Connect | winter 2016

img_1185The autumn / winter 2016 issue of Connect – the magazine I edit for Greenpeace UK – has just been published. Our cover star this issue is a titi monkey, photographed by Valdemir Cunha in the Amazon.

img_1186Our cover story is about the fight to protect the Tapajós River Basin in the Brazilian Amazon. Over 40 dams are planned in this extraordinary place, projects that will have catastrophic consequences for the wildlife and communities that call it their home. A global campaign has already seen one of the biggest dams cancelled. This article is about why we have to ensure the others are scrapped as well, and how Brazil could create huge amounts of clean, renewable power if it focused on increasing wind and solar instead of hydro.

img_1187This is one of my favourite spreads this issue. It features the work of street artist Dr. Love, which we’ve used to illustrate an article that argues we have to be bold if we’re going to solve Britain’s toxic air pollution problem. Right now, air pollution is causing around 40,000 early deaths in the UK each year. Positive action will save lives, as well as reducing CO2 emissions.

BBC Wildlife | Getting Britain buzzing again

imageMy 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.’

Timeline

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

www.bumblebeereintroduction.org

The Sick of the Fringe

imageThis August I went to Edinburgh as a writer for a project called The Sick of the Fringe. Commissioned by the Wellcome Trust and conceived by artist Brian Lobel, it’s a month-long programme that aims to inspire collaboration between science and the arts. I was writing ‘diagnoses’ of the festival performances I went to see, not straightforward reviews, but more issues-based articles exploring how things like human health, the brain, the body and medicine permeate our cultural consciousness. There’s a great article about last year’s programme on the Contemporary Theatre Review, and one about this year’s project on the British Medical Journal blog.

It was a fantastic, if intense, experience. I absolutely loved being at the Fringe, the wide-ranging types of performance I got to see, and the issues each show pushed me to consider. Our brief was to write about what we saw in a completely objective way, not to judge it on whether it was an artistic success, but to consider the issues it was trying to start conversations about. I found myself writing on all kinds of topics, including ageing, alcoholism, anxiety, childhood trauma, criminality, consumerism, climate change, dementia, depression, even why women fall in love with men on death row.

I was one of a team of writers, all of us with the shared mission to see and diagnose as many performances that were tackling health-related issues as we could. Links to my diagnoses on The Sick of the Fringe website are below, and my fellow writers’ diagnoses can also be found on The Sick of the Fringe website, under the ‘Diagnoses’ tab.

Bubble Revolution
Don’t Panic! It’s Challenge Anneka
Doubting Thomas
Empty Beds
Finding Joy
Perhaps Hope
The Magnetic Diaries
The Marked
The Road to Huntsville
This is Your Future

Connect | summer 2016

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The summer issue of Connect – the magazine I edit for Greenpeace UK – was published this month. The cover story this issue brings fantastic news from the Norwegian Arctic, where the world’s biggest fishing companies have voluntarily agreed not to exploit a huge part of the Arctic Ocean, from Svalbard all the way up to the North Pole. Our cover star is a beluga whale, or white whale, photographed under the sea ice © WaterFrame / Alamy.

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We also have a beautiful photo-led feature about a new campaign to protect the Tapajós River Basin in the Brazilian Amazon. It’s an extraordinarily biodiverse place, home to creatures like ocelots, jaguars and pink dolphins. It acts like a huge pair of lungs that help regulate our planet’s climate. The Munduruku community that call Tapajós home have a deep connection with the river and forest, and depend on them for food and transport, as well as cultural and spiritual sustenance. Shockingly, this region could soon be sacrificed to a mega-dam of monstrous proportions. The fight to save Tapajós is on.

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I’m especially pleased with how this double-page spread is looking. It is an eye-opening start to an article about plastic pollution in our oceans, and features the magnificent artwork of Mandy Barker. Her SOUP series features images created using plastic trash found on beaches around the world. Right now, up to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic are entering our oceans each year, some of it so tiny it’s barely visible. Some marine life is mistaking microplastic for food, filling up on it and starving as a result – just one reason why tackling ocean plastic pollution is so important. Image © Mandy Barker.

Greenpeace | Impact Report 2015

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I love it when I get a copy of a report in the post that I have worked on as a copy writer or editor, when the word doc I worked with has been transformed into something very good looking. The latest Impact Report from Greenpeace UK looks fantastic. Published this spring, it reviews everything the NGO achieved in 2015. The front cover features a colourful crowd of ‘kayaktivists’, brave people who took to the water to challenge oil giant Shell as it attempted to move its fleet up to the Arctic.

Guardian | Liquid gold

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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.

Sunday Times | The life aquatic

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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.

Connect | spring 2016

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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.

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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.

Adrift | A Secret Life of London’s Waterways

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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.

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