What living on a canal boat is really like

What it's really like to live on a canal boat

Living on a canal boat is not everyone’s cup of tea but for artist Julie Weir, 46, and her husband Mark, 48, the move has proved liberating.

The couple, who have two twenty-something grown-up children, were working stressful jobs when they made the decision to quit their careers and trade in their four-bedroom house in Hampshire for life on the water.

“We were sitting in front of a roaring February fire, in 2017, when a programme came on, called My Floating Home,” Julie tells Relax Ya Self To Health. “It showed a couple having a canal barge built, and it looked amazing. The level of luxury, quality and finish on this boat was second to none, so Mark turned to me and said ‘we could live on one of those.’ The best bit was that we could be mortgage free and not give up on our luxuries.”

So the pair bought a wide beamed canal boat on the Avon Canal. This enabled Mark to relinquish 70  hour-plus weeks working as a senior partner at a chain of estate agents and pursue his dream of becoming a writer.

Julie, a former family support worker and 2013 BBC Wildlife Artist of the year finalist, was also able to focus on her painting.  The duo has just celebrated their first anniversary of moving onto the boat.

So, is life on the river really as idyllic as it sounds? Julie shares her story below.

How stressful was your lifestyle before you decided to live on a canal boat?

I worked with hard to reach families in early intervention, as well as families on the child protection register. It was challenging and incredibly stressful and upsetting at times.  Because of the nature of his targets and results-driven job, Mark worked most weekends, and during the week would leave at 7 am and return well after 7 pm, which meant that family time was almost non-existent. Time pressures and the in-depth nature of both our careers meant that relaxation time, meal-times, and time to unwind and switch off from the day were irregular at best. It becomes impossible to leave the stresses of your job at the door, especially if you care about how well you perform your job, so often things would spill over into home life, making relaxation time even more scarce, and this creates even more pressures on your mental health and self-esteem.

You were then offered redundancy. What happened?

I jumped at the chance. It meant that I would have six months income behind me to see if I could make a go of it as a full-time artist. So, I decided to try it for five months and if it didn’t work, give myself the sixth month to look for a job. The rest is history. At the same time, Mark saw the dramatic change in me and my happiness. Gone was the creeping Sunday night depression followed by the dark clouds of Monday morning. Making the change had rejuvenated me, and Mark saw this and I think this inspired him to consider an alternative career as he was spending what little spare time he had writing novels. However, with a mortgage and bills to pay, things weren’t quite that simple. It was too much of a risk for us to both give up our careers, so something had to go. It was either the mortgage or the dreams. That meant selling up the house and moving.

Canal boat view

How did you feel about making the leap to canal boat living?

Elated, scared, nervous, foolish, brave, but the one thing we never lacked was the conviction that we were going to do this. This was our chance to take something back. We were getting our freedom and quality time. In general, people around us were fairly supportive, if a little surprised. There were some dissenting voices, but in the main, it was positive. I suppose, what we were doing was radical, and there’s always an element of doubt when someone tries something new. Some of our friends even said they admired us and that they didn’t dare to do it, even though they would love to.

Had it always been your dream to live on a canal boat?

We hadn’t ever considered living on a canal boat before, not until we saw that programme. We did a lot of research, going to boat shows, and watching canal boat YouTube channels. (Who knew they were a thing?) It also inspired us to start documenting our journey with our own YouTube channel Weir on the Move. Our main concern, with regards to living in a four-bedroom house, was the act of downsizing. We had accumulated lots of material things over the years, and it surprised us how much. So thanks to car-boot sales and family and friends benefiting, we gradually shed our stuff. Mark dubbed it ‘material colonic irrigation’.

What’s the canal boat accommodation like?

The boat has two king-size bedrooms, a shower room with granite work surfaces, as well as an open-plan kitchen/diner/lounge, and the stern deck doubles as my studio space, giving me 360-degree views. There is also a bow deck which is great in the warmer months for sitting and watching the world go by with a gin and tonic. We have central heating, a multi-fuel burner, a fully fitted kitchen with integrated appliances, as well as the best 4G internet we’ve ever had.

What are the worst things about living on a canal boat?

Living on a boat will never be as easy as living on dry land. There are many things that you have to consider: Where does the drinking water come from? Buying gas bottles for the cooker, and making sure we have enough diesel in the tank. Living on a boat means you have to be prepared and always plan. It makes you think about everything, from water usage to power usage, things that don’t enter your head in a house. We always have to plan carefully, especially in the winter. Once you get your head around this, it’s all easy and straightforward. We have to move every two weeks in accordance with the Canal and River Trusts guidelines on Continuous Cruising.

What are the best things about living on a canal boat?

The ever-changing views. We’ve found that we’re more in touch with nature and the changing seasons than we were in our shut-up, busy lives in a house. And of course, if you don’t like where you are, you can move the boat. We like summer evenings sipping a drink, on the front of the boat, as well winter evenings in front of the fire. All of this is possible thanks to the low-cost, low-impact lifestyle we’ve chosen. There is a fantastic community here on the canals. We have neighbours, and sometimes we don’t. If you think about the Kennet and Avon canal, it’s mostly a long channel stretching over 40 miles, with Bristol in the West, and Reading at the other end. You play leapfrog with boats that you know, so inevitably you are going to develop friendships along the way. I can say, that in one year of being on the canal, we’ve made more friends than in the last ten years living in a house.

Julie Weir painting on her canal boat

How has living on a canal boat helped your mental attitude?

It’s an outdoor existence most of the time, and we’ve found that we are much more sociable, and approachable people than we thought. This has had a significant impact on our positive mental attitude and wellbeing. This may sound controversial, but many land-based communities can learn a lot from boating communities.

How did you turn your hobbies into full-time jobs?

I started running art classes in Chichester, West Sussex, and in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, teaching art on a twice-monthly basis to people of all abilities. I have found the art scene in Wiltshire, and the West Country, to be vibrant, which has helped me gain a strong following for my work. Mark has managed to make the transition to becoming a freelance writer and has just released his third novel, Annie of the Point, a historical romance set in Old Portsmouth in 1805. Being able to fulfil our ambitions has given us confidence, and a sense of achievement which has led to an uplift in our quality of life. All of this couldn’t have been possible without ridding ourselves of the mortgage. That doesn’t mean we don’t work as hard as before. We work harder than we’ve ever done, our time is ours, and we do all this for less financial reward, but there are other ways you can describe yourself as being rich.

What advice would you give to anyone who’s inspired to live on a canal boat?

If anyone feels they’re stuck in a rut, living to work rather than working to live, it could be time to take stock. We know too many people that say ‘What if’ or ‘If only.’ But it’s worth remembering that you can only regret the things you haven’t done. I suppose the positive message here is, go for it!

How did you get into art?

I worked closely with both parents and their children who had difficulties with their mental health, and I found that by using art, I was able to help them talk about their feelings in a way that merely asking questions would have failed. I encouraged them to speak about their feelings when they were well and when they were not, and through art, the complicated questions were easier to answer. This method enabled them to avoid giving eye contact, and through magazine images, or comic books, they expressed their true feelings.

I had never painted before 2011, and after our beloved dog died, Mark encouraged me to paint his portrait, especially given how expensive they were to buy. So I had a go, and it turned out quite well. Who would have thought that two years later, in 2013, I would be a finalist in the BBC Wildlife Artist of the Year competition, and in 2018 I’d become a Professional Associate Member of the SAA, a 43,000 plus online community for professional and amateur painters.

Julie Weir hare painting

How does living on the canal inspire you?

Imagine looking out the window and seeing Kingfishers, otters, hares, owls, and bats. Imagine swans tapping on your window for food. These are the things I see every day. It has changed me completely, and the way I paint. The canal inspires my art. I paint more British wildlife than I ever did, especially kingfishers, herons, goldfinches, and long-tailed tits. My new range focuses on birds, painted on a gold leaf background, and they have proved to be very popular indeed. My boat studio is a lot smaller compared to my old studio at the house, but now I can boast about having the best views.

What life lessons have you learned from making the move?

Material goods are generally immaterial. Shed what you don’t need, and it’ll be like shedding an old skin, and very cathartic. We have learnt that we only buy what we need, and not what we would like, so the things we choose have to be exactly right. Also, we would recommend taking a few risks to get what you want out of life. But only take them if you’re that way inclined. Some people are happy with their lot, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But remember; you only get one life, so go for it!

To see more of Julie’s artwork click here

If you feel inspired by this story you might like to read the following:

Meet the woman who is using her MS to save the planet 

Meet the man who is turning barber shops into safe havens to help prevent male suicide

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