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The artists, and others, of the floating world

by Peter Watts, 3rd December 2006

A very young Peter Watts escaped his parents’ Surrey home to become a boat sitter for an English summer. Seven years later he declares that for him, ‘boat life’ is over. And what was life like as part of the floating world moored on a strip of water near some of London’s Boho areas? It sounded…eventful.

canal_boat

20 April, 2003

Heading north from the Surrey suburbs, the back seat of my dad’s car stacked with clothes, books and CDs, it all seemed simple. I was a boat sitter, pure and simple, looking after a canal boat moored in Lisson Grove (where was that? Who cared?) for a couple of months, just the summer, while I waited for something better, something drier, to come along. It was a foothold into London life, but no more. I certainly wouldn’t be there for long.

That was seven years ago. This summer I’ll finally be packing up similar bric-a-brac, much of it the same in fact, and heading back south over the water, back to dry land. Boat life is over; while it lasted, it was everything. In the summer of 1996, Dazzler was – is, the old girl still exists after all – a small, slapdash, cosy vessel, ineptly painted and just 23 feet from bow to stern. But inside was everything that a young man, newly freed from home, would ever need. TV, fridge, oven, shower, toilet, double bed and an 0171 telephone number; Camden was a mile in one direction, Notting Hill a mile in the other and the West End just a short trek south. Idyllic. The mooring itself was ludicrously unattractive, a slab of urban ugliness slapped between the twin charms of Regent’s Park and picture perfect Little Venice (‘Do you live in Little Venice?’ people would ask. ‘Not quite,’ I’d reply).

On one side of the ragged and uneven towpath, weeds spilling through the cracks, was a huge, brown-brick electrical substation that, we would proudly boast, was once an IRA target. Intermittently, it would let forth a monstrous, shuddering belch as it poured electricity through the wires that ran along the road at the top of the towpath. On the other side of the canal was a massive, grey and sprawling housing estate, built upon the site of an old boatyard and now home to lairy kids who, every school holiday without fail, would pelt our pretty, targetable boats with stones, bricks and bottles. ‘A narrowboat? It must be so peaceful,’ people would ask. ‘Not quite,’ I’d reply.

At first, my fellow boaters were an intimidating lot. They’d gather by the largest boat, so big it was moored parallel with the towpath rather than sticking out into the canal as the others were. It was a long, hot summer and the crowds would stand at the nearby barbecue drinking, chatting and laughing, everybody brown and weathered, with hands and torsos lined by ropes and engines and the hard outdoors. They’d fall silent as I, pasty pale and thin with unmarked skin, walked past. One or two would maybe nod in vague recognition. ‘New lad, Dazzler,’ the whispered explanation would follow me aboard, where I would shut the curtains and turn up the music to drown out carousing that lasted long into the night.

It was thanks to my next-door neighbour that I broke through and became an honorary boater. She was my age, bright, attractive, posh and loud. Great fun. A bit loopy. A powerful personality, she forced her friendship upon me, and me upon my neighbours. I learnt who they were: the actors, perennially resting, the couriers, students, bankrupts, welders, writers, dossers and drinkers; riff-raff, drifters from the acceptable fringes of society. Once a year this patchwork neighbourhood would, in its entirety, up moorings and take their boats round the London ring, from Paddington to Limehouse, Limehouse along the Thames to Brentford, and from there back to north London. Friends, and neighbours in their homes, waving to each other and taking photographs as they passed the houses of Parliament.

Nights on the ring, like nights on the towpath, would be fabulous social affairs. Barbecues would last all summer long. Some times, you’d be on your way home, or heading out, on a Friday night and be asked to stop and have a drink with one of the gossipy groups that would inevitably congregate along the towpath at the first sight of sunshine. Bottle followed bottle and so Friday would slip into Saturday and Saturday would become Sunday. Lazy, warm and indolent. Before long I came to recognise another pattern: one of new arrivals. Although I felt it had taken me an age to be accepted I soon realised that it had happened practically overnight. So it was with others. You’d meet them briefly one weekend; a week later they’d be talking to your old friends as if they were their old friends. Also familiar was the way I’d been dragged in – renting for a few months and staying for a few years. Fresh faces – passing friends or overnight guests – would still be there weeks, months, years later, joining the throng round the barbecue, laughing at joggers and in turn scrutinising new faces. It had that appeal, that attraction for a certain kind of person.

Time passes and things change and London’s creeping gentrification is difficult even for this hardbitten community to avoid. A new breed cottoned on to our secret life. ‘But boats in central London must be very expensive?’ people would asked. ‘Not quite,’ I’d reply.

Boaters realised that the floating houses they owned were fetching London property-market rates. Drifters by nature, they moved on and away, to other ways of life, to other moorings in other parts of the country. Having appeared abruptly, they faded away, appearing less and less frequently, their places taken by bankers and managers and assorted nine-to-fivers. Or so it seems.

Some remain, those who make a living off the boats and off the new green boaters, still gathering in ever decreasing circles to chuckle about the newbies and exchange news about old friends. Stories are swapped. Of Pump-Out Mick, who sold a boat he didn’t own and disappeared, rumour has it, when he was told he had months to live. Of the bon vivant banker turned vicar, who married my next-door neighbour and took their boat to Cambridge. Of Irish Eddie, whose wife would return from work to measure his mood by the amount of wine he’d consumed – ‘so it’s been a two bottle lunch has it Eddie?’ she’d say, if he was being particularly gregarious. Of others: Frank and Buzz, Yorkshire Mick and Smiley Pete. ‘You must have met some interesting characters,’ people would ask. Quite.

Copyright 2003 Independent Newspapers UK Limited

About the author: Peter Watts

Peter Watts wrote this article for The Independent (London).