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7 Reasons For Living on a Narrowboat

Updated on February 14, 2016
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Life afloat

With house prices rising rapidly in the UK, especially London, more and more people are attracted to living in Britain's unique waterways. They usually do so in traditional canal boats - or narrowboats. These can be up to 72' in length and most are only 6' wide (though some known as 'broadbeams' can be 12' wide!).

Why live aboard?

People decide to try living on a narrowboat for a variety of reasons - and the people you'll meet as you do so vary enormously. There are those who choose it for the lifestyle; free to roam due to flexible employment or retirement. Others do so to see the countryside - it's a wonderful way to explore. Others do it for economic reasons - a downpayment on a boat is far lower than a house. There's a new majority around places like London or Oxford of young professionals, attracted to the romance of the lifestyle and the cheaper living costs. Others find that they end up stuck on a canal boat for longer than they thought - some who have lost employment or fancied a change after a difficult period in life.

Would you consider living on a boat?

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There are lots of ways to try out the waterways.

  • You can try it out by taking a few weeks on a holiday boat for around £1000 per week. Companies vary depending on the location of their marina, but black prince are one I can vouch for!
  • You can borrow a friends boat for a bit
  • You can buy a boat with or without a mooring. If the boat has a mooring it could cost around £100k + a monthly mooring fee. Without a mooring you might be able to pick up a boat for around half that - though boats in varying states of disrepair can be even less. There are some well known boat brokers, including apolloduck and boatsandoutboards.
  • You can use a legal 'management company', like Escape the Rat Race or Laughing Dog Boats to live on a boat for a longer time. These providers give you a fully insured and licensed experience for a few months upwards (and they take care of repairs for you), whereas other informally listed arrangements that you might find on gumtree are often uninsured and illegal.


Regardless of why people come to be on the water, here are the 7 reasons why they either choose to stay or move away.

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You enter an incredible community

I don't know anywhere else that you can choose your neighbours. I moored up next to a boat and popped over for a drink; the couple I met quickly became some of my best friends.

You can cruise with them if you want, or go on a trip together.

Boaters look after their own. If someone is playing around with your boat when they shouldn't be, they're likely to get a talking to from a neighbour - even if you don't know them. If something happens somewhere that isn't great, word travels down through the boating community. Online forums are making this easier and easier.

It can feel a bit like the Good Life

The Good Life was a UK TV series from the 1970's where a couple lived as subsistence farmers in their back garden. They were in the middle of a city, yet deeply tied to nature. Sometimes boating life can feel a little similar. You gain a new appreciation for how much electricity appliances use and how much water you use.

In a big urban environment it is really nice to be able to go back to what feels like the countryside in the heart of the city. Especially when you can moor up in places right in the centre - next to all the cool restaurants and coffee shops, without having to feel like you are doing so. It can feel a bit more natural. All the perks of the countryside - but with only some of the downsides.

It can be a lot cheaper.

This depends on how you do it. If you pay to stay put in the same place then you need to work out a mooring - either from a private landowner or by paying for a designated spot. They can work out at hundreds of pounds a month but vary enormously from city to city.

If you pay a continuous cruising license, then you have to move around quite a bit but buying a boat isn't too expensive. You can get on the water in a nice boat for less than £50k and then you only pay for your fuel and license.

It can be a lot of work

Sometimes it can feel a bit like having a baby. Every few weeks the boat needs watering, filling up with diesel and coal and the toilet tanks need to be emptied. Even before you talk about moving it around (e.g. on a continuous cruising licence), every boat has a different rhythm.

I've now lived on two different boats and in each case struggled during the first winter with making sure I was stocked up properly. It's hard to know when things are about to run out or tanks are going to fill up - it's not very pleasant when they have done so. However, sooner or later you can get the hang of it and settle in to a rhythm.

Continuously moving around can hit at the worst of times - moving in the pouring rain; freezing cold; and finding that there aren't spaces available where you wanted to moor up really isn't fun.

It's a guaranteed conversation starter.

I rather stumbled in to living aboard. What surprised me most was just how many people I spoke to who shared that it had always been a dream of theirs.

So many people apparently have always wanted to live on a boat, that if you mention that you do you get no end of questions.

It's a great conversation starter; though after a while I did find myself trying to avoid telling people I lived on a boat - the questions you get in response are often pretty similar (how do you get electricity; what do you do for heating etc).

You'll have some incredible memories.

New Years day cruises, breaking ice and kicking off the day with plenty of friends sitting on the roof with a guitar strumming in the background?

Warm cozy nights by the fire. Glorious sunshine glinting through the windows in the spring.

Ducks and geese swimming up to the side of the boat and feeding them bread. Feeling close to nature. Freedom to moor up next to amazing pubs and restaurants. Wonderful friends. The ability to go anywhere and see anything. Intimate access to Britain's industrial revolution history. Boat-based cafe's and book shops and cinemas.

There's something for everyone.

The novelty can begin to wear off.

When I first moved on, all of my friends thought it was the coolest thing in the world.They wanted to come to visit and I had no end of volunteers to help me move it around.

2-3 years later and we tend to meet up in restaurants instead. Most people tend to stay onboard for a limited amount of time - either because they get to save for their house deposit or they move on to another part of the world (nomadic boaters are often fascinating itinerant creative types).

For me, 3 years is about the right length of time to do it. It's a wonderful experience and I'd recommend it to anyone. It's far nicer than living in a tiny little studio flat; much cheaper, and an amazing way to travel around and see all of the city.

It will be a sad day when I do move on - but live has a way of doing that. New seasons come and we get to look back with fondness on the life we chose.

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