Two months have passed since I returned from my nine-week winter break, tethered to a tiny area of England’s canal and river network by coronavirus restrictions, winter stoppages and ice. Despite thoroughly enjoying time off doing nothing more meaningful than rearranging my sock drawer, I missed aspects of marina life.
There’s been an avalanche of waterways interest over the last turbulent year. Narrowboats are selling as quickly as brokers can advertise them, and holiday hire boat operators are laughing all the way to their collective bank. My experience and helmsman training day bookings have gone through the roof as aspiring liveaboard narrowboat owners investigate life on England’s muddy ditches.
(If you plan to join me for an information-packed and thoroughly enjoyable cruise on the cut this year, you need to secure a date soon. Despite reducing my marina working days to accommodate more aspiring boat owners, I’m now fully booked until early September. You can see and book available dates here, and you can read more about my Discovery Day service here.)
Because many new inland waterways boaters still need to work, finding residential moorings is high on their list of priorities. Given that I’ve lived both in a marina and out on the cut for the last eleven years, I thought I would share some of the highs and lows of marina life with you.
Firstly, I must point out that, although I live on one of Calcutt Boats two marinas, the company doesn’t offer residential moorings. The relatively few boaters who live afloat here are employed by or connected with the company. That’s a shame for you if you want a residential mooring because Calcutt Boats has two of the prettiest marinas in the country, in my slightly biased opinion.
If you are looking for a marina mooring, there are several factors you should take into consideration, especially if you hope to live on your boat there full time.
Travel To And From Your Marina
The UK’s inland waterways network encompasses over 2,000 miles of connected and navigable canals and rivers. It stretches from Ripon, North Yorkshire and Tewitfield in Lancashire in the north, down to Avonmouth in the southwest and Goldaming in the south. With an appropriately thin boat, you can cruise east until you reach The Wash and then provide endless entertainment for the holidaymakers in Skegness as your flat-bottomed and underpowered boat sinks without trace.
There are hundreds of marinas and online mooring providers up and down the network. I spent many hours creating a bespoke Google map listing them all half a decade ago. Sadly, the good people at Google appear to have deleted my map. However, the free map included with the Waterways World annual lists 397 boatyards and marinas. That’s a good place for you to start if you have your heart set on a marina mooring.
Most of these marinas and boatyards DO NOT welcome residential boat owners. Some do but don’t advertise the fact. The only way you can establish the rules – published or otherwise – is to visit a marina or mooring provider you fancy, identify liveaboard boats by chimney smoke and roof clutter and chat to the owners.
There’s plenty of scope for you if you just want a leisure mooring, a mooring where you can park your boat when you return to your house rather than use it as a full-time home. Most marinas have spaces these days, including those at Calcutt Boats.
If you’re searching for a leisure mooring, try to avoid locations more than a couple of hours drive from your home. You’ll be full of enthusiasm when you buy your boat. You’ll smile as you think about using it for relaxing weekend breaks after stressful working weeks. Unfortunately, you may gloss over the logistical challenges ahead of you.
Unless you’re prepared to fill your boat with all the clothing and equipment you need for your second home, you’ll spend hours packing before you leave your house, more frustrating hours fighting Friday night traffic and then you’ll face the tedium of carrying, unpacking and tidying when you reach your boat. Before long, you’ll associate visits to your weekend retreat with exhaustion. And you’ll decide to stay at home instead.
Most marinas have far too many rarely visited narrowboats. Calcutt Boats is no exception. There are boats moored on their two marinas which haven’t seen visitors in years. Imagine paying £2,500 for moorings and another £1,000 a year for a license and not using your boat. It’s crazy.
Ensure that you fully understand the logistical issues you’ll need to overcome to use your boat if it’s moored on a distant marina.
And if you’re going to use your boat regularly, you want to have as many route options available to you as possible. That’s one of the reasons Calcutt Boats and the other nearby marinas are so popular. Boat owners can take the South Oxford down to the Thames, the Grand Union west towards Birmingham and the northern canals, or east towards Braunston, where there are more route options. There’s the North Oxford towards Coventry or the Grand Union down to London. A flight of locks, a fascinating tunnel passage and a pleasant hour’s cruise on the Grand Union takes boaters to Norton Junction and access to the Grand Union Leicester Line’s tranquil summit pound. While summer boaters fight for overcrowded moorings on popular routes, the Leicester Line’s twenty-mile summit pound is a peaceful haven for work-weary recreational boaters.
Then for a bit of excitement, there’s Foxton’s iconic flight of ten staircase locks popular with hordes of Leicester gongoozlers. Pretty Market Harborough is two pleasant hours from the Foxton flight along a peaceful arm. The canals accessible from Calcutt Boats offer boaters a wide range of cruising experiences.
The other extreme is a mooring at the end of a long arm or canal on the network’s edge. Boaters often have to face a tedious cruise on an overly familiar waterway before reaching a new route. The monotony becomes too much to bear, and once again, a poor narrowboat sits on its lonely mooring for months or years on end.
‘All marinas are equal, but some marinas are more equal than others,’ is a phrase you won’t find in Animal Farm. There’s more to a mooring than space where you park your boat.
If you own a recreational boat, sometimes all you want is a tranquil alternative to your brick and mortar home, somewhere to unwind after a hectic working week. You don’t have the energy to cruise. All you want is a peaceful space where you can relax and unwind.
For me, that doesn’t mean sidestepping boaters on congested moorings shoehorned into small and aesthetically displeasing spaces. That’s where Calcutt Boats really excels. Imagine leaving a congested motorway and then driving along increasingly peaceful roads until the only other traffic has four legs and a rider in a high visibility jacket. Oh, and maybe a tractor dashing between crop filled fields.
Imagine turning off that quiet road onto a half-mile private lane dotted with riding stables. Then you enter a security code to open a pair of wrought iron electric gates and drive into paradise.
Three SSSI wildflower meadows flank a long private Tarmac drive onto the spacious site. It’s early spring, so a sea of yellow cowslips has replaced swathes of nodding daffodils. When the cowslips disappear, they’ll be replaced by colourful wildflowers with wonderfully odd names; bristly oxtongue, bird’s foot trefoil, lady’s bedstraw and the Victorian lady of the night, Tansy Ragwort. Just reading these names should bring a smile to your face.
You drive deeper into the site, beneath Meadow’s marina’s flower dotted bank. Footpaths meander through seven woodland acres to your left. Tranquil dusk walks are there if you want them and the thrill of fleeting glimpses of muntjak deer, buzzards and barn owls. You can look forward to a night serenaded by pigeon coos and owl hoots, interrupted by the rat-a-tat-tat of green woodpeckers. The nighttime cries are a pleasant change from the din created by traffic and late-night drunken revellers near your city home.
Then there are the site’s two spacious marinas teeming with fish; pike, perch and zander lurking in the shallows, waiting to nip the toes of bare-footed boaters, shoals of rudd, tench, bream and solitary carp as large as small children. The crystal clear water is also home to a healthy population of water birds.
While the site’s pen swan sits regally on a nest the size of a jacuzzi, her mate spends his day paddling, flapping and flying at his deadly enemies, a flock of honking Canada geese.
The mallards squabble over mates, coots swim in aimless circles and kingfishers dart across the marina like bright blue bullets. This is a haven for both wildlife and people.
Choose your marina mooring carefully. Not all are this peaceful.
Tranquillity – Proximity to busy roads, railways and airports
There are many occasions when you want to stay on your boat for a few days but not take it out cruising. If you’re going to do little more than relax, having a pretty place to moor is only part of the equation. The peace and quiet of many marinas are spoiled by their proximity to busy roads, railways or aircraft flight paths.
Calcutt’s two marinas are not too bad in that respect. The nearest main road is over half a mile away, so you can just about hear the muted drone of passing traffic on still days. There is a railway track nearby, but as it hasn’t been used for sixty years, its proximity doesn’t cause any boater hardship. Unlike many roadside marinas, you have to listen carefully to hear traffic noise at Calcutt Boats.
The only slightly annoying traffic noise comes from a nearby landowner and his microlight. Much as I’ve been tempted to take potshots at him with an air rifle, I’ve been reminded that shooting planes isn’t the done thing in the UK.
Finding and securing a decent marina mooring is just one part of your happiness afloat equation. Actually getting your boat on and off it is another consideration.
Narrowboats are large and unwieldy craft, often as long and heavy as a three-axle articulated lorry. These peculiar boats are famously unresponsive on windy and open waters, which you have on most marinas.
The last thing you want is a mooring hemmed in by other boats. Removing your craft from a rank of boats packed like sardines in a tin can be enough of a trauma to discourage you from cruising.
Which of the following marinas would you prefer.
22,000 square metres for 140 boats = 157 square metres per boat
29,000 square metres FOR 225 boats = 128 square metres per boat
12,000 square metres for 135 boats = 89 square metres per boat
Very few marinas offer as many services as Calcutt Boats. There are two Elsan (sewage disposal) points for cassette toilet owners and two pump-out stations for boats with holding tanks. Gas, coal, kindling, logs and diesel are available, as is a comprehensive range of narrowboat fittings, spares and equipment. There’s a slipway for self-launches, hull and stern gear repairs and a painter available all year round for hull blacking.
Calcutt Boats employ two full and one part-time engineer, fitters, painters and a marine electrician. Although the company no longer builds its successful Clipper class narrowboat, skilled tradesmen are on hand for repairs and modifications. All the owners of boats moored at Calcutt have to do to organise BSS exams, repairs, or alterations is pick up a phone. Calcutt employees collect boats from their moorings and return them when the work is completed. Getting the same job done at a marina without services is much more difficult.
Is your boat always safe on a marina mooring? Not necessarily. Marinas on the towpath side of a canal are far easier to access than those on the offside. Marinas near public roads are similarly accessible.
I have lived and worked at Calcutt Boats on and off for eleven years now, and I can’t remember a single instance of theft from boats within the marina. Thieves have a hard time of it here. They have to drive along a half-mile private drive and key in a passcode to an electric gate before they can get onto the site. And then they have to escape the beady eyes of the staff who work at the marina. We like to think that we’re a welcoming bunch at the marina unless your intentions are less than noble. Then we’re like a pack of rabid Rottweilers with hangovers and impacted wisdom teeth. You and your boat are safe here while the dogs are prowling.
The further south you go, the more you’re going to have to pay to park your boat. A prestige mooring in central London can cost you £1,000 each month. In contrast, a leisure mooring at Calcutt Boats – with arguably two of the network’s prettiest marinas, located in picturesque rural Warwickshire – will cost you a mere £2,600 a year for a 60’ boat.
And suppose you think you need the additional space offered by a fat boat. In that case, you can look forward to paying twice that at marinas with moorings predominantly used by narrowboats. At least in a wide beam craft, you’ll get value for your mooring money. You’re likely to find extended cruising so stressful that you’ll spend most of your time tethered to a pier.
Most mooring owners on the inland waterways network offer leisure moorings only. You are usually not allowed to live on a leisure mooring, but the exact rules differ widely. If you want to live aboard your boat full time, you need to secure a residential mooring, and you’ll pay a pretty penny for that.
While most marinas won’t offer you an official residential mooring, they may let you slip under the net. You will need to visit a marina you fancy and talk to boat owners about the unwritten rules. Still, you will always stand a better chance of staying long term on a marina mooring if you blend in.
That means being pleasant to the marina staff and following their rules. If you put your head above the parapet, you’re likely to get shot. An otherwise lovely boat owner at Calcutt was recently asked to leave the marina after constantly refusing to adhere to the rules.
Your boat’s condition will play a part in your acceptability too. If the marina you want to stay in is filled with clean and tidy narrowboats, and you bring in something which looks like it belongs in a skip, you aren’t going to win any popularity contests. Obey the rules, be nice and keep a tidy boat and you’re halfway there.
Discovery Day Update
There has been an extraordinary surge in interest in the inland waterways in the last year. With more and more people able to work remotely, narrowboats are selling as quickly as brokers can advertise them. Whilton Marina, one of the network’s largest brokers, often has 75+ narrowboats for sale. Today, there are just eight. Although Calcutt Boats’ brokerage is a much smaller operation, the company often has twenty for sale. That’s down to two boats today.
It’s a seller’s market at the moment so prices are sky high and decent boats are few and far between. The good news for you if you’re considering buying a narrowboat is that there will be many boats coming back on the market in the near future. Many new narrowboat owners have invested their life savings into boats that they haven’t researched. I’ve spoken to several disenchanted people who’ve bought boats over the last twelve months who are now considering selling.
There’s much more to living afloat than many people think. They have to consider mooring type and availability, electricity use, reduction and generation, coal, water, gas and diesel resupply and shoehorning a life’s possessions into a much smaller space than they’re used to. Narrowboat ownership isn’t something you should rush into without research.
This website is a good place to start. I’ve added hundreds of articles over the last decade. You can use the search facility at the top of the right-hand column to find the answers to any lifestyle questions you have. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, please let me know. I’m always happy to point an aspiring narrowboat owner in the right direction.
If you still think the lifestyle is right for you, get some practical experience. Hire a narrowboat for a week or two, preferably in the winter months when you won’t be able to look at the lifestyle through rose-tinted glasses. Even better, book an experience day with me.
I’ve taken hundreds of people out for the day since my first Discovery Day booking in June 2014. I’ve received many emails since then from happy customers, like this one below…
Well, I have a couple of days off now from the coal face, so it's a time to relax and review our day onboard your home. Thank You so much for allowing me onto Orient and the time you spent with me and all of your advice. It was a fantastic day!! Couldn't have asked for more and really enjoyed it. I also had the best night's sleep in a long time, so there must be something in all of this fresh air hey?
I had researched boat life before around 5-6 years ago and had found you then and used your calculator to cost interpret the dream. Life got in the way, some work decisions were changed and it got shelved. However, I am considering it again and so it made perfect sense to spend time with yourself knowing how you have helped many others before me. Through your blogs I knew you had vast amounts of experience.
The day was nice and relaxed and great company. I was watered with plenty of coffee! The initial questions I had sent were answered throughout the day along with more information than I had considered. I found the walkthrough of your boat useful as I could see what I did/didn't need and how I may want a layout for myself. Think this now allows a much narrower view when looking at boats.
I couldn't imagine considering any part of my research now without having spent time with you & I'll be looking to spend more time either before and prior to the boat purchase.
15th May 2021
If you’re serious about living afloat or even buying a narrowboat for recreational use, make sure that you understand what’s in store for you. Join me for a day. You can read more about my Discovery Day service here and view and book dates here. Please note that there’s nothing wrong with my calendar. I’m fully booked until early September. Don’t let that put you off though. Autumn and winter cruises give you the opportunity to experience the reality of living afloat when the sun’s not shining. Don’t be worried about that. Winter is my favourite time of the year for tranquil cruising.
I hope to welcome you aboard Orient soon. Tea or coffee?