Weed smoking hippies or water born nomads? Tab meets: the river dwellers

CHARLIE DOWELL explores the moorings of the Cam and meets its colourful floating inhabitants.

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The river is a place many of us visit. Be it an early morning row, a stress busting run or a playful punt, we all probably have some experience and connection with the Cam. For everyone powering past in their coxed eight or pounding the toe path with a muddy pair of trainers, there is one mystery that hangs amongst the morning mist: the river dwellers. Who are these nonconformists? Water born nomads? Social misfits? Weed smoking hippies? I decided to let curiosity lead and find out.

Setting out along the Cam on a globally warmed March day, I was somewhat nervous about meeting the river folk. My preconception of these people was one of drug addicts, artists who have fallen on hard times or of some romanticised type of gypsy, moving along the waters to find work and wood for a fire. In some ways the incongruity of my existence in comparison to theirs, made my probing initially feel intrusive, just as when Louis Theroux interviews nutcases for the BBC.

Cam sweet Cam

Plucking up some semblance of courage, I introduced myself to a man basking topless in the midday sun, pint in hand reading from a tablet computer. His long, well kept narrow-boat reflected the sun painfully in my eyes, as I struck up what was a surprisingly normal conversation. His name was Steven, a health and safety officer in a department store in town, who had moved to the river following a divorce three years ago. If it were not for the aquatic setting he would be just another normal guy, enjoying the sunshine in a normal way, before he got back to his normal job on the Monday.  This was not what I was expecting. No nomadic existence, no life as a failed impressionist.

Probably just paused his game of Angry Birds

Moving down the bank, I stopped to speak to a women lounging on top of her boat next to a young black and white dog.  Again, chatting to her, my hope of a romanticised story was dashed, as she said she was just a chemistry teacher in a local village and her move to the water was one of financial reasoning, rather than a spontaneous urge. She explained as long you don’t mind getting your hands dirty or living with the seasons, life on the river it pretty easy and cheap. Paying a relatively small price for a mooring near the centre of town and owning your own home for around 50k, is an attractive option. On the hottest day of the year doubly so. Trying to find some aspect to break this idyll, I broached the subject of rowers.

Many of you will be familiar of the sound of oar scraping upon hull at six in the morning and been interested to find out the view of those inside. Being a rower for Lent term last year, I was convinced they hated it, shaking their fists as their mornings were broken by shouts of “Mind your blades!” and the inevitable clash.  To my surprise again, most of the people I spoke to seemed not to mind. Sophie, who I was chatting to, even rowed while she was at Uni while others enjoyed the view from on top of their boats. David, who lived in a more dishevelled set up with his dog Blue, took a more practical approach, saying the fairer sex were welcome to ‘make a few dents’.

David conformed more to my preformed view of the river: his grizzled appearance and hard working hands seemed to betray untold stories.  Asking him about odd goings on, he told me about the several dead bodies he’s seen floating along the Cam, a rape under a nearby bridge and the rat he killed the night before. Laughing into his beer, he mimicked how he had strung up the rodent and taken photographs. Despite these oddities, his nonchalance in answering made the situation seem normal. For him living on the river made simple sense: either live in a beautiful location with nature or in a council flat.

David’s dog Blue clearly not impressed

The beauty of living on water was a recurring theme as I spoke to a Portuguese bus driver enjoying a sandwich on top of his gleaming white boat. Speaking in soft accented English, he stressed the importance of making little impact, subsisting off solar panels and having few possessions. If it were not for his normal appearance and job, he could be a hippy, a misfit. Indeed he told me how being an immigrant, he has no real home here or back in Portugal. Perhaps the river is his natural place to live: detached from land, but moored to it.

Heading back into town I met Melissa and Quinn, new residents living opposite Goldie boatclub in their boat Lucky Duck. Having moved in three weeks before, they had just started fulfilling Quin’s boyhood dream. Perhaps living on the water is not too unusual. Their account of waiting lists for moorings and neighbourly conversations made their new life seem more tangible. Not romantic but normal.

Next time I head out of town along this natural byway, past the variety of floating homes adorned in shoes filled with pot plants and ramshackle bicycles, I’ll no longer imagine artisan characters tending their wood burning stoves; rather ordinary people living normal lives, with an invigorating sense for the eccentric.