Water Ways

(This piece first appeared on The Guardian’s Comment is Free)

There were moments, sitting on the front of my boat, when I’d gaze down the canal and try to fix the scene forever in my memory; warm summer evening, hedgerows decked with flowers, dragonflies hovering over the still water.  There were others; wheeling twenty coal sacks a mile from the nearest road, hefting the chemical toilet more like two miles to the sluice or waking at three a.m. in the dead of winter to find that the range had gone out, that I might rather forget.  Yet the interminable chores were just as much a part of the cycle of life on the cut as the blissed out days of summer.

For nearly thirteen years the place I called home was a butty boat called Beryl, moored in north Oxford opposite fields where the author Kenneth Grahame played as a schoolboy.

There were more than a dozen boats on that stretch, another couple of dozen strung along the cut northwards to the ring road.  We were a disparate but fully functioning community, drawn together by circumstance, by reliance on one another’s help, and by solidarity in the face of weather, corrosion and the antipathy of outsiders.  We were called water gypsies and much worse.

The sniffiness of Grahame’s alma mater was predictable but the hostility of people in the nearby council houses came as a shock, channelled by an old Labour councillor who found a new target for his prejudices.  He declared that we had to go.  So did British Waterways who, having created a handful of permanent moorings in the centre of town, tried to force the rest of us out.  They introduced a private bill into parliament that would have allowed them to seize and destroy boats the country over without so much as a nod to the courts.  It was a long fight.

Twenty years later and the situation has changed almost beyond recognition.  The push to get more people living on boats is being backed by the Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, who has floated the possibility that the new homes bonus could be used to encourage additional moorings.

The idea has a lot to recommend it.  According to Shapps some 15,000 people currently live on boats.  It’s a model of low impact, sustainable development.  You can comfortably fit 50 linear moorings per mile along a towpath.  Birmingham alone famously has more than 100 miles of waterways.  Put in a couple of bollards, a water stand-pipe, an electricity point and somewhere nearby to dispose of sewage properly and that’s more or less it.  If the towpath is upgraded all the better for boaters and walkers alike.  Float a boat in and you have instant accommodation.  Float it away and you have empty canal again, not a derelict brownfield site.

Talking of brownfield sites, there are plenty adjacent to waterways, canals having been the arteries of the early industrial revolution.  Dig them out, build a basin and you have high density, offline moorings.  More cost, less romance but somewhere for hundreds of people to find an affordable space for themselves.

Boats revitalise neglected areas.  People go for a stroll just to enjoy looking at prettily painted barges with flowers on their roofs.  Some people even like peering into boats.  Some people are nosey little so-and-sos who should know better, but you can be fairly certain that Wimpey and Barratt homes don’t engender the same affection.

Water voles like boaters too, not least because the mink that prey on them tend not to.  Towpaths that might otherwise be deserted and dangerous for women alone become far safer.  On a boat you’re far less detached from your environment than you are in a house.  Just as you experience every season in the raw and are far more aware of everything you consume and the waste you produce, you hear every sound outside.  The community of which I was a part wasn’t one to let a call for help go unanswered.

Indeed the sense of community one finds on the canal is one of the most compelling aspects of life as a boater.  It’s the antithesis of the isolation associated with tower blocks where people supposedly go for years without getting to know one another.

In truth it was less the surroundings that made life afloat memorable so much as the close bonds forged with people who quickly became friends, whose doors were always open, who would share food or a fire lit on the towpath, a song or a smoke.

Of course that’s not something that developers providing moorings or government ministers with an eye to mitigating the housing crisis can create.  It’s the happy by-product of people making their own community, dare one say it, organically.  If there’s a model to be followed surely it’s that of empowered citizens a la free schools/big society rather than incentivised councils and developers.  We shouldn’t, after all, be aspiring to simply extend drab suburbia to the waterways when there’s the possibility of something so much closer to real life within our reach.



2 Responses to “Water Ways”

  1. Yes we were there and we enjoyed your home made pasta and seargent pepper jacket!

    • headstrongclub Says:

      Ha! Mr (or Mrs) Lunch, indeed you were… I’d get nostalgic, except I also remember emptying out two or three weeks worth of poo or the stove going out at 3 am in the middle of winter

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