LITTLE BOURTON, England – On a damp June afternoon, a floating house swayed gently on the Oxford Canal, where it was moored just outside the village of Little Bourton, a spot on the map with a single pub .
Rachel Bruce and her husband, Chris Hall, made their home for a few days in this idyllic location in north-west London, gazing from the hull of their riverboat, the Glenrich V, over vast fields where the wind blows in the tall grass made a low hiss.
But it was time to find out their next patch. The mooring pins were therefore released and Ms. Bruce, 31, moved away from the shore. Their boat set off at a brisk pace as it passed the imposing wooden and steel gates of the canal locks.
A group of five ducklings skimmed the water in a V-shape. The kayakers rushed forward, quickly rounding their boat. The bright yellow of the buttercups stood out through the tall grass of the towpath.
“We just feel like we’ve made a really good life decision right now,” Ms Bruce said of the couple’s choice a few weeks ago to give up their stationary life to begin a slow journey through the grid. of English channels.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, more and more people around the world are reassessing their living conditions, with greater flexibility through remote working. And in Britain, more and more people are choosing to call these canals – and the narrow boats used to navigate them – home.
The canals, a vast network once used to transport goods across the country, weaved their way through the British countryside and meandered through towns and city centers. But after being replaced by trains and highways, they fell into disrepair.
Since the 1960s, however, they have been painstakingly restored and have become popular for leisure cruises. And for many people, the lure of turning weekend getaways or weeklong trips into a constantly mobile lifestyle is becoming more and more irresistible.
Tanmim Hussain, 46, a driving instructor and mother of four who lives in north London, bought a riverboat this summer. She felt she could never afford to own an apartment or a house in London, and the pandemic made her anxious to leave the city anyway.
“I decided, let’s just be adventurous and get into something, and see how it goes,” she said. For now, she has kept her London rental and spends weekends on the boat, sailing with her family from village to village.
His son’s education is the most important consideration, as it would be impossible to move from city to city while he is in school. But some people with young children took advantage of more permanent moorings in towns and villages.
“My goal this year was to get used to it and see if I liked the lifestyle,” Ms. Hussain said. “And see if there is any potential for a more permanent future.”
For Ms Bruce and Mr Hall, the stresses of work, mental health issues and deaths in the family over the past year have made them feel the need to change. Plus, they had long wanted to get rid of what had started to seem monotonous and flat.
“All of the circumstances of the past year have given us that final push,” said Hall, 32. “It was kind of like it was taking control back a bit.”
Within a week of viewing their first boat, they bought it, pledging to give up their ten-year London life and make the 6-foot-10-inch-wide, 50-foot-long steel boat – qu ‘they call the Glen – their permanent home. They paid 42,000 pounds, or about $ 58,000.
Although the boat is powered by diesel, the couple say it uses less fossil fuels and resources than in London. It’s also part of the appeal, they say. They have two solar panels to power a refrigerator and small electronics, and a Wi-Fi router to connect and for Mr. Hall’s work as a technology consultant.
Life on board is cramped but comfortable, with a small seating area next to a wood-burning stove, decorated with succulents and a stack of board games close at hand. A small kitchenette with a gas hob is a short walk away, and further on the hull is a bathroom with a composting toilet. At the back of the boat is the bedroom, with a double bed and a small closet.
Boat retailers are seeing more first-time buyers like Ms Bruce and Mr Hall, and they say the pandemic has been a factor.
“It really became a little refuge during the coronavirus – living on a narrow boat and being alone,” said Adrian Dawson, sales manager for Whilton Marina, on the Grand Union Canal in Northamptonshire.
The Canal & River Trust, which is responsible for 2,000 miles of waterways across England and Wales, says there are now 35,130 boats plying their way through the country’s canals – more at the height of the industrial revolution.
Life on a rustic riverboat isn’t all about romance. Water tanks need to be refilled, toilet waste needs to be emptied, and tight spaces mean little room for luxury.
Additionally, boaters without a permanent mooring must travel every 14 days and cover at least 21 miles per year, according to Canal & River Trust rules.
In London, where barges have long been an affordable alternative to more traditional lifestyles, boat owners protested in June against new regulations which they fear will drive them out of their homes, exposing some of the tensions in play as waterways become more congested.
Then there’s the little question of winter: icy canals, slippery surfaces, and staying warm while cruising are all a challenge.
Mrs Bruce and Mr Hall have aches to remind them that their muscles are not yet completely used to this life. Unfamiliar with the ins and outs of boat maintenance and boating, they had a steep learning curve and relied on online forums and a guide for help.
“It was a little terrifying to buy a piece of steel with an engine when you don’t know anything about any of those things,” Ms. Bruce said. “But the second I got a little scared, I was like, ‘This is what I need in my life.'”
They noticed some divisions in the boating world – for example, when an older couple with a flashy boat tsked and tutted as they made their way a little awkwardly through a lock.
But they also found a thriving community of like-minded fellow boaters who were quick to contribute their expertise.
“I feel like we probably all have something in common,” Ms. Bruce said. “You know: to love the canals for calm and rhythm, and not to taste and smell the polluted air. And being able to hear the birds when you are sitting down having tea.
This shared link makes it easy to connect with other people traveling along the canals, who pass by with a wave and a little chat.
“Maybe you both feel like you’ve discovered the secret of life,” Ms. Bruce added with a smile.