If you love the idea of life on the water but don’t want to be a sailor, narrow boating might well be your answer.
Having briefly sampled the delights of putt, putt, putting along–while admiring the ever changing vistas–I can see the attraction.
After all you never have to leave home to get a change of scenery; you simply take your home and your familiar possessions with you.
Slowly motoring along, you have time to observe the life on the canals and rivers, whether it’s the regal swans or the antics of the ducks and ducklings. Beautiful gardens and meadows decorate the banks and if the fancy strikes you can stop at one of the thatched, oak beamed pubs that tantalize with great food and choice ales.
Then there is the fun of mastering those darn locks, before finding a quiet berth for the night.
Or for a change of pace, try the moorings in city centers such as Birmingham and Leicester. Here you are within walking distance of centuries of history, with a wide range museums and architecture to choose from and a shopping fix if you need one too.
What is a Narrowboat?
A narrowboat is a very long and slender boat specifically designed to fit the extensive canal system of the UK. It must be less than 7’ (2.13 m) wide and the maximum length is 72‘(21.95m) However the entire network of waterways is only accessible by boats that are 57’ (17.37m) long and under.
Many boats are lovingly cared for with gleaming paintwork, flower filled baskets, herb gardens and even a few pets.
They look idyllic, however living full time in what amounts to less space than that of a small apartment, stretched into a long tube is surely not feasible is it? Well apparently it is.
With over 2,000 miles of canals and waterways throughout England and Wales to live on and explore, many people choose to live full or part time on their boats.
To find out more about the lifestyle, I chatted with Rob Brevitt & Sandy Ball who have spent many years on or near the water and are now on to their third boat.
The first boat they owned was a river cruiser which being wider than a narrowboat was fun to have, but more limited as to where it could go.
Their second was a somewhat old and tired narrowboat which Rob called his ‘hobby boat’. It was not until they acquired their current (57’ long) narrow boat that they began to live aboard, rather than maintain a traditional home in the UK.
The Benefits of Narrowboat Living for Practical People with Itchy Feet
So, what is the appeal? What’s so great about living on a narrowboat? Here’s what Sandy & Rob had to say about their reasons for narrowboat living.
“Although with our current housesitting lifestyle we are not full-time live-aboard narrow boaters. The attractions for us (apart from a love of being on or near water) are many. The first is having a place of our own for whenever we are in the UK. It fits in perfectly with our current globe-trotting and gives us our own place between sits. The boat provides us with considerable storage space and, if the weather’s good (Sandy’s a fair weather sailor!) we cast-off for a holiday cruising the canals to enjoy BBQs on the towpath, sightseeing, relaxation and the camaraderie of fellow boaters.
We also enjoy the fact that while cruising we are off-grid, so it is environmentally friendly living. You soon get used to spotting the recycling points along the way as well as the chemical toilet (elsan) disposal facilities. As other watery waste goes straight into the canal you also have to be mindful of what you use to wash yourself, the dishes and clothes – in the UK ‘ecover’ make an excellent range of products”.
Both Rob & Sandy also agree, that the great thing about living on a narrowboat is that you can have a change of scenery whenever you get bored of a particular spot (or your too noisy neighbours) you just move on to wherever takes your fancy.
Isn’t this a costly lifestyle?
Like me you may be thinking that this has to be an expensive way to live. You need fuel for the engine and for heating, yet alone mooring and maintenance costs, so it must cost more than a traditional home right? Apparently not.
If like Sandy & Rob you only live on board part of the year you can pay for marina moorings while you are away. Fees are very reasonable compared to the cost of maintaining a regular home, especially if booked in advance.
Prices for a mooring reflect not only the area but also what amenities are available. For instance mooring fees run between £3,000 and £10,000 a year for parts of London. If you choose to moor in the heart of the midlands–as do Sandy & Rob–it can be much less, especially if you choose one of the busy, more basic marinas.
As Rob & Sandy are away a lot of the year they chose a secure marina that provides water and electricity to their pontoon, shower blocks, laundry facilities, waste disposal facilities, picnic areas, communal areas, car parking, fuel services and a small chandlery for an annual fee of £2500.
Pack up the Plantation
Or you can happily putter up and down the canals without paying a penny in mooring fees. Some places–especially during the winter months–will allow you to stay up to two weeks, whereas in other places they move you on after 48 hours.
Some “live aboard folks” do manage to stay in one area, by moving from one side of a town to the other. This enables them to maintain jobs and schooling whilst fulfilling the criteria of moving on within the Canal regulations.
Dodging the Taxman
Narrowboats–unlike a traditional home–are not subject to property taxes and your heating costs are usually less too. This is partly due to it being a smaller space and the fact that diesel is taxed at two different levels. The higher rate is applicable to the diesel used for propulsion and the lower rate is for fuel used for heating purposes.
Another additional cost is for electrical hook ups while moored, cost is based on usage which is often minimal thanks to solar panels and energy efficient appliances. Many narrowboats also have small but very effective solid fuel stoves.
This was beginning to sound like a great way to live well for less, so what’s the catch?
Are Narrowboats Expensive to Buy?
Actually no they are very reasonable; a good ‘newish’ narrow boat typically goes for £1,000 per foot of length with custom built ones running at approximately £1,500 per foot.
Like every other type of boat there are many available for sale, ranging from gently used beauties, right down to the ‘fixer uppers’. A good place to start looking at just what is available these days is at The Crick Boat Show which is an annual event in Crick, Northamptonshire UK on May Bank Holidays.
But don’t you need to take a course and have a licence?
Unlike sailing a yacht, you don’t need to take exams and qualify as a skipper. No driving licence is required either, however maneuvering a narrowboat takes a bit of practice. The best way to learn is to take one of the short courses that are promoted through small advertisements in the canal boating magazines.
What are the legal requirements?
“In the UK you will need to obtain a BSS (Boat Safety Scheme) certificate. Owners will not be able to get insurance or a waterways licence without one. The BSS Certificates are renewed every 4 years and are a means of ensuring that the boat´s hazardous materials installations meet minimum requirement (e.g. gas, fuel, electrics) and that the boat has sufficient ventilation and firefighting equipment, such as extinguishers and fire blankets”.
“The Waterways Licence or Licence to Cruise” is also a necessity at a cost of approximately £150. As the majority of Britain’s canals and many rivers are maintained by the CRT Canal and River Trust who set the licence fees”.
“Most of the other navigable rivers are governed by the EA (Environment Agency) and a few, such as the Norfolk Broads have their own authority. This is important to know because as a system the rivers and canals are linked together. However you need a different license if you stray off the canals. If you intend to wander everywhere all the time, you can get a Gold Licence.
For short excursions you can get a temporary, short term licence on-line. The fee is proportional to boat length and also applies to canoes and kayaks. The annual full fee for our 57’ NB with ‘prompt payment discount’ was £953.72.”
Putt putting along the canal is one thing but what about those locks?
Negotiating locks is not as easy as it would seem. It is in fact one of the more challenging aspects of the lifestyle, practice makes perfect but locks are old, they stick and are heavy. More than once Sandy & Rob have had to go to the aid of first time cruisers fresh out of the hire company’s marina! Passing through locks takes at least two people and the more hands available the easier it is.
Very few locks in the UK are motorized or have lock keepers. However, the busier ‘flights’ (or locks) often have CRT (Canal and River Trust ) volunteers on duty to keep things moving. No two locks are exactly the same and if you travel around the whole system you’ll encounter many weird and wonderful types. There are of course rules of etiquette for using locks which every boater should know!
Is Narrowboating Safe?
On the whole yes, although locks are the most dangerous places on the canals if not treated with respect. This is especially true where young children are involved. Over the years Rob and Sandy have witnessed potential tragedies (and quickly intervened) where youngsters of 4 and 6 years have been sent to work the locks by themselves.
If boaters do get into difficulties there is the RCR – River Canal Rescue, which is an organisation that provides breakdown cover and much more, on all the UK’s waterways.
Want to find out more?
If you are as intrigued as I am, here’s some ways to find out more about the lifestyle itself. There are a number of boating magazines available at high street paper shops, marinas and online such as Waterways World https://www.waterwaysworld.com/
There are also ‘freebies’ you can pick up at canal side marinas, pubs, cafes etc. one is called the TOWPATH and the other the Tillergraph. Which Sandy tells me is very useful for the small ads and lighting the stove!
Here are a few books on the topic:
A Beginner’s Guide to Waterways by Nick Corble and Allan Ford
And a video
For another outlook on narrowboat living check out the article in issue 25 of the Housesitting Magazine
Last but certainly not Least
Big thanks to Rob Brevitt & Sandy Ball for sharing their experience. You can find out more about them below.
“We discovered housesitting after 5 years living and working in Spain. It was the ideal solution to wanting to travel more, have pet therapy and explore the world at a slow pace. So, we took early retirement and took off…”
Rob Brevitt & Sandy Ball
Rob and Sandy’s Websites
House Sitting Website: Brits Housesitting
Travel Blog: Leaving The Islands