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Author and psychotherapist Sue Brayne, pictured below, is bringing her expertise to the UK’s waterway network via series of pop-up Death Cafes. She tells Dying Matters why a narrowboat makes the perfect venue for contemplating your mortality.
I fell in love with the UK’s inland waterways ten years ago during my first canal boat holiday. I couldn’t believe how beautiful and tranquil it was to potter along at four miles an hour, or how delightful it was to wake up to the gentle rocking of the boat and the noise of pecking on the hull from a mob of impatient ducks wanting breakfast.
By the end of a magical two weeks I vowed to have my own boat one day, but it took the death of my marriage to fulfill this dream.
Following a very painful divorce, suddenly I found myself free to do what I really wanted to do. Having reached the age of 62, I also realised I needed to do it NOW, while I was still fit and strong enough to handle a boat on my own, and could remember where the tiller was.
So, I began to look for a suitable narrrowboat as a live-aboard. A timely conversation with someone on the Kennet and Avon towpath introduced me to the owner of a 50-foot vintage Braidbar narrrowboat. He was very reluctant to sell, but had recently remarried and needed more space for joint children and grandchildren.
At the time, I had no idea that Braidbar is one the most prestigious boat builders on the canal network, which means that she is designed to be more like a cottage on water than a canal boat. As soon as I stepped onto her, I knew she was mine, and I was going to call her Mystic Moon.
I came home buzzing with glee and excitement and immediately started planning where I wanted to go. But, lying in bed early next morning with a celebratory cup of tea and a purring cat, a thought hit me: I am as passionate about helping people to talk more honestly and openly about end of life issues as I am about the canals. So, why not offer death cafes on the boat?
Then another thought surfaced. As I would be on the move all the time ('continual cruising' in narrowboat language), I could literally pop-up on the towpath anywhere!
It felt as if the final jigsaw piece had just slotted neatly into place.
But, I had never put on a Death Cafe, so I contacted my colleague and friend Liz Rothschild, manager of the Westmill Woodland Burial site and director of Kicking the Bucket Festival in Oxford, who has hosted a number of Death Cafes over the past couple of years.
She enthusiastically agreed to run the first pop-up with me, (Thursday, 9 April at Bradford on Avon wharf), so there was – and is – no going back.
(This pop-up cafe is fully booked, but let me know if you want to be put on the waiting list).
The Residential Boat Owners Association (RBOA) estimate there are around 34,000 licensed boats on the UK’s waterways, which stretch from Wiltshire to north of York and Liverpool. In addition, thousands of walkers, cyclists, and nature lovers enjoy what the canals offer. However, for some, it’s difficult, or even impossible, to get to towns and cities that deliver Death Cafes, or to access resources about the end of life issues.
True, space is limited (there are eight places per pop-up, and very restricted access for disabled people). But I believe Mystic Moon will provide a uniquely cosy and intimate space to help anyone talk about life and death, and what really matters to him or her. I hope other narrowboat owners and canal users will be encouraged and inspired to develop and deliver this much needed work.
Living on a narrrowboat costs as much as living in a house. So I approached Ian Marks, founder of the Aim Foundation, which generously sponsored the free Nearing the End of Life brochure I co-authored with Dr Peter Fenwick (we are thrilled that is has now be translated into five languages, including Chinese).
Ian loved the idea, and has generously, and personally, provided seed sponsorship to make these pop-up Death Cafes possible.
My planned route, accompanied by my cat Dooey, takes me down the Kennet and Avon after Easter, mooring at Devizes (Monday, 13 April) , Pewsey (Wednesday 15 April), Newbury, and Reading (dates and locations to be confirmed).
Then, to London. Currently, I am offering three pop-ups: one on the Grand Union at Islington and two at Paddington Basin to celebrate and support Dying Matters week (which runs from 18-24 May). However, I will be posting more pop-ups as and when I find suitable moorings.
At the end of May, I head up the Grand Union to run pop-ups at Berkhamsted wharf with Dr Jo Withers, a GP from Great Missenden. From there, to Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stratford on Avon, and Worcester (again, dates and locations to be confirmed).
Following that, I am not quite sure. But, at some point (after more pop-ups), I will be heading down the glorious Oxford canal, offering pop-ups at Banbury and Oxford itself, before meandering slowly back to the Kennet and Avon to put Mystic Moon (myself and Roo) to bed for the winter.
I will be blogging regularly on my website about my adventures, and twittering and Facebooking where I am. But please do check on the Death Cafe website for up to date information on locations, dates and times. You don’t need to bring anything. Just yourself and a willingness to talk about death and dying. But, as mentioned before, space is limited, so early booking is advisable.
If you live near a canal and want to book Mystic Moon for a pop-up for a group of people, please get in contact. However, feasibility does depend on the location of the boat, and travel timings. There’s no charge, except for a suggested donation of £5 per person to cover the cost of teas and cake, though no one is excluded through lack of funds.
Please note: There are no loo facilities on board.
I can be contacted on my mobile: 07729468289 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mobile coverage is pretty good on the canals, and I have a dongle for my Apple Mac. But please be patient if I am unable to response immediately.
In the meantime, if you see Mystic Moon on the waterways, give us a wave!
The first three pop-up death cafes on the Mystic Moon have now taken place at Bradford on Avon wharf, Devizes wharf and along the towpath at Pewsey. Find out what went on at suebrayne.co.uk.
Sue's book, The D Word: Talking about Dying, is available to buy from Amazon, RRP £10.99