Tired of London’s extortionate rents in overcrowded house-shares, Danie Couchman decided to buy a narrowboat. What happened next was enough to inspire a memoir, she tells Jessica Jonzen
DANIE COUCHMAN AND HER COCKAPOO, MANGO, MOORING UP
In 2013, Danie Couchman was living like many twenty-something Londoners: in a house-share with three strangers and a sofa-crasher. It was her sixth home in the capital in four years and her small bedroom in Hackney with its broken bed, old used mattress and little wardrobe cost her about £900 a month after bills – with the constant fear of eviction into the bargain. “It’s the norm to be given notice, but having to move house is so stressful and disruptive,” says Danie. “It affects so many. It makes me sad that London has become unaffordable for most people.”
Having grown up as an army child until the age of eight, Danie had a peripatetic upbringing. Now a successful voice-over artist, Danie had gone to London in 2009 for the promise of work. Her days were spent weaving beneath the city in cramped Tube carriages, travelling from studio to studio recording commercials, promos and TV continuity announcements. Nights were spent in pubs and at parties, on an endless, suffocating quest for fun. But when she climbed into her bed at night, Danie would notice “the quiet discontentment crawling beneath my skin.” She needed a change, but she didn’t know what.
That change turned out to be a life on the water. A chance decision to walk home from work one May evening led her to Regent’s Canal where she discovered a bucolic, furtive world far away from the concrete and neon of the London she knew. Despite the diesel-filled water and chaos of the towpath, she saw a community of people living on boats who were connected to nature and to each other, and was seduced. Danie knew nothing about canals or canal life, but by the time she got home that evening, she’d impulsively made up her mind to live on a boat.
DANIE GREW FLOWERS AND VEGETABLES ON THE ROOF OF HER BOAT
Danie has written Afloat, a luminous and moving memoir about her nomadic childhood, which prepared her for the shifting life she would live on the water, and the six years she spent as a ‘boater.’ First, on Genesis, a 45-foot narrowboat where she lived off-grid and had to move every 14 days, then on Ironclad, a barge with its own mooring.
Her first two weeks on Genesis in Victoria Park in East London showed her that life would change quickly. There was no fridge or washing machine and her only source of electricity was a 12v adapter powered by a solar panel. Pubs and parties were quickly swapped for impromptu picnic suppers with other boaters, eager to use up the food which they couldn’t keep fresh. Hours were spent cycling washing to the local launderettes.
It’s not easy living on a boat but it gives you a purpose and a great sense of satisfaction.”
And then there’s the long list of jobs that living on a boat necessitates. Firstly, you have to master the fire, then there’s the refilling of the water tank and the emptying of the loo. Not to mention blacking the bottom of the boat to keep it afloat and sanding down any spots of rust. And that’s before you think about actually moving the boat and mastering the locks without running out of fuel. “It’s not easy living on a boat but it gives you a purpose and a great sense of satisfaction. I felt quite euphoric after filling the water tank.”
While Genesis provided Danie with a place to call her own, boat life isn’t for the fainthearted. “Lots of people move on and then very quickly move off. The boat didn’t always feel like a place of safety and comfort because sometimes it was really cold, and scary and awful,” says Danie. “But for me, the joys outweighed the hardships.”
While the boat demanded hard work and steely determination, it also opened up a new world to Danie. With her cockapoo, Mango, Danie would explore secret pockets of green in the city and spend the summers on the River Stort in Essex and on the River Lea in Hertfordshire with “its fishing lakes filled with lily pads and dragonflies, with cows and horses and muntjac deer. It was like a dream.”
DANIE HAD TO BE COMPLETELY SELF-RELIANT AND QUICKLY ADAPT TO HER NEW LIFE ON THE WATER
Danie continued to work in central London and found herself living two parallel lives. “The only time I would go on land was to go to work and that always felt like a bit of an adjustment. I’d be in the country in the summer not wearing shoes and swimming in the river, and then get on the train and be in Soho where everyone looks really smart and slick. I’d have to recalibrate and realise I needed to look a bit more presentable. It was two different worlds,” she says.
Every day, something was different for Danie, either on the boat or at work. “I had no set days and my diary always changed so it did become exhausting. But on the flip side, something really lovely would happen and it would all seem worth it. You’d have an awful day where everything was breaking and exploding and you’d think ‘why on earth am I doing this? I can’t cope!’ Then you’d have a beautiful evening around a fire pit eating lovely food and having some really interesting conversations with people you’d have never met otherwise.”
I’d be in the country not wearing shoes and swimming in the river, and then get on the train and be in Soho. It was two different worlds.”
Afloat finishes as she moves on to her boyfriend Ed’s boat but her story doesn’t end there. After a year on Cambourne, they left life on the water behind them and have recently moved to a cottage in Devon.
What made her trade in life on the water for a home on land? “I was exhausted with constantly moving and felt the need to put down roots. The hardest year was the last year on Ed’s boat. It should have been the easiest as we were doing it together, I was experienced, I had a whole floating family to help me but the impermanence and vulnerability that came with being constantly on the move with no fixed abode, the increasingly busy waters and lack of privacy just became too much.”
THE COSY INTERIOR OF CAMBOURNE, DANIE’S PARTNER ED’S BOAT
Today, Danie is adjusting to her new life on land. “It feels so luxurious to be able to have a full bath. I hope I will always be able to appreciate that because at the moment it’s kind of unbelievable,” she says. She’s aware that friendships with land neighbours are more of a slow burn than on the water. “With boaters you think ‘we might only have tonight so let’s do something, but on land you know you’re not going anywhere so there’s no rush.”
Danie and Ed’s end terrace house, surrounded by fields with a stream running through the garden is slowly becoming a home. “We didn’t have any furniture when we first moved in but we’ve got some second-hand things now and have ripped up the old carpets.” They haven’t quite left boat life behind though. “We don’t have central heating – we have wood burners and have solar panels to heat up our water so it still feels quite ‘boaty’,” she says. “We’ve also stayed close the the water. The River Dart and the coast are nearby.”
After years afloat, how does Danie feel about being in one place? “I don’t ever want to move home ever again. My whole life has been nomadic so to be settled now is actually a need. But for some communities around the world who don’t have roots in one place, their home is a wider expansive space, or they’re rooted in their community. I think that for many travelling communities that right to be itinerant isn’t respected enough. But for me right now, I need to be settled and have a home that can’t sink or get swept away in a storm. I need to lay down some roots.”
We hope you enjoyed this article. You can share it with friends and followers by using the share buttons at the top of the page. Find more stories of life here.