In the spring of 2011 I moved off of land and onto water. I had returned home to England from a year of walking across Europe, and was seeking a degree of stability, but not so much that it would freak me out. There was no particular reason to choose one place over another; sticking a needle in the map seemed arbitrary. A home I could take with me made a lot of sense.
Nettleton Belle was a narrowboat painted several shades of blue, forty feet long and just under seven feet wide, not unlike living in a corridor. A bedroom, a kitchen, a couple of sofas, an absurdly large wood stove for the limited space. A friend of a friend had her up for sale, was living on it with his partner and their baby. He had taken the pockets you can use for hanging shoes in wardrobes and planted them up with salads and strawberries and covered the outside of the boat with them. It was spring, and she was beautiful. I fell for her rapidly, in an adolescent, head-over-heels sort of way. Within days I was moving in.
I loved how self-contained she was. I had been living out of a rucksack for a year, but I was ready to carry a bit more with me. A gas bottle for cooking, solar panels for charging batteries, the engine heated the water. Tanks for drinking water and for sewage. There was storage secreted everywhere — under the bed, under the sofas — although it still meant strictly paring down my stuff. The bookshelf operated under a ruthless one-in, one-out policy. Everything had been reduced to a comprehensible size, and although plumbing and electrics and the rest were still a mystery to me, it was a challenge that seemed approachable, as it never had in rented flats. A twelve-volt system meant I was unlikely to kill myself.
Belle, when I got her, was moored up in Avoncliff, a village that spans the gorge that the River Avon cuts through, a few miles outside of Bristol. I unpacked my few boxes and sat out on the back deck with a cup of tea, the sun going down. The blackbirds were singing, swallows skimming the water. The banks smelt richly of mayblossom, thick with the greens of nettles and cleavers and comfrey. It was so quiet; the sounds of a spring evening, far from roads, far from television. I decided to take her for a little spin before dinner.
I untied the ropes and tentatively started the engine. I knew nothing. I had never driven one, had never sailed. The entirety of my experience was looking after a friend’s boat for a week one Christmas, under strict instructions not to move it. Rich, the man who had sold her to me, had assured me that the boat community was friendly and approachable, but my ignorance was so great that I was worried if I confessed, someone would take my keys off me.
I edged the boat away from the bank at an easy walking pace. My first couple of accidents happened in slow motion — people had time to come outside and watch me from the deck before I drifted into them. But once my mind had flipped to understand that you need to steer the opposite direction from the way you want to go, it didn’t seem insurmountable. Then, just as I hopped off on to the towpath, holding the rope to moor up again, I saw I had left her in gear. My boat, and everything I owned, carried on towards Bristol, and I jogged along the bank beside her, clutching hold of the stern line. Finally, I managed to yank her close enough that I could leap back on. It was quite enough for one evening.
I went through my first lock at six in the morning, before anyone was about. I had spent the previous day reading as much as I could, trying to memorize the sequence of stages. Close the gates, raise the paddles, fill the lock, close the paddles, open the gates, enter the lock, close the gates, raise the paddles…I had read about everything that could go wrong: catching the boat on the concrete cill as the water level dropped, cracking her in two; not loosening off the ropes, leaving the boat suspended in mid-air. Watching boats go through the previous day I had seen someone do exactly that, buckling their roof. I edged through, checking every step before moving to the next. As the water began to rush out of the lock and Belle started to descend, I was convinced I must have done something wrong, that I was about to unleash a tsunami downstream or drain everything above me. But she reached the bottom without any problems, and the gates opened just like the book had said they would. I climbed down the rusted ladder, slick with weed, got back on deck and restarted the engine. By the time I moved out I had a queue of boats behind me, but the satisfaction was enormous.
My map had been redrawn. To get to London meant going straight for three weeks and taking a right at Reading. That first month was idyllic. Having just crossed Europe on foot, I had not thought it possible to find a slower form of travel, yet here I was. The canals cut through the countryside, far from the cities and the motorways; just forests, fields and country pubs, and swimming in the evenings. I thought I was getting the hang of it. I hadn’t driven into the bank in days. And then, in Reading, with a friend of mine, I misjudged a mooring and got taken by the current, swept towards an overflow, only avoiding getting taken downstream by inflatable bollards strung across the water. Broadside to the flow, the engine couldn’t turn us, and in trying to get towed by the next passing boat, balanced on the bollards and messing about with ropes, I ended up going in. My abiding memory of Reading is paddling around in the town center, with everyone out for the afternoon stopping to cheer and take photos. Eventually I got a bow line round their stern, oblivious of how close I must have come to their propeller, and they pulled us off, me sopping and humiliated. There was still a lot to learn.
The waters widened as I neared London. Along the river now were the faux-Tudor mansions of the English elite, villages like Henley and Eton and Windsor, varnished pleasure boats moored at the ends of perfect lawns that looked as though they had never been used. I came into London down the River Thames, past Parliament and St Paul’s and under Tower Bridge. Vast ships motored past me, and little Belle tossed around on the waves. It was a privilege, to see a city I had known for so long, from such a different angle.
Networks of transport pulse with the people who live on them, carving niches into the industrial, functional lines, softening the edges. In America they turned a blind eye to freight train-hopping and the shanties that sprung up about the tracks; the cotton and almond and apple growers in every corner of the States depended on the cheap and mobile labor that the railroads brought to them. In Britain it was the canals. Since the 1700s, when construction began, there have been those who lived upon them, itinerant families who saw no sense in maintaining a house on land when their lives were on the water.
Some were contracted to companies, others worked for themselves, moving the goods that were powering a rapidly industrializing Britain through 5,000 miles of waterways: coal, pig iron, grain, china clay. Many boats employed crews, but families were preferable: you didn’t have to pay them. The children led the horses, did the lock gates, slept wherever they could cram in. Numbers are hard to come by. Many passed beneath the radar of the official censuses; children were offloaded onto the banks when the inspectors came knocking to avoid penalties for overcrowding. Wendy Freer, canal historian, has estimated that in 1851 some 14,000 men were sleeping on canals boats, and a little more than 2,000 women, suggesting somewhere between seven and ten thousand boats with live-aboards. Trade went into decline as railways took away the business, and by the 1970s the canals were in disrepair. But recently a combination of renewed funding and enthusiastic volunteers has brought the system back to life. Beds were dredged, lock gates repaired, canals which had vanished in the undergrowth were once again revealed. Today there are 2,000 miles of the network in use, and there are 5,000 of us without home moorings, living itinerantly on the water.
I’ve been living on the water, off and on, for four years now. I do not feel like I live in London. There is no sense of return when I get off the train at King’s Cross after having been away, the crowds and the traffic and the pace of it all. But stepping off the street down to the level of the water, the river feels like home. It has a smell to it instantly recognizable but hard to place, a damp, metallic, subterranean odor, mixed with woodsmoke. At nights the lights from expensive canal-side apartments glimmer on the water. Moorhens flap about in the dark, the police sirens sound distant. Through lit portholes glimpses of lives, cooking, talking, reading. In bed the boat rocks gently as someone passes in the early hours of the morning, the rain hammering on the roof.
It’s often tough: in winter, when ice scrapes against the hull and you lie in bed watching your breath in the air. In the endless rains of London, autumn through to spring, when nothing ever gets dry; wet dogs, wet clothes, the mud of the towpaths dragged inside. Moving the boat when you’re late for work, in a driving gale, because the toilet is overflowing. The facilities in London for filling water tanks and emptying sewage are few and far between, often broken, and the queues can be hours long — whole weekends can go by in attending to the boat. The last few years have still seen spates of break-ins, and assaults on the unlit towpaths. We’re an easy target for those stumbling home late at night, kicking in the windows and untying mooring lines.
Rich was right about the community. The familiar trope in cities of not knowing your neighbors does not apply to the water. Mooring up alongside one another, living much of life outside, crossing someone’s boat to get to your own, borrowing tools, it is not so possible to live isolated lives. Looking out for each other has meant that the towpaths have become much safer than they were just a few years ago. I meet a lot of single women living by themselves.
You meet the boats before you meet the people. Moored up alongside them, these extensions of their personalities, their woodpiles and pots of vegetables, the essentials and the detritus of their lives piled up on roofs and decks. Working in a boatyard north of London, I fell in love with a beautiful Dutch barge next to me, a vibrant, fiery red, more than a hundred years old, still with its original stained glass and teak interior. Then I met the owner, and I fell in love with her, too.
We are a mix of young professionals newly arrived and those who have been here decades; boats held together by rust and floating penthouses; those who have chosen the lifestyle and those with nowhere else to go. The artist communities that once inhabited Brick Lane and were priced out to the east, into Hackney Wick, are now moving to the river. I would not be able to afford to live in London as a freelance writer were it not for living on Belle, and the same holds for many others that I know: apprentices, musicians, teachers in training.
But life is changing. Despite attempts to criminalize us at the time, the 1995 British Waterways Act protected the rights of those of us dubbed the “continuous cruisers,” with the requirement that we move every fourteen days and use our boats “bona fide for navigation” — not only as stationary homes. It worked for many years. Then, in 2012, the canals went from being publicly owned to being overseen by a charitable trust, and there has been a detectable shift. The Canal and River Trust have begun to refuse to renew the licenses of boats that do not “move far enough or often enough,” despite not legally being allowed to specify just how far “far enough” is. The Trust claims places like London are too congested. But stretches of river have been taken away from us, sections of riverbanks have been sold off, and there are plenty of empty spots where the addition of mooring rings in the concrete towpaths would allow boats to spread out.
Last autumn I was broken down for several weeks, a faulty gearbox that meant I had no way of slowing down. The Trust told me that I could remain moored where I was until I found a mechanic and the spare parts that I needed. I fixed the engine and carried on, and then received a letter accusing me of overstaying, advising me that my movements were being monitored. Then, at the start of this year, I did not move a distance that they deemed far enough, and I received another letter suggesting that I get a lawyer. Each of my replies went unanswered for weeks. The experience is not uncommon. There is widespread fear amongst many people that I talk to — the pervasive sense of someone always breathing down your neck, panopticonic, and very little idea of what to do to satisfy the conditions. The Trust has said that they don’t want boaters staying in one particular area, and it seems quite possible that we will eventually be forced so far from our work, our families, our kids’ schools, that life becomes impossible. There is a long history of nomadic groups being legislated out of existence. As always in this brave new world, of those of us on the boats it is the people who are most vulnerable, the least able to move, who are being hit first and hardest.
All that feels far away just now, as I sit at home writing this on a sunny spring day, with the light bouncing off the water and playing shadows through the portholes. A swan and her flotilla of cygnets move across the river. I could not imagine living in London in any other way now. I take comfort that for the meantime we are still here, and that here we mean to stay.