Life On A Canal Boat In Hackney

Photo: Garry Knight
The first words I ever said to my boyfriend were: “Are you the guy who lives on a boat?” Somewhat wearily he answered my questions about electricity, running water and whether or not you get seasick on the canals – questions, I’d come to learn, you get asked by everyone you meet when you live on a boat. Though charmed and fascinated, I would never have thought that three years later I’d be living on it, too.

Most of the boats you see on London’s canals have what’s known as a Continuous Cruiser Licence, which costs between around £500 and £1,100 per year depending on boat size, and means they have to move along every two weeks or risk ‘eviction’. This is a much tougher lifestyle than it may seem. Every other weekend, come rain, shine, storm or blistering heat, owners spend the best part of a day moving the vessel along, navigating heavy – and often precarious – locks, going round and round looking for a spot to moor and working out how to get to and from anywhere in their new location.

Cruisers are required to move between 16 and 20 miles per year, meaning often they’re in remote parts of London that they don’t know well, with mammoth unfamiliar commutes. They have to sync the journey in order to end up near a water point when they’ve run out, empty out the toilet tank when it’s full and pick up gas and fuel when they need it. These service spots are fairly few and far between.

I knew the cruising lifestyle wasn’t for me, not least because my sense of direction is so bad I still get lost walking back to the house my parents have lived in since I was 10. But everything changed last summer, when a permanent mooring became available. If we bought it, we could stay put for three years, we’d have running water, electricity, wi-fi, and even a postal address. We took the plunge and made a bid – and before I knew it I was planning to move out of my beloved tiny flat and onto an even tinier boat in which I’d never spent two consecutive nights.

I realised things weren’t going to be easy when I started making lists. We had two weeks to sublet my flat, pack up all my stuff, halve our belongings in order for them to fit into what is – even by London standards – a very small and narrow space. We had an obscene amount of DIY to do, including replacing a big section of the bathroom, putting up shelves, building drawers and creating storage where every millimetre counts. The cost of moving was exorbitant – the mooring itself is the same price as a month's rent for a one-bedroom flat in the area. As well as paying a percentage of it in advance, we had to buy a new toilet (don’t ask), tools, electrical equipment and pay for safety checks and insurance, not to mention standard bills.
Photo: Sirena Bergman
After weeks of indescribable stress punctuated by missed deadlines and a lot of wine, we made it through. I learnt how to keep my new home warm and safe, met the neighbours, and acclimatised to the hideous walk round the back of a council estate and through a padlocked gate that led to our private mooring. But just as I was getting settled, things really started to go wrong. First our gas stopped working for no apparent reason, then our windows started leaking every time it rained; the chimney needed replacing, as did the boiler, and then the water pump started acting up.

One afternoon I walked onto the boat and smelt gas. I held my breath, switched everything off, left the boat and, shaking, burst into tears before I reached the bus stop. I couldn’t deal with my home feeling like a bewildering, scary space anymore; I couldn’t handle another week without being able to shower or cook anything because I was too panicked to switch on the gas. I was constantly on edge, focusing on any noise or smell that might be out of the ordinary, waiting for the next thing that was going to go wrong. I was ready to give up.

That was just before Christmas and since then – miraculously – we’ve had no major calamities, but things are still much harder than I anticipated. Our pipes have frozen over, the shower is either lukewarm or scorching hot and the local launderette turns out to be where Hackney’s crack dealers do business. Some things will be easier in the summer, when we don’t have to worry about constantly keeping the fire alight and the long days let us go back to solar-powered energy, but it will also bring about its own set of challenges, namely, how not to suffocate in what tends to feel like a greenhouse in the heat.

Much like any other huge project, the boat seems to have taken over my life to a degree I wasn’t prepared for. Most people’s first question when they see me is no longer how I am, but how the boat is. Conversations about my living arrangements can dominate meetings which are supposed to be about my writing, my career, my future. And sometimes my boyfriend and I will sit down to eat dinner, look at each other and realise it’s been days since we had a real conversation about anything other than the logistics of putting up curtains on a slanted wall, or whether it’s reasonable to store our jumpers in vacuum-packed bags on a daily basis to save space.

I wish I could tell you that all this is worth it because the boat feels like home but the truth is, on most days I would still rather live in a normal house with a fridge, central heating, a bathroom with a door and enough space to have more than two people over for dinner at once. These past few months on the boat have also changed me for the better, though: I understand how little certain things actually matter, I’ve realised I can handle so much more than I ever thought I could and learn skills I never would have otherwise, and I’m proud of that. When we do eventually move into a house, I know there’s a small part of me that will miss the cosy, simple days where we shared a tiny space which had everything we needed and nothing more, and every morning marked a new adventure into the unknown.


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