Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The boat freaks: Sarah and The Book Barge...

Welcome aboard Sarah Henshaw’s floating bookshop. Sarah tells Vyvian Raoul about bartering with books for a shower and a bed for the night, and why she prefers London seen from the canal

Sarah Henshaw shows us the possibilities that continuous cruising has for those with a bit of determination and a lot of time on their hands. She's been aboard her floating bookshop, The Book Barge, on a tour of England's waterways, since May.

We went aboard near the bridge at the bottom of Broadway Market, on the day Sarah and her Book Barge were leaving London. Having been all over the country, she says that London living, down by the canal at least, is the friendliest she's found...

Name: The Book Barge (nee Joseph)

Age: 5

Length: 57'

Top speed: 'I'm not sure. It's got a 42hp engine - can you make that sound really exciting?'

Place of birth: Stone, Staffordshire

Name: Sarah Henshaw

Age: 28

Occupation: Book shop owner

Place of birth: Lichfield, Staffordshire

How long have you been a boater?
I've had the boat for two years: I wouldn't have said I was a boater until the beginning of May. Because I didn't move it at all, it was just stationary in Barton, a little village in Staffordshire. It's been open since June 2009, I just didn't move - I just used it as a cheap way to have a bookshop.

What were you before you were a floating book shop owner?
I was doing journalism before, in London, and didn't like it at all. I always fancied the idea of a bookshop but didn't think I could ever afford it. I'd looked into high street places and they were always too much.

It is a cheaper way to set up a shop, once you've got the boat. Because you only pay a trading licence to British Waterways, and mooring fees if you're in a marina. If you're cruising you don't even have to pay for that.

Mooring fees aren't the only difference between continuous cruisers and moorers, are they?
There's a whole class system on the canals, which I hadn't realised. Marina boats are kind of like the bourgeoisie, and then contiNuous cruisers are like the working class. I dunno, it's weird - I hadn't realised that at all, I just thought everyone was all very happy together.

It's territorial as well, especially if you get out of London. London's very friendly, I've found - like, the boating people. Out of London it's a bit scary. They're all a similar age group, a similar demographic. And if you come passed on a boat, and you're under fifty, and you've got a book shop on it, and you've got astro-turf on the roof - they really don't like it at all!

What made you go from static to cruiser?
I've just always wanted to do it. It was weird that the bookshop was on a boat and I'd not moved it - I felt like a bit of a fraud. I've been moving since May, and I'm doing 6 months. I'm slightly behind schedule, so it might be more like 7 or 8 months! But it's brilliant; I really, really like it - more than I thought I would.

It looks beautiful in here: is it too bold to ask where you sleep?

Half the week I sleep on the sofa, and I have to sleep very straight and not roll over. I'm swapping books... basically, I've got a barter system now for showers and meals, because I haven't got a kitchen either, and spare beds.

You used to live in London - how does it shape up by boat?
I worked up York Way and I used to do that walk from Kings Cross to my office every day and I don't think I even noticed the canal. It's another world. And I've had a much better experience in the last four and a half weeks in London than I did the two years I was living here, definitely.

It's a waterside thing. People are more curious, you have more conversations with strangers. You get invites onto other boats all the time. Loads of people ask me if I get lonely, but in the last four weeks I haven't really had a night to myself...

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