Boats for bargains
Fancy combining a day out, an opportunity to support a colourful part of modern canal life and perhaps a chance to pick up a bargain? If so, floating markets could be for you
It doesn’t seem so many years ago that the only boaters making a living from trading afloat on Britain’s canals were the handful of fuel and coal boat operators, keeping traditions of the working narrowboats going and providing a useful service to other craft.
But alongside them, in recent years, trade on the cut has branched out in many directions as people have set up all manner of floating businesses: on our travels we’ve come across boats selling anything from ropes and fenders to herbs and spices, a floating palm-reader to a floating lawyer. The website of the Roving Canal Traders’ Association (which represents the majority of trade afloat) gives an idea of the range. And I won’t forget the occasion when we cruised the Kennet & Avon to a friend’s wedding and found that, on the morning of the great day, we’d chanced to tie up next to a floating hairdresser, so we could look spick and span after a week’s hard boating.
But although such chance meetings are a fun and occasionally very useful part of boating, you won’t get very good odds on finding a boat selling what you need when you need it – unless, that is, you go to a floating market.
These started a few years ago with a gathering of floating traders in East London during the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, offering an assortment of clothes, books, food and handicrafts. They then moved west to Little Venice for another successful run over late summer. And a smaller group reconvened for a Christmas market, ‘chucking Chrimbo commercialism deftly overboard’ as put it, with the added bonus of hot mulled wine available while you browsed.
Come 2013, the heart of the waterways system hosted ‘Britain’s largest floating market’ with more than 20 traders converging on the Birmingham Canal Navigations Main Line alongside the National Indoor Arena in September for a weekend market (the first to be run by the newly-formed RCTA) which the then Canal & River Trust Chairman Tony Hales predicted would “show off just how