I haven’t got round to clearing out the cupboards yet!

I stuck my phone in it and made do with an old mobile I dug out of another uncleared cupboard. Three days later, my phone is working again! Except for the camera. Photos look like this:

I really will leave you to enjoy your weekend now. Hopefully next week, we’ll be on the move (as long as Dave doesn’t uncover too many issues when he gets properly down the engine room!)

Thank you for joining me, hopefully for a great summer. Bye for now.

Daisy & Neville (Nev), Jerry the puppy and Reggie the labrador. April 2022

We’re veterans now of around 40 housesits and we’re getting to the stage where we’re quite fussy about where we go and the type of pets that we care for. It can be surprisingly difficult to find a ‘perfect’ sit that ticks all of our boxes – a clean, comfortable house, good internet, lovely animals, nice people and a great location.

Lots of people don’t realise that we housesit for free. We exchange our pet-care and home security service where the homeowner (hopefully) has complete peace of mind, for a warm, comfortable clean home and the fun of having dogs around for a while. I fall in love with every single dog. No exceptions!

We’ve been really lucky this year in that all of the sits pretty much ticked all of the boxes and these last three sits of our winter have been like Mary Poppins – practically perfect in every way. Including hot tub availability!

Daisy on the left, Nev on the right
Another housesit, another hot tub

We love Staffies and Daisy & Nev were great examples of the breed. Very loving, friendly, cheerful dogs who loved nothing more than to cuddle up on the sofa with us. They live in a gorgeous house with a hot tub in East Kent, just down the road from my mum, so we had a great week with them.

Vital statistics:

Daisy – 11 year old blue Staffordshire Bull Terrier.

Likes – long walks, being in her own home, lots of human company. Dislikes – other dogs, especially when she’s on a lead.

Nev – Blue Staffie. Also 11 years old

Likes – everything and everybody. Biting through his lead and Daisy’s (We lost two leads this way!), exploring. Nev is a real trailblazer!

Dislikes – not being able to get close to his humans.

Two snoozing dogs and a human!

We were very lucky in the week we spent with Daisy and Nev, to have full sunshine all week long. As we were in Kent and close to the seaside we had some lovely walks along the prom at Hythe, a visit to Goodnestone Park where we met Julie, Mick and Buddy for a walk and lunch and we went to Brockhill country park where the dogs could run off the lead and have a splash about in the water.

We even took them on the miniature steam railway from Hythe to Dungeness and back. Woo woo!

A great week, that was way too short really.

This is Jerry. We travelled from Kent to Essex for this next sit.

Vital statistics: Labrador, 11 months old. Mad!

Jerry is a very busy boy. Everything is new to him and so must be explored at a hundred miles per hour. All organic matter must be eaten – dead moles, badger poo, discarded fish skins on the beach – all with the inevitable consequences! He’s very intelligent and wants to learn, so teaching him new things and giving him new experiences was lots of fun.

Once all the racing around is done, Jerry flops.

Our new grandson Archie Jack William Canham was born just after we arrived at Jerry’s house, which was close enough for us to do lots of visits, and to have the family over to see us. Jerry’s owners have a beach hut about 15 minutes away from their home. They very kindly gave us permission to use the hut, and to take the family. We had some gorgeous weather and our granddaughter Florence had a great time building sandcastles with her daddy and granddad.

Jerry very much enjoyed the beach!
Sandy nose from too much snuffling

Our week with Jerry was a really busy one. We took him pretty much everywhere with us and so he had lots of opportunities to try new things and to meet our toddler granddaughter. He also turned out to be a great pub dog, enjoying loads of fuss and attention when we ate out. He’s a darling boy and we hope to see him again soon!

Watching the world go by at the beach
Reggie the Labrador in his customary position with his favourite toy

Reggie’s vital statistics: Labrador, 6 years old, huge (but not fat!). Very strong

Likes: his pink piggie toy, people, being in his own home. Food!

Dislikes: the local gamekeeper’s dogs and any other big black dog.

Unlike Jerry, Reggie was introduced to us as not being a good pub dog. He is completely adorable. Typical Labrador, always ravenous and very loving. His owners explained to us that Reggie has a very low boredom threshold when he’s out and about, and that if you try and sit down for a coffee or a meal, he will just bark angrily and continuously until you move on.

He’s such a gorgeous, laid back, dignified dog that it’s hard to believe he has a furious barking bone in his body. But he does!

We were with Reggie for 16 days and, again, we took him almost everywhere with us. So we had to see if we could calm down his barking trait. A combination of a firm ‘NO’ and then turning our backs to him when he barked (we could only do this in remote pub gardens and on picnics where other people weren’t around!!!) and rewarding him when he sat quietly, won us as much as a whole hour in a pub with him on our last day.

He must be relaxed, he has his legs crossed!

My google app tells me that we walked 36 miles in the month of April. I think 26 of those were probably with Reggie. His house is right on the edge of farmland with some gorgeous views, and sunsets.

There’s a bluebell wood just down the road that we caught at exactly the right time of year.

We got to visit some of Dave’s favourite childhood haunts – Dedham and Flatford in Constable country, the beautiful villages of Lavenham and Kersey and the atmospheric Mistley and Manningtree.

The ford at Kersey
Kersey church
On the sea defence bank at Manningtree. Love Reggie’s smile!

Just before this photograph was taken, Reggie had been off the lead. He’s a ‘follow-on-behind’ dog rather than a ‘run-in-front’ dog, so you have to keep looking back to make sure he’s still there. At one point we looked behind and he had disappeared!

You can imagine the feeling it invokes when you’re responsible for somebody else’s dog and they just vanish? We shouted, we hollered, we rattled his treat bag but he was nowhere to be seen. We were on a bank with nothing one side except the outgoing tide (!) and some steps down to a supermarket car park on the other.

After a minute or two of us shouting for Reggie, a man in the supermarket entrance called to me. ‘He’s down here love!’

I ran down the steps, lead at the ready, couldn’t see Reggie. I looked at the man (in fact now a small gathering of people) with a question in my eyes ‘where…..?’

‘He’s in the shop.‘

Yep. Enterprising dog, off the lead, smelt a pie and went to get it.

We imagined him trotting up to the pie counter and saying ‘Sausage roll please. I’ve got the right money and everything….’

I didn’t get as far as the supermarket door. Reggie came trotting out, tail up, smile on his face, pleased as punch after his adventure. I don’t know what he stole in there (or was given) but he sure was happy.

Reggie’s at his happiest though, in the car, or just chilling at his house. He stayed glued to me most of the time; at my side walking up the stairs, and curiously, supporting my backside with his head while walking down the stairs. I miss him terribly and we very much hope to be invited back to look after him again.

….And that was our housesitting winter!

And there were six other dogs (two households) not featured in this series

As always, we’ve had some wonderful times, and some hard-work sits (one day, I’ll tell you about the samoyeds!). We’ve fallen in love with all our pets (as usual) but now we’re happy to be responsibility-free for a while.

Right now, we’re back on Kingfisher, isolating. Somehow in Essex, we both managed to catch covid. It was only a matter of time really, we’re almost the only people we know who hadn’t had it yet.

We’re gradually working through the long lists of things that need to be done before our French trip. So….thank you for reading and ‘bye for now. Proper travel blogs will resume shortly

Finn, Max, Lois,  Flossie and Charlie. February 2022

Finn – 1 year-old working cocker spaniel
Max – 1 year old cockerpoo and Lois – 6 year old cavapoo
Flossie – 8 year old mixed breed terrier
Charlie – 11 year-old border collie

Many of our housesits are now repeat-sits. We’re very lucky in that lots of people whom we’ve sat for in the past have asked us back again. This season, until February, we’d only had one sit for people we didn’t know. Of the five dogs featured in this post Flossie was the only dog we did know.

Flossie 2020

Flossie was the second-to-last housesit we did before the pandemic in 2020. We looked after her then in Gloucester. Since then, her owners have moved house – to Newnham on Severn.

Flossie’s a lovely little character but she misses her parents badly when they go away, so she doesn’t really engage for the first few days of a sit. After three weeks in Gloucester two years ago she was our best pal and all her lovely little character traits came out.

She loved to sit with her ball halfway up the winding staircase. She’d nose it through the banister and watch it bounce down the stairs below for you to collect and throw back up to where she stood. A kind of reverse game of ‘fetch’.

Flossie’s a real terrier. She’ll chase small animals into their burrows and often won’t reappear for hours. So we could only let her off lead in parks with no rabbit hideaways. There, she’d enjoy a good ball chase as much as any dog.

Her favourite seat is on top of the cushions on the back of the sofa. She’ll happily snooze there for hours. We love caring for Flossie!

When I started applying for sits to fill in our various winter/spring gaps I looked specifically for houses with hot tubs (Dave and I love a hot tub!) I found three, and this was the first.

Finn – the bestest boy

Vital statistics: Working Cocker Spaniel. 1 year old.

Likes: Chasing deer, rabbits, anything that moves really. Lots and lots of playtimes. Sleeping in the sun.

Dislikes: Nothing. Finn is so new to the world he loves everything and everybody. It’s all a big shiny adventure!

My rent-a-humans in my hot tub

Hello. I’m Finn. I live with my lovely family in the Home Counties. I arrived here after a long journey from the North of England where I left my mum and my siblings behind. I was a bit sad about that, but I looked forward to the new adventure and my new mum made me feel really loved and comfortable. I fell asleep for most of the car journey.

My mum is super-fit and takes me for long walks and runs. So I’m used to lots of exercise. I live near the Duke of Bedford’s house and many of my walks are on his vast estate. That gives me and mum lots of scope for two long outings every day.

When I’m out I often see deer and rabbits. I do a chase but never catch them!

Dave and Angie were the first new people to look after me. They fitted into my routine pretty well, although they never ran with me (!) Just extra long walks twice a day instead. I was off lead most of the time so I still got plenty of exercise.

Look how shiny I am!

I’m a very waggy dog. Everything is joyful and fun to me and I love to meet other dogs. I have lots of toys and have great playtime in the house and garden. And then I sleep.

Zzzzzzzzzzz
Max and Lois by the River Severn

Max and Lois lived in our second hot-tub house. Lois is the sweetest little cutie-pie who’s a bit overwhelmed right now by her new ‘brother’s’ energy and bouncyness!

If Max were telling his story it would look like this:

HelloI’mMaxIlivewithmysisterLoisinabigsplit-levelhouseinStourportIloveLoisandmyfamilyandeverythingissonewandexcitingIhavetorunat100milesanhourallthetimetogeteverythingdone…..

You get the idea.

A Max-splat, two hours into a busy day of rushing around!

Max is into everything, as you can imagine, and eats anything he can snuffle out when he’s walking. He also eats Lois’ food given half a chance. So caring for Max was an exercise in vigilance and high energy.

He’s so adorable though and we quickly learned to predict and pre-empt behaviours that might do him harm. After that it was a simple case of keeping Max stimulated and exercised to earn those lovely hours of peace with him asleep cuddled up with us on the sofa or safely in his crate overnight.

Look at him though! Isn’t he gorgeous?

Lois on the other hand is such a quiet, calm little girl that it would be easy to forget to give her the attention she deserves.

On her bed, out of Max’s way

She sits quietly in the background waiting for Max to finish bouncing around, then steals her way up onto the sofa and into your heart.

Lois can walk off-lead when we’re out and about, and our proximity to some beautiful heathland meant that she had lots of freedom on walks (as long as she stayed out of range of Max’s wild legs). Lois also loves playtime but needs less of it than Max and prefers to be just quietly next to you on the sofa or on her bed.

She took a real shine to Dave:

By Dave’s side. Her favourite place

We’ve been invited back to Lois and Max’s already. We can’t wait to see them again.

Meet Charlie:

Just before our sit with Charlie Dave went down with a cold. We were with Charlie for just 3 days and so most of his care fell to me.

Like all border collies Charlie’s a clever dog. Still learning new tricks at 10 years old. His cleverness means that he’s developed a few quirks and foibles over the years; so much so that his owner left us three pages of instructions about his routines and needs.

Enjoying a good roll

Charlie and I rubbed along really well. Long walks every day (twice a day) on the nearby heathland kept him interested and tired enough to settle down nicely in the evenings.

We had beautiful weather too!

Charlie liked a good brush and would stand happily being groomed for hours if he could. He also liked to hide in the garden to wait for you to throw his toy for him. He’d then sneak out in a ’rounding up sheep’ stance, to gather the toy and then drop it somewhere else for you to retrieve and throw. Another version of ‘reverse fetch’.

I would have loved to have spent longer with Charlie. He lives in a gorgeous part of the world and is actually really easy to care for. We’d love to be invited back some time.

I’m almost done with my dog-tales. Just three more sits to cover over the next couple of weeks.

Then…big news…we are finally booked to go back to France and spend another summer cruising our Barge – Solstice. It’s 2 1/2 years since we left her, so we’re anticipating some hard work initially to get her fit for the summer. Hope you’ll stay with me for more dog-and-travelogues to come.

Have a great Bank Holiday!

Pip the Romanian rescue dog

We spent just four days with Pip at Gordon and Sue’s house in Gloucestershire.  We have stayed at Gordon and Sue’s twice before but they sadly lost their dogs Biscuit and Caine to cancer.  Pip is the new addition to the family. Here’s her short story.

Vital statistics:

Age unknown.  Breed mixed.

Rescued from living on a railway station with her mother and siblings subject to a swift kick from any passer-by who felt like it.

Hello. I’m Pip. I never had a name before.

In my old life I really just remember being hungry all the time. My mum did her best but she needed food as much as we did so it was forever a fight for any old scraps we could scavenge. It was always cold and often wet. My brothers and I used to huddle under the station steps, cuddled together for warmth but mostly the need to eat took us out onto the street to search and fight for food.

There are thousands of dogs like me. Many of us manage to scrape by in our short lives. Eating when we can, living in packs, hoping the humans we meet will be at least indifferent to us and at best, will be kind.

Some of us, like me, get lucky. There are dozens of animal rescue charities that do what they can for us in situ on the streets. Caring for our health and comfort right where we live. Vaccinating us, spaying our mums so that the population doesn’t get too big, worming and de-fleaing us. Other charities provide the golden ticket to a new life somewhere else.

The not-so-lucky dogs live out their lives on the streets. Or, when our population gets too big or gets in the way, in some countries they’re culled. Either poisoned or shot.

My new life began in late 2020. Some humans came along and put me in a cage with my siblings and some other dogs. They fed us often and travelled with us on a long journey across the sea to our new home.

I’d never really met a kind human before so I was very nervous. And I still don’t trust any new human I meet. All through the journey and when we arrived at the doggie centre, my siblings and I curled up together for comfort.

It wasn’t long before two humans came to see me. They put me in a car and took me away from my brothers and sisters.

I was bereft. I was very unsettled, sad and traumatised. It took a long time for me to start to relax in their company and to trust them. But I love my humans now. I feel very safe with them.

On the day that Dave and Angie arrived my humans had already left for their holiday. I had no idea my humans weren’t coming back or that D&A were coming. I had only seen suitcases being loaded into the car and the front door closing behind my humans to leave me in solitary silence.

Next thing, the front door opens again and two strangers walk through. I stayed upstairs out of the way. I did not want to get close to these people, who knew what harm they might do me?

They unloaded A LOT of luggage and started to unpack. Dave came upstairs to introduce himself but I ran and hid.

At my teatime Angie put my bowl of food down. I had to run past her in the kitchen to get to it, and to go outside. I didn’t eat. Everywhere the humans went, I went the opposite way. Sometimes peeking round the furniture or the corner of the stairs, but just keeping myself at a safe distance.

I knew that humans call me Pip but if Dave or Ange said that word or held out a hand, I would not look at them and move away.

The next morning Angie sat on the floor near me. She was out of reach but I stood up and prepared to run away. Ange turned her back on me. Hmmmm, what was she up to?

I watched her warily out of the corner of my eye. I started to get worried. Would she turn and grab me? What would she do then?

She threw a treat over her shoulder!

Okay….. I guessed I could safely go and eat it. So I did. Then, because I was even further away from her I sat down to see what she would do next.

She didn’t look at me or talk to me. She just threw another treat. Then another. I quite liked this game. I was at a safe distance and getting lots of treats.

Then Angie turned to face me. I realised I’d moved much closer to her so I retreated out of arm’s reach. She carried on throwing treats. But not talking much and she didn’t try to touch me which was very important to me.

Eventually. After a LOT of treats, I took one out of Angie’s hand. Then, she stood up and walked away. I followed her but no more treats were forthcoming. She did talk to me though. A lot. And she looked at me, right in the eyes for a second or two every now and again.

When she sat down later that morning I felt comfortable enough to get up on the sofa. At the opposite end. She threw a treat to me from her seat, then another. I was having to move closer to her to eat them until eventually I was right by her side.

I settled down next to her. Then felt her hand on my head. That was quite nice, so I stayed.

After that, both Ange and Dave soon became my friends. They took me on some nice local walks and I had lots of treats and cuddles in my short few days with them.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing them again for some new adventures. I’m building up my confidence all the time and looking forward to what my new world has to offer!

Buddy’s (b)Log

This is Buddy.

Vital statistics: Fox red Labrador. 4 years old

Likes: Being allowed on the sofa (he’s determined to conquer the bed next), rufty-tufty playtime with his doggie friends, being right by his dad’s side

Dislikes: Animals on his TV. Apart from that, he’s a pretty easygoing chap really.

Here’s Buddy’s view of the world:

I was just a couple of months old when my parents introduced me to Dave and Ange. Now they’re my humates.

Me at my cutest

I often ask them over to stay and they’re my humans of choice to come to my house when my parents go away. I find that I can really relax in their company.

Dave and Ange understand me. I think they can read my mind. They know when I’m missing my dad (don’t tell anyone, it’ll ruin my image), when I’m in the mood for play and when I need to sleep or go outside. It’s almost as if they’ve had instructions!

I like routine. I’m a well-ordered kind of guy – a place for everything, as they say. My days are organised with almost military precision. I have set mealtimes and walk times, then I mostly sleep and play in between. It’s a humans life!

My indoor toys live in a box in the lounge. I’m good at choosing an item to play with but I haven’t quite mastered putting my toys away when I’m finished. I’m really good at finding things though, and remembering where I’ve dropped my ball in a field so that I can pick it back up again. My seek and find ability has led me on an adventure.

A few years ago, before lockdown I was selected with my Dad to do some special training. Now, I’m not supposed to talk about this but I didn’t sign the pawficial secrets act, so as we’re among friends I’m gonna share.

The training was held every Sunday in a secret location in Kent. Me and my Dad arrived and there were some other doggos with their humans.

A few of the old hands took me to one side and explained the situation. Our mission is to find special military secret material and make it safe. On the surface it all looks innocent and fun, but there’s an impawtant angle to our task. We are the boys and girls who will save the doggo race come pawmaggedon. One girl turned up like this; I thought she was on the wrong course.

This is a sea-dog. She was actually there to teach us the meanings of human whistles, signals and horns. And pawse code. She used some colourful navy language, I can tell you.

My doggo compatriots have told you so far about when Dave and Ange have stayed with them for holidays. I’m gonna tell you about my secret operations with them over the last 4 years. Dave and Ange have no inkling of my real job, they are just very susceptible to my influence about where we should go on outings.

I receive my orders over the interpet. There’s a secret signal that comes in via Alexa which only I can hear. When a call to arms arrives I first have to link up with my petwork in the local park. We’re all there every day. Word of the mission is spread in two ways.

Messages are received from other dogs when I sniff their hind quarters. I send my own instructions by peeing where my doggo comrades pee. It’s called peemail. This updates the tactical directions left by the last dog to pee there. I am the local liaison pawfficer so my pee messages are top priority.

Missions are divided into three categories:

1. Daily exercises

See that I am on full alert here. Poised for action.

Objective of daily exercises is simple. “Find the Secret Stick”. Always much easier to do when your human is off the lead. Sometimes the SS will be well concealed. Maybe under water or in a pile of leaves. I get the humans to kick up the covering so that I can explore underneath.

A tricky sticky
A pawticularly challenging aquatic search

2. Beach assault

On the grrrrassic coast.

Coastal landings are interesting. You have to be furrrtive. There are often many doggos about and it’s crucial to determine friends from enemies. The MO when an operative meets a new doggo is to play-bow, then scamper away in a huge circle to see if the other dog chases.

Some dogs are a-woof. These must be avoided. Except during special ops where the secondary clandestine code is to get in front of the contact and just spin fast on the spot. The correct confirmatory response is for the contact to play bow.

Any observing human will think this is endearing play activity. Me and my dad know different.

3. Tactical land manoeuvres

See how I’m covering Dave against random sniper attack. Angie has a Kevlar vest so she’s okay.

Dave and Angie have been with me to Westgate in Canterbury a couple of times. I think Angie really likes this place because it reminds her of her childhood. She doesn’t know that Canterbury is Doggo Ops HQ. The Chief of Bark works out of the Westgate Towers and all canine presence in the Westgate Gardens is on military operations.

Ops HQ in the background

Here, the airborne division gets involved. Duck doggos, swan doggos and pigeon doggos work undercover to make connections and ensure operatives meet the necessary contacts.

We also complete joint training exercises here. Senior swan doggos lead our training missions and keep our squads under control with violent and aggressive hissing.

Here we carry out pawrade drills and I learnt how to strip down, clean and reassemble my ball thrower. My troop is mostly non-combative but we still must be battle-ready.

All of this crucial work keeps the UK canine population safe and in good order.

My down time is never fully relaxed. A trained peacekeeper such as myself must always be on the alert for threats.

And vacations are fraught with responsibility to keep my human companions safe.

On guard duty
Pre-tasting any food rations
My turn for dog-watch on Dave and Angie’s boat

On the whole Dave and Ange are adequate substitutes for my real humans. They fit in with my regime and fully support my efforts to be a good dog. I’m up for pawmotion next month.

Paws crossed!

Rockie’s tale. October 2021

Welcome to the second in my short feature of stories from the pets we have cared for this winter. Meet Rockie.

Vital statistics: Chihuahua. 5? years old. Tiny dog. Huge personality.

Likes: Cuddles (but don’t expect him to admit it). Other dogs. Having his kibble flicked across the floor to chase and eat. Drinking leftover tea from the cup.

Dislikes: Strangers. Being picked up without pawmission.

Here’s Rockie’s tail:

Ola! I Rockie. Fierce magnificent doggo and proud descendant of long line of Mexican house dogs.

My job is to pawtect my human family and my house from marauding invaders. One day last year my family all leave house as normal in morning and I take up customary defence position upstairs on my bed. As I snooze, I hear front door. My humom must have left it insecure because, when I peek round banister, two strangers appear.

Alert! Danger! Action stations! I am alone in house and must fight to death to protect it. Responsibility is mine and I shoulder it well.

C’mon gringos. Make my day.

I descend stairs until I am level with their shifty eyes. Give my best snarl….Grrrrrrrrrrrrr

They are big, these humans. And one of them call me by name! How they know my name? Something fishy here.

I do not approach. I must keep close eye on them. Hold fort until my humans come back home.

The strangers bring lots of bags and boxes. I watch from distance until, later, they sit on my sofa with cup of my favourite tea. They seem harmless. I need to check them out, so I do best personality check – the ear lick. A full exploration of ears with tongue to pick up the ‘naughty or nice’ flavour.

They take no notice of me. Hmmmm. What I do now? I tired of dealing with all this. I got battle fatigue. So I curl up between them on my sofa. Sleep with one eye open in case they try something tricky.

Dinner time. My family due home. I wait by front door.

And I wait.

I not able to conquer these intruders alone. Where my back-up? Nobody come. I very sad.

Female stranger gives me food. I not eat.

Then I remember I have to keep strength up. I eat small treat and drink some tea. I consorting with enemy. What will family think? I deserting my duty.

Next day strangers still here. No sign of family. Have they done away with them?

After breakfast rations I submit to going on lead for walk. Very impawtent for my wellbeing. Female gives me treats and I meet some buddies in park.

I decide I must stick close to these people for duration. Keep friends close and enemies closer.

Is this close enough?

The people stay one week. Make friends with me. I think I have Stockholm syndrome.

I decide all in all that they nice gringos. Female even learns signal for when I will permit lifting up (I back up into her outstretched hands).

When my humom came home she explain what happen. Something called ‘holiday’. I agree with her, I like these humans. They have pawmission to come again.