This feature was first published in the Sunday Times
The year I turned 30 was the year me and my partner bought our canal boat home. After ten years renting rooms in shared flats, we craved a space of our own. Buying a flat would have been a more sensible investment, but we live in a city where £450,000 is officially considered affordable for a ‘starter home’.
Living aboard isn’t cheap – the boat itself cost tens of thousands of pounds to buy, then there are annual licence fees, insurance, fuel and maintenance costs. But it was something we’d long dreamed of, and properly researched. I lodged aboard a friend’s narrowboat for a month first to learn the ropes. Although avoiding London’s over-inflated property market was a factor, the move wasn’t all about money. We saw it as a chance to try living off-grid, to simplify things and strip back, to have a multi-fuel stove and a set of solar panels.
Plain on the outside, it was our boat’s innards that made us want her. Dark wood floors, oak panelling, painted pine tongue-and-groove, and plenty of brass. The cabin is long, low and narrow, with walls that curve gently inwards. It’s a space you learn to move through in a certain, stooping way. Boat life demands us to be conservative with power, but the cabin is lovely in candle- and firelight, the cosiest place you could possibly be. Flame light is forgiving, it hides the coal dust and cracks.
We’re not pioneers. There have been people living on London’s navigable waterways for decades, although there’s no denying numbers have risen as prices have rocketed on land. Residential moorings in London are rare, so most newcomers cruise rather than moor permanently in one place. It’s a joy to slowly wend your way through London, experiencing life afloat in the north, south, east and west. But, continuous cruisers give up mains water and mains electricity, as well as a fixed address.
It’s important not to idealise life on the water. 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.
Living in a low impact way and being close to nature are, for me, boating’s greatest appeals. London’s manmade canal network has become increasingly important for wildlife, as natural standing water like ponds and ditches have disappeared. But urban waterways aren’t bucolic, and itinerancy comes with stigma attached. A peripatetic life fascinates some people but confuses others.
It was a shock to discover I had to register as homeless if I wanted to vote. Without a postcode, other things become complicated too, including banking and healthcare. I’m uneasy about my credit rating. I also worry about the future. Currently a haven for a resourceful few, there’s a concern London’s waterways are gradually becoming less open to boats without permanent moorings.
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.
While I’m happy with my decision to swap bricks and mortar for a boat, I wouldn’t encourage you 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 precarious 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 on land.
That said, my boat is very much my home and I believe we should actively protect London’s boating community, both the continuously cruising and the permanently moored. As our capital becomes increasingly homogenous, amid a flood of anodyne new developments and luxury flats, it is the canals with their boats, bustle, weeds and wrecks that offer some much needed idiosyncratic charm.