My new book, Sylvan Cities, An urban tree guide was published by Atlantic in May 2019.
Sylvan Cities is a potted-journey through our cities’ woody places and a literary hunt for where their wild things are.
Inviting readers on an illustrated journey into the urban forest, it’s both a practical guide to identifying some of the most common trees standing sentry on our street corners, and a lyrical, anecdotal treasure trove of facts and history, culture and leafy lore.
A few reviews:
‘Dulce et utile. (I’m allowed the Latin for “both sweet and useful” here because the botanical science is as sound as the cultural, historical and poetic aspects.) This is a delightful book: clever, pretty, fun and informative – what more can a reader ask for?’
– Sara Maitland, author of Gossip From the Forest
‘Full of gems; a manifesto for green cities. Babbs will turn us all into urban rangers, an unquiet army of neighbourhood watchers.’
– Max Adams, author of Wisdom of Trees
‘A thoroughly enjoyable read, and a beautifully illustrated practical, cultural and historical guide to some of the most common trees in our cities.’
– Tony Kirkham, Head of the Arboretum at Kew Gardens, writing in Gardens Illustrated
‘This assured book reflects on the “quiet colossi” that frame urban life… [It’s] a practical, portable companion for city walkers. Her read-aloud pen portraits on common varieties are a joy.’
– Financial Times
The autumn winter 2017 issue of Connect – the magazine I work on as a freelance writer and editor for Greenpeace UK – was published in December.
Our cover feature – ‘The people versus oil’ – was about how Greenpeace is challenging the oil industry on all fronts, from the Amazon to the Arctic, and from boardrooms to court rooms.
The issue also featured an interview with Sir David Attenborough, an article about how offshore wind is powering ahead, and an update on a growing campaign to stop the flow of plastic pollution into our oceans.
The summer 2017 issue of Connect – the magazine I work on as a freelance writer and editor for Greenpeace UK – was published in July.
Our cover feature – ‘Sailing for sea life’ – was about Beluga II’s expedition to some of Scotland’s most beautiful waters to collect first-hand evidence of how plastic pollution is threatening marine wildlife.
We want to show the world how amazing the UK’s sea life and coastal areas are, but also how vulnerable.
This feature was first published by Wellcome Collection, with photography by Thomas Farnetti.
Jazmine Miles-Long kneels down to open up the small freezer that sits on her studio floor. Each drawer is filled with clear zip-locked bags, each bag is numbered, and each one has a body in it.
She selects a bag containing a juvenile greenfinch, takes out the skin, and begins washing it in a basin of warm soapy water. A few basins of fresh water later, she places the bird on a clean towel. It’s now sodden, and rather sad with it. Jazmine bends low over her work bench, her blue-gloved hands delicately working through wet feathers with a small brush and some long tweezers. She explains that, although the greenfinch looks like it has feathers sprouting all over its body, they actually grow from specific feather tracts. Large areas of the skin are in fact feather free. It’s this kind of detail that doing taxidermy brings to light.
Jazmine handles the greenfinch skin with the methodical patience of a craftsperson, the cool eye of a surgeon, the enquiring mind of a zoologist, and the reverence of an animal lover. As she works, I ask why contemporary taxidermists take such exception to the word ‘stuffed’? “Because it suggests there’s no process,” she replies.
Process is everything. It’s invasive – if you end up dead on Jazmine’s desk she will quite literally turn you inside out. And it’s intimate – she’ll spend hours poring over your every intricate detail, determined to make you look your best. “People don’t realise how delicate and slow you have to be,” she explains.
Every skin Jazmine works on teaches her more about how strong or light her hands can be. She describes her touch as “knowing”. The finch’s skin is strong when wet, but still delicate, “almost like wet cigarette paper, it’s so thin”. When it dries it will become very fragile. Jazmine admits she’s become desensitised to the blood and guts that are an inevitable part of her work, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t fascinated by what goes on under the skin. “Wild animals are really lean, with fat in all the right places”, she says, clearly impressed by their efficiency.
The cleaning complete, Jazmine pulls out a hairdryer and begins blow drying the bird. It’s an odd moment: the jets of hot air temporarily animate the skin, bringing it to a strange kind of life. The feathers fluff up and ripple. As well as volume, they start to regain their olive brown-greens, their banana-bright yellows, their soft-soft greys. She lays the dry finch on a towel so I can take a closer look, tummy down, wings spread. It’s the closest I’ve ever been, or probably ever will be, to a greenfinch. The bird’s beak, legs and claws are a delicate shell pink, and its characteristic boxy profile somehow seems more distinct now it’s dry, despite being without flesh. It’s tiny, and very beautiful.
Her demonstration done, Jazmine places the finch in a fresh zip-lock bag, numbers it, then files it away in the freezer. She’s carved a balsa wood body for the bird, and explains how if she was working on a mammal the process of preparing the skin would be different. Rather than washing and cleaning, she would pickle and tan. The insides would be moulded from wood wool, rather than carved from balsa.
But, one of the very first steps, whether working on bird or beast, is always to make a detailed plan. Jazmine does this by drawing around and measuring the animal, positioning it on a sheet of paper how she wants it to look when it’s mounted. The plans she has pinned to her studio walls are stained with blood. She says that making a piece of taxidermy is, for her, about copying the individual in front of her. Every creature is different, and each teaches her new things.
Jazmine studied sculpture, and volunteered at the Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton after university. She fell into taxidermy there, loving it for its variety, and its craft. “It requires so many different skills, and types of making”, she explains. “You have to love animals. It’s a privilege to know more about them. I’ve learned so much from my making, seeing first-hand how a woodpecker’s tongue curls around the back of its head, between the skull and the skin, and how a rabbit’s whiskers grow right into its brain.”
It’s an unusual job, and people are generally fascinated when Jazmine tells them what she does for a living. The questions she’s most often asked are: What’s the biggest thing you’ve ever worked on? (A cheetah, which died in captivity of cancer, in case you’re wondering. It was the most challenging thing she’s ever worked on, too); Are the eyes real? (No, never); Does the animal have to die in the pose it’s mounted in? (No, of course not). I ask about the smelliest thing she’s worked on, and she says a gannet. Seabirds stink because their stomachs are full of rotting fish.
Jazmine describes herself as an ‘ethical taxidermist’, which is also a conversation starter, because what does that mean? “Ethical is an annoying word”, she says, “but it’s the only way I can communicate about what I’m doing, because it makes people ask questions.” She only works with creatures that have died of natural causes, or by accident, never anything that has been purposely killed. How the finished work is presented, and where it ends up, is important, too. “I say no to a lot of things”, she says, “I’ll only do things that feel respectful. I don’t do trophy heads of any kind.”
Jazmine does do commissions, and her work for the artist Abbas Akhavan features in Making Nature: How we see animals at Wellcome Collection. The final fox, badger and owl that are on display represent Akhavan’s vision, rather than Jazmine’s, and he was keen to provoke. There are no cases, and no interpretation telling you what you’re looking at, or what you should think. The animals are intended to look what they are: dead. The fact they’ve been placed on the gallery floor has been controversial for some, and proved that taxidermy has the potential to produce an emotional response.
Does Jazmine like the word ‘taxidermy’, which is derived from two Greek words, ‘taxis’ meaning ‘order’, and ‘derma’ meaning skin? Together they mean ‘the arrangement of skin’. “I love that word”, she says, while also admitting it’s complicated. “It’s broad, and can include so many things. Through my work I try to make the word have a better meaning.”
Although she accepts that dead animals make some people feel weird, and some will always insist on calling what she does ‘macabre’, Jazmine argues that, in most instances, it must surely be better to interact with a mounted animal that has died naturally, or by accident, than to see a wild animal alive but shut in a cage. Getting up close to an animal helps create a bond, and can open us up to new ideas and experiences.
Jazmine recently mounted a swift for the Booth Museum. In life the swift will likely have arrived in the UK in spring, staying until late July or early August. It will then have migrated through France and Spain to spend its winter in Africa, following the rains, and the insects they bring. In its afterlife the swift and its story are being used to teach kids about refugees and dual identity, as well as bird migration. In his essay ‘Why Look at Animals’, John Berger talks about the “universal use of animal-signs for charting the experience of the world.” Jazmine’s swift seems an excellent example of that.
Taxidermy transforms once living things into something very different. The “biological death of the living beast is the birth of the specimen”, as Samuel Alberti says in The Afterlives of Animals. There is of course a difference between how we relate to an animal in its new form, and how we would have done when it was alive. Does arranging nature in this way bring us closer to it, in more than just a physical sense? And could ignoring the person in every piece of taxidermy actually be driving us further apart?
Jazmine points out that when we look at a piece of taxidermy we often just see the animal, rather than acknowledging what it is now, and the relationship between it and its maker. We might wonder what the animal’s life was like, and how it died, but we often ignore the fact so much work and care has gone into creating what it has become after death.
“The craft has developed over such a long time, but it doesn’t have the prestige that others have because we are working with dead animals, and also because of where the work ends up, often presented anonymously with no detail about the maker”, says Jazmine. “A piece of taxidermy is a craft object that’s been made by a person, it’s not just an animal. It’s a partnership with a maker. It’s an animal and an object.”
The spring issue 2017 of Connect – the magazine I work on as a freelance writer and editor for Greenpeace UK – was published in March.
Right now, up to 12 million tonnes of plastic are entering our oceans every year, and the UN has called the situation a ‘toxic time bomb’. To protect our seas, we’ve got to be bold. Our cover story is about the launch of a major new campaign to stop plastic ending up in our oceans.
The cover shot is by Mandy Barker, who uses ocean trash to create stunning, but spiky, artworks.
My article about the re-introduction of the short-haired bumblebee to Britain is published in the September 2016 issue of BBC Wildlife magazine, with images from award-winning photographer Nick Upton.
The last known sighting of Bombus subterraneus was in Dungeness in 1988. It was declared nationally extinct in 2000. The reintroduction of this lost insect is not just about bringing a native bumblebee back to Britain, it’s also a bold attempt to restore an entire ecosystem.
It was fascinating to research and write this piece, and it’s a joy to see it in print. I absolutely love the first spread – just look at all that glorious yellow. The magazine is for sale online and in all good newsagents now.
Dungeness isn’t classically beautiful. Flat and, in places, shingly, it’s as famous for its nuclear power stations as it is for its nature reserve. But it is picturesque in its own wind-blown way, and important too – for birds, of course, but also for bees. In fact this whole coastal area is an insect hotspot. Rarities are recorded here, but so sadly are losses.
Urbanisation and agricultural intensification have seen 97 per cent of Britain’s wildflower meadows lost, threatening the future of farmland wildlife. The short-haired bumblebee – Bombus subterraneus – was last recorded in Dungeness in 1988, and officially declared nationally extinct in 2000. Starting a new millennium with an extinction was a wake up call – something needed to be done.
Dungeness is now at the heart of an ambitious project to bring the short-haired bumblebee back to Britain. Reintroductions are fashionable right now, and it would be a cold heart that couldn’t get a little excited about the return of charismatic creatures like the beaver. But can we get enthused about a lost insect, one many of us didn’t even miss? The answer is yes, we absolutely can.
Returning a native
In collaboration with Hymettus, Natural England and RSPB, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust is attempting to reestablish the short-haired bumblebee on our south-eastern shores. There have been five releases since 2012, with 203 queens set free so far.
The queens are collected from Sweden, where short-haired bumblebees are common. A tiny proportion of the population is caught – just 0.01 per cent – and then quarantined at Royal Holloway University. Once the queens are confirmed disease free, they are released and monitored throughout the summer by a team of eagle-eyed volunteers.
Worker bees have been seen buzzing about East Sussex and Kent, which means the queens are successfully nesting. The ultimate aim is to establish a self-sustaining, genetically diverse population. Data is still being gathered and analysed, but, so far, it seems to be working.
For Dave Goulson, founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and author of the bestselling A Sting in the Tale, losing the short-haired bumblebee was a tragedy of our own making, and bringing it back is about hope. ‘It will show that we can look after our natural heritage,’ he says. ‘Perhaps future generations will be able to enjoy a healthy British countryside, rich in wildlife of all shapes and sizes.’
Engineering an ecosystem
But are attention-grabbing reintroductions really what our wildlife needs? ‘It’s always controversial to bring something back, you have to be confident it will work,’ admits Richard Comont, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s science manager. ‘A few eyebrows raise when you do something innovative, but in general people are supportive.’
The short-haired bumblebee is the tiny figurehead of a project that actually has much wider, landscape-scale ambitions. Nikki Gammans, who is managing the reintroduction, is clear – bringing back this bumblebee is essential, and it’s about so much more than a single species: ‘It’s about restoring a whole ecosystem that has been lost,’ she says.
Before the queens could be released, the team first had to ensure there would be enough food available throughout the summer foraging season. Local farmers were crucial to this – encouraging them to return to a more wildlife-friendly way of working was the only way to create the expansive sweep of nectar-rich land the bees need.
‘There’s no point in having a little bit here and a little bit there,’ explains Nikki. ‘ You need to have connectivity, so species can move and colonise new areas. We’re using GIS to plot all of the habitat, mapping the flower species, how long they flower for, the management technique in use. We can then see the gaps, and see who we need to work with next.’
It’s been relatively easy to convince farmers to help – crops like broad beans and peas need long-tongued species like the short-haired bumblebee to fertilise them. Together with other pollinators, bees contribute hundreds of millions to the UK economy every year. By working with 72 farmers and 20 landowners,1,200 hectares of land have been improved for bumblebees since 2009, with knock-on benefits for a host of other insects, mammals and birds.
Signs of success
Nikki invites me to walk with her through a glorious hay meadow in Dungeness. Her eyes are attuned to the micro-life at work in the field, and she’s constantly spotting different bumblebee species zipping low among the knotty vetches, or busy feeding on the pom-pom-like flowers of red clover. A kestrel glides overhead, skylarks sing, electric blue dragonflies cut a dash around a reedy pond.
‘We’ve done five years of reintroductions, so this is an important year for us,’ Nikki explains. ‘This is when we review the population of subterraneus to establish what is happening, and the genetic diversity of the workers we’re seeing. We’ll also be quantifying the amount of habitat and the amount of bumblebees over it.’
What if it isn’t working, if the reintroduced bees aren’t establishing? Nikki insists that, although Bombus subterraneus is important, the success of the project doesn’t hinge solely on it. Increasing floral diversity and extending the length of the forage season is having a positive impact, and other rare species are expanding into and colonising newly restored habitat. ‘This year we found ruderal bumblebee in an area it hasn’t been found in for 25 years,’ says Nikki. ‘This keeps us going, gives us momentum.’
The plants in the Dungeness hayfield are knee high and the tenant farmer will soon cut them back, then bundle up the hay to sell as fodder. Within three weeks, the dead-headed wildflowers will be back in bloom and busy with insects. Later, cattle and sheep will be brought in to graze, keeping the grasses under control and disturbing the ground, encouraging more wildflowers to grow. It’s a nature-rich landscape that’s completely human made. Without any large herbivores roaming wild, it is machinery and livestock that enables the flowers, and all the creatures they support, to thrive.
Farming for the future
This field is just one example of many. Across Kent and East Sussex, a network of bee-friendly fields, margins and gardens are being created and maintained. Nikki is also trying to convince local councils to do more – by cutting roadside verges less frequently, and insisting that municipal planting is bee friendly, they could make a big difference.
But it’s agriculture that’s having the fastest, most exciting results. I ask Nikki about the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. She groans. The EU has backed many agri-environment schemes, and she’s concerned what the future will hold. ‘We must make farming sustainable, and agri-environment schemes are the main way we can do that,’ argues Nikki. ‘If they went completely it could be a disaster. We really must keep the pressure on our governments and say let’s have farming sustainable.’
For now, her focus is on engaging more farmers, and collecting the data that illustrates the impact the reintroduction is having. ‘The project is very much underpinned by science, which influences how it moves forward’, says Nikki. ‘We’re collecting results that show if you create the habitat, the bees do respond, they do come.’
1984 – the nationally extinct large blue butterfly is reintroduced to south-west England. It offers a strong template for future projects to follow, and shows what large-scale collaboration between scientists, conservationists and volunteers can achieve.
1988 – the last known sighting of a short-haired bumblebee – Bombus subterraneus – in the UK. It is recorded at Dungeness in Kent.
2000 – the short-haired bumblebee is officially declared extinct in Britain. Over the previous half century, the UK lost almost all its wildflower meadows, with disastrous consequences for bees and other farmland wildlife.
2006 – responding to a dramatic population crash – two species declared nationally extinct and several others in serious decline – the Bumblebee Conservation Trust is founded. Their aim is to support the conservation of all bumblebees, rare or abundant.
2009 – the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s project to reintroduce the short-haired bumblebee begins, focusing first on preparing the wider environment for the release. Local farmers and landowners are key to this.
2012 – short-haired bumblebee queens that have already mated are collected from Sweden, then released in Kent and East Sussex, after first being quarantined and screened for disease. Volunteers monitor their success in the newly restored wildflower habitat.
2016 – the fifth batch of queens is released, bringing the total set free to over 200. Thanks to local landowners and farmers, more than 1,000 hectares of habitat have now been restored. Other rare bumblebee species are regularly recorded by volunteers monitoring the project’s impact.
Find out more
This feature was first published in the Guardian’s Travel section
I moved onto the water almost three years ago, and one of the best things about living on a boat is being close to nature. This morning I opened the curtains to see a cormorant swimming west-wards, fish like and gleaming, slowly followed by a gaggle of foraging Canada geese. The whole of London’s canal network is designated a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation – it’s a great place for wildlife spotting as well as people watching, a welcome blue-green space amid the capital’s grey.
You don’t have to be a boater to appreciate London’s navigable waterways, but living like this has encouraged me to explore places along less well-trodden towpaths. The usual canal-side attractions couldn’t be busier. Camden Lock, Little Venice, Broadway Market, that flurry of artisan eateries close to Kingsland Basin – all are bustling every weekend. But it is still possible to find some peace and quiet on the urban canal network.
1. Walthamstow Marshes
This Site of Special Scientific Interest lies low in the River Lea’s alluvial flood plain on a bed of silt, gravel and London clay. Over 400 species of plant have been recorded here, with 250 considered regulars. There’s meadow, reed bed and wooded thicket to explore, as well as marshland. Always open, you’re free to roam its paths and boardwalks. It’s one of London’s wildest places.
2. Limehouse Cut
Opened in 1770, this is London’s oldest canal. The poker-straight cut is almost two miles long and connects the Lee Navigation to the Regent’s Canal. Built up along its entire route, it’s a shady and tunnel-like passage. It’s not a desert though – if you walk along its towpath from Bow Lock to Limehouse Basin, you might spot cormorants or great crested grebes. Commercial operations ended at the Basin in 1969, and a modern marina was established in the 1980s. It now hosts around 90 boats, from humble barges to flashy yachts and great sailing ships.
3. Islington Tunnel
A hill lies in the Regent’s Canal’s path between Angel and King’s Cross. Instead of climbing over it via several locks, the waterway cuts straight through. It opened in 1820 and was renovated in 2000. There’s no towpath in the tunnel and in the early days horse-drawn barges had to be ‘legged’ through. The horse was led over the hill to meet the boat at the tunnel exit, while the vessel was propelled through by bargees lying on their backs and pushing it along with their feet. Later mechanised tugs replaced leg power, and then barges got engines of their own. Just under a mile in length, the Islington Tunnel is only accessible by motor boat. A number of organised tours cruise through, including one with a London Canal Museum guide. It runs on selected dates only, costs £8.40 for adults, £6 for kids, and booking in advance is advised.
4. Camley Street Natural Park
This two-acre park sits on the site of a Victorian coal drop, sandwiched between the Regent’s Canal and St Pancras Station. The drop allowed coal to be transferred from train to canal boat, cart or lorry so it could travel onward to multiple destinations around town. The site’s dirty working days long over, it has now been a London Wildlife Trust nature reserve for 30 years. It’s an intricate jungle of pond, marsh, meadow and woodland that interweaves with the canal, expanding out into the waterway with floating platforms and reed beds. The nature reserve even has its own barge moored by St Pancras Lock, home to a floating forest garden of fruit trees, bushes and herbs. It’s open everyday until 4pm in winter, 5pm in summer.
5. Kensal Green Cemetery
One of London’s ‘Magnificent Seven’, this canal-side cemetery hosts the likes of Harold Pinter, Wilkie Collins, Antony Trollope and the Brunels. The canal was once an integral part of operations: coffins and mourners would arrive by boat, dropped off at a specially built jetty. Aside from the screams of resident ring-necked parakeets, the older parts of the cemetery are quiet, crumbling into a romantic, ivy-laced collapse. The Friends of Kensal Green run a guided tour every Sunday at 2pm until the end of October, for a donation of £7.
6. Cowley Lock
It’s hard to believe this picturesque part of the Grand Union belongs to London. Close to both the Fray’s River and the River Colne, Cowley is also within walking distance of Little Britain Lake, so called because of its patriotic shape. The Malt Shovel pub, which has a large beer garden, and the Tollhouse Tearooms sit right beside the lock.
The spring issue of Greenpeace UK’s Connect magazine has just been published, with a focus on forest fires in Indonesia and the devastating effect deforestation is having on orangutans. Our great ape cover star was photographed by Markus Mauthe. The pollution from the fire crisis has been disastrous for people too – the region has been cloaked in a choking haze that causes severe breathing problems.
Other features this issue include ‘Tainted tuna’ and ‘Fracking hypocrites’. One of the articles I’m most happy with is about the Arctic Ocean – it begins with this magnificent jellyfish double-page spread, inviting the reader into the fascinating underwater world beneath the sea ice. Magnificent creatures like this Scyphozoan jellyfish – photographed by Alexander Semenov – are threatened by industrial fishing fleets that are moving into the Norwegian Arctic, as climate change causes the ocean’s once-protective shield of ice to melt.
I edit and help project manage the production of Connect, which is sent to Greenpeace UK’s regular financial supporters.
My new book – Adrift, A Secret Life of London’s Waterways – is published today by Icon Books. It’s about the people, politics, history and wildlife of London’s canals and rivers, journeying by boat from east to west over the course of a year and taking in the River Lea, Lee Navigation, Limehouse Cut, Regent’s Canal and Grand Union.
Steven Cooper in The Bookseller magazine says: ‘perfect for anyone who enjoys a lazy walk along London’s canals. Babbs is an excellent nature writer, evoking the lives and emotions tied to the water.’
@TheBookBarge says: ‘waterways writing at its finest: the breathtaking, boat-eulogising Adrift.’
Sarah Henshaw in Waterways World magazine says: ‘It’s not just the quality of the writing that singles this out as one of the best waterways books for decades, but its timeliness too.’
Ben McCormick in Caught by the River praises: ‘chapter after chapter of utterly captivating prose’, where Babbs ‘captures the character and features of the ever-changing landscape… with the kind of compelling language that makes such an arduous trip a genuine joy.’
SLOWBOAT says: ‘Adrift is a sensitive and thoughtful polemic, and a clear-sighted eulogy to a nomadic way of life.’
Available now in hardback and as an ebook in all good bookshops, in the real world and online.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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