Londoners find cheap housing by living on the water

Narrow boat life in London

London’s meandering canals look like an oasis on a sunny spring afternoon, but increasingly they’re a last resort for many who say the city has left them nowhere else to go.

Andy Winter is among hundreds of people who, unable to make ends meet in the capital, gave up life in an apartment to live on a narrow boat, reports CBS News correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti from London.

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“I just thought the only way that I’m ever going to be able to own any property is by buying a boat, because the concept of buying a flat for a million pounds is just way out of my reach, you know? Especially when you’re earning a teacher’s wage,” Winter said.

The quirky vessels known as narrow boats can be just five feet wide and 20 feet long with enough space for up to two beds. With prices starting around $25,000, these boats are a steal compared to property prices.

In the past five years, the number of boats on the canals has jumped 64 percent and more than 10,000 people now live on the water. Driven by a combination of economics and desirability, the canals are so popular that increasingly there’s not enough room.

Sorwar Ahmed, with the Canal and River Trust, said the capital’s 100 miles of waterway are jammed.

“What we’re finding is that there is a little bit of conflict where people want to have more space to stop, but obviously the numbers of boats that are passing through means that all those moorings are generally very busy,” Ahmed explained.

There are two kinds of boat people: those who have their own fixed mooring, or parking space, and those who only have much cheaper cruising licenses, meaning they have to move their boat every two weeks.

David Cotter and Juliette McCrimmon are new converts to narrow boat life and live on theirs part time.

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“We were hoping to stop just before Regent’s Park but there wasn’t a mooring, so we had to go through London Zoo,” McCrimmon said. “I think the main logistical thing with the boat that I’ve learned is -- and it’s a good lesson for life, really -- is you can’t have a deadline, you can’t have to be somewhere at 2 p.m.” 

Life on a narrow boat is nothing new, though. Bargees, as they are known, have lived on U.K. canals for centuries. It used to be a rather primitive lifestyle, but times have changed.

Lynda O’Hare has lived on her boat and worked in the city for 18 years.

O’Hare has a washing machine but said, “Yeah, I haven’t got a dishwasher, and that really sucks because I love a dishwasher.” 

On the changing landscape of the canals, O’Hare said, “There was hardly anything 18 years ago. There were boats around but you could travel for a couple of hours and you wouldn’t see another boat.” 

O’Hare owns her own mooring, so she doesn’t mind the company of the new boaters -- people like Andy Winter who have been priced off the land but have found a new way of life on the water. 

“You can own somewhere that you can call your home that is perfectly reasonable to live in without having to find millions and millions of pounds or go in to debt for the rest of your life,” Winter said.