Cruising the canals

1 May|Benjamin Ranyard

The enviable view from Benjamin's office. Photo by Benjamin Ranyard.

Benjamin Ranyard runs the Higgledy Garden flower seed company from his boat Casper.

My home is a 30-year-old 45ft steel narrowboat called Casper. A few years ago I had saved up the cash for a deposit on a house. As I worked out how long it would take me to pay the loan off, I realised I was going to be owned by my house. So I looked at other options. It turned out that, while a narrowboat is more work to keep up than a rented flat, it is also £3000-4000-a-year cheaper.

It made sense to me to have a chapter of my life on the hoof while I still have the vitality to do it. I can run my flower seeds business, Higgledy Garden, from anywhere in the UK that has a phone signal. I’m approaching 50, I’m having a mid-life crisis and it’s bloody glorious.

My canal and river licence requires me to move on every two weeks. I’m presently on a journey from Oxford to Cambridge – two hours by car – two months by boat.

The canal network is over 2000 miles long. You can moor up anywhere you like on pretty much all of it and your licence is just £900 a year.

My business, Higgledy Garden, is one of the UK’s only independent seed companies. I supply seeds for cut- ower gardens to the domestic market and to farms. I help promote the “grown not flown” movement to encourage the use of British-grown flowers rather than flying them over from Kenya and Columbia. There’s a big shift in the consumer-led market; many more florists and supermarkets starting to stock-British grown flowers.

I work from the boat. Not having to commute is an utter joy. If there is one thing I loathe more than working for someone else, it’s having to travel to do it. I usually get stock from seed suppliers sent poste restante to post offices, but very often canalside pubs are happy to receive boaters’ parcels.

This year I am growing a cut-flowers patch on the roof of my
boat, in builders’ buckets, demonstrating it’s possible to grow flowers for cutting almost anywhere.

I have a dog, Flash, a 14-month- old Hungarian Vizsla. I’d like to say things like, “He’s my best friend,” but the truth is he’s a bastard who hides my socks.

I have about 35ft of living space, 6ft wide. There’s a bedroom at the stern, a bathroom to the port side then an open-plan space with the galley and a saloon with a single bunk/sofa. In theory, the boat sleeps three, but we’ve had eight people and two dogs sleep aboard. It all involved tequila and two sunsets.

The previous owner painted over a lot of the dark wood and made it a home. It’s a bit Farrow & Ball for my style, but instead of making the boat look like some floating Pinterest tart I’d rather spend the money and time exploring the navigable waterways, the job Casper was built for. My style? “Acceptable Bachelor”.

We have a multi-fuel, Morse Squirrel stove, which burns coal as well as wood and it’s kept the whole boat warm, even in the last fierce winter. It has a wild-eared (Swedish) squirrel emblazoned on its sides. and it exudes warm, flickering, dreamy heat and light into my floating home. When we were gripped by “the Beast from the East”, Casper was ice-bound and we couldn’t move till it thawed. Happily, we were close to a pub and a farm shop.

On the Oxford Canal, a fuel boat called Dusty patrols the waterway, keeping us in coal, gas and diesel. I use a 25kg sack per week if the temperatures are just above freezing (£12 a sack) and a sack-and-a-half if it’s totally brass monkeys.

All my electrics are 12v lights, water pumps, charging for my computer, phone, torches and vacuum cleaner. For roughly nine months of the year, all my power needs come from just 335w of solar panel; otherwise I run the engine to supplement power to the battery bank. I run my home and my business on 80 per cent solar which really improves my levels of smugness.

You can’t be disorganised and live in a small space. A boat can get very messy very quickly but then it can be cleaned up quickly too. The less stuff you have the better. I gave my books away and now have an E-Reader and all my music is the cloud. But I have space for a two-month supply of non- perishable food in case of a zombie outbreak or if I moor up somewhere incredible and can’t be motivated to go to the shops.

Being a live-aboard boater is a wonderful life for many – but a narrowboat is a boat before it’s a home. There are people who move aboard in the summer with a big smile and a skip in their step, but in deep winter they look as if they’ve been overly involved in a Steven King convention. Don’t consider living aboard if you’re not at least ten per cent feral.

I decided not to grow the business into selling in garden centres or DIY stores because I’d have to move off the boat and become a manager. As things are, I can run Higgledy Garden from the boat, I’ve got sufficient funds in the coffers, and enough spare time to enjoy a travelling life on the water.

A longer version of this piece appears in Idler 60. Buy a copy here or sign up to our Digital membership to read it on your device.