What’s It Like to Live On a Canal Boat in The UK? Full Guide


So, what’s it like? That’s the first question out of practically everyone’s mouth when they find you live on a canal boat. If you want to really open their eyes tell them “It was great, once I dumped my 6-foot Swedish supermodel girlfriend because she was too tall” … Living on a boat will put you into one of two camps. You’ll either be ecstatically happy, or you will hate it. And just like our joke, you’ll either realise that to be happy living on a boat, you have to give things up, or the sacrifice is just too great.

It’s the truth.

With everything great in life there is a trade-off. Maybe you are going to take the plunge, or are even just starting out? We’re going to tell you how it is, give a little advice and maybe help you get your head around what it’s like to live on a canal boat. Let’s first ask the question: –

Can you live on a canal boat?

Of course, you can… People have been doing it for centuries. We really need to rethink the question…

…Can you happily live on a canal boat?

The answer is still yes! There are literally thousands of people doing it right now. For some it’s a dream. But as with anything you have to appreciate that when something becomes your home, it isn’t a small thing. Just like anything else you do with 80% be that a career, a diet or anything else that occupies your time, living on a canal boat is truly a lifestyle choice.

What’s It Like Living On a Canal Boat?

1) You can move when you like and where you like.

One of the things that appeals most to people who choose life on a boat is the utter feeling of freedom. If you are going to live on a boat then you should do your best to appreciate this. If you’re ever wondering if you made the right choice, think of it this way… Would the situation be any better if you were living a ‘conventional life’ trapped between four brick walls?

Want an example?

Noisy neighbours… It can get noisy in a residential marina. Alright, that’s not the best… but terraced houses also suffer from the same problem. Can you start the engine a terraced house and go elsewhere? 1 – 0 to the canal boat.

2) Did we mention you can move where you like?

It may be a requirement of your licence that you move every 14 days. If that’s the case then you won’t have a choice. But that’s why you got into this right? Provided there is a waterway, chances are you’ll be able to get there. What could be nicer than that? A free spirit, wandering wherever the mood (or canal) takes you.

3) Enjoy ‘a simpler life’…

Ok let’s be honest.

You are going to be limited on what you can have, and bring. But there’s a joy to that. We used to a wardrobe full of clothes… We also used to waste 20 minutes of every day trying to decide what to wear, the term ‘spoilt for choice’ was quite literal. Now the choice boils down to two options. Is it hot or cold, and is it wet or dry?

4) It can be cheaper…

If you are continuously moving, you don’t pay council tax. But there’s a reason for this. You won’t be using the council’s services… If you are on a fixed residential mooring, this is not the case. That said, you’ll pay the cheapest band.

Is that all?

Not quite. Consider mooring fees too. Residential mooring can be far cheaper than paying rent… But ask yourself this, how would you feel about paying £16000 for a patch of water, a couple of metal loops, a hosepipe attachment and an electricity cable? In areas of the south you won’t get much change out of £20,000.

5) You are part of a community…

This one is actually really great. The mutual respect and comradery of the boating community is phenomenal.

Want to know the reason?

Personalities aside, practically everyone you encounter as a boat dweller will be there for the same reason as you. They will have had the same thoughts and had the same dream. Pretty much everyone you encounter when living on a canal boat will have a story.

Some might have always wanted to live on a boat, some might have been oil traders who wanted to get away from it all. Some might be free spirits. But they have one thing in common, they are all interesting.

Granted, it’s not always idyllic. But you’ll find that, especially in residential marinas that people will look out for you, and you’ll slowly but surely start to do the same for them.

There are other things to think about however…

6) Privacy…

You will get to know your neighbours very well. Privacy isn’t something in abundance on a narrowboat. You’ll hear your neighbours. You’ll see your neighbours and they’ll hear and see you too. You might think living on a canal boat is solitary. At times yes, it is, but not all the time.

If you haven’t taken the plunge yet, think about this. Could you live with having a footpath at eye level right outside your living room window? Any time you are moored up, that is pretty much what you are getting… Most people are respectful, but remember that you are going to be living a life that most people dream about… You can’t blame them for wanting to take the occasional ‘peek’.

7) Security…

Some people have everything bolted to the boat. Some don’t. As we’ve said there’s a real sense of community when you live on a narrowboat. You may encounter the odd freshwater pirate, but it is definitely the exception… There is almost an unwritten rule of ‘do unto others…’ that tends to prevail. However, there’s a really common reason why things occasionally disappear off the deck in the middle of the night, and it’s both a blessing and a curse…

Go on the suspense is killing us…

What do you tend to find on canal towpaths? No not ducks, PUBS! It would appear to be part of the British psyche that any more than 3 pints turns even the most mild-mannered chap into an aspiring Ronnie Biggs. Except they don’t pinch gold bullion, they pinch your boat hook or flip flops… It’s our experience that, most of the time, you’ll find it lobbed into a bramble patch about 50 yards down, once the thief realises that they have absolutely no use for a boat hook whatsoever… And as we say, theft is the exception, not the rule…

Thinking of taking the plunge? Read this…

Consider how you intend to live…

So, there’s two types of licence… You can cruise continually, which essentially means moving from a towpath mooring every two weeks, or you can have an official residential mooring.

So far so good? Great!

The snag comes if you find that you can’t get a residential mooring in an area that you need to be in. Let’s say you have to be in an area where you can travel to work… But there aren’t moorings available. You will need to have a serious think about your options. Sure, you can moor up on a towpath… But where is your power and water going to come from? The obvious solution is to enquire as to whether moorings are available before you commit.

Decide how committed you want to be…

It’s a nice thought to ‘leave it all behind’ and sail into the distance… But it might be best to have a backup option. If you already own a home, then you are in the clear. If you can afford to rent and live on a narrowboat lucky you! The most obvious option is to have a fallback option if your plans don’t workout. For most that will mean enough money in the bank to be able to find somewhere to live, if for whatever reason life on a narrowboat doesn’t work out.

Have a realistic budget…

“Live on a canal boat” they said… “It will be cheaper” they said… Well yes and no.

Some things are cheaper (like council tax). But when you start throwing in the various costs, they can soon add up. Your licence will set you back at least £1000 a year, you will have to pay for fuel, mooring, insurance, heating, routine boat maintenance, non-routine boat maintenance… Not to mention the costs of living that would be the same on dry land. Oh, and the cost of the boat to start with…

Is it still sounding so cheap?


Hopefully the above has given you some food for thought? Living onboard a boat is often something that you didn’t know you wanted, until you have actually done it. But there’s a lot to consider. Our main piece of advice is this… If you want to do it go for it.

It isn’t always easy, but regardless of the bad times, it always pays to remember, that someone, somewhere is dreaming about your lifestyle and looking at you with envy.

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