For years they have provided accommodation for the romantic, the retired and the mildly eccentric. But as property prices continue to soar, making a home on board one of Britain's expanding fleet of narrowboats is rapidly becoming a mainstream housing option for first-time buyers from the Norfolk Broads to the river Thames.
Up to 12,000 people are now estimated to live on boats across the country, while boat ownership grew by 2.5 per cent in the past year alone.
The arrival of a new generation of boat-dwellers has been noted by Beryl McDowall, chairwoman of the Residential Boat Owners Association, who has lived on a narrowboat, moored on Leicestershire's river Soar, since the 1960s.
"There are more young people living on the river these days, along with retired couples, divorcees, a whole range," she said. "House prices are playing a role in people moving to the river.
"Generally speaking, people are very friendly. I like the freedom; if you don't like a place then you can up and move. You can travel into the heart of the city, or into the countryside, and take your home with you."
According to Ms McDowall, if estuaries, broads, rivers and coastal areas are included, at least 12,000 people permanently live on boats. Many are "continuous cruisers" who sail up and down rivers and canals without a permanent residential berth.
The multimillionaire and founder of Yo! Sushi, Simon Woodroffe, lives on a houseboat in Chelsea and believes he has discovered "the last undeveloped piece of London". A house in the area would have cost him around £6.5m; Mr Woodroffe saved £6m by living on a narrowboat. The artist Damien Hirst, adventurer Bear Grylls and Bob Geldof's girlfriend Jeanne Marine are all neighbours.
More than 300 people are on a waiting list for residential moorings in London, with many expecting to wait more than three years, according to British Waterways. Sixty-foot narrowboats cost anything from £30,000 to £120,000, depending on the level of luxury. There are also licenses, moorings and insurance costs, and council tax to pay on a residential mooring.
By comparison, the average house price in the UK is £190,883, according to figures released this week by the Department for Communities and Local Government. In London, the average house price for a first-time buyer was £222,005, compared with £68,235 in 1995, according to Halifax bank.
Visit London provides information about London's waterways on its website www.visitlondon.com/rivers. Ken Kelling, communications director of Visit London, said that it is not just cost that causes people to turn to the waterways, but a yearning for freedom.
"Living on the water offers a total lifestyle change," he said. "It appeals to people who enjoy having the city on their doorstep while also having the freedom to cast off and explore the beautiful tranquil rivers and waterways that London has to offer."
Jan Wansell, 57, has lived on a 70-foot narrowboat for the past three years. She moors in St Katharine's Dock in east London in the winter, and in the Oxford countryside in summer.
"This is a viable way to live by water in London in a sought-after location. It is very nice to be close to nature and there is something liberating about being able to move around," she said.
British Waterways estimates that more than 11,000 new berths are needed over the next 10 years to meet the rising demand.
Tom Bromley, 33, an author and publisher from Salisbury, spent a summer living on a barge in Northolt, on the outskirts of London. He said that while the morning mist rising over the canal was romantic, living on a narrowboat has its downsides. "I couldn't even stand up fully in the barge. I am 6ft 4in, but even someone of 6ft would have struggled. It was cramped, and felt like camping - fun for the summer, but it would have been damp and cold in the winter."
Kate Simants, 27: 'You must be ruthless with space'
After struggling to buy a flat in south London, Kate, a television journalist, bought a 40-foot narrowboat for £32,000 with her partner, Tom, 31, and now they wouldn't swap it for anything.
She said: "Tom and I live on a little barge in Brentford (the wrong side of the river from Kew), where there are quite a few boat-dwellers. We live pretty simply, but the money we save we spend on things like our beloved projector and five-foot screen. We have a lot of books, but you have to be ruthless and throw things out because of the size of the boat."
The couple spend £200 a month on mooring fees.
"Up the road is MSO Marine, which provides maintenance and surveying for many of west London's boats. We have a changing but generally cohesive little communityaround here. My neighbour recently moved to a bigger boat so she could have her first son." Kate said she appreciates living so close to wildlife. "We've got herons, kingfishers and a rare breed of two-lipped snail, which apparently is playing a part in preventing development of this area, being a protected species."
Barney Richardson, 42: 'It's hard work, but people are friendly'
A pair of narrowboats that were built in Woolwich in 1935 for carrying coal are Barney's home, and his business. He has continued to run the Candlebridge Carrying Company, while living with his wife, Jane, 27, and Mary Rose, his 20-month-old daughter. He anticipates that they will return to land-living when Mary Rose is old enough for school.
"We bought the boats two years ago - I was a farmer until then and Jane was a teacher. It has been very hard work, carrying heavy bags of coal in all weather. But we are going to get a bathroom on the boat this year." He adds: "We carry 11 varieties of bagged coal and bottled gas, and supply customers on boats and in houses along the Grand Union Canal, from Hackney to Southall and as far as Hemel Hempstead.
"It is a different pace of life, with a tremendous community ... People are very friendly."Reuse content