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Adlard Coles Nautical An imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

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ADLARD COLES, ADLARD COLES NAUTICAL and the Buoy logo are trademarks of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc First published 2016 Š Jim Batty, 2016 Photographs Š Jim Batty, 2016 Jim Batty has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as Author of this work. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers. No responsibility for loss caused to any individual or organization acting on or refraining from action as a result of the material in this publication can be accepted by Bloomsbury or the author. British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication data has been applied for.

ISBN: P B: 978-1-4729-2708-8 ePDF: 978-1-4729-2710-1 ePub: 978-1-4729-2709-5 2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1

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For Karen Love of my life, who throughout the writing and photographing of this book has acted as a sounding board, critical ear to sporadically read passages, honest eye to a myriad of pictures, and enthusiastic supporter at every bend. What a happy adventure this life together has been! Long may it continue.



would like to thank my mom, Brenda, whose own independent spirit encouraged me as a child to become a free-ranging explorer of neighbourhoods and forests, and set me up for life. And I am grateful to my dad, Chuck – whose ash remains passed to a river many years ago – for his reflective and playful nature, which has always inspired and helped me to enjoy my own restless spirit. I am indebted to Paul and Eileen Garner, Dave Godwin, and Dave and Gillie Rhodes, who so warmly invited me aboard their narrowboats to talk about their lives afloat, plied me with tea, and then graciously stepped aside while I photographed the intimate interiors of their floating homes. This book is so much richer for their contributions. Narrowboat Life was inspired by questions. I would like to thank all those gongoozlers that took the time to stop beside our boat and ask about life afloat, offer an interesting external view of the boating world, or simply say ‘hello’. It has been a joy.

A special thanks goes to Tim Coghlan and Paul Bennett at Braunston Marina, who unwittingly rekindled our hope of finding a narrowboat of our own, with their welcoming and helpful encouragement well beyond the call of duty. A tip of the cap goes to Louise Stockwin at The Canal Museum Stoke Bruerne, who graciously granted permission to publish my photograph of their marvellous Bolinder engine. I would like to thank everyone at Adlard Coles Nautical who have helped polish the brass work on this project and navigate it through the publishing process. I am especially grateful to commissioning editor Jenny Clark and senior editor Clara Jump for their ever-cheerful guidance and advice, and thorough responses to my many dozens of questions. Life would not be the same without our fellow boaters, who through lively and illuminating conversations over the years have shared their knowledge and, in this way, contributed to many of the ideas that have found substance and flourished between these covers.

Contents Introduction


1 What’s it like... living on a narrowboat?


step aboard... A boat of two halves


2 How safe is it?


3 Is it cold in the winter?


step aboard... A recycled, repurposed narrowboat

4 How much did you pay for your narrowboat? 5 Why do women do all the work? step aboard... A roving canal trader


84 104 116

6 Did you paint it yourself?


7 How green is living on a boat really?


step aboard... A well-read ark


8 Does he (the cat, dog, parrot) live on the boat?


9 Four canny questions... about continuously cruising


How do you receive post? How do you see a doctor? How do you use the internet? How do you hold down a job?

171 174 177 178







7 contents




9 introduction

introduction ABOVE: Entering a lock standing on the cabin roof requires expertise and clear communication with the helmsman, near Wilton Brail, Kennet & Avon Canal.


‘Inland waterways boating is a curious mixture of heritage and 1950s community spirit fused with modern eco-awareness and cutting-edge technology.’


iving and cruising aboard a narrowboat within Britain’s intimate inland waterways is a special way of life. If you are up for it, each season can become a great adventure. Living afloat often feels like cheating at ‘ordinary life’ and it is a common sentiment among liveaboards that moving back on to land is difficult to imagine. When you live aboard a boat you can choose your view and change it as you like. Of course, it helps if you enjoy waterside scenery! If you like variety in your company, the waterways offer a genuine, helpful and enormously interesting and diverse community. If you value independence, you will find scope for expressing it in spades. If you enjoy the outdoors, or pine for the countryside, you will discover it right there outside your portholes and one step from your deck. And chances are that making a boat your home will lessen your impact on that beautiful environment, almost by default. The boating life usually requires you to expend a bit more physical energy than you would living on land, something most boaters consider a good thing. Driving the boat and taking it through locks requires stamina, and at times a little extra oomph. As does relaying your groceries from a shop across town to the canal or river ... along the towpath ... and into your galley.

11 introduction

Continuously or intermittently cruising (as opposed to being permanently tied up on a fully-serviced residential mooring) is a form of living off-grid and requires a certain level of selfsufficiency to be viable and comfortable. Water and diesel tanks need to be routinely topped up, propane canisters replaced, waste emptied, electricity generated and the engine serviced. None of these things are beyond the wit and skill of anyone, it just takes a little planning. There has recently been an increased interest in living on boats for economic reasons, especially as house prices continue to climb beyond the reach of many hard-working people. The fact that a second-hand boat can be bought for one-tenth of the price of a second-hand house makes you sit up and think. If you already own a property, the maths seem loaded in your favour if you dream of a quieter, downsized life. Of course boats are not houses, their value rarely increases, and living in a corridor-sized space seriously inhibits natural urges to consume your way to happiness. I think my best advice would be: live on a boat only if you really want to live on a boat. That said, it’s difficult to know beforehand what this is like, so one of my aims in writing and photographing this book is to help you decide whether living afloat might be right for you.

PREVIOUS PAGE Narrowboat at the end of the rainbow, Great Bedwyn, Kennet & Avon Canal. BELOW A well equipped stern.

The big BOATY questions


his book has been inspired by, and attempts to answer, a host of questions I have fielded from a huge variety of curious, excited, bemused and uncomprehending strangers, friends and colleagues about what it’s like to live on a narrowboat. After six years of cruising and living aboard a 53-foot narrowboat it has been fascinating to discover that the same core questions surface time and again. I have also found it thoroughly satisfying that many of these inquiries are not of the sensible ‘how-to-do-it’ variety, but playful, whimsical, even sceptical queries about the waterways lifestyle that reveal genuine insight. There is the near-inevitable, ‘Is it cold in the winter?’ It seems that half the population worries about being chilly, damp and miserable aboard something akin to a floating tent. This is counterbalanced by the cheeky, if observant, ‘Why do women do all the work?’ Then there is the wary, ‘Is it safe to live on a boat?’ and the down-to-brass-tacks question, ‘How much did you pay for your boat?’ (or, more tactfully, ‘What’s a narrowboat worth?’). But there is also the spontaneously gleeful, ‘Does he live on the boat?!’ (pointing to your cat, dog or parrot). A surprising number of aesthetically-knowing towpath wanderers ask, ‘Did you paint the boat yourself?’, while those concerned about the environment often enquire, ‘How green is it, actually, living on a boat – you run big diesel engines don’t you?’ Finally, there are the canny continuously cruising-related questions, such as, ‘How do

you receive your post?’ and ‘How do you hold down a job if you are always moving?’ Read on, for all will be revealed. More generally, towpath passers-by have also expressed curiosity about what narrowboats are physically like on the inside. How are the rooms laid out? Do you have proper appliances? How does everything you own fit into such a small space? To address these sorts of questions I approached a variety of liveaboard narrowboaters with beautiful and interesting boats, to see if they would be willing to talk about their boat’s interiors and clever features, and how their layouts supported their different lifestyles ... and allow me to photograph their floating homes to show off to the world! Well, I think it is a tribute to the friendliness, goodwill and flexibility of liveaboard boaters that everyone I asked was thrilled to ‘invite us aboard’ to give us a peek behind the portholes. For this I will always be grateful, and I am really excited to include them in the special Step Aboard... sections.  I have also included an inside view of our own modest 53‑foot narrowboat, to demonstrate how liveaboard space can be truly maximised.  I hope you enjoy your visits. The inland waterways are home to a variety of fascinating liveable craft. My experience is of narrowboats, but most of what you find here can be equally applied to living on and evaluating widebeams (‘wide narrowboats’), motor cruisers and small Dutch barges.

RIGHT Widebeam reflected in the cabin side of a

narrowboat at West Mills, Newbury, Kennet & Avon Canal.



13 introduction

‘The more we looked, asked questions and pried into boats’ inner workings, the more discerning we became.’

LEFT Approaching Blake's Lock at Reading, where

you leave the River Thames for the River Kennet, and the Kennet & Avon Canal.



The QUEST for a LIVEABLE boat


y partner Karen and I enjoy our narrowboat as much now as we did during those fresh autumn days when we first moved on board. We spent four years looking at second-hand boats before finding the one – a boat we could fit into, enjoy and afford. To begin with, we corresponded with brokers and private individuals, sifted through canal magazine adverts, scrutinised boating websites, and simply walked the towpaths and chatted with whoever looked ‘boaty’ and knowledgeable. I even visited a couple of boats with ‘For Sale’ signs in their windows on the Thames – travelling by inflatable kayak. Astonishingly (it now seems) we visited well

15 introduction

over a hundred boats: in marinas, down lost cuts, tied up on fast-flowing rivers and abandoned in backwaters. Of course, the more we looked, asked questions and pried into boats’ inner workings, the more discerning we became. We also felt more confident about organising a survey and making an offer. If you think that the boating life might be for you then there is some real, hands-on guidance in this book to help you to understand what you’re looking at when faced with a boat, and evaluate what it’s actually worth. This should save you time when deciding which boat is exactly right for you and how you want to live on it.

BELOW Winter sun setting on Harefield Marina, beyond the suburbs of west London. Only shallows separate the marina from the Grand Union Canal, giving the appearance of cruising across a lake.



y intuition and profession I am a photographer and graphic designer. I have been making and capturing images of Britain’s inland waterways for over a decade, originally by following the towpaths on a mountain bike loaded with a camera and some camping gear, then with an inflatable (and portable) kayak, and now from the comfort of our narrowboat home nestled deep within the waterways world. Most of the photographs here reflect our recent cruising patterns throughout the southeast and south of England, taking in the Grand Union Canal and London, the River

ABOVE Mirror like reflections in the River Thames near Beale Park at sunset.

Thames from tidal London to Lechlade, River Wey Navigation, the Oxford Canal and the Kennet & Avon Canal. The colour, nature, heritage, craft and people of the inland waterways are a photographer’s dream. Even if you decide that living on a boat may be too confining a lifestyle for your taste, I hope you experience some of the joys these beautiful and fascinating waterways offer through this collection of photographs. Jim Batty West Mills, Newbury, 2016

RIGHT Flat Bottomed Girl setting off into the

Oxfordshire countryside at dusk, Oxford Canal. Punny humour has a curious habit of mixing with the sublime on the inland waterways.



17 introduction

What's it like… living on a




19 WHAt's It LIKe… LIVInG on A nARRoWBoAt?

Living on a narrowboat is a wonderfully

romantic way of slowing your pace of life down, being intimate with the British countryside, having the freedom to shift your view as and when you desire, while being part of a

genuine and colourful community. As a nice counterbalance to all this, it can also involve a bit of work.

what's it like‌ living on a narrowboat? ABOVE Butty and motor: a remarkable narrowboat pair breasted up at Braunston, Grand Union Canal.


‘... the sight of a floating toy-box dressed up in crayon colours can only inspire romantic wonder at what it must be like to call such a thing “home”.’ PREVIOUS PAGE A line of liveaboard narrowboats tied up along the Kennet & Avon Canal at Great Bedwyn. BELOW Bowler hat on a tug.

Some boaters do like to dress up! BOTTOM Two tipcat and button rope

ROMANTIC and simple,

sophisticated and cutting-edge


eauty can be found in the inland waterways vessels themselves – still influenced by traditional boat-building design and decoration going back to the 18th century – brightly alive with painted roses and castles, diamond patterns, contrasting primary colours and stripes, flashes of brass, seductively curved bows and graceful cabin rooflines. In a world dominated by the immensity and impersonality of its public buildings, transportation systems and maze-like bureaucracies, you cannot help but envy the contained, human scale of a narrowboat, decorated with playful panache and personal style. Whether viewed from grey urban ramparts or the green verges of open countryside, the sight of a floating toy-box dressed up in crayon colours can only inspire romantic wonder at what it must be like to call such a thing ‘home’. Charm can also be found in the language of the canals and rivers. Common terms include: ‘winding’ (pronounced like the blowing wind, meaning to turn a narrowboat around); ‘tumblehome’ (the slope of a cabin side); ‘butty’ (an unpowered boat usually towed behind a motor); and ‘crabbing’ (driving a boat forwards at an angle, usually into a stiff wind.) This is

a world where ‘galleys’ and ‘gangplanks’ and ‘gauges’ and ‘gunwales’ still regularly feature, as do ‘stern glands’ and ‘stop-gates’, ‘rubbingstrakes’ and ‘weed hatches’. And if you look with a sympathetic eye, a certain allure can be found in the industrial heritage that surrounds these inland waterways. Its history can be read from the regional variety of its architecture: bridges, locks, warehouses, quays, tunnels, aqueducts and canalside cottages. It can be enjoyed through the clever mechanical apparatus at locks that still continue to keep the system running and boats moving. Despite these idyllic aspects, it would be a big mistake to equate living on a narrowboat with living in the past. Inland waterways boating is a curious mixture of heritage and 1950s community spirit fused with modern ecoawareness and cutting-edge technology. If you decide to live by candlelight on your narrowboat it will be little remarked upon in the boating community; most of your neighbours will understand the romantic attraction. But they themselves are far more likely to be investing in convenient, low-voltage LEDs to minimise power consumption.

21 what's it like… living on a narrowboat?

fenders on the stern of a traditional working narrowboat.

RIGHT Couple aboard their narrowboat

at Little Venice, Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal, London.

ABOVE View of the Victorian Gothic Old Vicarage at Kintbury framed by a side hatch, Kennet & Avon Canal.

Consider some of those great, traditionallooking narrowboats you see chugging along the cut, with a cosy boatman’s cabin at the stern and decorated with lace curtains and brass fixtures, colourful hand-painted signage across their cabin sides, and a classic Gardner, Lister or Russell Newbery engine slowly thudding away in their engine rooms. Look a little closer though – perhaps at the back of a cupboard or beneath a bench seat – and you will probably find an electronic 230volt inverter tapping a large hidden bank of batteries to power a microwave oven, washing machine, stereo and flat-screen TV –

conveniences found neatly tucked away behind gingham curtains and hand-crafted cabinetry. Also reflect on the fact that boats are small, self-sufficient ‘floating worlds’. Any liveaboard boat, classic or modern, away from permanent hook-ups must produce its own electricity, sustain its own water and waste systems, and create its own heat. This is pretty elemental stuff that most land-dwellers take for granted. When you live off-grid, securing these simple necessities is the key to comfort ... and, occasionally, survival. This is where the traditional, romantic aspects of living on a boat meet the needs



of the 21st century. While most liveaboards welcome a simpler, independent, hands-on lifestyle that brings them closer to nature, modern technology contributes to this on-board self-sufficiency and comfort in a big way. Each boater decides for him- or herself how simple or sophisticated they wish to make their journey. Technology ensures that those who want, and can afford, to be ‘plugged in’ while on the move can do so. Most people will attempt to ease their lives aboard with the help of some devices from an ever-evolving list of inventions that includes: inverters (that ‘invert’

12-volt battery power to 230-volt mains power), ‘hand-luggage’ generators, intelligent battery-charging systems, solar panels and wind generators, laptops, satellite-seeking TV dishes, digital entertainment centres, 12-volt marine fridges and freezers, sprayfoam insulation, diesel or gas central-heating systems, electronic toilets, e-book readers and tablets, solar-powered radios ... you name it! While making your life afloat easier and more comfortable, some of these devices will also save you money over the long haul and some will lessen your impact on the canal and river environment.

23 what's it like… living on a narrowboat?

ABOVE Truly mobile – a canoe, bicycles and wheelbarrow loaded on to a cruising narrowboat near Shillingford, River Thames.


Profile for Bloomsbury Publishing

Narrowboat Life  

Full-time life on a narrowboat is a novelty for so many of us, and is endlessly fascinating. How do people downsize their lives and belongin...

Narrowboat Life  

Full-time life on a narrowboat is a novelty for so many of us, and is endlessly fascinating. How do people downsize their lives and belongin...


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