What it’s like to live on the Kennet and Avon Canal
PUBLISHED: 09:56 17 August 2015 | UPDATED: 09:56 17 August 2015
Changing views from the windows every fortnight or so, with beautiful scenery along the way. Claire Pitcher meets a couple living on the Kennet and Avon
Midsummer has arrived and Kim Rack, Chris Jones and I are enjoying the last warm rays of sunshine of the day, sitting on the roof of Chris’s widebeam boat. We’re on the Kennet and Avon Canal at Marsh Benham, near Newbury, and all I can see is the shimmering of the water stretching for miles, a small herd of cows in the farmer’s field next door… and the couple’s puppies bounding up and down the deserted towpath.
It’s not hard to see the appeal of living on the water. In fact, the country’s canals and rivers are home to over 35,000 boats. What were once the speedy highways of the 18th century are now green corridors providing a leisurely way of travelling from town to town. Of those 35,000, the Residential Boat Owners Association estimates there are 15,000 people living afloat.
Leaving dry land
‘Boat dwellers’ (as they call themselves) Kim and Chris live on Chris’s boat having first met last October, when seasoned boater Kim helped him fit out his burner and central heating system. Not just a self taught heating engineer, Kim can also turn her hand to plumbing, electrics, she’s also a competent mechanic and loves to paint boats. Having lived on the canal for over 20 years, she’s had to face the ups and downs of owning a boat, but has never looked back, having left a house in Reading to take to the water.
Kim and her ex-partner knew a couple who lived on an island on the Thames near Caversham and when they were visiting one day, it was suggested they buy a boat, as circumstances at the time meant they couldn’t afford a house.
“The boat we bought was in Stone, Staffordshire. An old wooden boat, it had all sorts of engine problems. It was also the longest we could get away with too, as we had two children and an au pair at the time.”
Kim admits it was a “rude introduction to boating”, as on their journey down from Stone onto the Oxford Canal the boat couldn’t get through one of the bridges because it was too wide. “We were new to boating, so we ended up backing it up, turning round, going back up the Oxford Canal onto the Grand Union, where we broke down,” she recalls. More bad luck ensued when, just days later, the canal froze. It was the hardest winter for many years. Parts of the canal stayed frozen for three months: “It took us a year to get from Stone to Reading.”
Kim and her family had bumped into many boaters on their year-long journey and word had travelled along the waterways of their imminent arrival in Berkshire: “At the entrance to the Kennet there’s a patch of land where you can moor and other boaters had thrown a massive party to welcome us at last,” says Kim.
You quickly get the impression that there is a very strong boating community; not just on the Kennet, but on all of the UK’s waterways. Kim explains: “Everyone looks out for each other. I can walk up to any boat and ask for anything and if they can help, they will. There’s something about being outdoors, on the water, people are friendlier, more receptive.”
“Do you know how far away we are from Kintbury?” asked a couple of young men in their inflatable canoe as they pulled up next to us. The light was fading and they were after a much-needed pint at the Dundas Arms. Chris and Kim joked with the pair for a few minutes and advised they had three or so miles to go - another example of the camaraderie between boaters, inflatable or otherwise.
As the canoe glided off into the distance, I noticed I was sitting next to Chris’s energy supply – his solar panels. Boat dwellers are so much more switched on to their own energy usage than us ‘house dwellers’ (as Kim calls us). “The solar panels generate all our power over summer, it’s not costing us a penny,” informs Chris. They’re also considerably more aware of their water use too. “I think this lifestyle appeals to those who like to be self sufficient. Someone who would have an allotment if they could, you wouldn’t do it if you weren’t that sort of person,” says Kim.
So the advantages to living on the water are many, from the tranquility of the Berkshire countryside, to the community and a more sustainable way of life. It’s easy to be seduced while the sun is shining and the bedlam of the city is at least a day’s boat journey away. “It appeals to people who want to be alone if they want to be. We have the option of moving to the centre of Newbury where life is, but then we can move back out here. There’s no phone signal in this particular spot and actually, that’s great, sometimes it’s nice to be completely cut off,” admits Kim.
But what about bringing up children on board? There’s certainly a lack of space, very few things to do, and what about school? Again, having lived with her three (now grown-up) children on her own boat, Kim seemed to take it in her stride. “Bringing up the children was really good on the boat, firstly because of the limited power. Back in the day, before solar panels, you had to run the engine and the noise gets on your nerves. So you limit how much they watch television, as well as how much gaming they can do.
“Because boaters are so social you are usually out on the tow path, so the kids learn to be out and about. My eldest son learnt how to juggle from boaters, at towpath parties, and went on to become a professional fire juggler and organised fire shows at festivals.”
Kim’s convinced they would have turned out a lot differently if they had been living in a house: “They’re as thick as thieves because they had to live in such a small space. There was no going to your room and slamming the door. Three of them for three years lived in the same six-foot space. At the moment three of four of them are all living in Bristol to be closer together.”
Kim and Chris are what are termed ‘continuous cruisers’, often staying in one spot for up to two weeks before moving on. So with 2,000 miles of canals and waterways at their disposal to explore, I had to ask them why the Kennet and Avon Canal? For Chris, it’s so he’s not far from his job in Basingstoke. Kim lived in Reading from the age of 11, so did she not want to remain in the town? “My eldest two went to school in Theale. A friend had her children in a school in Great Bedwyn, just outside Savernake Forest and that’s where I wanted the other two to go. It was an automatic feed from there for them to go to St John’s in Marlborough, a lovely area and school.”
Kim couldn’t have done this if she lived in a house: “I couldn’t afford to live in such a nice area so my children could go St John’s. On a boat you have traveller’s rights so you can send your children to whatever school you want. I wanted mine to be raised in the countryside, not in a town,” she says.
After two hours of talking about life on the water I was pretty much ready to start scouring the advertisements in Berkshire Life’s sister magazine, Canal Boat. A life of cruising certainly appeals, but the couple also reminded me that not all evenings are spent sunbathing on top of the boat. Summer turns to winter, and particularly harsh winters can make living on the boat almost unbearable. However after 20 years, Kim in particular isn’t quite ready to move to dry land yet: “Yes it is hard work, but it’s rewarding at the same time,” she admits. “This massive linear village we’ve got going – I wouldn’t swap it for the world.”
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