From Chelsea to the canals, Londoners are taking to the water in search of a more peaceful way of life on a houseboat. Jo Rodgers clambers aboard.
Not far from World’s End, the Chelsea neighbourhood of 1970s council blocks and top-tier antique dealers, there’s a turn-off toward the Thames that you could pass 100 times without noticing. Next to the Embankment, a pair of planked wooden doors open to a quiet boatyard with a few handfuls of moorings, including the sunny houseboat of Alexandra Pringle, a publisher, and her husband, Rick Stroud, a writer and film-maker. A sturdy green gangway (‘the Waitrose delivery drivers are sometimes very nervous,’ says Alexandra) takes you over the riverbank to a red front door, flanked by hale plants, in terracotta pots and dolly bins, and a brass ship bell.
When Alexandra moved onto the boat, Veronica, in 1995 (‘I married into it’), Rick was already living here, having relocated from a 30-acre estate in Wiltshire. He had established a couple of rules: no fussy houseplants, nothing breakable. Rick’s daughter, the bestselling author Clover Stroud, lived aboard for a year in her late teens and ‘trashed it,’ he says. ‘I had calls from the housekeeper constantly.’ Today, the beadboard walls are lined with shelves displaying Alexandra’s collection of 18th- and 19th-century ceramics, as well as thousands of books. Paintings by friends hang above curios collected from France and India — and the antique shops up the road. A fruiting lemon tree, a gift from one of the publisher’s authors, grows in a large tub in a corner of the sitting room.
Twenty-seven years into living here together, they both say they can’t imagine being anywhere else. ‘Stepping onto the mooring,’ says Rick, ‘it feels like going on holiday. You feel everything fall away and it’s extraordinary the effect that has on you.’ Alexandra describes a familiarity with the river birds and tides, as well as the local traffic of kayaks, rowboats and Thames Clippers, that wouldn’t be possible anywhere else in London. But the type of person who wants to live on a houseboat is ‘not a completely regular person,’ she adds. ‘It’s for people with a romantic spirit.’
Daisy Knatchbull, founder of The Deck — the first women’s tailor to have a shopfront on Savile Row — rents a houseboat in Little Venice and echoes many of the same qualities. ‘[There’s] nothing better than waking up on the water, being around Nature and living a slower paced life, as well as being able to do things like feed ducklings out of our window,’ she says. ‘It really does feel as if you are living somewhere outside of London. It is also incredibly beautiful in the summer with the sun shining in all day, due to the lack of high-rise buildings.’
The director of the houseboat estate agents Waterview, Soren Ravaux, feels that Nature is often what draws people to the water in the first place. ‘Buyers seeking houseboats want to tap into a certain kind of lifestyle,’ he says. There’s a romance to living on the water, waking up to birdsong and having the freedom to change where you live whenever you feel like it.’
In St Katharine Docks in East London, Katie Fontana, co-founder of kitchen designers Plain English, chose to live on her 1926 motor launch, Stork, because she and her partner, Greg Powlesland, were used to an outdoor lifestyle at their home on the Helford River in Cornwall. ‘We are sailors and were in need of a London base,’ she says. ‘When we saw Stork, we fell in love and thought it would be a brilliant idea to have her as a houseboat.’ Unlike many modern houseboats, however, Stork’s age and slimmer size means that she is slightly more like a boat and less like a house.
‘You have to get in the routine of filling the water tanks once a week and doing your laundry elsewhere,’ reveals her owner. ‘We [do] entertain, with the occasional cosy supper, as the table only seats four. Although we did once have a musical gathering of singing and playing for about 10 of us, all crammed into the deckhouse. We had a visitation from the marina manager, as the residents had complained!’
‘[Entertaining is] my favourite thing to do and people love the novelty of having dinner on a boat,’ says Daisy. ‘We made sure to get a table that seats 12 so we could get lots of friends round for dinners or Sunday lunches.’ On Veronica, there is room to comfortably invite 10 people to a supper party. But if Alexandra has a visiting author in town (writers Ann Patchett and George Saunders have both been given celebratory dinners on Veronica) or is hosting a fundraising event, ‘we can get some trestle tables in and seat 20’.
What about the downsides? ‘Sadly, the rubbish that sometimes appears in the canal,’ says Daisy. ‘It’s actually quite upsetting to see what is carelessly tossed in the water.’ Alexandra mentions a wariness of flooding — although rare, it can happen if a boat becomes stuck in the riverbank mud at low tide and doesn’t rise with the waterline.
In terms of practical services — gas, electricity, sewage — things can now be as seamless as they are on land, but she recalls a time when ‘the angel of our lives was a plumber called Martin’. Katie has a similar reservation. ‘Upside [of houseboat living]: instant community of like-minded friends. Downside: starting your day wrestling with broken loo seats in the marina shower blocks!’
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The tide was out when I stepped off the gangway onto Veronica, but after an hour, there’s a sudden swelling beneath us and a swoop of lightness. I set my mug down on the fruitwood dining table, surprised. In this part of central London, Rick explains, the water levels can rise and fall 24ft. We’re on the up. Alexandra grins. ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ she says. ‘That creaking and whispering. I wouldn’t have it any other way.’
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