Living on a houseboat: A cheap housing alternative to expensive rents and high London property prices

Olivia Palamountain
Olivia Palamountain practising yoga atop her houseboat

I live on a houseboat. When I tell people this, people want to know everything: how I breathe, eat, sleep and – worryingly often – how I go to the loo. It’s all up for discussion. When you live on a barge, there’s a danger of your home becoming the most interesting thing about you. No longer a last resort, a growing band of enlightened Londoners consider living on the canals as a lifestyle choice.

With the capital increasingly squeezed for space and house prices ever on the rise, the canals have become a refuge for a new breed of urban nomad, willing to explore an alternative existence, an maybe even save a few quid in the process. I’ve met doctors, couriers, an abseiler, a cartoonist, fellow writers and families who all call the canal home. It’s not unusual to see your neighbours emerging from below deck in anything from their birthday suit to a suit and tie.

Legally bound to keep moving – or “continually cruise” every two weeks (this both encourages a steady flow of traffic and ensures every boat gets a fair stab at the most desirable spots), you’re never short of potential friends and it pays to stay social. The canal-side is a tight-knit community, always on hand for advice, muscle, or a few cold beers. It includes a few who work the canals professionally, such as Dom with his supply boat that sells coal, gas and wood. After 30 years living on London’s waterways, he’s practically amphibious.

Olivia hopping aboard

The transitional nature of living on a houseboat, chugging the length of London, is part of its charm. We live in a tribal city, with parts of society often identified by postcode – no such divisions exist when you live on a barge. Roaming at leisure is a fantastic way to evade ennui and connect with people all over town. It’s less good for ordering take-away or having post delivered; permanent moorings do exist (Damian Hirst and Yo! Sushi entrepreneur Simon Woodroffe both own houseboats of this nature on the glamorous Chelsea Embankment), but these are both hard to come by – and very expensive.

Indeed, a gratifying element of barge life is that it can be a very cost-effective way to live, with rents around half what you would pay for four walls on dry land. And while square footage may be low, we don’t tend to go without. Barges can be equipped to your own specifications and range in size from the miniature (fold out bed, no shower) to the massive – double width monsters, complete with every mod-con. Magnificent views and outdoor space always come as standard.

Having your address as “of no fixed abode” gives you a sense of freedom that’s hard to find in London, and life feels like an adventure from the moment you step on board. Time ticks at a different pace when you live on a boat, and the outside world with its rules and routines seems less important. Take first thing in the morning for instance; I’ll bet your alarm involves a tinny tune from a mobile phone. My wake up call might be the chatter of joggers on a morning blast, a pair of geese squabbling over scraps, or the rumble and sway of my home as another boat barges past. From my bed I can only see water, and if a peek through the blinds confirms it’s dry, I’ll sit on deck with a steaming cafetiere, chatting to one of my ephemeral neighbours, or salute curious passers-by (living on a boat is the ultimate green light for stranger interaction).

This small change in your environment shakes up your habits and forces you to reevaluate the way you live. Off-grid there are no bills to pay – but no one to take responsibility for home comforts but yourself. If I want to use electricity (to run the water pump or lights for example), I have to make sure that I’ve run the engine to generate sufficient juice. With just one 12v plug point, my home tends to be a zero-power zone. I live by candlelight in the evenings and usually make dinner without using any electricity at all.

The kitchen has a full gas-powered set up (this also heats the water) and I’ve cooked everything from octopus to soufflé, although I prefer to barbecue outside whenever possible. On chiller nights I’ll fix a fire in the woodburner, the crackle and hiss of flames filling the boat with the nostalgic back-to-school smell of autumn. In winter the fire is more than just a pretty accessory: without it you freeze. Stockpiling kindling is a must and it takes goose-pimples, determination and six-ply cashmere to get out of bed and light the first fire of the day.

Like most people, I’m an online addict but without wi-fi to distract me I’ve re-discovered a love of reading; it’s not unusual for me to get cosy in my cabin by 9.30pm, surrounded by tea lights and dancing shadows. And wait until you see my alfresco yoga practice on the roof.

The social side of living on a barge

I could wax lyrical about the delights of barge life, but until the issue of relief is addressed, I know I won’t convince you. Here’s the loo-down: the on-board lavatory is similar to a commode and functions more or less in the same way as a festival toilet. Peacock-blue chemicals in the bottom half nuke anything they come into contact with, separated from the seat and bowl by a sliding flush.

The resulting soup needs to be emptied around every ten days and involves the houseboat equivalent of the “walk of shame”: wheeling the bottom layer to a waste disposal unit along the canal. It’s less degrading than it sounds; there’s even there’s a certain satisfaction to this pilgrimage, primarily because the alternative – no toilet or an overflowing one – really would be grim.

Chemical loos aside, life on a boat is all about romance – I’ve never been more popular with my friends. Lovers won’t leave me alone. There’s magic in the water. But as with the rest of the London, security can be an issue. Having recently returned from holiday, I found my boat in disarray.

The prow doors had been jimmied open, the contents of boxes spilt onto the floor, glasses smashed and my belongings ransacked. Fortunately the only things worth nicking – a few bottles of Shiraz – were ignored, and all that was missing was half a packet of stale fags I’d long forgotten.

With a brand new set of reinforced steel doors to keep me safe, and an Indian summer predicted for the rest of the month, it’s business as usual on my boat, where life is just one long holiday.