In this sweltering summer heat, it seems a bit silly to be planning for the winter, but these past few months at anchorage, while lovely, have made it more than clear that we will need to find a pontoon berth come September. Hoisting up buckets of seawater in order to wash dishes and taking cold showers in order to wash ourselves are just fine in July, but I doubt we will feel the same in January. Ferrying ourselves (and our obliging husky) back and forth to shore when the tides allow is a minor inconvenience right now, but the time is soon coming when we will have to seek some form of gainful employment, and it’s rare to find an employer who’s excited about hiring someone whose footwear collection is limited to mud-encrusted welly boots. Living at anchorage certainly has its charms, but until we are ready to set sail and leave life ashore behind entirely, we will need to have easier access to land.
Although Suffolk has been very good to us, during the last few months, we’ve been hatching a plan to move elsewhere. We didn’t buy a boat just to sit in one place forever, after all. We have always loved Cornwall, with its crystal-blue lagoons, ragged cliffs, and strange, prehistoric, otherworldly landscape. Also, there is surfing, people are more relaxed, and the beer is cheaper. We had narrowed our possible winter berthing zone down to the Fal River estuary, where a beautiful network of rivers and creeks converge to create a safe and protected winter climate. So, last week, we left Pas de Deux to her own devices and set off in the van to scout out marinas in the area.
We had high hopes for the Fal River and felt certain we’d return to Pas de Deux with happy tidings for her future, but, sadly, this was not to be. The Fal river system is even more extraordinarily beautiful than we had imagined, and I found more than one thick-walled, thatch-roofed cottage that I wouldn’t mind owning once we’ve decided to give up boat life, but unfortunately the river system is not quite as amenable to liveaboard boaters as we had expected. There are few marinas or boatyards that are happy to take on liveaboards and even fewer that we can actually afford. Marinas in the Falmouth area can cost around £500-600 per meter per year, and even anchoring in the Truro River and nearby creeks costs £6 a night. This is quite a bit compared to our current anchoring costs of £0 per night.
After a bit of searching, our best option seemed to be a charming, but remote boatyard on the Helford River; however, conversations with locals revealed that in recent years the management has been associated with several scandals, including, but not limited to: extortion, bankruptcy, defrauding a charity, and the possession of 37 unregistered firearms. Although the guilty parties had been dismissed the day before we arrived and residents seem convinced that the boatyard’s future is looking brighter by the day, we prefer our encounters with the notorious Cornish criminal element to remain lodged firmly within the pages of Daphne du Maurier novels. (If you haven’t read Jamaica Inn and want to get an idea of what we might have been up against, buy the book on Amazon by clicking this link in the USA and this link in the UK.)
It seems that the two biggest problems with liveaboards in the Fal River area are the same as those which boaters face everywhere in the UK: 1) people think they’re dirty, and 2) it’s very difficult to tax them. The Falmouth area is a popular destination for weekend boaters in smart, well-kempt yachts who generally prefer to sit in their cockpit and sip their gin and tonics without having to look at someone’s underwear drying in the rigging. It goes without saying that, like almost everything in the UK, this is a class issue more than anything else. Permanent liveaboards have a bad reputation for being, well, not very rich, and not many people invest money in a fancy yacht so that they can associate with people poorer than themselves. (If you have any questions about this issue, I will refer you to the classic British television show Keeping Up Appearances, which will teach you everything you need to know about this issue. Get it here in the US and here in the UK.)
The larger problem is the question of taxation. Look, if any of you Americans are imagining that Her Majesty’s Revenues and Customs has lightened up since July 4th, 1776, you are wrong. The Brits still love taxes. I’m a big proponent of filling the public coffers, so I’m not really complaining, but the issue as it relates to boaters has to do with Council Tax, which is a domestic property tax that everyone — even renters — must pay. To many foreigners, like myself, this seems really bizarre (I mean, isn’t rent high enough? Shouldn’t we tax people who are actually profiting from property, like land owners, rather than those who are being condemned to a life of slavery in the workplace because of it?) but that’s just the way it is. As of yet, however, liveaboard boaters cannot be taxed, which wasn’t a problem when their numbers were relatively few, but, in recent years, the rising cost of housing in the UK has meant that more and more people are moving onto boats and, as a consequence, not paying Council Tax.
Council authorities across the UK are trying to find a way around this by pressuring marinas to force liveaboards to pay Council Tax, despite the fact that they have no legal right to do so. I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not going to pretend to understand the ins and outs of the question; my gut feeling is that the Council, which is the same authority responsible for charging £4 an hour for parking in the city center, is probably innately evil and, even though the tax money does go to good things like collecting rubbish and funding libraries, I’m going to look upon all of its activities with a very skeptical eye.
Supposedly, in the Falmouth area, one Councillor in particular has got so upset about liveaboards that he has made it his mission to force them to pay tax, even targeting boatyards employing temporary workers. He’s put a lot of pressure on the local marinas, hence their resistance to liveaboards. At least, this was what one marina owner told us, although he might have been too polite to mention the part about being poor, dirty, and hanging washing in the rigging.
So much for Cornwall. We still have a few leads, but it is looking dangerously like we might be spending another winter on the East Coast. On the up side, our trip provided us with a rare opportunity to use our much beloved camper van and do all of the fun stuff we used to do before owning a sailboat. (Sometimes it seems like boat ownership is like a mild form of parenting: you really love your boat, but life sure was easier before it came along.)
Thanks to the beaches and surfing, Cornwall is the classic UK camper van destination and is full of campgrounds offering pretty much every amenity imaginable. We are way too cheap to stay at any of those, however, and have become masters at finding quiet laybys or other secluded spots in which to park for the night. The only real drawback to camping in this way is the definite lack of shower facilities. If you’re hiking or canoeing in the wilderness, not having a shower isn’t so bad, but travelling around in a camper van usually involves entering the company of civilized people and being forced to pretend to be one of them. There’s also a lot to be said for maintaining hygiene standards when you’re trying to convince marina owners that you’re not a dirty liveaboard, but a clean, respectable “continuous cruiser” who just happens to sleep on her boat 365 nights a year. Some beach facilities have showers for free, but that’s not much help to people staying mostly inland. We were pleased to discover, therefore, that waterside pubs like The Pandora Inn on Restronguet Creek which are set up to accommodate yachties as well as landlubbery guests often have coin-operated shower facilities for boaters. Exciting tip for all of you vanlifers out there.
Our van trips used to be set up primarily around visits to English Heritage sites, since, thanks to a direct debit payment scheme we repeatedly forgot to cancel for 3 years running, we have membership cards and are damn well going to get our money’s worth from them. This trip, we were too distracted by other matters and ended up missing Pendennis and St. Mawes Castles, so we made a special effort to make at least one stop on our way home.
Stoney Littleton Long Barrow is a beautifully restored and maintained Neolithic long barrow in rural Somerset. Unlike many long barrows, it is still covered by earth, allowing you to actually crawl through the burial chambers where the bodies of ACTUAL NEOLITHIC PEOPLE lay enterred for 5000 years until their discovery by a farmer in the 18th century. I do have a notably active imagination and am not particularly brave when it comes to the terrors of the night, but I can’t imagine that there are many people who could crawl through that dim tunnel on their hands and knees without experiencing an awful sense of horror and dread. Even Fuji did not want to enter it and, once out, absolutely refused to go back in. I’m not saying that this is absolute 100% proof that there were ghosts or demonic forces lingering inside, but I would not be at all surprised if our presence there had roused something dark and unholy which had designs on our mortal souls.
The valley in which the long barrow is located is about as idyllically pastoral as England can get, which is saying a lot. All three of us loved it, which was fortunate, since, just as we were leaving, the alternator belt on the van snapped and we ended up having to stay there for the night, borrowing tools from a very kind local farmer so that we could replace it in the morning. Terrifying demonic presences aside, it may have been my favorite campground of the trip. The long barrow was certainly Benn’s favorite English Heritage site, which would have been made all the sweeter by the fact that it is accessible free of charge had we not already paid £80 a year for the privilege of visiting it.
Coming back to Suffolk, we realized that maybe we don’t have it so bad. The Shotley Peninsula, with its golden fields and thick hedges, is at least as picturesque in its own way as anywhere in the West Country (although I do have to say that I’m partial to Dartmoor), and far more welcoming to liveaboards. We’ve hardly even begun to explore the Suffolk and Essex coasts, so it’s almost silly to already be so eager to go elsewhere. Besides, as the old saying goes, the south of England is for yachtsmen, but the east is for sailors, and if we are going to earn the right to put ourselves in either of those camps, we’d much prefer the latter.
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