Sunday Telegraph | Why I swapped bricks and mortar for a boat

Helen Babbs

This feature was first published in the Sunday Telegraph’s Stella magazine

It’s a chilly February morning and I’m struggling to get out of bed. That period of indefinite length between getting up and the cabin warming up is a difficult one to step into. So I stay horizontal, listening to a chorus of creaking rope and fender, the canal’s particular slap and gurgle, and the resident coots’ territorial shouts and squeaks.

It’s been a hard night. I got in late after dinner with friends and didn’t light a fire, didn’t even fill a hot water bottle. I thought a nightcap of single malt was enough and brushed my teeth in my coat. The cold crept in in the small hours, so penetrating it woke me up. My interrupted sleep was a cruel reminder that my home is actually a machine, one made of steel and partly submerged in water. Unless the fire is lit, the cabin temperature can drop dramatically if it’s cool out.

It’s hard to remember what it was like to wake up on dry land. I moved onto the boat almost three years ago, the year I turned 30, thinking a new decade demanded a new approach. After ten years renting rooms in shared flats, I was desperate for a space with only me and my boyfriend in it.

Buying bricks and mortar is far wiser, but self-employed, low earners don’t get mortgages easily and we live in a city where a starter home is considered affordable at £450,000. That isn’t to say living aboard is cheap – boats can cost tens of thousands of pounds to buy, plus there are annual licence fees, insurance, fuel and upkeep costs.

But living afloat was something we’d long daydreamed of. We researched it heavily, visiting potential craft across the country. I lodged aboard a friend’s boat for a month to learn the ropes. We eventually found ours in Derbyshire – she’s unremarkable on the outside but her cabin is lovely, all oak and pine and brass. Buying her was both terrifying and thrilling; the learning curve after moving in was steep.

The boat is allowing us to create a home in tune with the things we care about – respecting the environment, living sustainably. We have our own set of solar panels and a beautiful cast iron stove, our main source of heat. We’re no longer wedded to the grid, and life aboard has bred a conservatism with power and water that’s surprisingly liberating. The boat also brings us close to nature. We share the waterways with gothically good-looking cormorants and herons, dancing grey wagtails and pipistrelle bats.

London’s waterways are supporting a growing number of boats. The people who live on them aren’t hipsters or bums; they’re just decent folk finding creative ways to live in the city. Our neighbours are sometimes young families, sometimes couples or friends sharing, sometimes people on their own. It’s a low-impact community that I think we should celebrate. Boats bring boroughs welcome colour and character, an increasingly rare thing as London’s rough edges are smoothed over by a bland tide of chain stores and luxury flats.

Still, it’s important not to romanticise boat life. Residential moorings are rare and many boaters continuously cruise, moving to a new place every two weeks. Cruisers give up mains water, mains electricity and a flushing loo. We have to deal intimately with our own toilet waste – there are special sluices where it can be poured away by hand. It’s not for the time-poor, the impractical or the squeamish.

Boat life can also feel precarious. On an urban waterway your home is exposed to the anti-social antics of some towpath users – we’ve found strangers on our roof at 4am and been pelted with bottles and stones. Boaters are also vulnerable to changing licensing rules, reduced stay times in popular areas, and once public moorings being made private.

Without the security of a permanent postcode, banking and healthcare become complicated too. It was a shock to discover I had to register as homeless if I wanted to vote. I worry about my credit rating. While I’m happy living on a boat, and have no plans to retreat to dry land, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. Sometimes it’s a joy but others it’s a drain. It is always a big commitment.

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