I spent six months living on a houseboat in London – here's what I learned
In 2013 Dominic Frisby spent a few months on a houseboat moored in Canary Wharf. Here he explains what daily life was like. It was a wonderful time, but would he do it again?
In 2013 I was having a drink with a bunch of old university friends. One of them, who works for a yacht broker, mentioned a Dutch barge he was looking at. It slept 13 people, was moored in Canary Wharf and was for sale for £200,000. Extraordinary value! A house that slept 13 would cost ten times as much. I was looking to move, so I went to take a look.
The barge belonged to Andy Cato, one half of electronic music band Groove Armada; it had been his home and studio. He had kitted the barge out himself and it was everything you would expect from a rock star’s boat. There was a wood-panelled interior with disco balls and huge speakers, and every luxury you could possibly think of. It was so stylish.
A prime location
And it was moored in a dock right in the middle of Canary Wharf, five minutes from the station and Waitrose. You could fish off the back of the boat or swim in the summer with the neon blue letters of Barclays looking down at you. It was 30 metres long and five metres wide, had three double bedrooms, two bathrooms, an enormous kitchen-dining-sitting room and, best of all, the old crew room in the bow that slept seven, separated from the rest of the boat. My kids could have their mates over for sleepovers.
With close to zero experience of such things, I wasn’t sure I was ready to buy a boat. The words of the late, great Felix Dennis were ringing in my ears. “If it flies, floats or f**ks, rent it, it’s cheaper.” So I said to Andy, “I’m interested, but do you mind if I rent it for six months first, just to see how I get on?” Andy went along with the idea. It was far and away the most fun place I’ve ever lived.
A steady stream of visitors
Everyone wanted to come and visit. We had the best parties. The other boat owners on the marina were always happy to help when something needed looking at. Boating communities are famously friendly and communal. One time we took the boat out onto the Thames. We went to Richmond and back, going so close to the Houses of Parliament we could have pelted them with paper aeroplanes had we wanted to. We then moored it at Tower Bridge and spent a week there. We could have taken it across the channel to the continent. That’s what Andy had done, going all the way up the Canal du Midi.
It was extraordinarily peaceful. I ended up writing an entire book on there, Bitcoin: the Future of Money?. I used to love the fact that I was writing a book about a new financial system right under the nose of the existing one.
The downside of houseboat living
But I didn’t end up buying the boat and here’s why. Just to moor it cost almost £20,000 a year. That money went to the Canal & River Trust (CRT), the body in charge of Britain’s waterways. If ever there was a more unhelpful operation I’d like to know what it is. It presents itself as the gentle protector of the waterways when in fact the entire operation seems geared to extracting as much from boat dwellers as it possibly can, while giving as little back as possible. Nobody who lives on the waterways has a good word to say about the CRT.
Little things like getting your post or an Amazon delivery became a daily pain in the backside. You didn’t have a proper address and it would be delivered to the CRT offices a 15-minute walk away. They refused to take deliveries of packages over a certain size. Parking was a headache. You don’t pay council tax on the water, but that means you don’t live in the borough so you can’t get a parking permit. I had to persuade a nearby hotel to rent me a parking space. But there was always a five-minute walk from my car to the boat; if you had a lot of baggage it was a pain. And on the boat itself, there was always something that needed fixing. Some people like maintenance and tinkering, but I just don’t have the time.
Eventually, Andy sold the boat to someone else. The main reason I didn’t go for it was that I didn’t want to deal with the Canal & River Trust. So now I’m back in a Victorian terrace in south London. But it was a very happy interlude!