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Cast adrift: Why London's houseboats are struggling to keep their heads above water

During the Olympics, all eyes will be on competitive yachts and canoes, but tucked away on London's waterways are hundreds of houseboats that – although an integral part of the city's community – are embroiled in a protracted battle with the authorities.

The canals around Hackney are home to a unique community of narrowboats, populated by artists, entrepreneurs and people looking for a freer, more affordable life in the capital. But in the run-up to the Olympics, many of these boats have been caught in a protracted battle with the authorities which control the canals, about where they are allowed to live during the Games. The battle centres around a community known as 'continuous cruisers' – boats without a permanent mooring that are legally allowed to moor, for two weeks at a time, at spots along the river for free (bar an annual licence of between approximately £450 to £1,000).

Last winter, British Waterways, the organisation responsible for the canals at the time, announced that it would be imposing a controlled zone on the London canals for the duration of the Games. It would not affect boats with permanent mooring licences, only the continuous cruisers. Many of the latter were up in arms, claiming that they would be forced to move to holding bays miles outside central London – unless they were willing to pay up to £350 per week for a designated Olympic mooring spot. The restrictions, which affect the section of canals running through central London up to Little Venice on the Regent's Canal, Lea Bridge Road on the Lee Navigation and the Limehouse Basin, came into force at the start of the month and will last until 10 September.

There were accusations of a tourist-friendly "airbrush", and that the impending changes would create "floating ghettos". Many boaters also felt that prejudice about their lifestyle was at play. In response, British Waterways agreed to consult about the continuous cruisers' objections and, after months of wrangling, it relented – somewhat, say the boaters – by creating a third option offering, it says, 200 mooring spots, available at a reduced price of £36 per week to boats with no fixed mooring. But with this set-up now in place, many of the boaters still remain unhappy.

"They say they're not evicting us," says Frank Kelly, owner of a continuous cruiser and unofficial mouthpiece for the boaters affected, "so why are 50-odd boats I can see around me – herded up here, north of Lea Bridge Road – all crammed into three miles of river with just two water points?"

Kelly has been on the water for five years. "The appeal is very personal," he says. "I always say freedom. It's mine. The chances of me owning a flat in London would be non-existent. Plus there's the most incredible community on the water. Being on a continuous cruiser, in one sense, means it's always shifting, with different boats at different moorings at different times. But in another sense we know everybody. I refer to it as the longest village."

Kelly rejected the reduced price moorings because, he says, having never had to pay at all to moor, he "doesn't have the money to spare". He also turned the idea down, "on principle: if you have a continuous cruiser licence, the law allows you to moor for 14 days before you are legally obliged to move on. They've basically changed the law and hope they'll get away with it, but they've not gone through any legal channels. It was 'pay or leave'," he says. Something that the Canal & River Trust (the charity which earlier this month took over responsibility for the canals from British Waterways) refutes. "We haven't changed the law," a spokesperson says. "We changed some licence terms and conditions, temporarily, for the Olympics. We have powers to do this … Any boater renewing their licence in this period has therefore agreed to these changes, and we communicated the changes fully."

"I personally don't have a fight with the immediate Olympic Exclusion zone," says Kelly, "but they [British Waterways] have extended the zone out from Hackney to beyond Kensal Green. That's just too far. I need access to my GP. Some of us are key workers. There are people here having babies, they need continuity."

Kelly also suggests that prejudice is at play: "We have jobs, we pay taxes. But for instance, if we go to the doctor we have to register with the homeless unit. So there is a big issue in terms of our legitimacy. We think it's a wider issue: we as a community have experienced a lot of discrimination and this encourages that."

Jason Leach, Head of Olympic Programmes at the Canal & River Trust, disagrees: "We have been tasked with balancing the inevitable security restrictions during the Olympics, with the need to accommodate the many people who want to visit London, including canal boats and yachts," he begins. "We have worked hard to accommodate as many people's needs as possible and make sure there is fair access for everybody. And we have provided a range of options for 'continuous cruisers' to stay in the area.

"The Olympics has brought about an extraordinary transformation of the canals of London and allowed us to restore and reopen waterways which had been clogged and abused since the Blitz. This work will benefit communities and visitors to London for generations – long after any temporary inconvenience has been forgotten."

Amid the controversy, and on the eve of the Games, the residents of one of London's most unusual villages talk about the appeal of life on the waterway, and their fears for its future.

'We'll have our own party'

Simon Chouffot, media consultant

I love the shape of boats – the curves, the windows. I was partly drawn to the romance of it – the willows drooping in the water, the peaceful lifestyle, yet right in the middle of the city. It's also a great, cheap way to live.

The community is the single best thing about living on a boat. It reminds me of living in a village in the countryside. Everybody's so close-knit, we look out for each other. You just don't get that in cities. Whenever I'm moving, the boat people are interested, and want to stop and talk. The only annoying bit is people bending down to look in your window when you're making tea in your pants.

This industrial area of the canal had been neglected for many years, so there's a lot of space, it's a lot quieter, and that attracts people to get away from the busier parts of the waterway. The Olympics coming is both good and bad. There's no stopping something as huge as that, and bringing redevelopment to the area. But it's going to be quite hard for boaters to get into the spirit of the Olympics and enjoy it when a lot of us have been made refugees unless we want to cough up an additional fee.

The positive side? We're going to have a space where we're all going to be able to congregate, so hopefully we'll be able to have our own party on the side and enjoy it that way.

'Boats get people talking'

Francesca Hyde, circus performer, and Rob D'arcy, producer

Francesca: People have a romantic view of both boating and the circus, so when we do the Collectif show on the boat, people are really appreciative. They want to speak to people on the boats anyway, and when they see a circus rig on the water they're interested – it provides an open opportunity for them to talk to you.

This summer would have been perfect for us to revise and expand the show we did on the canals last year. But all of my artist friends are affected by the Olympics; every funding application they make you have to say if you're supporting the Cultural Olympiad. There's so much focus on that, so I think it's also really important to have some artistic projects outside the Olympic agenda. We'll definitely be doing some alternative entertainment for the Olympics.f

'We're not hippies'

Lucy Hawthorne, NUS worker and Daniel Speight, artist

Lucy: We've been on a boat for a year. It was partly financial but also a desire to have a challenge, to not live life in a straight line. I really strongly feel that the boats are a significant reason why Hackney's gentrified. They've made the canal safer for cyclists and people walking alone at night. I just love the fact that we add to the colour and vibrancy of the area.

The Olympics are a great opportunity, but it feels like the authorities have decided what they want the boats to look like, and the London cruiser community doesn't quite fit the bill. I am fearful that afterwards this gentrification of the canal will continue, prices will go up, which will make this lifestyle difficult to lead. We are people with jobs, families and kids. We're not hippies, we're normal people.

Dan: It's like they're airbrushing the whole area. As well as the boats, they're knocking down old buildings that don't fit into their grand scheme. We're part of the community, so why not celebrate that rather than whitewash over it? The real effect is that the boats that don't take up the reduced moorings have been cleared out for 10 weeks and crowded into zones at each end of London. That leaves 300 boats ghettoised.E

'It's a very physical way of life'

Ali Gunning, yoga teacher

The roof of the boat is the perfect space to do my yoga practice. I'm always up there. It's very good for your core balance. I do one-to-one lessons inside the boat. I clear out the space and can fit two people in to do meditation. Just being able to hear the birds and the wind in the trees is really calming for people. As soon as I step on the towpath, I relax.

For me, freedom is the number one thing. Freedom from having to be a slave to a mortgage or a big rent. A typical narrowboat would cost between £25,000 and £40,000 – compared to a deposit on a house that's pretty amazing. Boat life also makes you appreciate things a lot more. You have to generate your own electricity through the engine, you have a certain amount of water in your tank and it runs out pretty quickly. Also, it's a physical way of life – you have to carry everything on to the boat, and move every two weeks. The way that you learn is through something breaking and you have to fix it.

Personally, I'm not going to the Olympics but I think it's a good thing for Britain. I feel a bit sad that a lot of people in the area won't be benefiting as much as had been billed, but that's the nature of an event like that. It's how the world is.f

'Our book boat is very un-urban'

Paddy Screech and Jon Privett, booksellers

Paddy: To sell books [the pair co-run Word On The Water – The London Book Barge] you've got to draw an awful lot of attention to yourselves. We're one of the most attention-seeking bookshops going. But still we've been astonished by the reaction. We get this constant positive feedback about the boat. We think it's because it's very un-urban, and there's something about authenticity and old things that people are a bit hungrier for these days. Being in a bookshop gives people permission to talk to each other. There's people who chat all day – and yet wouldn't make eye contact if they were 50 yards away, up on the road. It's like hiding in the little free bit left in London. Maybe that's all going to change.

There's been a real renaissance just in the last year of trading on boats. There's a sandwich boat, a vintage clothes boat, the circus boat. Maybe it's being driven by the recession, people realising that their boat is an asset that can be taken advantage of. These attempts to create entrepreneurship are all things that the Government is supposedly a core supporter of… But every time you do try to do it, bam! You come up against a reason why you can't.

Jon: I've lived on the canal 10 years now. Meg [pictured with Jon] is with me on school holidays and some weekends. She's a water baby. I'm confident she won't fall off the roof. It's very good for a child to learn about the real world.

I think there's a potential threat from the Olympics to a fair few of our friends who've had to either pay or leave. But part of setting up this business was refusing to let things have a negative impact on us, whether that's the decline in book sales or over-regulation of the canal. We've got a licence to trade within the zone which we'll pay for every week. There's going to be a floating market all the way along the Hertford Union Canal. The Olympics is a fantastic opportunity for businesses. If you want to live an alternative lifestyle, but still want your kid to go to school, to earn money, be comfortable, you have to find ways to turn disadvantages into advantages – otherwise you'll get pushed out.