…for a small flotilla of Londoners, life on dry land holds no charm; they’ve traded flats for renovated house boats moored on the banks of the Thames.
Meeting the neighbours-
A great orange sun is setting over London, staining the river the color of marmalade. It is a Turner sunset. It is also a high tide, at that dangerous moment when the river seems not to know which way to turn. Choppy with indecision, whipped by a breeze, its white horses race this way and that between the city's stone embankments as though searching for the right way. At moments like this, you sense the power of the river, the possibility of malevolent intent beneath its ruffled, golden surface.
Between Battersea Bridge and the glittering terraces of Chelsea Harbour, the pastel-colored houseboats of Cheyne Walk screech rhythmically against their mooring pontoons. In the shadow of the South Bank church of St. Mary, which Turner once painted and where the poet Blake was married, a moored squadron of heavy timbered Dutch barges creaks against pilings like rhinos rubbing against trees.
Up past Hammersmith Bridge, traditional narrow boats (so called because they are narrow enough to negotiate Britain's seven-foot wide canals) huddle together as the river swirls around them, and, farther upstream, a restored river lighter (a flat-bottomed barge) rises gently but surely past the level of the road as the full tide washes over low lying gardens and pavements.
Living with a tide that dislodges your home from a muddy bed, tosses it for eight hours, and then lets it sink back into the ooze to tilt a few degrees off level until the next tide surges is not for everyone. But those who choose to live afloat-several hundred, according to the Port of London Authority, which super vises these tidal reaches-are sworn to the water, shrug away any inconvenience, and point to the nesting coots, the crested grebes, and the impertinent cormorants as ample compensation. On the river, they will tell you, your closest neighbors have feathers and the sounds of the city are just a distant hum.
"I've lived on this stretch of the river for twenty-six years," says a retired aeronautical engineer, "twenty four of them on this vessel, and I can't think of anywhere I'd like to live more."
The stretch of river referred to is a half-mile terrace of pedigreed Georgian London where the riverside houses have water gates and door boards to keep out high tides, and where the prospect south from their drawing rooms is of the playing field of St. Paul's school in the middle of the city.
The captain cuts a tall, statesmanlike figure in his open plan saloon. Its wood-paneled walls are hung with pictures of square riggers, men-of-war, and, in pride of place above the mantel, the his boat a traditional Thames barge. Depicted in an early-nineteenth century scene, it tacks close to the wind, lumbering through the flood, its holds crammed with shell and shot bound for a frigate of Nelson's navy moored in midstream.
"I lived on her for the first two years of my river life," says the captain with genuine affection. "She was launched at Sittingbourne in Kent in 1803, two years before Nelson's run-in with the Spaniards at the Battle of Trafalgar, and was first put to work carrying supplies to the fleet. When I got her in 1984, she was the oldest vessel afloat after the USS Constitution-161 years old and most of that time engaged in commercial trade."
But his stewardship of this historic vessel was tragically short-lived. ''Two years after I took possession, she was sunk one night at her mooring-rammed by a Dutchman who didn't hang around to see the damage he'd done. Went down in sixty feet of water. The only thing I managed to retrieve was an old 78 record of Paul Robeson singing 'River Stay 'Way from My Door,'" he says with a rueful smile.
His replacement home may not have its predecessor's history, but it has served its purpose admirably; it is a seventy-five-foot-long, twin-decked, steel-hulled barge that would likely see off the most careless of Dutchmen. When he bought it, also in 1984 ("I wanted a steel boat that was flat, empty, and strong"), he cleaned out the coal debris in its hold, designed and added the superstructure that now houses the bridge like saloon, and converted the space below deck into a series of cabins and offices for himself and his wife, Ann. It is snug and warm ("drier than most houses") and appropriately shipshape. As for disadvantages, he will acknowledge only one: the flood tides that rise high enough to sweep over his carefully tended garden that comes with the mooring. Oh, and the fact that the small island known as Chiswick Eyot, behind which Favorite shelters from the full run of the river, also obscures the midstream course of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. Not that that stops them from entertaining family and friends on the foredeck to mark the occasion.
No such obstruction obscures John’s enjoyment of this annual sporting spectacle. From the deck of his Dutch barge he and his wife, Diana, can follow the race from the moment the two crews first appear below Hammersmith Bridge until they round the loop of the Chiswick Reach-a good mile of the four-and-a-quarter-mile course. "There's no better viewpoint, unless you're part of the flotilla of small boats that follow the crews the whole way," says John.
Moored to a pier in the shadow of the celebrated Dove Pub, a riverside tavern that dates from the reign of Charles II, John is spared some of the discomforting vagaries of high and low tides; the barge is far enough out in the stream to remain afloat even in the lowest water. John is a committed river man, and though he may not have spent as much time on the Thames as others, his enthusiasm for a life afloat is infectious.
"There's simply nothing like it," he says. "It was 1949, and I was 7 years old," I remember this old Dutch barge suddenly appearing one morning and tying up close to the house. All I could see or understand was this wonderful barge-all varnished wood and gleaming brass-which I was invited to come aboard to inspect. It was a small boy's dream, and I have never forgotten it. From that day on, I wanted to live on the water."
Johns boat today is a fully operationaI 125-horsepower lux-motor with a bow thruster for delicate maneuvering in tight surroundings. He may not need it on the wide reaches of the tidal Thames, but John is not the sort to limit himself to a single stretch of water. Currently planning a tour of the Continent by barge, he shuffles through a pack of photos in wheelhouse, pointing out stretches of French canal that he has been reconnoitering for his forthcoming trip.
"It's quite remarkable just how far you can travel in a vessel like the this," he says, unfolding a map of inland European waterways. "We can be in Paris in three days, weather permitting, and from there it's take your' pick: south down to the Saone-quite wonderful countryside; north to Helsinki and St. Petersburg; east along the river Maine; or, down the Danube to the Black Sea."
Above the lock and weir at Teddington, (the name means "tide ending town") and beyond the red Tudor brickwork of Hampton Court Palace, the character of the river and its waterborne residents changes dramatically. Here no tide reaches, and apart from the occasional winter swell from upstream, there is nothing to disturb the gentle rhythm of river life. This is Wind in the Willows country, the same stretch of water that Jerome K. Jerome described in Three Men in a Boat: a sedate, suburban river with wooded islands and graveled towpaths, tidy bungalows and timbered boathouses, where weeping willows drape their skirts on the banks. The hardy, seafaring spirit of the Thames's lower reaches is superseded by certain complacency, its wharves and quays replaced with family-run boat yards and little marinas, its commercial traffic with blue-shawled motor cruisers and assorted weekend pleasure craft of a type that John would likely dismiss as floating gin palaces.
Remarkable is Taggs Island on the approach to Hampton village, not so much for the marvelously eccentric residential craft that crowd its shoreline bow to stern, but for its startling interior, cunningly scooped into two landscaped lagoons. Inside each lagoon, and barely visible from the river, are custom-built houseboats nesting like a colony of giant white swans in their own private bays.
In the heart of London's Maida Yale, within whistling distance of stuccoed mansions, is the barge home Dennis bought. Despite a lifetime afloat as a seaman ("I've been around the world so many times that I'm happy to stay right here"), Dennis is new to the canal, having forsaken a fourth-floor walk-up apartment five years ago on the heels of a heart attack to enjoy life at ground level.
"It's being so close to nature that I love," says Dennis, breaking up some husks of bread for two majestic swans-regular visitors-that have just tapped their beaks on his kitchen window to announce their arrival. Long white necks craning, they gobble up the food he passes to them before the ducks and Canada geese can get a look in.
Beautiful though Denis' section of the canal is, its traditional character has been lost to the passage of time, the days of working narrow boats long overtaken by road and rail. Only a few hundred yards away, however, beyond the willows of Rembrandt Gardens, the real old-world atmosphere is still preserved. You can almost hear the ancient clatter of hooves over cobbled towpaths and the snort of horses heaving their barges that final half mile to the Paddington Basin. With the Westway overpass arching overhead and the rumble of traffic close at hand, it may not be the prettiest stretch of canal, but it's certainly the real thing, with a tang of Dickens as strong as anything in London.
Old Harrovian Andrew and three co-owners have spent next to nothing on their boat in fact, it's almost a matter of principle to keep the expense of maintaining this fifty-year old, forty-three-foot narrow boat to the barest minimum. And it shows. The ironwork is rusty, the panels in need of a lick of paint, and the interior every bachelor's dream, with only the bare essentials for a week afloat-a jar of instant coffee, a bag of sugar, and a bottle of Scotch under the sink. But then that's the whole point, Andrew explains. The boat is not just somewhere to live, nor even something to play with. Rather, it's a means to an end.
"It all started in Dubai," he says. "I worked out there for four years and made three very good friends. We promised that when we returned to the U. K. we would keep in touch by using some of our tax-free income to buy a weekend cottage in the wilds of Wales." For one reason or another, the cottage remained empty for much of the time ("too far to go on weekends"). Finally Andrew found the boat and contacted his friends, and a purchase was agreed upon.
"The rules are simple-there aren't any," jokes Andrew, who has just arrived in London and found himself a berth on the towpath beneath Maida Yale's Delamere Terrace. It has taken him five days to bring the boat from its last mooring outside Newbury, a distance of fifty miles at an average speed of three knots ("man's natural pace," he observes philosophically).
"Each of us knows where the key is hidden, and we're all free to take her off if we find her empty. All that's required after use is a tank of diesel, a replacement bottle of Scotch, and a phone call to the lads to say where she can be found." Andrew beams at the simplicity and success-of it all.
"I don't believe we'll ever sell her, tramp that she is," he says fondly. "She's a passport, you see. Slip your moorings, and you're off wherever the canal leads you. A weekend, a week, months if you want. Nope, we'd never sell."
And with that Andrew rubs his beard, and heads off into the London twilight to make that all-important call to the lads: "She's back in town if you want her.”