FEATURE: ‘Why we’re upping anchor to live our canal boat dream’
Just before their 35th wedding anniversary Bob and Lynn Neill closed the door of their house behind them and walked away to start living a dream.
That dream is 60 feet long, less than seven feet wide, and is set to be their home for the next five years.
It will take them on a “go where the fancy takes us” adventure through the waterways of England.
The Suffolk couple plan to spend the early years of their retirement exploring the country’s network of canals and rivers on a narrowboat.
Not just any narrowboat, though. This one really is made to measure.
Apart from the outer shell, ex-firefighter Bob has built it himself.
For the past two years the boat, named Knot Yet, has been taking shape in a farmyard.
Regular visitors got used to the bizarre sight of a narrowboat high and dry between an industrial building and a storage area.
Bob got permission to park the hull there while he worked on it.
A couple of weeks ago a low loader and crane arrived to transport the 18-tonne boat to its first mooring.
Manoeuvring it round the bends at the start of the journey from Middleton near Sudbury was a bit tight, he says.
But later the same day it was safely in the water at Earith near Ely.
Bob retired three years ago from Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service, and Lynn has recently stopped work as a nurse.
“We knew that when we both retired this is what we wanted to do,” said Bob.
“In 2001 we went on a narrowboat holiday. Since then I’ve always had an interest in it.
“Gradually it became the retirement dream.”
But the real inspiration came from getting to know a couple who were boating enthusiasts.
“We visited them on their boat. They loved it and it sort of fed across into us. There is a real community on the canals.
“Make no mistake it can go wrong, but we have done our homework so it should be fine.”
“We see it as a challenge and an adventure,” said Lynn, who grew up in Bury St Edmunds.
To say the couple, who have three children and two granddaughters, have downsized is a massive understatement.
The four-bedroomed house where they have lived for 17 years has been emptied ready to be rented out.
But they agree it has given them a new sense of freedom. “It’s liberating,” says Bob,
Lynn says: “We’ve sold our furniture – we started clearing out a while ago.
“Our two younger children live in Glemsford and they have had some of the stuff, nothing was wasted – it only went to the dump if it was worn out.
“We’ve got rid of everything except for a few clothes and a few ornaments, things of particular sentimental value.
“We won’t be able to have many clothes. I’ve gone from three wardrobes down to half a wardrobe.”
Her shoe collection also had to go. “I’m down to half a dozen pairs. I certainly won’t need my high heels.
“We’re really looking forward to a new life,” she adds.
“We’ll be doing what they call continuous cruising,” says Bob.
That means their licence to use the waterways only allows them to moor for a limited time in any one place.
So they are leaving their car with their children in Suffolk. “If we needed it our daughter would come and collect us,” he says.
Bob was a firefighter stationed at Sudbury from 1984 until the town lost its full time crews.
He transferred to Bury St Edmunds fire station for 20 years, then became a fire safety officer until he retired three years ago.
Nursing has been Lynn’s lifelong career. She started at 17 and trained at Newmarket Hospital.
Since they moved to Sudbury she has worked at the former Walnuttree Hospital, and Hardwicke House Surgery.
For the past 17 years she has been a practice nurse at the surgery in Long Melford.
Three years ago, they ordered the shell of the Knot Yet from a boatbuilder.
“It was delivered on July 13th, 2015. It was a Thursday – a date I shan’t forget,” said Bob.
“I went into it with my eyes open but that hasn’t stopped it being quite difficult and testing at times.
“Normally, people who have a boat get someone else to build it for them.
“I’ve done six days a week and between six and eight hours a day since it was delivered, but it’s been a labour of love.
“Boating lends itself to an active lifestyle.
“The country you see from the roads is different from the one you see from canals and rivers. It’s remote and peaceful.”
“We just like to be out and about and seeing things,” said Lynn. “And we like to be out with the dog.
“We’ve got a chihuahua called Sidney who will walk five miles with no problem.”
What Sidney will make of life afloat is not certain, but they have taken all possible safety precautions.
“He has his own, tiny little lifejacket – extra, extra small – which he’ll wear all the time he’s on the boat if he’s able to go outside,” said Lynn.
Bob adds: “I’ve also got a boathook which has a hook on the end, and there is a loop on the back of his jacket, so if he did fall in I could fish him out.”
They planned the project together. Lynn says: “My input has been on the decor, I gave up work then became project manager.”
Bob adds: “Lynn pretty much decided the layout, which is reversed from the way they usually are.
“Normally the bedroom is at the back but we put it at the front because it will be cooler.”
That could be a bonus because with a wood-burner and gas-fired radiators the boat’s heating system has enough power to heat three average houses.
It also has a fitted kitchen with oven, hob and washing machine, and a bathroom with shower.
Lynn also came up with the name Knot Yet, painted on the side by Suffolk signwriter Wayne Tanswell.
It is based on Bob’s catchphrase whenever she came home from work and asked if he had done the washing or walked the dog.
“He’d always say not yet, so that’s where the name comes from. It’s unique, there are no other registered craft called that.”
Now the boat, which Bob estimates has cost upwards of £75,000, is finished he cannot quite believe it.
“When it came there was nothing on the floor, just the steel bearers. On the sides there was foam insulation and wooden battens.”
Apart from professionals who made the doors and the kitchen worktops, he has done all the interior work himself.
“With the woodwork, what I didn’t know how to do I googled or asked someone.”
“I feel a bit nonplussed now, because I can’t actually believe I’ve got this far and it’s really going to happen.”