From the moment you close the gates you feel like you’ve left London completely. With traffic noise muffled to a hush all that remains is nature itself.
This is the joy of living on London’s canals. Very much seen as a wish to turn one’s back on the consumer society, it is also a good way to get budget accommodation in an expensive area and a chance to wake up to the view of water within the city of London.
I’m here on the Grand Union Canal near Ladbroke Grove, visiting the floating marital abode of Zoe & Matt. Never one’s to conform too readily to the accepted fashion, I thought it a most fitting decision nearly 2 years ago when they both decided to abandon stable groundings for watery moorings. It goes by the name of “lemon” and is not a barge but a “Regent’s Canal lighter ship”. It has no motor and would’ve carried goods like wood and coal along the canal towed by horse.
Canal networks were built in London around 1800 for the transportation of goods to the rest of the country. By the 1840’s railways had taken over and in 1956 the last horse drawn commercial traffic came to an end following the introduction of motor tractors. Canals are now mostly used as a leisure facility.
There is duality in those who choose to live a life of exploration and those who prefer to remain in permanent mooring. Though their lack of motor gives them no choice, Zoe and Matt fall under the latter category. For permanent station on the canal you need to apply for an official residential mooring. Often, the mooring works out to be more expensive than the boat itself.
Observing the neighbouring narrowboats, one can see that great love and pride is taken to the external appearance. Each mooring has a strip of land that most have transformed into beautiful tiny gardens, complete with fruit and vegetable patches, bird houses and charming seated areas. Zoe tells me of the instant bond that unites her and Matt with their neighbours.
Whether it’s through pride of their joint unique way of living, or simply as a way of banding together in their “exposed to the elements” situation, there is, indeed, a protective camaraderie amongst canal dwellers. Their side of the canal is closed to the public, so there is not too much danger of burglary or vandalism. Yet there is still the danger of it. Zoe and Matt have to make sure “lemon” is totally secure before they retire each evening. Despite low overheads, they still have to concern themselves with the constant concerns to access to water, fuel and electricity. Water comes from another boat and has to be pumped in and out. The fuel generator is also re-charged from another boat. As for the electricity, the moorings are connected to the mains but you have to top up the meter with a card. This requires frequent queueing. This is clearly not one of Zoe’s favourite chores either. I can imagine the frustration when you’re queueing whilst running late for work with the prospect of running out of light when you get home.
The occasional boat traffic also serves as a great distraction for their cat, “Captain”. Whilst his brother “Pooballoon”(spoken in a French accent) prefers safe, domestic bliss with his owners, Captain opts for the fearless explorer route. Taking great interest in both stationery and moving boats, he often finds himself going unvoluntarily on holiday. The furthest Captain has travelled, so far, is Amersham. The owner of the boat took pity and had his microchip scanned. The time after that it was to Maida Vale courtesy of the fuel boat. They eventually managed to track his whereabouts through word of mouth. These hazards, however distressful as they may be, seem only to create a more pro-active and generous nature amongst barge dwellers.
Sitting on the roof with Zoe watching the sun set while Matt makes margaritas in the kitchen below, I can’t quite get over the pricelessness of the situation. As the evening progresses and we move indoors, I also realize just how big their dwelling is. Far bigger than a barge, I doubt half of London dwellers would be able to boast the same size living room. Undeniably the summer can bring much more pleasure to living on the canal than winter can. In their first winter they were very much unprepared and nearly froze to death. They have learned their lesson the hard way and now adapted accordingly.
Yet you can’t escape the magic and charm of living on the canal. As I shut the gate behind me and re-immerse myself in the hustle and bustle of Ladbroke Grove, I catch myself saying, “Now wouldn’t it be nice if………”
NEXT WEEK: inside the heights and depths of TOWER BRIDGE