cooking

Inside the Tiny Kitchens of London’s Canal Boat Dwellers

"It’s so cozy. But I’d still really quite like a toaster!”

by Nancy Smallwood
13 February 2019, 2:30pm

In January 2019, the average monthly rent in London somehow hit £2,000, and buying a home remains as out of reach as ever. Unless you've decided to relocate to a terraced bolthole somewhere in zone six, you’re most likely living in a shared flat, with a shared kitchen.

Which can sometimes mean quite nice house dinners. Or, sometimes, pass-agg WhatsApp messages about missing condiments, mouldy leftovers, and having to wash the same fork three days on end because the rest have all vanished, again. And if you’re in your late 20s, this gets very old very fast.

With all of this in mind, it’s no surprise that the popularity of London’s canals is soaring. There are now more than 4,000 boats now on the water, an increase of 76 percent since 2012. And it makes sense, when you consider that for a fraction of what you’d spend on a deposit you can have your very own boat, complete with adorable wood-burning stove and peaceful views of the capital’s charming Victorian waterways.

Of course, it’s not all a rustic dream. Boating is extraordinarily taxing. Absolutely everything can (and seemingly does) break, from the engine to the bilge pump. You personally are required to remember to empty your own toilet. It’s freezing in the winter. You have to move all the time. And of course, it’s very, very small. Most narrowboats are only about 7 foot wide.

The kitchen is no less challenging. A fraction of the storage space means sacrificing most of your pots and pans, while microwaves, toasters, and electric kettles are gone for good. Having your own fridge is a luxury, as is hot running water. And literally no one seems to have a freezer, so unless you’re up for biking to the corner shop—if you know where one is because you moved your boat last weekend and you’re now somewhere in rural Cheshunt and it’s 9 PM—there’ll be no ice for your mid-summer gin and tonics.

We spoke to some of London’s canal boat dwellers about what it’s really like to cook, eat, and have friends over when you live on water.

Barney, 29, product manager

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Barney is one of an increasing number of Londoners to take up life on a canal boat. He shows us inside his kitchen. All photos by the author.

“My kitchen is a struggle. The way it’s laid out is really difficult to work in—there’s just not enough workspace. Plus, the oven is a piece of shit, and I’ve only got two burner rings, when I want four. And it’s impossible to cook at the same time as more than one person.

The most I’ve ever managed to cook for was six, but that did involve me almost having a panic attack. I made an aubergine katsu curry, so everything was breaded and deep fried. It was tasty, but my kitchen did not smell good afterwards for days. You live and learn.

Really, the biggest problem is how unreliable the oven is. What it calls gas mark 8 is nowhere near. I wouldn’t dream of trying to bake. It can just about manage a pie, but it’d need to be in for maybe twice as long. I do really miss roasting things.

These days, if I’m busy, I find myself slipping more into the habit of buying pre-made food while I’m out, like grabbing a sandwich and eating it on the way home. Cooking is something I love, but I don’t love it if I don’t have any time—and boats take up a lot of time!

Other than that, my problem is electricity. Electricity is sacred on a boat. You have to watch how much you use like a hawk if you don’t want to completely kill your battery and run out of power. So I don’t have any electrical appliances, with the exception of my blender. And if I’m going to use that I have to check the state of my batteries, which are charged entirely from solar panels.

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Preparing spiced cauliflower and mango salad with lentils and turmeric.
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That also means I don’t have a freezer or even a fridge. In the winter, I can keep everything in the engine room. But in the summer it’s not so easy. Buying ingredients for myself was pointless because there’d always be leftovers, which would go off and have to be binned. At the height of the heatwave, my boat was 37 degrees Celsius inside, which is hot by anyone’s standards!

Cooking on boats is fraught with difficulties compared to a decent kitchen on land. But there is something amazing about working in such a small space. It creates a really immersive experience. You’ll end up literally surrounded by the meal you’re cooking, and from one spot, I can access every part of my kitchen, and that gives you quite a homely feeling.

It’s difficult, and you have to get good at juggling things around, but for me it’s worth it. Even though there’s a lot I’m hoping to change in the future, I still love cooking in this kitchen.”

Claire, 37, researcher

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Claire doesn't have a freezer or microwave on her canal boat.

“We’ve really had to change the way we cook. Before, we used to make loads in bulk every week and freeze it, but now we don’t have a freezer now—or a microwave to reheat it. It also means I’ve had to give up having smoothies because we have no ice, which I really miss. Now we just focus on doing a lot of one-pot cooking, with something like lentils which are easy to store.

We can’t do our big £50 shop at Aldi to stock up on the basics anymore either. For one thing, we don’t have the space for it all, and we wouldn’t be able to park close enough to get it all on the boat anyway.

Since we can’t stock up, we’re constantly on the look-out for affordable supermarkets. Recently we were moored in King’s Cross for two weeks and the only ones we could realistically go to were a Waitrose and a Co-op, which was a bit challenging. I used to love popping to the corner shop, but now that’s changed because we don’t know where they are!

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On top of that, our kitchen cupboards have a bad damp problem so keeping dried goods is tough. We’ve had to throw out a lot of flour, and dry out a lot of salt on the stove, and install a massive curtain in the middle of the boat to try and trap some of the steam when we cook. The joys of living on a boat!

Despite all this, it’s not too bad. We’re vegan, which does actually makes things a bit easier– we never have to worry about storing meat, fish, or dairy so we can keep our fridge off a lot of the year.

It was always going to be tricky having people around for dinner in such a small space, but we manage. I think our best dinner party was making vegan calzone pizzas for 12, along with a lot of sides and salads. We cheated with pre-made pastry, but the vegan cheese sauce was difficult, soaking all the cashews and nutritional yeast in batches. It all came together in the end though.

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Claire's vegan peanut butter and chocolate cupcakes.

There are so many things we really didn’t anticipate when we moved onto the boat, even though we tried really hard to make ourselves aware of what we’d be up against. But nothing really prepares you for how much you’re going to have to adapt.

That said, there are lots of lovely parts. In the summer, the dining experience is wonderful because the roof is a perfect platform for a picnic, so you can sit and look out on the countryside wherever you’re moored. And next winter, we’re hoping to cook on our fire a bit more, like leaving a stew to slow-cook on the top, sticking in jacket potatoes in foil or roasting chestnuts.”

Rosie, 30, yoga instructor

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Rosie has become more aware of kitchen waste since moving into her canal boat.

“Before I moved here with my partner, I lived alone in a 30-foot boat in a mooring for a while. It was so cramped. As soon as anyone else was near the kitchen, I’d have to constantly manoeuvre around them, even if I just wanted to get from one side of the counter to the other.

Before that, I lived in a flatshare in North London with a big kitchen, which had plenty of space to make a bit of mess as you cook. It was fine to use up lots of pots and pans, and save tidying up for after. But there’s a lot less space on a boat, so even if the meal you’re making is only slightly complicated, every bit of your kitchen will be overloaded with dirty pots which you’ll have to constantly rewash. Learning how to stay on top of that kind of stuff was a huge adjustment.

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Rosie's goat cheese with roasted cherry tomatoes with lemon kale on toast.

We don’t have mains electricity, so we don’t have a toaster or a microwave either, and like everyone, we have a hob kettle. The one thing we do have is a little Ninja handheld blender—it’s just too useful.

I’ve had to learn some workarounds. If I was cooking rice, I used to wash it really well on high power. But on a boat, water is limited. We have refill ours every two weeks, and I don’t even have enough water for a shower every day, so it makes no sense to use it up power-washing my rice. Now I soak it for a while, instead.

It definitely has made me a bit more eco-conscious. I’m much more aware of my waste and how much plastic I’m using because I’m not sharing with housemates, so I know everything I throw out is mine. It all comes with the lifestyle—trying to be a bit more resilient and caring for the environment.

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My oven’s a bit unreliable, but it’s still quite good. I bake my own cakes and bread, and once my partner and I made roast lamb for eight people. I actually had a go at rye bread last week, which was OK—maybe a little hard on the outside.

Most of my problems involve burning toast on the grill. It doesn’t sound that bad, but believe me, once something is burning even a little bit, your entire boat fills with smoke, and you have to open all the windows and doors to get it out.

But there really is something kind of wonderful about coming back at the end of a cold winter’s day. You start a fire, cook a meal, and then just snuggle down with a book. You have warmth, something to eat and somewhere to sleep and it just simplifies everything. It’s so cozy. But I’d still really quite like a toaster!”

Robbie, 29, chef

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Rob runs a festival catering firm, so is no stranger to cooking in compromising situations.

“When I first got this boat, it felt more like a long, damp corridor full of rubbish. It didn’t have anything resembling a kitchen, so I had to live on pitta and hummus, and rely on my friends for hot meals while I built the whole thing from scratch.

Before that, I’d actually spent two years living in a van in a field in Cambridgeshire, so I was already pretty used to having a tiny kitchen. Compared to then, now I actually have a huge amount of space.

Because I work as a professional chef, when I was building my kitchen I knew it had be functional, efficient, and spacious. Mainly after the van, I wanted to make sure I could finally have friends over for dinner.

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Rob's roast butternut squash salad with pickled red onion, gorgonzola, and sun-dried tomatoes.

My biggest achievement to date has been doing a veggie Christmas lunch with all the trimmings for 12 of us. We split the roasting between my boat and my friend’s boat, and really the only thing that was a bit tricky was getting the potatoes crispy—and finding room to eat it all. Otherwise, it was pretty seamless.

I also recently hosted a five-course veggie supper club where I got to have some fun experimenting with some recipe ideas I’d been mulling over. We started with a mushroom and black garlic pâté, followed by pickled cauliflower with grilled chicory and celeriac croquettes. Then chocolate torte for dessert. It was great—I’m hoping to do more in the future.

The hardest thing has mainly just been getting used to the oven and making sure the gas cylinders don’t run out halfway through making something, which hasn’t happened to me yet but has on other people’s boats. And I make small adjustments, things like keeping a lid on my boiling pasta, which I was always taught never to do, to stop condensation going into the air. I run a festival catering firm called the Bhangra Bus Cafe, and that’s also helped teach me to adapt to not having all the same things as a commercial kitchen.

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I do have a fridge, which was important to me. You can get by without one, but it’s very easy to end up throwing food away, and it’s just so much better when your milk isn’t going off, and you can have a cold beer in the summer.

I feel that now that I have way more space than I ever had in a shared house. And I’m really happy with that.”