“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.

 
 
 
 

“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.