(It’s worth having a read of this page all about the number of people using the waterways, as a background to the rest of the information on this page)
I’ve already mentioned the younger professional who simply can’t afford to buy or rent in London – and it is mostly London, I would suggest, where the trend for boat living over bricks and mortar has taken hold. The rest of the country also sees wildly expensive housing but not quite to the same extent.
Figures from the Canal & River Trust suggest around 73% of boaters are aged over 55 years of age, which hints at the major users of the canals: retirees. Whether they’re selling their home (or just downsizing it) to buy a boat to live on, or buying one for leisure, the grey pound is where the majority of narrowboating money is coming from.
Such retirees don’t have to be locals either; there’s no reason why overseas citizens cannot buy a narrowboat and live on it over here, presuming that any necessary visa issues are dealt with just as they would have to be for any other move to the UK. I interviewed a lovely American couple on my YouTube channel who used to spend six months in the UK on their boat over the summer, and the other six back home, although they have since sold the boat due to the Covid pandemic restricting their global travel.
Meanwhile, with the growing interest in ecological matters, tiny homes, downsizing and generally a less capitalist way of life, narrowboating – despite the somewhat noisy and polluting nature of diesel engines – has become something of a siren call to people of all ages wishing to escape the rat race. It’s a more peaceful, simpler existence in which a sense of community – often long ago abandoned in housing developments – is instantly available from other boaters.
That’s not to say boating is all idyllic, every day! Far from it and as I explain in other pages of this website, the novice boater will have to get to grips with some more gritty aspects of life that are entirely invisible and irrelevant to householders.
Two thirds of boaters don’t live aboard and use their craft as a holiday or weekend escape. That’s a huge majority which, along with the many thousands of people who hire a boat for short periods each year, explains why some popular spots on the network get (relatively!) jammed up in peak summer season.
Such jams are usually good-natured and an opportunity to chat with fellow boaters, though the occasional tale of “canal rage” at the locks is not unheard of. Fortunately most are adult enough to simply write off such loutish behaviour and think no more of it, rather than anything escalating into violence.
Apart from the boats – and pubs – one of the many attractions of the canals for all comers are the many trading boats who make a living, or at least supplement their incomes, by selling all manner of goods from their boats.
Such trading boats often congregate at “floating markets” organised by various national and local groups, making for a fun day out for all, with products on offer ranging from paintings, mugs and woodwork to all manner of foodstuffs including specialist chocolate, coffee and pizza.
Such artists tend to also be environmentally aware, socially ethical and part of the growing downsizing movement already mentioned.
If people adopting “alternative” living is an alien or even frightening world to you – relax. They may not be wearing the latest fashion from the high street and can have all manner of interesting hair arrangements but put aside prejudices based on appearance and you’ll find such boaters are the loveliest, friendliest folk you could ever hope to meet. They’re all about peace, love and being nice to each other. It’s the hippy movement of the 1970s all over again but bang up to date.