Home is where the boat is: What it's like to live on barge on Ireland’s waterways
Life is a breeze for Jill Parkinson and Giles Byford who live on a barge on Ireland’s waterways.
Jill Parkinson and her partner Giles Byford host regular dinner parties for eight, and work from home – so far, so standard you might say.
Except “home” for Jill and Giles is a luxemotor-styled Dutch barge which they use to traverse the Irish river system.
Jill (46), a chef, and Giles (50), who worked in antique furniture restoration and controlled demolition, previously lived on a narrowboat in England, exploring over 2,000 miles of connected waterways there. “We bought it in 1998, when most people would get a mortgage,” recalls Giles who has just published a book Reedbound, A Year on Ireland’s Waterways with illustrations by Jill.
The couple started making boat covers and upholstery on board and to accommodate growing demand, they traded up to a much bigger barge, Hawthorn. Having taken delivery of the barge as a shell, they spent three years fitting it out before making the 22-hour crossing to Ireland in 2009. “We were attracted by the sense of openness and wildness of the Irish waterways,” says Jill.
“What has made this possible for us is that we had relevant skills,” Giles says. Hawthorn’s inviting interior is testament to that know-how and creativity. Seamless curved bulkheads enhance the sense of space and there are plenty of savvy solutions such as a walk-through bathroom, a fold-away table, an underfloor cold store, and a concealed pullout TV.
“It’s around 51 sqm which is comparable to a one-bedroom flat, and we use the 14 sqm rear cabin as a workshop. This would normally be the en suite spare bedroom. After living on a narrowboat, we instinctively exploited every bit of space and wanted it to be as open as possible,” Giles says. “Despite this, there are things we would do differently. I would love a bigger workshop as we can’t mix steel, wood and cloth in the space we have, and a studio would be great for Jill. The people who fit out boats say your third boat is the best but we’re not going to do a third.”
Everything runs off solar power in summer and there’s also a generator that runs the washing machine. Jill’s culinary wonders are whipped up on the gas hob and cooker in summer and on the oil-fired Rayburn in winter. “It’s gravity fed so we can leave it for up to a fortnight and we won’t come back to burst pipes,” says Giles. “We’re thinking of getting a t-shirt made that states: ‘Yes, we do live in it; and no, it’s not cold in winter,” laughs Jill. “If boats are well insulated they can be as warm as a house. We used spray foam,” Giles says.
Nature provides many of the ingredients in Jill’s dishes, with nettles and wild raspberries and strawberries featuring often and lots of fruit and vegetables gifted to the couple. Giles also occasionally provides trout, pike or perch from a fishing stint. “We try to be as self-sufficient as possible. Living on the water, we’re very close to nature which makes you more conscious of the environment. You see the world with a different set of eyes.”
The lounge reflects the couple’s love of reading and art. Painted tongue-and-groove panelling and oak floorboards add to the sense of comfort. “Some people go for carpet but we started out with our rescue dog, a Labrador cross, Hobbes, who died in 2012, and dogs, muddy towpaths and carpets don’t go together too well,” says Jill.
Wintering in Athlone gives Jill time to concentrate on her linocut prints and etchings, while Giles catches up with his writing. For the rest of the year, they literally go with the flow. “Rivers can flood, you can be caught somewhere and you wait for it to subside. However, there’s also the other side of it,” Giles points out. “We went down the Barrow in 2011 and it was too dry for us to get the boat back so we spent six weeks in Graiguenamanagh, an extraordinarily wonderful place.
“We have friends up and down the river and we often arrive at a harbour expecting a quiet night to find people we know there,” Giles says. Jill adds: “We can also hide ourselves away if we want. We both like the tranquility of it all.”
As a hobby, Giles surveys the Shannon, supplying data to a friend who uses it to make charts. “Mainly we do what everyone else does – we just don’t do it in bricks and mortar,” he says.
Living on a boat requires physical strength and despite her petite frame, Jill is hands-on. “I machined all the wood for the interior but the finish is entirely Jill’s efforts,” says Giles. “It also helps to have mechanical knowledge. There’s a saying that you either have to know what you’re doing when living on a boat or have lots of money.”
Public moorings on Ireland’s waterways are free for the first five days, Giles says. “There are no charges but you’re meant to move on once that time is up. Because we live and work all over the system we’re rarely anywhere public for more than five days. The exception is the winter months in Athlone when we pay a monthly charge to use the council’s moorings.”
Not having children has made it easier for the couple to pursue their dream. “People can bring up children on houseboats but it gets more difficult to move constantly with children as they get older,” Giles remarks. “Being debt-free also makes things easier. Our overheads are very low. We don’t own a car – we have bicycles. We love the freedom of being able to move whenever we want; we’re probably the most travelled private boat on the system,” he says. “Home is where the boat is,” echoes Jill.
There are challenges, such as opening a bank account and getting post. “If you don’t have a permanent address, you can come up against some difficulties. But in general, we’ve found technology makes our lives so much easier,” says Jill.
“Our experience in this country has been a pleasurable one,” adds Giles. “There is a big culture of living on boats in England but a lot more requirements come with it than in Ireland. I’m surprised more people aren’t doing it here. Constant movement means Hawthorn is exempt from marina charges, and not being fixed structures, boats are currently exempt from water and property charges.” Long may that last.
All aboard... Is this the life for you?
Don’t jump in head first. Rent a boat or barge from one of Ireland’s hire companies such as Barrowline Cruisers (barrowline.ie) in Co Laois, where you’ll get full instruction as well as an idea of the practical skills and agility required. This will provide some insight into life aboard. Bear in mind child safety, especially in winter, warns Philip Crean of Barrowline Cruisers.
Contact Waterways Ireland (waterwaysireland.org) to familiarise yourself with the regulations and mooring information. “Waterways Ireland currently has revised canal bye laws with the minister which would enable regulation and use of the canals by houseboats,” says spokeswoman Katrina McGirr. Waterways Ireland has installed moorings with services which can support houseboat berths in Shannon harbour, Sallins and the Grand Canal Dock in Dublin, she adds. The intended fee for a houseboat is between €1,500 to €3,500 a year, depending on location and services.
There’s a residential boat owners association in the UK, and several boating forums where technical questions can be asked. If you want to leave a boat in one place and use it as you would a fixed dwelling, make sure that is going to be possible. Giles also suggests chatting with the owners of any marinas you think might be suitable.
A boat comparable to Hawthorn would cost at least €250,000 but that is unusually expensive and residential boats and barges can be bought for a lot less. Check out Apollo Duck (apolloduck.co.uk) for both the Irish and UK options. There are Irish boat builders such as Riversdale Barges (riversdaleholidays.com) and other options abroad. It’s often easier to buy a boat that’s already been lived on as it’s more likely to be set up. Employ a marine surveyor to look over any boat you’re considering buying.
Be prepared to roll up your sleeves. A boat needs to be maintained, particularly its hull which needs to be anti-fouled and have new anodes welded on every couple of years, says Philip Crean. “Also you have to get to service points for fuel and pump-outs for toilets.”
The ability to live off-grid is helpful. Shore power of 240V is really only available at official Waterways Ireland houseboat moorings or in the charged-for marinas, and not all marinas welcome live-aboards.