Over the course of my recent flat-hunt I have come across some slightly bizarre places to live. I have approached houses from dodgy alleyways and up rickety iron staircases. I have seen showers which open out directly into the bedroom - a bath-mat beside a bedside table. Early on however, the kind Accidental relative who is allowing me lodging in her spare room took me to see where she first lived in London. And there was not a single brick or tile in sight, for she lived on a floating houseboat, moored beneath Cheyne Walk.
When one thinks of houseboats in cities one often imagines the barges on the canals of Amsterdam, decks lined with terracotta pots full of tulips. Or even the whole floating micro-cities in crowded Asian slums along coasts and rivers. Here too in London, driven by a desire for novelty and a decreasing amount of ground space to develop, homes can be found on the city's waterways; from The City at Canary Wharf, across to the highly sought-after Little Venice, at the junction of the Regent's and Grand Union Canals.
Next to the hurtling motors of the Chelsea Embankment the River Thames sploshes slowly through Central London. Ducks and geese bob up and down on top of it, as do clusters of wooden and metal boats, ebbing and flowing on the tide. These clusters form tiny floating villages, each differently painted and shaped boat linked to the others via bouncy platforms and white steps and ladders. A furry face peers out of a window, watching the seabirds squawking by. A pot of tea sits on a metal table, atop an open book, while down on the lower deck a boat-dweller sunbathes amid plants. These boats are houses, and gardens, even home-offices, all on a neat and compact scale which would be agony for the chronically untidy.
Walking between them all one feels as if one is on an inflatable fairground attraction. The kind Accidental relative tells me that silent nights in her boat were often rent by sudden shrieks as girls brought back by her male neighbours missed a step up to a boat and crashed through the plastic decking into the icy water after a drunken night out. She spoke very fondly of the sense of community amongst the boat-owners, and professed that one was never alone on a houseboat.
Similar to addresses, boat names are passed from one resident to another; Puddleduck, Trafalgar, and Gypsy Princess. Inhabitants come and go, although not nearly so frequently as residents of traditional flats and houses. Once you have bought a houseboat you seem unable to part with it. Which probably explains why I will not be making one my first property - desirable as they are, their sale prices are somewhat steep. But for one of the most unique homes in London one can see why there are some who deem this a price worth paying.