Why buy a canal boat?

What is the attraction of a canal boat and the lifestyle? It’s a combination of things. There’s the simple tranquility of the canals; ignoring for a moment any interruptions by nearby road or rail, getting out onto a canal in the countryside, whether by boat or on foot, transports you instantly to an oasis of calm.

You’ll see and hear the wildlife – birds tweeting in the trees, ducks quacking as they forage for food, swans pecking at the foliage, moorhens darting about looking for scraps. Bats swoop at night, owls hoot and pigeons flap about making a noise. If you’re lucky you may spot a water vole – and maybe even a snake going for a swim…

Just having a wander outside is, of course, good for exercise and good for the soul, hence the re-branding of the Canal & River Trust as a wellbeing charity. The slow pace of walking or boating probably helps you to de-stress, ease your breathing and lower your blood pressure from the sometimes sheer awfulness and tedium of everyday life.

People sometimes (and slightly oddly, I think) ask me whether it’s boring to live on a boat but I say how much more interesting it is to have a constantly changing view out of the window and how dull it is to have the same one every day if you live on land.

Canal boating is a complete change of life (even if you only adopt it for the week or two when you’re on holiday). From the moment you step aboard, you’re part of a unique community which will welcome you into the fold simply because by having a boat you’re instantly part of it.

Boaters love chatting to other boaters – indeed, they’re the biggest gossips around – and unless you’re a pompous know-it-all who won’t listen to anyone else, you will find there’s a heap of people delighted to both chat, exchange views, and help you out with anything on the boat whether it’s technical or whatever.

On the occasions when I’ve lived in a house, I’ve known my next door neighbours and maybe the person on either side of them but that’s about it. Upon getting the boat, the entire waterway became my neighbourhood and I’ve met some fantastic folk who I now class as dear friends.

Yes, there will always be a few selfish bad eggs who throw their weight around, ignore the rules, don’t give a damn for others and cause tempers to fray but thankfully they’re rare on the Cut and mostly people are a happy bunch.

There are more subtle, specific attractions too. For the heritage and history buff, there’s a wealth of interest not only in the canals but the machinery that ran them, from pumping stations to amazing constructions such as the Anderton Boat Lift.

For mechanical enthusiasts, nothing beats the gentle “ker-flop, ker-flop, ker-flop” of a huge classic engine from the likes of Gardner, Lister, Russell Newbery and Kelvin. Many a boater actually bought their craft for the engine alone, with the boat around it a mere shell to hold the precious mechanicals! Hours can be spent polishing the brass and taking the boat to rallies.

These days, diesel on the canals, though ubiquitous for its torque, power and ease of use, is now beginning to become a dirty word in the same way that diesel cars have been cast as pariahs.

Slowly but surely and inevitably, modern technology is encroaching such as hybrid diesel-electric or even fully electric (with some caveats). Solar panels are de-rigeur. So even for the less history-obsessed and more forward-looking gadgeteer, there are avenues to pursue.

Plus, and this often amazes many people including myself: you don’t need any kind of licence or training whatsoever to drive a narrowboat. Nothing, nada, zilch. You can pop down to your local hireboat centre or boat broker, hand over the appropriate cash and drive off without a second thought, careering down the canal in a zig zag for all you’re worth…

(It’s best not to do this in reality; a day or so spent in the company of an experienced boater so you can gain some knowledge of the dos and don’ts is very wise, even if you don’t go the whole hog and buy some qualified RYA training)

But beware! There are drawbacks and pitfalls, of course. Cost is often cited as a reason for buying a boat and living afloat but it’s not necessarily as cheap as people think.

If you buy a cheap boat, there are going to be substantial maintenance and repair bills often running into thousands especially if the hull is not in decent condition. Moorings are not always cheap (and are horrendously expensive in London) and going without a mooring brings its own set of difficulties (click here for more information). Life aboard, especially in the confined quarters of a narrowboat, is certainly not for everyone. Be warned – and try it out first with a decent holiday at least.

Furthermore, if you’re buying a boat not to live on but to have as a weekend and holiday craft then you’re spending an awful lot of money on something you only use infrequently.