Coronavirus Brings New Challenges To Britons Living On House Boats

May 29, 2020
Originally published on May 29, 2020 9:01 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Lockdown is a challenge for everyone, but what if your home is a boat? In the U.K., an estimated 15,000 people live on the water, many on narrow barges along Britain's 3,000-mile network of canals and rivers. In the age of coronavirus, boat living can be especially claustrophobic but also offer a kind of escape. The BBC's Sophie Eastaugh reports from London.

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SOPHIE EASTAUGH, BYLINE: On a sunny afternoon in late spring, it's easy to see the appeal of life on the canal. Brightly painted houseboats adorned with flowers jostle for space on the water, which runs through some of the city's most vibrant districts.

MICHELLE MADSEN: This is the best time of year. It's spring, all of the leaves have come out, the sky is completely blue, and it's a nice time to sit on the roof and read a book.

EASTAUGH: Michelle Madsen is a poet, theater producer and journalist who lives on Larkspur - a 38-foot-long green-and-white canal boat. It wasn't just the charm that drew Madsen to living on a boat - it was the only way for her to pursue her dreams in one of the world's most expensive cities.

MADSEN: Two-bedroom flat in London is upwards of 500,000 pounds. Larkspur, I paid about 20,000 pounds for. That means that you can be a lot freer in what you do.

EASTAUGH: Britain built most of its canals in the late 1700s, originally used to transport goods in the Industrial Revolution. They fell into disuse as the rail network replaced them before enthusiasts restored them for leisure purposes. Living on a boat can be hard work with constant repairs, refills of water, gas and coal and, of course, emptying the toilet's holding tank. The coronavirus brought a new challenge. With gyms shut, the narrow paths alongside the canal became a thoroughfare for joggers.

MADSEN: I felt as if I was just being surrounded by this fog of COVID. Everybody running past was just coughing and spitting and sweating, desperate to beat their personal best. I felt imprisoned, really.

EASTAUGH: For some boaters, the risk was too much.

PADDY SCREECH: I've parked in a lot of places, but I think this is a very beautiful place, full stop.

EASTAUGH: Paddy Screech, who's 54, has a lung condition.

SCREECH: I got very nervous very quickly because I knew that I've already lost 30% of my breathing capacity.

EASTAUGH: Before boaters were ordered to stay in one place, Screech moved his boat 20 miles north of London. Now, he's tied up in a quiet forest glade surrounded by ducks and wildflowers.

SCREECH: As it's turned out, living on a boat, it's kind of the ideal way to have to isolate if you're forced to.

EASTAUGH: Screech says he prefers life under lockdown.

SCREECH: I like not having planes in the sky and I like being able to see London from 30 miles away because the air is so clear. And I like not having to be knee deep in humans all the time.

EASTAUGH: Other boaters have found opportunity in the lockdown.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Laughter).

EASTAUGH: Matt Lankester runs a floating barbershop parked in the heart of London.

MATT LANKESTER: You can sit down and have your hair cut, look out onto the water, chill on the roof if you want to. It's a unique experience. I do what I need to do. I have to keep going.

EASTAUGH: Lankester is unapologetic about breaking the rules. With other salons closed, he says client numbers have tripled. Meanwhile, the U.K. government has laid out a plan for lifting restrictions. And boaters without a permanent mooring have been told it's time to get moving again. For NPR News, this is Sophie Eastaugh in London.

(SOUNDBITE OF EPIC45'S "THE LANES DON'T CHANGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.