Life Afloat

Originally in: Wiltshire Magazine

Tom Mellors asks residents of the Kennet & Avon Canal about their life on the water.

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

Ratty’s advice to Mole in Wind in the Willows is as pertinent today as it was in 1908. Hundreds of people boat up and down the Kennet & Avon Canal in Wiltshire every year, drawn in by the charm of the historic waterway. This represents a wider trend. There are more boats in Britain’s canals now than during the Industrial Revolution. While many are day-trippers, there is a substantial community of people who live on the canal.

Imagine waking up to the sound of ducks splashing about outside your window or a boat chugging past. Romantic images aside, what is it really like to live on a canal boat? Isn’t it unbearably cold in the winter? What happens when you run out of water?

I interviewed the residents of three canal boats to find out.

Boaters: Michael Atkinson, Emma Valentine and their two children, Charlie and Tom

Years on the water: 7 years

Name of boat: Mrs Wiggins

Location when interviewed: Devizes

Why did you move onto a canal boat?

We bought the boat because it means Emma doesn’t have to go to work. That’s one of the primary reasons for doing it.  Instead of trying to chase more money, we’ve realised we don’t need to have so much. We got rid of a £1000 a month mortgage and it makes a huge difference.

What is it like living on a canal boat in the winter?

Well, I prefer it. The traffic on the canal slows down, you get your fire on and you’re all snug and warm. Actually, most of them are warmer than houses. Because although you haven’t got that insulation factor, your fire has to be on all the time. So we’re always snug.

How do your children feel about growing up on a boat?

Because they’ve grown up with it they don’t see it as anything different, we just happen to live on a boat. They’re no different from any other kids, but if anything they’re a bit wiser for the fact they meet such a diverse mix of people really. You tend to get a lot of characters on the canal.


Boater: Mike Bagshaw

Years on the water: 16 years

Name of boat: Nomad

Location when interviewed: Near Avoncliff

Why did you move onto a canal boat?

I retired early for health reasons. I thought I’d troll the canals because I’ve always liked boats, you know. I tried the boat and thought, “hmm I quite like this” (laughs). And so here I am now sixteen years later.

Aren’t you cold in the winter?

Well, I burn coal and logs, so it’s quite warm. This boat has another stove in what’s called the boatman’s cabin but I’ve never had reason to light it because one is sufficient.

I burn through quite a bit. It’s ok when you get trees falling down. You can supplement it with logs but if you just rely purely on coal, it’s quite expensive. But it’s probably cheaper than a house, you know. So there’s always a trade-off.

What is your favourite time of year on the canal?

The winter. In the winters it’s not so busy. In the summer you get all the harbour boats crashing up and down, you know. So that’s why the winter’s nicer; it’s always quieter. You get a nice frosty morning and it’s beautiful.


Boaters: Marie Yeats and Chris Keppie

Years on the water: 3 years

Name of boat: Anne

Location when interviewed: Near Bradford-on-Avon

How was it on your boat last winter, when it got very cold?

It was a bit hard. Our water pipes froze and we didn’t have running water and we couldn’t really get any running water because the canal was frozen and even if we could get to the water, the place where we get water from was frozen.

What do you like about living on a canal boat?

It’s cheaper and you feel more self-sufficient. And you’re much closer to nature as well; so we always see kingfishers and fish and things like that, and it’s nice just to be part of the seasons. We don’t have a landlord as well which is really nice because it’s a horrible feeling that you might be moved out within any moment. There’s also much more of a sense of community than on your average street.

What do you miss about living on land?

Hmm, it is more consistent on the land. You know your electric’s going to work. You know your shower is going to work, more or less. And you know, it’s warmer living in a house. You get your bins taken away for you. It’s just much more convenient.


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