A couple of miles north of here lie Hackney Marshes, one of my favourite place to take Caitlin for walks. The same weirdly dressed Orthodox Jews I remember from my youth, with pallid faces and huge black fur hats, walk their children to and from the synagogue past the dowdy frontage of the Egg Stores, a delicatessen that has become a bit rough around the edges since I waited there as a boy while Granny bought the weekly Hungarian salami and half-pickled cucumbers. Middle-class goyim are beginning to move in, along with the new influx of Poles.
Races and religions mix in Springfield Park, a lovingly tended collection of landscaped trees and smooth lawns sweeping down to the Regents Canal, across the river Lea to the marshes beyond. It’s still a landscape of industrial decay, though. You can see the last of the scrapyards from up on the hill next to a caf housed in the restored Georgian park-keeper cottage. Soon the skyline will be dotted with cranes as the transformation begins for the 2012 Olympics.
Down the hill, boaters and canoers mix with dog walkers on the canal towpath. There are dozens of houseboats, too, mostly clustered together for safety in a marina on the other side of the canal, but a few narrow boats are moored on towpaths on both sides of the canal. And that is where I made my discovery. Pushing Caitlin along in her pram one day, past a mottled purple houseboat with flower pots lined up along the roof, I realised that here, in the middle of a near-Dickensian London scene, are a number of off-grid homes.
The boats in the marina are all hooked up to the mains, but the ones on the towpath are self-powered and their inhabitants fetch their water from a tap. It was a weekend, and as I considered how to introduce myself, I saw a passer-by doing the same thing.
“Hi”, he said to a woman sunning herself on deck. “Do you live there?”
She gave him a bored, “Yeah”.
He didn’t notice he was getting a brush-off. “That’s amazing. Any chance I could look around?”
She pulled herself up on her elbow. “What would you think if I turned up at your front door and asked if I could look around your flat?” she growled before sinking back down to her book.
I decided to come back on a weekday to investigate canal life more carefully. As a result of the exchange I had just witnessed on the towpath, I knew I would be viewed with suspicion if I just turned up, so I consulted my friend Dan Langton, an artist who lives on a boat near King’s Cross station. The canal network is particularly diverse around there, and Dan lives just a few minutes walk from the new Eurostar terminal, through a door in a brick wall and down a flight of steps to a towpath with just four other boats. They share a mains power connection and run hosepipes from a standpipe on the shore to their boats. Dan’s vessel, the Onion Bargee, is like a student flat that has just been trashed after an all-night party and that’s after he has tidied it up.
Sure enough, Dan did know people who knew people who lived in Springfield Park, and a few phone calls later I was heading back to the park to meet Renee Vaughan Sutherland, who lives on one of about 3,000 off-grid boats in the UK. Renee is tall, with short dark hair and a couple of facial piercings; she wears flowing gypsy skirts and mohair tops. In Australia, where she comes from, all my family have two houses each. She came over to the UK for a few months and has stayed nine years. Now aged thirty, she works for Sutton Council a couple of days a week doing change management consulting but prefers to spend the rest of the time, when she could be earning more money, studying art at Middlesex University and making non-narrative films, which she shows in a makeshift outdoor cinema stored in the back of a friend’s car.
Her boat is over fifty feet long with a deck at each end and a bicycle chained to the roof in between, next to the rusty smokestack chimney from her wood-burner. You enter at one end down some stairs and in via the bedroom containing just some shelves and a high double bed, designed so that Renee can look out of the window when she wakes up in the morning. Through the doorway is a small galley with everything you would expect to find in a tiny urban kitchenette. Beyond that is a sitting room, long by comparison with the tiny bedroom and galley. It contains an elegant 1950s sofa almost as long as the cabin, capable of housing two overnight guests sleeping end to end. Next to the stove with its flue poking out through the roof of the boat there is another door leading out on to the small deck. Plywood-lined ceilings have oblong, silver-framed twelve-volt lights embedded in them. The shelves and kitchen surfaces are rosewood. Cooking and water heating are from gas bottles and there are four marine batteries to run her lights, stereo and computer.
Renee made us excellent black coffee while Caitlin played with her collection of pens. I watched in terror in case she left baby drawings on the furniture. Why had Renee chosen to live on a boat? was the first question I asked. I’m in love with water, she said, sipping her coffee out of a Wonderwoman mug. I grew up near the coast in Brisbane. But there was another, more practical reason: I didn’t want to fall into the mortgage trap. And I got tired of shared flats. She had spent the last four years on the boat, which she bought as just a hull for 10,000 and fitted out for another 6,000. I made the mistake of moving on before I finished the work, which slowed everything down, she recalled as the boat rocked gently under the impact of the wake from a passing canoe. Caitlin staggered into the galley and started emptying Renee’s groceries, which were stored in a box under the sink.
Her water supply is kept in a large tank under the front deck. At the moment she can fill it up by driving thirty feet to the other side of the canal and using the tap shared with the other boaters. When you have a full tank of water you feel really good because you know you can have a shower, she said, pulling back a curtain to show me the shower unit. Hot water comes from the kitchen mini-boiler, and a small pump propels the waste water into the canal. Supply boats come past at regular intervals selling diesel, wood, coal and gas bottles.
Some of the boat dwellers are quite hardcore anti-capitalists, like Olivia, a herbalist who shares her boat with her dog, a Doberwoman called Vigera. Olivia has been living like this for over a decade. Her boat has the same kitchen, bathroom and wood-stove set-up as Renee’s, but also a workbench where she mixes her herbal remedies. She collects the raw materials from the fields where she sometimes moors at night. Olivia has spent most of her time moored in Oxford, Bath and London. In Oxford the places to go for are the canal, the Thames and Duke’s Cut; in London she favours Hackney Springfield Park, Victoria Park, Bow Locks and a mooring east of the Islington Tunnel where they lock the gates at night so it is quite secure.
Years ago there were a lot of places you could stop as a travelling boat person in London. Nowadays there are not as many places to stop. They still exist, but the amount of people who live on boats has increased, so it’s harder to find a spot. But there are benefits to the increasing boat population. She would never have dared moor in Hackney’s Victoria Park ten years ago because the kids used to cause riots. Now there is a solid group who stopped there and weathered it.
Renee does not always live in east London. At times she chugs along the canal to Ladbroke Grove in the west, but she has been there less since a girl in the nextdoor boat woke to find a peeping Tom staring through her window. And frequent stories of muggings, torchings and opportunistic theft reminded me of the vulnerability of boats on towpaths that are deserted at night. Occasionally Renee treks out of London for a bit of fresh air, but she is basically a city girl with a packed agenda of films, plays, parties and art performances. She says she would never survive in the country.