In the first of a series of features following UK couple Emma and Saxon’s quest to live on a narrowboat, they share their experience of the crippling rental market and their compelling motivations as freelancers to break free and live a simpler, greener life.
It’s Life, But Not As You Know It
Picture this: You’ve worked incredibly hard to build a thriving business from scratch with your partner. The two of you own a spacious house in an attractive neighbourhood. Money is way down your list of worries.
Then, imagine that security ripped from under your feet – your partner splitting up with you, the business and your main source of income taken away, your only option to give up your home.
In 2010, that’s exactly the predicament that Emma Davies faced. “I had some savings, but I knew my situation wasn’t sustainable,” she explains. “There was no way I could secure another mortgage, but the cost of private renting was sky-high – I felt trapped.”
Not only this, but Emma suffers from social anxiety and is often plagued with fatigue, caused by her underactive thyroid. “I couldn’t face going back into full time employment after working for myself,” Emma says, referring to her former life as a computer programmer. As she describes her heightened stress levels and the drain on her energy that existence triggered, it’s clear that returning to such a hectic, swarming office environment would have been intolerable for her.
Ensnared By The Rental Trap
After Emma got together with fellow sci-fi enthusiast Saxon Bullock, now her fiancé, they moved into a two-bed rented apartment in Whalley Range, close to Manchester’s notorious Moss Side. “We took the first place we could afford,” Emma says. “Compared to my house, it was impersonal and cramped – I grew depressed. The worst thing was that I never felt safe. Having a neighbour threaten us with a crowbar on the day we moved in really cast a shadow over our time living there. I’d feel nervous every time I took the bins out.” “Granted, there were more appealing flats in better areas,” Saxon adds, “but they were well beyond our budget.”
A quick search on RightMove, the UK’s number one property website, reveals almost 1000 two-bed apartments available to rent across Manchester, a northern city where rents are considered low in comparison to its southern counterparts, especially London. Even so, over half of these Manchester apartments will set you back in excess of £900 pcm and that’s before you factor in council tax and utility bills of at least £200 pcm, not to mention food and other essential living expenses. Now, consider that the monthly net income of a full time employee earning the UK National Minimum Wage is £1,048.93. Is it any wonder that renters are more than twice as likely as homeowners to have no savings, let alone sufficient for a mortgage deposit?
Renting As A Freelancer – The Maddening Straightjacket
But of course, when you’re self-employed, there’s no such thing as the minimum wage. Saxon has worked as a freelance proofreader and journalist since 2002, juggling this sometimes sporadic workload with his ambition to become a published novelist. In 2008, he secured representation from the literary agent John Jarrold, but the current capricious state of the publishing industry and the sheer amount of time that it takes craft polished fiction means that a publishing deal still remains elusive. “If you’re a freelancer, the amount of work you have to do simply to pay your rent saps your creative energy, especially when proofreading, which demands intense concentration,” he says.
Emma too, found that her freelance endeavours swallowed precious time which she would rather spend pursuing her own creative writing. To cover the rent, she’d developed her own website, www.namegeneratorfun.com. “It began as a fairy name generator,” she says, but it wasn’t until she and Saxon introduced a superhero name generator that the site’s traffic soared. “It took three years to reach the point where I wasn’t panicking massively. Finally, I was making liveable money from the site.” But then, in early 2014, revenue plummeted. “Emma gets her income from advertising, but Google is a fickle God,” Saxon explains. “She’d worked so hard and it felt like it had all been for nothing.” Although the site now gets over half a million hits per month, building it back up took 16-hour working days. “Programming is so intensive, it eats up my entire brain capacity,” Emma says. “There were many times I thought I was going to break. This wasn’t how I wanted to live my life, working hard to make some landlord rich, chucking money down the drain.”
The Housing Ladder – Pie in the Sky
Saxon compares getting on the housing ladder to, “Winning a Golden Globe for Best Director,” – a coveted, but utterly unattainable aspiration. With mortgage companies demanding a 40% deposit from freelancers, Saxon, who has lived in rental accommodation his entire adult life, felt resigned to his predicament. “It would take twenty years to build up that kind of money!”
Image Credit: Flickr, Gary Chatterton
So, What’s The Alternative?
Emma, however, refused to accept their situation and started brainstorming alternatives. “I’ve always been a bit of a secret hippy greeny type,” she tells me. “One of my fantasies was to have a smallholding in the countryside, be totally self-sufficient, have solar panels, and keep goats and chickens. Another was to buy a van and live in it – I just wanted out.” Saxon adds, “Emma was throwing out ideas like a Catherine wheel and I was like … o-kaaay!”
“I kept googling lots of different possibilities,” Emma says. “There was a Guardian article about living on a narrowboat and it just clicked. I’d always thought that maintaining a boat was really expensive – my granddad had a cruiser when I was a kid and my mum used to complain about how expensive marina fees were. Turns out they’re really cheap compared to renting!”
That was when a plan began to formulate. “Marina fees for a residential mooring are £300 pcm, but as a continuous cruiser, moving on every couple of weeks, I learned you could sidestep those fees,” Emma says. “We could live on a boat, travel around the country and explore the whole canal network. With solar panels on the roof, we wouldn’t need to run our engine to generate electricity. It could be an extremely low cost lifestyle.”
The Appeal of the Canals
Saxon admits that he wasn’t entirely convinced at first. “In March 2014, when Emma first suggested the boat, I’d just started an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester University – I needed to remain in one place.” But, over the next three months, as Saxon explored the idea further, the appeal of the canals grew on him and Emma’s reasoning began to resonate. “I said to Saxon – if we didn’t like our new neighbours, we could just up and go!” Emma tells me. “Something started ticking at the back of my brain,” Saxon says. “I was careful about saying anything definite for a while because it seemed insane, but when we voiced what we were considering to our respective families, none of them gave us the weird looks we were expecting. In fact, my dad revealed that he’d recently flirted with the idea of getting a boat himself.”
Fully On Board
By mid-2014, Emma and Saxon had decided to go for it, and make their dream of living on a narrowboat a reality. They’d remain in Manchester until Saxon finished his MA in 2015, then relocate to Emma’s home city of Nottingham, to be closer to her dad – an experienced sailor and DIY enthusiast, who was willing to help them.
The couple were under no illusions that their journey would be a smooth one – a plethora of questions remained unanswered: Would it be it more cost effective to buy a second hand narrowboat or commission one from scratch? How long would they need to continue renting, while dually covering the project’s overheads? And most critically, Saxon says, “How on earth do you steer a boat?!”
Next time: Emma and Saxon take their first steps toward a life on the canals.
You can also discover more about their project on their YouTube Channel and in their blog, Adventures in Zero Gravity.