October 10, 2008 / 12:21 AM / 10 years ago

London barge-dwellers bank on each other

LONDON (Reuters) - “Finance,” said the chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, “has simply moved too far from its moorings in the real economy.” For Lucie Stephens, his choice of words in the latest edition of Newsweek magazine may be apt.

A garden barge is pictured among other barges at Reeds Wharf in London September 28, 2008. Picture taken September 28, 2008. To match feature BRITAIN-BARGES/ REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

Within sight of the glass and steel skyscrapers where traders thrash through the maelstrom of financial crisis, she is one of a small group of people living on antique barges moored on the River Thames, who nurture a grounded life.

In a gentle way, the community in the London borough of Southwark is also incubating an economic concept which, though simple, could be tougher for the “masters of the universe” to price than any financial instrument.

“Time banking” is one alternative notion developed by Stephens’ employer, an independently funded think-tank called the New Economics Foundation, which seeks to “inspire and demonstrate real economic well-being.”

“It’s about knowing your community and also about trust,” said Stephens, echoing a weak spot of contemporary banking.

The idea is that people can earn time credits. A neighbor gives you an hour of her time — say teaching you to knit — and earns a credit which she can “spend” on someone else’s. The scheme is only very loosely implemented on the barge moorings, where people just help each other out.

But as people strive for new models to fill the vacuum created by a crisis which many see as the end of the monetarist era, ideas like this could gain traction.

About 70 people live in the Downings Road Moorings, at the foot of plush loft-style apartments. They say they share a sense of community in what, on a late summer’s day in Britain’s greedy capital, can seem a rural idyll. Butterflies flutter through quince, apple trees and sunflowers planted in gardens that distinguish Downings Road from other moorings.

To achieve this lifestyle, they put up with irregular heating, swells from passing boats, limited electricity and the occasional tussle with the luxury flat-dwellers.

“We never recognized that we wanted a broader connection to the people around us, but the thing we really value is the connection that comes with it,” said Stephens, who lives with her doctor partner on their 104-year-old Dutch cargo boat.

The area’s 40 or so barges, which in Britain’s industrial heyday ferried cargoes to the warehouses that are now expensive flats, have for the last decade provided residents with relatively affordable homes and gardens.

“Having the river and having the tide come in and go out ... it does give you some sense of the passage of time,” Stephens said.


One of Stephens’ neighbors is Elaine Hughes, who used to be responsible for the barges’ gardens and the extensive watering needed to maintain plants growing in a maximum of 40 cm of soil.

She has since handed that over to two gardeners and taken up a position as “expert gardener” with London’s Wildlife Trust, a charity that seeks to protect the capital’s nature.

“Somehow it combines the best of living in the country and the city,” said Hughes of barge dwelling. “I came here totally antisocial and very London ... But everyone here says ‘hello’.”

Together with other residents, Hughes and Stephens meet for parties and watch films on a large community platform named the Arts Ark.

Hughes also sees an “adversity factor” that binds people together: they battle against traffic that moves too fast on the river, share the experience of occasional falls overboard and in the past had to campaign against eviction.

Inhabitants of the expensive warehouse conversions that line the river complained their view was spoiled by what some called “water rats” and a “floating gypsy camp.”

Their objections were overruled but only after two public enquiries.

“Some of the residents looked down, and were unhappy to see boats on the river,” said architect Nicholas Lacey, who owns the moorings and some of the barges. He has known the site, which dates back at least to the first half of the 19th century, since the 1960s.

He sees the conversion of working barges for residential use as a natural complement to the warehouse conversions.

“It’s very much the equivalent on water to what I and other people have done on land,” said Lacey.

In the early 1980s, he saw an opportunity and successfully made an offer for the moorings. The idea of the garden barges was inspired by the sight of a lighter — or flat-bottomed boat used for unloading larger vessels — which he bought shortly after acquiring the moorings.

The lighter contained a lot of silt and had naturally acquired a fair amount of plant life.

From that beginning, much has grown.

Slideshow (5 Images)

The barge gardens this year won an award from the local authority and their fame has spread around London. More than 500 people visited them during an open day in July, on one of few really hot days of the past summer.

Then, the prospect of being moored on the water in a gently swaying vessel was attractive. By October, the barges’ appeal as a haven from City turmoil had become more pronounced: it was worth asking residents how they felt about the financial crisis.

“It feels like they’re running further and further the wrong way,” said Stephens.

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