As costs soar, meet the people swapping bricks and mortar for a life afloat

When Tim and Sam Biglowe arrived back in the UK after more than four years of teaching abroad, they never expected to call their quaint 53-foot narrowboat home. 

The couple had always planned to buy a small house in the north of England, but despite having savings, they were unable to apply for a mortgage. 

‘We were told that as we hadn’t lived in the UK for five years it would be difficult for us because we hadn’t built up the credit history needed for a deposit,’ Sam recalls. ‘We were left with a chunk of money that could be put into a deposit, but not actually a property.

‘We were shocked by how difficult it would be for us to get on the property ladder in and around the cities, so we just knew that buying a house wouldn’t really work for us as a viable option.’ 

Disappointed at the lack of affordability and determined not to spend the money they had accumulated on rent, Tim, 31, and Sam, 36, who had never lived together, began researching housing options before eventually deciding on a canal boat. 

Attracted by the flexibility a life on the water can offer and keen to have something to show for the money they had saved, the couple, who were living with Tim’s parents, spent the next few months viewing a number of boats. 

‘Boating creates an option,’ Tim tells ‘It’s a different form of housing and although a boat isn’t necessarily an asset that goes up massively in value, it’s what worked for us just to get us on the property ladder.

‘We didn’t want to come back with a deposit and then have to give that money away in rent,’ adds Sam. ‘We had worked very hard for the money we had and we wanted something to show for it, which is why when faced with the option of living on a boat, it all fell into place.’

Viewing up to four boats a day, the pair narrowed down vessels based on length, space and the amount of money that they would need to spend on features such as solar panelling, before eventually buying the 53ft Mary L in 2020. 

After renovating their boat so they could live aboard, the pair spent the next year cruising the canal network and documented the journey on their YouTube channel, Chugging Along. 

Moving from mooring to mooring, the lack of a fixed address enabled Tim and Sam to save on bills such as council tax, gas and electricity, with the pair’s monthly utility bills rarely exceeding £36.25. 

‘There are definitely savings to be made,’ explains Sam. ‘Living on a boat is much cheaper than a house, but the trade-off is the time and energy it takes, such as ensuring your batteries are charged and the water tank is full.’

The couple, whose boat is now moored at the Willowtree Marina in Hayes and Harlington, have joined the growing number of families taking to the water in a desperate bid to avoid soaring housing and energy prices as the cost-of-living crisis deepens. 

According to research commissioned by the National Housing Federation, around 340,000 new homes need to be supplied each year until 2026, of which 145,000 need to be ‘affordable’ – the official term for a price that can be met by those with a household income at or below the median.

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Such scarcity has contributed to a dramatic increase in housing costs, with the median monthly rent in England between April 2021 and March 2022 at an all-time high of £795.

And with a third of the 11.6million households earning £25,000 or less pushed into arrears on their rent or mortgage, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, it is little wonder the UK’s 2,000-mile canal network is proving a popular place to live.

Responses to Freedom of Information requests submitted by to the Canal and River Trust (CRT), the organisation caring for the UK’s 200-year-old waterways, reveal 38,075 licensed boats have been sighted since 2014.

The Trust puts the total number of ‘live-aboards’ at around 25%, an increase of 15% compared to 2011, while the Inland Waterways Association has said there are around 80,000 powered boats across England, Scotland and Wales. 

‘We’ve seen an increase in the number of boats on the canals in the last ten years, with about two-thirds driven by continuous cruising in areas such as London and the south-east of England,’ says National Boating Manager for the CRT, Matthew Symonds.

Although the reasons why families take to the water vary, affordability is definitely a significant factor – a decade ago, the London Assembly report were already calling for extra moorings to tackle overcrowding.

And it seems more and more households are seizing on the savings boating can offer, with more vessels on the canal now than during the height of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century.

According to leading marine finance lender, Promarine Finance, finance deals for boats increased by nearly 40% in 2021 alone, with a particular surge in demand for financing of live-aboard vessels. 

‘Younger buyers want to get on the property ladder and boat ownership is a practical and affordable alternative to renting, with the race for space fuelling the housing crisis pushing buyers to consider more cost-effective living arrangements,’ explains Stuart Austin, director of Promarine Finance.

While the prospect of affordability has pushed many to consider a life afloat, increasing costs have left some boaters still struggling.

The price of coal has almost doubled and boaters have also been hit with an 8% increase in licence fees, taking the average cost of a boat licence to £823.68 per year, says chair of the National Bargee Travellers Association, Pamela Smith. 

Pamela, 61, who bought her own boat more than 17 years ago, says she has already noticed the cost pressures of sustaining life on the water.

‘Prices are going up and up and it’s got to the stage where I no longer run my stove at night, so I wake up on a cold boat in the morning,’ she explains. ‘One of the things I’ve really been avoiding is running my engine to charge the batteries. 

‘I’ve tried to minimise the distance I travel and the diesel I use when cruising because it’s frightening how much it might cost me to actually fill up my diesel tank,’ she adds.

Pamela says the CRT’s strengthened policy on continuous cruising has also forced users without a home mooring to travel at least 20 miles within their licence period. 

‘For the last eight years, boaters without a home mooring on CRT waterways have been subjected to an enforcement policy that forces them to travel distances that put their homes and jobs at risk,’ she tells

‘Before 2015, people were managing quite adequately to get to work and to get their children to school, but now most of us, especially in remote parts of the waterways, are forced into using vehicles to get to work because we’re having to commute such long distances.

‘A lot of people have come onto the waterways because their previous way of life was soul-destroying,’ she adds. ‘They have minimal amounts of money coming in and would otherwise be homeless if they didn’t live on a boat, so they’re going to be a lot worse off.’

Pamela estimates the number of residential moorings rests at around 5%, and with demand surging in desirable areas such as London, boaters can expect to pay in excess of £4,000 per year for a spot, higher than many council tax bills.

And with canal boats requiring high maintenance and being more likely to depreciate in value than bricks and mortar, the rate of return on investments can diminish significantly. 

Tired with the stress of juggling rent and other bills, Hannah Bodsworth made the bold decision to move onto a narrowboat with her son, George, in 2017. 

For the single mum, moving onto the canal was a life-changing choice, with outgoings more than £1,000 less per month than when she was renting a two-bedroom house.

Working full-time, Hannah, 38, was just about able to keep up with rent, but life was chaotic and trying to balance a career in marketing with a freelance photography business while spending time with her eight-year-old son left her feeling burnt out.

‘I was exhausted and not really seeing much of my son,’ she recalls. ‘I had a choice – I could cover the costs, but then I wasn’t going to have much of a quality of life.

‘I remember towards the end of 2017 I hit a brick wall. My car engine exploded on the way to a meeting with a client. I managed to carry on with the presentation, but afterwards, I crumbled and as I waited for a tow truck I just thought I had to change my way of living.’

A few weeks later, Hannah, whose brother had moved onto a sailing boat 10 years earlier, put a deposit on a narrowboat with her savings and a small personal loan, and spent the next four years renovating the interior, with the last of the renovations completed last April.

‘I didn’t care what condition the boat was in. I would happily live on a vessel with no insulation just to get out of the trap I was currently in,’ she says. ‘I remember at that point I was still so relieved that I was getting out of the situation and although I found it physically demanding, I was just so grateful.’

Hannah, who cruised for two summers before securing a permanent mooring in London, says her first priority was getting George’s bedroom ready so he could feel comfortable about moving in.

‘It was important to me that he had his own room, whereas my bedroom is also the living room, dining room and office,’ she says.

‘Since moving onto the boat our life is so much better. I feel like I have to pinch myself each day as I didn’t know it was possible to enjoy life this much. I still have the odd few minutes where I think about what it’s like living on land, but I always remember how exhausting it was.’

Beyond the financial and logistical benefits of living on a boat, Hannah said the close-knit canal community is what has made her transition to the canal bearable, with boaters automatically turning to help her. 

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However while a home on the waterways may offer many benefits over bricks and mortar, Matthew adds that users should think carefully before deciding to take the plunge.

‘There’s lots of costs you need to think about which, when you add up and include the extra work that you have to do living on a boat, means it isn’t as straightforward as just being cheaper,’ he explains.

‘The canals are also limited in their scope and have many uses, so even if we filled them all with more boats, they don’t solve the housing stock shortage.’

Chief Executive of Shelter, Polly Neate, agrees. ‘The dire shortage of affordable social homes means one in three private tenants are shelling out at least half their income on rent. With private renting too pricey for many, it’s no wonder we are seeing people scrambling to find any alternative they can, even a canal boat.   

‘There are two ways the government should help people to keep a safe and secure roof over their head. Firstly, it must urgently end the freeze on housing benefit and secondly, it must build a new generation of quality social homes with rents pegged to local incomes.’

Asked whether she would ever move back onto land, Hannah says she’s not sure whether she is yet willing to give up boating.

‘It’s not that easy or affordable to move anymore, with crippling credit reference fees, and it’s just not as convenient to relocate to another part of the country,’ she explains. ‘However, on a boat it’s quite straightforward.

‘I have it in mind that I might need to get a bigger boat. George is likely to be 6ft tall, so I’m going to have to accommodate his height. Really, I’ll go from there and get him through to his early 20s and then see how I feel.’

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