At Home on England's Inland Canals
Boats Offer Affordable Housing for Some, an Idyllic Life for Others

By Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 14, 2006

LONDON, March 13 -- A pair of swans -- Georgie and Sukie -- swam by Tricia Parrott's window as the sunshine reflecting off the canal played glimmery games on the ceiling of her houseboat's main cabin.

"It's a kind of enchantment -- it's magic, really," Parrott said, dabbing at the oils on her easel and talking about why she has made an urban life at the waterline.

"I could be a poor little gray widow rattling around in a house somewhere, but here I get up, I put on the kettle and I'm in the world," said Parrott, 70.

Often unseen, even by neighbors in apartments and houses on nearby dry land, a growing community of people live afloat on Britain's inland waterways, particularly in and around London. Many live on the placid canals that meander though the capital, a legacy of days when they were passageways for coal during the Industrial Revolution. Others live on the River Thames, where water levels can rise and fall 20 feet with the tide twice a day.

"Some see it as affordable housing, and some see it as an idyllic way to live," said Beryl McDowall, chairman of the Residential Boat Owners Association. Because so many different authorities oversee the 3,000 miles of inland waterways, she said it is impossible to know precisely how many boats are residential, but she estimated about 15,000.

She has noted a dramatic increase in "people living afloat," whether solo or as families.

Interest in boat life has risen as the government has spent $1.8 billion in the last six years to restore and beautify canals and rivers, said Debbie Walker, spokeswoman for British Waterways, which manages more than 2,000 miles of canals and rivers. Pretty footpaths, trendy restaurants and breezy cafes have sprung up on the rejuvenated banks, many of which were so derelict 10 or 15 years ago that developers designed buildings to face away from them, she said.

Last week, British Waterways opened a new visitors center on the canal near the Paddington rail station in response to increasing public interest in London's maritime life and history.

In the late 18th century, the British dug an extensive network of canals to link mines and quarries in the country's industrial midsection to rivers and ports. The canals were the most efficient way to move coal, for example, but they became a less attractive option with the rise of railways in the 19th century and highways in the 20th.

"There was a rapid decline after World War II," said Michael Stevens, who has written histories of the waterways for London's Canal Museum. He said the "collapsing point" came in the famously frigid winter of 1962, when the canals were frozen solid for months.

But now, he said, space on the canals cannot keep up with demand, with "writers, software authors and actors" among those trying to get coveted moorings. Some have country homes and use their city craft as a cozy pied-a-terre -- some of them narrowboats that are only seven feet wide. Other users are retired couples who continually cruise the waterways, never staying anywhere for long.

And while many sleep on water as a cheaper alternative to London's boggling real estate prices, Stevens said some boaters pay as much as $12,000 a year for the right to tie up in the most picturesque parts of London.

At Canary Wharf, where some of the world's largest banks have headquarters and where multimillion-dollar apartments filled with flush bankers rise above the Thames, Dan Broom, a corporate video director, stood in his 37-foot cruiser one recent day.

"I love it here. It's part of a dream," said Broom, 27. He described his boating neighbors as a much closer community than the people who live in the far more expensive apartments a few minutes' walk away.

The nautical life is not always easy. Broom's fridge is tiny; a visitor once broke it by stuffing too many warm beers into it. His electrical system can't handle running the teakettle and toaster at the same time. There is a worrisome crack in the hull, and the water pump is broken.

"You have to learn a lot of patience," Broom said. "It's a lot like living in an old Bentley."

But Broom, who like his hearty neighbors is accustomed to plenty of fleece clothing and practically no storage space, said his lifestyle suits his personality. "I don't want to be like other people," Broom said. "I don't want things to be too easy."

While Broom is a newcomer to the water, Parrott, the artist, has lived on boats for more than 30 years. In the early years, she said, "you were looked upon as slightly mad when you came to live on the canal."

But now, her 40-foot houseboat, on the canal near Paddington in an area known as Little Venice, is in one of the city's most coveted berths. She has geraniums, irises and rosemary growing on the bank outside her front door, next to neatly stacked 50-pound sacks of coal for her stove that are delivered by Jane Richardson and her husband, Barney.

The couple are coal-mongers, carrying fuel and news up and down the canal on their 72-foot narrowboat, which they share with their baby daughter, Mary Rose. Richardson called the canals and rivers a "long village," where young and old, wealthy and modest live life at a genteel pace.

That's what Parrott loves, she said as she flicked her brush across a not-quite-finished landscape.

From the water, she can see more stars in the night sky than she can from land. Friends wave as they motor by on the canal, and there are often foxes or squirrels alongside her pathway.

"It's like a little country lane and I am in the middle of London," she said. She is steps from buses and trains, but she can't see or hear them. She can, however, put her hand out the kitchen window and feed a pair of swans.

Researcher Alexandra Topping contributed to this report.

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