Nonchalant ~ London Life on a Canal Boat

London Life on a Canal Boat

sunset on the canal

Trying to live in London these days is increasingly expensive. Renting a flat without having to share with lots of people is almost impossible and unless you are buying with someone it is unlikely you will be able to afford a flat or house.

So what about another option? One where you get to own a place of your own (no more shitty landlords), be in central London and not have to put up with living with lots of messy/noisy housemates? Perhaps you should consider canal boat life?

We caught up with a Nonchalant reader who owns and lives on a boat to discuss the pros (apart from all the sunset pictures you will be getting) and cons (forever singing ‘boats and hos’? Or ‘I’m on a mother fucking boat?’)of living on a canal boat in London.

How long have you been a boater?

4 years

What made you decide to do it? 

I had been living in Guardianship schemes for years and had never been able to afford the rent where I wanted to live in London. My uncle and grandfather had had Narrowboats, as well my half-sister on the other side, so when my Mum suggested it I leapt at the chance! I knew it would be a steep learning curve but I felt that the life skills you would gain would be worth it.

How do you go to the toilet? How do you empty your toilet?

It varies, but I use a cassette toilet, essentially its a box that you fill up, I then have to carry it out and pour into a special designated hole (called an Elsan), it’s about as bad as it sounds.

How do you get water?

I fill up a on board tank, it lasts me about 3 weeks per refill.

How do you shower?

I have a small 30 litre Calorifier (like a boiler tank) which is filled with hot water by an Eberspecker, a convection heater powered by the starter motor in the engine – the rest is pretty standard washing procedure, soap, water etcetera!

One thing to watch out for is using waterway friendly soaps and washing up liquids, it’s actually really hard to find stuff that won’t harm wildlife, which makes me worry about what the impact of mainstream washing products and cosmetics are doing to the oceans!

boat picture of canal

How do you get electricity on the boat?

All power comes from 4+ car batteries, and you can keep these charged in a number of ways – Shoreline power – A cable running from a source on land that plugs in and keeps everything running nicely.

Solar panels will keep the batteries levels healthy for most of the year. The engine also works as a generator so, in times when the sun doesn’t shine, you can run the engine and keep everything charged up.

You have a mooring, what does that mean? Is that expensive?

A mooring is essentially a parking spot with a few mod cons. When I bought the boat I also paid an equal amount of money for a lease to the mooring.

Mine has a water source, and Elsan, a shed and an electricity source, which makes life a lot easier. It also has a pontoon which isn’t accessible to the public, meaning me and the other permanent mooring neighbours can share a community space.

I have grown up in London and have never lived anywhere friendlier than here, the neighbours are all so lovely!

Cost-wise when I joined the mooring was new and the monthly fee was pretty low, however, this has changed with rent hikes, plus we had to start paying council tax which they hadn’t asked us to do before. I now find the price too high, meaning with the license fee and repairs and maintenance I am not actually saving that much money (worth noting that I am the only one who lives alone on the mooring and probably the least well paid too)!

Do you move around much if you have a mooring?

That is pretty much up to the individual, but personally, I don’t move that much as I’m alone on it, so need to rally willing skippers from my friendship circle to go cruising, which can be a little like herding cats.

greenery on canal

Are there many moorings around London?

There are quite a few, but competition is pretty steep to get one, and so finding one is often difficult and they are often referred to as ‘Gold dust’. They also vary hugely in what conveniences they offer – washing machine, power, Elsan, water, good location, to name a few things that may or may not be included.

What do people do/ what are the rules for people who do not have a mooring?

The public side of the canal is used by ‘Continuous Cruisers’, they have to change location every two weeks, and you are supposed to cover a distance of 30km before turning around and heading back to where you come from.

The benefit is the annual living costs are incredibly cheap. The cost of that is a bit of elbow grease in order to keep your boat healthy and afloat.

Do you need a license to drive a boat?

Yes, but it isn’t a test you have to pass, you simply buy the license, like a hunting or fishing permit.

lush canal spot with boat

What are other boaters like?

They are a diverse bunch really, you have ‘lifers’ who have never lived on land, holidaymakers who use them in the summer and weekends, and the ever-growing group who have chosen boats as a direct response to the Housing Crisis.

There are also a considerable amount of vulnerable people- Small cheap riverboats (plastic ones) can act as an affordable buffer for homelessness for many and simply provide a roof for people on the edges of society. In all folks are really friendly and will basically jump headfirst into a situation to help you out if you need.

The groups online are very active and supportive, and everyone is there to share and help. The ethos is definitely is help thy neighbour, because you will inevitably need help from your neighbour too, sooner or later.

Community is truly king and we have our own pubs, libraries, theatres, barbers, club nights, laundry services, circuses – all on boats!

What’s the Winter like on the boat? How do you heat it?

Winter is, of course, cold, you will need a good pair of slippers, a hot water bottle and a sprinkling of grit.

My first winter was tough, but after that, I knew what I needed to do to stay comfortable and I have no issues now. I love watching the fire in my boat, and I really feel its the cure-all to winter blues.

There are several ways to heat my boat, I can burn logs, eco fuel or smokeless coal in a solid fuel stove, the Eberspecker (that heats the water too) can heat up radiators, and if I am attached to shore power (electricity from the land) I can use a free-standing electric radiator, I can also supplement these with a hot water bottle, and cat cuddles.

Snowy canal boat

How big is your boat? Are there many different types of boat sizes?

She is 50ft long and 6”10 wide, a traditional narrowboat. Boats really vary in width and length, from ten-foot to 72, from 5ft wide to 12ft! They are like snowflakes, every single one is completely different from the other- from the steel frame to the way the electrics are installed.

Some are 200 years old, some were built yesterday, so you really have to appreciate their individuality!

How much would a boat cost?

Again, very hard to say, the average for my kind of boat is £35,000 – £60,000 depending on condition and mod cons. Must be said this price will be very different when buying one with a mooring.

I’ve seen Wide beams and Dutch barges go for £200,000, and if you buy a short Narrowboat in the north of England, you can pay £2,000. It’s a pretty crazy market.

What’s you favourite thing about living on a boat?

So many things, I would say being in nature and living with the seasons and the elements at your doorstep, but also the skills and self sufficiency it gives me from absorbing the basics of plumbing, gas, boilers, filling leaks, wiring, all sorts!

One last thing…Do people fall in very often?

My cat falls in about 3 times a year, but (touch wood) I haven’t fallen in myself yet. A neighbour did fall off my boat last winter, I felt very bad as he was only there to help me out! I know that it is pretty much considered a right of passage among boaters, and I have indeed witnessed and heard about plenty of misadventures.

My advice is don’t have your phone on you when doing tricky manoeuvres, and at all costs avoid getting canal water in your mouth!

man in canal london

If you would like to get some inspiration on boating life around Europe have a look at Instagram tag #canalboats.

Happy Boating!

If you live an alternative way of life or have an interesting story and would like to feature on Nonchalant Magazine then drop us an email.

Liked this interview? Check out our interviews page for more.

Love Team Nonchalant xx

Nonchalant Magazine
Nonchalant Magazine

This article was written by one of our creative team writers here at Nonchalant Magazine.

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