PROPERTY / The Water Gypsies of Shoreham: Living on a houseboat is certainly cheap, but is it always cheerful? Caroline McGhie meets a Sussex community with no regrets about opting for the Good Life afloat

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SUE FARQUHAR waves to a friend as she parks her canoe in the shallows and plods ankle-deep through the mudflats, squelching her way to her own front door. The banks of the Adur heave and settle at low tide, exposing their riches to the appetites of migrating wildfowl. On warm summer days this community of houseboat-owners potters in shorts and swimming costumes, emptying bilges and repairing woodwork like modern Robinson Crusoes.

They have cast themselves away from the preoccupations of home ownership, from mortgages and re-sale values, to live in old torpedo boats and oyster catchers that are no longer seaworthy, moored to the shingle bank that separates Shoreham in Sussex from the sea. Across the footbridge that spans the estuary in front of them lies the little Victorian town of Shoreham; behind them the white clapboard beach huts stand to attention.

This is where reality and fantasy meet. Is it sane to seek sanctuary from the claustrophobia of suburbia and have the glistening shallows as your view? Or is it insane to live in a boat that leaks like a sieve when it rains, where the pumps have to go on every time the tide creeps into the bilges, and you lie awake at night listening to the wind tugging at the moorings when winter's dead hand arrives?

Sue Farquhar and Hamish McKenzie, aboard Venture, have become more and more laid-back during the six years they have lived there. Hamish plays the piano in the huge wood-panelled top cabin for hours every day and makes furniture out of bits of old boats and driftwood. An old tree stump works as a truss, a beautiful chair has been fashioned out of the bow of a small boat, and their huge double bed is hand-carved. Jezebel, a zebra-striped manikin, stands nude in one corner.

'It was an anti-property move when I came here,' said Sue. 'I knew I didn't want to wait until I was in my sixties before I stopped paying the mortgage and working 12 hours a day. We can afford now to go on holidays. In fact, we go all the time. But I think people think we are all on the dole here. We all look so happy all the time that they get suspicious.' Locally they are known as 'Water Gypsies'.

As in Penelope Fitzgerald's 1979 Booker prize-winning novel Offshore, based on her time living in a houseboat on the Thames at Chelsea, the sense of community among the strange mix of people who have drifted into living in this group of boats is extraordinarily strong. Some have come to retire, a younger generation to find an alternative way of life; there are a couple of actors, writers, a doctor and a Buddhist priest, and parties seem to erupt around the wood-burning stoves on winter evenings. Pies and puddings lie baked on the side in the kitchen in the bowels of Venture.

'We have spare bunk beds for the bodies that we get left with after parties,' says Sue. 'We are an open boat, really. I cook a lot, so the table is always full of food and people can come in and help themselves and pick up a piece of pie in one hand and a glass of home-brewed beer or wine in the other.' Bridge evenings are the latest craze.

Four couples even share an allotment. The mangetouts, raspberries, redcurrants, spinach and leeks are ready for picking, but the blackbirds have had the gooseberries. All the Water Gypsies have boat dreams. 'Mine is playing table tennis with the water lapping round my feet. The ball doesn't bounce so far,' says Hamish. 'Most people dream of sinking.'

A boat of his did sink a couple of years ago, when he had decided to tidy up the bilges and pulled out a plug. He lost his fridge and cooker and had to spread the rugs out to dry. And there was the day of the huge gale, when they all turned out to pull in the boats. 'That was a great day. The boat at the very end broke its moorings and went out into the middle of the channel. So we all pulled it back in on the daytime tide. But on the night tide it happened again, and we were all out on the towpath in the black of the night.'

A few boats along, on Bimini, with its yellow sunburst windows, are Ray White and Julia Gallagher, who are about to have their first baby. They gave up their jobs in the Midlands, as lecturer and teacher, and moved aboard in July 1991. 'It leaked everywhere and we had pots all over the place,' says Julia, who has taken up teaching again while Ray works on the boat. The floors have been stripped, the walls are rag-rolled in burnt umber, the Rayburn and the wood-burning stove have been installed, and there's a bathtub with clawed feet under a window that allows them to look at the stars while they wash.

There is an air of manana about the towpath. 'Oh, yes. We are always saying we must paint the hull. And we must re-felt the roof. And finish the bathroom. And we must paint the hull . . .' says Ray. Freedom from pressure is built into the lifestyle. 'We have panoramic views, watch the fish go by, the swans come and visit. At high tide it becomes exciting. This boat is a living thing, not like a house,' he explains in his you-poor-trapped-landlubber voice.

From outside, these 40 or so houseboats look remarkably decrepit, some like rotting iron crates becalmed in the shallows. Each is approached by the spindliest of gangplanks. Bicycles, wellington boots, letterboxes and old washing machines are strapped to the handrails. Most entrances look like scrapyards-cum- window boxes, where potted plants fight with junk. One boat has a huge hole gashed in one side, as if gnawed by a shark, but copious washing hanging triumphantly out to dry signals that it is still occupied. The name of the vessel, appropriately, is Lunasea. Out between the plastic sheeting and old tin tubs pops the round smiling face of Polly Cole, with another huge basket of washing under one arm, appearing just as Peggotty did to David Copperfield out of her upturned-boat house.

Polly and her husband, Fred, arrived as flotsam on the tide of the Seventies property boom, having sold for pounds 23,000 a house that they bought for pounds 10,000. 'This one was for sale for pounds 6,500, and there was nearly as much water flowing inside it as there was outside. So that was it. We bought it with cash,' says Fred, a living cliche of nut-brown smiling wrinkles and piercing bright blue eyes.

They have raised three boys on Lunasea and dealt with the leaks by attaching a labyrinth of guttering to the ceiling, channelling water to the kitchen sink or out of the bedroom windows. 'When we first moved in, we weren't used to the noise. The north-east wind sounds like a herd of elephants walking across the deck,' says Fred.

Those who sailed in Lunasea when she was a gunboat at the D-Day landings would find it hard to believe that she could have settled into such a charming and chaotic middle age. The Coles have a list of all the surviving members of the crew and snippets of old logbooks recording the vessel's activities.

The past of Samichon, a stroll away, as Torpedo Boat 618, is graphically told in a letter from the former Norwegian captain to its present owners, Janet and Tony Weeks. He recalls his time in her, prowling round the Shetlands during the Second World War, as being quite miserable because of the lack of heating and insulation. Now all the clutter of the kitchen fits into the old galley, and the sailors' mess, lined with two-tone mahogany cupboards, is given over to a teenager's elaborate drum kit.

And what of Janet's boat dreams? 'They are called nightmares,' she says. 'I hurtle down the river at high speed with bits falling off the boat. But frankly, when the wind strikes up it's best to go to sleep and let it pass. I have been out sitting on a mooring rope for two hours, sitting on it as a weight, until the tide went down. Not amusing. It's always in the middle of the night.'

None of them can contemplate returning to square-edged brick walls and pavements after this. Some say they would feel guilty to leave the others. 'How many people know everyone who lives near to them, and likes them all? The thought of having neighbours on each side would drive me potty,' says Janet. Before her lie the blue-and-white sailing boats of the Sussex Yacht Club and the mud shallows, sucking and whispering. Behind her is the shingle bank and the beach. 'It comes down to what you choose, really.'

Owning a Houseboat

Finance: building societies won't give mortgages. Lump-sum cash is ideal, or a bank loan. Loan repayments qualify for tax relief.

Where to find them: visit canal and river banks and ask around. Anything without a mooring means a life of permanent insecurity. The mooring can cost more than the boat. A three-bedroom ex-steam yacht is for sale at Shoreham for pounds 33,000 (tel 0273 464486). Surveyor Browett Taylor & Co (1 Lincolns Inn Fields, London WC2A 3BA) has a range of vessels at Chelsea priced at pounds 75,000-pounds 145,000.

Reading material: for canal boats the place to look is Waterways World (Kottingham House, Dale Street, Burton upon Trent, Staffs DE14 3TD). Otherwise Exchange & Mart. The Residential Boat Owners Association (3 Ducks Walk, Twickenham, Middlesex TW1 2DD) produces a booklet called Living Afloat.

(Photographs omitted)

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