Houseboats Too

Houseboats, living afloat, Shoreham Harbour

My old fashioned concept of a houseboat is a boat that is used as a house - a dwelling, somewhere to live. But it is a boat first, primarily a piece of water transport, however long retired and however far it has been dragged from the water. Because proper boats have to obey boating laws to float and travel safely, those same laws impose certain conditions on its appearance. To float it has to sit in equilibrium with a low enough centre of gravity that it won’t roll over; it will have a hydrodynamic shape of some sort, probably developed from generations of slow tradition so that it travels through the water efficiently. Thus it is usually longer one way than the other and pointed at one end. In other words boats look like boats, whether big or small. Until recently their shape expressed their function in a time honoured and commonly recognised way.

My memory of houseboats in my youth - and this could be strongly rose-tinted with nostalgia - is that they were definitely boats first and houseboats second, and that whatever was done to them to make them better living accommodation was done within, or close to, the aesthetic boundaries of boatiness. They respected their history and heritage. Cabins that were so big as to look un-seaworthy were simply unacceptable to the inner nautical susceptibilities of the houseboat dweller and didn’t happen. The fact that it had once been a boat seemed to unconsciously impose a set of visual constraints on the owner, whether land-lubber or nautical romantic. Was this true, or is it how I wish it had been?

It is certainly not generally true in Shoreham nowadays. There are many interesting craft on the moorings, but the interest is sometimes difficult to see. As Philip Simons dryly remarks in his book Retired on the River about one particular continental trading ketch “a major rebuild as a luxury houseboat has made her almost unrecognisable, though one can say this for a lot of the houseboats at Shoreham which seem to have been entered in a shed building competition.” In one extraordinary case an old Portsmouth steam ferry has been entirely re-created into a massive collaged sculpture, an artwork quite divorced from its history or environment, but this is a quite definite artistic statement and is certainly not typical of the majority. Most are just a hotch-potch of cabin extensions in whatever materials come to hand, quite regardless of any marine tradition.

On the canals things are generally less extreme although as the number of live-aboard boats increases the number of tatty insults to the canal tradition also rises. When most of the craft that were permanently lived on were carrying boats, the traditional standards or conventions of the boating population were pretty rigorously observed, for fear of ridicule from your boating neighbours. Frightening standards of cleanliness and polish were the everyday norm, standards that are now usually only seen at a boat rally on a nice day in the summer. But even then the gleam was subservient to a sense of tidiness, of order, of everything in its place ready for use. If it wasn’t practical or functional it was put away out of sight or it simply had no place on a working boat anyway. The practical constraints of living within the confines of a boat cabin imposed constraints on the amount of clutter that could be collected. That was the nature of the deal - like boating, accept the constraints.

I just wish that the people that choose to live on canal boats today would accept that whole package. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some sort of understood contract here, a balanced agreement? If you are going to live on a small boat you have to be prepared to adjust and live within that small space with all that that entails - very few belongings in a confined space. If you need to spread your goods and chattels all over the roof and the towpath you’ve either chosen the wrong size boat, or the wrong lifestyle. If you want to live on the canal without spoiling it then be prepared to live within the canal conventions. Then your boat stands a chance of remaining a structure of functional beauty, an ornament to its rightful environment instead of an eyesore for everybody else that has to look at it, changing and spoiling the canal heritage that survived until the coming of the pleasure boat in huge numbers.

Tony Lewery
The Brow, Ellesmere
April 2005

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