May 5, 2009 / 2:18 PM / 10 years ago

London's canal boat dwellers live in city oasis

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Eric Naylor chugged for nine days through nearly 100 locks to reach the big canal party on time, mooring his traditional barge in London’s Little Venice district to track down old friends among the growing flotilla.

A traditional Venetian gondola passes between narrow boats in the Little Venice area in London July 21, 2006. REUTERS/Toby Melville

The retired computer analyst and his wife Sally are among hundreds of British boat dwellers who flock to the Canal Cavalcade in the British capital each year, to celebrate the camaraderie of life on the water in traditional canal barges.

“The canal is a big floating village,” Naylor said, leaning on the tiller with a metal flask of beer after the 107-mile trip from Warwickshire in the West midlands of England, and sporting a Victorian style neckerchief and waistcoat for the event.

A few boats away, a 73-year-old retired lock-keeper of nearly 40 years agreed that canal life has retained a traditional village spirit even in a big international metropolis like London.

“You don’t need a mobile phone down here, you’ve got the ‘tow path telegraph’,” he said referring to the word of mouth gossip that travels at light speed in the tight canal community.

Morris dancers, boat steering competitions and a jazz band marooned on an island entertained tourists who squeezed down the tow paths peeking into the floating homes of the converted barges which at one time were a vital form of transport for coal and other goods along Britain’s network of canals.

“It’s intriguing. It looks like it’s a very closely knit community...not easy to penetrate,” said Javier Espinoza from El Salvador, who also found the tourist reaction to the boat community was equally intriguing.

“People take pictures like the boaters are monkeys in a zoo. They have this look of fascination.”

Like the boats themselves, the canals have taken on a more domestic life in 21st century Britain. Many now play home to communities of barge dwellers who cluster in the inlets, enclosed moorings inside and on the outskirts of cities.

In London, even exclusive addresses in some of the posher neighborhoods share their district with barge dwellers living in nearby canals, where leafy tow paths give the impression that urban life is miles away.


For some boaters, the festival is just one stop-off on a never-ending journey.

“We’re continual cruisers, we keep moving 24/7,” said 47-year-old Jo Lodge, who travels all year round with her husband Keith selling coal from their boat to the canal community in Leicester.

“No two days are ever the same, we don’t know where we are going to,” she said, clad in a traditional bonnet.

“I love it because you see something new every day.”

Her husband Keith is one of many boat-dwellers whose family has worked on boats for generations, and is deeply rooted in the floating community in which some boaters were even born aboard.

Once the festival passes and the visiting boats depart, community spirit remains strong among the those who live permanently on the city’s picturesque Regent’s Canal.

Despite living in the center of a metropolis these Londoners have a solace from the urban grind, heading home from a hard day’s work to share a beer with neighbors or cook dinner on coal-burning stoves as swans bob past the portholes.

“You’re in a little oasis in central London, it’s just you and your neighbors,” said Peter Backus, an American economics researcher and PhD student who lives on a canal boat near Little Venice.

“When I get back from work there are people outside having a glass of wine and I join them. In what block of flats would you gather together with your neighbors and go down to the park? It would never happen,” he added.

“On the boat its different, you’re sharing an experience with other people.”

Editing by Paul Casciato

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