With spiralling property values in central London a barge provided this owner with a sleek city pad
Helen Logan’s quest to find her ideal city pad culminated, last September, in her pouring expensive bottles of champagne into the Thames. No, she wasn’t experiencing a fit of madness – just doing the equivalent of nailing a plaque above her new front door. The answer to Helen’s prayers for an affordable central London home, with some outdoor space and at least 70sqm to mould to her own design, materialised in the form of a floating Dutch barge.
Helen wasn’t about to incur the wrath of the gods by changing the barge’s name without their permission, so she had to honour the long-standing rules of the river. ‘According to mythology, to rename your boat you must pour one bottle of champagne into the river to propitiate Neptune and erase the old name, then another bottle to bribe him to accept the new name,’ explains Helen. ‘And it has to be good champagne!’ So with her friends gathered round on the roof deck of her newly converted houseboat in Battersea, that’s exactly what Helen did to celebrate her new life as one of the Thames’ river people.
The new name, The Chelonia, is Latin for sea turtle – the creature which carries its home on its back. This isn’t what Helen, an architect at Allies & Morrison, had in mind when she began her search. ‘I was looking for a project – a one-bedroom flat I could convert into a two-bed, but for what I wanted the prices were out of my reach.’ What she did find were a few boats for sale through estate agents, offering the size she was after at the right price. ‘I thought: “What’s the catch?” but decided to take a look,’ she says. They weren’t suitable, but inspired Helen to ask around about the possibility of living afloat. ‘Suddenly all these boaty people came out of the woodwork,’ she laughs. ‘A client who lived on the river mentioned a boat on the market at his mooring. I came to take a look and I knew immediately it could be the one.’
Despite not being your archetypal ‘boaty person’, Helen saw the glaring benefits offered by the wide-beam, ex-cargo Dutch barge, with four distinct quarters offering 70sqm of decent living space with generous ceilings, and for £179,000 including the mooring, she snapped it up. Not that buying the boat was trouble-free: ‘Before you make a final offer you must have a survey and insurance in place, so the boat went off to be inspected in a dry dock,’ says Helen. On the way to the boatyard the engine broke down, but Helen knew it would merely bring down the price. She also felt reassured as the boat was being sold by a boat broker not an estate agent, who had more expertise of the technical side of things. ‘It’s funny – as an architect, doing up my home should be a walk in the park,’ she says. ‘But I was about to do up a boat, so I was heading outside of my comfort zone.’
Originally a cargo carrier built in Holland around 1900, the boat had few creature comforts for most of its working life, until it was converted into a houseboat when it retired, and was later brought to England in the Seventies. ‘It was fitted out to live on when I first saw it,’ says Helen. ‘But I had to be careful not to upset the current owner who could see by all the measurements I was taking that I was going to strip it out.’ The boat had a wood-panelled maritime decor and suffered from a poor layout with the bedroom and living room at either end, and the bathroom and compact galley kitchen in the centre.
With the space split over three levels, Helen envisaged opening up the centre space as the living room, with two bedrooms, a bathroom and en suite in front on the lowest level, then putting the kitchen and a utility room to the rear, which is higher up. She chose to leave the wheelhouse (the top-level ‘cockpit’ with steering wheel, controls and panoramic windows for navigating) alone for use as a study, retaining a nautical contrast to the contemporary living spaces. Having taken care of the design, Helen appointed a marine contractor, Peter Lewis, to carry out the works, and the boat went off to Acorn Boatyard in Rochester to be stripped out and completely refitted.
The boat was stripped right back, leaving only the steel hull exposed. The boatyard’s metalworkers removed a bulkhead to make the living room and kitchen open plan, cutting a skylight above the living area, and adding a new hatch to access the roof deck from the kitchen. All the windows were removed and refurbished by a marine specialist, to help retain the look of the boat. Then it was a case of lagging the shell with very thin insulation and lining it with plywood, which is painted white throughout. Solid-wood floors were laid next, and finally the partition walls put in place to create the new rooms. Kitchen units from Ikea make a spacious modern galley that leads straight to the living area situated down a few wide steps, or to the envious roof deck.
The finished result is a resounding success: bright, airy spaces overlooking the water give on to cosy cabin-like rooms, such as the elegant master bedroom nestled in the prow. Light is used carefully for varied effects – the low-slung living room with its cleverly placed skylight has a pleasant, shaded ambience that contrasts with the light-flooded kitchen above. Helen’s trick, as on all boats, has been to utilise all wall cavities by fitting cupboards, while radiators and shelves are set into alcoves to give a sleek, contemporary finish.
Plumbing and lighting is also recessed so as not to interrupt the overall effect of a clean space. ‘Everything is as tight as it can be,’ says Helen. There were inevitably a few geometrical headaches with fittings – getting the sliding door to the master bedroom to sit properly was a challenge. ‘The hull curves upwards as you move towards the prow, so we had to decide where to create straight lines and where to follow its shape,’ explains Helen. ‘Here, Peter’s expertise was invaluable.’ The joinery demanded exceptional skill. While the sloping hull causes minor inconveniences – Helen can only hang paintings on the partition walls – it has also been used to spectacular effect along one living-room wall, where ply has been curved to form a graceful alcove which looks appropriately shipshape.
Now that it’s finished to her exact specifications, Helen is perfectly delighted with her floating home. ‘I love living here – it has so much going for it,’ she says. ‘Being outside in the summer is wonderful and it’s a great place for entertaining.’ The only drawback to life on board, she says, is the nagging uncertainty of not owning your mooring, for which you pay annual fees. However, with her proximity to the bustling city and a brooding stretch of river to call her back garden, the few drawbacks are fairly balanced by the huge benefits.
‘Don’t rely on one macerator to pump out your waste water – if it breaks down you are completely stuck, so always have two plumbed in.
Contractor Peter Lewis Marine Systems: 07831 800 470
Exterior painting Scrub ’n’ Lick: 07743 870 748
Wood flooring Floorco Direct: 01933 418 899
Kitchen cabinets IKEA: www.ikea.co.uk
Tiles and ironmongery Romanys: www.romanys.uk.com
Lighting Mr Resistor: www.mr-resistor.co.uk
Plumbing fittings Bathstore: www.bathstore.com
Boatyard Acorn Shipyard Ltd: 01634 841 356
Boat broker London Tideways Harbour Company: 020 8748 2718
Insurance GWJ Direct: 0151 473 6000
Surveyor James MacDonald: 01923 248 145
Words: Fiona Sibley Images: Edina Van Der Wyck