Life on the canal

Hackney is home to a wide range of communities and a growing contingent are choosing to nestle on the riverbank, opting for a world away from the industrial landscape of inner London. The city’s network of waterways provide a permanent home for up to 5,000 residential boats, and 10,000 people according to a 2013 report by the London Assembly. A place of solace from soaring rent prices and a relentless city lifestyle, many are quick to conjure up a vision of romance but the reality is a great deal more complex. We spoke to two Hackney residents about their experience living on board a boat

Words by Jess Duncan
Photography by Kuba Nowak

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Actress Laura McAlpine has lived on her boat for three years. Currently based on Regent’s Canal, Laura was previously moored by the Princess of Wales pub in Clapton

When I was younger and I saw the boats going up and down the river I did think: “Oh, it would be so lovely to live in a boat.” I’ve always felt like that. I used to own a vintage shop round the corner and one day a girl came in and told me that she lived on a canal. She invited me round. So the next night my husband and I popped over and that was it – we started looking for boats straight away.

I was really keen on our boat once we found it. We thought it was in good condition but we ended up having to really gut it. It was built in the recession so rather than using proper ballasts to stabilise the boat, they’d used wet rubble from the railway tracks, so we spent quite a lot of money doing it up. We borrowed the money for the boat from my uncle and paid him back monthly. Now we’ve paid it off, our outgoings on the boat are probably around £200 per month. Boaters are really protective of the whole experience, because they don’t want to be tied down to paying off someone else’s mortgage.

We used to have a mooring on Broadway Market, and we’ve been cruising in Haggerston, De Beauvoir and Clapton. Our winter mooring here in Victoria Park costs £1,000, but it means we can stay in one place for the whole season.

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In Clapton, we were located near The Princess of Wales pub on and off for about a year, mooring in other places during that time to abide by continuous cruising obligations. Three family generations before me lived on Chatsworth road – my great Grandad sold tobacco illegally on the market many years ago. My sister also lives in Clapton, so there is a real connection for me.
We would usually drink at The Elderfield, Biddle Brothers and a pub called The George, which was run by squatters and open on Tuesdays with live jazz. We would eat at my husband’s Persian food stall, Noosh, on Chatsworth Road on Sundays. We also liked Creperie Du Monde and The Mess Cafe.

It’s very primitive on a boat. I wouldn’t say it’s an alternative to renting a flat in London because you need to spend such a lot of time here, really a whole day a week, just to make sure it’s liveable. It’s definitely not for people who don’t like camping! It makes you think about how much energy you use, which is something I didn’t consider before but now I’m now really in touch with all those things. Coal is expensive and needs to be topped up every other day and the water tanks, which last two weeks, take four hours to fill.

My husband is really handy, he’s got that kind of mind because he works in engineering. Our toilet flush has just broken because of the generator, so I’m going to have to wait for my husband to come home and he’s going to have to work out how to fix it in the dark.

We never really get any trouble living here. When we were moored in Broadway Market during the Floatilla festival, we had lots of people sitting on top of our boat. There were probably about 14 people on top of it. I knew that night we probably wouldn’t get much sleep, and we didn’t, but I wasn’t going to go out and tell them to get off the boat.

My favourite thing about living on a boat is the freedom and romance of it. It’s really chilled out in the water and it’s nice to have the coal fire going the whole time. We can have people round for a drink and offer them a different experience. The only thing is the fridge – I really don’t like warm white wine. I don’t want to live on a boat forever, but I think I’ll look back on this time and be so glad I did it.

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Pete Naughton is a journalist and has lived on his boat part-time since April 2013. He lives in Springfield Marina in Clapton, on the River Lea

I was living on Chatsworth Road when I bought the boat in April 2013, moored in this marina. People know your name here and you are welcome to pop over to their boat and have a drink and stuff, which is something I’ve never found living in a house. That’s kind of magic, it feels like there’s a real civility to it that you don’t find much elsewhere, except in small villages. You have a nice relationship with your neighbours, partly because when you live on a boat you need to reach out to people for help. Even people who don’t know each other on the riverbanks – if you park up and need help, you’ll both have the understanding that it’s just something that you do.

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There are three types of boats you’ll see on the river: dutch barges, wide beams (which are usually 12ft wide), and narrowboats like mine – and the one from Rosie and Jim. It probably took me six months to a year to tune into the confines of a narrowboat, as it’s an unusual space at 6ft wide! The way I conceptualise it is that it’s a bit like a floating cottage rather than an apartment – it’s cosy, with little cubby holes.

There’s a lot of romance on a boat, as well as a lot of grimy shit.

Twenty years ago you would find mostly old East London types in the marina, and I wouldn’t call it gentrification, but there’s much more of a demographic mix here now. Boats have gone up in value in this marina, just as Hackney’s house and rental prices have gone up in value too. If you buy a boat here you pay a considerable amount for a mooring, which kind of charts the desirability in a very loose way.

It’s really nice being closer to nature and you become more aware of the seasons and how they affect you. You’re next to the river and it’s hard not to be calmed by that. I haven’t been here for a few weeks and coming back to the solitude of it is what I really like. Just being part of this community, by virtue of living within it, is quite a subtle feeling, and I still haven’t fully gotten to the bottom of it.

Living on a boat suits a particular type of person. You have to be handy and not afraid to get your hands dirty. No one I know living here would argue that they aren’t a work in progress for the whole duration of your ownership – there’s always something they should be doing or that needs to be adjusted.

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You need a desire to make things and you can’t be afraid of machinery or making mistakes. It would make for a daunting time if you had to get tradespeople in to do everything. There’s a lot of romance on a boat, as well as a lot of grimy shit. Underneath my bed is the hot water tank and once I was trying to fit an immersion heater into it. I set the boat on fire and I was living in chaos within a very short period of time. In moments when there is a problem its very easy for things to become bad quickly. They’ve all become funny stories now though.

We’re living in an era where a big part of the population has been screwed by baby boomer greed. Now people can’t afford houses, they can’t even afford to rent houses, and you’ve got to have a combined salary of £100k to afford a place in some parts of London. The river remains a much less regulated ecosystem than other parts of this city. There’s no barrier to entry. The space is limited but I would recommend it, it’s liberating to be able to afford my own space. This is my home and that’s a wonderful thing.

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