I was enjoying a cup of tea on my friend Anja’s boat when I noticed that she had a habit of looking under the fridge every time she went to get the milk out. “Why do you do that,” I asked. “I’m checking for snakes,” she replied. This was not the sort of answer I expected.
To explain, she took me to the boat next door. Both boats were moored side on to the towpath, with Anja’s the one further from the land. The towpath-side boat belonged to Kevin, an Australian courier and occasional actor, who owned a large motorbike and, more unusually, a couple of pythons – handsome, heavy coils of scale and muscle. Anja explained that these usually resided peacefully in their glass cage sleeping off their latest mouse, but occasionally – and to be honest, once would be too often – they escaped. When this happened, they’d sometimes slither through the open window and slide into the boat, where they’d settle down in the warmest spot they could find, which happened to be behind the fridge.
Kevin found this incredibly amusing; Anja rather less so. I hovered some place in between – I liked the idea of somebody keeping snakes aboard a narrowboat, but wasn’t so keen on the thought of them getting out – and also I wasn’t entirely sure Kevin didn’t let them out deliberately, for a laugh. From that point on, whenever I was at that end of the towpath, I kept my wits more firmly about me.
Kevin thought snakes made perfect low-maintenance pets for a boat. They don’t need to be fed often or walked ever, nor do they like to be brushed or stroked, and you don’t even need to clean up after them. They’re even ergonomically compatible with the design of a narrowboat – long, slender and relatively slow-moving. Despite all these selling points, Kevin was the only boater I ever knew who kept snakes, but I did hear of people with spiders, lizards, parrots and hamsters. One boater even let her house-trained rabbit have the run of the place.
There is no reason why anybody shouldn’t have a pet on a boat that they can have on dry land. Even so, when my friend told me she was getting liveaboard cats, I was sceptical. But her two kittens adapted to canal life quickly, exploring the towpath via a cat flap to the side hatch. It helped that this was a residential mooring, so if the cats did wander away at least they’d know their home was exactly where they’d left it. One of the cats took to fishing from the pontoon. He would hunch over the water, eyes focussed, paw dangling, ready to strike. I never saw him catch anything, but he certainly had the patience if not the technique.
There is a long tradition of cats on boats – they were once valued for their mousing skills – but on the towpath they weren’t a particularly common sight, possibly because of natural nervousness regarding the unsuitability of water. Cats can swim, but owners might be advised to keep a long net handy for emergencies and also ensure cats are locked inside the cabin when cruising. If you are more concerned about your cat’s welfare than their dignity, you can also purchase cat-sized lifejackets.
Where cats were rare, dogs were everywhere. And not small yappy boat-sized dogs either, but canines of the larger, more active persuasion. One boater had a crew of ranging lurchers, constantly straining to go for a loping run along the towpath. Every time you walked past his boat, a cascade of barks would emerge. Despite the problems with room – a wagging tail can do a lot of damage when you live in a corridor 7ft wide – dogs and boats are well-suited. Dogs like water and the life is generally an outdoorsy one, so animals get plenty of fresh air while in the winter a dog makes a good substitute for a hot water bottle. The only requirements are those you would expect from any dog-owners – and you’d hope that boaters are much more likely to pick up dog mess on their own towpath. Dog-sized lifejackets are also available, but you need to watch dogs around locks as their tendency to get over-excited at the slightest excuse makes them a potential hazard for yourself, themselves and anybody in the vicinity.
A dog provides a great excuse for a walk to the nearest boaters’ pub, and most nights the dog-owners of the towpath could be found gathered at the bar, while the pets patiently awaited the return leg of their evening constitutional. But best of all was the cruise. There was something special about going on a cruise with a dog as your companion, a ball of fur sitting obediently by your feet on the stern deck or scampering around barking pointlessly at a squirrel in a passing tree. It made each trip feel like even more of an adventure: human and beast, side-by-side, out navigating the wilds of England, afraid of nothing. Except pythons.