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Is narrowboat living for you?

Updated: Jun 4, 2021

The trend amongst 60 year olds is growing for living in tiny mobile homes like a narrow boat or camper van. But what's the big attraction? Maybe those baby boomers and Generation X's want to reconnect with their hippy days, to get back to an affordable, natural and creative style of living.

But would it float your boat? Because, as with everything in life, there are compromises...

Are you cut out for tiny home living?

We all love to watch a narrowboat go puttering slowly by. Cheerfully decorated, awash with flower pots and the obligatory dog at the front wagging its tail. You can’t help waving, and wondering as you do, what it must be like to live aboard.

Well, here’s what I’ve discovered during my first year as a 'live aboard'. Firstly, narrow boats it seems, are not all the same, so you need to do some homework before buying. The most visually appealing to me were the open plan boats painted white throughout, with funky impractical homemade furniture and hundreds of fabulous plants in macrame hangers.

Gorgeous isn't it?

This is not what I ended up with because I went for function over form as I wanted a fixed table with day long upright comfortable seating to carry out my writing.

So I ended up with the thing I was most against - the dinette/banquette caravan style table/seating which breaks up the open plan layout and which was, I thought, rather ugly, However after opening up the wall between the seating and the kitchen it looks really cute and I can sit at my laptop with a view straight out onto the fields. The table also doubles up easily into a comfy spare bed. By not having an open plan layout it also means I don't spend the whole day on my sofa, but rather leave my work/dining table to move down to the other end of the boat taking my glass of wine with me, to my sitting room for the evening.

I started out by painting all the dark glossed wood white which looked fab, but then my penchant for bright colours got the better of me! I am an Aries, a fire sign, and need to be surrounded by reds and oranges. The galley kitchen is petite but means I can put on the kettle, wash the dishes and open the fridge all without moving my feet. Aside from having to get down on my knees and roll back the mat to open the oven door it's very functional.

The bedroom, bathroom and a sitting room all have doors to separate them if you wish, and with the large rear end - stern deck technically - and small cosy nook in the bow - I have 7 different areas to hang out in. Front and back have removable canvas covers so provide that indoor/outdoor living that’s become so fashionable. Mine are full of cushions and plants in the summer, and wellies and coal in the winter.

Unless you have some form of central heating, you’re either boiling hot or freezing cold, depending upon your wood burner skills. You are, after all, living in a metal tube that, like trains and container trucks, was designed to move commodities around, and not for your personal creature comforts. As I simply cannot keep mine going all night - the wood burner that is - I installed two oil filled radiators and only light the fire when it's really freezing or I have enough patience.

The thing I haven’t yet mentioned which is the topic of most boaters conversations, is the toilet. There are two main choices - the Porta Potti or a pump out tank stored on board most often under your bed. Not only do I not want to sleep on top of a load of crap, I do not want to keep moving my boat across to the other side of the marina to pump out. I am a learner driver whose confidence has been shattered by the person opposite who keeps repeatedly shouting “Don’t hit my boat, this is not a contact sport” every time I switch on the engine. So, Porta Potti it is. It needs emptying pretty frequently and involves splitting the loo in half, lugging the loaded part up the steps to the jetty and onto my sack barrow that I’d only ever previously used to cart cider across a music festival. You then arrive at the Elsan which is like a giant’s toilet and deposit your goods. One year later and I still hate doing it. Everyone in the marina knows me as the ‘marigold lady’ as I simply refuse to touch it without rubber gloves.

The choice of location for your boat is varied. Canals are colourful and much easier to moor on than rivers, but personally I like being in a marina. I need to plug into electricity, have a constant water supply and a car nearby. I also am not capable of the gypsy life that requires you to keep moving every two weeks if you don’t want to pay fees or taxes. I am technically and mechanically incompetent and simply would not survive. As soon as anything starts making a weird noise I call the marina manager to come and fix it. We pay £2500 per year for these privileges along with a boat house and small shop. I live in White Mills Marina. You then pay approx £1000 per annum for river or canal fees, so it’s a little pricier than some may imagine.

Yes we live in close proximity. I wave to my neighbour in their kitchen whilst drinking tea in bed, and if we both opened the window we’d be able to hold hands - not quite - but, we are right on the river with fields in front of us and a sunset to die for. I hand feed the birds, swim in the river and love the connection to nature. I am mindful - of enough water in the tank before I get in the shower, and minimal - you’re not wasteful as space is precious.

My boat is 30 years old, cost £35k and is 55ft long and 6ft wide, so relatively luxurious, particularly as I don't have to share it with a ton of coal and a family of 8 like the old days.

I take my hat off to couples or families and dogs living together - you need to get along well. So, is a life on the water for everyone. I'm sure not, but for now I'm loving it. I get to live in an affordable space alone in my own tiny home yet within a wonderful community and alongside nature. What more could you ask for.

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