Living on a boat requires hardiness, tolerance and above all architectu ral ingenuity. Adapting a vessel's cramped interior for use as a home is a challenge, but can be done with style. Lesley Gillilan talks to owners who have kept their heads above water
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The Independent Online
"One of the great things about living on a canal boat is that you feel in touch with nature," says Sarah Udo-Affia, as she hops aboard her home, the Harlequin. "The waterways are incredibly peaceful and you are always aware of the weather, the changing seasons and the wildlife."

Her 65ft vessel is part of small community of traditional narrowboats moored on a rural section of the Kennet and Avon canal, a few hundred yards from Bathampton Weir in Avon. Sitting low in the swirling green water, the string of boats is set against a backdrop of open fields. When I visited Sarah, one of her neighbours was out on deck enjoying the sunshine while slapping a new coat of red paint on his cabin doors. The peace was temporarily shattered by a passing cruiser crammed with noisy school children, but the only other traffic I saw was a few lone cyclists on the towpath and a family of canal-dwelling ducks - despite the fact that this is the M4 of British waterways, linking London to the West Country.

Bath is only few miles away and, according to Sarah, she could be in London in just over a week. "Cities take on completely different dimension when you see them from the backwaters," she says. "Part of the magic of living on the water is that you do feel removed from dry-land life. You are part of a moving neighbourhood and even if you never go anywhere, it's a form of escapism."

Sarah and her husband Paul Redman decided on a floating home after qualifying as architects eight years ago. They saw it as way of living in the country on a low budget while working on "land-based" jobs. Designing the narrowboat's spatially-challenged interior provided an opportunity to flex their creative muscles. The steel hull was custom-made to order in a boatyard in Evesham, Gloucester, but the couple put in the floors, built the part-glazed superstructure and designed all the internal joinery, constructed from sheets of oak, douglas fir, parana pine and birch ply, riveted with copper nails. "We tried to retain the feel of an old canal boat, but at the same time bring the concept into the 20th century," says Sarah. The line of the blue-painted vessel is classic narrowboat, but inside it is a well-lit capsule of modern efficiency, ingeniously designed to minimise energy and maximise storage space.

Essentially open-plan, the Harlequin's accommodation is divided into compartments by a series of folding partitions which also double as bookcases, shelves and banks of drawers. To capitalise on a single heat source - a woodburning stove - none of the internal fittings hits the floor or the ceiling so that warmed air moves freely throughout the space.

The fitted galley kitchen is equipped with a fridge and calor-gas cooker. The double bed can be converted into two singles, and a panel of curved wood swivels out to reveal a circular, stainless steel shower-cum-bath and the inevitable chemical toilet. Being close to nature also means carrying the Elsan off the boat and tipping the contents into the nearest drain.

Aside from lack of elbow room, this is one of the inconveniences that makes boat-life difficult for a growing family. After the birth of their second child two years ago, Sarah and Paul bought a conventional house. They have now put the Harlequin up for sale (see "Empty Vessels" panel overleaf for details). "It is possible to live here with two kids," says Sarah, "but we were both trying to work from home and there just wasn't enough space for the four of us and stacks of planning drawings."

For similar reasons, veteran boaters Mark Ashton and Nicky Spencer are selling their converted Dutch barge - but their floating home is the antithesis of the Harlequin. At 137ft, the Ebenhaezer is one of the largest of the 60 or so residential boats moored in Bristol's Floating Harbour. The vessel has three cabins, a proper bathroom (with a Saniflow toilet), kitchen, living room and office. The views are of converted Victorian tea and grain warehouses and the location is conspicuously urban.

City centre traffic rumbles across two road bridges, one at each end of Welsh Back wharf, and the dockland waterways are crowded with water buses, sand-dredgers and pleasure cruisers - some of them loaded with sightseers. Here, the houseboat community is one of the local tourist attractions.

Bristol's boat dwellers, says Mark, soon get used to people peering into their porthole windows and pointing at their tiny potted gardens, their deck-top washing lines or their ships' cats. But it's a small price to pay for a waterfront home roughly the size of a detached house but cheaper to run and, according to Mark Ashton, warmer, a lot dryer and a lot more fun.

In the last ten years, Mark and Nicky have lived in two of the converted Dutch barges moored on Bristol's Welsh Back wharf. Their first was the 85-foot Beachley - a broad-beamed 1920s river barge which once earned a living carrying cargos of gypsum between Bristol and Gloucester docks. She was little more than a hunk of rusted metal, when they rescued her from a Sharpness scrapyard and transformed her into a floating dwelling.

They sold her to buy the Ebenhaezer. Another Dutch river barge, circa 1926, this one was only recently retired and in relatively good condition when the couple bought the vessel in Amsterdam, transported her to Bristol and remodelled it to provide both a home and a large workshop where they run a business restoring antique brass and iron beds.

Their son, nearly five years old, has outgrown the space and their business has outgrown the workshop. The boat is currently on the market at pounds 90,000 and the "property" includes oil-fired central heating, a wood-burning stove in the saloon (lined with pitch pine panelling), a fitted kitchen with Belfast sink, a deck sitting area, workshop, office, lifebuoy, bilge pump and a Stork three-cylinder, 160hp diesel engine with manual gearbox.

Virginia Currer, the marine agent who is currently marketing Ebenhaezer, says that the sale of a houseboat or a residential vessel always attracts hordes of starry-eyed dreamers hooked on the idea of an itinerant life on the water. "Typically, someone will call me and say they happened to cross a canal bridge, glimpsed a community of barge-dwellers having a barbecue on deck and decided in an instant that they want to change their lives," she says."They fall in love with the concept of upping sticks and floating away, but in reality only a tiny percentage of boaters actually go cruising. They might have the idea at the back of their minds, but then they realise they've a freezer full of frozen food and they can't cut away from their mainland electricity supply without losing the lot."

Narrowboat owners may occasionally take their homes to the local riverside pub but the Ebenhaezer is simply too large and unwieldy for sailing anywhere. Houseboats - the ones that look like mobile homes sitting on a raft - rarely have engines. The British Waterways Board discourages nomadic boat life, anyway, by enforcing strict regulations.

When faced with a dreamy client, Virginia tries to instill pragmatism by pointing out the downsides of boat life. "Your living space is limited, so you have to be tidy and organised by nature," she says. "Mains electricity supplies might go with the moorings but you usually have to carry your water and gas on board and deal with your own rubbish and sewage. You can have a telephone but you rarely get a garden or a parking space and boats are not the safest places for young children."

People do get disillusioned, she adds, and there is a high turnover of vessels. Houseboat sales and values, she says, tend to follow the same trends - the same peaks and troughs - as the conventional housing market. Narrowboats and other residential craft are less vulnerable to depreciation, but financing the purchase of any vessel can be tricky and expensive. "Lenders have tightened up considerably in recent years, and unless you've got ready capital, buying a boat is not nearly as it easy as it was before the recession."

According to Margate-based marine finance and insurance brokers, Collidge and Partners, boat buyers can borrow up to 80 per cent of the vessel's purchase price, subject to status and an "out of water" valuation undertaken by a qualified marine surveyor to boat safety standards. Loans are set at a fixed interest rate (from around 11 per cent) and payments are usually spread over 10-15 years.

"To qualify for a loan, your boat must have a permanent or residential mooring agreement on a river, a canal or an estuary," says Chris Collidge. "Drifters, nomads and sea coasters need not apply." Moorings vary in price from around pounds 1,500 or pounds 4,000 a year and are normally renewable on an annual basis. Northern waterways tend to be cheaper than those in the south, but even if you can afford the Thames (the most expensive) there is a long waiting list for London sites.

You can qualify for tax relief on loans for residential use, but all lived-in boats have to be licensed at a cost of around pounds 550 a year. The insurance on a pounds 30,000 craft would cost about pounds 160 a year. Another point worth bearing in mind is that boaters still have to pay local Council Tax. Ah well, there are obviously some things you cannot escape - but there are hundreds of permanent boaters on our waterways who seem to think that the lifestyle and the watery views are well worth paying for.