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Life on Nottingham's Canals

5 September 19 words: Ken Bloomfield
illustrations: Natalie Owen

Of late, my thoughts have been occupied with worst-case Brexit scenarios. Even if the UK doesn’t descend into a completely apocalyptic state, the impending destitution might be a welcome opportunity to disconnect from modern society and adopt a nomadic life of reflection and fresh air. But where to live out this idyllic fantasy now that our borders will end at Dover? Perhaps the UK’s network of inland canals and waterways? My intrepid companion Bunty and I went to find out…

Beginning our exploration of Nottingham’s canals, we took a stroll along the waterfront to soak up the atmosphere and consider whether this was a life that would suit us. On the Trent Street towpath, we soon chanced upon a fine-looking moored boat which displayed a notice urging the reader to ’Share Wolverly’.

The ship’s bridge was manned by a stout-looking, middle-aged chap and his two female companions. At first, we naturally assumed that he was Wolverly and that this was a recruitment drive for the kind of bohemian romantic arrangement that we expected from the free-wheeling canal folk. But no, the proposed sharing was, in fact, of the vessel itself. The nautical silver fox at the wheel was Merv, a shareholder in the Wolverly who, despite us offering no identification or credentials, very kindly invited us aboard. Trusting people, these.

Merv explained that as a shareholder you pay a monthly subscription on top of a capital outlay and admin costs. For that, you get four weeks a year, two of which are during the summer months. He extols the virtues of shared ownership but in particular that the Wolverly has no home berth, so can simply be left at an agreed spot anywhere on the waterways.

Sharing a boat seems a fine idea. In better times it would have been attractive, but right now we’re all about survival among the ruins of civilisation and so we decided that having extra people around to compete for the limited resources would only make things harder in the long run. Besides, a glimpse into Merv’s untethered roaming existence among the bulrushes and dragonflies had whetted our appetites for a full-time life aboard; we went to Castle Marina to meet Robin and Linda at the berthed 64-foot boat, Great Expectations.

Robin met me at an imposing-looking security gate – which will no doubt come in handy when the food eventually runs out and things turn nasty – and takes me for a brief tour of the Marina. Once past the chandlery – the bit where you buy and sell boats – one gets to the residential zone, where brightly-coloured barges and cruisers nestle tightly together. Robin tells me these are mostly filled with full-time residents.

We pass ’The Hub’ – a communal outbuilding with a terrace where residents hang out on hazy summer evenings drinking craft cider and swapping tales of adventures on the high seas. There’s also a shower block, a little laundrette and Wi-Fi. Each berth comes with metered electricity, fresh-water refills and waste-disposal facilities.

After Robin’s long career in business came to a crossroads, he and Linda realised that if they rented out their house and lived aboard full-time, the savings they made would be the difference between retirement and having to take another job. They’d already been regular visitors to the waterways when they decided to go all in.

Great Expectations is a handsome vessel. Full bookcases line the panelled walls and a vase full of colourful flowers sits on the dining table. As a pot of tea brewed, Robin showed me a map of the waterways hanging on the wall alongside smiling pictures of their grown-up children, and regaled me with the peculiarities of different sections of the canal network.

There’s no hurry in any of the journeys. A circuit around the Midlands that’d be achievable with barely a full day of purposeful driving is a voyage capable of lasting over six weeks. This bodes well for my vision of a slower, less stressful way of living. Even in the Marina, just a stone’s throw from a McDonald’s Drive-Thru, there’s a sense of calm that’s hard to find anywhere else in the city.

Robin's enthusiasm for an aquatic life is as infectious as it is inspiring. He declares that the canal is the last place in England that a person can truly roam and live freely.

My favourite tale from Robin is his pootle through a housing estate in Leicestershire, where in the summer local youths sometimes close the locks and use them as swimming pools to keep cool. It’s like something from a Roddy Doyle novel.

On a practical level, he tells me that – contrary to popular belief – it’s neither cold during the winter nor damp; the living area boasts a wood-burning stove which keeps the place toasty through the long British winters. We sit and enjoy our tea in the cratch (the little gazebo bit at the front) while feeding the ducks and other water birds who paddle up to say hello. It’s all rather lovely. Apart from lateral space being at a premium, the whole thing rocking side to side when someone walks along it, and having to empty a latrine every now and then, it’s just like a little apartment. Linda even has some healthy-looking vegetables growing on their patch of the bank.

The Marina is home to a mix of semi-retired folk, young professionals looking to minimise housing costs and, with a wry smile, what Robin calls ’single men’, i.e. men whose wives got the house in the divorce. He assures me that there’s no beef within the community, describing everyone as ‘neighbourly’. He does opine that the canal population is not yet very reflective of broader society, being as it’s predominantly a white, middle-class pursuit, but reports that things have been slowly improving in recent years.

Robin's enthusiasm for an aquatic life is as infectious as it is inspiring. He declares that the canal is the last place in England where a person can truly roam and live freely. You can go anywhere your boat will fit and you’re permitted to moor under the terms of your licence: anywhere along the towpath for up to two weeks, before having to move on.

Camping has to be done at an allocated campsite for, as he points out, all land in England and Wales is owned by someone and you’re not allowed to just rock up and pitch camp. In Scotland, however, it’s completely legal to do so on almost all land, if you’re looking for something a little less watery.

Bunty and I were keen to find our sea legs and so tried to hire a boat for the weekend. However, we were told by David Mawby of the Marina chandlery that rocketing insurance rates have all but destroyed the rental market in most of the country, with the exception of the Norfolk broads. Whether this is because life is considered so precious in Norfolk that no expense is considered too great, or worth so little that there’s no point insuring it, I do not know. I did not think to ask at the time.

Still set on pursuing our self-sustained life aboard, we looked to gain some nautical skills. We knew we were going to need something to eat once we’d looted all the abandoned Sainsbury’s Locals, so Bunty and I tried our hand at fishing with the helpful fellows from Canal & River Trust Angling.

Our instructor, Kevin, was a tall but slightly stooped man with thick hands and a gentle voice who showed us the ropes. Long story short, but it’s all about keeping a close eye on the orange float, waiting for the tell-tale twitch suggesting you pull the rod out of the water. There’s a meditative quality to the kind of low-level concentration required. I soon felt relaxed.

Within five minutes, I bagged a fish. A handsome-looking gudgeon. Kevin seems very even about this whole development, but it’s clear to me that I’ve stumbled onto a thing for which I have a gift. While obviously I’d have preferred an innate proficiency for predicting the stock market, jazz piano or football, if I turned out to be the Jimmy Hendrix of catching small canal fish, that’s better than a kick in the tits.

With my second and third fish bagged, I became drunk on my own talent, but also kind of bored. Especially when Kevin tells me that pleasure fishing keeps no score. On that basis, the repeated harassment of these poor little fish seemed kind of aimless but at least we know that these waters are full of free protein and omega 3 that’ll keep us well fed between bouts in the Thunderdome. Ish.

So, what have we learned? That a life on the waterways may be just the thing to banish my Brexit blues. A simple life of chopping firewood, catching small fish for the skilly pot and looting abandoned retail outlets would perhaps provide some welcome respite from the materialistic, turbo-charged 24/7 vestiges of modern life. Who knows, for reasons completely removed from those promised, perhaps it won’t all be so bad.

Even in the Marina, just a stone’s throw from a McDonald’s Drive-Thru, there’s a sense of calm that’s hard to find anywhere else in the city.

Share the Wolverly
Our new friend Merv and the other shareholders were – at the time of writing – looking for two new shareholders. There are a number of boats on the network that offer shares, but Merv contends that the Wolverly is different in that it does not have a home berth and therefore does not have to be returned at the end of a trip, merely left somewhere safe and agreeable for the next custodians to collect her. Shareholders get four weeks per year, two of which are during summer. 

  • £3,500 for an ‘ordinary share’
  • £500 initial admin charge
  • £45 per month ongoing subscription

Share the Wolverly website

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