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Interview: What It’s Really Like to Live on a Narrowboat.

We think, in the words of Kenneth Graham, there is simply ‘nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.‘ But there’s a difference (a big difference!) between taking a break in one and actually living in one.

An unusual flushing loo, always feeling a bit damp and being at one with the elements is all fine and dandy when you’ve got bricks and mortar to return to, but it can be quite another when you’re out on the canal all winter.

We speak to actress and writer Carli Harris who lives with her partner on Albion, a 1980 51-foot traditional tug style narrowboat, to hear some daily truths about living on a narrowboat:

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How did you make the decision to live on a narrowboat?

We were looking for a flat in London when a boat popped up for rent on Gumtree (‘Cosy accommodation, great waterside location’ etc). We went to look at it and here we are a year later having decided we love boatlife so much we wanted to buy a boat of our very own. We didn't realise it at the time but we got very, very lucky with our landlords (waterlords). Over the past year they've helped us learn how to take care of the boat, how to move her, how to navigate the canals and use locks properly etc. We've heard some horror stories about landlords since we moved aboard, things like people renting out sheds on dinghies and one landlord sailing off in a boat still full of the tenants' belongings so I'm not sure I'd recommend following our route!

Do you see yourself living on a boat for the forseeable future?
About two weeks into our new boatlife there was a big storm one night and our mooring pins came loose at 3am, sending the boat drifting off down the canal without our permission. If you'd have asked me this question then, I would have told you in no uncertain terms that we were calling the waterlords in the morning to inform them that boating was the worst idea anyone has ever had and that it wasn't even my stupid idea in the first place. If you'd told me then that we'd be buying our own boat a year later I would have laughed out loud after I stopped crying. Luckily we persevered and learned how to not float away in the middle of the night and now I can't imagine living any other way for many years to come.


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Are boating neighbours different to land neighbours?

The boating community really is varied, a melting pot of people from all walks of life, which is one of the best things about it. We've met everyone from elderly retired couples to young families with toddlers, and poverty-stricken students.

The stresses of living on a boat also seem to bring out more extreme emotions than a non-sinkable house does. When we lived in flats our neighbours would barely nod at us, now people are either bending over backwards to help us or screaming at us for doing a lock wrong (in their opinion!) which certainly makes boating, at the very least, more interesting than living in a flat.

What about when it’s cold and rainy?

When we first moved on we hadn’t really got to grips with the fire, so we lived like incompetent cavemen for about two months. I think I slept in a coat and mittens the whole time (although I guess cavemen didn't have mittens). Now though, we keep the fire going 24/7 so it doesn't get too cold any more. We both have 'I hate boats' days though, when we're really busy or not feeling well and all the boat chores do make you a bit miserable.

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What is the one thing you couldn't live without on your boat?

There are so many things that are essential to boat living like kindling, coal, cups of tea, the ability to not mind foxes running races on top of your boat (this actually happened to us last night) but the one thing I really couldn't live without is a good pair of slippers. It may sound mundane but the floor is so cold you couldn't walk around without a good pair of slippers (with non-stick bottoms too, safety first). Personally I wear cat-shaped slippers but you can wear monkey-shaped ones or giraffe-shaped ones, the boating community is all about diversity. Failing slippers, wine is also really great.

What are the biggest adjustments you've had to come to terms with?

Smaller spaces are definitely hard to get used to, our new boat is about half as small inside as our current one and I already feel like I've pared back my wardrobe more than anyone should have to endure. queamishness has also had to be left behind in my dad's garage with everything else, although luckily my boyfriend does all the poo box emptying so I've had less poo confrontations than he has.

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Finally, what makes it all worthwhile?

it's a really, really pretty way to live The canals are lovely when it's sunny, and it's ridiculously pleasant to be able to lounge on the front of your boat and sunbathe surrounded by water and wildlife. We spent last summer pottering around the Grand Union and it was so beautiful that I felt like I was in Brideshead Revisited. Having said that, I think the canals are equally beautiful in winter when all the boats' ropes go frosty and the canal ices over.

It's also great being off the grid. Boating is not at all as cheap a way of living as many new magazine articles would have you believe but your outgoings are completely under your control. Instead of utility bills that come every month whether you like it or not, you can just buy coal/diesel/kindling as and when you need it (and top up with water for free!). It's sort of a trade off of hard work in exchange for freedom from bills. I cannot tell you how much I do not miss bills.

 

 

To read more about Carli and Albion visit her informative and very funny blog about the realitities of boat life. Click here!

We’d also love to hear your boat experiences. Does anything Carli’s gone through resonate with you? Tweet us @sail_trail

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