On England’s canals, boaters embrace the peace and pace of a floating life

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Written by Megan Specia

On a damp June afternoon, a floating home bobbed gently on the Oxford Canal, where it was moored just outside the village of Little Bourton, a blip on the map with just one pub.

Rachel Bruce and her husband, Chris Hall, have called this idyllic spot northwest of London home for a few days, looking out from the hull of their canal boat, the Glenrich V, over sweeping fields where the wind blowing through the long grass made a low hiss.

But it was time to discover their next patch. So the mooring pins were freed, and Bruce, 31, steered away from the bank. Their boat set off at the pace of a swift walk as it passed through the hulking wooden and steel gates of the canal’s locks.

A group of five ducklings skimmed the water in a V-shape. Kayakers hurried along, quickly bypassing their boat. The vivid yellow of buttercups peeked through the high grass on the towpath.

“We’re just feeling like we’ve made a very good life decision at the moment,” Bruce said about the couple’s choice a few weeks ago to give up their stationary lives to begin a slow traverse of England’s canal network.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, more people around the globe are reevaluating their living situations, with greater flexibility thanks to remote work. And in Britain, more people are choosing to call these canals — and the narrow boats used to navigate them — home.

Chris Hall and Rachel Bruce on their canal boat on the Oxford Canal near Banbury, England, June 19, 2021. (Andrew Testa/The New York Times)

The canals, a vast network once used to move goods across the country, cut their way through Britain’s countryside and meander through town and city centers. But after being replaced by trains and highways, they fell into disrepair.

Since the 1960s, though, they have been painstakingly restored and become popular for leisure cruising. And for many people, the appeal of turning weekend jaunts or weeklong trips into a permanently mobile lifestyle is becoming increasingly irresistible.

Tanmim Hussain, 46, a driving instructor and mother of four who lives in North London, bought a canal boat this summer. She felt she would never be able to afford to own an apartment or house in London, and the pandemic made her eager to get out of the city anyway.

“I decided, let’s just be adventurous and throw yourself into something, and see how it goes,” she said. For now, she has kept her London rental and spends weekends on the boat, cruising with her family from village to village.

For Bruce and Hall, the stresses of work, a mental health struggle and deaths in the family in the last year made them feel the need for change. Plus, they had long wanted to shake free of what had begun to feel monotonous and flat.

“All of the circumstances of last year just gave us that final push over the edge,” said Hall, 32. “It kind of just felt like doing this is taking back control a little bit.”

Within a week of looking at their first boat, they bought it, committing to giving up their decadelong London life and making the 6-foot-10-inch wide, 50-foot-long steel boat — which they call the Glen — their permanent home. They paid 42,000 pounds, or about $58,000.

Although the boat is powered by diesel, the couple say they use less fossil fuels and resources than they did in London. This is also part of the appeal, they say. They have two solar panels to power a refrigerator and small electronics, and a Wi-Fi router to get online and for Hall’s work as a technology consultant.

Life on board is tight but comfortable, with a small seating area next to a wood-burning stove, decorated with succulents and a stack of board games at the ready. A small kitchenette with a gas stovetop is steps away, and farther along the hull is a bathroom with a composting toilet. In the back of the boat is the bedroom, with a double bed and small closet.

The interior of a canal boat for sale at Whilton Marina near Daventry, England, on July 4, 2021. (Andrew Testa/The New York Times)

Boat retailers are seeing more first-time buyers like Bruce and Hall, and they say the pandemic has been a factor.

“It’s become a little haven really during the coronavirus — living on a narrow boat and keeping yourself to yourself,” said Adrian Dawson, a sales executive for Whilton Marina, on the Grand Union Canal in Northamptonshire.

The Canal & River Trust, which is responsible for 2,000 miles of waterways across England and Wales, says there are now 35,130 boats wending their way across the country’s canals — more than at the height of the Industrial Revolution.

Life on a rustic canal boat is not all romance. Water tanks need filling, toilet waste needs emptying and tight quarters mean little space for luxuries.

Plus boaters without a permanent mooring have to move every 14 days and travel at least 21 miles a year, under Canal & River Trust rules.

In London, where houseboats have long been an affordable alternative to more traditional living arrangements, boat owners protested in June against new regulations they fear will drive them from their homes, laying bare some of the tensions at play as the waterways become more crowded.

Then there’s the little matter of winter: Icy canals, slippery surfaces and staying warm while navigating are all a challenge.

Bruce and Hall have their aches to remind them that their muscles are not yet fully accustomed to this life. Unfamiliar with the ins and outs of boat maintenance and navigation, they’ve had a steep learning curve and have relied on online forums and a guidebook for help.

“It felt a bit terrifying to buy a hunk of steel with an engine when you know nothing about any of those things,” Bruce said. “But then the second I felt a little bit scared about that I was like, ‘This is what I need in my life.’”

They have noticed some divisions within the world of canal boating — for example, when an older couple with a flashy boat tsked and tutted as they made their way a little clumsily through a lock.

But they have also found a thriving community of like-minded fellow boaters who are quick to lend their expertise.

“I feel like we probably all have something in common,” Bruce said. “You know: loving the canals for the peace and the pace, and not tasting and smelling polluted air. And being able to hear the birds when you’re sitting out having tea.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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