The death of the London houseboat dream
Why a way of life on the capital's waters is under threat
Morning — there’s a grim sense with London’s housing crisis that it’s a bit of a black hole, sucking in more and more of life in the capital. Schools are closing because families are priced out. Rough sleeping has surged. And now, Londoners who live on the city’s canals and rivers fear they’ll be pulled in next.
For our big read today, we’re looking at the death of the London houseboat dream — how a way of life roaming the city’s waters risks extinction. Mooring bans, fee hikes and increased surveillance are among the concerns of itinerant boaters, who are now actively rebelling against new rules in parts of the capital. But the organisation in charge says it’s been forced to act by the pressures of a growing megacity like London.
A couple of quick things first:
Families of the victims of the Brixton Academy crush have criticised the performer on the night, Asake, for not giving them enough support. Police are currently appealing for more witnesses of the tragedy to come forward.
The Elizabeth Line has "not met the consistently high standards" expected by Londoners, Sadiq Khan has said. The mayor’s remarks follow passengers being trapped on the line for hours earlier this month, and more generally a poor record of delays and cancellations since opening.
Plans to cut more than 100 seats from the Curzon Cinema in Mayfair are set for approval. There’s currently a high-profile legal and planning battle over the future of the Grade II listed cinema.
Weekly carolling on Columbia Road has been cancelled after going viral on TikTok. Some attendees apparently had panic attacks trying to escape the “thousands”-strong crowd at the final event this month.
An Indian ‘vaccine prince’ has made the most expensive house purchase in London of the year — a £138m mansion near Hyde Park. It’s also the second most expensive property ever sold in the capital.
Tooting Bec Lido has finally reopened after essential repair works closed the pool for over a year. Chilly winter dip, anyone?
Someone’s been filmed leading a camel through a housing estate in east London. No reports of wise men though.
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Fear and loathing by the towpath
Boating in London isn’t all glamour, as Toby Osmond tells it. “I've seen toilet tanks explode on people,” he says laughing over the phone. Slightly more pained, he also recalls recently forking out £1,500 for a survey of his boat for holes. But then Toby’s tone turns serious: “People fall in the water in mid-winter, in the freezing cold. I know people who have died on the river, you know. It's not an easy lifestyle. It's not for everyone.”
For a growing number of Londoners, the risks are worth it. Houseboat living is more popular than ever in the capital, as extortionate rents and house prices on land push people out onto the water. There were 2,000 boats on the city’s waters back in 2010 — today there are more than 4,000. The prospect of a boat of one’s own, without a landlord, has attracted all sorts — from freelance creatives to full-time commuters. Some are simply drawn to the sense of adventure; the opportunity to roam London’s network of canals and rivers, never spending more than a week or two in the same spot. For others, like those with Traveller heritage, living on a boat is just something their family has done for generations.
But as 2023 draws to a close, some of London’s urban boaters are raising the alarm. They say their way of life — itinerant boating — is under threat, with decades-long efforts to push them out of the city finally coming to a head. Spots to moor their boats are disappearing. New fees are being introduced that could squeeze them out. All the while surveillance of how they and their boats are moving around the city is increasing. Put together, the boaters fear the wandering London houseboat is on the cusp of extinction — fading from the capital like other alternative ways of living, such as guardianship or squatting. Something Londoners used to be able to do, aside from rent or buy.
Strongly disagreeing with that version of events is the Canal and River Trust (CRT). A charity that manages London’s waterways on behalf of the public, the CRT argues its hand is being forced by rising congestion. It’s also facing pressure on two other fronts: a cut to its budget from central government, and the demands of other users of the water, like rowers. It’s all brought a question into sharp focus: who are London’s waters for?
London boating 101
There are two ways to live on a boat in London. The first is to get a permanent mooring — a fixed parking spot for your boat, in one of the boatyards and marinas found throughout the city. They come with stability and security, and sometimes amenities like power and showers — but for a price. From the boaters the Spy spoke to, rents for permanent moorings are basically equivalent to those on land. Even the cheapest spot would clock in at around £500 to £600 a month — in the same ballpark as a single room in a London house share.
So instead, the cheaper option is to become an itinerant boater — also known as a ‘constant cruiser’, depending on who you ask. You don’t pay for a fixed base anywhere. Instead, you moor up for free wherever there’s space by the towpath, abiding by a key rule: move on within two weeks. And you’re required to properly move on, covering a good number of miles throughout the year, rather than just rotating between a few select spots. In London, that basically means chugging along the Grand Union Canal in the west — Ladbroke Grove, Maida Vale, Paddington — the Regent’s Canal in central — King’s Cross, Camden, Angel — then up the River Lea in the east — Hackney Wick, Clapton, Walthamstow. All-in-all there’s 100 miles of waterways in London, though some wander beyond the city’s boundaries throughout the year to get their miles in. Constant cruising is far and away the most popular boat living option in the capital — of those living aboard in London and the South East, 80% are constant cruisers versus 20% with a permanent mooring, a recent CRT survey found. And to be water-legal, all you need to do is pay CRT for a licence — currently £1,100 for the year for a typical narrowboat — and adorn your boat with your licence number.
That’s what Toby and his partner opted for back in December 2019, as they made their move onto the water. Toby is an actor, who you may recognise from his role in HBO’s Game of Thrones as the Prince of Dorne. His move from living in an east London warehouse to itinerant boating was well-timed — the Covid pandemic hit just a few months later and shut down the hospitality sector, his source of income when between acting gigs. “I don’t know what we’d have done if I hadn’t bought the boat,” he says in conversation with the Spy. “As an actor whose backup job has always been pulling pints, it was a blessing”. Toby lives on a boat named Shady Lady — a 30-year-old Norfolk Broads cruiser, coloured white and blue on account of its fibreglass material. It’s also a wider class of boat — more roomy than the narrowboats typically found on London’s canals.
Toby has become well accustomed to his itinerant lifestyle over the past four years: “I enjoy it. I get itchy feet if I'm in one place too long. I move anything from a kilometre to five kilometres every two weeks”. And he’s found much in common with the other boaters: "There's a lot of self-employed actors, people in the creative industries. People do a lot of volunteer work, charity work, traditionally low-paid sector work. I know nurses on boats. I know all sorts of people.”
But when you speak to Toby, it’s clear he’s picked up something else while on London’s waters — a feeling of not being wanted by the authorities. He’s blunt in his assessment of the CRT’s approach to itinerant boaters: “They just don’t like us.” One story he tells is of a time he went to a CRT event, when a rep began to complain about itinerant boats looking rundown and having leaky engines. He was shocked by the attitude. “What if a landlord was like 'Some of the people in my block are struggling financially and they haven't painted their front door’?” He also recalls run-ins with the CRT’s rangers, who patrol the towpaths, electronic tablets in hand, checking boats are properly moving on. Just last year he was put on “naughty boy step” and had his licence restricted by the CRT, after he was spotted turning around on the River Lea to avoid a low bridge, and so failed to clock in enough miles. Toby has a sense of always being monitored: “Plenty of times they've emailed saying, ‘Oh, you haven't moved.’ And then I show them a picture of my boat by a Tesco a mile away or something and they're like, ‘Oh, yeah, okay.’”
The bad blood between those who wander London’s waters and those who manage it goes back decades — from before the CRT replaced its publicly-owned predecessor, British Waterways, in 2012. But there’s one moment, in 2017, which has brought on a recent souring of relations. The publication of a document now infamous within the city’s itinerant boating community: the London Mooring Strategy.
In the view of the CRT, London’s waters now have one basic problem: there are just too many boats.
And in 2017, it had some stark stats to back its case up. Through data its rangers had gathered by spotting passing boats, the CRT said numbers in the capital had grown from around 2,300 in 2010 to 4,000 in 2017. A further boat count published in 2020 shows most of that increase has been boats without a permanent mooring — from 400 in 2010 to 1,900 by 2017, and then 2,100 by 2020. Boats with a permanent mooring, by contrast, had only grown from 1,600 to 1,800 in the same period.
The boom meant cracks were beginning to show in London’s aquatic infrastructure, which, for the most part, was built 200 years ago — a product of the city’s industrial history. As boat numbers swelled, the CRT pointed to increasing wear and tear and damage to London’s locks, banks, and waterway walls. It cited strain on its facilities — particularly its ballooning costs dealing with boaters’ waste and refuse. It claimed many boaters were struggling to find spots in waterways lined either side with boats, sometimes doubled or tripled moored up against each other. “London’s canals and rivers were not designed for the current type, or volume, of usage,” the CRT wrote, “so we need to work had [sic] to make sure they are managed and maintained for current and future generations to use and enjoy”. It added: “We know that the increased number of boats in London has put off many people from boating in London.”
That was the problem aimed at by London Mooring Strategy — first drafted in 2017, then published in its final form the following year. In it, the CRT laid out its grand plan for tackling congestion. For itinerant boaters, the document was apocalyptic. The CRT was proposing to scrap the 14-day mooring rule in some central London locations, reducing the maximum stay to two days. Even worse, the CRT was proposing to bring in new, pre-bookable mooring spots — ones that boaters would need to pay for nightly, rather than stay at for free. More towpath rangers would be hired to patrol and enforce the new rules. The National Bargee Travellers Association (NBTA), a group that represents itinerant boaters across the UK, called the plans “a recipe for gentrification”. Boaters were placed on a war footing.
In the following years, the CRT would begin consulting on its plans — though it was blown off course slightly by the pandemic. But one consultation, carried out between December 2021 and April 2022, was particularly revealing of the feeling on the water. “Polarized,” to quote the CRT’s own description of the results. Most (46%) had said the pre-bookable spots would make it more difficult to boat in London, versus 38% saying it would make it easier. But opposition was even fiercer amongst continuous cruisers who live aboard. They overwhelmingly (72%) said it’d make boating harder. Just one type of London boater welcomed the plans — leisure boaters who had permanent moorings, with 65% saying things would get easier. Yet the CRT wasn’t phased — it pressed ahead.
Finally, this summer, five years after the CRT’s strategy was published, the first pre-bookable, paid-for spots have opened in London. Nestled at Rembrandt Gardens in Little Venice, a stone’s throw from Paddington, the CRT is now taking online bookings for six moorings. They cost £25 a night — or £175 for the max 7-day stay. “It’s really made everyone go ‘Oh, my God’”, says Matt Smith, another itinerant boater who spoke to the Spy.
Like Toby, Matt is a Covid boater. He picks up the phone just after finishing with a customer at the barber shop in Soho where he works. When the pandemic shut down the hairdressing industry, Matt, a former builder, took up a job at a site in Surrey, while still paying the rent on his London flat. He’d just bought a boat beforehand though, initially for leisure. So midway through 2020, he decided to end his tenancy agreement and make a move onto the water. “It's something I've always wanted to do, even before seeing it as a way to live in London and not have to pay extortionate rent prices,” says Matt. “You've got everything you need in a tiny little space, and it's yours. I own it outright. I haven't got a landlord.”
Matt is outraged at the new Paddington moorings. “Where you've been able to moor for the last 200 years since that canal was dug, you can't moor there now unless you pay £25 a night”. He says the change has mobilised many itinerant boaters, who fear the practice could spread to all of London’s water network. “The NBTA had a meeting not long after these moorings went live. Usually like five, six people turn up, but there were 300 people that night. It's really rattled everyone because we've chosen this lifestyle, because of the way it is and the way it works. And now that's being changed.”
Having treated Paddington as a trial, the CRT now says more of the paid-for moorings are on the way — sites at Kings Cross and Sweetwater in the Olympic Park in Stratford are next. The gradual rollout is, in Matt’s view, an intentional part of CRT’s strategy. “Doing it bit by bit takes the sting out,” he says. But the CRT insists it’s an approach that’s required for the capital’s busier spots. “As anyone who has boated in central London recently will tell you, it can get very busy, and it’s more important than ever that we manage the finite space fairly to meet the needs of a wide range of boaters,” said Matthew Symonds, CRT boating strategy and engagement manager, not long after the Padding moorings were launched.
More broadly, both Toby and Matt disagree with the underlying premise of the London Mooring Strategy: that the city’s waterways really are that overcrowded. While they concede they’ve seen more boats in recent years, they say that, fundamentally, London’s waterways aren’t at full capacity. “They [CRT] cherrypick their statistics,” says Toby. “You could look at, say, London Fields and Broadway Market on a sunny summer Saturday or Sunday, and you'd see a load of boaters going past. And then you could look at the same spot in winter on a weekday and you wouldn't see a single boat move all day. So I question how they're getting their statistics.” He also wonders why more boats would even cause such a problem for managing the waterways. “If there is an increase in boat numbers, what's the issue? That should mean increased revenue from license fees for CRT.”
A sceptic may ask at this point: why not just avoid these hotspots when boating in the capital? The reply from those like Toby or Matt is that it isn’t just central London where rules are changing for itinerant boaters. Things had been getting ugly on the edge of the city for some time now.
The rowing row
One photo sums up the growing tension between living and leisure on London’s waters. Taken in February 2022, it shows a man leaning over the side of the towpath on the River Lea, taking an angle grinder to metal rungs just above the surface of the water. He’s a member of staff for the Lea Rowing Club in Hackney — an organisation that’s found itself in the middle of a boater rebellion in east London.
When the CRT set its sights on tackling congestion on the capital’s canals and rivers in 2017, it didn’t only have boaters in mind. Another objective of the London Mooring Strategy was to find a way to ease flaring conflict between boaters and other users of the city’s waters. Many Londoners take up water sports in their free time, like rowing and kayaking. There’s even a community of anglers in the city too, who hunt in both central and outer London for urban fishing spots. With boat numbers growing, these other water users were struggling to find room for their pursuits, the CRT feared. So a key principle was enshrined in the strategy — “enable space where non-boating canal users can have access to the water (i.e. space where boaters are not moored)”. And the CRT was willing to get tough, “enforcing no-mooring sections where necessary”.
Enter the River Lea ‘water safety zones’, a new initiative from the CRT that sees boaters banned from mooring along some stretches of the river, as it snakes its way out of north east London. One of the zones covers the Lower Lee, between Hackney and Tottenham, while the other is technically in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, though frequented by many London boaters. In principle, the zones and their new no-mooring strips give rowers and other water users on the river more passing space, and more access from the towpath. But if the CRT had hoped the measures would calm the waters, the very opposite has happened — like the pre-bookable spots in Paddington, the zones have awakened boater opposition.
The clearest sign of the coming resistance was in June 2021, when the NBTA organised a protest flotilla on the River Lea in response to the plans. Boaters set off from Walthamstow and made their way down to Hackney Wick, adorning their boats with banners, and chanting music as they went. The display was intended as a celebration of boater culture — but also a warning that the zones, and the reduction in mooring spots, would “decimate” it. A banner fixed to one of the bridges by the flotilla summed up the boater view: #StopTheBoatCull.
The NBTA would eventually claim a partial victory — while the body initially estimated 550 mooring spots would be lost under the zones, changes to the CRT’s plans revised that estimate down to 295. But it was only partial — from January 2022, the CRT’s rangers began to enforce mooring bans on parts of the River Lea. It was in that tense atmosphere — both boaters and rowers waiting to see how the new rules would play out — that the photo of the Lea Rowing Club staff member surfaced. The rungs the member of staff had been removing were safety measures, meant to be used by anyone who fell in the river to get back out. But the Lea Rowing Club claimed boaters had been using them to moor up, near its clubhouse at Springfield Park. While all sides condemned the actions of the staff member, it showed just how charged emotions had become over water space. The rowing club issued an apology for not getting permission for the removals. The NBTA said it was “shocked” by the unilateral move. The CRT also stepped in, with its London and South East branch writing a letter to insist the club would have to pay to repair the rungs. Police had even been asked to investigate — but the CRT said the “contrition” shown by the rowing club meant it wouldn’t press charges.
What the River Lea zones seemed to have unleashed are the consequences of an unagreed history around London’s waters. Itinerant boaters say both precedent and the law are on their side when it comes to their right to moor freely along the river. But the CRT insists it has the right to enforce both existing and new rules. One incident this February spoke volumes about the issues at play, when a boater, Frankie Perry, received a surprise text from the CRT. The trust told her that the mooring rings her boat was tied to at Matchmakers Wharf in Homerton would be abruptly removed at 9am the next morning. Frankie told the Hackney Gazette at the time: “It didn’t occur to me that there were any mooring restrictions in place – there were no signs, it’s not by a bridge or bend, the navigation is wide, and there were mooring rings to tie up to”. But the CRT would claim Frankie was mistaken, that the site was already a no-mooring zone, and that the rings had only been installed for a water bus during the 2012 Olympics. In response, others have reached even further back in time to make the boaters’ case — pointing to photos from the 1950s and 1960s of boats moored in some of the now-banned spots on the River Lea.
As of writing, many itinerant boaters are now actively rebelling along the river and deliberately mooring in some of the spots the CRT is trying to enforce. They stand their ground when the charity’s rangers come by to warn them they’re in violation of the water safety zones. “By law, we’re allowed to,” insists Toby. “The NBTA isn’t fighting every one of the no-mooring spots, just the ones which are unreasonable — i.e. that don’t impede navigation or might not be a hazard for the rowing clubs”. He adds: “We all want the river to be usable and navigable for all”. Policing the rebellion is coming at a sizeable cost to the CRT — a Freedom of Information request sent by the NBTA revealed that by May 2023, the charity had already spent £250,000 on enforcement contracts in relation to the Lea safety zones. But so far the CRT has held off on hitting rebel boaters with the ultimate sanctions — licence restrictions or even outright bans.
The Spy contacted Lea Rowing Club for comment for this piece, though we didn’t hear back. But the club has previously issued a statement welcoming the safety zones when they were first announced: “Over the past 10 years there has been a rapid and unprecedented increase in canal boat numbers moored on the River Lea in Hackney. This has led to a corresponding decrease in water space available for all users. This restriction and congestion has, despite our own best efforts, resulted in an increase in the number of incidents between rowing craft and canal boats. In places, moorings have halved the usable width of the river.” The club highlighted one incident in particular, in April 2021: “An experienced rower had their boat literally smashed in half by an oncoming barge. They were lucky to escape with their life.”
Toby is more cynical about where the CRT’s loyalties lie. “It's not about safety. It's about money. They want to keep the rowers happy. There’s a lot of lawyers, doctors, bankers — wealthy people. Not entirely of course and I'm not saying they're bad people. I love rowing myself. But there's just easily enough space everywhere for all of the boaters.”
London’s itinerant boaters have long suspected the CRT resents being unable to monetise them — after all, a large part of their lifestyle comes for free. But sometimes paying to moor up is one thing. The end of 2023 has brought a new development — itinerant boaters will soon have to pay more just to exist.
What upsets Toby about the recent approach to London’s itinerant boaters is the idea they only pose a cost to the city. He’s keen to speak of the benefits more boats bring to the capital too. Like safer towpaths: “There's less muggings, less bike thefts, less sexual assaults when boats are around”. Or aesthetics: “I'd much rather cycle or jog or walk along a river and see the plethora of different colours and shapes and sizes. A lot of people take pride in their boats and they want them to look beautiful”.
Mooring space aside, there’s one last new challenge to the itinerant boating lifestyle in London — the one the NBTA were most keen to discuss when the Spy originally got in touch. It’s why boaters from London and across the UK gathered outside of the CRT’s headquarters in Birmingham for a rally in November. From April next year, the CRT is introducing an extra licence fee for itinerant boaters only — a hike that will outstrip inflation.
A boat is your obvious first purchase for life as an itinerant boater — as cheap as £10,000 for a small river cruiser, or around £40,000 for a narrowboat, or upwards of £250,000 for a wider boat, like a Dutch Barge. But once on the water, your two main costs are fuel and licence fees. Itinerant boaters had cause for celebration this summer, when they won a long-running campaign for government support to help pay for fuel. Most use either their boat engines or onboard stoves to keep warm — but because they don’t have a fixed energy supplier, they were ineligible for the cost-of-living support available to those on land. After a campaign by the NBTA, in August the government announced it was giving out £600 in backdated fuel support payments.
But months later, in October, the CRT had big news. Like with its other recent measures, the charity said that more boats on the waterways required change — this time to its licensing structure. Each year the CRT raises its annual fee broadly in line with inflation — Toby’s has already increased from £794 in 2020 to £1,060 in 2023. But from next year, an extra surcharge is being introduced for boaters without a home mooring — i.e. itinerant boaters — on top of the standard rises. It’s starting off at 5% from April 2024, then increasing for the next four years. By 2028, it will hit 25% — at least an extra £250 on the typical fee now. It’s also a charge which will disproportionately hit boaters in London — while there’s an 80/20 split between liveaboards without a home mooring and those with one in the city, nationally the split is 50/50.
The CRT says it’s only fair that itinerant boaters pay more because they use the waterways more. The NBTA is far more sceptical — it’s described the surcharge as “a thinly veiled attempt to divide boaters and price itinerant boaters off the water”. Ahead of the boater match in Birmingham, the organisation’s chair, Pamela Smith, said: “CRT’s latest attack on the travelling boater community is discriminatory, unpopular, financially illiterate and is quite possibly unlawful — none of which comes as a surprise given the Trust’s increasingly chaotic mismanagement”. Smith is alluding to another factor at play — the CRT is in dire financial straits. It’s facing a 40% budget cut by 2027, following a new funding deal with central government. Many itinerant boaters suspect they’re just being used to plug the hole.
But for Toby, his fear is what the rise could mean for itinerant boaters already on the edge of their budget in London. “A lot of itinerant voters are some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of the boating community,” he says. “There's people who see it as an affordable way to raise a family in London. People hold down jobs in London that maybe don't pay enough to pay a mortgage, especially now with the recent rent and property increases. It allows people like myself to do self-employed work. And then also I'm able to do things like contribute to society doing the Royal Navy Reserves.” He adds: “If I didn't have my boat, if I had to pay a mortgage or rent and work full-time, I wouldn't be able to do any charity work. I'd have to give up the acting as well. Undoubtedly.”
In Matt’s view, all of the recent changes to boating in London — paid-for spots, mooring bans, increased licence fees — will have a clear impact: changing who can actually boat in the capital. “What I find sad is that boating will be only for a certain demographic,” he says. “And it’s just like — you've got enough. You've got enough already, you know. Stop trying to take everything. You know what I mean?”
When approached for comment about the licensing changes by the Spy, a CRT spokesperson said: “The cost of looking after our ageing canals is increasing while funding from government is reducing, and we must raise money from all our income streams to keep canals open. All boaters will see a price increase of 6%, and we’re asking those who use the network most to pay slightly more.”
On the changes to mooring spots and the River Lea safety zones, the CRT spokesperson said: “While boats and boaters are a vital part of the fabric of the nation’s canals, the housing crisis presents particular challenges in London, with more people choosing to live afloat and boat numbers more than doubling over the past decade.”
They added: “The no-mooring areas being enforced have never been suitable for mooring and no experienced boater would or would expect to be able to moor in a location which puts them or others in danger.”
“As boat numbers continue to rise, we ask everyone on London’s waterways to share this limited amenity for the benefit of all.”
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