The question of whether I would live afloat “forever” has come up quite regularly over the past 24 years. I very quickly came up with an answer, which I’ve repeated many times – “I’ll do it until something more interesting comes along.”

About 5 years ago, the answer changed. I said to people who asked, that I didn’t see myself living on Bream in another decade. It was the start of a thought process that has gone in and out of my mind ever since. I wasn’t actively looking, but I wasn’t actively ignoring either.

That thought came into my mind around the time that I’d achieved the last few big goals that I’d had since moving afloat in 1999, getting Bream to Huddersfield and subsequently to Hebden Bridge. Both were bucket list canal destinations for me. I’d lived in Huddersfield in the early 90s and Hebden Bridge has been a favourite haunt since those days.

It’s also true that living afloat as a continuous cruiser, as it is now called, is much harder now than it was a quarter of a century ago. The exponential growth in liveaboards has had many effects. From my point of view it means it is more difficult to get that spot you always loved, or where the car and boat can be next to each other so that things can be loaded or unload. There has also been a massive increase in selfish, antisocial or criminal behaviour. I can think of lots of places that I would have been happy to leave the boat even 10 years ago, that I wouldn’t contemplate now. Finally there is the increase in the number of places that houseowners will be rude and occasionally threatening when you contemplate mooring, or perish the thought, running an engine within earshot of their own personal duck pond. I almost always use a small (relatively quiet) generator for batter charging these days, if I’m not on the move, even though the alternator on my engine can do the job in half the time.

I have come close to leaving the water a couple of times. In 2007 I very nearly moved into the cottage at Deptmore Lock, south of Stafford. That project fell apart a matter of days before exchanging contracts because I’d not been able to get insurance. A culvert for the lock ran under the house and my solicitor discovered that the deeds of the property, sold by British Waterways in 1960, said that if this were to collapse the owners of the canal were not liable for any damage to the property. With improbable timing literally as I’m drafting this post, some 17 years later, a sinkhole has just appeared in said culvert! Thankfully for the people who did buy the property, CRT are fixing it at the moment.

It is a bit of a digression, but interesting to look back at the photos I took of this place in 2007, as it’s changed almost beyond recognition since then. At the time it was completely off-grid with no road access and no utilities. Lighting was a mixture of battery/generator powered lights and gas mantles (the only ones I’ve ever seen outside a museum.) Everything consumed in the house, including water, was brought in (and out again) using the small boat in the last picture below.

I’ve seen a number of properties renovated by friends and the idea of doing that certainly holds some appeal, though I don’t have the skills to do much of the work myself, even if I have been an extra pair of hands on many an occasion.

I did at one point look at this place in Bettisfield, on the Welsh side of the border near to Whitchurch, a short walk from the Llangollen Canal. As with the above property, the legal situation with this one was complicated, and I note that it was subsequently taken off the market and I believe is still standing empty.

Many readers will be aware that I’ve spent a fair bit of the last 15 years involved with a couple of canal restorations. I briefly explored whether it would be feasible to personally acquire the then-derelict cottage at Crumpwood on the Uttoxeter Canal, when I’d failed to convince the owners to lease it to our Canal Trust to use as a volunteer base.

Crumpwood Cottage before restoration
Crumpwood Cottage before restoration

Instead they decided to auction it, and the family who did buy it recently put it back on the market for an eye-watering amount, following a huge renovation.

I recently saw what in some ways would be my dream property up for sale, overlooking the Clyde estuary on the Isle of Bute, directly opposite a beautiful little harbour. However there are several reasons why living in that part of Scotland would not work for me at the moment, not least the need to earn a living to pay for the work that needed to be done to it after I’d cleaned out my nest egg! Helpfully it was taken off the market again, so no difficult decisions were needed. This video from the agents may work for a little while yet.

Then there were boats. In Bream, I can safely say that I have already lived on the most beautiful type of narrow boat going so any other boat would need to win me over in a different way. Broadly speaking that meant something with more space and that did not take up all my free time to look after it. I was also open to the idea of a fixed mooring if it helped achieve these objectives.

I’ve continuously cruised since 1999, but the fall I had whilst single-handing at Cape Locks in 2022 put me out of action for over 3 months, and to be honest freaked me out more than a bit. I am (in)famously independent, so the realisation that I was one unexpected event from not being able to sustain my current way of living was quite scary, as lovely as it was to know that people rallied around to support me when I needed it.

There are some lovely marinas about. as well as the one I used while recovering from my accident, I’ve used several of them as a stable for Bream when I’ve been out of the country, but they aren’t somewhere I’d want to live indefinitely. I did look closely at two locations where land could be acquired on the offside of a canal and a new mooring could be created for Bream, but they didn’t work out for various reasons.

The bigger boat idea has been a bit of a voyage of discovery. Last June I found myself looking at a former Leeds & Liverpool “Burscough boat” in West London. The boat felt somewhat unloved, having been empty for some time, and the DIY fit out wasn’t great. It also had the strangest gas bottle installation I’ve ever seen on any boat (see photo!) but more importantly there was no way to get in and out of the cabin it in bad weather without filling part of the boat with rainwater, snow, etc. That said, the feeling of space was lovely and I definitely bit on the concept.

A few months later, I looked at a former Humber Keel, moored on the Broads near to Beccles. Again, there were some really interesting ideas in a VERY non-traditional conversion and fit-out. I very much liked the glazed panels let into the roof in a couple of places, though they leaked like crazy, which was something to be aware of. Getting light into a barge is always more of a challenge than a narrow boat as you are living inside the hull, not above it.

The lack of an engine room, or of any the off-grid services a boat normally has, gave even more space (it was entirely mains powered, with drinking water coming from a fixed hose and sewage pumped to a tank on the bank.)

It was being kept on a semi-tidal river and hadn’t been docked or painted externally in years. It also hadn’t been lived on in months, and the closer you looked the more maintenance issues came to light. I wished him luck, but wouldn’t be making an offer.

I’d only ever been interested in the idea of owning an historic narrow boat and with larger craft the same held true. Wide beam new builds are pretty much without exception a fairly grim species of boat, to my eyes. I also quickly established that as much as I like continental craft (Dutch barges being the best known example) I don’t want to live on one.

A chance conversation at a summer garden party, more or less recounting the above, led to a discussion at the Acton Bridge Steam Party. Friends Rebekah and Matt had moved off the barge Iris Abbott after 7 years afloat, in late 2022, and used her very little since then. She wasn’t on the market as such but they were thinking they might let her go. We took a short run out and I went for a proper look around a couple of weekends later, back at her base in Northwich.

Iris Abbott and Bream at Acton Bridge, 1st October 2023
Iris Abbott and Bream at Acton Bridge, 1st October 2023

For various reasons, mostly related to me not having the time to chase up conversations due to work commitments, it’s taken a few months for it all to come together, but last week she was given a pretty clean bill of health by the surveyor and the deal has been done. Later this week I’m going to move her downriver, onto a mooring near to Acton Bridge, and see how that goes.

She very much ticks the historic boat box, but as the photos show has a quite unconventional conversion, having been used for some time as a party/hotel boat based in Liverpool. Internally she is better equipped than Bream, and has room for visitors to sit down and even stay over, should they be so inclined.

Iris (with Bream behind) at Acton Bridge, 1st October, 2023
Iris (with Bream behind) at Acton Bridge, 1st October, 2023

Like Bream she was the first of her type, also built Northwich, but in 1948. She primarily carried grain from Liverpool Docks to the Kellogg’s factory on Trafford Park, near to Manchester. Unlike Bream, her history is quite well documented and photographed, and I intend to tell that story on this site, over time.

She has the original engine room – with the Gardner 4L3 still having the compressed air start – and a traditional bow cabin but everything in between has been added more recently. Most of her private owners have lived on board and, of course, each has changed things. Having initially contemplated going straight in there and changing lots (my needs as solo liveaboard are quite different to those of a family of four) I’ve been well advised, particularly in conversations with friends in Ireland, a month before Christmas. The plan now is to move onto her, find out at my leisure what I do and don’t like, then potentially move back to Bream whilst changes are made, at a later date.

Meanwhile, not being on Bream gives me the opportunity for some jobs that have been put off there to be tackled. As things stand there are no plans to let Bream go. I can use her in different ways if I’m not living on her, so let’s see how it all evolves.

For now thanks to a few people – Teresa, who got the conversation started; Jo and Nigel who were on that first trip out and helped me organise my initial thoughts; Mike whose experience of the boat, the river and any amount of technical detail has been invaluable; Kayt and Chris who persuaded me that I didn’t need to rush into changes; Steve who valued the boat, Tony who surveyed her and of course Rebekah and Matt, who have entrusted her to me.

Here we go…