Boasting an engine and a rudder, Michelle Madsen’s home is different than most others’ in London. She lives on Larkspur, a 38-foot green-and-white canal boat, complete with a kitchen, shower and writing space.
Madsen is one of an estimated 15,000 people in the U.K. who live on the water, according to the Canal and River Trust — a number that’s risen in the last few years due to rising rents and house prices. Most boat-dwellers have no permanent mooring, meaning they must move every two weeks along the country’s 3,000-mile network of canals and rivers — an order that was suspended with the lockdown in late March.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, boat living can be especially claustrophobic, but also offers the chance to escape crowded city life.
For Madsen, 38, a poet, theater producer and freelance journalist, it was the charm and the affordability that drew her in.
“A two-bedroom flat in London is upwards of 500,000 pounds,” she says, leaning out of her boat, parked on the Regent’s Canal in the heart of trendy east London. “Larkspur, I paid about 20,000 pounds for. It means you can be a lot freer in what you do.”
There are plenty of perks, particularly in summer, when boaters can sit on their roofs, enjoying the sunshine and watching the world go by. But the lockdown has brought particular challenges.
Narrow quarters can feel especially confined, a reality made worse when gyms shut and the towpaths alongside the canal became a thoroughfare for joggers. At times, Madsen felt she couldn’t even stick her head out of her boat.
“I felt as if I was just being surrounded by this fug of COVID,” she says, “everybody running past, just coughing and spitting and sweating, desperate to beat their personal best. I felt imprisoned, really.”
Britain built most of its canals in the late 1700s, to transport goods in the industrial revolution. They fell into disuse as the rail network replaced them but enthusiasts began to restore them for leisure purposes in the late 1970s.
As more people have opted for lives on the water, and thousands of leisure cruisers crowd the waterways, the Canal and River Trust says there are more licensed boats on the network now than during its industrial heyday.
Boaters stress that it’s not an easy way of life, with constant repairs, refills of water, gas and coal — not to mention emptying the toilet’s holding tank. But in the pandemic era, a moveable home can also be a distinct advantage.
Before lockdown began and boaters were ordered to stay in one place, Paddy Screech, 54, moved his boat into the countryside 20 miles north of London.
Screech has a lung condition that’s reduced his breathing capacity by 30%. He has spent lockdown parked in a forest glade along the River Stort, surrounded by ducks and wildflowers, with his cat Fishcake for company.
“As it turned out,” says Screech, sitting on a log on the riverbank, “living on a boat, it’s kind of the ideal way to have to isolate, if you’re forced to.”
In London, he and a friend run a floating bookshop, Word on the Water, in a restored 1920s Dutch barge. With a mooring secured by a crowdfunding drive, the decade-old bookshop was thriving, running jazz nights and poetry slams from its roof. Since the pandemic, it’s moved sales online in a bid to survive.
“Somehow we’ve got to keep our little bookshop alive,” Screech says.
Despite worries for the shop’s survival, Screech says he prefers life under lockdown.
“I like not having planes in the sky,” he says. “And I like being able to see London from 30 miles away because the air is so clear. And I like not having to be knee-deep in humans all the time.”
Other boaters have found opportunity in the lockdown. Matthew Lankester runs a floating barbershop on a 60-ft. barge in the heart of London.
While U.K. hair salons have been closed since late March, Lankester has reopened — with some precautions — and seen his client numbers triple. He’s unapologetic about breaking the rules.
“You can sit down, have your haircut, look out onto the water, chill on the roof if you want to,” he says, shaving the head of a friend. “It’s a unique experience. I do what I need to do. I have to keep going.”
The government has begun to ease restrictions, and boaters without a permanent mooring have been told they must move again by this weekend unless they’re in a medically high-risk group.
But with hair salons officially closed until at least July, Lankester expects to remain comfortably afloat.