Rachel Bruce and her husband, Chris Hall, have called this idyllic spot northwest of London home for a few days, looking out from the hull of their canal boat, the Glenrich V, over sweeping fields where the wind blowing through the long grass made a low hiss.
But it was time to discover their next patch. So the mooring pins were freed, and Bruce, 31, steered away from the bank. Their boat set off at the pace of a swift walk as it passed through the hulking wooden and steel gates of the canal’s locks.
A group of five ducklings skimmed the water in a V-shape. Kayakers hurried along, quickly bypassing their boat. The vivid yellow of buttercups peeked through the high grass on the towpath. “We’re just feeling like we’ve made a very good life decision at the moment,” Bruce said about the couple’s choice a few weeks ago to give up their stationary lives to begin a slow traverse of England’s canal network.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, more people around the globe are re-evaluating their living situations, with greater flexibility thanks to remote work. And in Britain, more people are choosing to call these canals — and the narrow boats used to navigate them — home.
The canals, a vast network once used to move goods across the country, cut their way through Britain’s countryside and meander through town and city centers. But after being replaced by trains and highways, they fell into disrepair.
Since the 1960s, though, they have been painstakingly restored and become popular for leisure cruising. And for many people, the appeal of turning weekend jaunts or week-long trips into a permanently mobile lifestyle is becoming increasingly irresistible.
Tanmim Hussain, 46, a driving instructor and mother of four who lives in North London, bought a canal boat this summer. She felt she would never be able to afford to own an apartment or house in London, and the pandemic made her eager to get out of the city anyway. “I decided, let’s just be adventurous and throw yourself into something, and see how it goes,” she said. For now, she has kept her London rental and spends weekends on the boat, cruising with her family from village to village. Her son’s education is the biggest consideration, as moving from town to town would be impossible while he is in school. But some people with young children have taken advantage of more permanent moorings in cities and towns.
“My aim this year was to get used to it and see if I enjoyed the lifestyle,” Hussain said. “And see if there is a potential for a more permanent future.” For Bruce and Hall, the stresses of work, a mental health struggle and deaths in the family in the last year made them feel the need for change. Plus, they had long wanted to shake free of what had begun to feel monotonous and flat. “All of the circumstances of last year just gave us that final push over the edge,” said Hall, 32. “It kind of just felt like doing this is taking back control a little bit.”
Within a week of looking at their first boat, they bought it, committing to giving up their decade-long London life and making the 6-foot 10-inch wide, 50-foot long steel boat — which they call the Glen — their permanent home. They paid 42,000 pounds, or about $58,000.
The writer is a journalist with NYT
The New York Times