When I moved on to a canal boat, 20 years ago this summer, it was not a particularly popular thing to do. The canal was sparsely populated and most London boaters had permanent moorings, which in my case meant mains electricity, a telephone line and cable TV.
This was the good life, living cheaply in central London in a fair degree of comfort, with long-term neighbours who provided the sort of ready-made community rarely found in central London, or indeed in any modern city.
The boating experience today can be very different. Urban canals are overcrowded and increasingly populated by transient communities. Some residents move between temporary moorings every two weeks and live in boats that often lack the most basic facilities, such as running water or heating. These aren’t far off being floating slums – yet another result of the housing crisis that has made living in a floating metal shack with no water the only affordable option for many.
I’m no longer a boater, and when I took a walk around the canal recently, I discovered that London’s canals have hundreds more boats than before, many in temporary moorings – constant cruisers that have to move every two weeks. Twenty years ago, you could walk from Little Venice to the Sainsbury’s at Kensal Green and barely see a moored boat. Now, they are two abreast almost the entire way, on both sides of the canal.
In Bow and Hackney, the overcrowding is extraordinary – every berth is filled by a bewildering array of boats, possessions spilling out over the towpath in a mess of wooden planks, oily rags, coal bags and disposable barbeques.
This is not going down well with locals. Anglers say the water is increasingly polluted by the washing up liquid, shampoo and soap (sinks and showers empty directly into the canal). Walkers say they can’t walk down the towpath without tripping over somebody’s belongings, or being knocked over by a boat-dwelling cyclist. Local residents complain of being choked by diesel fumes or kept awake by electricity generators.
Even older boaters bemoan the newcomers. “The newbies don’t understand the etiquette and bylaws, sometimes there are boats four or five deep,” said one. The speaker recently steered one of the big trip boats that take tourists and partygoers up and down the canal, and frequently found it impossible to manoeuvre thanks to poorly moored boats.
Nobody knows exactly how many boats have arrived in London in the last ten years but the number of constant cruisers is believed to be rising by 30 per cent each year; in parts of East London this can be closer to 90 per cent, as people buy boats in the Midlands and North and then relocate to the city.
The reasons why are pretty obvious – this is a cheap and fun way to live, especially if you are young and can handle the discomfort and uncertainty about where you will be living next week. But the Canal & River Trust are increasingly concerned, threatening crackdowns to ensure constant cruisers cruise constantly.
Regent's Canal, 2014. Image: Getty.
“In the last few years we have seen growth in numbers of people who don’t want to live outside of an area so choose not to move very far, which isn’t acceptable,” Richard Parry, chief executive of the CRT told the Financial Times last year. “It’s become a problem that impacts on the enjoyment of other users of the waterways.”
It is difficult for the CRT to enforce the constant cruising 14-day regulation. But nonetheless boaters, who feel they have solved the problem of London housing, fear increased rates or having their licences removed. All along the canal, notes are taped to windows explaining that a boat has overstayed its 14-day welcome because of engine problems or missing parts.
And this points to the thing that really astonished me about so many boats: they were in appalling condition. I spoke to people – some with small children – living on boats that had no beds, running water, heating, fridges, cooking facilities, working engines or electricity. Boaters seemed blasé about this, but I was shocked – as an ex-boater I’ve gone without hot water or a cooker for a few months, but never seen anything on this scale. For some, the boat was clearly just a floating shell that protected them from the elements and gave them a place to sleep and keep their belongings. They moved around the network every two weeks, trying to stay within easy distance of work or schools, but unable to put down any permanent roots and living without the sort of basic requirements most of us take for granted like heating or water.
Boating has always required a certain degree of weathering hardship, but this was another level. And as more and more inexperienced, already impoverished people are forced on to boats, it’s going to get worse.