This interview was originally published on The Indiependent
Gabby Heneghan, 26, and Calum Henderson, 28, live with two-year-old cockapoo Bilston on their recently renovated houseboat, and are currently moored in London’s Little Venice during lockdown.
Gabby is from Carlisle, Cumbria, and works as a team coordinator for the charity Save the Children’s Humanitarian Public Health team; she is currently working from her office space in the boat because of the UK Government’s recommendations that people work from home where possible to prevent the spread of coronavirus – much to the joy of Bilston, who has been Gabby’s desk buddy.
Calum grew up in North Wales and works as a plumber and handyman, having previously worked as a hairdresser for ten years. Calum said: “At the moment I’m doing reactive maintenance, so I just go and finish off any jobs that I’m doing, or I do emergency repairs or changeovers. I’ve been out about three or four days a week recently, but we’ve probably got about three weeks of no work coming up. It’s a bit of a worry, but at least we don’t have any overheads.”
The couple has been together for two-and-a-half years, but decided to move into together a year into their relationship. Gabby said: “It was exactly a year since we met that we ‘floated’ the idea of moving in together. You spend so much time with someone and you just get to the point where you can’t justify the cost of renting separately in London anymore.”
They were inspired to buy and do up a boat after watching the TV shows How To Live Mortgage Free and Netflix’s Amazing Interiors. Calum had helped to fit a bathroom for a boat owner who had appeared on the latter show two years previously. They called him up, keen to see for themselves whether boat living was possible without sacrificing any creature comforts. Calum said: “It was an apartment style environment and had underfloor heating that was on on a cold winter’s day. And then he told us he’d spent £90,000 and he was selling it for £200,000, so that was what sealed the deal.”
With few affordable housing options in central London, and a lack of desire to commit to a shared ownership scheme, Calum and Gabby decided to take the plunge and get on the water. Although you don’t need a boat driving license to own a boat, the couple did a one day helmsman course with a community boating charity based in Camden called Pirate Castle. Then they each put down £25,000 to buy the shell of a boat, and once it was dropped in the water near Watford, worked flat out for a year to transform its interior and exterior. Calum said: ‘We were keen to get our hands on our own project, rather than carrying on renting or trying to buy something that we would never be able to make what we wanted anyway because we’d never have the finances.”
When it came to financing the investment, Gabby said: “Calum is one of the maddest savers I’ve ever come across. I do not have the same commitment to saving so I took a loan out with my parents. I was lucky enough to be able to do that and they’ve been really flexible about us paying them back.”
Since that initial down payment, they have been financing as they go, each putting £750 a month away. They’ve only taken out one loan for their electrics, and so they are on track to spend £90,000 when it’s completely finished – £20,000 over their initial budget of £70,000. This excess spend has come from a number of luxury touches the couple have opted for as part of their goals to create a hassle-free living environment, such as their plan to fit a state-of-the-art water filtration system that will make the canal water drinkable. Calum said: “I think you could do it for £70-73,000. But for instance, our electric system cost us £8,000 instead of £2,500 and because we’ve got underfloor heating, that cost another £2,000. So it’s just luxuries that we’ve installed.”
Gabby added: “We got halfway through and it was like, do we go for an IKEA kitchen? Or do we spend that extra little bit of money and go for something a bit nicer knowing that we’re going to live on this a few years, and compared to what most of our friends are paying on properties it’s nothing? It’s £90,000, that’s really not that much for what we’re going to get in central London.”
They made a number of sacrifices to finish the renovation as soon as possible, including camping on the boat since one month into the project. Living on a building site for a year entailed cooking on a camping stove, doing daily shopping trips because of an inability to refrigerate food, and travelling up to 20 minutes to a gym for a shower in the evenings. It wasn’t always easy, but the couple now chalks up the bulk of their disagreements to ‘hanger’ (when your anger is actually just misplaced hunger). Calum said: “I think there were definitely points where we were so annoyed with each other and it was putting such a strain on us, but we knew that even if the relationship was over, there was no other choice but to finish the boat, so we just dug deep and carried on.”
Gabby added: “You hear these stories but until you actually do a renovation you can’t quite fully appreciate how difficult it is, because you’ve got everything involved, like the stress of money and how quickly you’re spending it, because you just leak it; you’ve got your time and the fact you’re not seeing your friends. We were just in each other’s pocket for an entire year. We would never lie and say that we handled it perfectly – and we also fight like cat and dog, we bicker. But I also think we got through it and we now have this beautiful home to show for it, which makes it all worth it.”
Calum said: “They normally say doing up a boat takes you two years. And we did it in one but we had no life. I was probably working three weeks on, one week off. So I was doing one whole week on the boat – evenings weekends. We didn’t go to anyone’s birthdays. We even almost skipped Christmas.”
This lack of work-life balance has had a knock-on effect now that the couple have finished the bulk of the renovation, and are finally catching up with friends, taking part in pub quizzes via Zoom. Gabby said: “We’re awful, we lose every one! We haven’t kept up with anything for the last year, so our general knowledge has severely taken a hit when it comes to pop culture!”
As well as being fiercely self-motivated, Calum and Gabby’s project was rushed through to completion before lockdown was enforced across the UK because of an exciting opportunity the couple had to showcase their home transformation. In many ways, this early April deadline was a blessing in disguise; and to top it all off, their hot water cylinder arrived the day after everything went into lockdown, enabling them to finally have hot showers. Gabby said: “We do have some friends who embarked on projects at the same time as us who we’ve met along the way who are nowhere near as set up as we are.”
In terms of advice they would give to anyone thinking of embarking on their own water-based renovation project, Calum and Gabby both stressed that you can’t see the boat as a house because it’s completely different: “I think it’s being clever about it and looking at it from an engineering perspective rather than thinking you can cheat, because it’s a boat – it moves, it twists, it pops, it get hot, it cools down. So whatever you do will need to flex with the boat and change.”
Calum added: “We’ve tried to plan everything in our design for the worst case scenario. So we’ve put underfloor heating in but we’ve also put access holes throughout the boat, so that if we ever get a leak, we can get under the boat to get to it. And same with our electrics; if anything was to ever break – we don’t imagine it will – but we’ve tried to design for that if it ever happens.”
One worse case scenario the couple didn’t plan for though, was the bed bugs they unknowingly brought back from a holiday in the early stages of the project. Calum said: “We didn’t have any furniture that was affected, thankfully, but the worry was because the boat is made of layered the wood, that when they came to fumigate it, it wasn’t seeping in far enough and they were concerned that the bed bugs had made a nest further in the walls. So it took four fumigations and by the fourth one they said we weren’t allowed anymore and the next stage would be to heat the boat up to a certain temperature which would have buckled all the wood.”
This nightmare scenario cost a hefty £1,500 and set the project back a month overall. However, the duo are able to laugh about it now as they recall walking over 26 bags of washing down the towpath to a laundrette service, three bags at a time, after Calum got back from a stag do that had bookended their own getaway.
But, in spite of this setback and the relationship obstacles they encountered along the way, the houseboat is now finally a place that Gabby and Calum can call home. It’s a blueprint the couple hope they can use as they embark on other renovation projects for clients in the future. As a tradesman, Calum feels that the skills and knowledge he has developed are completely different to those which he would need if he was working in a flat or house. He said: “All the things that we did on our boat are things that people don’t normally do. We fitted a skylight after it had come out of being built at the factory, whereas normally unless the boat builder fits one, they don’t really suggest doing it. And we put underfloor heating in, which isn’t normal on boats. We’ve put the equivalent of Tesla car batteries in just to keep up with consumption. So there’s lots of things that we’ve implemented that aren’t the norm. And ours has basically been the guinea pig and then we hope to market that to other people now it’s tried and tested.”
Are they happy with their guinea pig now that the dust has settled and they’ve got a lot more time at home on the boat to enjoy the fruits of their labour? Perfectionist Calum is definitely enjoying sunning himself on the roof of the boat, but still has a snagging list of things he wants to fix when lockdown is over. At the moment the couple is currently enjoying living on the boat and figuring out how best to optimise it for their needs. They still need to dress the space, so Gabby is keeping herself busy by perusing Facebook Marketplace and Gumtree for bargains. She has a fruit bowl that she plans to cover with copper spray paint and there’s a set of drawers she wants to paint too.
These keen creatives are evidently keen to kit their home out with sustainable, upcycled pieces that are reflective of their industrial design tastes, but there are some areas where they won’t be compromising – for instance, they’ve got their eye on an L-shaped forest green Made.com sofa. But for all of Gabby’s window-shopping, all purchases are on hold for now, as not only can the couple not pick anything up because of self-isolation measures, they also aren’t sure what Calum’s work situation will be so are trying to be financially pragmatic. Gabby said: “It’s comfortable enough, even without all the fluff – it’s still really nice and it’s still probably nicer than most of the rented accommodation we’ve ever lived in.”
Space wise, the couple don’t feel like they are living on top of each other too much, as their boat is only 5 metres out from the square footage of the average one bedroom apartment. What they are finding difficult, however, is trying to cram all of their boat life admin into their one daily outing.
Under normal circumstances, the boat owners would have to move two miles every 14 days, and be on a continuous trip of 25 miles. But at the moment, the government has advised no moving unless it’s for one essential outing – whether that’s getting rid of rubbish, filling up water, moving to somewhere quieter or getting diesel, fuel etc.
Calum and Gabby’s boat is self-sufficient on electricity, and they also have a compost toilet. However, they usually need to fill up the water tank once every ten days. But with gyms currently closed due to COVID-19, they are finding they are needing to fill up more frequently. Gabby said: “It’s probably more like every Saturday at the moment just because with us both being here so much the consumptions gone crazy.”
Callum said: “The biggest challenge has been not being able to get out, as we’re quite active and if we’re not working on the boat normally we’d like to go to the gym, and then take the dog for a big walk.”
Gabby said: “We’ve had some hilarious home workouts. We have these little Argos stools that we use for everything, and we were doing a step-up exercise but we had to position Calum exactly between the two beams in the skylight so that he could stand up on it without hitting his head!”
As Gabby is coeliac, the couple has also had some difficulties in trying to find enough gluten free products, as they find it difficult to stockpile on the boat due to limited storage space. Calum said: “The first week of lockdown, Gabby was away on a work trip all week so when she came back we went to Sainsbury’s to try and stockpile and the only gluten free thing they had was they had two gluten free pizzas left in the freezer, there was nothing gluten free available in the whole shop. So we were a bit worried then that it was going to carry on like that, and that we would really struggle to try and get food for her.”
However, the situation has thankfully improved since then. The duo plans to stay put where they are in Little Venice because there is a wide range of independent convenience stores where they can get enough gluten free food for Gabby. Gabby said: “It was a good two to three weeks before the gluten free section was restocked. It’s only in the past two weeks that we’ve managed to get products from that.”
Generally, other boat owners in this area seem to be coping just fine with being told to stay put where they are, although there are a few gripes about increased traffic on the towpath. Calum said: “There’s grumbles just about the amount of footfall now on the towpath because everyone comes to use it as their place to exercise and also we find, in central, that if you’re near a bench that tends to become the replacement pub beer garden.”
Gabby said: “It’s 50/50, half the community is saying, “Stop kicking up a fuss, it’s a public right of way” and then the other half of the community thinks that they should be closed for only essential use and boaters.”
While the towpath might be busier despite signage asking people to consider their towpath usage, lockdown has had a noticeable impact on the local environment. Calum added: “We can see through the water at the moment. You can definitely notice it in the wildlife and the water and pollution levels – there’s no planes going over head, you can see the bottom of the canal which you never can!”
Gaby paints a similarly pretty picture of life on board: “Right now, we’ve got the swan hatch open, which faces onto the canal, and the water is just dancing on the ceiling and the sun is streaming in and it’s lovely.”
It’s hard not to be jealous of Calum and Gabby’s lockdown environment. It would seem that they’ve found crew love, withstanding the test the renovation project presented for their relationship. While they might not be able to sail off into the sunset together just yet, they seem equally primed to weather the COVID-19 storm.
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