“I moved off land three years ago after falling in love with a boat”: tales of London’s canals

Canal boats moored near the Regent's Canal in Hackney in 2012. Image: Getty.

A few weeks ago, we published this article by Lawrence Shepherd. It argued that London’s canals were becoming dangerously over-crowded, and that some houseboats were in such poor condition that they were little more than “floating slums”.

The result was perhaps the strongest response we’ve ever had to an article. Some wrote in to thank us for raising the issue. Others sent us angry letters complaining that the piece didn’t reflect their experience of life on the water.

We at CityMetric are nothing if not fair and balanced. So here’s the other side of the story...

I moved off land and onto the canals three years ago after falling in love with a boat.

I’d lived in various flats and houses across London for nine years on and off. And I was sick of almost half my wage paying for a tiny room in a shared house and feeling chained to a job just because I had to pay my rent. I needed an alternative.

When living in one of these flats in Bethnal Green, I’d walked or cycled down the Regents Canal everyday down, through Limehouse to Canary Wharf, where I worked for a publishing house. I loved being near the water and watching the seasons change – how ducks would navigate plates of ice when frost fell, for example. And I’d imagine how the strange things I saw on the towpath every day would get there, from dead things in bags, to discarded pairs of tights.

Living on a boat was definitely an alternative way of life. But living on a boat on a mooring – where you have access to electricity, a constant source of running water, a landline and have a plumbed in washing machine – isn’t too far off living onland.

I’m a continuous cruiser, which means moving at least every two weeks and not having a home mooring. It’s definitely an off-grid option: you’re responsible for your own supplies of water, electricity and gas. And yes, you have to empty your own toilet.

Duck weed can be a problem: Limehouse, east London. Image: Getty.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise: boats aren’t houses after all, they are built to move. And if you are going to live on a moving boat, you need to make sure the vital parts of it are kept in good condition. You shouldn’t judge a boat by its paintwork: some boats don’t conform to a flowers-on-roof, glossy holiday brochure image but have the most beautifully clean bilges and perfectly conditioned engines.

Most boats are works in progress. If you live in a small space and want to redecorate, repaint or fix something, you’ll chuck half of your possessions onto the roof while you get busy inside and hope it doesn’t rain. Boaters’ lives are not hidden behind walls. Would you rather have cable TV, hot running water whenever you want it and be in debt and paying off someone else’s mortgage, or be working towards something in your own terms, in your own space? Yes, it might be basic, but you’ll either sink or swim. Quite literally.


Living on a boat can also be a political statement. Living off grid means no landline phone, no superfast cable internet connection. But then you’re living on a boat, and the world outside your window is there and real and tangible: I prefer to get some writing done, sit on the roof and have a drink with a friend or watch the ducks go by.

I am proud of being able to generate 90 per cent of my power needs through the summer with my one 300 watt solar panel. This keeps beers, yoghurt and fruit cold in the fridge, and keeps my many led lights aglow throughout the year. I’ll visit friends onshore for a Netflix binge once in awhile, but most of the time I’m busy doing little jobs to keep the boat afloat and functioning. More often than not, the boat demands that I learn a new skill: using a pressure washer, changing the engine’s oil filter, splicing ropes.

For itinerant boaters, the towpath is not just a place to hammer pegs into: its our road, back yard and front garden all rolled into one. It’s often a hive of activity – people sawing up wood, touching up paintwork and doing a spot of welding.

Visit one of the many online forums for boaters in London and elsewhere around the country, and you get a genuine snapshot of what’s occupying the hive mind of the cruising community at any given moment. How to design your electrics to get the most power out of them, for example. Where’s the best place to get second hand solar panels? Anyone know of a good sign writer? Can people clear up after themselves at the waste disposal point? Anyone want to meet for a pint and singsong on the Village Butty?

Yes, London is in the grip of a housing crisis, one which has been fuelled by the demolition of social housing to make way for luxury flats to be built – most of which are destined to become investment vehicles for the rich rather than homes for Londoners.  As living in the capital becomes more and more difficult for those who don’t have enough money to put down a deposit and get a mortgage, people are either moving out or looking for alternative ways to live.

So can actual ducks. Image: Getty.

But it’s not just London land-dwellers that are suffering from a housing crisis driven by the privatisation of public spaces. The same thing is happening to the canals. Large swathes of mooring spots in central London and beyond have been leased out to private individuals or companies. The Bow Back Waters have been swallowed up by the Olympic Park; parts of Hackney Marshes are now private; Paddington Basin is increasingly becoming a glittery corporate playground.

The amount of time boaters can stay on moorings is decreasing as is the number of places they can moor. No new facilities are being put in place, so “hot spots”, where boaters can fill up with water and empty their toilets, understandably become congested.

And this close knit, enterprising community of people trying to find a different way of living is feeling the pressure. Continuous cruisers want to move, but many feel that the Canal & River Trust is constantly moving the goalposts in terms of how long you can stay somewhere, and how far you need to move, in an attempt to drive continuous cruisers into marinas.

I spoke to my boater friend Phoebe, who is perfectly happy living without a fridge, about why she decided to move onto the canal. ‘‘My boat is the warmest and driest place I have lived since I moved out of home 8 years ago,” she told me, “and in that time I have been in nine different flats. I could afford to rent but it’s a choice to live on the boat. I think boating often you back to necessities, and without sounding too cliché it’s about appreciating the simple pleasures.”

It’s a love of the water, of freedom and agency and creativity that keeps most boaters afloat. We don’t live in slums, but in strong, powerful communities. Which may be why we’re being threatened. 

Michelle Madsen is a freelance writer and member of the National Bargee Travellers Association.

 
 
 
 

America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.