FLOATING ASSETS

Hester Lacey meets the young professionals who have swapped traffic noise for the gentle lapping of water against wood, and bricks and mortar for the romance of a houseboat. The pros may seem obvious, but are there any drawbacks?

Outside Robin Bennett's back window, a cormorant is wrestling with a large eel, gulping it down head-first. Living on a houseboat means making lots of new friends. "The first morning I moved in here, I woke up to find a huge bird sitting on the end of the boat, all hunched up and looking like death," he says. "There's a hot water outlet just up the river, where there are lots of eels, and so we get dozens of herons and cormorants. Greylag geese come tapping on the window begging for food, and the mallard ducks are always fighting."

Amari, the rented houseboat where Bennett, 28, lives with his fiancee Helene Pinel, is moored at Chelsea Village, just above Battersea Bridge, alongside the extremely posh Cheyne Walk. The moorings, however, are bright and friendly looking, with brightly painted boats festooned with flower- baskets and pots. Bennett moved to Amari 10 months ago - from Mallard, the boat-next-door. "People tend to stay, once they've lived on a boat for a while," he says. "I'd cycled past here many times and loved the idea of living on a boat. Three years ago I stuck a notice on a tree outside the village, saying `young professional seeks houseboat' and ended up renting the top cabin next door. When we needed somewhere bigger, we moved in here."

Amari's living room is wood-panelled, with rugs on the floor and trays of seedlings on the windowsill. The view over the Thames is amazing. "We have windows rather than portholes, so this boat has one of the nicest views of the river," says Bennett. "And it's silent; there's no traffic noise at all, even in the heart of London, because the thick embankment reflects the sound." The only disturbance, he says, comes from intrusive speedboats and summer party boats. "When it's high tide, you get thrown around by the wash. If you are prone to motion sickness, you will get it on a houseboat - I'm an appalling sailor, but I've developed my sea- legs since living here."

Stand on the upper deck of the boat, and within view are the church where William Blake was married, and the former residences of Hilaire Belloc, one of the Pankhursts ("I can't remember which"), Brunel and Turner. Many of the boats at Chelsea Village used to be old craft from the Normandy Landings but these have since been replaced with more modern floating dwellings. Most are permanently moored. "I would love to have a boat that really worked," says Bennett. "But it would be very expensive to keep undoing it and tying it up. It's quite a performance. We're attached to mains water, electricity and phone by sealed rubber junctions and that would have to be disconnected and connected back up each time."

Gas is supplied by cylinder. The kitchen is a tiny galley, and the bathroom, lighted by a porthole, is also a little cubby-hole, tiled in black and white. "The worst thing about living on a boat is the loo," admits Bennett. "Ours is basically a portaloo, and it has to be flushed out into the septic tank with a hosepipe once a week. That's my job," he adds somewhat ruefully.

Amari is heated by a stove-burner. At this time of year the river is idyllic, but it can get cold in winter. "It's essential to keep the boat well heated in winter. If you're stingy with the heating, things get damp, really damp - you'll find your shirts all wet in the mornings." Dry shirts are important for a young professional, but living on a house-boat is by no means incompatible with working in an office; Bennett runs two businesses, the Aktuel Translation Group and a supply teaching agency, London Tutors, while Helene is a retail manager at Liberty's department store.

"You have to be a special type to live on a houseboat," says Bennett. "People who think they're `eccentric' don't last. I shall always keep the boat, even if we go and live somewhere else. You can't beat living on a boat."

While Amari is firmly anchored on one of the world's busiest rivers in the heart of London, the Fighting Spirit narrow boat is moored alongside green fields on the sleepy stretch of the Grand Union canal that runs through Rickmansworth. Simon Kelly, 31, has lived on three of the 50 or so boats that cluster along the banks; he bought the Fighting Spirit for pounds 10,500, two years ago, and spent pounds 20,000 doing it up. "It was empty when I bought it; like a rusty bean can. It took a year to do it up," he says. Now, reluctantly, he is selling up. Fighting Spirit is on the market for pounds 36,000 through marine agent Virginia Currer (see below for details). He and his wife, Latifa Tbahriti, 33, need more room now the family includes Samya, 15 months old, but he's sorry to be thinking about moving on. "My original plan was that we would all live here. Living like this, you're so close to nature - you step off the boat into fields," he says.

Fighting Spirit has a phone line, mains electricity, water from a standpipe, and cylinder gas; Kelly also retained the engine. "It is moveable, like an ordinary boat, though when you live on a boat you tend not to move it; you don't want to go on holidays in it." The interior is two feet wider than the usual narrow boat, and there is plenty of head-room. The boat is divided into living area and bedroom, where Tofu the cat is snoozing comfortably on the bed. Kelly lined the hull with solid spray foam for insulation, which retains warmth and avoids the condensation that is a problem on many boats, and fitted the interior with new wood panelling and carpets. "I wanted to make it comfortable," he says. "I work in computer support and I have to go into work in a suit every day, so things here couldn't be too basic. I've had the horrible experience of living on an unheated boat in the middle of winter, with the shower right next to the loo, and I wanted to build something really nice." He has also managed to wedge in a reasonably-sized shower-room and lavatory, though once again, sanitary facilities are a slight black spot. "This is a bioloo, it's meant to convert sewage into compost, you just clear it out every six months. It doesn't work, though, I'm thinking of getting rid of it."

Outside, the river bank is alive with buttercups, ragged-robin, clover and dandelion, and the neighbours are pottering about. "This is a beautiful set of moorings," says Kelly. "Everyone is living close and there's a real community spirit. There are bonfires and barbecues every year; and there are larger-than-life characters here that you wouldn't get anywhere else. houseboats are very romantic - they are the floating equivalent of a little log cabin in the mountains." !

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