Canal Life by Jon Seagrave.
OK, let’s start with the pretty picture. You can imagine it: pale winter sun and a light mist rising from the still water; the air perfumed with the sweet sulphur of coal-smoke, curling in slow wreaths across the frosted towpath. An early morning cyclist creaks through the stillness, past the endless, jumbled line of colourful boats, roofs piled high with flower-pots and bicycles, firewood and coal-sacks. A black flag hangs limply from a cane. Somewhere an ancient Lister engine coughs into life, a slow, erratic chug, as someone gets ready for a pre-breakfast move. It’s like a tiny town, transient and ever-shifting. No grid electricity. No mains water. Just one long street…
There’s lots of mornings just like that. They help you keep going.
So I lived on the canal. This was something that was bound to happen at some point, what with canals being edge places, and- without getting too Will Self about it- I’m deeply attracted to edge places. They’re somehow ingrained in my psyche; a youth spent exiled on the Outer London suburban margins seems to have stained me indelibly, however much I longed to escape it at the time. Adult me just can’t walk through a nice, juicy transitional interzone without getting all worked up. I’m hot for a liminal hotspot, and few places flaunt this status more brazenly than the canal.
For canals are topographical and psychological border-straddlers. They are beauty and horror. Foliage and filth. City and country. The canal- natural home to the dumped car and the diesel spill- is nevertheless the only place in Kensal Rise where you’ve a hope in hell of seeing a kingfisher. It’s where shop-floor workers surrender Sundays to the solitude of fishing, where drug dealers dart to seek sanctuary from CCTV and where lovers turn tail on the traffic to walk hand-in-hand through a wet dream. The leafy, sun-dappled canal: final resting place of a thousand stolen bicycles and suicidal supermarket trolleys. It’s a wild, light-and-shade world. And for five glorious, exciting, teeth-gnashing years, my tiny floating living room slipped through that world. Through it and in it and of it. At a steady 3 knots, woodsmoke from a wonky chimney curling over the recycled-saucepan roof-garden; a Quentin Blake illustration come to life. Five years and two boats. My partner managed thirteen years. I started out on the Llangollen Canal, lived for a while a stone’s throw from Stroud on the Gloucester and Sharpness and finally spent a few years shifting around with the glorious, rag-tag army of boat-dwellers at the western end of the Kennet & Avon.
For those five years my home was my fixed point of reference on a drift through an England that unfolded at the speed things should unfold. This was a life being lived in defiance of the breathless acceleration of the zeitgeist. Yes, you can drive from Bath to London in under two hours, if that’s what you really need or want to do. But only a madman would attempt it in under two weeks on the canal. You just cannot rush the filling of a lock. It takes time. Just as whole days can be ‘lost’ to the procurement of firewood, or filling your tanks up with water. Whether this is an inconvenient nightmare or a joyous reunion with the basics is up to you, really. You and your attitude. For canal life- especially winter canal life- will force you to strip away the bullshit, the fripperies; to focus on necessities, whether you like it or not- on simple pleasures like food and warmth and making your own entertainment. Resist it, and it’s hell. Surrendering to it can be an act of subversion, of liberation; a small act of personal revolution.
I surrendered. It was hard, but I did it. So did many others. There was Jassy and Ted, for instance; pirate-obsessed punk-folk musicians on a 1930’s 65-footer with two kids and a dog and a pile of accordions. There was Chris, veteran of 30 years ‘on the cut’, sleeping in a nest of tools under tarpaulin in the hold of a beloved ancient workboat. Charlie the legendary juggler on a beautiful Dutch barge, immaculate hand-lettered paintjob done by himself. Adey the gardener and Jaz the care worker. Katherine the A&E nurse. There was Will on one coal-boat and Henk on another, earning precarious livings supplying stove-fuel and diesel to a floating customer base. Purple-haired Jacqui, in her 60s, battling cancer and authority and refusing to budge her boat from Bathampton. And hundreds of others, and this was just the Kennet and Avon. In London- where the housing crisis has driven the enterprising out of the house and onto the water like hipster rats- boats moor up three abreast in places. These are intense, frugal lives in difficult times; lives underpinned by mutual aid, co-operation and some damn good parties.
The canal system in the early twenty-first century has a rapidly-expanding population- far higher than it ever did in its industrial heyday- and it floats vastly more boats than it was ever intended to do, fuelled in no small part by the insanities of the landlubber property market. Canals back in the day offered a rough, tough life for those who lived and worked them, and their post-industrial rebirth has attracted a new generation of boat-dwellers happy- or at least prepared- to embrace the privations and inconveniences that come hand-in-hand with the freedoms and autonomies of life on the marginal frontier. The modern canals are now home to a disparate community of romantics, runaways and refugees; resolute low-impact anarchists and ribald low-income artists mooring up with mid-life-crisis cases making the best of the bad half of the divorce settlement. All of them wintered up in cramped but cosy narrowboats, feeding skip-scraps into smoking stoves; frugal pioneers in city-limit wildernesses where pylons crackle and fizz above dead-grass wasteland and the ring-road rumble moans like a prairie wind.
And for decades they’ve been left to get on with it, a sub-strata of the poor and disenfranchised doing what the poor and disenfranchised have always done- finding ways to carve out rich lives in the cracks the affluent and powerful have overlooked. And the canal certainly is a crack. A long, thin, water-filled spreading crack that crazes across from the Pennine wilds and the empty Wiltshire downs right into the heart of the most expensive real estate in the country; a crack where the pauper herbalist in her ramshackle floating cottage can chug with impunity deep into the heart of pimped-up millionaire’s Islington. And that sort of audacity is bound, sooner or later, to wind up certain people. It happened with squatting; with so-called ‘new-age travellers’. And now it seems The Man, clutching an arsenal of brooms- gentrification, ‘progress’, political expedience and just good old-fashioned prejudice- is threatening to sweep this crack clean. But we’ll leave the bad stuff til later.
I’m aware the portrait I’ve been painting so far of modern canal life might sound like it’s been lifted straight from some gonzo version of a waterways break brochure; reality is obviously a bit more complex. As with everywhere else, the narrowboat-dwelling world is, sadly, increasingly finding itself polarised by what I suppose amounts to a kind of class war; the gulf between the Haves and the Have Nots. As with everywhere else, the Haves and Have Nots don’t get on very well, what with the money and power being overwhelmingly on one side. I’m going to wildly generalise here, but the Haves could be said to consist of a broadly united front of hire-boat companies, weekend boaters with home moorings and marina berths, and retirees in Ted Heath deck shoes, polishing portholes and pottering the inland waterway network on a comfortable pension. Sorry, that’s stereotyping as well as generalising, but you get the picture. There’s overwhelmingly a shared outlook. And behind this united front, of course, lurks the all-powerful shadow of The Man. And the have-nots? Well, that’s all the people I listed earlier. Non-stakeholders, as New Labour might term them.
These Have-nots- of which I, of course, was one- have, well, very little. The clue is in the name. They’ll have a boat of some sort, but that’s often where it ends. Most people work, but it’s rarely highly-paid; there’s every permutation of artist and care profession, but very few corporate lawyers. They rarely have ‘home moorings’; moorings are expensive, rent in recent years spiralling toward insanity levels just as it has in the ‘other’ world (indeed, a residential mooring in London is little cheaper than renting a flat- and you have to provide the boat to go with it). Marinas are even more expensive, and anyway, what romantic wants to live cheek-by-jowl in a glorified floating car park? With no mooring and no marina berth comes none of the conveniences they offer: no electric hook-up, no little garden, no handy storage shed- nothing, in fact, besides the rapidly-becoming-pejorative label ‘continuous cruiser’. Defined and marked by the strictures of their boating licence, continuous cruisers live an enforced yet for the most part welcome vagabondage, following an old enshrined canal law simply requiring movement every fourteen days. So neighbourhoods change each fortnight; a fluid community of interchangeable neighbours and shifting familiarity. Musicians might choose to moor up together awhile to ‘jam’; families might do similar, so the kids can play. Those who work near to each other might travel together to lift-share from a nearby car. Others moor up alone or in groups, as whim or sociability dictates.
And these moored-up groups of continuous cruisers present a colourful sight. ‘Liveaboard’ boats can be strange and beautiful things; all shapes and sizes, exercises in self-sufficiency, sustainability, imagination and improvisation. Sure, if you’ve got the cash you can buy a state-of-the-art bespoke narrowboat or replica Dutch barge as mod-conned as any brick dwelling, but that’s rarely the name of the game in the liveaboard community. You buy what you an afford; if you’ve got a few thousand, a ‘retired’ leisure hire boat in need of a refit or an ancient wooden-hulled ex-working boat that oozes charm and leaks water in equal amounts. Old ‘plastic fantastic’ fibreglass cabin cruisers change hands for just a couple of hundred quid; some folk even build benders from hazel poles and tatted canvas on cabinless hulls found half-sunk and abandoned. Refloated first, of course. Then there are lifeboats sold cheap off decommissioned oilrigs and repurposed by determined boat-punks. Homes are kitted out with wood from B&Q or from skips, as budget allows. There’ll usually be a solid fuel burner of some sort, a gas cooker, a toilet of varying degrees of horror and probably an engine, though they’re not to everyone’s taste. The required movement of a couple of miles a fortnight means there’s room for folk like Shaun, happy to pole or rope-haul, pulling his home literally at walking pace, or Bev, whose 40-footer is pedal-powered via a rig welded up by Danny from Rinky Dink. Solar panels are a wise investment; combined with the engine alternator and leisure batteries and you’ve got a reliable 12v electricity system and a range of creature comforts.
The size and vibrancy of the communities on the Kennet and Avon and in London and elsewhere gives rise to ad-hoc floating community facilities, too. A converted lifeboat had been refitted to operate as a mobile shebeen; a below-radar ‘local’ that endlessly shifts locality. And there was a Theatre Boat; an ex-River Avon tourist sightseeing boat called the Antoinette. No licence, no safety features, no working toilet and no reliable electricity, but a well-stocked bar, an outdoor smoking deck and no shortage of performers prepared to slum it and give it a go in the name of community spirit and something a bit different. There are floating shops, floating cafes and floating markets. London has a floating bookshop that recently won a long-running battle for survival.
With all sorts jumbled together and living on the edge, community is of necessity both strong and tolerant. Eccentricities are accepted, awkward cases given a lot of leeway and the vulnerable are looked out for. Jacqui with her cancer has an endless stream of visitors and people helping out; the advantage of all living together on the one, long street is that everyone comes pottering by at some point. Mutual support is just ingrained. If your engine packs up, help is at hand. If your boat starts sinking (it happens) then a quick phone call brings boaters from far and wide, rigging up the emergency pumps and working day and night, bailing you out in every sense. And, needless to say, the interference of the authorities and the Old Bill is avoided as much as humanly possible. And so canal life carried on; joy and near-disaster and falling asleep to the sound of rain on the roof.
But then, in 2012, it seemed that Authority decided it’d had enough of being avoided. In July of that year, the heat conspicuously got turned up.
Now don’t get me wrong; it’s not like liveaboard boaters were ever welcomed with open arms; since time immemorial people living unconventional existences have been a convenient target for authorities both great and petty. But the canals were literally and metaphorically a backwater, largely forgotten or ignored; convoys of buses heading for Stonehenge, empty embassies squatted by embarrassing housing activists and pensioners refusing to leave their homes to make way for urban motorways made for a more visible or more urgent target. But, as gentrification mopped up more and more of the cities, the cockroaches of capital began grubbing further afield for overlooked morsels ripe for exploitation. And eventually they found the canals. For donkeys’ years, authority over the canal system had resided with British Waterways, an under-funded and over-stretched nationalised body that had too much on its plate just trying to patch up the infrastructure to spare the time and money to harass undesirables as effectively as it and its government overseers would probably have liked. But then, in July 2012, the vogue for denationalisation finally reached the tranquillity of the canal network, and management passed to the newly-created Canal and Rivers Trust (CaRT), a body whose charitable status many boat-dwellers initially mistook as implying some sort of benign intent.
Instead, things suddenly changed for the worse. Seemingly overnight, patrol notices- the waterways equivalent of parking tickets- started adorning boats like malevolent bunting. Waterways patrol officers who used to share a cuppa with you now scurried past fives times as often, heads down. They started carrying GPS equipment and portable computers, logging registration numbers and plotting day-to-day movements. Annual boat licences started being refused on spurious grounds; the unlicensed boat then being impounded and the owner fined. Court battles ensued as CaRT tried, illegally, to redefine the fortnightly continuous cruising rules to effectively make living on a boat and holding down a job or keeping your kids in school impossible. Threatening notices were put on boats informing the owners that they had no legal rights on the waterways and to get themselves on the housing register with Bath Council (Bath Council, naturally, hit the roof; boaters, as far as they were concerned, had sorted out their housing themselves and CaRT could damn well put up with them). Vested interest groups, like the rapidly-multiplying hire boat and marina companies, now sat on the CaRT board and could see the opportunity to purge the canal of eyesore scruffs that littered a waterways system crying out, as they saw it, for full recuperation and realisation as a profit-making leisure amenity and nothing else. Leaked emails from influential figures in the corporate waterways world even revealed that, for some, a more ‘traditional’ Final Solution for the liveaboard boaters would be preferred, but hey, in the meantime they’d make do with legislation and harassment.
I’ve nothing against hire boats, or anyone else who uses the canal. The vast majority of liveaboard boaters are happy to co-exist with a whole variety of waterways users- hireboats, anglers, canoeists, towpath cyclists and more. As habitual dwellers on the margins, boaters tend to be of the tolerant, flexible, live-and-let-live sort. They just want to be left to get on with living their lives; difficult but rewarding, self-determined lives in times where homelessness and insecurity are at epidemic levels. But this easy-going attitude is not shared by the other side, and we’re now four years in to a concerted campaign to, as they see it, ‘clean up’ the canal system. Ignoring the fact that liveaboard boaters annually contribute hundreds of pounds each in licence fees, the battle is on to erase some of the most colourful strata of margin from this multi-layered Edgeland. To tame what has always been rough and wild and slightly lawless, from the navvies that built them through the old guard who worked them to the colourful communities that populate them now. To sanitise this grubby netherworld, to prettify it and market it as some kind of linear Center Parcs where busy city families can consume tranquillity at walking pace and a hefty price, where the only liveaboards left are the neatly-polished mobile retirement homes that fit the marketable image and happily cough up marina fees or just endlessly move on, unhindered by jobs or children. The irony of course is that for the most part holidaymaker boaters love the bonkers, flower-bedecked and picturesque liveaboard boats of the continuous cruiser community. They are part of the whole experience; part of the richness and diversity of the waterways. No-one photographs the hire boats.
The battle is by no means lost. Boaters in London especially have become very organised, and the harassment there at least has subsided somewhat in the last couple of years- foiled, no doubt, by the sheer weight of numbers as much as anything. But it hasn’t gone away. And elsewhere it continues unabated. I left the canals because an expanding family just made it increasingly impractical. Others have left simply because the increasing insecurity just became too much to live with. And that is tragic. The coming of the kingdom of the bland.
Now, living happily as a house-dweller on a hilltop in Stroud, my contact with canals is walking the towpath of the Stroudwater and the Thames and Severn. Overgrown and derelict, alive with industrial ghosts, the Cotswold canal system is irresistible to the Deep Topographer in me. It is my daily dog walk of choice, my go-to for contemplation or when a difficult poem needs a perambulatory push. Out through Thrupp and Brimscombe it winds through some of the sexiest ramshackle blue-brick factories and rusted light industrial units I’ve ever seen. Boatless, the canal is still effortlessly my favourite place.
And I watch the restoration of this Cotswold system with mixed feelings. Yes, it’s another layer of narrative, another slow change in a lifetime of slow change. It could be glorious, of course; the colourful, creative, tolerant and anarchistic spirit of this town spilling out to find expression on the newly freed-up water. Part of me can vision it. Stroud is so suited to the Heath Robinson eco art-party of the modern waterway life: permacultured micro roof gardens, mini wind-turbines, spirit of tolerance and people helping each other. But that all rather depends who is going to be in charge, doesn’t it? On whether the current war is won or lost. Because if it’s lost, then the Stroudwater will presumably simply be another tarted-up sphere of operation for a bland leisure industry and fleets of identical corporate hireboats. One more example of a waterway socially-cleansed and pimped out as a bastardised Temporary Autonomous Zone; a weekend World Turned Upside Down where the kingfishers have fled and stag parties and stressed city boys needing a chillax blow-out are routinely put in charge of 18 tons of welded steel whilst visibly drunk and dressed as Jack Sparrow.
And something tells me that won’t go down too well in Chalford.