Life on the waterway is not all plain sailing

Ellie Smith on the stern of her canal boat Tormarton, looking out over flooded Port Meadow. Pictures: OX65132 Simon Williams

Ellie Smith on the jetty which leads to her boat and is just above water. Pictures: OX65132 Simon Williams

First published in News The Oxford Times: Photograph of the Author by

You would think that the best place to be in times of flooding would be on the water itself.

But Oxford, it has just been revealed, has enjoyed its wettest January since records began in 1767.

And for boat-dwellers, particularly those living on the Thames, the constantly fluctuating water levels can bring a whole raft of problems.

Ellie Smith, 28, is director of the cycle repair workshop, Broken Spoke Bike Co-op and has lived on her narrowboat Tormarton, currently moored on the Thames at Port Meadow, Oxford, for two years.

She said: “Looking out across Port Meadow, especially in the morning, it is just beautiful, with water as far as the eye can see. But in terms of living day-to-day with this floodwater, I would just like it to come to an end.

“Our boat is moored to a jetty, which in recent weeks has become a jetty in a giant lake. We have made a makeshift bridge to get from the jetty on to the boat, but we are living in open water and it’s been like that since before Christmas, impacting on all parts of our lives.

“The river is moving so fast, the boats are always moving and we are constantly retying the ropes throughout the day.

“Wellies are a necessity and we have also had big toilet problems.”

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Miss Smith has a vacuuflush toilet, which needs to be pumped out when it is full. But there are only three points she can do that on the river and because her boat is ‘red-boarded’ – her insurance has advised her against moving it – the toilet has been full since Christmas.

She said: “Last week I had to buy a portable loo which I had to pull up the jetty on my bike.

“Most of all I am worried about the future.

“I worry that one day the floods will drive us away from our life on the river.”

TOP ADVICE FOR SURVIVING A CRISIS

The Environment Agency provides advice for boat users on the Thames at environment-agency.gov.uk/homeand leisure/recreation/ 139911.aspx, including information on river conditions.

It also issues the following advice in times of flooding: Moor your boat in a safe place, preferably in a marina or at a recognised mooring. Moor against high banks if you can.

Ensure your mooring lines are fastened to secure fixings such as bollards, rings or even trees. Put out extra lines for additional security and allow enough slack for a further rise in river levels.

Do not rely on your own mooring pins or stakes, as they might not hold.

Make sure you have a safe exit ashore from your boat.

If not, you should consider finding alternative accommodation until conditions improve.

NEAR MISS AS TREE IS FELLED BY WIND

UNLIKE boat dwellers on the Thames, Emma Gordon and James Mayo say life on the Oxford Canal has been muddy but mostly unchanged by the flood waters.

Miss Gordon, 28, is centre manager for Bicester Green, which recycles and renovates secondhand furniture and appliances.

Mr Mayo, 33, is a product designer and the couple have been living on the 45-foot narrowboat Lotus since October 2013.

Miss Gordon said: “We are permanently moored on the canal at a stretch just north of the Duke’s Cut Lock in Wolvercote and before moving on to the boat last year had worked our way through various forms of habitation, upgrading from a tent, to a caravan, to a converted garage, to a warehouse in north London sharing with 13 artists, musicians and designers.”

The Oxford Times:

  • Emma Gordon and James Mayo

She continued: “Living on the canal has been relatively safe for boaters compared to those on the Thames, as the locks do an excellent job of regulating the water level. “During the strong winds in November/December we had a lucky escape when a tree on the bank was blown entirely over and landed on top of the boat next to us.

“They were lucky as the weight of the tree was only so much to depress the boat about 40cm down.

“A larger tree could have been a very different story.”

IT'S GETTING TOO MUCH

THE Clarkes have lived aboard a narrowboat in Oxford for six years, but for the sake of their family have made the difficult decision to sell their floating home and move to dry land.

Jamie and Eve Clarke live in the Hobgoblin, moored at Weirs Lane, near Donnington Bridge, with their two daughters, Polly, five and Ursula, two.

Mr Clarke, 38, founder of the charity Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN), in Cowley, said: “When we moved on to the boat from another boat in London six years ago, Oxford had just experienced a flood once in every 100 years – since then there have been two more.

“Living on the boat is wonderful most of the time. Our children have grown up in the great outdoors, they are in touch with nature and we all love it, but we have realised that while we can make our boat safe, the practicalities of living with the children on the boat are getting harder and the repeated flooding does not help.”

“Carrying the children on and off in high water is difficult. Doing that with shopping too is almost impossible.”

The Oxford Times:

  • Jamie Clarke, 38, with his wife Eve, 36, and daughter Ursula, 2, getting their shopping home

Asked how the family will adapt to a new life on dry land, Mr Clarke said they would be treating it as a challenge.

“Part of the reason we live on the boat is to lead a more sustainable way of life, so my challenge will be to see how we achieve that in a house.

“The children are excited about having stairs.

“But I know they will also miss being able to just jump off the boat and play. It’s a sad decision. The boat is part of our family’s identity.”

REDUCING RISKS

JEFF Whyatt, waterways manager for the Canal & River Trust, said: “The Oxford Canal is a beautiful stretch of waterway and is home to a number of boaters who enjoy the slower pace of life away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre.

The Oxford Times:

  • Jeff Whyatt

“Generally the boaters that live along the canal cope really well when it floods, and by opening the flood gates we can usually move the surplus water around the waterways and try to reduce the risk of flooding.”

MEET MR LIFELINE

A MAINSTAY of the Oxford Canal community, particularly in the winter and more recently in times of flooding, is ‘Dusty’ – aka Mark Boardman.

One of the last remaining boatmen selling coal, diesel and bottled gas on the waterways, the 55-year-old former graphic designer took to the water just over eight years ago, following a divorce, and according to people like Emma Gordon, provides a ‘lifeline’ to boat dwellers.

The Oxford Times:

  • ‘Dusty’ – aka Mark Boardman

Mr Boardman said: “This has probably been my worst experience of flooding so far.

“I’ve been surprised by the enormous volume of water on the floodplains – obviously they are doing what they should be doing, but there is still so much water around and every time it rains again it is all just topped up.”

But he said: “It’s a life choice which people like me love.”

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