In the first article of the “My Community” series, Deb tells us about her time living and working on the British Canals as a hostess on one of the few remaining hotel boats.
The term community conjures many images. The ones that to my mind are those of idyllic, green, Tolkien-esque villages full of free minded flowing people and chickens. Also I imagine inner suburban areas where a few helpful people have joined together with the aim of making the area nicer to live in and to bring others together. As I am writing these articles, my rather naïve concept of community is growing and changing, and I am thoroughly enjoying the learning experience.
The first definition of community that occurs in the dictionary is “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common”. I like this. It broadens my view of community and makes me see that once it has been recognised; a sense of community can exist anywhere and can involve anyone.
On this note, I would like to talk about my current community involvement on The UK Canal System. It has been difficult to refine this topic as it is a constantly moving, transient environment, but I think I have managed to bring some kind of order to it!
So, on the canals, I am involved in three communities.
- The Insular Community
- The Temporary Community
- The Permanent Community
The Insular Community
The community closest to my heart. This is the community of people that I live with and work with every day on the boats. My boating family. “The Team”.
Within this close community, we have to work hard on immediate life. We have to maintain and love our home, the boats. We have to constantly share an intensely small space, requiring self-awareness, patience, intuition, support and camaraderie.
There is an extension to this, where our insular community connects to other insular communities in the same position. There are other hotel boats, who we share information with, support and who are a part of their own official grouping.
The Temporary Community
Every night we moor up the boats in a different location. Sometimes, this location is in the middle of the countryside with ‘nowt but a pub and postbox. Other times we are moored in major cities surrounded by the hubbub of sirens and music or occasionally in urban areas where the canals are unkempt and full of litter.
This temporary positioning requires two major things in order to be a viable lifestyle and community option; Trust and Respect.
Boats (and all mobile homes) are a delicate place as they are much more vulnerable than bricks and mortar. It really doesn’t take much to upset a boat. You can break into them easily, you can untie ropes…. I won’t continue giving you ideas of how to annoy boat owners at this point, but you get the idea.
Choosing your position, and your community for the night requires you to trust the people around you (whether that’s other boat owners or people who live in the area) and for them to trust that you will do no damage to your temporary environment. You also need to respect each other’s privacy and what little personal space you have.
The Larger Community
The canals are a network. Just like our road and rail systems, they require constant maintenance and organisation on a massive scale. They provide employment, homes, industry, leisure and tourism to the UK, and in my opinion we as a nation are very lucky to have them. Increasingly, thanks to volunteers, television programmes, awareness projects and a push for alternative lifestyles, the canals are continuing to be maintained and will be available for future generations. Prior to World War 1, the canals had been our major logistical route for 200 years, with all cargo being transported by canal. After the war, when trains became our major mode of transportation as the country struggled back to its feet, the canals were all but lost. If it wasn’t for the incredibly dedicated and hard workings of passionate volunteers, we wouldn’t have them today.
Two years ago, British Waterways (a business that owned and maintained the canals) changed to a charity status, and are now called the Canal and River Trust. This means that volunteer positions, to assist with the running and maintenance of the canals, are more readily available and advertised, which encourages people to get involved in the waterways around them, widening the canal community and getting people in touch with their environment.
Those people who support and care for their local canal, are making the whole system function. They provide for the immediate environment around them, for the temporary community that pops up and changes on a nightly basis, which in turn, helps the insular communities on board every boat.
You’ve probably worked out that the insular, temporary and permanent community terms that I have used do not just need to apply to the canal system. Every living environment can find these aspects of community; it is your involvement within them and recognition of them that matters.
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