My book about the people, politics, history, and wildlife of London’s canals and rivers – Adrift, A Secret Life of London’s Waterways – is published in paperback today.
‘A compelling exploration of river living’ – Homes & Gardens
‘One of the best waterways books for decades’ – Waterways World
‘Chapter after chapter of utterly captivating prose’ – Caught by the River
‘A serious and fascinating book’ – Hackney Citizen
‘Waterways writing at its finest’ – The Book Barge
‘Babbs is an excellent nature writer’ – The Bookseller
You’ll find Adrift for sale in all good bookshops, in the real world and online, priced £8.99.
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.
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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.
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.
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.