“Is there a reason why so many of you shit in the woods?”

This is the first blog of my new writing project, a winter living aboard ‘Spey’, an old working boat, upon the London waterways. The journey here was one heck of a story in its own right, but will need far longer to write up, so here is my first week after I arrived.

I was on my first mooring in London, just past Tottenham on the river Lea and above Stonebridge lock, where a 72ft gap had miraculously appeared when we’d most needed it. Behind me, two short narrowboats, covered in the necessary detritus of living, twisting logs of scavenged wood, spades, jerry cans, a wheelbarrow. At my front end, a wider boat whose resident dog, Monty was to become a best friend.

I opened the engine room doors at set about cleaning the engine up a bit. A smartly dressed dog walker stopped by me, looked at the boat, adjusted her hat and asked,

“Is there a reason why so many of you shit in the woods?”

I really didn’t know how to answer this. I suppose the answer might be a combination of the shortage of facilities, the expense of getting proper sanitary facilities fitted to a boat, married with the poverty of many of the waterways users, the convenience of it when the nearest toilet now was Tescos – half an hour away, the general drift to the water of people let down by the social housing system, the wholescale flogging of the nation’s council house stock without building new ones, people slipping off grid and out of sight, falling through the cracks in mental healthcare provision, taking a chance on their own, or maybe other things too. As a sub-heading for my entire trip, it wasn’t a bad one, I decided. Her frown deepened as I withdrew my notepad and dutifully wrote her question down.

It was also an early indication of the ‘them and us’ culture of the modern waterway, and as someone who has lived a fairly privileged life by most standards, it was a surprise for me to suddenly find myself on the end of prejudice like this. My friend Sarah later told me that when she had been teaching in Bath, there had been a clear discrimination against the children from boats by their peers, and it was ugly to be reminded that the age-old prejudice against boat dwellers remains today.

A few days later, an arts student posted on a London waterways group, asking if she could talk to any members of the boating community about their lives and relationship to their boats as homes, and was met with a mostly negative response. “Most boaters are a bit fed up with being seen as an exotic group to be examined.” Wrote one. Another morning, I popped my head out to see a fellow peering in, waving a camera.

“Can I look inside?” was his first remark.

“No, it’s my home. Go away.”

Had he politely engaged me in conversation about it all, no doubt I’d have been happy to show him round but starting with ‘Let me into your house’ stank of entitlement and anyway I was having a wash.

Bridget and I took a trip to Tescos for a few essentials. I needed a charge cable for my phone and so entered the Tesco Mobile shop at the back of the store. Two weeks of boating had taken their toll, and the assistant was reluctant to serve me, a situation not aided by the only mask I could locate in my Barbour pocket having been used to tighten a particularly tough greaser on the engine a few days earlier. I bore all the hallmarks of a man in need of a few days’ recovery on several fronts.

In the late afternoon light, fuel boat Clover came by, thump of the Bolinder engine carrying over the still river water. The kingfisher ran before, staying ahead before finally looping round behind again. A pair of swans tried us for luck, and I found a crust before telling them it was one per day, no more. One of my neighbours wandered up, eating a bag of croissants, to see if I wanted a bag of assorted brass fittings on the cheap. Monty came by again, to see what we were up to and barked happily, just the once, before wandering off.

We cooked dinner, salmon and vegetables, before letting the range die back for the night. We opened a bottle of wine, turned off the lights, and watched Taskmaster on my cheap laptop. The towpath rang with the sound of bicycle bells, the meeting of dogs, the rustle of joggers, all passing just behind the sides of our cabin. On deep water, the boat made itself comfortable with small movements, nudging and stretching into position, the wooden hull adjusting to peace once more.

In the morning, Bridget left for home. An accessible taxi pulled into the carpark at Stonebridge, and she wheeled into it. Her journey had been an incredible effort, far more so than mine, for the boat is not an easy place for a wheelchair user, and I count myself incredibly lucky to have a partner who shares my love of this boat and all it represents.

I was left alone. I filled my water cans at the service tap by the lock and headed back to the boat in a state of melancholy. The journey here had been vibrant and filled with friends old and new and now I was alone. I tried to write, but a deep tiredness overcame me in body and soul and I was in bed by 8pm having achieved nothing more than eating a sandwich.

I arose at 5.45am, cleaned the range, lit it, measured off enough water in the kettle for a cup of coffee, washed and dressed, made a coffee, ate a breakfast, shut the range down, cleaned up, and packed my bag, laptop, book, charger, and brick.

I had a teaching project on the go, delivering online creative writing classes based on local history for schools in East Anglia. My main teaching aid for this was a large and very heavy brick, which had seemed like a good idea during lockdown when I was working exclusively from my desk, but here, hotdesking between the houses of friends, this brick and I had a lot of ground to cover. My first safe house was in Greenwich, and I commuted my brick right across London for my 9am session. I arrived sweaty and tired. The bookshelf in the room I was so kindly loaned had a large volume entitled ‘What are you doing with your life?’ which watched over me disapprovingly as I worked. Having completed session one, I legged it back across to Hackney to another friend’s house for session two. From here to Camden to meet my friend Hannah who had a gig locally that evening. We sought food in Camden market, imagining ourselves a nice bowl of vegetable soup, and became flustered and disorientated with the glorious variety of global street cuisine and the soundtrack of the urgent street preacher, so convinced of our inevitable torment. We became delirious and dreamed that each corner would be rounded to the view of ‘Big Pot O’Soup’, where a bobbing proprietor in a rubber ring would ladle the stuff out.

Settling for something Greek, I popped into the gin shop in the market that makes and sells my favourite gin, Half Hitch. My previous visit a little over two years ago had been brief event, as Spey had risen up the lock, watched by half the population of Camden, I’d raced across the market, slapped £35 on the desk, shouted “Is that right?” and then raced back with my bottle in hand having received a bemused nod, in time to swing the balance beam and let the paddle down. This time I walked in a little more regularly and to my astonishment was immediately asked if I wanted ‘the usual?’. I suppose there can’t be many tramp-like figures in the market for top class gin and paying in cash and I took it as a compliment on my high quality brand management.

Using my service key, I unlocked the gate to the locks themselves, and won a small pocket of quiet for us both to eat our meal, sat on the balance beam.

At Cecil Sharp House, home of the EFDSS, either the English Fighting, Drinking, and Swearing Society, or the English Folk Dance and Song Society, depending on who you ask, Hannah’s gig was a triumph, and I made a nest for myself at the back of the room, rucksack and brick, jumpers and coats, and bottles of beer from the bar, far away from other paying audience members whose evening may have been soured by my presence, letting the beautiful, note perfect music wash over me. Hannah and I shared a hug at the end.

“You smell of boat.”

Like everything else today, I chose to accept this as a compliment.

I went back to Spey late, and found the fire still clinging on, driving the falling dew out of my tiny sanctuary.

Tom Rolt wrote that the traditional back cabin is such a small space that it takes great care to keep it smart and clean. The examples he saw as he travelled around the network in 1939 on Cressy, a converted Shropshire Union fly boat, were either spotless or squalid, with no middle ground. The same seemed true of the houseboats at rest on the river. Either a minimalist picture of clean good order or overwhelmed with tat and unfinished DIY. I was determined to live up to the first category.

Rising at 6am, I again addressed the fire, cleaning the flues, before polishing the copper kettle and the towel rail. I loaded up the coal scuttle, swept the floor, beat out the rag rugs, walked back to Stonebridge lock to fill my water cans, carried them back, cleaned around the range area, then had a wash. I then had breakfast and coffee and washed up. Washing up must always take place immediately after a meal, or it becomes claustrophobic. Even a couple of items out of place lends a back cabin a cluttered feel, and each item must be stowed exactly after use. There was still far too much food in the table cupboard after the trip down and vigorously eating my way through it was the only solution I could see to ease the pressure on the place.

By 8am, I had got myself ready for the day. Monty came for his morning cuddle, and the swans appeared, rasping and bouncing by the back deck for their morning slice of bread. Mist lay in whipped ribbons over the water, fading out of the day, and the dog walkers were active and multiplying.

At the water point by the lock, a pair of working boats had appeared overnight. In stark contrast to the immaculate paint of Clover, this motor and butty were much more workmanlike in their appearance, the cratch board simply sporting the letters C, G, D, for coal, gas, and diesel, and a gigantic bulldog lay asleep on a mountain of cushions on the back slide of the motor, like a magnificent canine klaxon ready to sound. These were the Polish fuel boats, whose leader, shabbier even than me, hands blackened beyond the reach of any soap, yet sparkling with enthusiasm, was holding court by the pump out machine, cocked hat and charisma.

We got chatting, and he explained to me that he’d been here twenty years, and on the canal nearly all that time. Five years ago he’d taken the plunge and bought a working pair and commenced trading. He had a joyous freedom with swear words, sprinkling them into sentences where one might least expect them.

“I’ve been fucking on the canals a long time! At first I didn’t know fucking what to do, but I watched YouTube videos of the old boatmen and fucking I learned! We have the plank between the boats and you hear it ‘Plinky plonk’ and they never did that but they didn’t deliver fucking like we do, stop here and stop there, and stop everywhere, so ‘Plinky plonk’ I think is ok!”

I suspected the swearing had started as bad English but had grown into a deliberate affectation, such was the glorious accuracy with which he misdeployed it.

The butty boat had an enlarged cabin for the crew, and they were emerging, blowing their noses into the river and generally scratching and preparing for another hard day ahead. The large cabin meant the weight was forward, and the butty leant into the water like a plough. They referred to it as the ‘home boat’.

“We go to Hertford, Bishop’s Stortford, Brentford, Uxbridge. There are so many boats now, we used fucking to go to Slough and maybe 150 boats the whole way. Amazing the change.”

I wished them well and packed my bags for the day. A friend had offered me the use of a washing machine in Ilford, some 8 miles yonder, and the day being pleasant and supplies of clean clothes being low I decided to take up the offer. I took out the little folding bike from the back oil tank and set off with bags of dirty socks and pants on each handlebar.

My progress was sedate, and it being a Saturday, I was regularly overtaken by lycra clad gentlemen on fantastically expensive bikes, cycling like they were being pursued by a particularly vigorous and unpleasant deadline, their exact arse shapes moulded for all to see. I was in no hurry and was glad to see a stretch of suburban London. A digital pillar informed me I was cyclist 129 of the day, but I was so slow it had counted me twice before I got past it. An old-fashioned Gentleman’s outfitters rejoiced in the name ‘Ron Gunn’, and Aldersbrook Owls Club had presumably mislaid a ‘B’ along the way. Raw Gym looked a depressing place, I find the language of such establishments so very unappealing. ‘Train dirty, eat clean!’ it said, by a poster of a burger. The ‘Centre for Excellence’ was shut.

My friend Sarah took me for a walk across Wanstead Flats and down the Roding valley whilst her washing machine bravely entered unequal battle against a fortnight of boat pants. Passing ‘Compassionate Funerals’ I considered the alternative; ‘We gather here today to say our farewells to Tom Kitching who was a total bastard.’

Sarah and her partner were thinking of moving on from London, a decade having been enough, dreaming now of tight knit communities and more space. They were engaged in a decorating frenzy and having packed me off with cleanish wet washing and some beetroots from the garden, I was back on my little bike, which had developed a strange clonk I couldn’t quite place. Still, the pace was steady, and we made our way directly back to the river, coming on at Hackney Marshes and heading against the flow.

Clover was rounding the bend above the Anchor and Hope, heading downriver, and the scene was simply too good to miss, a loaded working boat and Bolinder engine cutting the water with total effortless elegance, and I waved them past from the wide-open spaces. Higher up, the Poles were making a sale to a houseboat on the towpath, and the cox of an eight was on the radio back to base complaining about all the working boats clogging their river up and spoiling their Saturday.

“There’s two sets of them! Why does there need to be two?”

By the beam engine at Tottenham Hale, a family were grimly offloading such a quantity of stale bread that a feeding frenzy of Hitchcockian proportions had developed in the water. Hundreds of birds were mauling one another in the agony and ecstasy of an instinct fulfilled and the water boiled in a vortex of life and death, while hollering white gulls whirled round overhead in their dozens, happy to add their ambience to the orgy. Swans attacked geese, who attacked moorhens and ducks, whilst coots attacked everything in reach including each other. On the final leg home, I tinged my little bell at another towpath user, and it fell off, bouncing musically into the river.

Arriving back at Spey, I hung up washing where I could, from control rods, hooks, rails, and in the case of my boating trousers, I fed the as yet unpatched hole in the backside over the swan’s neck and left them there. They looked somewhat undignified, but it worked. I made myself a vegetable soup, and ate it with pork pie and mustard, and found that another day had gone completely and yet I needed nothing more from it.

If you’ve enjoyed this and wish to support me as I go about this project, then please consider either buying some of my previous work from my shop, or drop a small donation in the tip jar. I have two books and several albums out already, including ‘Seasons of Change’, my 18 months busking around England, and ‘B-Sides, EPs and Rarities’, a musician’s travels around the world. Everything helps support me in doing this, and I’m enormously grateful for all the backing received. I really couldn’t do it without you.

My online shop

My tipjar (click the paypal button – it’s still the same tipjar from my last project until I can update my website, but it all goes to the same place!)

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