What’s it like to live on a houseboat in Woodbridge?
PUBLISHED: 16:02 25 July 2020
Sarah Lucy Brown
Bev Rogers, environmentalist, teacher and eco entrepreneur, talks about life on a Dutch barge moored on the River Deben in Woodbridge
It’s a romantic dream, living on a houseboat – waking to the sounds of the river, wading birds calling from the mudflats, gulls screaming overhead, nautical neighbours going about their daily business, and falling asleep at the end of each day lulled by the gentle lap of the tidal waters. Can it really be so blissful?
It comes pretty close for Bev Rogers. For Bev, husband Gary, daughter Gaia, 18, and son Eden, 17, ‘home’ is the 1923 Luxemotor, Dutch Barge, Tijdstroom (Time/Tide Stream) which they bought in The Netherlands 13 years ago and tied up to Ferry Quay on the River Deben in Woodbridge.
“Being that old she came equipped with a Second World War tank engine which was so noisy you had to wear ear defenders when driving,” says Bev. “The back cabin was riddled with bullet holes, probably from RAF fighter planes.”
Tijdstroom was originally used for cargo such as potato haulage, and the family would live in a single cabin at the back. Later on, she was used as a fishing boat on the IJsselmeer (Lake IJssel, an inland bay in the central Netherlands) then finally converted for living aboard.
“I bought my first boat, a 23ft narrow boat, when I was 21,” continues Bev. “I was fortunate to have been left some inheritance money from a grandparent and was in that situation after finishing university of where to go next.
“I was brought up in Lincoln and had seen all the canal barges on the Fossedyke but had never been on one. My thought was, if I buy a boat, whatever happens in my life I’ll have a home and a holiday all in one.”
Bev met Gary on the canals and when they started a family they ‘upgraded’ from narrow boats to Dutch Barges.
“In 2007, we sold our first barge, ‘Albert’, packed all the belongings and two kids into a car and trailer, and moved to The Netherlands to live on Tijdstroom.
“We spent three years travelling through Belgium and France and when the children were eight and nine we decided to return. Neither of us had been to Suffolk before but with a 24m barge a return to the canals was impossible. A mooring became available here and when we asked friends about the area it seemed that everyone knew it and loved it.”
The attractions of life afloat, says Bev, are freedom to travel, the views, and closeness to nature. The natural world, particularly the marine environment, has always been an important part of her life.
“Maybe it’s because I’m a Pisces!” she laughs. “Water has such a calming influence, but the environment is also dynamic – the wildlife and the community. Although we’re no longer cruising, the world around us isn’t staying still. The tides and seasons bring different spectacles, and other boats are constantly coming and going.”
Sharing that knowledge and experience is also important to her. She studied environmental science at university and then went on to a canal projects internship with the national environmental charity Groundwork. While living on a narrow boat in London she worked for Raleigh International Expedition Charity. For the past eight years she has been working part time for the Suffolk Wildlife Trust Learning Team, initially in Rendlesham Forest leading Forest School sessions with local children (she is a qualified Forest School teacher), but also with young people visiting from London who have never been to the countryside.
“Helping people to connect to nature and be inspired by the awe and wonder of natural world around them is so rewarding,” she says. “When an opportunity arose to work on the coast, I jumped at it. Suffolk’s 60 miles of coastline are outstanding and it’s been a joy to work with local children and families, encouraging them to learn about their beach as an important habitat for specialist plants and animals.
“I’m so fortunate to work for a charity whose core values and vision I fundamentally believe in, with colleagues who are so passionate and knowledgeable about the natural world. They truly inspire me.
“Teaching outdoors always has challenges – it’s about thinking on your feet, problem solving, adapting to environmental challenges and keeping everyone safe. At the same time it is so important to make the experience really special for the young people visiting. It may be their only school trip in the whole year – it has to be memorable.”
More than two decades afloat have given Bev some pretty unforgettable moments of her own. “Mooring a stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower and being able to go up, look down and see our home on the river was one,” she says. “Cruising unknown stretches of waterways and discovering beautiful lakes where you can anchor out and swim.
“Crossing The Channel in a flat bottomed boat was probably the hairiest time we had. The Rhine was pretty scary too, fast flowing with huge cargo barges coming at you from all directions.”
Life on a boat has it pros and cons. “I missed having a garden, but once we settled in Woodbridge we managed to get an allotment nearby. And people always think living on a boat must be cold in winter, but we have a solid fuel stove and it’s really toasty.
“Limited space helps you stop consuming too much – I’m no better than other people, it’s just that when you are severely limited with space you stop shopping. We are now four adults as our ‘children’ are 17 and 18. We bought a small narrowboat hull a few years ago, which is moored adjacent to us, for our eldest to move into. This has been ideal, giving them more space and privacy as young adults.
“When we were cruising, I loved that we generated all our electricity and were hyper aware of how much water we used. Now as a residential barge we have access to mains electricity, but our wheelhouse roof is covered with solar panels and we’re saving up for panels to make the narrowboat electric propulsion.”
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Maintaining Tijdstroom is pretty tough and continuous, says Bev, and every year there’s plenty of sanding, painting and varnishing to do. She and her family are part of a vibrant river neighbourhood in Woodbridge where people are friendly and willing to help whenever it’s needed.
“There’s a great community at Ferry Quay which has grown even stronger in the current circumstances. Our neighbours range from experienced sailors who can often be seen flying down the river on their sailing boats. Others are new to the water and trying this lifestyle for the very first time.
“We all have something in common, we’re practical, hands-on and love the peace and beauty of the Deben.”
Does she ever think of moving ashore? “I imagine that one day we’ll be too old to manage the boat. However, I dread the thought of living anywhere with straight walls and square rooms. I love all the curves and angles of boats – they’re a carpenter’s worst nightmare!”
While she’s been a “water gypsy” for many years, life near the coast is definitely a new chapter for Bev – and she’s loving it. She has her favourite spots.
“My favourite site for teaching is Sizewell beach,” she says. “There’s so much to learn about in a small area – the rare shingle plants, the Kittiwakes nesting on the old outlet tower, the local fisherman, Noel, who kindly shows the children his catch of the day, the power station and Sizewell Belts Nature Reserve is also in walking distance.
“I love Bawdsey because I found my first shark’s tooth there, with the help of an eight-year-old expert from Bawdsey Primary School. When we have family visiting I always take them to Felixstowe. I enjoy it because it is so multi-user – swimming, fishing, sunbathing, nature watching at Languard Point, boat watching at the port, local history at the fort. There’s something for all of us to get excited about.”
Bev the eco warrior
There’s nothing like living in a marine environment to make you acutely aware of the harm we humans are inflicting on the planet, so it’s no surprise to learn that Bev has been inspired to start her own eco business with a range of alternative, reusable personal care and cleaning products.
She’s always been an environmentalist, she says, although these days she prefers to educate rather than protest. Her latest venture started at the end of 2017, when her father, who is Australian, sent her a beeswax wrap.
“They were all the rage downunder. I’d never heard of them. Having been a bumbling beekeeper for a number of years I had some beeswax lying around so had a bash at making them. It took a long time to perfect. I made for friends and family, and then offered them to local shops.
“The Kitchen Shop in Woodbridge were selling wraps, but they were imported from Canada. They we’re keen to have a local supplier and have been really supportive of all my products.”
Bev makes all the wraps herself, including recently launched vegan versions, with the rest of the family pitching in to help with manufacturing, packaging, marketing and distribution. During lockdown she has turned her hand to making face masks, donating one mask for every one bought.
“Transition Woodbridge and the Town Council Emergency Group have coordinated the delivery of hundreds of these masks to the local community,” she says. To keep up with demand she recruited local people to sew them and got the local WI on board.
Most of her products are sold through local farm shops and zero waste shops. Her website, bevsecoproducts.co.uk, sells online and provides a list of stockists, plus she has recently opened an Etsy shop to reach a national audience. She’s constantly developing new products, such as reusable face wipes made from strips of fabric left over from cutting out large wraps – “I can’t bear waste” – and has just started selling themed Eco Letter Box Gifts for ‘Self Care’, ‘Kitchen Guru’ and ‘DIY Wraps’. “A couple of shops have asked for reusable menstrual cloth pads so I’m currently working on a couple of different designs for these. I’m really keen to do anything to help people move away from a disposable society.”
Small steps will change the world, she believes. “Everyone can play their part in helping the marine environment – stop flushing plastic cotton buds, wet wipes and sanitary products down the toilet. Switch to reusable and biodegradable products. Always take your litter home, pick up litter if you see if blowing around – 80 per cent of litter in the sea comes from the land. Stop buying plastic bottles of water and use reusable ones – and coffee cups.
“If you eat fish, choose ones that are on the Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide. Support our local sustainable fishermen and be adventurous, try different fish to prevent the bycatch waste. Maybe there is still a protester in me – don’t get me started!”
But she remains optimistic at heart. “Sometimes it does feel that we are losing the battle for nature, but I’m a scientist and I believe that advancements in renewable and cleaner technologies will provide solutions.
“I also believe in humankind – when you’re working outdoors with young people and a beaming face looks up at the end of day to say ‘Miss, I’ve had the bestest day ever!’ you know that at least one child has connected with nature. And that connection can be meaningful and long lasting.
“These children will be the custodians of our land and it’s our duty to help them connect to it and ultimately protect it.”