The rich cultural history of Bristol Harbour has made it one of the key epicentres of the city, with an annual Harbourside festival attended by hundreds of thousands of visitors every summer, that is a recent addition to the Bristol Festival showcasing hundreds of artists, performers and musicians each September. Then, of course, there are the numerous art galleries, bars and clubs that surround the water, as well as water taxis, ferries and the majestic SS Great Britain that keep Bristol’s waterways in use all year round.
While boating was once only a pastime of the rich, many people are turning to narrow boats as a cheap way to get on the property ladder, or as a floating holiday home for the summer months.
I’ve always fancied myself as something of a sailor, trapped in a pedestrian’s body. The idea of living on a narrow boat conjures up images of a quaint, Rosie & Jim lifestyle and I’m quite confident I can pull off the nautical look with ease. It is for these reasons, then, that I find myself battling the elements on a bleak Wednesday morning, snow blowing into my face as I approach the harbour.
After negotiating the snow covered steps down to the pontoon and treading gingerly onto a beautiful cream and red narrow boat, I’m relieved to be greeted with a cup of tea and a small but warm gas fire by Diana and her two dogs.
Diana has lived on her narrow boat, Penhale, with her partner Richard for six years, since the couple bought the shell and kitted it out from scratch. With backgrounds in cooking, neither of the couple had ever undertaken such a large DIY project, but took on everything from plumbing to woodwork to create the home of their dreams.
From May to November the couple, who are semi-retired, travel around the waterways of England and Wales in Penhale, returning to Bristol Harbour each winter to work. They chose the boating lifestyle after spending Bank Holidays renting narrow boats and decided to take the plunge and buy their own boat to live on.
Penhale is 57ft long with a bedroom, bathroom and large kitchen and an open plan living area just big enough for Diana, Richard and their two dogs. Despite its narrow width, the distinguishing feature of a narrow boat being its 7ft or less width, Penhale feels warm and inviting, with all the creature comforts of a well loved living room.
Out on the partly frozen harbour, the snow covered boats attract an air of intrigue and sympathy but Diana says these boats are built to withstand the elements and the only real problem boaters face is the threat of damp. “As long as we keep the fire going and the air circulating, then damp isn’t really a problem. People from work used to feel sorry for me coming back to in the winter but we have the fire going all day so the place is always nice and warm.”
The waterways around Bristol are particularly popular with young professionals because of local career opportunities and a cheaper way of living. A fully kitted out narrow boat can cost as little as £60,000 – a fraction of the price of most property and, with the option of a mortgage, narrow boats are the first rung of the property ladder.
After an annual mooring fee and licence, outgoings are minimal as appliances are run from the engine or generator. Gas cylinders are used for heat and cooking, as is coal, depending on the kind of heating on the boat, while a 12 volt generator can power everything from a TV to a vacuum cleaner when a boat is on the move.
Mark Dahill is a 32 year old medical student who lives on nearby Bess, a 58ft semi-traditional narrow boat. Bess is his second boat and he has previously moored in London and Bath, enjoying “the flexibility of living in different places but coming home to the same home”. Mark decided that investing in a narrow boat was an “interesting and cheap way to get on the property ladder”.
Mark and his partner are expecting their first child in April and are reluctantly selling Bess, but will miss the sense of community on the pontoon. “Boating has a far better sense of community than living in a house. We frequently cook for each other and help each other out with all sorts of stuff. It's a really friendly lifestyle where you see/speak to/help your neighbours almost on a daily basis."
Diana agrees that the boating community around the harbour is laid back and friendly. “We all come back at the same time each year and I think is a lot friendlier than if you were to live in a house in Bristol. Everyone wants to help each other; someone is always there. If somebody is in trouble then everyone rallies round.”
Bristol definitely seems to attract friendly, sociable boaters who want the benefits of both city life and the freedom of regular travel. Mark is reluctant to give up Bess and sums up the boating scene in Bristol perfectly: “It’s flexible and friendly and we'll miss it.”
For more information on Bristol Docks and moorings visit the Bristol City Council website at www.bristol.gov.uk
By Sarah Pusey