• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Life on a houseboat

Down at the Auchinstarry Marina, near Kilsyth, Iain Withers and his girlfriend Sarah Wakeford have just finished breakfast aboard the narrowboat Marback Pheonix.

Main picture, Iain Withers, partner Sarah and their dog, Twizzle, live on their boat at Auchinstarry, Kilsyth. Above, a boater enjoys a trip on the Forth and Clyde Canal under the Erskine Bridge
Main picture, Iain Withers, partner Sarah and their dog, Twizzle, live on their boat at Auchinstarry, Kilsyth. Above, a boater enjoys a trip on the Forth and Clyde Canal under the Erskine Bridge

Sarah, an artist, is heading to her nearby workshop while Iain, a manager for bicycle stunt teams, goes for a stroll with the couple's lurcher, Twizzle. He gets only a few feet before he stops to chat to a couple of "cruisers" passing through on a narrowboat holiday. These boat lovers are a sociable crowd. It is something the young couple has come to realise since swapping their Edinburgh flat for a canal boat two years ago.

Loading article content

Some 20 miles down the Forth and Clyde Canal at Bowling, West Dunbartonshire, Jonathan Mosse takes in the morning air from his narrowboat, Tamarisk. A lone duckling paddles by followed, moments later, by a wayward King Charles spaniel in hot pursuit. Jonathan watches with amusement as he sips his cuppa.

"Neighbours," he says. "You're so close to nature and it changes with the seasons. You can watch everything from this spot. Things like kingfishers are pretty magical. There is a tame one that comes and sits on the tiller some mornings, waiting to see a fish and then he dives in. Being out on the waterways, you can get blase, but then sometimes it hits you."

Jonathan has been here for four years and is one of half a dozen "boaters" who call this tranquil basin at the western end of the canal home. It's the start of the working day for Jonathan, a freelance writer and photographer for canal guide books and magazines.

As commuters pack the platform of the town's railway station and slug it out on the M8 on the other side of the Clyde, he powers up his laptop and pours another cup of tea. The only sounds are the lapping of water and bird chatter.

There are 80 houseboats on Scotland's 137 miles of canals, a mixture of single people, couples and families. It's a way of life that Scottish Canals, formed from British Waterways in 2012, is keen to promote. "Living on a boat can appeal to almost anybody," says Katie Hughes, director of estates. "The catchments we have noticed are people that have retired and want a different lifestyle, but there are definitely some younger people, single people and couples or small families."

Scottish Canals has released residential moorings around the country as part of its Living On Water initiative. These are at Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness, Bowling, Linlithgow, Kirkintilloch and most recently at Ratho, Cadder, near Bishopbriggs, and at the Kelpies in Grangemouth.

Moorings are from £1500 a year and offer a reliable income for Scottish Canals. As the Scottish Government grant decreases, it needs to look to more commercial revenue streams. It costs £17million per year to run the canals; £10m currently comes from the Government while £7m is generated from property rentals, the Falkirk Wheel and boat licences. In turn, over the past 10 years, Scotland's canals have generated £11m of direct and £23m of indirect tourism spend a year.

For Jonathan, 65, originally from Herefordshire, his journey began 30 years ago when, as a lecturer at an agricultural college, he would take students on to narrowboats to learn life skills.

Having run his own business renovating old houses for many years, in 1999 the father of three grown-up daughters decided to take the plunge and pursue a career as a freelance writer and follow a long-held dream to renovate a boat. "One of the things on my bucket list was that I had to fit out a boat from scratch. So when I bought it I let them fit the engine and that was it. It was a shell."

The lifestyle of full-time boat living appealed to his love of roaming. "It is the idea of total freedom, that I could go anywhere and stop anywhere. My house was totally contained."

He lives alone on the boat, but never feels lonely. "I have a partner. She lives in Milton of Campsie and works from home. If we occupied the same space, nothing would ever get done. I can disappear there for a couple of days. This is my shed, it floats, that's all. Every man needs his own shed."

There is plenty of support on his doorstep. "There is a community here. Boaters are very good at supporting one another, it comes naturally to them. They will look out for each other, offer advice."

From April through to October, he works on the canal guides, but what about those cold, dark winter nights? "I enjoy it. I enjoy the rhythm of the seasons. You are much closer connected to them if you are on a boat. I'm a country boy, I grew up on farms so the outdoors has always been part of my life. I promise you it does not get worse in the winter, you just turn the central heating up. You have just got a different environment out there and I love being in touch with it. I like hearing the rain thumping on the roof. You are not that far separated from the elements but you are safe and dry and snug."

Although the boat can be connected to a landline and power source when it is at the Bowling mooring, Jonathan prefers not to have a television. Instead, he spends his evenings reading. As well as hot showers, the facilities at Bowling include a security guard and CCTV to give boaters peace of mind.

"There are hot spots all over that are dodgy for boaters and for cyclists … it's youths on bridges with bricks. I had a load of bricks thrown at me in Runcorn (Cheshire). It happened only once, that's why I can remember it, but you have a mental list of places you do not moor."

While much of his time is spent at Bowling, he enjoys untying the boat and cruising to Edinburgh via the Forth and Clyde Canal and on to the Union Canal for a few days. Having experienced canals in England, he looks forward to the day Scottish canals become as popular. Boat living, he believes, is an option for all families, even those with younger children.

"I have seen lots of families living on the water. Every environment is dangerous, the dangers just differ. I think you introduce a child to the issues very early. I see so many families desperate to own their own place, and this is probably the cheapest way of doing it. It has really tipped the balance that Scottish Canals are offering a residential mooring; that was unheard of before."

Indeed, affordability was one of the attractions for Iain and Sarah, who had never set foot on a narrowboat.

"We can't remember whose idea it was, but we were sharing a flat in Edinburgh and could not afford to buy anywhere because we both work for ourselves," says Iain, 35. "We were looking at options, including a caravan, but that didn't appeal."

As they began to research it, the idea became increasingly attractive. "We were paying £400 rent a month plus council tax. Now we are paying about £160, (for the mooring) and no council tax. We are also paying off the boat, which was £35,000, but we are doing that instead of paying someone else's mortgage."

While marine mortgages are available for people who want to live on a boat, Iain and Sarah opted for personal loans. "You can get a nice boat, live on it and pay it off in five years."

The pair plumped for a boat on sale at a Yorkshire marina and, six months on from the initial idea, they watched their new home being winched off a lorry and into the canal near Falkirk.

"Bringing the boat up from England on a lorry was a worry, but when we came up the locks and entered the canal it really felt like a moment," says Sarah, 32, from Thurso. "They opened the gates and it was perfectly calm and in we went. It was a case of: 'Oh, we've got a boat and we're actually going to live in it'".

That was October 2012 and the couple are now integrated into the busy boat community at Auchinstarry. Two years later, the pair have their canal legs; they no longer feel the gentle bobbing of the craft. "Initially, when it was raining at night you would notice the sound on the roof and things like ducks pecking the algae off the side but not any more."

Despite being fairly close to the nearest town, their spot at the end of the pontoon is tranquil, although it teems with wildlife including owls and kingfishers. They say they often have to pinch themselves. "The first spring we had the boat, we made our first trip to Edinburgh. It was 5am and I had just got up," says Iain. "It was a perfect day - calm and sunny - and I was sitting on top of the boat, cruising into Edinburgh drinking a beer, thinking, 'This is amazing'."

However, it is not all plain sailing. They have had a couple of breakdowns when they have had to call on other boaters for help. As with a house, the boat requires maintenance.

"You have to be quite organised, especially in the winter. We have a wood burning stove so you have to make sure you are stocked up with wood for heating and with gas for cooking and hot water. If it looks like the canal might freeze you want to have your water tank full. We have quite an easy toilet system with little pull-out, pull-in cassettes that we empty, but some people have big waste tanks that have to be emptied at a certain spot, so if they are stuck in ice you can't do that."

For some, the move from land to water is permanent, while for others it's short term. "I don't think I would like to live in the same place for a long time," says Sarah. "It is good to be able to move around. But we don't know what's going to happen. One day, one of us might get another job, but at this point it fits with our lifestyle."

Iain is smitten. "It would have to be a pretty amazing option, like a log cabin in a beautiful forest or my own private island, something completely mindblowing, to drag me away from this." n

Additional Images: 
Contextual targeting label: 
Weather

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

256435