My obsession with wanting to live on a houseboat began when we visited a friend who was renting a room on one back in 2010 in Victoria, Canada.
We had breakfast on the boat one morning then went back for a movie night one evening. I loved the compactness of it and the fact that you could look out the window and the water was right there. I also loved the noises of the boat and the gently rocking that was sometimes perceptible and other times not.
I think that alternative dwellings have always held some interest to me. Treehouses, Yurts, Tipis, converted buses – there is a certain romanticism about living outside of society’s norms and I do like to be different.
A year after our introduction to houseboat living in Canada, we were back living in London and looking for an apartment to rent in our favourite little village in London: Richmond.
Scrolling through Gumtree, a community website listing classified advertisements, I was feeling more and more disheartened by the extortionate amounts being charged for an apartment in Richmond. Most of them were out of our price range and there weren’t many listings in the area to begin with.
And then I saw it. ‘Studio houseboat on the Thames in Richmond’.
I remembered how much I had wanted to live on a houseboat and called the agent straight away. We were scheduled to see it in a couple of days time and I could hardly contain my excitement. And then they called me and said that someone had taken it.
I was devastated. We were back to the drawing board.
About a week later, Trav found another houseboat on Gumtree. It was out of our price range and was a two bedroom, which was larger than what we were looking for, but we decided to go and see it anyway. It was in the same street as the previous houseboat we were looking at so we thought that maybe there might be another one that was smaller, coming up to rent.
We went to view it on a rainy February morning. It was a beautiful walk from the train station and the street it was moored was leafy and quiet. My excitement grew.
There were a few other people viewing it and we had to wait outside in the rain until it was our turn. Before we had even seen it we had pretty much decided that we wanted it. I can’t imagine that the chance to rent a houseboat in Richmond comes up very often and we no longer cared that it was more than we had been willing to pay. We had missed out the first time and we were being given a second chancem, which we intended on taking. We decided that unless the inside was horrible, we were going to rent that boat, then and there.
To access the boat, we first had to walk over its roof terrace with sweeping views of the Thames, Twickenham Bridge and a small nearby island.
The inside was all light wood which made the space seem bigger than it was. The main bedroom was large, with a small second bedroom with a single bed. The kitchen and lounge were open plan and the bathroom was tiny, but with a large shower. There was a ranch sliding door that opened up to a cute little balcony with a small table and two chairs on it, right above the water. We looked at each other and both knew this was the place for us.
We told the Estate Agent that we wanted it and could transfer the money to hold it right away. Luckily he agreed.
It was ours.
Things got even better when we moved in. There was a cat door on our boat and we started to receive frequent visits from a beautiful tortoiseshell cat whose owner lived in a houseboat near ours. The cat would go from houseboat to houseboat, visiting people. Sometimes she would sleep over, on one of our dining chairs and other times she would just stay for a bit of attention then move on to the next person. We called her Bitty because she was itty bitty. I loved that crazy cat.
Our boat was called Double Deal and unlike a lot of the boats that people live on in London, she was not a canal boat but was a small rectangular house on a floating platform. The boat was located at the front of a row of three house boats and was moored to the northern bank of the river Thames, on the aptly named Ducks Walk. There were also other boats surrounding us, making up a small house boat community. Our landlady lived on the houseboat next door and owned five of the houseboats in the vicinity. It was a friendly community but people would generally keep to themselves, just exchanging a few pleasantries if we happened to see each other.
Being at the front meant that we had the best view. We looked out over the murky waters of the river and across to a beautiful manor house on the opposite bank. There were lots of massive old growth trees, including one next to the manor house that I called the Tree of Life. Because of the abundant green spaces, it felt like we were in the countryside rather than a suburb of London.
Early mornings we watched the eerie mist rise off the still waters of the river. Morning was my favourite time of day on the boat. The lounge was flooded with sunlight while I was getting ready for work in the morning and it was so tempting to call in sick on those days, to stay on the boat and relish the light.
A friend who lived on a canal boat mentioned how cold it could get in winter, but we had radiators throughout the boat like a regular house and I found that it retained the heat well, as the ceilings were lower than most houses. We were hooked up to the mains for power, water and sewerage and paid council tax instead of moorage fees. For all intents and purposes, we were living in a house rather than a boat. It just happened to be floating on the river.
To help pay our bills, we rented out the small spare room as a short term sublet, 4-6 weeks at a time. It worked out well and we had three different people stay during our time on the boat as well as keeping the room free for visiting friends.
It was a quiet lifestyle, very different to our previous London experience. We were in a residential area but were still only a 5-10 minute walk into Richmond town centre and multiple transport links. It only took 16 minutes by train to reach Waterloo but it felt worlds away.
Being right on the Thames path meant it was a fabulous place for walking and we were within a short bike ride to the sprawling Richmond Park. In the warmer months we had friends over for BBQs on our roof terrace and we sunbathed on the rare days in London when it was actually hot enough to do so. In winter we cooked Sunday roasts and curled up on our little couch in front of the TV. We watched snow lazily fall from the sky outside.
Locks along the Thames regulated the water level although we still experienced high tide and low tide every day. Sometimes there were King tides where the river overflowed and flooded along the riverbank, but the locks stopped extreme low tides so the boat never sat on the river bottom, except for when they did maintenance on Richmond Lock for a two week period each year. Unfortunately the year that we lived there, the maintenance took much longer than usual and the lock was closed for about 6 weeks. I hated when it was low tide during this time. The smell of mud would permeate the boat and our door warped so we couldn’t get out. We had to leave the sliding door slightly open to gain access to the boat during low tide. It wasn’t ideal and we were so happy when the lock finally started operating again.
I never realised the wide variety of bird life that called the Thames home until we lived on the river ourselves. Swans were the kings of the river and were the only birds that I disliked. They were menacing and ruled the river with an iron fist. All of the other birds were scared of them. Like Jason in the ‘Friday the 13th’ movies, the swans would slowly chase any other river birds that got in their way. The other birds would be scrambling and flapping, trying to get away, but the swans were always only one step behind them.
Canadian geese were like the dogs of the river. With their dark puppy dog eyes, they would watch me through the ranch slider door when I was sitting on the couch watching TV or cooking in the kitchen. I would feed them off the side of the boat and would teach them to catch bread in their beaks. Once you showed them the bread and slowly threw it to them a couple of times, they would be catching it by the third try. They had a good nature.
Egrets and herons would sit silently in the tree tops of the small island across from our boat and scan the waters for fish below. Coots would bluster along, against the current, churning their little legs as fast as they could, but not getting anywhere.
But the ducks were always my favourite. There were so many different types from the colourful mandarin and wood ducks through to the stock standard mallards. We had a female mallard that would visit us, sitting just outside our sliding door. We called her Quackie. Quackie would poke her head inside if the door was open but never ventured in further. She would run back and forth past the sliding door with her butt sticking out, quacking as loud as she could. Sometimes a male duck was chasing her. I’m not sure if she was trying to lure him in or run away from his advances. Whatever she was doing, it made us laugh. Ducks are great for that.
A duck laid eggs in a pot plant on our tiny front deck. We patiently waited for them to hatch but after weeks of waiting, unfortunately they hatched while we were away for Easter and we missed it. But the mother duck stayed close with her ducklings and we fed them small pieces of bread off the front of our boat. They were so cute.
I was surprised that I never felt any motion sickness living on the boat, even though that is something I have suffered from in the past. I did feel like I had sea legs when I was sitting at my desk at work and usually felt like I was rocking. It didn’t bother me and was only a mild feeling.
There was so much that was good about life on the water but it wasn’t all good.
The combination of damp UK winters and open access ports into the hull that weren’t properly sealed encouraged the growth of mould on the windowsills and walls, especially in our bedroom and the bathroom. It was a constant battle to get rid of it and I was cleaning off mould on a weekly basis in the colder months, which is about 7-8 months of the year in London.
Summer had its own problems, namely the large amount of leisure boats passing by and rocking our houseboat in their wake. I never felt sick from this but the constant rocking on summer weekends was exhausting. People would also hire rowboats from Richmond riverside and row right up to our houseboat, peering in the windows at us. It was quite an invasion of privacy and I felt like an animal in a zoo.
Sometimes I felt stressed when the boat was constantly rocking and I had nightmares that we would become untethered or sink while I was sleeping. I didn’t realise how much this affected me until we moved back into a regular apartment. Geese would fight outside our bedroom window in the early hours of the morning, waking us on occasion.
Six months into our lease, we noticed the boat was listing on an angle more than usual. With further investigation, a small hole was found in the hull. We were slowly sinking. For the hole to be fixed, the boat would need to be towed down to Isleworth and put into a dry dock. They couldn’t guarantee that it could be fixed at all so we were worried the whole time it was away that we might have to find somewhere else to live.
Our landlady had an obligation to find us adequate accommodation while the boat was being worked on and she put us in the houseboat two boats behind us, closest to shore. She owned that boat as well as ours and a couple of others, and she made an agreement with the girl that rented that boat that we could stay there for the week she was away and she wouldn’t have to pay rent. It was damper than our boat and more pokey and there was hardly room for all of the renter’s stuff, let alone ours as well. She also had a lodger staying that was meant to have moved out and as we had a friend that was also staying with us, it was very overcrowded. We weren’t happy.
Our boat was meant to be fixed within a week but as the week was drawing to a close and with the boat repair unfinished and the renter soon to be finishing her holiday, we moved into our land lady’s boat for our second week of homelessness, while she stayed with her son. Her boat was beautiful, spacious and even had a massive bathroom with a claw footed tub. I wasn’t in such a rush to leave there. Finally Double Deal was fixed and returned to its rightful spot on the river and we were able to move back in. It was a stressful experience but I can now say that I have technically lived on three houseboats on the Thames, albeit only for short periods on two of them.
We never experienced it ourselves, but we were told stories about dead bodies being discovered in and around the houseboats, including one beached on the island across from the boats, and a bag with a body in it being stuck between our boat and the boat behind us a few years before we lived there. Our landlady said there was a forensic team set up in the shared yard examining the remains. It must have been exciting but I’m pleased we never saw anything like that.
So living on a houseboat is ticked off my list of alternative dwellings to live in. I think living in a treehouse or in a campervan travelling around North America could be next. I find both options largely appealing.
I look back on my extraordinary experience with such fond memories. It had its highs and lows but the good outweighed the bad for me and everything we experienced was part of the adventure, good and bad. But I’m not sure if I would live on a houseboat in London again. Or maybe I would.
If there was a cleaner to deal with the mould.