Reflections from life on the water

For many of us in the city, living on the water holds a unique appeal. While household bills rise, the small overheads of a boat can provide people with the freedom to live life differently.

Since COVID, record numbers of people have made the move on to Britain’s waterways and canals. As a Londoner living in a small flat with no garden, I’ve spent plenty of time wondering if I could relocate to a floating home. On the ‘pros’ list, I could stay in the same neighbourhood as my friends, favourite cinema and music venue, but my rent would only be a fraction of the price. On the ‘cons’ list? Chemical toilets and a lack of central heating mean that I’m slightly hesitant to take the plunge. Eager to find out more, I spoke to Caroline Gardner, a network marketer, about her experience as a new narrowboat owner.

“It’s a big decision. It was terrifying, but it was worth it,” Caroline explains, having never stepped foot on a narrowboat before meeting her boyfriend, Matt. After living on narrowboats for eight years, Matt introduced Caroline to life on the water, and 18 months later, Caroline takes stock of what she’s learnt since gaining her sea legs.

“We have to collect our own water, empty our own toilets. We have to be careful about the amount of electricity we're using, and I’m mindful to use less water than I would have done before. There are lots of little rules that took a while to get used to.”
- Caroline Gardner

Whilst I’d assumed summer would be the preferred time for living amongst the elements, Caroline explains that the cooler months also have their own appeal:

“I actually really like winter because we have a fire that keeps the boat warm, and we try and keep it going throughout the night, and if we go to work. So we come back to a nice toasty home. Sometimes in summer I’m freezing at night, but you don’t want to put a fire on when it’s June. And you get lots of insects and mosquitos coming in. Having said that, summer is amazing. That’s when you can sit outside or sit on the roof. It’s more sociable, if you have people around it’s better, it’s not cramped like it can be indoors during winter.”

The type of licence Caroline and Matt have for their narrowboat also means they spend every other weekend moving their home. There are around 5,500 constant cruising licences using Britain’s canal network. They avoid expensive home mooring costs, but have to move their boat at least every 14 days, and sometimes more often.

“We don’t want to pay to moor permanently because then you might as well be renting a flat. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, but you’re stuck in a certain place and your view doesn’t change, and it’s quite costly – in London it can be upwards of £1,000 a month. So when you’re changing your environment every fortnight, that’s a very different set up.”

As someone who is no longer tied to the same commute each day, Caroline has noticed a shift in perspective for how she views life in the city, a change I’d certainly welcome. The endless drudgery of the same connections and interchanges have been replaced with a new, fluid lifestyle made possible by her narrowboat.

“It's been really eye-opening, understanding London more. Now I have the freedom to roam. I can live where I want in the city, whether that’s in Zone 1 for a fortnight or a switch to somewhere with loads of wildlife the next. When you live on the water it's like you're not meant to be there, and you're hidden — it feels like no-one knows you're there.”
- Caroline Gardner

If you’re thinking of taking the plunge, here are Caroline’s tips for diving into life on the water:

  • Downsize before moving, and then expect to continue to downsize again and again – you don’t realise how little you actually need to live with.
  • Expect to save money, but spend more of your time instead: moving location, caring for the upkeep of your boat – there’s always something to do.
  • Basic knowledge of electrics, plumbing and engines will definitely come in handy. If you’re not that practical, you’ll need to be a quick learner!

After speaking to Caroline, it’s clear that life on the canals isn’t all plain sailing. But I’m inspired by how much more connected she feels to nature by being amongst it every day. The thousands of people that live on narrowboats interact with the city in a completely different way to those of us on land; perhaps it’s time to reconsider the relative comforts I’ve become so accustomed to.

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