Sarah Jasmon - the novelist who finds inspiration in her canal boat
PUBLISHED: 00:00 20 April 2020 | UPDATED: 19:03 22 April 2020
Author Sarah Jasmon lifts the lid on life aboard a narrowboat on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal
It’s winter, and the ice on the canal is a foot thick. This means I can’t move the boat, can’t go and fill my water tank, can’t empty the toilet. I slipped on a pavement a couple of weeks ago and fractured my arm, so that’s now in plaster. And the generator has just refused to start. No water, no light, no heating apart from the wood burner. Thank goodness for the wood burner.
These were moments, as a single parent bringing up three children on a boat, which made life interesting. Our first few cold winters took me back to my 1970s childhood, waking up to frost patterns on the inside of the windows and running into the living room to dress in front of the fire. We made it through, though. That awful winter, I found someone to fix the generator, borrowed a PortaPotti from a friend, and the people who lived in a nearby bungalow let us run a double-length hosepipe from their outdoor tap to fill the water tank. And there was fun to be had, even in the middle of the various crises, taking a sledge into the village to get shopping and sliding down the middle of the icy canal. It was like being in a classic children’s novel.
Our boat was built in 2005. A couple of years previously we’d sold our flat in Eastbourne and spent a summer driving across Europe in a camper van. We’d then returned for a year of locum jobs (my then-husband was a physiotherapist), living in an assortment of winter lets and ramshackle flats as we decided what to do next. For reasons which seemed logical at the time, our best two options were a boat, or a rundown French farmhouse. We didn’t have the capital for house renovations, and couldn’t speak enough French for professional jobs, so the boat it was. It was our boat, and then it was my boat, the challenges of life on the water uncovering the fractures in our marriage.
When I ask my kids about the pros and cons of growing up on a boat, they talk about plumbing, mostly. The necessity of getting your own water (there’s a 200 litre tank under the front deck) means you don’t ever leave the tap running and always keep showers short. Electricity has to be generated and then stored in a bank of batteries under the back deck. If you get the timing wrong, or use too much power, you have to make do without your tablet or phone. At its best, a boat is a self-contained eco-unit; at worst, it’s your mum always saying no.
The plus sides, though, are many. People pay a premium for canal-side properties these days, and we’ve had the same benefits and more. The morning dog walk is right outside: a step across the gangplank, over the stone bridge and down the towpath. Elderflowers, plums and blackberries are right there in the hedgerows, waiting to be made into jam or flavour a bottle of gin.
The children grew up outside, making dens in ditches and climbing trees. That’s what they remember as their positives, the freedom and the closeness. You can’t get away from people on a boat, don’t have the opportunity to flounce off and slam doors. Instead, you learn to share space, to talk instead of shouting, hug it out. That closeness has paid off: two of them are currently sharing a flat, with the third living minutes down the road from them.
The canal is also a community in a way that house living never really was. It’s a linear village, where the homes sail past every now and then, and we know each other by our boat names. If you have a problem, you ask another boater and they will either know the answer or know someone who does. We get to know the passers-by as well, the walkers and the runners, and the fellow dog-walkers. It’s a place where people stop for a chat. Time slows down by the water.
And the best bit, still, after 15 years? I get to say I live on a boat, and that never gets old.
Sarah’s second novel, You Never Told Me, is out now – and it’s set on a canal boat.