As more and more students take to the canals for a supposedly cheaper life, features editor Sarah Garnham explored the stretch of the waterways alongside QM to see what canal life is really like
Any Queen Mary student will have seen the boats lining the stretch of Regent’s Canal, but it’s difficult to really know what’s going on behind the twee names and flower pots. We wanted to find out what it was really like to live on the canal; the freedom, the practicalities and the wilder side of life on the waterways, ranging from getting robbed at knifepoint whilst eating dinner to attending some of the craziest parties London has to offer, the canal lifestyle is definitely only for the brave hearted.
The boaters’ lifestyle is one of freedom and constant travel as their cruising licence dictates that, after fourteen days, boaters must make a ‘genuine attempt’ to move from their current spot. Jan, one of the boaters interviewed, loves the ‘absolute freedom of being able to move anywhere you want in the country on the canal network’. As his boat is small and very manoeuvrable it means that if he doesn’t like a place, he can ‘pull up sticks and move along somewhere else or if there’s a party going on, you see it, pull up and join in.’ One party particularly memorable left huge clouds of blue marijuana smoke drifting down the water.
On top of this, some people make their own boats, with varying levels of success. Fellow boaters told us that in Dalston there’s a floating shed on pallets and even a floating tent on top of a rowing boat. On the other side of the scale, The Floating Cinema, that was recently on campus, was built from scratch and brings a whole different kind of experience to the canal. It aims to show people living in and around the area that there is artistic content and cultural activities that can be done recreationally on the waterways and also perhaps change perceptions of what people think about living on the canal.
Living on canal boats is becoming increasingly popular in London in recent years, especially for students as the lifestyle is phenomenally cheap as once you have the boat, the only costs are for the licence, practical utilities and maintenance. There are a number of students across the country, even some at Queen Mary, who have taken to the boating way of life. Those who know what they’re doing tend to be regarded as resourceful by the boating community. However, as they quite often don’t have enough experience, younger people can get into trouble quickly and gain negative reputations.
The continuous cruising side of boating can also make it hard for jobs, but people make it work for them. Many of them own bicycles to travel to work or are self-employed. Moored up over the way from France House, we found Graham, a musician that finds the boating lifestyle great and, although everything is always moving, he stays fairly local. The power for his whole boat is provided by solar panels and although this is less effective in winter, he has enough power to hook up an amp.
There are also a number of extreme differences in the practicalities of this type of lifestyle to that on land. Water supply is becoming increasingly sparse as there are few water points in central London, and these often prove difficult to find and fill up at. Moreover, the water tanks are small and very limited. Gas supply is cheap and the tanks last a reasonable amount of time, so cooking is okay, but gas can often prove dangerous. Cooking with electric is not an option with a wood stove, also bringing the risk of fire. Toilets are also an issue, and the two rules of boating are: ‘never let go of your middle line and always use someone else’s toilet.’ Another boater confirmed these rules explaining that ‘the worst bit is emptying the toilet. You take a box and pour it down a hole that acts as one big toilet’ and, like the water, there are very few points at which to tip the waste.
There is another downside to the lifestyle too, in the form of overpopulation. This is becoming a massive issue on the canals and we found that some people didn’t want to talk to us due to the belief that waterways could become even more crowded following an increase in unwanted publicity.
Shaun, another one of the boaters, said that some people even ‘decide to coax birds in to make nests in strategically placed tyres in the back of their boats so that Natural England won’t let you drive away.’ He went on to compare this increasing struggle for space to the ‘behavioural sink’ experiment where a scientist kept adding more and more rats to a cage until eventually there was a societal collapse and they couldn’t cope so began to attack each other. He says that proof of this is in the increase in aggression and violence on the canal between boaters, intruders and residents. It worries him to the point that he doesn’t stay in London.
Another person we spoke to stated that he was robbed at knifepoint whilst eating. With little more than a padlock securing most boats, and the constant threat of a public footpath inches away, the security of the canal lifestyle is a growing problem.
The boat life has its ups and downs. Freedom goes hand in hand with danger, whilst the tempting lure of five-boat strong parties goes hand in hand with the unpleasant duty of pouring toilet waste into an awkward and unenticing hole. One standout feature that ran through all the stories we heard was a sense of calm and contentedness, and this is something that could definitely enhance the student lifestyle.