Sunday, 6 November 2011

The boat freaks: Mark Walton & Balthamos...



Vyvian Raoul bids farewell to the series by meeting the man behind the fight-back against British Waterways’ threats to continuous cruising
British Waterways’ threats to continuous cruising


Every time we met a boater during this series, they suggested three or four more boaters we ‘must speak to’. The semi-nomadic continuous cruisers are the slightly curdled cream of London’s boating breed, and each of them has many, many stories to tell.

It’s apt that we finish with the man leading the boaters’ fight-back against British Waterways. Mark Walton is co-founder of the Waterways Project: the Castro of the canals, a reluctant, river-borne revolutionary.

We went aboard Balthamos under the bridge at the bottom of Broadway Market to bid the boaters a fond farewell…

Boater
Name:
Mark Walton
Age: 42
Occupation:
Director, Community Development Foundation and Co-founder of the Waterways Project

Boat
Name:
Balthamos (“He’s a minor character in the Philip Pullman trilogy, His Dark Materials. It was called Dawn Chorus when I bought it”)
Age: 30
Make: Albert Watson Boats
Length: 56′
Top speed: “Erm, it goes generally a bit faster than the people walking along the canal?”

How did you come to live on a boat?
I moved to London four and a half years ago for work, but never wanted to live here, really. I’m a bit of a country boy, and I knew I needed to have green space to stay sane, and I knew I didn’t want a long commute (I used to see the faces of people commuting, and thought: I don’t want to look like that). And I work for a charity so I don’t earn huge amounts of money. So, how do you have green space and a short commute in London? Live on a boat!

What are your boating bounds?
My general range is from Tottenham and Stonebridge, down through east London. And then in west London, generally about as far as Kensal Green. Occasionally further west than that; we just got back from Uxbridge because there’s a boat yard out there.

What does the term ‘continuous cruisers’ mean to you?
According to the 1995 Waterways Act, you can have a boat license if you have a home mooring for your boat or, if you don’t have a home mooring, on the condition that you move your boat every 14 days. British Waterways define boaters without a home mooring as ‘continuous cruisers’ and state that in order to be a continuous cruiser you have to be undertaking a bona fide navigation. The law is clear: you have to move every 14 days. But the term ‘continuous cruiser’ is only defined by British Waterways.

So what’s British Waterways’ beef?
The intention for British Waterways, I suppose, and some other waterways users, is that the canal is only for people who are retired/leisured and moving over large parts of the system. In the initial drafting, by British Waterways, of the 1995 Waterways Act they sought to make it illegal to have a boat without a home mooring. But there’ve always been people living on canals. It seems their intention was to have the canals for leisure use and for people who have moorings or live in marinas. But parliament actually refused to allow that, and said, no, there has to be a right for people to live and move around on the system.

Continuously cursing the canals is more popular than it’s ever been, isn’t it?
It’s become a much more popular way of living, for a whole variety of reasons even in the four years I’ve been on the boat. But I’ve never had a problem finding somewhere to moor. Recently, some leisure boaters have told me they find continuous cruisers intimidating and that they therefore won’t moor up next to us. They then complain that there is not enough space.

What has been your response?
In March, British Waterways issued a consultation on proposals for new mooring rules on the River Lee and the London canals. The new rules would have made it almost impossible to live on a boat in London and hold down a job or maintain a family life. Two boaters’ groups, London Boaters and the Upper Lee and Stort Boaters Association, responded by lobbying, campaigning and undertaking our own research to show that the changes would drive boaters out of London, make the canals less safe and damage the environment and the infrastructure of the canals and rivers themselves. Our message was that these are our homes and that we have the right to maintain a way of life that contributes to the creation of safe, vibrant canal-side communities. Forcing us off the water would result in many people losing their homes and having to leave their jobs, schools, claim benefits, join housing waiting lists, etc.

We submitted two substantial reports and generated over 750 responses to the consultation. As a result, British Waterways have withdrawn their proposals and are talking to us about how we can work together to develop and manage more moorings in the London area. This may include setting up some form of ‘floating housing association’.

There is currently no legal protection for boat dwellers without a home mooring and no sign that the new waterways charity that will take over from British Waterways next year will have any duty to recognise our human rights to maintain a home and family life.

Photo: Tom Medwell

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