‘You must be very brave’, people tell me, when they realise I live on a 70ft narrowboat, Liberty – with my husband, Lee, and our son, Otis. We moved back onto the River Cam in Cambridge – home to around 100 houseboats – when I was pregnant, to plenty of raised eyebrows. When Otis arrived eighteen months ago, there was actually a boom of new boater-babies on the river. All over the country, more and more parents are choosing to set up home on the UK’s waterways – attracted by the greener lifestyle, slower pace of life and more affordable living. My first river-home was a tiny 30ft Springer, in 2003. In my early twenties I was attracted to the free-spirited lifestyle; I totally fell in love with the way of life, but my partner Lee, who joined me later was too tall for my tiny boat. We moved into a house, but we always dreamed of going back to the river. Even when living on land, the river inspired me to write the first draft of a novel and curate art shows celebrating boating life. It’s always been a huge source of creative inspiration.
Making it work
We moored baby Otis’s first home, Liberty, on a beautiful spot in the middle of the city – minutes from a play park, with lovely neighbours and his God-mum just round the corner. People were surprised, but I had the help I needed nearby. Despite this, it was tough – the river flooded several times and as a new mum I not only had to get to grips with juggling sleepless nights with working life – but negotiating gang planks and buggies, too. At one point, I considered investing in a pair of fisherman’s waders to make getting onto the boat easier! People thought I was completely mad; ‘isn’t it dangerous?’ I’d get asked. You have to keep a close eye, but you do in most houses, too; wherever you live, you make sure baby is safe – it’s no different living on a boat. All boaters are asked, ‘doesn’t it get cold in winter?’ Yes, it does – but we have central heating piped up to a wood burning stove. We try to source reclaimed wood from friends wherever possible. Sometimes we have to wait a couple of hours for the boat to warm up if the fire has gone out, but people forget that it’s only recently society has become accustomed to having heating on full blast all the time. We’ve recently installed solar panels on our roof - we have a bathroom, a toilet, shower, a kitchen with a fridge; all powered by the sun, for free. We sometimes get gas and coal delivered.
Meeting new people
The only major drawback to life on the river for families is practical infrastructure. Permanent moorings are few and far between, but cruising about means you can meet lots of people, plus see more of the waterways. To make life a bit easier for new parents who are cruising, you can ask for an extended visitor’s permit to help you in the early weeks because moving around (especially when you are recovering from childbirth) can be hard work. My midwife had absolutely no problems visiting us on the boat. There can be a bit of misunderstanding applied to boaters, though – I remember a friend asking if people living on boats had jobs. Most do, some don’t – but contribute in other ways. My husband is a project manager and photographer, while I’m a writer and run the Cambridge Art Salon, which I set up while I was pregnant.
In my early twenties, having my boat meant I could start a creative career with less financial pressure – but heaps of scientists, barristers, teachers, nurses, etc. live on the waters, too. You simply can’t stereotype us – we come from so many different backgrounds. Nature is a great leveller – most boaters know that when the river freezes up in winter, or it floods, there’s no room for snobbery – we all help each other out. The sense of community is strong.
A floating playground We celebrated his first birthday party on a large boat with everyone dressed as pirates. On Liberty, he has his own little cabin and we’re decorating his room with a pirate theme. We’re really happy as a family and feel very lucky. With sky high house-prices in the South, Liberty is the best home for our family right now, plus a real adventure. She’s a blessing.
Vanessa, mum to Joe (5) and Cedd (18 months) lives on the river in Cambridge ‘I’ve been on the river for ten years, first on the River Lee then I cruised to Cambridge. I chose a boat because a friend had one and I knew the lifestyle. It meant I could afford to buy my own home. The biggest thing for me is that it feeds my soul. We can choose jobs that we like, we have more of a choice in what we do because we don’t have to pay £900 in rent. I’m a herbalist and teach baby swimming with Dolphinlight. Living on Caspar means I don’t have to do that much to be close to nature. I do miss having a garden, letting my kids play outside when it’s warm. But it’s great; we are so close to a park. I’ve made sure that the kids are water aware, too. We have traveller status so Joe doesn’t have to go to school full time. He has the best of both worlds – he has friends at school and gets to be with us, too. The school is great – there have been two boater families there already, so the Admissions Officer was absolutely fine. The kids are seeing an alternative way of living but still able to live in a community that is stable and solid. Joe is able to go to the local school, but still be part of this lifestyle.’
Susannah, mum to Rebecca (7), Luke (6) and Noah (3), works as a careworker in Cambridge and lives on the river. ‘I’ve been on the river for 12 years and have lived on Hippo for five years. As careworkers, we couldn’t afford to buy in Cambridge so we moved onto a boat – and realised we loved it. When Rebecca arrived everyone kept asking us ‘when are you going to move into a house’, but stayed because it was our family home, it felt very natural. We have a widebeam boat, so quite a bit of space – the location is perfect, opposite a playpark, plus an excellent school for the kids. They have a rope swing on the willow tree outside and have been known to don their wetsuits when the river floods and ride around on their bicycles! They love it. The community is largely open minded, with shared values. As a family we are very aware of resources, the kids know how much water they are consuming, where electricity comes from, how to build a fire. In winter, we get the duvets out and cuddle up in front of the fire.’
Peggy Molmouth, mum of two daughters, (aged 5 and 3) lives on a canal with her family ‘My husband is a scientist working in a university in London and I am a freelance writer and blogger working from home. Violet Mae is a 70ft trad built by Colecraft. She is painted green and has side hatches which we can open in the summer. Inside the boat is light and airy, but one of my favourite features is the boatman’s cabin which is painted with traditional roses and castles. This is the girls’ bedroom. I’ve lived on canals for 13 years in and around London and Hertfordshire. Since I was a child I was attracted to the romance of a gypsy lifestyle but having friends who were “new age” travellers I realised the lifestyle was actually very hard. I was living in a rented flat in Camden when I first saw narrowboats and realised that this would be an easier way to live a travelling lifestyle. I think the main benefit for all the family is living close to nature. I love the calm and quiet of the water and the sense of community with other boaters. My husband’s favourite part is the travelling, being able to always live somewhere new. My best memories are of one summer we spent travelling up the rivers Lea and Stort when we could just moor up beside any field we fancied. I watched my daughter running barefoot across a field beside a lake on a sunny day and felt that this was the idyllic lifestyle I had dreamed of giving her. You are very aware of how much energy you are using, more aware of your “impact”. My advice to anyone thinking of bringing up baby on a boat? Don’t let a midwife tell you that you can’t have a homebirth (one did tell me that and I later found it was not true!). Take a temporary mooring for the first six months so you have a network of other mothers around you. Get support from likeminded parents at facebook.com/groups/boatfamilies. And for a free ebook visit narrowboatwife.com.’