“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.

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

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

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