I recently came across this article about canal boating written by a boat owner, Doug Field who is resident at our very own New Islington Marina. It was published in the in the Times Literary Supplement, not I fear my regular reading material!
In the article, Doug tells his endearing story of life on a narrowboat and I thought it was something worth sharing. An excerpt of the article is below and, should it inspire you to take up life on the water, you can find out more about mooring at New Islington here…
“I bought my first narrow boat, Hedgehog, on a romantic whim. Bored with city-centre living and bowed down with furniture and the anxieties of academic life and trying to get my book published, I purchased the first boat that I viewed, a mid-1970s, thirty-six foot wooden- top vessel with a leaky roof. Overnight, Ellie and I gave away most of our possessions, swapping a spacious oak-floored apartment in the centre of Manchester for a cramped boat with a rotten sole. I blame years of reading books that celebrate the power and mystery of water. After reading Herman Hesse’s novel, Siddhartha, in my teens, I only wanted to become a ferryman. Like Ishmael, “I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world”. I dreamed of discovering, like Eliot’s narrator in Four Quartets, whether the river was truly “a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable”.
“The day after buying the boat we found out that Ellie was pregnant. Eliot’s line that the river’s “rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom” resonated for the first time. It dawned on me that nearly all the literature that had inspired me to live on a boat was about rivers and seas, not canals. The only book I’d read in recent years about our inland water- ways was Lee Rourke’s novel Canal, essen- tially a book about boredom. Most accounts of boating life celebrate male camaraderie, eschewing domestic life. “Let your boat of life be light”, Jerome K. Jerome’s narrator urges, “packed with only what you need.” This is sound advice for three men setting off on a jaunt on the Thames but less relevant to our situation. We needed to buy nappies and figure out how to charge a breast pump.
“After a brutal first winter, moored at New Islington Marina in Manchester, with only a small wood burner to keep us warm, we began to get accustomed to boating life. There is something unhurried about living on a boat, even in a city centre. We became attuned to the seasons in new ways, drinking in the first sweet smell of wood burning on neighbouring boats; we felt at ease as the rain lashed down on the roof, bringing the metronomic drip of water into a tin can. We were happy to be woken by swans as they tapped on the hull for bread. In an era of “bedroom tax” protests, inflated house prices and urban isolation, life on narrow boats offers another rhythm for life, a counterpoint to Raymond Williams’s weary treatise on con- sumer society in Towards 2000, where he calls attention to “the pursuit of self-determined private purposes”. Williams singles out the car, with its “windowed shell”, to illustrate his concerns about the decline of social relations in contemporary Britain. I lived in flats where I never met my neighbours. On the canals, it is hard to avoid them. We were moored up next to painters, academics, chefs, anarchists, an ex-con, trapeze artists and an engineer. They seemed to share a camaraderie that eclipsed vocational and political differences.
“Wilfred was born in March, and within weeks it was clear that we were going to need a bigger boat. He didn’t seem to mind being bathed in the sink or sleeping in a hammock, but we were outgrowing the space… Intoxicated by the romance of buying a new boat, we overlooked the details of the voyage back to Manchester: 255 miles, 132 locks, fifty-eight moveable bridges, fifty-five aqueducts and three tunnels. We would have to navigate tidal rivers with sunken islands, ease past scores of narrow bridges and squeeze through locks built for much smaller boats.
“As we pulled into Manchester, we encountered an old friend who has been living on the canal for years, often without electricity and running water. We bought oak-leaf wine from a boat next door and sat outside in comfortable silence. I glanced at my phone and saw that I had received an email from my publishers, finally offering a contract for my book. As I rose to fill our glasses, the phone shot out of my hand and into the silty waters. I sat down in quiet relief and opened another bottle.”