Growing up on a narrowboat

Dens on the towpath, magical winter moments and failed plumbing: author and boater Sarah Jasmon shares the highs and lows of bringing up her family on the canal.

Illustration by Alan Baker

Words by Sarah Jasmon

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Before starting this piece, I sent a message out to my children in our family chat group asking for the best and worst of growing up on a boat. The answers took longer than I expected and I began to feel nervous. Were they trying to spare my feelings? Was there a deep well of boat-related angst that I hadn’t noticed? Then the responses arrived: thought-provoking, even-handed and revealing. Good points? Growing up in a beautiful place and being really close as a family. Having “I live on a boat” as an opening line for conversations. Not such good things? Those mostly revolved around plumbing.

The children were 11, 6 and 4 when we moved onboard. We’d spent the previous couple of years in a series of nomadic moves involving periods of time in a camper van and a static caravan. When people asked if it was hard for all of us to fit into a boat, we’d give each other knowing looks. The boat meant expansion, in both physical and mental space. And space, as any Dr Who aficionado knows, is relative after all.

In some ways we didn’t have a lot of it. The children shared a bedroom, shared their toys, shared their time. You might imagine me drawing a sigh of relief when they went off to school every morning. Except they didn’t, because we also home-educated. Being around each other all day could have been a disaster, but it never felt that way. You have to learn compromise; it’s hard to strop and flounce when there are no doors to slam. To this day, we’re still very close. The younger two currently share a flat and, when all three of them get together, you’re likely to find them crammed onto one sofa sharing a funny story and dying with laughter.

I’m aware that I can look back at our past through tinted glasses of positivity. Long summer days watching them play out all day along the towpath, building dens and climbing trees and creating worlds. Autumn, with wild plums, blackberries and hazelnuts, jam-making and wood collecting. An old lady came by one day with a carrier bag full of conkers along with stories of the doll’s furniture she used to make out of them when she was a little girl. She’d spotted my kids playing on a previous walk and guessed that they would appreciate the idea. They did.

There were other magical moments too. There’s a day every year when a certain kind of ice forms on the canal. A stone will bounce on it, making a sound that’s almost an echo, almost a gong but not quite either. The ice flexes as the water moves underneath. You can feel the season shift a gear. One particular year, the cold snap didn’t end. The ice became thicker and the ground disappeared under layer upon layer of snow. Some of this was definitely fun: the old guys along the canal had been telling us for years about how the canal used to freeze over, the ice becoming strong enough to walk on and the icebreaker that cleared the way for working boats.

We didn’t get the icebreaker, but we did get to walk on the ice. By the middle of December, it was a foot thick and we could dance about in the middle with no hint of movement underfoot. We used the sledge to fetch the shopping home and overdosed on wintry books: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter and Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday felt very real.

Stories from the past are always closer when you live on a boat and lack certain conveniences. Flushing toilets and mains water, for instance. Here we return to the things that weren’t so great. They were even worse that winter. We couldn’t move the boat to get water when the tank ran dry. We also couldn’t get to the sanitary station to pump out the toilet tank, but that didn’t matter so much because the tank was frozen solid so we couldn’t use the toilet anyway. We had to borrow a PortaPotti instead. The power and heating briefly failed, leaving us huddled around the woodburner, kept stoked up day and night. We were back in the past with a vengeance.

By Christmas, although there was still no real sign of a thaw we’d gotten into the swing of things. As usual, instead of a traditional tree we’d brought home a long twiggy branch to hang under the skylight, decorating it with the tiniest ornaments we could find. Santa came in through the range and we roasted chestnuts and went for long walks in the snow. When the ice outside of the kitchen window eventually thawed, the moving water was like magic. I think we remember these moments the best. I’m glad I shared them with my children. These were special times.

Posted on 23/12/2019