For the last eight weeks I’ve woken to the sounds of waterbirds: the foghorn quack of ducks, the cry of seagulls and the strange, sharp bark of coots. If I’m lucky, the wind is blowing and the barge sways along with it. If it’s raining, the sound on the roof makes our tiny bedroom feel like a tent. We were warned many times that living on a barge in London in autumn would be cold, but we’ve been cosy; it takes no time at all for the heater to warm such a small space. Ah, so we must be cramped? Well, no. The main living area is big enough to walk around in freely, room for a couch, chairs, even a table for study, along with the kitchen and a small bathroom.
But the best thing about the barge is the water. When I look out the kitchen window it’s just a few feet below eye level, water in all its moods, from sleek, stretched-out corrugations to tiny, Impressionist-painting-style ripples, to choppy waves. We’re moored in the Limehouse Basin with two locks between us and the river, so it’s never really rough, though fifty metres away the Thames’ tides are swift and the waves splash high against the walls. The water drops and rises by at least six metres, low tide exposing muddy beaches, and high tide swamping stairways almost at street level. I’ve read that in times past, when London Bridge was the only bridge across the river, and small boats were used as ferries, people were drowned when the rush of an incoming tide overturned their boat.
On our marina, the ducks and coots have worked out that our barge is the best source of food, and one or two pushy coots swim around at first light, calling to us to get a move on with the bread. As soon as we open the front hatch, they rush in from all sides, some of the coots half-flying and running on the water to get to us first. There’s no love lost between them when it comes to food, and the fights can get quite nasty. My favourites are small brown ducks, smaller than mallards, some with patches of white, some with a kind of brush-back, punk style on their head; they’re small and neat and self-contained. The brick walls of the marina are green above water level, slick with moss and the occasional plant with its roots in a crack, and the ducks often cruise the edges, pecking at them for food. We’ve also had visits from Canada geese and swans that sail in like grand, dignified boats, though they still rush at the bread the same as the ducks. One or two have put their heads over the side of the barge hunting for more and looking like they might just jump up and join us.
When the bad boys arrive, everyone else leaves. The cormorants aren’t interested in our bread, but they arrive like a silent pack of bovver boys, swimming low in the water, heads pivoting on their snaky necks. I don’t know if they’re aggressive to other birds, but they always have the water to themselves. Sometimes one will swim away and we wonder if perhaps he is helping to round up the fish, because a minute later they begin to dive, sleek and smooth, surfacing often with pale-coloured fish in their beaks. One gulp and they’re gone. Time and again they dive and eat, all in silence. Later we might see them on a pontoon, wings stretched out to dry in the sun, or perched, vulture-like, on the very top point of a nearby building.
And occasionally a pale grey heron will come to the lock and stand in the small waterfall where water has forced its way through the ageing seals on the metal. I’ve watched one to see why it might be there, but it simply stays, perched on one leg, completely still except for slowly turning its head to stare at me. Meditating, perhaps.
Our marina, Limehouse Marina, was once a crowded dock, and it is said that in the nineteenth century you could walk from one side to the other by stepping from barge to barge. A short way down the river are the East India Docks, now renovated for expensive apartments and restaurants, and a series of enormous, glitzy towers of finance offices. The old and grotty has become fashionable and expensive (small one or two bedroom apartments sell for a million pounds). Despite all this, the developments have kept some of the most interesting aspects of the wharfs: massive wooden internal pillars and beams, old brickwork and cobbles, and the pulleys and cranes that once hauled tobacco, food and textiles onto the upper floors of warehouses.
We’re surrounded by boats and barges of all kinds. The barges are the downmarket, playful, easy-to-get-on-with sort of boats, some of them tiny, with only one room, some long and narrow and some are wide like ours. They’re all moored at pontoons on the marina with access to water and power, but further up the Regent’s Canal the narrowboats have tied up along the canalside; these are the more hippy-type, subsistence barges with generators, wood heaters, pots of veggies growing on top, and usually bikes. Most of the barges are decorated in colours: red, blue, green, and white; ours is green and blue. I love checking out the names that really seem to suit the style of boat. Our barge is ‘Willpower’ and others are called ‘Zwerver’, ‘The Green Flash’, ‘Sir Galahad’, ‘Ebenhezer’, ‘Mia Bella Rosa’, and my favourite, ‘Probably’. Sadly, ‘Peggy’ has been neglected and is slowly turning a miserable, weather-beaten brown, rotting away at her mooring. Our neighbour, though, is ready to confront the winter gloom, gradually sealing, sanding and painting his barge: bright green, red, black and white. Near us are some big, up-market white and chrome cruising boats with names like ‘Aztec Voyager’, ‘Lady Syrius’, ‘Odilesque’, ‘The Bee’s Knees’ and ‘Bligh’s Spirit’.
Only a few of the boats have full-time residents, and those who do live on the marina seem to enjoy a quiet life, just a nod and a greeting when we pass on the pontoon. Every morning a woman in the cruiser opposite us opens her hatch, looks out at the day and smokes a cigarette; she smiles when we emerge to feed the ducks. But there are pets apart from the waterbirds: we’ve seen german shepherds, border collies and cats that seem to have adapted happily to life on the water, with an occasional half-hearted lunge at sleeping ducks.
The really interesting boats are the sloops, some apparently quite old, that look very serious about the business of sailing, loaded with huge masts and sails, miles of rigging, coils of rope and other salt-worn objects that I know nothing about.
At night, after surviving the rush and press of the underground, the screech of metal wheels on metal tracks, and then the peak hour traffic of the local main road, we turn into the marina and gradually the sounds fade away. The tall apartment buildings nearby help to shield us from noise, but it’s mostly the water that seems to muffle and still everything. The reflected buildings ripple and distort in the water, their lights bounce off the waves. The barge sways a little, we pour a glass of red and begin chopping veggies. The ducks have their heads tucked under their wings.