Adrift | a Q&A

Helen Babbs’ new book Adrift, A Secret Life of London’s Waterways is published by Icon on Thursday 3 March 2016.

What’s Adrift about?

It’s about London’s canals and navigable rivers, exploring the waterways’ people, politics, history and wildlife. It’s about boats, landscape, alternative ways of living. The book travels from east to west over the course of a year, taking in the River Lea, the Lee Navigation, the Limehouse Cut, the Regent’s Canal and part of the Grand Union.

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Why write about London’s waterways?

London’s canals and navigable rivers have been my home for almost three years. Living on the water has given me a new perspective on the city, and as a journalist I felt compelled to document my experiences. The canal network is a really rich seam to delve into as a writer. It’s a long, thin public space with a miscellany of different stories attached.

The waterways – and the life they support, both wild and human – are perhaps a little misunderstood or misrepresented. For example, London’s boaters are sometimes lazily dismissed as hipsters or bums, when in fact I’d describe us as a small community of decent, resourceful folk finding creative ways to live in a capital city.

At the moment, London boating is often only discussed in the mainstream press in the context of property prices, but there’s a lot more to living aboard than saving money on rent or a mortgage. Indeed, my own experience promoting the book so far has seen a national newspaper make up a quote – put words in my mouth that I didn’t say – that suggests I bought a boat simply because I couldn’t afford a mortgage.

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I’m not a spokesperson for the boating community, and the views expressed in the book are just my own. But I do think that, as boaters, if we are open about how things work for us on the water perhaps, at those times when our rights are being undermined or our lives are being made more difficult, it will be easier to ask both policy makers and the wider public for support.

I believe we should actively protect London’s boating community, both the continuously cruising and the permanently moored. Boats bring welcome colour and character, an increasingly rare thing as the capital is smothered by a bland tide of chain stores and luxury flats.

The natural value of the canal network also felt like something really worth exploring – manmade waterways have become increasingly important as natural standing water like ponds and ditches have disappeared. The canal can sometimes be seen simply as an A to B, a commuting route, or as mere decoration for new blocks of flats, but it’s much more than that. For many Londoners, the canal is an important way to connect with nature. It’s a vital green-blue space within the grey.

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Did you buy a boat because you couldn’t afford a flat?

There was a lot more to it, but it was certainly one factor of many. Buying a flat would have been a more sensible financial investment, but I’m a self-employed, low earner living in a city where £450,000 is now officially (and outrageously) considered affordable for a ‘starter home’ and private rents are out of control.

So yes our budget did come into it, but there were more persuasive things that ultimately drew us onto the canal. The boat is allowing us to create a home in tune with the things we care about – respecting the environment, living sustainably. We saw living aboard as a chance to simplify things and strip back. The boat means 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.

Our home space is not entirely domestic either; it is mechanical, it moves, it is subject to the weather, the water, the landscape. The writer and naturalist Richard Mabey was on to something when he said many of us – wherever we might live – nurse a ‘dream of satisfying two strong and contrasting human drives, to be both settled native and adventurous pioneer’. The boat allows us, demands us, to try to be both.

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Is living on a boat cheap?

That’s a myth. Boats can cost tens of thousands of pounds to buy, plus there are annual licence fees, insurance, fuel and upkeep costs. And monthly rent if you are lucky enough to secure a long term or residential mooring. It depends on the size of your vessel, but yearly expenses can reach well into the thousands if you include routine maintenance like repainting the hull. It is also very time consuming – living on a canal boat is not for the time poor.

Residential moorings in London are rare, so most newcomers continuously cruise rather than moor permanently in one place. It’s a joy to slowly wend your way across the captial’s 100 miles of canal network, experiencing life afloat in the north, south, east and west. But, continuous cruisers give up mains water and mains electricity, as well as the security of a fixed address.

Is daily life difficult?

I wouldn’t swap my boat-home for anything but it is hard work, every single day. Living like this is full of its own specific concerns: the fear of running out of fuel to burn and freshwater to wash with, the blight of condensation and damp, flat marine batteries and mysterious leaks. The boat’s climate is tricky to control, freezing in winter, too hot in summer. We’re free of earthly ties but also free of everyday conveniences. We have to deal intimately with our own waste, emptying our caravan-style toilet by hand.

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What other challenges do you face on the water?

It was a shock to discover I had to register as homeless if I wanted to vote. Without a postcode, things like banking and healthcare become complicated too. I fear for my credit rating. I also worry about the future. There’s a concern that waterways are gradually becoming less open to cruising boats.

It’s completely legal to continuously cruise across the canal network as long as you move on every two weeks, a right enshrined in the 1995 British Waterways Act. But recently stay times in popular areas have been reduced to seven days, sometimes even less. The Canal and River Trust has also said it won’t renew the licenses of boats without long term moorings that it doesn’t consider to be moving far enough, despite not having the power to define what an acceptable distance is.

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What advice would you give a would-be boater?

Do your research first, and not just online. Definitely try out living on a boat before you buy one – hire or rent one, and for a significant period of time so you can really learn the ropes. I lodged aboard a friend’s canal boat for a month before we decided to buy ours; it was a crucial experience. It was a chance to learn the intricacies of life afloat, and it helped me decide whether or not I had what it takes to live like this.

While I’m happy with my decision to swap bricks and mortar for a boat, I actually wouldn’t actively encourage anyone else to do the same. Many of us are desperate to find a way to be in London that isn’t financially crippling. But, while living aboard works brilliantly for some, it’s a difficult way of living. It’s definitely not for the faint hearted. Nor are boats a solution to London’s housing crisis – that requires fair prices and rent control on land.

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The book is about a lot more than the practicalities and politics of living on the waterways – what are some of the other central themes?

The landscape and urban nature are really important strands that run throughout the book, as is history. For example, I spent some time tracing London’s lost canals, in both south and west London. The canalised part of the River Fleet running from King’s Cross to Blackfriars is the most well known lost canal, but the book also looks at the Grand Surrey Canal, the Croydon Canal, the Grosvenor Canal, the Kensington Canal and the Cumberland Spur, which have all disapeared but left their ghosts.

Are manmade, urban waterways like the Regent’s Canal really that good for nature?

Very much so. A place where rough land meets torpid water has potency, and the mixing up of the wet and the dry along the Regent’s Canal means it can support much wildlife. Artificial waterways are part of our ecosystem; in fact they have become increasingly important ‘natural’ features as traditional ponds have disappeared. The whole of London’s canal system was designated a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC) back in 1986. The SINC citation states that ‘London’s network of canals fulfil an important function in allowing nature into heavily built-up environments’.

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But aren’t boats bad for wildlife?

More boats mean more disturbance and less aquatic and marginal vegetation, but also more movement and in turn more scouring, flushing and induced flow. The Regent’s Canal’s water quality, for example, is surprisingly good. But, its growing popularity, with people on foot and on bicycles as much as on boats, is also its vulnerability. As towpath traffic increases, so does the amount of litter gathering under bridges, around weirs and at locks.

I am biased, but as a live-aboard boater I think the positive impact our community has outweighs any negatives. It is often boaters who feel most compelled to haul rubbish out of the water, after all. Urban canals are not a sterile places, and in many ways it is the imperfections that make them interesting. It is possible to enjoy the coupling of the natural and the man-made, even the coot building a magnificent plastic bag and bottle nest. The litter troubles me, but the fact a cormorant can ignore it and continue to fish gives me hope.

© Helen Babbs 2016

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