Rachel Johnson loves it when people ask her where she lives ”and I say, ‘well…today its Broadway Market but next week its Victoria Park’”. Rachel is one of ten thousand “continuous cruisers” in London – changing moorings every few weeks – the waterborne equivalent of no fixed abode.
As London’s rents and property prices remain high, growing numbers are moving to houseboats on the city’s rivers and canals – aiming to cut their bills in half by living off grid – right in the centre of the city.
The trend has been steadily increasing in the last decade, with a significant jump in the past five years. According to the The Canal & River Trust, London waterways have seen more than a 50% increase in boat numbers since 2011, with more than 35,000 boats mooring on the canals in 2016. The biggest increase is among so-called “roving” houseboats, where owners don’t buy a fixed mooring but can remain in almost any location for two weeks before they must move on.
More than half of the 1024 boaters surveyed by the Canal River Trust in 2016 claimed that the primary use of their boat was for residential purposes, with the majority of residential boaters aged between 16 and 44 citing high prices and a desire to shift their lifestyle as motivation.
Event manager Rachel Johnson made the move in 2014, trading an apartment in Whitechapel for a roving narrowboat in response to rising prices and an increased noise level.
“I was in a flat in Whitechapel and it got really noisy all the time – there were lots of drunks around – and the rent went up to £800 and I just thought ‘well, this is ridiculous,’” she said.
“I’m now paying half the amount of rent. But at the time I just thought I’d either have to move out of London or move onto a boat, so I rented a boat.”
Rachel had spent a week housesitting for a friend who owned a boat, and, having no issues during her stay and realising the cost benefits, she said it had been an easy decision.
“Living in a houseboat was comfortable right away,” she said. “There is a small adjustment period where you get used to moving around all the time, and getting your belongings to fit in such a small space. But now it’s home.”
Rachel’s cat, Snowball, loves the lifestyle; although she’s fallen in a few times, she doesn’t seem to mind, and struts in and out of the narrowboat as if she owns the place.
Rachel, who cycles to work from wherever she is moored for the fortnight, is one of many in her line of work who live on houseboats. It’s a growing trend for young professionals to make the move, and it isn’t a new idea in the office she works in. However, clients do seem to like to hear her stories.
“Half the people at work live on boats too, but wedding couples we get in are always saying ‘oh my god, it must be so amazing,’” she said.
Logistics: how do Londoners live in boats?
Under a ‘continuous cruisers’ (CC) permit, which depends on the size of the boat but averages about £700 per year according to Rachel, it is possible to moor on any of the anywhere there is an available mooring that isn’t a trade mooring location or privately owned. Some private areas charge extra per night, and in busy areas including right in front of Broadway Market the mooring time is reduced to one week, with a £25 per night fee if moored past the maximum. Rachel, who is currently moored just outside Broadway Market along Regents Canal, said the area was really popular.
“I really like it, and so do a lot of other people, and that’s why it’s quite busy here,” she said. “Especially over Christmas and New Year it’s been a good location, very close to the centre of the city, close to restaurants and pubs.”
Like many CC’ers, Rachel runs her boat on solar panels and batteries, and burns eco-coal in a wood stove to keep warm.
“You can get eco-coal delivered, and that smoulders all night and keeps the boat toasty, so I’ve never been too cold,” she said.
“Wearing a onesie in bed with the hood up and the fire on – it’s lovely. I’ve never been freezing, and sometimes it’s the other way actually – where it’s boiling and I have to open all the windows and the door.”
12 volt leisure batteries run the lights and change her phone each night, with solar panels on the roof charging the batteries during the day. Her boiler runs on gas, which heats the water for showering and cooking.
Rachel fills up the water tank every two weeks or so, depending how careful she is with water use.
“You’re careful with water, obviously, because you don’t want to be going to get water all the time, even though it is fine going to get it,” she said. “It does make you think about how much water you use; it naturally makes you think of your imprint on the world. You recycle like mad – I usually burn it, so I don’t have to recycle things like paper – and now I want to get a worm bin for composting and to put my food scraps to good use.”
She keeps a cool bag out the back for a fridge – although she does have one, she says she almost never runs it.
“When I stayed in my friend’s boat that first week and she said ‘I don’t have the fridge on,’ I was absolutely horrified,” she said. “I thought, ‘oh my god, how do you cope without a fridge?’ but then you think, hang on a minute – fruit and veg, butter, eggs – they don’t need to go in a fridge. If you do a whole week’s shop and you’ve got readymade meals and things like that, they obviously do, but really, I think most items don’t need it, especially in winter.”
The exception is when friends come over; she stocks up the fridge and runs it during the day when the solar panels are on, and then switch it off in the evening.
“I never used a hairdrier before moving to my boat, and I don’t own a TV. What else do you need, really?” she said.
On the move
For the first 14 months after moving out of her apartment, Rachel lived on a narrowboat larger than her friend’s houseboat. Downsizing was a struggle; her whole way of looking at space and belongings has shifted.
“My other boat was bigger and so I threw loads of stuff out, so I really had to condense – but even still, there’s quite a lot of stuff in here,” she said.
“The girl’s whose boat it is, she didn’t have much stuff, so when I first looked at it I thought ‘it’s lovely, it’s so minimalist,’ but now once I’ve brought all my stuff in I realised it’s a lot smaller than it looked. But the layout is the way she wants to live; if it were my boat, I’d probably build some coat storage in the front of the boat, and that’s quite easily done.”
Rachel’s attitude to constantly being on the move – driving her boat to a new location every two weeks – has also changed in her time living on the river.
“At first, I’d get to a place and think ‘this is amazing,’ or, sometimes, ‘I don’t know how it’s going to be here,’ and then two weeks later I didn’t want to go, I’d be really sad to leave,” she said. “
But now, a year or so in, I’m itching to get to the next place and I like the moving around. Moving is great. Sometimes you think ‘oh I can’t be bothered,’ but then you start driving and it’s great. You always see some amazing things on the river.”
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