Afloat On The Hill

As an inhabitant of Cumberland Basin, overhearing visitors on St Marks Bridge discussing my lifestyle is a daily occurrence. Whilst a few do have to be convinced that, yes, people do live on the boats, the comments I hear most frequently are “Wow! Look at that big Chinese boat!”, “What a beautiful place to live” and “But I bet it gets cold in winter…”.

img_2981For me, boating is all about recognising that every negative or compromise is balanced out by something special and life-enhancing.

This is a unique place to live, especially for somewhere so close to the West End. Living below road level affords me an entirely different perspective on the neighbourhood. It is also a prime people-watching location and many regular users of the towpath opposite have become minor characters in my day-to-day life.

Being surrounded by nature provides its own drama. A pair of coots settles every year next to the Chinese restaurant and their chicks quickly dwindle in number as they are besieged by hungry – and very patient – herons.

It is quite common for me to draw back my curtains in the morning to find a heron staring in at me! My favourite birds are the cormorants, which dive determinedly for fish, completely indifferent to us humans.

The basin is also host to terrapins, and eels and carp are frequently spotted. Last summer, I pulled up one of my ropes out of the water to find it infested with hundreds of tiny baby crayfish. One downside to my close proximity to nature is being woken in the night by the sound of marauding geese or the tap-tap-tap of magpies hopping across my roof.

The morning is my favourite time of day: the water is still, there are no tourists in sight and I can sit on my roof, feed the ducks and enjoy my coffee in peace. It can be hard to believe that I am in the centre of the city. During the day, though, traffic in the basin can become quite heavy as various boat trips come through, along with canoe club from the Pirate Castle and the ever increasing numbers of continuous cruisers who have to move their boats on a regular basis. Privacy can be a bit of issue as some of these boats do come quite close to mine: I’ve been snapped in my pyjamas on more than one occasion. On the canal, though, fellow users are far more likely to wave and say hello to one another than at street level.

dsc_0129Boaters naturally create communities and it is no different here. The mooring is without doubt the most closely knit community I have been part of in London. I think this largely stems from the inherent vulnerability of water-dwelling, as well the unity in living a slightly alternative lifestyle and a shared appreciation of our environs.
Living on a canal boat requires you to enter into a symbiotic relationship with your home. It needs continual care, maintenance and vigilance of looming problems. All boats must pass regular safety tests and have to be taken out of the water every few years to have their bottoms blacked to protect the hull from deterioration.

On the basin, we are permanently plugged into the mains (and yes, I do have WIFI), but we have to refill our water tanks and replace gas cylinders (step into the shower having neglected either of these at your peril). The question I get asked the most is about my bathroom facilities – whilst they are certainly my biggest bugbear, most of the time they are entirely adequate.

In fact, one aspect of boat life I particularly value is being so aware of the resources I am using. Similarly, with space at a premium, hoarding is to be avoided. William Morris’s adage of having nothing in your home that is not useful or beautiful really does apply here. Investing in a Kindle so that I don’t collect too many books has been an important compromise in this respect.

Winter can be a challenge. If the canal freezes over, the floor of the boat gets cold and then it can be difficult to feel properly warm. The mooring becomes quieter with the shorter days and dark nights as everyone is squirrelled away indoors. However, the smell of burning wood permeating the mooring and a stew on the stove make the place feel cosy. Once the weather improves, my living space is expanded as I spend so much more time outside. In spring I scrub the boat clean of the residue of winter and plant seeds in pots on my roof. There is nowhere better to be on a summer’s evening, watching the sun set over the canal. And if I need a Chinese takeaway… well, I know just the place.

Article by Vicki Hillyard
Photo by Jason Pittock

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