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Paul Miles - Man on a Boat
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Life on a canal boat - Part II

Paul Miles

1st June, 2009

In the second communiqué from the canals of Britain, a narrowboat newbie finds the pace of life slowing to the speed of the water, offering time for reflection and a deeper appreciation of the great outdoors

the beauty of living on a narrowboat is that i share an enormous communal garden

Life on the waterways, in a narrowboat, is like camping – luxury camping with running hot and cold water, bathroom with shower (some boats even have baths), fitted kitchen and wood-burning stove, that is. Despite the creature comforts, however, it is the big outdoors that is the main attraction. In the morning, you ascend three little steps and open two little shutter-doors, slide open a roof-hatch and there is nature, in all its glory, surrounding you.

One day, just as I did this, two swans took off from the canal a hundred metres behind the boat. Their wings arched rhythmically against the water with the sound of a ghostly heartbeat, until they flew directly over me. I could feel the downdraught from their wingbeats, and had I reached up I could have touched their downy breasts. Once, as I sat on the roof of the boat, eating lunch in the sunshine, a robin brushed my shoulder and then flitted into the kitchen. Over the weeks, countless kingfishers have flown past in flashes of electric blue, herons have stood sentinel on the canal bank and trees have unfurled tight buds. There are moments of complete stillness when the canal reflects the sky and the trees.

I cruise along at three miles an hour, passing waving walkers, mellow brickwork of historic buildings and friendly fellow boaters. There is a metaphysical element to being on the canals. Time slows down and distances lengthen. To travel four miles and negotiate two locks in a day is an achievement. It recharges the batteries – literally – and heats the water. Canal-side villages that are near enough for joggers to run between seem, from my boater’s perspective, to be a day or two apart. In some ways, the canal network is a 2,000-mile-long linear village. I slow down too, finding time to cut firewood, getting exercise, fresh air and free, carbon-neutral fuel all in one. (An estimated four million tons of forest wood goes unharvested each year in England, enough to provide heat for a quarter of a million homes.)

I cook soup on top of the stove, where wood I have just chopped glows in a red inferno, keeping the chill of spring evenings at bay. I make chutney, cooked for hours on the woodburning stove. I’d like to say it was made from foraged hedgerow fruit, but instead I used apples bought from a village greengrocer. I do small amounts of work, but my innately lazy self is very at home. After years of living in London, it is all remarkably tranquil. I spend endless hours listening to Radio 4 by the fireside, alone, quiet, in a parallel otherworld where speed and urgency no longer exist; not earning much, but not spending much either. I read and listen to music. Madame Bovary and Mr Bojangles become my companions, among others. I can’t understand Mme Bovary’s desire to flee the countryside and head for the city. Nina Simone’s Here Comes the Sun plays loudly as dawn breaks over fields where I am moored in rural isolation.

When, before I took the plunge, I told a friend who used to live on a narrowboat about my plans, she enthused, ‘It’s such a big space’. I didn’t understand what she meant. The interior of a narrowboat is 6ft wide. ‘It’s like camping,’ she clarified. ‘You feel like all the outdoors is your space.’ She is right. There is a way in which, windows and side hatches to either side, skylights above me, sitting below water level in this narrow steel tube, I am literally immersed in nature.



Compact and communal

Back to nature it may be, but sadly narrowboats run on fossil-fuel diesel. A handful of people produce their own biodiesel from recycled vegetable oil, but so far I have been unable to get hold of any. Fuel use is not insignificant – after all, I am pushing my home along, even if it is on water. A 25-ton steel boat is not eficient in terms of emissions per mile. I have worked out, very roughly, that I have produced the same emissions in a 30-day, 55-mile journey as someone travelling 1,900 miles by train. In those 30 days the fuel did much more than provide propulsion, however: it also provided all my electricity and hot water. In fact, generating this was one of the main impetuses for moving every few days. (Life could of course be much cleaner and greener with solar panels, a wind turbine and composting toilet, all of which are features I will look for when I buy or rent another boat.) Extrapolated so far, though, my total annual emissions measure some 3.28 tons of CO ², about a quarter of the average Briton and much less than my former lifestyle.

Although, it measures only 400 sq ft or so (compared to the average British house’s 1,300 sq ft), my 68ft hire boat is bigger – and therefore more fuel-hungry – than I need.

Compactness is the essence of living in a narrowboat. You have to be extremely organised and not a hoarder – both traits I will have to learn. Even my transit-van’s worth of life’s possessions will have to be pared down severely. In the non-boating world, others are doing the same: small homes are becoming more popular. In the US, where traditionally bigger has always meant better, the Small House Society is promoting living in tiny spaces, thus using fewer resources and less land.

The beauty of living on a narrowboat is that, while my home occupies no land of its own, I share an enormous communal garden that stretches for thousands of miles along canals and rivers. I am reminded of philosophers such as Henry David Thoreau and Arne Næss, who spent much of their time in tiny cabins in big wildernesses, thinking and reading. I want to do the same. There’s so much to learn about this world, why we’re here and what we’re doing. You need a lifetime just to reflect, let alone admire the scenery.

Paul Miles is a freelance writer and photographer

 

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