What's It Like Living On A Houseboat At Christmas?

By Gillian Fisher Last edited 11 months ago
What's It Like Living On A Houseboat At Christmas?
Just because a tree can't fit inside a boat... Image: Steff Caoth

There is something majestic about London's waterways. The force of industry meets the awesome power of nature, winding through our city like a brackish circulatory system. More than 10,000 Londoners call this aquatic complex home, from the leafy River Brent to the smokestack Limehouse Cut.

Roaring fire: check. Beautiful tree: check. Christmas: check. Photo: Steve Burgess

At this time of year, these floating abodes look especially festive, with their colourful hulls and smoke cheerfully puffing from their flumes. But, how do our floating neighbours celebrate Christmas in a home that's 6.1 feet wide? Is there enough power for fairy lights? How do you cook Christmas dinner in a galley? Most importantly, can Father Christmas get in?

Photo: Lorna Tooley

"There's plenty of space for decorations, you just have to be creative" reveals YouTuber Lorna Tooley. Regularly posting videos about boat life on her channel London Boat Girl, Lorna has festooned her narrowboat Snapdragon with lights and filled every nook and cranny with ornaments. As Lorna is on a residential mooring in east London, she has constant electricity from the land, but for cruising boaters, battery powered fairy lights are a Christmas necessity.

A decidedly chic Christmas. Photo: Jenny Commins-Patrick

Not being tied to the land doesn't mean oil lamps and wiping yourself down with a damp flannel. Modern narrowboats get their electricity supply from a battery bank, which is charged by running the engine, much like a car. This provides plenty of juice for essentials like lighting and the water pump which powers the running water. Provided you unplug after use, there is even enough for laptops, hair straighteners or a telly, so drifting Londoners can settle down for the Dr Who Christmas special.

How many Christmas parties give you a salute on the way in?

"There are other ways to charge batteries such as solar panels and wind turbines" explains illustrator and designer Katie Miller. A dedicated Crimbo fan, Katie makes the most of her narrowboat Poppy's interior with a tiny tree, LED lights and snowflake window stickers. A coal burning stove keeps the cabin snug and gas is supplied by replaceable gas bottles, which Katie has delivered by a working coal, diesel and gas boat. There's a variety of working boats on London's waterways, from the Tamesis Dock bar in Vauxhall to a children's Puppet Theatre Barge in Little Venice.

A snow covered Poppy

Like a third of London's narrowboats, Poppy is a cruising vessel. This means Katie and her two cats must change moorings every two weeks and clock up 20 miles a year. Easier said than done when the speed limit is four mph. But Katie has been resolutely cruising between Harefield and Tring for the past seven years, sharing that she enjoys the nomadic lifestyle. "There's nothing better than moving and getting a fresh view, new neighbours, new places to explore and new people to meet."

Not a huge tree but a pretty one. Photo: Toria Charleston

Continuous Cruising (CCing) also avoids costly mooring fees, which can be up to £10,500 p/a in the capital. And you thought the parking at Westfield was pricey.

Fairy lights go a long way towards transforming a vessel into a winter wonderland. Photo: Brian A. Holt

If you're thinking of saving up for a Christmas break, living afloat can be cost effective, especially for CCers. Being off grid means there are no utility bills and certain tax exemptions, but there are fixed costs. These include an annual boat licence of around £700, £300 for insurance and a BSS (Boat Safety Scheme) certificate costing £35. There is also the ongoing cost of maintaining the vessel, from blacking the hull to servicing the engine, not to mention unforeseen boat repairs. This being said, you can't spend Christmas morning quaffing mulled wine while coasting along the Grand Union Canal, in a high rise.

Photo: Jocelyn Low

When it comes to stocking up for the season, limited space means getting inventive. "We don't have a freezer and our fridge is quite small, so whatever we can't fit inside goes out on the stern. We just cover it with an upturned bin to stop birds pecking at the cheddar," explains Susie Walker. Living with her partner, Bruce and their sons aged three and five on a residential mooring in Strawberry Hill, their Dutch barge is currently strewn with homemade paper chains. Sadly Ocado doesn't deliver canalside but for receiving Christmas cards and online shopping, many boaters simply have things delivered to a land lubbing friend or relative. Some prefer to get private PO boxes or use specialist services such as Boatmail to ensure their Amazon order is easy to get at.

Christmas Day on Leonie's boat. Photo: Leonie Mann

As the pinnacle of the big day, Christmas dinner can present a few problems to boat sized kitchens. Specifically, trying to wedge a greased turkey into small oven and using up the boat's gas in the process. Artist Jes Liberty has solved this problem by cooking a beef brisket instead, saying "we leave it to simmer for several hours on top of our stove and then cook whatever we fancy as trimmings to go with that." The artist has also foregone a tree in favour of a tinselled-up conifer and some well-placed stocking and lights. Jes and her partner moved to their cruising narrowboat Liberty four years ago as "We were sick of same old land life and wanted the freedom of living on the water."

Nothing escapes festooning on Lorna's boat. Photo: Lorna Tooley

Thanks to advances in wireless technology, boaters can easily stay connected by tethering Wi-Fi to their mobiles or investing in a 4G dongle. So there's no excuse for not Skyping Auntie Joan in Brisbane on Christmas Day. GPS has made cruising to new moorings easier, and lessened the chances of forgetting where you parked your home. A common occurrence, especially after a few seasonal bevvies. Festive cheer is in plentiful supply on the waterside as Katie points out "Being on the canal often means that you're very close to a pub, which means you get a lot of merrymakers passing by."

All lit up. Photo: Lorna Tooley

The sense of community is particularly strong in the boating sphere, so there's always someone to invite below deck for a mince pie. Thanks to the aforementioned wireless wizardry, there's also a very active online boating presence, essential for keeping abreast of mooring info and facilities. Along the length of our waterways are various water points, pump out facilities, some shower units and regular Elsan points (these are like Shrek-sized toilets for emptying chemical lavs into.) All these amenities are supplied and maintained by The Canal and River Trust. Any Londoner considering going aquatic will find this charity an invaluable information source.

We wouldn't mind spending Christmas here. Photo: Leigh Carrigan

Being on the water doesn't dampen these Londoners' Christmas spirit one bit. Crackers are pulled, stockings are hung and jollification reigns supreme on the capital's waterways. With a little ingenuity and a stockpile of kindling, Christmas afloat is plain sailing. Most importantly, Jes assures Londonist that Father Christmas can indeed get aboard "Seeing that mostly all boats have multifuel stoves, there is the old chimney option, but I've heard secretly that Santa prefers going down the mushroom vents so he doesn't burn his bum."

Last Updated 02 January 2018