A Weekend On A Houseboat, with Leaking Toilets and Aggressive Ducks

Operating the Lock
Winding the paddle up to let the water escape (and lower the boat)

You had been sleeping quite comfortably until your face was slammed into the wall. The entire room had jolted to the left, and the force of the movement had also knocked all the jars off the shelves in the kitchen. You can hear them rolling along the hallway as the room bobs from side to side.

“Sleep well?” One of your friends asks as you appear in the doorway of the living room a few minutes later.

You recall your sleep-talking friend (who woke herself up at one point with her weird, injured cries), the incessant squeaking of the airbed and the uncomfortably warm atmosphere of the boat and conclude that last night was one of the worst nights of sleep you’d ever had.

“Yeah, not bad.” You say. “What did everyone have for breakfast?”

Pushing the Lock Gates open
Edwina at the Lock Gate

It’s your second day on the canal. Swans and joggers overtake you with ease, the kettle takes twelve minutes to boil, biting spiders have infested the front of the boat and the matter of who will empty the chemical toilet at the end of the trip has become the smelly elephant in the room.

All the same, you’re having a good time. You’re passing through swathes of rich green countryside (a product of the wet British climate) and past the overgrown skeletons of England’s industrial past. Dragonflies, herons and swans keep you company beneath the clouds that threaten rain at any moment, and you’re enjoying saying hello to everyone.

The girls
canal 018
Edwina and Oliver feeding the ducks, who all fought each other for the pieces of bread we tossed them. Wings were pulled, beaks were snapped and it was every duck for itself. The coots wisely stayed out of it.

On the last day, the drizzle that had plagued you all weekend became a fully fledged downpour. Rain runs off your coat in torrents and soaks into your jeans as you wind the lock paddles and try your hardest not to drop the wet windlass into the canal.

Canal, Narrowboat, Grand Union Canal
The Roberts waiting for the water level to equalise, Denham Deep Lock

By the time you reach the next lock, the rain has stopped. You put your back against one of the huge black and white arms of the gate and push, but its painted steel surface is slippery, and you fall heavily onto your bum when the gate moves a little easier than expected.

Then, when you attempt the close theΒ  gate again, you cannot for the life of you make it move. The sight of one of the boys struggling on the other side makes you feel slightly better, but after a while even they manage to get the gate shut.

“Robert, do you want to go over and help Lana?”

You’re heaving and cursing and using your entire weight to pull against the gate, but you fail to make it move more than a few inches until a passing walker notices your distress and comes to your aid.

View from the tiller of a narrowboat on the Grand Union Canal
The view from the tiller

At the end of the trip you moor up at Watford and start collecting your things together. The second bedroom is converted back to a dining room, the floors are hoovered and the windows get closed and bolted.

“Guys, do you know what’s worse than a full toilet?” Oliver asks.

Everyone stops what they are doing to hear the answer. The toilet problem is finally being addressed, and everyone is quietly hoping that they will not be the one to deal with it.

“A leaking one.” He answers gloomily.

Nine of you had stayed on the boat for the weekend. The chemical toilet was very small and probably not meant to have been used by so many people.

Oliver dons a bin bag, gloves and a tea towel face mask before disappearing into the bathroom. The smell overcomes the boat and you all retreat outside, where you extol Oliver’s character and complain about the odour in equal measure.

Oliver the Bin-bag Bandit, ready to tackle the leaking chemical toilet.
Oliver the Bin-bag Bandit, ready to tackle the leaking chemical toilet. Courage, a stomach of steel and massive generosity are but a few of his values.

“We should definitely do something for him.” You say to the others. “He’s cleaning up our sewage afterall.”


  1. Oliver seems like a massively fantastic person, someone should buy him lots of chocolate (or a pint!). Awesome post, makes me want and slightly fear an excursion on a houseboat πŸ™‚

    • He is very wonderful, I’m sure there will be an opportunity somewhere to pay him back!

      I think staying on a houseboat for a while is a fabulous (if occasionally trying!) experience. Nothing quite like being able to moor up right next to the supermarket, or switch neighbours whenever you like.

  2. great pictures, and nice narration. what an interesting holiday, now you know the ultimate test for friendship – emptying a chemical toilet.

  3. I love going on houseboat trips! But if I were to ever get stuck in a situation like yours, I hope there will be someone gutsy like Oliver around! πŸ˜€

    And oh, thank you for dropping by my blog, it’s always nice to have your writing acknowledged. πŸ™‚

  4. Houseboats are not always terrible! I spent a fantastic week with my family houseboating on the canals in the Loire valley and we had no sewerage problems at all! πŸ™‚
    Bravo to your brave cleaner-upper!

    • Ooh the Loire Valley- always wanted to go there.

      Also I think our toilet troubles were more due to a lack of foresight and planning.. Houseboats are great.

  5. I stayed on a houseboat when I was a kid but I was so young I hardly remember, I’d love to do it again. It looks like you had a wonderful time, even with the drizzle and the overflowing loo! Oliver is a brave man.

    • Oh we did, and Oliver most certainly is. We had to retreat to the roof to escape the unholy stench.

      And no British holiday is completely without a little bit of rain. When else are you going to have an excuse to curl up inside with a hot mug of tea, a book, and no obligations?

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