Can't find the home of your dreams on dry land? Why not nip over to Holland and bring back a barge? Lia Hattersley did just that

Lia Hattersley
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:36

Years ago we'd seen the barges of Paris, moored along the Seine in the heart of the city. From the riverbank they seemed an intriguing private world, surrounded by nature. Having just finished our architecture degrees, my partner Clive Lewis and I knew that our next few years would be spent working in London. Anxious to find a way of living which would allow us to maintain the creativity and adventure of student days, we became inspired by the potential offered by living on a boat.

Over the next three years, we worked maniacally, saved our money and began to search. Our dreams were dampened when we discovered that mortgages for buying houseboats do not exist, and thatinterest rates on loans for buying them are typically 12 per cent. In addition, we faced paying a premium if we wanted to buy a boat with a mooring in London.

We cycled every inch of the Thames towpath and the Regent's Canal searching for our boat but never found her. There weren't many for sale, and those we saw were either too small, had no engine or no mooring, or were simply too expensive.

What we did find though, was a richly diverse community of boat dwellers scattered along London's waterways, always ready to give advice. We also started to get a sense of the boats we most admired - old steel ships with plenty of historic charm and huge empty holds ripe to be fitted out with our design ideas. What we wanted was a Dutch barge, but in this country? They start at around pounds 60,000, double our budget.

Our hopes were turning to despair. We dithered over the price of one barge and another buyer snapped her up. But our fortunes changed when that boat was moved from London and we were offered her mooring. Suddenly, the way ahead was clear: Dutch barges come from Holland, and we would find ours there. That weekend, bolstered by the strong pound and armed with a list of Dutch barge-brokers, we set off for the Netherlands. Many agents and kilometres of canal later we were tramping through the overgrown houseboat gardens of suburban Amsterdam, following a chap (who dealt in floating mobile homes) we had met through a chance encounter in a barge museum. Clive and I shared an unspoken dread - had he really understood that we wanted a boat that could actually cross the Channel? But as a traditional, rump-shaped stern appeared through the reeds our hopes rose. What lay before us was a 23m (75ft) 100-year-old ex-sailing Klipp-eraak barge, now powered by a 110 horsepower engine. Even if conversion into a houseboat had destroyed some of her authenticity, there was still clear evidence of her glorious hauling days under sail. Being a klipper, she had a great fluted bow, which to us, in our naivety, gave her the appearance of an ocean-going ship. What really caught our attention though was her beautiful timber floors and huge, porthole-lined saloon.

Most amazingly, the boat was within our price range. We had a deposit down by Monday and proceeded to investigate where we might find a marine surveyor and then skippers to help bring her back. Since the Seventies, a steady tradition has grown of bringing ex-commercial Dutch barges to England; there are even a couple of societies devoted to the peculiarities of using them as homes. Upon the advice of these enthusiasts we scraped together about pounds 2,000 to bring the ship home. We then returned to Holland to see her dry-docked and surveyed.

"What do you think?" I asked the Dutch surveyor as he completed his ultrasonic testing of her steel hull. "She's nearly 100 years old, what do you expect?" he replied. "But she will last another 100." With a satisfactory survey in hand, we could take out marine insurance and the sale went ahead.

Within five weeks of our first sighting the ship, Clive took an overnight coach to Amsterdam, picked up the keys and the deed of transfer from a solicitor, and headed for the boatyard where our new acquisition lay. As the yard had closed for summer, she had been left anchored to the canal side. His first night alone in the boat was spooky. He arrived to find her totally unlike the cosy family home we'd remembered, now that she was completely empty - no fridge, no mattresses and (suddenly) no working lights. We'd heard the engine turn over before - why wouldn't it now? And then he began to learn about fuse boxes and cables and the lateral thinking required to trace a long- gone occupant's illogical wiring system.

The journey home took six days in all. The first step was to make our way down through Holland and Belgium to the coastal town of Nieuwpoort, with the help of Roel, an inland skipper who was once a cargo boatman.

At Gouda on day two of the voyage, I proudly boarded my new ship to join Clive and Roel. As we entered the first lock, I felt intimidated by the sequence of rope-tying and wheel-turning which they seemed to have off to a tee - how could I be useful? But as Clive attempted to tie a "spring" from the bow to stop us hitting the lock gate, Roel said under his breath to me, "I put the boat in reverse a little - I don't trust Clive yet - don't tell him!" Judging by the number of times he nudged us from the wheel, he must have thought that several times throughout the next few days. But Roel was a patient teacher - we learnt to change filters, pack the propeller gland, read meanings from the beacons which line the waterways and develop some semblance of control over the manoeuvres of the ship. In return, we tried to buy him enough beers to make up for the lack of running water, cooking facilities and comfortable beds during the passage.

Day three found us searching the airwaves for a weather forecast - for which we had to rely on Roel's translation. His lack of concern as we left the canal system and passed into southern Holland's network of semi- inland seas suggested that the outlook was good. But soon the skies darkened, the wind picked up and the ship started to pitch upon the waves of the Westerschelde. Our klipper is a flat-bottomed vessel and insured only for passages that start in wind conditions less than Force 4. With this in mind, I felt panic rather than seasickness as dark grey waves started to crash over the roof and we found ourselves clinging to the steering column to stay up on deck.

"If it gets much worse, shouldn't we go inland?" I asked, but Roel replied, "It's an hour until the next harbour. We must go on - the ship will be smashed to pieces on these shores."

We heard crashes from inside as teacups fell and drawers opened and shut. My heart beat fast with horror as I went in to investigate and was confronted by a snaking river running along the saloon floor - where was the water coming from? Below, perhaps? The ship creaked and groaned against the crashing waves, and the toilet and shower gurgled and spat seawater as each swell hit. Mastering my fear, I found that the seacocks to the bathroom could be closed and I sourced the river back to the poorly shut portholes. And if she groaned and rocked - well, she was an old ship.

Having survived the storm, our confidence grew. By the time we chugged into Belgium on day four I was lost in the romance of the ship's history as set down in her logbook, last used in 1961. Here were records of when she'd passed this way before, laden with grain or oil, her hull dragging below the water. When a Belgium official at the first sluicegate inspected the logbook, he kindly let us pass as an empty commercial cargo vessel for the rate of 50p rather than the tourist rate of pounds 30.

At Bruges we were hailed down by an Englishman from his stationary houseboat, who needed a 32mm wrench. He told us he'd had nothing but trouble from his new boat's engine, and like us he was hoping to cross the Channel; we wished him luck, superstitiously patting our own ship.

By dusk, we could make out the glowing cabin lights of the cargo ships and fibreglass cruisers which huddled along the bank of the last lock before the seaport. We lashed up our ship for her last night on the Continent and went out to celebrate.

Next day started with the 6am arrival of my dad, whose radio experience gained him right of passage. He was closely followed by our sea skipper and his engineer. Their arrival stretched our crockery (and culinary supplies) beyond their limits - it was time to stock up. As we loaded up picnic food and ballasted down our hold with cheap Belgian beers, our skipper installed VHF radio and a Magellan Global Positioning System to navigate with, and tested the ship's engine and lights for her first voyage on the open seas. Having learnt from the shipping forecast that we had a window of fine weather, everyone set to, preparing the ship in a rush of enthusiasm to arrive in London before the storms returned. Meanwhile I reflected that in this burst of activity, the fragile intimacy between us and our ship was temporarily swept away.

At dusk, just before we set off, our skipper discovered the alternator was not charging the battery. As we couldn't risk running the battery down by using the navigation lights all night, we would all have to wait until early morning and set out then. We arose for a 3am departure, only to find our ship would not start. I felt nervous; we needed 24 hours for the crossing and the bad weather was just a day away. But our skipper managed to hot-wire the starter and we were away.

Dawn broke as the first navigational light buoy loomed ahead and we adjusted our course. Hours rolled past, and the sun broke out over the empty horizons of a thankfully calm sea. We studied our skipper's charts and learnt that we were crossing the shipping lanes and nearing the Second World War sea forts. We spied England, and then the Isle of Grain. That picture - the grain tower boldly set on the mudflats - lay before us for hours, as the receding tide kept us struggling to make our way up the Thames Estuary. By night we slid past the illuminated sites of London; the Thames Barrier, the Millennium Dome, Tower Bridge and Battersea Power Station. Our ship eventually arrived at her new home. Gradually, she settled down into the muddy waters of her mooring, as dawn marked the start of our new life on the tides.

During our first month of living aboard, we enjoyed the long-awaited start of summer and a steady stream of visits from curious friends. Sitting on the back deck enjoying good company, some drinks and the swell of the tide, we found the stress of London melting away. When architect friends visited we shared ideas, sometimes for a wheelhouse built from a geodesic dome, then for a sleeping mezzanine up at deck level.

As winter creeps in, we are preoccupied with changing the two-point plugs and fitting a diesel boiler. Our sewage system has to be connected to the pontoon and we need water storage tanks as our mains hose will probably freeze. The list of impending jobs goes on, but we love this new life: the brilliant evening cruises up the river, the friendliness of our neighbours on the mooring, the sense of escape we have living out on the river all leave me with no doubts. It is everything we had hoped for when we first saw the barges on the Seine. !

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