Narrowboat summers

“I was first seduced by the genial appeal of the canal during the summer, and I suspect this does not make me unique,” says Peter Watts

David Doran


A year only has two seasons when you live on a boat. Winter, which begins when you first light the fire, and summer, which begins when you stop. Winter has many charms but is filled with chill and challenges, whereas summer is easy street. This is what you sign up for when you first elect to embrace the boating lifestyle, those long, languorous afternoons lounging on your oven­-hot steel roof listening to music, waving at passing boaters and idly eyeballing the hopelessly square drylanders as they wander past, gawping. You can smell the envy a mile away.

I was first seduced by the genial appeal of the canal during the summer, when boat life is at its most gloriously decadent, and I suspect this does not make me unique. My hopelessly naïve initial plan was to bluff it out for the three hottest months of the year before smugly decanting somewhere warmer for winter. It was a fine idea but by the time October came around I was hooked: there was no going back. You know you’ve got a habit when you buy your first bag of coal.

But the tribulations of winter were worthwhile for those eight – who am I kidding, those six, sometimes four ­ months of English sun. Summer on the canal is like a reverse print of winter: in the cold months, the drawbacks are obvious to the outsider but the rewards – the cosiness, the icy serenity, the sense of achievement – can be more subtle. In summer, the opposite holds true and the best bits are exactly what you might expect, while the problems are well hidden.

Sometimes the good and bad collide: in these hottest months, the metal interior of a boat is pretty much unbearable from mid­morning, so you spend much of your time outdoors, pottering about pretending to fix, paint or polish things but more usually just sitting around reading, chatting, listening to the cricket, switching position from bow to stern to roof as mood, shadow and company dictate. Sure, you can do much the same in a garden, field or park, but there’s something special about lazing about on your own boat, surrounded by gently lapping water and that fence-­free illusion of space, yet only seconds away from those four critical comforts ­- bed, fridge, kettle, loo.

Which brings us neatly to one of the less agreeable things about summer: the toilet. A boat’s toilet can be its Achilles heel, the tiny noxious hell-cabinet where the most idyllic craft turns nasty. It’s rare to find a boat toilet that doesn’t smell at least a little bit – of chemicals, as much as anything – and when baked by the summer heat, that aroma can get quite heady.

Fortunately, in most cases, the only solution is to get the tank emptied, which means a lovely cruise to the nearest pumping station. There’s nothing more agreeable than a boat trip on a warm evening, chugging past ducklings into a cooling breeze, even if the ultimate objective is as unromantic as life can get. Boaters at a loose end would regularly jump aboard a neighbour’s barge when they made their own toilet-­emptying trip, purely for the pleasure of adventure rather than any charitable urge to handle other people’s waste.

Anyway, in the summer, emptying your neighbour’s sewage is nothing; you live so close together, you probably heard them deposit it. A boat’s incredible ability to retain heat means that in July and August, windows and doors are left open late into the night in a desperate bid to catch the relief of a through wind. Wafting in with the breeze will come all the noises of the night. Your neighbours’ television, conversation and micturition, bellows of kids on nearby estates, tipsy laughter and clinking glasses from trip boats hired for office parties, even, surreally, the occasional early morning clip-
clop of horses, marching in military formation from St John’s Wood Barracks for a Royal engagement.

Most frequently, though, it would be the sound of another towpath barbeque. These would begin in Easter and seem to go on without end until things got really bleak around November. Everybody was welcome to pop in and out, providing they brought food, wine and a decent amount of gossip. The bonhomie could be punishing but at these gatherings you’d often spot new faces, friends visiting boater pals. They’d be there for one night, and that would quietly stretch to three months. Then, in October, you’d spy them shuffling past, dragging a huge bag of coal. Summer has snared another victim.