Learn about life afloat the easy way

Life on a narrowboat can be as peaceful as it is idyllic BUT you need to understand the pros, cons, highs, lows, and day to day logistics in living on England's inland waterways. Let me help you find out all you need to know before you commit to what could be a very expensive mistake.


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A Case Study Of Liveaboard Narrowboat Idlewild

A single lady and a continuously cruising floating business. Illia has managed to combine working for a living while she cruises the English canal network. It’s the Holy Grail for many.

Who are you? (and your significant other and, of course, your dog if you have one)

I’m Illia Price. My dog Morgan is a Patterdale/ Border terrier cross. She’s named after the spiced rum to which I am very partial.

Tell me a little about yourself and why you decided to live a life afloat

I’ve bought houses in need of TLC, lived and run my business in them whilst renovating them for years. With increasing age and two small grandsons I wanted a bit more free time. Life afloat offered to satisfy my wanderlust and my own detached, movable home seemed ideal. I read Paul’s excellent guides and spent many hours on the net learning all I could about narrowboats, costs and equipment. I looked very carefully at the rules of CC’ing to see if it would be practical for me. I like living in small spaces and am pretty outdoorsy and handy so it seemed ideal.

What is your boat called and why did you decide on that name?

NB Idlewild

NB Idlewild

She’s called Idlewild but I shall be changing it to Caledonia with a renaming ceremony when she’s out for blacking, in honour of my 30 years in Scotland.

Do you have a permanent mooring? If so, tell me about it.

No, I like to move around and choose my distance from neighbours. I have a winter towpath mooring permit so I can stay close to my grandsons for babysitting duties during the dark months.

What is you boat length and style?

48′ cruiser. She was built by Harborough Marine Ltd in 1971.

How long have you been a narrowboat owner?

6 months

How did you finance your boat?

Sale of my house.

How much time do you spend on your boat each year?

All of it.

Are you still working? (If so, what do you do?)

I’m an industrial engraver. I make botanical labels for gardens and arboretums throughout the UK and as far afield as Madeira and Mexico. I use a PC which drives two engraving tables.

What do you like least about narrowboat life?

Muddy towpaths and abandoned dog mess.

What do you like most about narrowboat life?

Having the freedom to go where I want when I want. Not having grass to mow or gutters to clean out. Listening to the rain and wind outside whilst cosy by the fire. I love it all.

If you could change just one thing about your boat, what would it be?

A quieter engine would be nice but other than that she will be perfect once I’ve finished working on her.

When you are cruising how do you resupply (How do you get to the supermarket without a car)?

I cheat a bit at present as I still have a vehicle but look forward to doing without. When away from it I moor within walking distance of shops and dog gets lots of walkies.

How do you do your washing when you are cruising?

I have a smallish plastic twin tub. One of my best purchases at only about £100. Does a great job.

What type of toilet do you have and are you happy with it?

I’ve a cassette and very happy with it. I wanted to avoid a pump out as I didn’t fancy carrying my waste around for weeks. I also sought to avoid pump out costs and space taken up by a tank. It was the one aspect of live aboard life I was not looking forward to but in fact as long as the loo is looked after it doesn’t smell and even emptying and cleaning it out is not the grim task I was expecting.

How do you connect to the internet when you are on your boat and are you happy with the service you receive?

I’ve a Huawei Mifi thingy which allows me to wirelessly connect PC and tablet. I use Three on a PAYG tariff. It’s great. Occasionally reception is poor but mostly it’s fine. Also use my (paid for) phone for which I have a Three contract sim which gives me many minutes, unlimited texts and 2gb of data for only £10 a month.

What is your favourite canal or section of canal?

Still so much to explore but so far I love it around Hockley Heath and Lapworth (apart from the lift bridges!) I felt privileged to see the Kingfisher(s?) on a regular basis when I was moored there.

How do you generate electricity when you are cruising and how much do you use?

I’ve a Kipor suitcase generator with an LPG conversion. It’s running (by the towpath) every working day for about 4 hours. I also charge my batteries and gadgets while it’s running. A 13kg bottle of gas lasts about 30 hours. I also changed two old (ugly) solar panels for two 100w semi flexibles which I stuck to the roof. They are great and I will be adding more.

How warm is your narrowboat in the winter?

Toastie. My only heat source is a small Villager stove but it warms the boat quickly. With big front and rear decks my inside space is only around 30′ and open plan apart from the bathroom. The stove is close to the centre so the heat percolates through the boat.

What advice can you offer someone considering living on a narrowboat?

Carefully consider the lifestyle. It’s not for everyone. There’s a lot of physical humping of fuel, gas etc. Unless on a serviced mooring one has to plan on cruising to fill the water and stock up on food and fuel, as well as emptying the toilet and disposing of rubbish on a regular basis. It all consumes a surprising amount of time and it’s not pleasant when it’s cold and wet. One quickly becomes frozen standing at the tiller for any length of time in winter. There’s no space for unnecessary stuff and on a basic boat like mine electric kitchen gadgets, powerful vacuum cleaners etc. are a thing of the past. It’s not a cheap option. By the time you’ve taken fuel, maintenance, license fees etc. into consideration it’s comparable to keeping a small house.

Continuous cruising sounds romantic but is not always plain sailing. I could not do it if I had to go out to work. If you rely on a vehicle it can be hard to find parking near your mooring and it’s a right pain having to move the vehicle as you progress along the canal. In winter the towpath will often be muddy and it gets everywhere, especially if you have dogs. You often cannot moor in that perfect spot you see because it’s already taken or too shallow. In some places there can be a steady stream of walkers, cyclists and dogs going past, which is fine but some will peer in your windows. Your dog may bark every time somebody goes past. My boat is not the smartest looking, planning on repainting in the summer. But I do keep her clean and tidy and I don’t store stuff on the roof or by the towpath. Most people are friendly and curious about the lifestyle but some obviously consider one to be some kind of gyppo.

But if you’re willing to embrace the lifestyle it’s fantastic. Your own detached home wherever you choose to moor. Freedom from noise, bustle and traffic. Hundreds of miles of canals and rivers to explore. The delight of watching the wildlife. The brightness of the stars away from light pollution. The reflections on the water. A sunny summer day is lovely but winter has it’s own special beauty too. I feel very self contained, at one with my surroundings and love the fact that if I choose I can just up and move and not a trace is left behind.

I would always recommend researching as much as possible and getting some training if you’re new to narrowboating. Apart from a bit of easy steering on a hire boat I had no narrowboat experience whatsoever when I bought mine near Reading. My maiden voyage was to be the 130 miles and as many locks to get her up to the Midlands by myself. I booked a one to one helmsman’s course for the first day which was great and gave me the confidence to get on with it.

Also don’t trust the seller, be it an individual or a broker. Get your own independent surveys and advice. Look around at other similar boats for comparison.

If you buy an old boat be prepared to spend a lot of money on it! Think outside the box. You can source stuff a lot more reasonably priced than your average marina by buying online or from DIY store.

Illia’s business web site is here. She has also written a fascinating account of her time afloat on the forum here and here.

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Are you one of the lucky few who lives the dream on board your own narrowboat full time? Would you like to share your experience with some of the thousands of potential floating home owners who visit this site? If you can spare the time to answer a few simple questions, I would love to hear from you. Just let me know so I can email the questions to you. I’ll create a post like the one above complete with a link back to your own blog or website.

 

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Paul Smith
 

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia now wander Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 32' Dutch motor cruiser.