Small Spaces

“Sometimes, I long for more than three cupboards. But there is something to be said for only owning exactly what you need, and simple minimal living.” Boater Danie Couchman shares the highs and lows of a cosy narrowboat life.



“Aaagh, small spaces!” I shout. Only yesterday I was euphorically happy at how lucky I am to have such a lovely little home – grateful to have this narrow room, when so many have nowhere to call their own. But today, it’s too small. An uninhabitable claustrophobic, exposed little box. I want a proper home, with a bathroom I can turn around in, and a desk to write on which isn’t my lap. A couple of hours later, it’s completely perfect again.

I ebb and flow with whether my narrowboat is too small to live in. Space seems to fluctuate with the seasons. Compact and cosy in winter, with stacks of kindling, extra duvets and piles of warm coats by the door. In the hibernation months the local café becomes my study. After the spring magic, summer brings more room, with a free boat extension. Friends can now sit on the roof, doors open onto the deck, dinners spill over onto the towpath, and breeze and light flows through the opened side hatch. When the river is clean enough, there’s a free swimming pool right on the doorstep.

Then, rain. I’m knee deep in river water, soggy dog held above my head. The downpour in the night caused the bank to overflow. Wet and excited pooch, muddy towel, and wellies are now in the middle of my little home. I’m living in a porch or a shed. The parameters are tightened and the space shrinks further, as I batten down the hatches against fat drops of rain sploshing heavily on the low roof. The wind sends me back out into the chill in pyjamas to hammer another mooring pin in, wanting to take my ship with it, and sometimes succeeding.

The weather is closer to home than in a flat or house. You can’t get away from it. You hear it, feel it, see it all. As well as the seasonal and weather based shifts, your space also changes form with each move. A new view from the porthole windows and a new back garden. Cattle grazing, geese flying low overhead and new boating neighbours. Often, they’re the ones you took with you. I travel with floating friends and their slinky steel boats. Our heavy homes nose to nose in multiple formations. My space expands again as I hop onto their front decks for a cup of tea.

Simplifying and going micro means regular clear outs. There isn’t room for as many books as you’d like, or for fancy breakable things, sentimental bits and bobs, or anything you haven’t worn in the last six months. Everything I own must fit into this slim corridor. If you put your arms out wide you can almost touch the sides. You quickly learn to put things away as you go. Even breakfast seems to cause a tidal wave of mess. So folding functional furniture, hooks for hanging keys, cups, and tea towels, and plastic tubs to stop linen smelling of diesel and smoke become essential.

Living little has other benefits too. The intimacy of a small home means that the ice is immediately broken, personal boundaries taken down, formalities put aside. Bundles of boater friends pile in for feasts of various courses and sides brought along for dinner. Squished up with one and other, dishes pass over heads, elbows bash and knees clash as eight eat off a tiny table together. Facades are stripped, and there’s never an awkward moment between the unlikeliest of guests. It’s impossible to be grandiose or pompous when you’re sitting on a fold up chair squished between people eating with a plastic fork.

People act differently when brought together in close quarters. It’s almost as though everyone forgets about the bigness and scariness of the world, and can concentrate on the smallness, and the cosiness of human interaction. A warm glow of happiness, and a special feeling of togetherness that I think can only be felt in a small space. I’ve experienced and observed deeper friendships forming faster with the close physical proximity, more meaningful memories made, and even love fallen into quicker.

When I go into a house now, at first I have the burning urge to spin and move around in all the space. My partner Jake and dog Mango look different as they are further than a meter away from me. Unused nooks and crannies seem wasted, inefficient. I’ve wept in friend’s baths with an overwhelming feeling of privacy and calm. Even a humble and modest sized bathroom feels like a huge luxury spa. Quickly though, the novelty wears, and I long to be cramped and kind-of-camping again, shoulder to shoulder with my floating friends, with cabin fever.