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Living on a Houseboat | The Times


The Times | 19 December 2011

A wobbly way to solve
the housing crisis

Photo:  Rob Sturges

It’s not all Pimm’s on a houseboat — in January it was as cold in my kitchen as it was outside

When the Thames commuter catamarans and sightseeing boats go past, my home gives a little wobble — not enough to dislodge crockery, thankfully, but enough to remind me that I live afloat. Yes, the view from my back deck is of Tower Bridge to the left and Canary Wharf to the right , and all around me the river gushes in and out twice a day, muddy, grey and turbulent.

This year the Housing Minister Grant Shapps, ever preoccupied with Britain’s housing problem, came out in favour of increasing the number of moorings up and down the country so that more people can live closer to their work. He’s on the money — I walk or cycle almost everywhere — but, when buying a boat, the issue is always where to put it. “There are waiting lists for almost all sites,” the Government admits. But once you have overcome this hurdle, is it a life of Pimm’s on deck and barbecues with the neighbours?

In short, yes. In our community of almost 100 souls there are good friends who like to get together. December is especially sociable as each of the two dozen or so boats here is invited to sign up to host a “lighting-up party”, whereby you stick up fairy lights and have open house of mulled wine, hot soup and mince pies.

Whenever boat people sit down together, the dinner-party chat will turn inevitably to poo — you can’t avoid it. The subject of black (sewage) tanks and pump-out hoses comes up with amazing regularity. One neighbour even had to cancel his lighting-up party at the last minute last year because his black tank was overflowing and the pump-out hose was frozen solid (“unforeseen circumstances”). The other night, however, we did have a chat about fenders, which made a change. My portside neighbours and Ilka are bumping hard into each other’s fenders, which shakes me awake. Ilka is 27m long and 5m wide but her steel hull can be as little as 4mm thick. It’s a worry.

If summer is spent eating and drinking outdoors, growing veg and enjoying the floating gardens that are our walkways, the onset of winter means charging about trying to get all those jobs done that you put off when the sun was shining. Heat is nice. My diesel boiler, running eight radiators in three cabins, two heads (bathrooms) and the saloon (sitting room) packed up two days before Christmas last year and didn’t work again all winter. In January it was exactly the same temperature in the kitchen as it was outside, so I thought I might as well open the door and at least enjoy the view.

I have two wood-burning stoves, thankfully, so winter means heaving 25kg bags of smokeless fuel from the street down to the boat, keeping a ready supply of kindling and borrowing and lending all this to neighbours as we run out. Not everyone is as well insulated at Ilka, so for them an electric blanket is the answer — and then there’s the usual condensation and mould, from which happily Ilka doesn’t seem to suffer. But time is pressing and I need to finish varnishing the mast, cut up kindling and clean my flues. And there’s still that water in the bilge . . .


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