Boats and houses share a river outlook

A new development along the Thames is combining the interests of houseboat owners and landlubbers. By Penny Jackson
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The Independent Online
In the tiny bathroom, the head of a swan suddenly popsthrough the window, perfectly encircled by the port hole. Some bread is pushed its way, and then back to the sink.

Life in the Taylors' houseboat on the Thames is far from ordinary, yet it is one they would not swap for solid ground.

As housing developments have sprung up along the river, those who live on the Thames have felt themselves to be increasingly vulnerable. There are no laws protecting the rights of houseboat owners and some developers take a dim view of the hotchpotch of river craft moored in front of their upmarket homes. Yet the Taylors' experience shows that there can be a meeting of minds.

Five weeks ago they moved their converted coal barge on to spanking new moorings provided by a developer. Until the regeneration of the Chiswick site at Corney Reach, their boat was moored alongside an industrial wasteland. Now, instead of looking on to a derelict warehouse and open land, they have a view of three, quite different, developments.

"We miss all that space, though. We used to have wonderful bonfire parties there," laughs Alison Taylor. "But we were prepared for the changes, and Hounslow, who owned part of the land, involved us from the beginning."

Indeed, it is the enlightened approach taken by the local authority that has enabled the seven resident boats to remain at Corney Reach. When Hounslow council sold its site to Ideal Homes, now part of Persimmon, it insisted that they provide a community building, a public pier, moorings and access to the foreshore. A trust - the Corney Reach Development Trust - was set up to manage the facilities needed by the houseboat owners.

Alison Taylor believes this should be a model for all Thames developments. "We want to encourage a real mixture here, so that people can take trips on the river, use their own boats, explore the foreshore. It is not enough just to construct a river walkway." Mrs Taylor, who is education officer of the Thames Explorer Trust, runs study groups from the community building, and there can be few people who know the Thames as well.

Seventeen years ago she and her husband Mike, a BBC film editor, bought an old Humber barge and set about making it their home. They are still expanding into new areas of the boat. The wheelhouse has just become a dining room; part of the engine room is earmarked as a bedroom for their daughter, Lisa. Their son, David, swings on to a shallow platform bed that was once a refuge from the chaos below.

"We did everything ourselves and the first few years were very difficult. I can remember going into labour and having to crawl around under plastic sheeting because Mike was fixing the roof," says Alison.

"It wasn't always easy having small children on a boat. We had to have very strict safety rules. And there were times when I would have loved to have had a door and a garden, instead of a hatch." But the early years of discomfort are long gone. "It can get too warm now. Its like living in a steel box, lined and panelled. I'm always throwing open the portholes," she replies to the predictable question, "but isn't it cold in winter?"

What has not changed over the years is the Taylors' affection for the river, which is why they want to see a revival of the life on it, not just beside it. Developers hold the key, but the impetus needs to come from the planners and local authorities, Mrs Taylor believes. It cost Persimmon pounds 250,000 to put in the facilities needed by the wider community. Certainly there is nothing of John Gummer's "executive ghetto" about the place. An open view of the Thames cuts through the heart of the buildings.

It is a difficult balance to achieve. There will always be those who wish to live behind security gates. But the principle of public access to the Thames has meant miles of new walkways, from the Docklands to the upper reaches of the Thames. At Battersea, Berkeley Homes' Riverside Plaza hopes to attract non-residents with a health club, restaurant, wine bar and offices on the development. And as for life on the water, Paul Vallone, sales and marketing manager, thinks people who buy along the Thames want the river to be more than just a sterile backdrop. "Not oil tankers all day, perhaps, but they don't mind a few tatty barges."

Further up the Thames, at Delta's Richmond Bridge development on the ice rink site, pounds 13m-worth of property has been sold since the latest phase of homes was launched a week ago.

But however magnificent a development, a flat with a view is not the same as a bathroom with a porthole. "The sun bounces off the river, and with the steam rising you get this ethereal light effect," says Alison Taylor. And the swans? "We had to put up with one that would suddenly poke its head through the porthole and hiss at you."

Richmond Bridge sales centre 0181-744 0113; Persimmon Homes, Corney Reach - Allen Briegel 0181-742 7477; Berkeley Homes, Riverside Plaza 0171- 801 0549