People like myself, we don’t like that much.” He and his fellow boaters have traditionally been those uncomfortable with the mainstream (alongside those who just like the water): people you’d cross the street to get away from, or marginalized communities. “There were a lot of gay people on the water” for a time, he recalls. “We are what we are,” says Wildman of the community’s approach to this ramshackle community of contented discontents. “We just enjoy what we do. We don’t care what you do, or if you have long hair or a bone through your nose. You’re a boat person, and we love you for it.”
Perhaps the presence of marginalized peoples living somewhat unorthodox lifestyles helped to spread an initially dim view of boat people across the country, especially in smaller towns with less river traffic. This ill repute has persisted in some districts even as boating has gentrified.
But, according to Wildman, “over the last five to ten years, there’s been an increase in boating, mainly because people see it as a cheap housing solution.” As of February 2014, housing prices in London had reached, on average, £175,000 ($300, 000) to £600,000 ($1,027,000), depending on the area. Panicked apartment and house hunters often look at boat prices—£10,000 ($17,100) for the cheapest immediately livable craft but £100,000 ($171,000) to £250,000 ($428,000) for something bigger and better equipped—and think they stand a better chance on the water than anywhere else. This may be why, as of the last boating surveys taken, at least half of residential boater households earned less than £30,000 ($51,000) per year: The lower wage bracket has decided that, while still pricey, they stand a better chance finding an affordable home on the water than on land.
Life on the water isn’t always that much cheaper
The thing is, life on the water isn’t always that much cheaper, especially when one factors in the man-hours and attitude adjustment that the lifestyle requires. On the financial side, cautions Wildman, one must keep in mind the cost of a permanent mooring, few of which are available in overpriced and congested London (one of the main sites of the economic land-to-water flight). Then there’s council tax, parking if you have a car, assorted maintenance fees, and the price of water, electricity, and any other utility we usually take for granted.
The utilities do not come easily, either. Pumping in water supplies, offloading toilet waste, and finding and hooking up to electrical stations can be quite onerous tasks that few think of when looking into boat life. “Not everyone takes to it,” says Wildman, “especially if you’re iced in and you need to dump your toilet waste at a dump point a few miles away.”
Then there’s the claustrophobia of it all. The average 7 foot by 50 foot narrow boat amounts to 350 square feet of space for bedroom, kitchen, living area, toilet, and a cockpit, often shared by more than one person. According to Symonds, at least 75% of those on the waters are couples. And these rail-thin boats tend to be the more spacious models. “You wouldn’t get me back into a house, nor my wife,” says Wildman. “But if you didn’t get on, it’d lead to some friction.”