Friday, 31 May 2013

Indie Travellers, Let’s Meet Up

We have an idea. I wanted to run it by you.

What is travel?

There is a quote, “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travellers don’t know where they’re going” by Paul Theroux.

Now you may find this slightly judgemental, and indeed there’s a great rant about it here.  But I understand what Mr Theroux is getting at.

In our quest for offering a unique experience in England, I have at times been disheartened from my conversations with backpacker hostels.  It seems that many of their guests, afraid by the prospect of wasting precious time, are sourcing the quick fixes – the top 10’s of what to do.  Sightseeing and partying, and rarely delving beneath the surface.

This was a common theme when quizzing hostel workers at various hostels in London, and it made me feel quite down-hearted.  I wondered if social media, and mobile internet was slowly wiping out the type of movement I call independent travelling.  We’ve become accustomed to instant gratification in today’s world, and this can only be detrimental to our longing for discovery.  I wondered if anyone else understood where I was coming from.

Fortunately we were given the boost we needed when last weekend we were joined by 2 couples from Australia and a guy from Saudi Arabia.  Our new friends from Oz were living and working in South East London. Mohammad from Saudi Arabia is studying in Bristol.  Whilst they may not have been backpacking in the traditional sense of the word, they came together through their desire to experience a side to England that was unique and authentic.  They engaged with local people, they were excited to be part of a local pub’s barn dance (it was pretty rubbish to be honesty, but it was real!), they went off walking to areas that aren’t in travel guidebooks, but are still beautiful, if on less of a grand scale.

The curious independent traveller does indeed exist.  There’s at least one studying in Bristol, and another 4 living in a house in South East London.  I’m sorry for my temporary moment of doubt in your existence.

This led me on to my next thought process (as Ruth will tell you, I can’t manage thinking about two things at once).  If these great people are out there, but they’re not all staying in backpacker hostels, wouldn’t they benefit from a central place where they can gather to drink, chat, learn, discover, and connect with one another?  Unlike other countries more populous with independent travellers, we’re more spread out here in the UK.  There are also many thousands of ex-backpacker Brits, downhearted from coming back down to earth with a thud, and finding they have no option but to find “real jobs”. Missing the interaction with other travellers. Finding it culturally unacceptable to talk to random strangers on the tube or the bus.

So I did something about this.  I’ve setup a meetup group called “Indie Travel Hub”.  We’re starting one in Manchester first, but the idea is to create them in various cities in the UK.  It will be a monthly social gathering, and each city will have its meetups run by a pair of like-minded travellers who can spare the time to hold such an event.  We can share travel experiences, offer advice on places to visit, events coming up, good places to live, study, or find work. And, of course, put the world to rights!

We’re very excited about this.  Our first meetup is not too far off – Wednesday 12th June.

If you’d like to come along and join us then sign up here:

Make sure you also RSVP to the event.  If you can’t make the first event, please still sign up to show your support for the concept.

Would you like to set one up in another UK city? Let me know and we’ll publicise your own meetup!

Saturday, 16 February 2013

The First Year

Wow, what a year!  To think that a year ago today we were just about to collect our narrowboat from Oxfordshire.

We may have seemed a little quiet of late, but believe me, like our name suggests, we have been behaving like ducks (gliding gracefully along the water, legs flapping like crazy below!).  We’ve been maintaining and improving the boat: increasing battery power, re-blacked the boats hull, added a more ipod-friendly stereo system, and we’re working hard to promote ourselves ahead of our second season.

However, as we race to get everything ready for the first scheduled trip of the new season on the 15th March (already half full), it’s also important to take a breath, sit back, and reflect upon how the first year of operating has gone.

Our inaugural season has been something of a research period for Wandering Duck.  As you’ll know, there were no other hostel boats on the water when we set up our business, so the concept was unknown.  That comes with huge challenges.  If, for example, you start your own café business, you can set yourself apart from your competition with your own detailed touches; Barista trained staff, quality Colombian Rainforest Alliance Fairtrade coffee, some cool electronic tango background music, and some worn leather sofas.  OK, so perhaps that’s a future project, but you know what I mean.  You benefit from your potential customers at least knowing what a café is, so you’re half way there.  For Wandering Duck, we’re bringing a new experience to a whole new group of younger people.  International backpackers barely know anything about the canals, and in the UK there is still an outdated perception that the canal is just somewhere to dump your shopping trolley.  Then there are the boating community themselves.  They at least have discovered the beauty of this kept secret, but then we have the pre-conceived ideas of what a hostel boat may be.  We often have to explain that we’re not for school children, scouts, or the disabled.

Slowly, we’re making progress.  When we first started trading last April, we naively expected the online bookings to come flooding in.  Backpackers rushing with excitement to experience this new kind of tour.  A unique way to experience a slice of the UK countryside by boat.  The perfect mix of idyllic meandering waterways, history, British pub culture, late night jamming sessions on a guitar on the boat.  That sounds ace!  Lesson 1: Nobody cares about what you’re doing as much as you do.  I think we received one booking from a friend (hi Sara) in the whole of the first month.  This was incredibly deflating and we really questioned what on earth we were doing.  We were so sure of ourselves and our vision that we didn’t really have a plan B.  It felt a bit like planning your wedding day for a year, only for nobody to show up.  It was a nerve-wracking time.

The Olympics came, but the tourists and backpackers didn’t.  Not that we could see anyway.  Presumably they were enjoying watching the Olympics at home on the telly like we were.  We also had the wettest summer since 1912.  This was not what we had in mind.

Summer trips were fairly quiet, but then things started to pick up.  We ran more trips in September and October than we’d had in any of the Summer months.  The weather improved somewhat, and word was starting to travel about these new tours we were doing.  From talking to people we’d also discovered a different group of customers.  It came to light that there were a whole group of people who would like to experience a canal boat break, but who didn’t want the responsibility of hiring their own narrowboat.  We hadn’t really appreciated this at all when we set up Wandering Duck, and as a consequence we’ve now split up what we do in to two areas – private skippered charters, and scheduled tours.  We even did a private charter trip at the end of November for a lovely group of 4 people which was for a 65th birthday present.  We had planned to finish our season at the end of October, so we were really pleased to learn that there was still some demand for trips so late in the year.  This beautiful winter weekend even entailed a little ice-breaking with the boat which was a lot of fun.

By this stage we’d had lots of fantastic feedback from our guests.  We’ve appeared in a few magazines, including Derbyshire Life and TNT Magazine, and again these features have been incredibly positive.  Unfortunately in December Guardian Travel published a full-page feature on Wandering Duck which was extremely uncomplimentary.  It seemed that the journalist of the piece hadn’t really appreciated what the experience would entail, and had taken her misguided expectations out on our business.  It was a missed opportunity.  Had the journalist been able to get into the mindset of the independent traveller, it could have been a fantastic piece of publicity for us.  However, every cloud has a silver lining.  The Guardian website received 34comments, all encouraging us on.  We received booking enquiries, messages of support, and even phone calls of support following the article.  Fortunately for the UK tourism industry, the writer in question hasn’t written anything for Guardian Travel since. Lesson 2: Before you invite a journalist on your boat, make sure it’s somebody who would choose to be there.

After such a quiet start, we were really pleased with the progress Wandering Duck made last year.  Of the customers we had, a few were friends and family.  Some were canal lovers who had been on canal boat breaks before.  But on the whole our customers were new to the waterways.  They’d never been inside a narrowboat, or seen a windlass.  These days, with sites like Trip Advisor ruling where we go and what we do, it’s no wonder that the majority of people will wait for the reassurances from their peers before trying something new.  As a new business and a new concept, all of our customers over the last year took a chance on a very alien experience they knew very little about.  Whether they booked a tour on their own, or shared the experience with friends, we’re extremely grateful to each and every one of them.

As I say, the feedback from our guests has been exceptional.  But there has also been lots of support from the boating community too.  Particularly in the early, quieter days this acted as a real lift when we needed the encouragement.  It helped us to appreciate just why we wanted to show off this side of the UK to begin with. 

This year we have a Photography Workshop Weekend planned, and in May we’re hoping to launch a 1 night tour through Manchester and out to Worsley.  To have designed a 1 night trip, our shortest yet, with half the time travelling through Manchester city centre, will be a surprise to many.  But this only goes to reinforce our concept as an experience.  Manchester is the second most visited city in England, and this tour will give city lovers a whole new perspective to Manchester, as well as a nice short cruise out to a pub in the village of Worsley, along the first major canal in the country.  A tour of the worlds first industrialised city travelling on the very transport link that helped create it.  At around £60 per person, we’re also going further to make a canal boat break accessible to those on the smallest of budgets.

We’re taking small steps forwards.  We’re not about to rush out and buy another boat anytime soon, but we feel immensely proud to have turned our vision in to a reality.  We thank everyone who’s helped us, who’ve come along on a trip, who’ve helped spread the word and who have offered words of support and encouragement.  We are immensely grateful to you all. Thank you, and we look forward to seeing you again soon.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Taking the Final Step

"It might work, but it's unproven". These were the most reassuring words that the most experienced man in the leisure boat industry could muster together for us.
We had decided to look in to our idea for a backpackers hostel boat in more detail.  Nigel Hamilton, a consultant in leisure boat business start-ups, was not as enthusiastic about the idea as we were.

"Why don't you start a Hotel Boat business?" said Nigel.  To give you an analogy, this is like suggesting a nice practical Volvo estate (diesel I might add),  to somebody who’s looking for a 1969 split-screen Volkswagen Campervan. 

Until WanderingDuck, Hotel Boats were the only overnight canal boat tour available on the UK’s waterways.  They tend to cater for the 60+market.  You know, those people who have lots of money to spend, and enjoy the comfort of familiarity,so they keep returning.  If you were to stop and think about it for a second (and we did), Nigel's advice was logical, practical and made good business sense.  But it wasn't for us.  We’re travellers at heart.  We had an opportunity here to show a relatively unknown way of life to a whole new audience of people who shared our passion for discovery.  We would be the first people in decades to be able to offer budget travellers the chance to see this beautiful and little-known historical network of waterways.  This was one hell of an opportunity.

So, we stayed true to our original plan.  Sat in the Oast House in Manchester with a group of friends, we drew up a list of names for our new venture, which continued on to a Facebook Group There were some great ideas: "TheUnsunk Bunk" and "International Waters" (where you can do whatyou like!) to the less appealing "Let's Get Shipfaced". 

We decided on Wandering Duck; it was fun, unconventional for the waterways and connected well with travelling.  We put together a business plan.  This essentially is where you say what you hope will happen, and then if the bank thinks it will happen, they agree to lend you some money.  They did, but it wasn't until we bought our boat that everything started to feel real.

I was working for a Travel company called Carrier as a travel consultant at the time.  I say “travel” in the loosest sense of the word.  What I actually sold were holidays.Very exclusive five star holidays at that.  The perks of the job were great, but it wasn't “travel” as in my definition of the word.  Sipping cocktails on the deck of your private water villa is very nice, but in the words of Marshall Bruce MathersIII, it was time to get “back to reality”.  It was time to go get me a boat.

I made the call in my lunch hour, on my walk across to Sainsbury's.  As I pressed the contact number of the boat brokers on my phone I felt my palms start to sweat.  An overwhelming feeling of fear came across me.  This was truly unknown territory, with unknown consequences.  A change of path from this moment on.  It was a cold and wet December day in 2011 as I crossed the TGI Friday car-park en-route to the supermarket, but I was so anxious that I was almost unaware of where I was as I concentrated on the ringing, waiting for someone to answer at the other end.  They did, and I made an offer.  The broker said he'd come back to me, and it felt like an anti-climax.  I wandered around the expanse of the supermarket in even more of an overwhelmed and disengaged state than I normally do.  But on the way back, orange juice in one hand, and bananas and phone in the other, he phoned me back.  He told me I had bought a boat.  This was it.  There was no way out now.  My work colleagues knew nothing of my plans, or fast approaching exit from the company, and so this momentous occasion filled with nerves and excitement, was proceeded with a cheese & pickle sandwich and 20 minutes of Sky News in the staff canteen.

We now have a beautiful 69ft narrowboat.  We had a few modifications made to the interior layout to make it suitable for our trips, and had it sprayed green.  We named the boat “Rakiraki”, the Maori for Duck after our time managing the backpackers hostel in New Zealand. 

We picked the boat up in February 2012 in Oxfordshire and spent two and a half weeks cruising from just outside of Bicester up to Derbyshire, passing through the centre of Birmingham and even getting stuck in Wolverhampton for 3 days due to a huge timber merchant fire beside the canal.  It’s incredible how you can travel all over England by canal, and rarely does the country feel anywhere near as urban as most people would perceive. Don’t get me wrong, parts of our journey such as the outskirts of Wolverhampton were pretty gritty, but for the most part it was a fantastic way in which to appreciate the open English countryside and its small towns and villages.  At 3mph you get to see every detail.  You almost feel sorry for those rushing by in their cars missing everything except for the bland expanse of the motorway network.  It reminds me of a quote for which there are many variations: “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end” Ursula K. LeGuin. I guess that’s life.

We had acquired a mooring at Bugsworth Basin Bugsworth Basin is a little known scheduled ancient monument, with huge importance in the inland waterway world.  It was once one of the largest working inland ports in the country, with up to 100 boats a day taking limestone from the nearby Peak District, to Manchester and beyond.  It’s been lovingly restored by volunteers over the last 30 years, and we were lucky enough to acquire one of only 4 private moorings there.  It’s a beautiful spot.

Safely home atBugsworth, we went to work on the final touches.  Books for guests to read, an iPod, my Yamaha acoustic guitar on the wall for people to play.  I had the slightly silly idea to install a real ale beer pump.  I felt that pubs and English real ale went hand in hand with canal life.  After convincing Ruth that this was a good idea (with no idea how I was going to actually put it in to practice), I met up with Lee Wainwright from the Bollington Brewing Company He helped in getting a pump installed and in return we get to serve his beers which are brewed a 5 minute walk from the canal.  Having the big vinyl Wandering Duck logo installed on the side of the boat was the final touch, and was a very exciting time for Ruth and I.

Another challenge was working out our routes.  We wanted beautiful scenery, some nice pubs, some interesting history, some nice walks, to be close to public transport links (that was a tough one!), and we needed resources such as water,refuse, and diesel easily available.  We also wanted to be close to Manchester.  Manchester is Ruth's home town, and where we have lived together for the past 10 years.  It’s also worth noting that the Bridgewater Canal, which starts in Manchester, was the first true canal in the UK. But that’s another history lesson.

Ruth is a map geek.  She loves them to a degree I will never understand.  It comes from her youth days walking the hills of the UK’s National Parks. Particularly the Peak District.  Coming up with the perfect route was all her doing.  We had a huge map of the canal network on the hallway wall of our flat in Chorlton.  It was covered in post-it notes, highlighter pen, and Biro.  We looked all over the canals that surround Manchester, until eventually agreeing on the routes very close to those that now feature our tour schedule.

Our friends came on some dummy runs with us in March, and with a little practice behind us, Wandering Duck was born.  In April 2012 we took our first paying guests on a 2 night canal boat experience from Macclesfield to Bugsworth Basin.  Our dream had finally become a reality. 

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

In the Eye of the Beholder..

I read a conversation on Twitter the other day that went something like this:

"Has anyone been to #Liverpool? I'm thinking of popping there one weekend. Any advice? #ttot #travel

Edinburgh is nicer :)

Is it far from Liverpool?

About a 4 hour drive haha

I'd say there are definitely better places in the UK!!  Edinburgh or Glasgow. Basically just anywhere in Scotland.. It's way better ;)"

The person asking the question about Liverpool has now decided to travel to Edinburgh instead.

I see these kinds of conversations on Twitter, and in chat forums such as the Lonely Planets Thorn Tree all of the time.  I understand it.  If you've experienced something that you love, you're passionate about, and you want to share with other people, then it's a perfectly natural way to react.  I'm sure that their feedback was not without merit.  Edinburgh is a beautiful city; the fringe festival is one of the most amazing festivals I've ever been to, and the people are incredibly friendly and welcoming despite the invasion of tourists that outnumber the locals.

The bias is especially true when we recommend the place where we live.  Have you ever criticised a city in front of somebody who lives there? They can become very defensive.  They have grown to love that place.  It may have been an instant attraction, or it may be a strong appreciation that has built up over many years, or a lifetime.

"Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it" - Confucious

When you visit any city in the world, you're experiencing the world of many thousands of people who live in, and love that city.  It's easy to buy a guidebook, and to go and see the city's top 10 attractions for instant gratification and to save yourself a wasted day.  But don't we lose out on the very sense of adventure that spurred us to travel the world?  It can take time to get under the skin of a place and to really feel what makes it tick.

Liverpool was the European Capital of Culture in 2008.  Check out Liverpool's art scene.  Of course, it's most famous for being the birthplace of The Beatles.  But it's also home to other oldies such as The Farm, and newer stuff like The Coral and The Zutons.  It has the oldest and one of the largest Chinese communities in Europe.  Albert Dock has the largest  collection of Grade I listed buildings and Stanley Dock has the largest brick building in the world.  Not a city person?  How about a trip out to Formby Beach?  I'm not skimming the surface yet..

Formby Beach, near Liverpool

But I digress.  You see this isn't about Liverpool or Edinburgh.  It's more about travel, and what it means to the individual.  It's about appreciating and understanding where you are.

If you are a traveller who simply wants to skim the cream from the sites of the world, you will soon run out of "top 10's".  You will be forever trying to out-do your own previous experiences.  If you take the time to appreciate where you are, and what makes others love, really love, the place that you have found yourself in, then you can sustain more than a lifetime of memorable and "top" moments.


Thursday, 23 August 2012

Great first night for Manchester's first Float-In Movie

We'd moored up in Piccadilly Basin from Tuesday night in eager anticipation of Wednesday & Thursday nights events.

Manchester was having it's first ever float-in movie, and we wanted to be a part of it!

We awoke Wednesday morning to the sound of Kayaks arriving, and soon the canal was teeming with children Kayaking around our narrowboat.

Later on Atelier had their little white sheds open, and people were out rowing around the floating garden.  Imagine; people in Manchester City Centre, boating.  It was all kind of strange, but really quite lovely to see people doing outdoor stuff, and all for free.

The main focus of this years Canal Festival events are the 2 float in movies.  Last night was the first of two films being show; Captain America, chosen as it was filmed in the Northern Quarter.

Doors opened at 6pm, and people were literally flooding in from the start.  By around 6.30pm the car park was full of cars tuned in to the station that was broadcasting the audio to the film, and they were letting no more cars in.  Red and white deckchairs, picnic benches, and tables decorated with flower displays awaited those who came on foot.  Ning set up their mobile Malaysian Restaurant serving amazing noodles out the box.  The whole area was buzzing.  Even the residents of the local apartments were getting in to the spirit, with many people out on their balconies to catch this Manchester first.

Our roof was lined with cushions, which quickly filled with bums (in part because of the promise of Bollington Brewery real ale, as well as waiter service during the movie!)

Now Captain America wouldn't be my first choice for watching a movie, but to be honest it didn't really matter.  We had beer, good food, and great group of people around.  We watched some of the film, but unfortunately it's a really dark movie, which made it quite unsuitable for an outdoor screening.  Of course, you can understand it's choice, bearing in mind it's significance to the area, but it did mean that many people left half way through the film.

Not put off by the dwindling numbers, we stayed, chatted, drank, ate, and soaked up the night. There was a real feeling of "how cool is Manchester to do this". A free event on a tiny "there's no money left" budget, and a real feel good evening.

After the film, the audio/ visual team spent some time looking through tonights screening and adjusting the light and colour which has vastly improved the quality of the picture.  Expect a far superior movie-watching experience this evening.

Tonights movie is The Life Aquatic.  It starts at 8.30pm but get here soon after 6.  Even if you're not a fan of the screening choice, you'd be missing out not to be here.  The friendly crowd, lovely food, and fantastic surroundings, make for a beautiful after-work event.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Things Don't Always go to Plan

Ruth and I have spent years travelling around the world.  One thing we’ve learnt is that things don’t always go to plan.  From public transport strikes, to bad weather, to earthquakes (there’s room for another blog on that one!), we’ve experienced scenarios that threw us in to moments of panic, followed by a swift change of travel plans (normally involving a good hostel and a large cup of coffee).  Flexibility is key when travelling – a warning to those who pre-book every night of their trip on Hostelworld before they’ve even left their home country!  When things do go wrong, and you re-arrange your travels around such unforeseen circumstances, it’s not unusual for the resulting experiences to turn out better than your original plans.  They also provide the fuel for the best pub stories when you get back! 

So back to Wandering Duck.  You may imagine that on the canal, ambling along at 3 miles an hour, not a lot can go wrong.  The problem is that the canals have changed little since being built 200 years ago. Dont get me wrong, its fantastic that we can still see and use these old lock gates to get our boat up and down hill, but its a bit of a bugger when you get a tweet to say that the lock flight is closed for leak repairs!

This in itself is odd the fact that the Canal & River Trust is using social media technology to tell me that engineering from 1804 has failed!  But the world that Wandering Duck lives in IS a very strange one.  We say hello to everyone we meet on the canal like a scene out of Heartbeat its like stepping back in time. Yet at the same time were listening to Maroon 5 on the ipod.

So we need to re-plan.  Cue big cup of coffee.  We have a private charter booked for this weekend and we cant go down the locks. Well our guests want to get involved with opening and closing the locks. So heres the deal; Instead of heading North to Marple Locks, we head South.  Theres another set of locks about 12 hours away.  If we do a few hours cruising before picking them up, we can take them on a lovely trip through these locks.  We check for water, public transport links. We hear from Ruths mum (our office is in their front room) that the womens rowing team have won 2012s first Gold Medal good work!  Back to the plan; we check for rubbish disposal, and turnaround point (were 69ft long and can only turn at designated spots sometimes hours from one another).  Even for diesel we have to re-arrange for the working coalboat to fill us up mid-way through the trip.  These are the logistics we spent months organising prior to starting our business.  Weve just re-arranged it all in about 4 hours!!  Were so wrapped up in it that we miss Bradley Wiggins get Gold in the Time Trial.  Its never the same watching the replays instead of the real thing.  Final part of the jigsaw; theres a fantastic pub in a little village called Sutton with good moorings right outside the cherry on top!

Problem: Weve just finished a trip in completely the wrong place, and we started so far away from our base, heading South, that its going to take us 3 days to get back to the Peak District.

Solution: (cue more coffee). We need to run a trip back to Bugsworth Basin.  Its a one-off 4 night trip.  Its a great route back along the Macclesfield canal, and did we say theres great pub on the way?  Then theres Lyme Park once we get back on to our normal patch.

Were really excited by the prospect of a change of scenery and an extended trip.  Its very last minute, and who knows, maybe its too late to get a group together.  But it doesnt matter.  The point is, when things are out of your control, theres no point stressing.  You cant change it. So you roll with it, have fun with it. Dare I say it, fuck about and enjoy it. Lifes too short to waste a good pub story.