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Homes afloat

With property prices soaring, there has been a 123% rise in canal boats in London over the past six years

It’s official: real estate prices make our eyes water. But Londoners aren’t going to be thwarted that easily — property rates are now driving more of us from land into the water.

Canal cruise through Regent's
Photo: Varun B Krishnan

According to data given to ELL by Canal River Trust (CRT), the number of canal boats in London has increased by a whopping 123% in six years.

But how many of these canal boats are residential? An email from Fran Read, CRT’s National Press Officer, says that as per the Boat Owners’ Views Survey this year, the numbers are increasing.

“Nationwide, the percentage of boaters describing their boat as ‘residential’ rose from 32% in 2013 to 39% (this year),” Mr. Read wrote.

A cyclist greets boaters from the towpath
Photo: Varun B Krishnan
Boat living is pricey too

But it’s not all smooth sailing if you decide to take the plunge — literally. First, there’s the cost of the canal boat itself. This can set you back anywhere from £20,000 all the way up to £100,000. This is about 30 times lesser than the cost of an average house in London, but there are other things to worry about.

Take for instance, an annual canal boat license, issued by the CRT. Depending on the size of your canal boat and where you intend to use it, you will end up paying £300-1,000 annually.

Factor in CRT’s planned increase of 2.5% on licence fees starting next year, and your wallet takes another small dent.  

Add water, heating and diesel costs to run the canal boat and facilities like a stove, and you’re looking at an average annual cost of £1,250.

I have to keep moving every two weeks, occupying short-term mooring spots Liz
Liz is one among hundreds of canal nomads

Liz is one among hundreds of canal nomads

Next come the mooring spots. For a permanent spot where you can station your canal boat, you need to shell out about £2,500 annually in London.

Liz, who has lived on a boat for two years, doesn’t have a permanent mooring spot. “I have to keep moving every two weeks, occupying short-term mooring spots,” she explains.

Don't overstay your welcome!
Wait, there’s moor!

Permanent mooring spots often have long waiting lists and are auctioned on CRT’s mooring website. Boaters are battling for a spot at East Wick, with auction prices now going for a dizzying £9,015 for a year (Bidding closed right after this article was written, and the screen grab of the bids can be accessed here).

Going by CRT’s data, the number of boats without a home mooring have increased four-fold over six years.

The number of boats with home moorings too has increased by about 40%, a clear indication of more people taking to the waters.

Hey there!
Photo: Varun B Krishnan
Water workout
In a house, if you want lights, you flick a switch. Here you have to start a generator or fetch a bag of coal and start a fire Jon Privett, founder, Word On The Water bookshop
Jon Privett

Jon Privett

Jon Privett, who runs a bookshop called Word on the Water on a barge, has 15 years of boat living behind him. “In a house, if you want lights you flick a switch. Here you have to start a generator, fetch a bag of coal and start a fire.”

He also points out, “In a house you turn on a tap and water comes out, here you fill a container with water and carry it back.”

Liz agrees. “I have to fetch my own water, dispose toilet waste, and get coal or wood for heating,” she says.

And then there’s the maintenance work you need to do. Every few years, you need to get the hull blacked, spending about £300-600.

“If you have a wooden hull, you have to take it out every two years, and if it’s a steel one, you have to do it every five years,” says Jon. But he doesn’t mind the workouts, and even gets philosophical about it. “By not having the full privilege, you’re aware of the privilege you have, and that’s a precious thing.”

For Liz too, the workouts are ok. “I’m learning life skills… and I’m scruffy,” she smiles.

Besides, the canal community is very helpful, says Jon. “If you need something, just ask. Your neighbour may have it and could be happy to share it with you,” he says.

And like everything else, boat living along London canals has changed drastically over the years. Solar panels and LED lights have changed the way people live on a boat.

Today, you can get every facility possible, be it wi-fi or a washing machine, thereby narrowing the difference between living in a house and on a canal boat.

But one of the major disadvantages for the nomads of the waterways is that they cannot get access to unemployment, maternity or other benefits that easily. “I don’t have NHS, because I don’t have a postcode,” says Liz.

So you can’t receive anything in the post — however, companies like eBay and Amazon now have designated drop off points, where people can pick up their parcels.

Viaduct on Regent's Canal
Photo: Varun B Krishnan
Lock, stock and barrel

Canal nomads usually encounter locks, a mechanism of raising or lowering a canal boat, in all parts of the country. Manned by CRT volunteers, locks are also a tourist fascination.

Walk along a lock during the weekend and you can spot someone earnestly explaining the lock’s mechanism to their friend from another country.  

Boat dwellers who need to go somewhere often have an ‘iron’ of their own, with which they open and close the locks. So if you’re going to be living on a canal boat, you need to understand the mechanism of locks — and it’s not as easy as just putting in a key and turning it. Here’s a small explanation of how locks work.

Life along the canal

Even before the first train chugged in, cargo took the water route to move across the country. The UK has over 2,000 miles of navigable canals, and you can travel from London all the way up to Birmingham through the Grand Union Canal, a distance of about 137 miles.

Canals revolutionised the way goods were transported during the industrial revolution. Because boat loads were heavy, people used horses to pull their boats through the canals, with the beasts of burden walking along the tow path along the canal.

These paths are now used by people as public spaces — you can see people walking, jogging, busking and even opening a beer bottle or two.

Certain places along the canal, like Camden Lock Market, for instance, have become vibrant places where people spend hours shopping, eating and just having a good time.

Along the canal from Varun B. Krishnan on Vimeo.

Boat living isn’t for everyone, and though it could turn out to be cheaper for you to live on a boat in London, there is a trade-off: there’s more work to be done and more life skills to be learnt.

“Living on a boat makes you feel gratitude for things that other people take for granted,” signs off Jon.

(This year marks the 300th anniversary of James Brindley, a pioneer in canal engineering. To celebrate, the CRT has an impressive event lineup, which can be accessed here.)

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