“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.

 
 
 
 

Podcast: Brizzle

Bristol mayor Marvin Rees, in Bristol. Image: Getty.

This week, we’re off to an English city that, to my shame, I’ve been neglecting: Bristol, the largest city in the south west, and indeed the largest city in the south outside London.

I’m joined by Sian Norris, founder of the Bristol Women’s Literary Festival, to talk about the city she’s lived in since her childhood. She tells me what makes Bristol so liveable, why it’s struggling with inequality, and how it’s coping with the recent influx of London expats bidding up house prices.

Since we’re on his patch, I also spoke to Marvin Rees, who since 2016 has been the elected Labour mayor of the city. He tells me why he was so keen for Bristol to host the Global Parliament of Mayors, and why local politicians need to work together after Brexit. Oh, and he talks about his transport plans, too.

The episode itself is below. You can subscribe to the podcast on AcastiTunes, or RSS. Enjoy.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

Skylines is supported by 100 Resilient Cities. Pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation, 100RC is dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century.

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