Canal Life in the North of England



The Canal & River Trust estimate that 15,000 boats are permanently lived on in the UK; recent figures talked about in the media suggest this figure is far greater. There is no reliable way to record the numbers. A surge in popularity has led to overcrowding and a lack of facilities on the canal network, and navigable rivers in highly populated cities such as London. As house prices in major cities increase beyond the means of most, people turn to alternatives, such as living on boats. However, this is becoming more and more expensive with some CRT moorings in London reaching £20,000 per year, the cost of a private moorings can be a lot more.

The alternative option is to roam the waterways (Continuous Cruising) stopping for no more than 14 days in one spot, a choice which is becoming increasingly difficult as the impact of gentrification and development pressure leaves boaters with nowhere to moor. Combined with increasingly tight (some boaters say Draconian measures and regulations) many boat dwellers are struggling. Some of those affected feel that the uprooting of boating communities is nothing short of “ethnic cleansing”.

It is sad to see people who chose to live on a boat as a lifestyle choice being pushed out by those who may not care about the canal, the heritage and the culture, and will be there only temporarily. But, the housing crisis affects all of us whether we are boaters or not.

For most of the boaters on the canal network in the North of England, we enjoy a relatively less chaotic existence.

Boat dwellers, in the main, have a low impact on the environment and are more connected to nature than most land dwellers - Kingfishers, bats, owls, foxes, different types of geese, swans, herons, rats…. Not to mention the human activity on the tow path on a Saturday night...

I have lived on my narrow boat for the last thirteen years. I was attracted to the 'bohemian' lifestyle, the freedom from rental apartments and the desire to have a home I could do up and design myself. I moved a lot when I rented and realised this was because I got itchy feet regularly. So, a boat seemed like something I could try.

Living in Hebden Bridge on a permanent mooring was one of the best periods of my life so far in terms of feeling part of a vibrant boating community and the freedom the lifestyle gave. I really believe that if I hadn't moved onto a boat, I would not be a creative now - I was in a very corporate job when I bought it. This choice definitely switched my mindset into chasing beauty rather than the buck.

 “When cruising it’s best to be prepared, do your research and not have high expectations” anonymous boater

Roaming can be a challenging way of life, especially when it comes to finding water points and walking miles to get rid of rubbish, or to go shopping and get to work. Living without electricity in the winter months is harsh. In some sections e.g. between Leeds and Skipton facilities are poor - few water points, rare refuse collection, scarce sanitary stations, many broken locks and silted up sections. There is occasional criminal activity such as theft and anti-social behaviour, as well as a shortage of places to moor up.

On a positive note the challenges make you appreciate comforts and luxuries and you build up resilience to going without occasionally.

“Overcoming adversity becomes part of life”

For most of us, it is a choice we are glad we made and worth the occasional tough times.

 "….. I just want to be moving around on the boat, dipping into different communities for a while and then ducking out again. I think that is one of my favourite parts of boat life" Sofia

Trina, 22 moved onto a boat on a permanent mooring in Liverpool with her girlfriend after travelling. They wanted a home without being tied down and also really fancied the idea of giving a DIY project a go.

 "Sitting on the roof in the sunshine drinking beers and having barbecues are the highlights" Trina

For Trina, the downside of boat life is the restricted space. She has also encountered ingrained sexism in the boat world, which hasn't stopped her living the dream and dealing with situations you will only get on a boat, such as finding water rising above the floor, having to pump water out of the bilge for hours - we've all been there. She feels that with the increase in the popularity of life on the waterways, there may be a strain on available facilities in the future.

 Public perception: "it must be so cold", "is it cold?", "how cold is it?" Trina

Sofia, 49, originally from London, bought her boat nearly 3 years ago when she was splitting from her husband, who she’d been with since she was 20. She was helped by other members of the boating community to make sure she bought the right boat for her. Sofia navigated her 57' narrow boat from Liverpool to Skipton and decided to stay there for the winter whilst commuting to her job in Leeds - she is a Communications Lead for a large organisation.

Quite unexpectedly, she found love after another boater, quite annoyingly at the time, double moored up against hers - they are still together now, even though she says the only thing they have in common is the fact they both live on boats. All I can say is at least they have one each...

Recently, Sofia's daughter has been struggling with her health, so she decided to navigate back to Liverpool to be closer to her for a while.

"It was brilliant to be able to just untie the ropes and go to be with her. It’s been such fun being here in the centre of Liverpool. Everything on my doorstep" Sofia

Sofia's perspective is that the world just isn’t set up to cope with people who do not have a proper address. This can affect registering at the doctors, registering to vote and being able to apply for finance etc. It is still a marginal way to live in that normal rules don't apply.

 "....being woken up at 3am in Granary Wharfe, Leeds to find a man injecting on the front of my boat. He claimed he had hurt his leg and needed somewhere to sit. When it got light, we found he had left his used needle in the foot-well"

Most people have a fascinated, curious and positive reaction when they find out you live on a boat. I often change the subject fairly quickly as the topic tends to dominate the conversation. People who live on their boats, either on permanent moorings or roaming (continuously cruising) are not defined as an ethnic minority (therefore our way of life is not protected by law), and sometimes face prejudice, discrimination, and encounter misconceptions and occasional hostility. I personally have been accused of 'council tax dodging' - we do in fact pay C&RT an annual fee to cover this. I've heard boaters being called names such as 'crusties', 'pikies' and moorings being called 'floating junk yards' and 'eyesores'.

The thing is we are such a diverse group - creatives, professionals, students, families, digital nomads, activists, retirees, witches, tradespeople, raging individuals, freedom seekers, subversives, preppers - the list goes on, but I can confidently say we all have one thing in common - we love the freedom of being able to untie the ropes and move on.