(Credit: Tom Watkins)

Why young Londoners are moving to houseboats

Would you trade your flat for a life of cruising the canals? These young Londoners have – and in the process they’ve not only saved money, but found a new way of life

Through the end of the year, we are examining life’s marquee moments through the unique experiences of baby boomers, Gen X and millennials in a series called the Generation Project. As part of the series, we’re bringing back some of our favourite articles that tell these stories.

Many Londoners would be envious of the postcodes Matthew Winters has lived in: the likes of Broadway Market, Angel, Camden, and Little Venice are amongst the city’s most hip and expensive. Many more would covet his electricity bill: £600 ($754) for the next 15 years. How, then, is he only 24 and a resident of London for just two years?

Winters, an actor, is part of a booming trend for houseboat living among young Londoners. And specifically for what’s known as a ‘continuous cruising’ (or ‘CC-ing’, in boating parlance), meaning for around £800 ($1,004), which covers your annual insurance and boat licence, you can moor up wherever you want… but only if you move every two weeks.

Houseboats, and narrowboats in particular, are peculiarly British. Built at a maximum of 7 feet (2.1m) wide to fit Britain’s narrow canal network, they were originally working boats during the Industrial Revolution. While the industrial need for narrowboats has long diminished, the nation’s love for them hasn’t. Narrowboat holidays remain a popular pastime. But until recently, only a small and hardy community actually lived on them, and fewer still constantly cruised.

That’s changing. Many people are fleeing London’s ever escalating property prices, where house prices have risen 86% since 2009, for a life on the water. In 2010, there were just 413 CC-ers in London. Now, including Winters, there are 1,615 – and the Canal & River Trust (CRT), who issue the licences and police the waterways, says there’s a new CC-er arriving every day in London. Over a third of all of the UK’s CC-ers now reside within London’s 60-mile (97km) canal network.

But life on a houseboat is not for everyone. When Winters shows me onto his 37ft (11.2m) narrowboat through Hobbit-like doors, the lack of space is inescapable. Arriving with a photographer, three is very much a crowd in a boat that measures just six feet wide internally. With the cooker, furniture, cupboards, toilet and bed, floor space typically measures just two feet wide.

Winters makes a fire in the stove with kindling and coal (“like a caveman”, he says). His nearest neighbour shouts something inaudible just inches away from our heads: Winters is currently ‘triple moored’, meaning two other narrowboats are lashed to the side of his, due to lack of mooring spaces in this part of Regent’s Canal near Kings Cross in central London.

Once settled and seated, however, the space feels peaceful and cosy. “It’s been a lifesaver for me,” says Winters. “You have to work so much in London just to pay your rent.” Before buying the boat a year ago, he lived in the north London suburb of Muswell Hill, paying £550 ($691) a month in rent for a room in a house, not including bills. Now, he says, his monthly expenses “work out at around £200,” which includes paying off the loan to buy the boat. “Boats this size cost between £18,000 to £24,000, though you can get even smaller ones from around £7,500,” he says. Meanwhile, solar panels on his roof, which cost him £600 and last for 15 years, run his lighting, charge his phone and laptop and power the water pump.

That feeling when you move house and a fresh start – you get that every two weeks – Matthew Winters

Because of the savings, Winters says, he was able to take an unpaid acting job, which got him a part in a Channel 4 series called Humans, which then helped him get a role in the film Borstal. “You can’t do that if you’re paying rent,” he says. But it’s also a lifestyle choice. “That feeling when you move house and a fresh start – you get that every two weeks!”

If you take the law literally, that is. The regulations governing CC-ing are somewhat murky: the CRT guidance states that “to remain in the same neighbourhood for more than 14 days is not permitted,” but there is no clear definition of neighbourhood.

It was introduced for people who wanted to cruise the waterways rather than permanently moor somewhere, says CRT press officer Joe Coggins. “It’s now perhaps seen as a way that you don’t have to pay for a mooring. There’s a subtle difference.” He adds, “We are not allowed to tell people how far specifically they have to move, but if you’re moving upwards of [20] miles a year, it’s unlikely you’ll draw our attention.”

Meanwhile, CC-ers who do want a permanent residential mooring find them hard to come by. Sarah Nicholas, 25, who works in public relations, moved onto a houseboat with her boyfriend in July 2016. They initially looked for a home mooring, she says, but “they just don't really exist in town.” A quick search on CRT’s moorings site confirms that no available moorings can be found within five miles of London.

The ones that do come up, meanwhile, are “ridiculously expensive for what's essentially a strip of wood next to a canal,” Nicholas says. “One auction had a starting price of £8,000 ($10,048) for a year – it went for a lot more.” But she is happy CC-ing for now, and has made the most of lower monthly outgoings to become part-time at work and begin a master’s degree. “I'm able to save a decent amount per month on half my income, whereas before I was saving a little fraction on a full income,” she says.

Ryan Bateman, 34, a software developer from South Africa, CC-ed in London for three years before moving onto a permanent mooring in Haggerston, East London in late 2015. His boat offers a completely different take on the boating lifestyle: a 50ft (15.2m) ‘Widebeam’ boat that is twice the width of a narrowboat, with a modern stainless-steel kitchen, central heating and light pine cladding, it feels more like a floating ski lodge. Except that Bateman, at 6ft 4in (1.93m), can’t quite stand up straight beneath the 6ft 2inch ceiling. He bought the boat for £37,000 ($46,473) and spent three years and £30,000 refitting it, he says.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing. “When I first bought it the engine exploded – at the end of a terrifying day, taking this boat I didn’t really know how to use, up the Thames in the bitter rain in January,” he says. But he enjoyed CC-ing. “It’s like living in the Tardis: you open the front door and ‘Oh look, it’s Tottenham Hale,’ or ‘Oh look, it’s Camden.’ You step out of your lounge into somewhere new each time.”

At the time, Bateman worked as a freelancer; now, with his office nearby, CC-ing would be a hassle. Plus, a private mooring comes with creature comforts such as mains electricity, a postal address and council bin collections. He doesn’t want to reveal how much his mooring costs, but says central London moorings “go for a lot of money – typically around £1,000 ($1,256) a month.” That’s still less, though, than the neighbouring one-bed flats: The average price for a one-bed flat in Haggerston is currently £515,000, or £368 per week to rent; across the borough of Hackney, house prices have been among the fastest rising in the UK, increasing by 939% in 20 years.

In the neighbourhood of Bow in London’s east, Lorna Tooley bought a narrowboat that came with its own mooring. At 29, the London Underground manager found herself recently divorced and with cash to spend after selling the marital home. “I had enough money to just buy a boat and live without a mortgage. I had always liked the idea of living on a boat and thought you know what, I’m never going to have this chance again,” she says.

Tooley paid £81,500 ($102,000) cash, a significant proportion of which was for the mooring itself, and pays £407 a month in mooring fees, which go to wharf upkeep and security. Her previous monthly mortgage payments were £2,000. With the spare cash left over, she’s found herself taking more holidays. Buying more possessions is a no-go – she says she already gave away nearly everything she owned due to lack of storage.

She isn’t tempted by CC-ing, though. “I do shift work,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to be coming home in the early hours down an unlit towpath.”

That’s the darker underbelly of CC-ing. Winters had a window broken in a robbery and has since spent £1,000 on security upgrades; Bateman remembers drunks untying his boat in Camden and waking to find himself drifting.

Then there are the practical aspects. The CRT stresses that the constant upkeep, from emptying the toilet to maintaining the engine, is akin to having a part-time job – something both the houseboaters, and anyone else who has ever owned a boat, can confirm.

“You have to set time aside for all these things – and enjoy the challenge,” says Bateman.

Which speaks to a common refrain: boaters are a different kind of community. They talk in terms of inches, alternators, bilge pumps and base plates. They dream of electric kettles (the voltage being too high for a houseboat’s battery). They have nightmares about sinking – “although that may just be me,” says Bateman. Atypically for London, houseboating can be cheap. But typically for London, it’s crowded and, while it can be rewarding, it’s not necessarily for everyone.

Correction: In an earlier version of the story, CRT press officer Joe Coggins was quoted as saying CC-ers had to move upwards of 15 miles a year. The copy has been updated to reflect a recent change in this rule; the distance is now 20 miles.

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