Monday, 25 April 2011

The Boating Community

I’d been so lonely, travelling for so long. I longed for a sense of community (and my own bedroom, and a washing machine...)

Liveaboard boater/mum/nurse
I know a nurse who lives aboard with her eight year old daughter. Shehas lived on canals for fourteen years and likes everything about boating but she told me,
“The best things are a wonderful sense of community and belonging, looking after my neighbours and feeling looked after. Financial freedom, change of scene, great friends and canal family, lots of colourful characters and musical gatherings.” She still lives aboard now.

The Marine Engineer lived aboard for twelve years before ‘jumping ship’. He lived aboard with The Original Boat-Wife and their two sons. He said,
“The lifestyle was brilliant, if you never had a friend in the world then the Cut is the place to find them, summers are wonderful for socialising and getting together, moving around all the time was for me the greatest part of it all. A different view every couple of weeks and even when you were somewhere that was not great you knew that very soon you would be moving on again. Generally we always tried to find somewhere really remote and out of the way so there was no one around for miles, or we would be very close to the pub which was equally as nice but for completely different reasons. last but not least the pleasure of just picking up my rod and fishing whilst carrying on with the rest of my life. At times I fished from the moment I got up until I left the boat and started again as soon as I got home: wonderful.”

Marsworth towpath (Herts)
The Marine Engineer’s wife was the first Boat-Wife I ever met. When I asked her about boating she told me,
“I loved the lifestyle, the friends, chatting to strangers, moving around - everything. I  hated...er....er...er...um...restricted space, but only after having children, and...er...running the engine to charge to batteries, too noisy and I think that’s it.”

But surely children make life aboard so much more difficult?

The nurse said, “ I enjoyed living on the boat even more when my daughter was born, because I spent a lot more time at home with her and enjoyed walking along the towpath whilst pushing her in her buggy. I knew a good few boat mums and felt quite connected. We travelled on the boat a lot as well before she started school, so it was a great adventure.
We do so much off the boat, she is well loved on the canal. My daughter does like going up to Denham and being at the country park”.

Denham Country Park offers 69 acres of rambling walks and woodland footpaths. It is surrounded by the Grand Union Canal and the rivers Colne and Misbourne.
“Being on the boat, means that I get to spend more time with my daughter because I don't have to work like mad to pay rent or a mortgage and I like being there for her.”

Marsworth towpath
The Marine Engineer and his wife lived aboard for four years before their first son arrived and lived aboard as parents for 8 1/2 years in total.

The Original Boat-Wife said that sometimes she would drop hints to The Marine Engineer about moving, for some of the same reasons that I have been thinking about,
“Laundry, cramped space - especially when it was raining, dragging shopping and kids from the car to the boat; and I was always paranoid about the water.”

But The Marine Engineer said,
 “Once we had children I think my feelings pretty much stayed the same. to be honest we had a better social life on the Cut with kids than we ever would have had in a house. You can be outside with friends and the kids inside asleep or outside playing with you, and when we moored outside or near a pub a really good quality baby monitor meant we could sit in the pub have a few drinks and the boys would be asleep inside a locked boat and very safe.

The advantages for kids are the outside lifestyle, growing up knowing and understanding a non orthodox way of life, great education of life and nature. Healthy living - having to walk to many places sometimes a long way to get to the shops or even just the car. We lived in some of the most beautiful places in England. Oh yeah, and did I mention getting to have the pub garden (swings, slides and the rest) as your own little garden when you were moored up outside?

The downside for children is the dangers of water, you know what I am saying Boat-Wife.”

When interviewing boating families I asked them,
What are the most common questions that people ask you about living on a boat?
The answers were always, “Is it cold in winter? And, “Aren’t you worried about your children falling in the canal?”

I asked, what are the best things for children living aboard?
The Marine Engineer said,

“As a parent the greatest thing for me was teaching and watching my boys learn how to swing a lock gate and lift and lower paddles properly etcetera, at an age where most other kids would not have a clue what they were even for.

We left only to emigrate, and I think if we had not then we would still be afloat. Living in England   I had no urge whatsoever to move to a house. “

The Original Boat-Wife said,

“I do miss it terribly but would not go back for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. What do I miss? the shock on people’s faces when you say you live on a boat. The friends, the pubs and social life; talking to complete strangers on the towpath and not being treated or treating anyone like a psycho murderer, the peace and quiet, no traffic, crowds, noisy neighbours and of course the beautiful English countryside like nowhere else on earth.

It was the best time of my life and I wouldn’t swap it for the world, a house is great...bigger though more expensive, more mod cons, and cleaning! Believe me cleaning a boat was fun compared to a big house. If we didn’t emigrate we would be still on the boat unless we moved completely away to the countryside, somewhere quiet, remote and beautiful and I doubt that would have happened.”

The Marine Engineer told me,
“What I am trying to say is that of all the chapters in my life, the canal would be the longest, and holds truly some of the greatest, loveliest memories I could ever wish for, it also holds the most painful as well, so for us it was a good time to go. Never look back, just forwards, but always remember what has passed, it makes you a better person at the end of the day and appreciate what you had and what you now have.

Learn from it all and then a house can be as enjoyable (for all the opposite reasons) as the canal ever was.  Take care and good luck with whatever you choose to do. At the end of the day only you can decide what is right for you guys, but I would take this opportunity to say that a mooring is different from continuous cruising, but it doesn't mean you can never move the boat -  in fact I would recommend it, every chance you get you take it. But a mooring is definitely nothing like having a house. Especially in England where a house is a hideaway, not many people know their neighbours in the street, other than the immediate next door ones maybe. But a mooring, well you know how it is. No need to tell you guys...”

These accounts of parenting on board made me realise that perhaps I could have everything I wanted if we just travelled in The Countryside instead of in and around London.

I thought that to have a sense of community we would have to settle down on a mooring. The Doctor always said that if you stay still on a mooring you might as well have a house; that there would be all the disadvantages of a boat without the advantages. But the boaters I’d interviewed from outside of London had inspired in me visions of myself in colourful clothes, huddled around a campfire, surrounded by beautiful countryside and like-minded romantic day-dreamers. I dreamed of living close to nature, the freedom of the Cut and the gaily painted charm of a traditional boatman’s cabin.

Boatman's Cabin
I told The Doctor that maybe I didn’t have to have a house, or a mooring. But I did want a bigger boat, with our own bedroom and a washing machine. He was so relieved. He never wanted to stop travelling, but he had been willing to give up the lifestyle that he loved, spend a vast slice of his salary on rent, council tax and bills, and see less of the children due to time spent commuting, all so that we could live in a Victorian cottage in St Albans.

A cottage in St Albans where the landlord did not want tenants with children.


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