I used to live on a narrow boat (I am so sorry those that know me well, yes I will be ‘going on about the boat’ again!) it’s one of those little known facts those ‘who’d’ve thought it?’, ‘really?’ and ‘well I never…’ parts of our lives we have hidden in our cupboards. You know the ones, the ‘I threw up in my bag on a packed commuter tube after a very merry string quartet rehearsal’ or ‘yes I did climb out of my bedroom window to meet my friends when parents had said I couldn’t’. Yes. That sort of thing.
I lived on a boat for 3 years throughout university. I loved it for many reasons really. I loved the fact that instead of watching nature, I was in nature all the time. When it rained there was a drumming on the steel roof that was as calming as listening to the rain fall on the canal water. When it was windy I was buffeted against the jetty and sometimes had to steady myself against the walls of the boat. When it was hot, it really felt like you were in a tin oven as the boat would get hotter and hotter sometimes quite unbearably so. Apparently rumour had it that you could fry an egg on the steel roof when it got this hot. I never tested this idea but I bet it’s true. When it was snowing I can honestly say I have never been so cold and still haven’t to this day. I was fairly gung ho and the chimney needed cleaning as it was smoking the boat out so I bought a brush, stuffed up and down the chimney but when I came back into the boat I found I’d broken the chimney off the solid fuel stove leaving just a pile of black soot on the floor and a distinct ‘oh my life, what the heck do I do now..?’ feeling in my stomach. The canal froze so the boat was stuck fast and I had no heating. I sat on the tiny sofa with my duvet on me really contemplating a life on land.
The swans were aggressively rude too. Aggressive as they would tap on the side of the boat and come up and lean over the bow to peck your legs or steal your food if you had any. Rude because they refused to eat my blackberry crumble I’d made and given to them but then that may have been because I’d forgotten about it and it had been cooking in the oven for 24hrs. It should have been used as a door stop but I only had the one door to stop and that leant open of its own accord. The ducks were noisy and so were the geese but the blackbirds, kingfishers and fish that you could feed from your hand made it quite wonderful at times.
I had 2 dogs with me, my lovely Jack Russells. One was a great hunter and would catch rabbits that would be gutted and skinned for the pot. My rabbit pie with cider and sage was legendary though once I’d stopped using a hand axe to chop the carcass I found the pie had much less bone splinters! I ate goose, duck, rabbit, widgeon, pigeon and pheasant all shot by my then partner. I do a mean pigeon curry and a great goose breast stir fry, though I haven’t now for a while.
My first year had me chopping wood, doing my own washing and changing gas bottles taking them in and out of the lockers. I was fit, I was healthy and I loved it. I also helped sand down all 52 foot of the outsides and top as well as the inside and ceiling which were then painted and varnished. We ‘blacked its bum’ with thick black bitumen and I used to kayak around the boat when it was in the water and used the paddle to scrape the gunk off the bow when it was in the water.
I met some great people too and loved coming into the marina at dusk after a trip to the pub to be greeted by scores lit by torch light as we navigated our way in. We never achieved a full 10 but the cackle of deep laughter is something I won’t forget as it gave me the huge sense of being home. There was the married retired couple who’d sold their house to live on the water, the single dad who was doing his boat up and was slightly obsessed with getting an almost mirror like sheen to the side of his boat rubbing it down to the metal and starting again. There were the weekend boaters who would come, polish, have a cup of tea and go home and then there was me. The student living with a policeman partner who adored all aspects of narrow boats and living on a boat.
It was never really tidy but certainly homely and we had lots of visitors. People squeezed in to stay sleeping either on the sofa bed taking up the entire living bit or just on the floor in a sleeping bag. They wrestled with our Paloma water heater that would scare the heck out of me as a pipe would come off and shoot boiling hot steam onto the kitchen tiles which meant you couldn’t shower until it was fixed. The bathroom was on the side with no heating and you always had to have the window open otherwise it got damp so it was a memorable event having a wash or shower on it!
I now live in a house but I do miss the boat. I miss the freedom, the lazy but hard way of life, the ability to opt in and out of society when and if you felt like it. Cruising down the canal you go for days without actually having a deep conversation with anyone and this sometimes, suits me fine. One day I’ll be on another boat and I intend to cruise all of the canals of England during my retirement. I won’t have my 2 lovely dogs but I will have my hubbie, probably a manic family dog and I would hope my 3 lovely sons will join us on part of our journey –they’d be very welcome to do the locks and bridges! I’ll write my novel that by then will be bursting out of me whilst chugging down the ‘cut’ as it’s known with my hubbie bringing me cups of tea with no place really to get to. A pub supper and then back to bed to listen to the birds chattering away, feel the wind pushing the boat in the water and to drift off feeling some sense of contentment. A dream well worth aspiring to…