Cruising the capital city's crowded canals, exploring London's life on the waterways - its challenges, history, and different point of view.
After passing the London Canal Museum in King’s Cross, Nick Corrigan approaches the Islington Tunnel and worries about the size of his new 55×10—foot boat.
“Do we honk first?” he wonders.
He’s still fairly uncertain about boat etiquette; he hasn’t even tried emptying his pump-out toilet yet, and from this side of the tunnel, the entrance appears to lead into endless darkness. Also, it’s narrow.
“There’s no way someone coming from the other side could squeeze past us, right?”
He doesn’t know what’ll happen if he gets stuck up against another boat somewhere in the middle, but he steers into the 200-year-old passage on the Regent’s Canal anyway.
It’s a tight fit, with only the headlamp and navigation lights providing any illumination. It takes at least a claustrophobia-inducing half hour to make it through the more or less three-quarters-of-a-mile-long tunnel. To keep from banging up against the sides, two passengers lie back on the roof and kick off against the brickwork whenever we veer dangerously close to scraping the tunnel walls.
“That’s sort of how they used to get boats through here—because there’s no towpath along this one to pull things,” Corrigan yells.
“They had to ‘leg it’ through using their muscles before they had diesel engines.”
He doesn’t know that in 1827 they started using a steam tug with a continuous chain to drag boats and barges from one side to the other.
“They also experimented with a diesel tug in the early 1920s,” says Martin Sach, Chair of the London Canal Museum.
“Only somebody asphyxiated from the fumes, fell in the water and drowned, so they went back to the traditional method.”
After exiting with relief and an hour of searching, Corrigan finds an empty space in the hip Shoreditch neighborhood to rest his head, dogs and boat—for a while. Without permanent mooring, he’s a “‘continuous cruiser,” which means every 14 days he must “move a ‘considerable distance,’ ” says Maeve Thompson of The Canal & River Trust.
Even so, he feels lucky to have the spot. “I can’t believe we found this!” he laughs, tying his mooring line to a steel ring with a complicated knot he learned yesterday. He was about to give up and start asking strangers if he could “breast up” against them—where two boats moor side-by-side with one jutting out awkwardly into the center of the waterway.
Walk along the towpaths in Angel, King’s Cross, Islington, Paddington or Little Venice and you’ll find rows of narrowboats with almost no space between them. Look closely at those cruising past and you’ll notice them squinting for empty rings and bollards. “If there’s somewhere to moor in central London, someone’s waiting to moor there. It’s that busy,” says Fran Read of the Canal & River Trust, which estimates that 39 percent; of London’s 3,662 boat licenses represent boats with people sleeping, eating and living on them full time, but that statistic applies to the entire country.
It’s probably much higher here, she admits: “Anecdotally, we see a much higher portion of people living on their boats in London than in other areas.” (The “Moor or Less: Moorings on London’s Waterways” report from 2013 even stated it was “possibly up to 10,000”! That number includes rivers like the Thames and third-party marinas, which the C&RT doesn’t include, but even so, it could be a lot more people.)
“It is because of the housing shortage: It’s economics.” Sach says evenly, almost surprised he has to explain that it’s difficult to find a reasonable place to live in Britain’s capital. Also, the sky is blue, his tone implies. “Yes, there are people who like to wake up with the water outside their bedroom window. If you don’t mind a small space and the work, it’s a nice way of life, but most of them are there because they want to live in Central London without paying the cost.”
“How else could I afford to stay in this city?” asks David Mook as we cruise from Hackney Wick a few days later. It’s moving day, so the 39-year-old substitute teacher/yoga instructor is taking a break from museums and street festivals to leave that industrial neighborhood behind for a spot near Broadway Market. He hasn’t even used his two full weeks, but he likes switching it up. Clea, his modest, 22-foot narrowboat, is less than half the size of Corrigan’s. “And maybe one-fifth the price! It was only £14,000 used,” he declares proudly.
The cabin is cramped but contains all he needs, though visitors over 6 feet tall must crouch down. There are two couches, with storage underneath, that turn into a bed; a tiny fridge and a stove; plus USB ports to charge his devices and a little bathroom with a shower. “I just got a whale pump and fixed the drain. The water was emptying straight into the bilge. I could’ve ended up at the bottom of the canal,” he jokes. Most boat owners enjoy stories about how they almost sank their homes, though no one seems to know anyone who’s actually done it.
Read more: Visiting London with the family
Inside one of the many locks along the way—think of a “water elevator” that connects different levels of the canal—Mook breaks down his costs: “My mortgage is only £500 a month; my boating license is £600 a year; insurance isn’t much. Maybe £100 pounds a year? Petrol costs almost nothing because this is so small, maybe £30 pounds? I hardly ever wave down the gas boat.”
He throws a line tight around a railing to hold Clea in place. “Only open one of the paddles or I’ll get knocked around in here!” he yells. I crank the windlass—an L-shaped metal tool that controls the flow into the chamber—and duckweed-coated water rushes in to lift him to the next part of the journey.
As Clea rises, he totals his expenses for a figure less than any rent in Zone 1(“Even with a roommate!”). Excited by the savings, he lists art galleries and a jazz club in Mile End he’ll hit up this week. (“It’s just a couple minutes from the canal.”) Unlike most, he’s not too stressed about parking. Compared to Corrigan’s oversized Cadillac, Mook’s Clea is a compact: a beat-up Mini Cooper or maybe a VW Beetle; it squeezes into the tight spots. Though when larger boats pass, Clea rocks in their wake. “Doesn’t bother me,” Mook insists.
At Paddington Basin, close to Little Venice, Dot and Gordon Campbell from Cornwall are reading inside their 57-foot cruiser stern narrowboat, the Ewn Ha Cul Kernow. “Pronounced Eyoon-ha-keel and Kernow is Cornish for Colonel. We got it for the bigger stern; the back deck is more sociable.” These grandparents have big trips planned—far beyond the city.
“We explore the whole country! We’ll be in London for a short time, then we’re heading up north. There are about 2,000 miles of canals—from Bristol in the southwest to London and then up in the east, toward East Anglia, up [to] Cambridge and Norfolk, and then up in the north…York and Lancaster on the other side, and there are canals all the way between!” Dot explains, still excited even though they’ve been on board four years. Her husband, an “ex-troller man,” smiles warmly but remains mostly silent in that Cornish way. Dot speaks about the hidden pillboxes along the Kennet and Avon Canal and the two biggest hassles of living life on the water: “Mail and medication”
This isn’t only happening in London. The Canal & River Trust doesn’t ask when granting licenses, but of the 32,899 boat licenses across Britain, they estimate almost thirteen thousand are “residential.” “But London is really the top place,” they say. “It is a new big change and we’re getting used to that.”
“I remember when there were only about forty people living on canal boats in London. We all knew each other,” Jon Privett of Word on the Water, the city’s floating bookstore, tells me as he sorts hardcovers. He lived on this boat once, from which he now sells children’s stories, biographies, and works from great British authors. (Inside, the first three books I see are by Hilary Mantel, Iris Murdoch, and John Mortimer.) Surprisingly, he adds, “This was only about fifteen years ago, and it’s really only become [like this] in the last five. All these people…” We wave to a trio of women sunning themselves on a bright purple narrowboat with a roof full of flowerpots as they glide past. However, quirky accommodations and leisure were not the original purposes of these waterways.
“The first canal as we know it was built in the 1760s by the Duke of Bridgewater to get his coal to market,” says John Sedgwick of the London Canal Museum. Inspired by the Canal du Midi in France, he built the Bridgewater Canal and even financed the project himself.
“It almost bankrupted him but then made him immensely wealthy because he got coal there so much cheaper in the 1770s. Immediately after, people started building canals all over the north of England.”
By 1820, the whole country was lined with them.
“These routes, these water channels, were the highways of their time; the motorways, the M62s of their era,” Sach summarizes. “They made the Industrial Revolution possible.” In short, they allowed Britain to become the world’s first industrial power.
“London was pretty late with them, actually,” Sedgwick adds. “They first arrived in London in 1800—the part of the Grand Junction Canal to join the whole of the North and the Midlands to London.”
At their peak, London’s canals carried some five million tonnes of freight per year.
I wonder if people, canal workers, lived on their narrowboats back then as well? Was there a similar community of sorts—fun and gregarious?
“Oh no,” says Sach. Conditions back then would be anything but fun. It wasn’t until the Transport Act of 1968 after they’d been basically abandoned after WWII, that the idea of preserving them for enjoyment and beauty was officially recognized. Then, it was really the turn of the 20th century that saw the “waterways renaissance.”
“By the late 90s, they were becoming desirable places, with lottery and European money funding restoration projects which opened up 200 miles of waterway,” says Read of the C&RT.
Before all that, well, “it would have been a very hard life,” says Sach. Although Sedgwick notes that technological change did push some workers to live on the canals: “When the railways came in and took the business away from the canal workers, rates tumbled and they couldn’t afford to live anywhere else—then some of them had to live on their boats.”
New tech is partly responsible for today’s fleet as well.
“Mobile internet became a normal thing, solar panels dropped in price. A lot of things happened all at once,” remembers Privett, now organizing paperbacks.
“Ten years ago, you couldn’t live on a boat if you wanted to be online. Now, you can work; you can be just as connected.”
One young man (who prefers to remain unnamed) with “a boring office job” says his mother doesn’t even know he and his dog live on a narrowboat.
“I just tell her I’m at my normal flat. She’d worry otherwise, and this is cheaper.”
Not too far away from the Campbells are another couple of travelers: Kubi May and Ruben Ireland on the Sea Wolf, a sea coastal boat. “It was a drunken idea of mine and still seemed like a good idea when we got sober,” Ireland teases. Both 28-year-old artists, post tales of their adventures on their blog, along with spiritual poetry, vegan recipes, and pictures of them with friends—either in party costumes or just lounging on the boat looking young and happy. There’s a hippie vibe that feels fitting for unusual living quarters, but they too are aware of the financial benefits.
“This is an investment!” Ireland says. “Once you own it, you’re saving every month—all the money you would’ve spent on an apartment, which is crazy, and it’s hard to buy property here.” May agrees, astutely: “That’s what would be impossible: getting on the property ladder at our age in London.” There’s also a link online to buy her healing Reiki wands—“handmade with clay, crystals, and love!”
The retirees, frugal 9-to-5 workers, artists, and adventurers all agree on one thing: “More people are buying boats every day.” Wake up on a peaceful canal, enjoy the fresh air and morning tea on your deck while chatting up passing narrowboats and it’s easy to understand why. It merges the magic of life on the water with the energy of the big city. As Sach says, it really is a nice way of life.
One week after he parked in Shoreditch, warning lights inform Nick Corrigan it’s time to empty the ship’s waste and get water. To be safe, he enlists two friends to guard his empty parking space, wave away passing boats, while he takes care of it. Another week later, when his time’s up, it takes hours to find a new home as it’s packed everywhere. “Maybe I should get a smaller one?” he wonders.
A display at the museum states it outright: Increased numbers are causing worries about whether the canals can cope. “It’s a finite space,” admits the C&RT. “It’s only like this in London!” says Dot Campbell. Standing outside his floating bookshop, Privett worries, “They’re going to have to do something eventually.” But for now, spending beautiful days on the water, jumping around the world’s finest city’s different neighborhoods—as opposed to being stuck in a small pricey flat—is a deal these continuous travelers seem happy to make. “And mooring against another boat when there’s no space isn’t so bad,” says Corrigan. “You make new friends!”
For more on the London Canal Museum, visit canalmuseum.org.uk.
* Originally published on Nov / Dec 2016.