A Narrow Escape


“I’ve had an epiphany,” said Blondie after one of her nights out, “It all makes sense now.”  This isn’t unusual after a night of heavy drinking, I’m sure you’ll agree – it’s that intoxicating mix of lack of sleep, still being pissed and the fractured carousel like recall of the previous evening – a merry-go-round of sticky table tops, streetlights and cackling hyenas.

“An epiphany, eh?” I said, slightly smug I’d taken the wise decision to stay in that evening; because that’s the other thing: drunken epiphanies, these moments of clarity – end rather abruptly when you experience your hangover at the exact moment it happens, unless of course you carrying on drinking, there’s always that option.

“Let’s live on a canal barge,” she said, that was the epiphany.

As booze drenched epiphanies go this epiphany isn’t as ridiculous as it first sounds – in fact the logic of it is quite sobering.

Let’s cut to the chase: for obvious reasons including but not limited to the lack of affordable housing along with Herculean deposits; job insecurity – if you have one, that is; hand wringing Fagan landlords who wince whenever you dare bang a nail in the wall; the apparent deteriorating mental faculties of the populace in general; and that’s before you even get to the Facebook rat race, the knife wielding Muslim nut jobs, the suicide bombers and the towering infernos. Anyone, then, with half a modicum of sense would’ve emigrated from the UK years ago – but for those of us that can’t or won’t, there’s another escape hatch: live like an urchin on the canal.

I’m serious, or to put it in a way that makes sense: imagine owning your property outright for probably much less than a house deposit, being able to live more or less anywhere you wish (bar Scotland, the canal network doesn’t extend that far), having a relatively stress free existence, not having to pay rent, no utility bills, a low cost of living, being able to sail into any city centre free of queues, traffic lights and park up whenever you please, there’s also the added bonus of having cost free cheap city breaks.

If that tickles your fancy and why wouldn’t it? There’s more: this spectred isle has over 2000 miles of canal network waiting to be explored which weaves its way through some of the most beautiful countryside imaginable – and with a maximum boat speed of 4 miles per hour it’ll take you a lifetime to navigate. These myriad waterways are linked in a spider’s web spanning most of England and Wales from Bristol to London, Liverpool to Goole, Lancaster to Ripon and connecting the Irish Sea, the North Sea, the estuaries of the Humber, Thames, Mersey, Severn and the Ribble – think of it then as the lure of the rural idyll, an alternative lifestyle, of being closer to nature and back to basics.

Yes, it’ll be awfully cramped – like living in a corridor or floating bus – but here’s the other salient point: living on a canal barge has an inbuilt alarm system – a sort of cruise control – on consumption; not only fuel, water and electricity but also space – you’ll have no choice but to stop consuming. Space being tight means buying something will necessarily mean getting rid of something else and you’ll eventually reach the point when you will no longer be able to find space for new stuff – you’ll be free, hurrah.

Now the hangover – unless you’re a freelancer, work from home, eccentric or independently wealthy and free to roam at will, you’ll need to find permanent moorings and costs can vary greatly depending on locale; mooring in London, for instance, will set you back far more than, say, Manchester, and popular spots can have a long waiting list. You’ll also have to consider whether you’re willing or able to empty a piss pot, which, I’m guessing, isn’t a particularly pleasant experience.

Other things to consider are the cold winter months – you are floating on water after all; you’ll also need to apply for a boating licence from the navigation authority as well as third party liability insurance. There’s the issue privacy and limited Internet and mobile phone access and because you’re essentially now a pikey, or whatever you call them, you’ll have no permanent address, let alone a letterbox.

Anyway, it’s an option for those of the more adventurous disposition – and if you’re willing to make certain sacrifices a pretty good one – all things considered. English conservationist, Robert Aickman, wrote: The waterways are charged with magic, but nothing about them is more magical than the difference made by the few feet of water which separate the boat from the land. Those few feet instantly set the boatman in a world of his own, and his vision of the outer world though which he glides, becomes magically calmer and clearer – if that doesn’t make you want to pack your bags, I don’t know what will.

Laurence is a writer, originally from Burnley. He blogs here about society, politics, food, culture and writes for a variety of publications. He has travelled extensively in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and South America. He lives in Manchester with a King Charles Spaniel called Winston.