In the best of times living on a canal boat can be an isolating existence, with many continuous cruisers (those with no permanent mooring) having to shift location each fortnight, with each move finding new neighbours, a new network of shops and facilities, and a new view out of the side hatch. And whilst an increasing proportion of ‘boaters’, particularly in London, choose a nautical lifestyle as an affordable alternative to the sky-high rents of terra firma, for many it is exactly this isolation which acts as the primary pull factor. Whether retirees looking for a quiet life, hippies wanting to escape the system, or those on the edge of homelessness just trying to keep some kind of roof over their heads, the canal can seem a useful escape.
I myself am on lockdown on my narrowboat on the Hertford Union Canal, or Duckett’s Cut, a mile-long strip of waterway running along the south boundary of Victoria Park in London’s East End. Whilst in normal times the Canal and River Trust (CRT) enforce the rule that continuous cruisers (CCr’s) can’t stay in the same location for more than 14 days, now boaters are not allowed to make unnecessary journeys. The solar power is fantastic at the moment, allowing me to stay powered and digitally connected, but being told not to leave the boat has proved difficult. Boats run out of water. Their waste tanks fill up. They run out of diesel which many use for heating or to run their engine for power. Boats don’t have postal addresses and often no washing machines. You rely on a network of boater’s facilities, friends’ houses, laundrettes, and delivery boats providing coal, diesel, wood and LPG gas. You often find yourself trundling up the towpath with sacks of rubbish, Ikea bags of dirty washing, great bottles of drinking water, or other containers holding more unpleasant substances. The towpath therefore forms the first branch of a network through which you gain access to fairly basic facilities.
This is where the trouble has started. There has always been underlying tensions I think between those who live on boats and see the towpath as their front doorstep, and joggers, cyclists, and electric scooterers, who see the towpath quite rightly as a route across the city often more direct, less polluted, and more visually idyllic than say the Euston Road. The towpath though rarely reaches 2m in width, making official social distancing essentially impossible if you wish to pass someone without getting wet. With the closing of Victoria Park due to overcrowding during lockdown, which many I’ve spoken to found a bizarre decision, the towpath next to the park, and alongside my boat, suddenly and predictably became much, much busier.
Something of a territorial battle has therefore developed between lycra-clad land dwellers and curtain twitching boaters, with many putting signs in their windows telling people to stay away. Some have even posted images online showing how they have blocked off the chunk of path outside their boat with obstacles, and in one case the police tweeted that the tyres of their bikes had been burst by thumb tacks on the towpath, requesting people to not take the law into their own hands. Posters appear on railings and images online referring to groups of joggers on ‘our’ towpath, demanding people to stay off what is a public right of way in order to save ‘our’ lives. And I’m torn. Being an anthropologist very much interested in public space and the city, I find myself on the side of the quarter of a million residents of Tower Hamlets told they can exercise daily whilst simultaneously having their biggest public park closed – the maths doesn’t add up. But equally when I wake up on a Monday morning listening to the news about the latest death figures and the desperate need to social distance, and then look out of the window to see the Tour de Hackney fly by, sweating and panting as it goes, I rather want to start ranting and waving a rolling pin in the air. In the words of a fellow boater, the ‘Great Towpath Debate of 2020’ is one of rights – who owns the towpath.