I first saw a houseboat in England when I was walking along the Nottingham and Beeston Canal with my brother David, several years ago in spring on a fresh late afternoon.
He had recently moved to England and we were going to spend the evening in the city. From his house to Nottingham’s Old Market Square it was more than an hour walk going east. We chose to walk as we usually do, especially when we are together.
The Canal is flanked by a green corridor on both sides, one of which includes the pathway we were walking on. The corridor is lush with bushes and trees, many of which were in bloom. Birds and small animals inhabited either the trees or the water.
After a few minutes, we walked by a houseboat. It sat still on the placid water, moored in what seemed a random spot.
“There are many houseboats here in Nottingham. People might not even ever move theirs, but they’ve been living on it for years,” my brother told me.
“Cool. You don’t really know they are there unless you really stumble upon them,” I said.
“One of my Karate friends lives on one, but I never really see the boats unless I walk along this path. When he says ‘I’m going home,’ he means going to his boathouse.”
“They mustn’t be expensive. Are they?”
“Definitely much less than a house, but of course it depends on the size, if it’s new, and other things.”
“Can they dock wherever they want?”
“No, there are sections where you can’t dock, sections where you can temporarily, and others where you apply and have a fixed spot. You always pay a fee, which is cheap, and the fixed spot costs a little more.”
“And how do you travel on the canals? Can you just use them as roads?”
“Yes. People might call ahead, if it’s a specific destination, for available spots or information. But otherwise they just move freely.”
We stopped walking to observe a new group of houseboats we encountered. It was the first time I had seen a houseboat this close in person, especially of this kind.
David is a couple of years older than me and he started traveling before me. He have had something to teach me all of his life, but the stories and the new things he could tell me increased after he started traveling abroad.
“When you have a houseboat, you receive a key, like a big wrench tool. You need it to pass the locks. Since the canals have different levels, the locks regulate the water flow and allow the boat to move from one section to the other. You’ll see later, we’ll pass one.”
The lock is a short section where a boat is enclosed while waiting to be either raised or lowered to the desired level. The one we passed in the Nottingham center, the Castle Lock, has thick wooden hand-operated bulkheads.
The UK houseboats are called ‘Narrowboats’. They were originally introduced to transport commercial or industrial materials at the eve of the Industrial Revolution. They all had the same long and slim look, in order to travel along the narrow canals since the minimum width of a lock or bridge-hole is seven feet. They all have a metal hull, the trapezoid-section of the cabin, and sit low on the water. Nowadays, there are many variations which mostly depend on the type of stern part of the boat. The ‘Cruiser’ style is a more spacious, fit-for-socializing stern, while the ‘Trad’ is the more traditional one, resembling more of a converted working boat, hence its smaller size.
Passing under one of the overpasses, a big marina suddenly appeared behind a turn. Dozens of narrowboats were moored along the docks, all aligned in rows one next to the other. The dark colored sides — blues, reds, purples, greens — gave me the impression of a checkered canvas laid over the water. People sat on the fresh grass separating the marina to the canal. Some were drinking a pint, others were smoking, everybody was talking softly. We exchanged saluting nods with some of them.
I could see mallards, single or in groups, everywhere. Some were on the path and barely moved when we walked by. There were more in the water or near the boats, probably waiting for somebody to throw some food at them.
I now live in Nottingham. I have moved here last autumn. I pass by that marina, called Castle Marina, a few times a week while on my runs or walks. I might see some of the same people I have met many years ago.
I have read the Castle Marina can host up to 200 boats. It offers the convenience of a central location along with on-site security and wi-fi. There are other five marinas spread around England.
Docking prices vary around the country from 120£ a month to 360£. In London, they are up to 1000£. Considering that the average new narrowboat costs around $50,000, and the overall utilities don’t reach 20£ a month, the expenses for a narrowboat are a fraction of those of an apartment on land.
There are 15,000 narrowboats in Great Britain, with an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 people living on board. Most of the people that I see living on a boat are adults or retired, but I have seen a couple in their late 20s or early 30s on one of them, and I have spotted a few families with toddlers.
I met a couple, Pam and Chris, who sold their house and moved on a narrowboat about six months ago. They are from England and had been living in Nottingham for about twenty years. My brother and I first met them on one of our walks, one time when David visited me right after my move, last November. The sky was grey but it was not cold, so a lot of the boat people were outside. We exchanged salutes with them and decided to stop and talk.
“We always liked the boats and we always wondered how it is to live in them. Do you like it here?” my brother said.
“We have no intention of moving back to a house on land,” Pam said smiling, brushing her breeze-swept blonde hair away from her eyes.
“Did you adjust easily to this new life?” I asked.
“The first few weeks we needed to adjust to the new spaces, the rhythm. But life is simpler, cheaper, and comfortable. We are both retired. We are outdoors a lot.”
“How do you like this spot?” my brother asked..
“You see, there is a narrowboat community. People are friendly and help each other. You just knock on the sides to call somebody out. There is no bell, just courtesy etiquette.”
“There is always something to do around the boat I imagine, so you are busy but can relax at the same time,” I asked.
“Exactly,” Chris said, a piece of wood in his hands. “I am making wood for the stove, but there is no rush, also because with a little wood you heat the whole boat for hours.”
“He mostly does work on the outside of the boat, I mostly do the inside. But maintenance is easy and it happens at our own pace,” Pam added.
This conversation was in my head one while I was running along the Canal on a warm sunny day this spring. I spotted a pair of swans on the other side of the canal, idly swimming. I saw the first group of geese chicks for this season, swimming along their parents on my side of the canal. Near the train station, by the Castle Lock, a narrowboat was inside of it, waiting to be level with the desired section.
Turning around and almost at the finish of my run, I passed the Marina. Pam and Chris were fishing.
Life on the canal flowed smoothly, following its own rhythm.
Photos by author.
Richard was born in the US, grew up in Italy, recently moved to the UK after few years in Oregon. Architect by day, but also athlete and photographer, he alternates sports to reading and writing. Find his work in The Dreams' Chest.