Living On The River Cam

Luther Phillips lives on a widebeam boat on the river Cam with his partner Lisa and their two young boys. He talks here about the pleasures of living on the river, but not of the pleasure of the increased mooring fees! {{{0}}}

I currently live aboard a 70ft Widebeam Barge moored on Stourbridge Common, with my wonderful partner Lisa and our two beautiful boys Hapi and Beau. Hapi is 2 years and five months. Hapi is spelt H A P I. I would like to dismiss the rumour that he is called Hapi purely because I am Grumpy! Something to do with my age! Some of you will know Hapi as an Egyptian river God, God of the Nile. Hapi was a deification of the annual flooding of the Nile River in Ancient Egyptian religion. The flood would deposit rich silt on its banks, allowing the Egyptian farmers to grow their crops. His name means ‘Running One’, probably referring to the current of the Nile. And I can tell you he certainly loves running. He’s running me ragged. Beau will be 3 months tomorrow and as you can imagine mummy and daddy are very proud.

Living on the river Cam

Living on the river Cam

I moved onto a boat on the river Cam in September of 2002 in an earnest attempt to climb onto the property ladder. Cambridge’s ascendency and affluence meant my meagre income could only afford me the most basic of dwellings. And for today’s money, probably even less, perhaps nothing at all with its prohibitive costs. At the time many of my friends were buying their own homes, renting for me seemed a waste of my money and in reality I had no ties to Cambridge and needed somewhere to call my home which I owned. My decision to buy a boat resulted from a chance meeting with an ex-colleague who lived on a boat with his girlfriend; they were selling their beloved boat because they had their eye on something that was seagoing with a bit more space.

The brief chat we had fuelled my imagination and after visiting with them and going for a cruise down to Baits Bite lock, I was convinced and sold on the idea of living on a boat.

Practically the next day, my desperate search for a boat began. I surfed the internet; I bought boating magazines and soon made the decision to visit three marinas in the Northampton area, where I felt I would find a suitable boat for a novice, or should I say a suitable boat for my home. To my surprise, at the end of the first day of looking, I was extremely lucky to find the “Corn Dolly”, a 50ft narrowboat within my price range. So, instead of ‘Bricks and Mortar’ I have ended up with ‘Steel and Water’. An adventure to me, a surprise to most and some of my family are still getting use to the idea of my chosen type of domicile. Every Mother wants to know that there little boy is safely grounded!

The staff at Braunston Marina were exceptionally helpful with the transaction and within a few weeks, a survey and some minor reparation, I bought the boat and was ready to travel to Cambridge. They certainly made the process straightforward, selflessly preparing me for my new life ahead. What a strange concept, I would be taking my new home home!

Until that day I had been a mere visitor to the river Cam. But once I left Braunston Marina in my new floating home, the river came alive spectacularly, the blazing hot sun bouncing off the clear cool water. Dragon flies and butterflies adorning the water’s surface for seconds in flashes and dances. The sound of the engine chugging away and the slight smell of diesel fumes made me feel part of an ancient breed of river travellers. I soon learnt the ropes, having a great deal of fun on the way, and after an epic seven day journey cruising from Braunston, Nr Daventry I arrived at Jubilee Gardens, Jesus Green, Cambridge. A journey which I will always treasure, it was a journey of discovery, in my own world I came of age. I was proud of my amazing experience. Each day waking up to picturesque sunrises, the days curatively long and tranquil and without fail, each night preceded by a dazzling sunset. What an introduction to living on the river.

I did have the odd mishap along the way though , once I accidentally managed to tangle my centre rope in the propeller, it was very worrying, but thankfully I had done my research prior to the trip and my quick thinking response saved the day, more importantly saved the boat. It did involve me stripping off and diving into the refreshing water with a knife in my mouth, to cut the knotted rope from around the propeller!

The total distance I travelled to bring my new home home was 144 miles, travelling at 4 miles per hour, operating 74 locks and 27 moveable bridges, traversing 7 small aqueducts or underbridges and 1 long tunnel – Braunston Tunnel, which is one mile long or should I say one long mile. It is 12ft 3in high and 15ft 7in wide and rather gloomy.

The journey should have taken 64 hours, 39 minutes which is 9 days, 1 hour and 39 minutes at 7 hours per day. It took me seven days which I wished lasted a great deal longer.

Although brief and fleeting I never contemplated the change those seven days had on me, it has helped to mould me into the person I am today, a transformation and change of focus towards the river, at this point it became my home as opposed to a place to visit for respite or recreation. I consider myself a changed person now, more of an environmentalist as a result. I found my partner, we found a community, we believed so strongly in our way of life we decided it was good enough to bring new life into the world, so much so, that we are expecting our 2nd baby in January 2012. We have a shared commitment to ensuring our community embraces environmental stewardship and upholds sustainable lifestyles.

Incidentally, the boat my friends were selling was purchased by Lisa, who at that time I had not met!

I lived on the ‘Corn Dolly’ for three and half blissful years, loving every minute of it, it also inspired me to look for something with more space. Which I duly did, I found a boat in Zaandam, Holland which I bought and sailed across the North Sea with the aid of my girlfriend Lisa and a trustworthy old sea dog called Sid Fisher, who is the embodiment of Captain Birds Eye. Now, that was a monumental journey, twelve hours traversing the North Sea in a force 4 on the Beaufort Scale, as the insurance company would not cover us in anything higher. We chugged 115 miles practically straight across from Ijmuiden and were welcomed to Great Yarmouth by fully armed Customs and Excise officers, who stealthily boarded our vessel in true James Bond style, suspecting to find drugs, explosives or illegal immigrants. Several of them thoroughly searching the boat uncovering panels, rummaging through nooks and crannies I didn’t even know existed. During those two hours we were interviewed, I knew I had nothing to worry about, however, it was an ordeal I would not wish to repeat.

A couple of months later, Tjoba as she was called arrived in Cambridge, one of the biggest boats on the Cam. She attracted a lot of attention and required a fair amount of restoration. Tjoba was a decommissioned cockle cutter built in 1911, it operated in Zerike Zee in the South of Holland. She was eventually sold last year, affording Lisa and I our family boat ‘Cygnet’ which we currently live on and is moored on Stourbridge Common. We have expanded our horizons and broadened our commitment to civic life.

Life on the river Cam is healthy! It induces an element of calm; it provides a therapy that is nature, an aura of contentment especially when wildlife graces us with their presence.

Despite the myths and misconceptions, living on a boat is an environmentally friendly low-impact way of life, by that I mean there is not much strain placed on the environment, Cambridge City Council’s resources, the national grid or the water company. Especially considering I generate my own electricity, I am frugal with it and the amount of water I use, and have to be even more considerate using other amenities including disposal of my waste.

I know my carbon footprint is minimal. In fact my existence is very closely scrutinised, as I have to conform to, and satisfy many rules, regulations and tribulations in order to live lawfully on the river. Even if it were not a legal requirement, I can assure you my conscientious nature would ensure my commitment to preserving our planet.

In the years I have lived on the Cam I have developed a strong sense of belonging, I feel a certain responsibility and accountability for maintaining its environs, protecting the wildlife and preserving its history and its heritage for future generations to appreciate.
I am pleased I am in a position to give something back, to be able to express how I feel about our gorgeous river, which is why I take great pride in organising the Cam Clean Up and other environmental initiatives which will preserve and ultimately ensure its existence in its current natural state and safeguard it from any unnecessary developments.

I count myself extremely lucky and fortunate that I can enjoy this environment from so many different perspectives: with so many places to go and so many things to do it’s a fantastic location to moor my boat, my home.

The importance of the river to different user groups is evident; on a daily basis I see hundreds of people of all ages from various walks of life, taking great pleasure enjoying their sporting and leisure activities. Ensuring everyone can access this resource for whatever use is not only fair but essential, equally as important is understanding and addressing the needs of all who wish to share the river, so developing and maintaining a community of cohesive groups is essential.

Here are a few lovely ways to enjoy our lovely river: join a Town rowing club, rowing down to Bait’s Bite Lock and back a few times is hard work but loads of fun, it it’s also an interesting and unique course; take a cycle ride along route 51 or beside the river along the towpath to Clayhithe; the least congested part of the river would mean going on a river boat trip to Bottisham Lock, what a wonderful landscape to explore or rent a punt for a day take a few friends, a picnic and enjoy a trip up to Grantchester.

From Byron’s Pool all the way to Bottisham Lock you will find a wide range of leisure activities taking place. Angling, canoeing, kayaking, motor boating, sailing, swimming and in recent times we have seen new activities such as paddle boarding.

And let’s not forget some of the best green spaces adjacent to the river – the Mill Pond, Jesus Green, Midsummer Common and Stourbridge Common, to mention a few. I like to think of the river and commons as jewels in our crown that is Cambridge, hence, I treasure it and them so much.

As I become older I take more time and pleasure in the simple things in life. Waking up to the sounds of lapping water, quacking ducks, shrieking moorhens, the strong earthy vegetal bouquet after rainfall, observing the awesome sight of swans and herons taking flight or flying a kite, these are some of the things that provide me with everlasting memories, moments of tranquillity, escape and an effective therapy that costs nothing.

With that in mind, how can anyone take the river Cam for granted? Well I certainly can’t, therefore I encourage everyone to do something to pay homage to their local river World Rivers Day on Sunday 30th of September. Looking to the future I trust everyone will join me in maintaining and preserving the rivers of this world and their legacy for our descendents.

Earlier, I alluded to myths and misconceptions commonly held about boat dwellers, let me dispel a few.

“Boaters pollute the environment”

Most Boaters are self-sufficient, therefore very economical with electricity. Electricity is usually provided by a minimum of two car batteries, which are usually recharged by wind turbines, solar panels or running the boat’s engine. This frugality applies to water and heating too. Boaters with solid fuel stoves generally use smokeless coal, despite not being a legal requirement. As a boat is a small space to heat and as long as it is well insulated it takes a short time to warm up, it holds it heat and uses a minimal amount of fuel to do this.

“They don’t pay their way”

Boats which are moored on Cambridge City’s Commons pay a Mooring licence which is the equivalent of Council Tax Band A, they are not liable for council tax. They also pay a Navigation or registration Fee. Which means for a 70ft Widebeam Barge which I currently live on, I pay the City Council ?1000 a year to moor my boat on the Cam and in addition, I pay the Environment Agency ?1000 to navigate the River Cam and Environment Agency controlled waters.

“Lazy layabouts living off the dole”

Many boaters are professionals who work in Cambridge. They are doctors, teachers, lawyers, carers, researchers, University employees and some run their own successful businesses. Quite a few boaters have downsized from lives which were filled and dominated by material possessions and have now consider themselves retired from the proverbial rat race.

“Houseboats on the Cam are an eyesore”

Admittedly some boats moored on the Cam do let the side down! The odd neglected holiday boat abandoned on the Riverside railings, fading paintwork, rotting hulls, tatty ropes, which is hardly a sight to bemoan. Regardless most boat owners are fiercely proud of their homes and some go to the lengths of re-painting them every year. Houseboats augment the River Cam, they are a reminder of the Industrial revolution, a time when Cambridge was being built and these types of boats were used to bring the materials with which many buildings and roads were constructed.

As far as Cambridge’s river history is concerned, I won’t recount what you probably already know, because tonight I am here to tell you about my current view and recent history of Life on the Cam. You will all know that the River Cam was once the centre of life and sustenance for the community and today’s boating families are a reminder of Cambridge’s history.

My limited knowledge of the history of the Cam I find interesting and I can recite events of times past, which many of you will know far more about than I do right now. I do know the River Cam has been navigable at least since Roman times, and from the Middle Ages onwards, barges were used to bring heavy goods to Cambridge. The river once being the centre of commerce for the city, the people working on the boats lived on them, sometimes whole families resided in tiny ‘workman’s cabins’.

Barges brought stone for the College and University buildings including King’s College Chapel. They also carried the goods for trading at Stourbridge Fair & Midsummer Fair. Cambridge was supplied with fuel, food and other supplies by boat until as late as 1951.
In addition, a variety of boathouses, ferries for crossings and industrial boats going to and from the gasworks on Riverside plied their trade on the river.

With the coming of the railway in 1845, the industrial traffic on the river waned, leaving the river purely for recreational and residential use.

The last thirty years have seen a renaissance in the use of the river. There are now more than 2,000 rowers registered at over 30 boathouses in Cambridge. There are also roughly 100 liveaboard boats. This means the river is still heavily used and more popular than at any time in its rich history. However that intense use is comprised of solely recreational activity, predominantly rowing and punting.

When I moved on to the river in 2002 there were only a handful of residential boaters, they were very welcoming and it was a small tight knit community in the centre of a rapidly growing Cambridge. I knew I had made the correct decision, moving onto a boat, it was new, exciting and in fact the novelty still has not worn off. At that time boaters paid nothing to moor on the Cam apart from a Navigation License, which is paid to the Cam Conservancy or the Environment Agency. I was onto a good thing here, I was happy to pay council tax but the City Council had no scheme in place to allow the small boating community to make a contribution. Word quickly spread of free moorings in Cambridge, perpetuated by a website created by a Cam Conservator. Soon more boats arrived and within two years of my moving onto the river, the river seemed full!

It soon became apparent that the increase in residential boaters was not welcome and it conflicted with the already oversubscribed rowing activity on the river Cam. Complaints by rowers mostly were made to the Cam Conservancy and the City Council against the boating community and before you knew it the Cam Conservancy tried to impose a ban on residential boats mooring on Midsummer Common under the guise of a navigational problem, which in all fairness did not exist.

With the advent of the growing community, it was obvious there was a desperate need to form an official residential boating association, in order to be recognised and respected but more urgently a need to defend our homes and our way of life. To show other communities and local residents they had nothing to fear, that their way of life was not being threatened or encroached upon. There needed to be a harmonisation of the community. There was also a need to provide fundamental facilities and services for the boating community as well as the increasing number of visiting boats.

Across the country, boat sales were booming and Cambridge was increasingly going to be visited by water. When the Cathedral link is built, the Cathedral link being an ambitious project by the Environment agency it is actually known as The Fens Waterways Link, it will connect the cathedral cities of Lincoln, Peterborough and Ely, and the market towns of Boston, Spalding, Crowland and Ramsey. In association with other waterway regeneration schemes, the Link will create a new circular waterway to improve recreation, tourism and the environment. This will no doubt encourage more boaters to come to Cambridge.

So with many good reasons, on the 20th of September 2004 Camboaters was born, Camboaters the name for the boating community based here in Cambridge. A public meeting was held to announce the constitution of Camboaters Community Association and members were elected to the Camboaters Community Association Management Committee.

Camboaters is made up of approximately 100 liveaboards on the River Cam and many holiday boat owners. It’s a vibrant, diverse community of all ages and professions. We are a friendly group and believe that our sustainable way of life adds to the natural beauty and charm of Cambridge, providing an additional tourist attraction on the riverside, whilst placing low impact on council resources.
The aims of Camboaters were to:

1. Improve the quality of life and facilities available to boat owners on the river Cam
2. Encourage and provide proactive solutions to the problems faced by boat owners on the river Cam
3. Establish and maintain good relationships between all river users and the relevant authorities
4. Change and dispel myths widely held about liveaboards
5. Assist with the implementation of any new policies that affect houseboat owners
6. Contribute new ideas aimed at preserving the beauty and wildlife on the river
7. Enjoy all aspects of the river from navigation to recreational activities
8. Promote a healthy way of life on the river.

The aims and objective of Camboaters constitution currently reads as such:

a) To represent the interests of residential boaters on the River Cam, and to address issues that affect the residential boating community

b) To work with the City Council and Cam Conservators to maintain and improve a mooring plan and associated facilities that accord with the needs, safety and welfare of all those who live aboard their vessels upon the Cam

c) To promote the recreational use of the River Cam for all its users, by working with the statutory authorities, voluntary organisations and residents on the river to preserve and enhance the amenities available in relation to the River Cam.

So with a flotilla of passionate members of the river community, fearing for their way of life being threatened, we instigated a campaign to ‘Reverse the Ban’ of residential boats moored on Midsummer Common. Several events were held to dispel the myths about residential boaters. Two of which continue as annual events: The Cam Clean Up held in March and an Open Boat Day held on World Rivers Day in September.

The Cam Clean Up is very special to me because with the help of local residents, passionate volunteers, Cambridge City Council, Conservators of the River Cam, and Anglian Water’s RiverCare a cleanup of the River Cam from Grantchester Meadows to Bottisham lock is feasible. It is the perfect excuse to get out there and do something for our fine city, as well as expressing our environmental ethos and love of rivers and wildlife or simply enjoying a day by the river!

The Cam Clean Up has developed into a fabulous event, becoming bigger and better every year. Last year, more than 250 volunteers collected over 500 bags of recyclable and general rubbish from the river and its banks. In 2009 hard-working grapple teams recovered a whopping 100 bikes from the riverbed and three motorised scooters were retrieved from Stourbridge Common.
Last year World Rivers Day Festival took place on Sunday 25th September 2011, 10 am – 6 pm, on Jesus Green, Cambridge. It was a free, local festival which celebrated life on the river. Many of the houseboaters opened up their boats, welcoming many visitors onboard and talking about their life on the river. There were lots of family friendly fun and hands-on activities occurring throughout the day, the main theme running through the day highlighted the importance and enjoyment of life on and around, the River Cam.
Well, back to the campaign, due to our efforts and overwhelming public support, it was successful and boats were not banned from mooring in the City Centre, it did highlight the need for a mooring policy which Camboaters worked on very closely with the City Council to implement. It encouraged many boaters to take more pride in their Community and their boats, as they appreciated they were the river vista representing Cambridge. Some boats which visually spoil the vista just comparatively reflects what you will find on many roads, quite a few well kept houses with pristine gardens, but then there will be the odd house and car that let that neighbourhood down. You can’t force everyone to aspire to perfection!

In my time on the River Cam, the boating community has seen a steady cycle of people moving on to the river for a few years, then moving back into a house or leaving Cambridge all together. Change of circumstance, such as a new job, a baby, you name it, there has been a succession of people enjoying the lifestyle associated with living on the Cam and all that it has to offer. There has been the natural and normal progression of birth life and death. In fact there were over 23 babies born to river folk in the last eight years, over twelve weddings and two deaths that I am aware of. (RIP Eddie & Nathan)

The boating community thrives. Living on a boat appears to be an inviting growing way of life, I receive a fair few enquiries about life on a boat, how to buy a boat, where are there moorings available? And the most common, laughable question is, “Is it cold in the winter?”

There is a long waiting list for residential boat licenses in Cambridge, last time I enquired there were well over 100 people on it. Mooring licenses are in high demand and I can assure you that, with this form of permanent inexpensive accommodation, it highlights the reality that Cambridge needs a marina or a boat haven. Sadly, Cambridge currently lacks the basic amenities that most other boating communities across the country provide as standard.

With Cambridge experiencing substantial growth in its population over the last decade, the activities and numbers partaking in those activities on the river has mirrored that increase. In particular punting, some of you will be aware of the annual ‘Punt Wars’ with aggressive, competitive, annoying punters touting for tourists’ spending money. I used to enjoy punting up The Backs then onto Grantchester on a hot summer’s day, now I seldom venture that way during the busy season. The fun has been taken out of what once use to be a civilised day out. Good days for punting are during term time before the tourists season properly commences, when there is no chance of congestion, collision or being harassed by a tout. Bad days I now leave to the young men and women who can handle the hustle bustle on the river. Unfortunately it will be left to the Cam Conservancy and City Council to sort out the mess but alas the rules and red tape will mean it takes some time.

With rowing and its tradition, there is a misconceived attitude of ownership of the River Cam, exacerbating the problem of conflict with other river users. During term rowing events are almost every weekend and last mostly all of the day. In recent times clashes with Mr Asbo & his family have made National headlines. Town and College clubs are being over subscribed for membership and this popularity causes severe congestion on the river.

Deliberating over matters concerning the River Cam is part of my remit as a River Cam Conservator. The river needs a collective vision, a ‘Waterspace Strategy’ is being developed by the Cam Conservators to give the people of Cambridge, especially the people who make use of it regularly, something to be proud of. Projects such as the Cambridge Sporting Lakes may be years away but it would go a long way to help easing the pressure on the river.

The growth challenges faced by people on the river are really challenges for the City or broader region, thankfully the river communities are now connected by like minded folks, sharing common interests and are realising the necessity to solve the problems as they arise.

So, what will the future bring for the river Cam? More challenges to be tackled by a broader coalition? Collaborations on new opportunities such as building a marina for a growing residential population. We may have to defend Cambridge against a flood? What would be lost to the City without Camboaters? Would there be the leadership and continuity of the Cam Cleanup? How will life on the River Cam change the perspective of our children & grandchildren’s lives? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we re-embraced the river Cam as a civic hub, a community resource and not just an exploited waterway for rowing and punting!

Here’s an article that Luther wrote for the Cambridge news about increased mooring fees on the river Cam

Useful Information
Paul Smith

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia wandered Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 35' Dutch motor cruiser. However, the pull of England's muddy ditches proved too much for them. Now they're back where they belong, constantly stuck in mud in a beautiful traditional narrowboat.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 1 comments
hat27533 - Monday,16 April, 2012

Thank you so much for this article, it could not be more timely for me personally.

I am thinking about buying a wide beam canal boat (60ft x 12ft) to live on instead of renting a house. This article almost answers everything for me on one page and it does not put me off.

Just need to find a mooring either on the cam or the Great Ouse.

see http://www.newandusedboat.co.uk/new-boats-widebeam.php for details of the boats I have in mind.



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