Just behind the city’s backstreets, lies an unexpected oasis of calm – London’s network of canals. Home to a growing community who’ve swapped bricks and mortar for life on the water. It’s here you’ll find architect Toby Burgess, model Poppy Okotcha and first mate, Meeja the cat.
Their narrowboat blends both of their personal styles – bright boho (her) and mid-century cool (him), peppered with a generous amount of greenery. We met with the creative couple to find out what it’s really like, and the advice they’d give to aspiring skippers. All aboard.
T: I’m an architect and lecturer at a university – I take my students to festivals to build art sculptures. I also make jewellery as a hobby.
P: And I’m a model and horticulturist. Now I’m doing permaculture, looking specifically at the sustainable growing of food.
T: Nearly five years. We were on a small narrowboat before this one to test the waters.
P: I really wasn’t into the idea of living on a boat, but after trying it out, I was sold. Even though you’re in the city, you’re so close to nature. You look out of your window, and there’s a swan right there.
P: Well, Toby's flat had a terrace that looked out over the canal, so we'd be sitting there thinking, 'we could do that'. And he's always been involved with boats.
T: Yeah, I’ve worked as a boat builder in dockyards down in Cornwall, and lived on fishing boats in the Canary Islands.
T: Everyone has twigged that it’s a cheaper way of living. The canals in London were pretty empty until about seven years ago. Then we started seeing all these people doing up boats and it just seemed to come alive.
T: Managing your resources and timing it so you don’t run out. In a house, everything comes from a pipe – your gas, your electricity. On a boat you have to make your own electricity, you have to fill up your tank with water, empty your toilet…
P: …Find somewhere to put your rubbish. It’s all a bit more complicated, so you’re aware of the waste you’re producing and the resources you’re using, which I think is a really great lesson. Even once we’ve moved off the boat, I’m going to carry that with me.
T: The light on a boat is different to the light in a house because it moves – it’s constantly dancing. Having lots of mirrors amplifies that effect. It opens the space up as well. And boats are naturally quite dark spaces. Poppy really didn’t like the bedroom when we moved in (it was painted red).
P: Like dark red [laughs]. So we painted it white and warmed it up by making the lower panel of the wall a pinkish colour.
What do you have to consider when choosing furniture?
P: Wicker furniture and furniture on legs is good, as it allows the air to circulate. Obviously it can get very damp on a boat. We've had furniture before that's been flat on the ground and when we've moved it, it's been mouldy underneath.
T: And choose pieces made from real materials like solid wood – materials like MDF suck in moisture and swell, whereas real wood stands up a bit better. Some people move onto a boat and say, ‘it’s not for me’, but I think it takes a good year to learn these things.
Do you have similar tastes?
P: Over the years we've met somewhere in the middle, but to begin with, no! I love little trinkets, whereas Toby likes clean spaces and flowing energy. I'm obsessed with looking at gypsy caravans on Pinterest – tiny spaces with loads of colours and fabrics.
T: Mid-century modern is my kind of style. And being someone who works with wood, I really like wooden furniture and warm, natural materials. But this boat is very much our space, which we both really care about.
What are your tips for making the most out of a small space like this?
T: Furniture that doubles up as storage – like a coffee table that you can put stuff inside – is really handy. Underbed storage is a must. Lots of hanging stuff. And just be considerate when you’re buying something. We have a one-in-one-out policy, otherwise it gets really cramped on here.
P: I would also say live in a space before buying anything for it. Because if you choose the wrong thing, reselling it is a pain and it takes up a huge amount of room until it’s gone.
P: I spend most of my time in front of the fire. It's really cosy there with all the cushions. But in the summer at about 5 o'clock, the sun comes in from the bedroom window and creates these amazing orange shadows. I can sit there for so long watching that.
T: My favourite place is on the sheepskin rug in front of the fire. I think winter is the nicest season on a boat, if you've made it comfy.
P: Once you've been on the canal for a year, you recognise the boats, then you recognise the people. Everyone's a little bit vulnerable on the canal, I'd say, so it means we all look out for each other.
T: Yeah, it's a really good community – super friendly, everyone says hello. That's definitely what's kept me interested in this way of life. And if you don't like your neighbours, you can just move your boat!
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Article written by: Emily Rogers
Photography by: Phill Taylor | Art Direction by: Laura Cumming