Dreaming of the river

shoreham houseboat

In Esmeralda, city of water, a network of canals and a network of streets span and intersect each other…
To go from one place to another you have always the choice between land and boat: and since the shortest distance between two points in Esmeralda is not a straight line, but a zigzag that ramifies in tortuous optional routes, the ways that open to each passerby are never two, but many, and they increase further for those who alternate a stretch by boat with one on dry land.
-Italo Calvino

Trudging east from Worthing along the bracing shingle strewn beaches of West Sussex past candy coloured Victorian terraces and faded art deco apartment blocks one eventually comes across the curious old port town of Shoreham by Sea bisected by the twisting river Adur. New Shoreham was established in Norman times and has slowly evolved, its shape guided by the relentlessly snaking tidal waterway. The town itself provides a curious junction for travel, one of river, sea, airport, road and foot. Shoreham beach facing the Channel offers a protective berm upon which sits lazy bungalows and beige beach houses. Behind, the inlet eases into a muddy harbour and further inland still lays the zigzag town furnished with musty old pubs and craft shops. The weary traveller comes upon the conurbation from many angles, but none can miss Shoreham’s vibrant left of field heart, that of the technicolour bohemian riverboat community. Indeed one cannot help, but immediately recall with a smile that Levellers’ lyric ‘If I could choose the life I please, then I would be a boatman’.

The boats themselves slouch, beached upon the mottled incline and only rise up to greet the sun at high tide. This chaotic collage of forms and typologies faces off against bland 70s townhouses glumly submerged beneath the defensive line of the river bank. The crafts are a myriad of heterogeneous textures and many have vivid histories: there are cannibalised coal barges, D-day landing craft, yachts, buses, torpedo boats and even a vast slate grey Nordic minesweeper now wedged into the soft expanse. Slotted in amongst the gentle homes are a bright patchwork of weathered causeways, solar panels, nautical paraphernalia and even brave allotments balanced upon perilous jagged stilts. Gazing upon the tortuous formwork a nervous feeling of expectation comes to mind, what Bruno Schultz describes as ‘unprepared and unfinished, in an accidental intersection of time and space’. At any second the tense lines may shift, dislocate and quiver in the autumn wind.

shoreham houseboat

The boats form an interstitial layer within the two sides of Shoreham, carefully mediating between old and new, this interlude framed by the ebb and flow of the surging tides. In many ways they are a paradox, vessels of mobility have been sacrificed for comfort, diesel engines and sails castrated and silent. The pioneering aquatic spirit recalls the Old London Bridge, a labyrinthine inhabited structure which squatted across the murky Thames, its water wheels feeding off the river beneath whilst denizens above worked in tune with the rhythmical currents. All of city life was funnelled through this dense span to create a singular realm, what Borges described as ‘place where without any possible confusion all the places in the world are found’. Star architect Zaha Hadid proposed a new inhabited London bridge, her taut design comprised of a series of intersecting box shards leaping towards the midpoint, splintered spaces enabling the wanderer a continuous connection with the liquid mass below. Viewed from the adjoining path, the riverboats mirror this turbulent geometry, recalling too the Constructivist paintings of El Lissitzky, metal railings and blunt prows dancing along the sharp lines of perspective.

When the wind is asleep and the water is like glass poured from the South Downs a Roger Deakin quote seems appropriate, he wrote ‘the sense of tranquility created by quietness is important for our general health and wellbeing’. The peaceful houseboats lay frozen, slack water is patient, the flux of TS Eliot’s river ‘strong brown god sullen, untamed and intractable’ is for a moment forgotten, before the turbulent deity springs back into life. The community inhabits the delicate liminal edge. Architecturally there are parallels with both the canal boat citizens of waterways like the Kennet and Avon, as well as the now mostly vanquished road based new age travellers with their intricate DIY camper vans, who struggled in the troubled 1980s, embracing the political counter cultures of festivals, anarchism and road protests, watched over by Gaia’s solar gaze. Their home brew mechanical legacy still breathes fire within the veteran performance art and festival mayhem of the Mutoid Waste Company, whose manic autonomous zones lurk in the dark veins of many public events.

Nestled along the river edge, this ribbon of intricate habitats is offset from the dullard orthogonal grids of small town England, embracing a quality which Iain Sinclair describes as possessing ‘a mystery at the edge of great conurbations; in the light, in the places travellers have passed through for centuries’. Writer Jonathan Raban in his solemn travel book Old Glory narrates his foolhardy attempt to sail down the swollen Mississippi river, its mighty silt laden hydrous girth burrowing through the troubled landscape of late 70s America. Always accompanied by the ghosts of Huckleberry Finn chattering at the faint edge of hearing, the water teased at the edge of his luminous childhood memories, he’d ‘never quite given up dreaming of the river’, going back to its womb-like caress, imprints of the voyages forming a map in his mind ‘marked in different coloured inks, all these routes, solid and liquid, evident and hidden’ (Calvino). Residing upon the river offers up a vibrant opportunity to greet these chance new perspectives and meditate upon the curious zig zag entropy of water, wanderer and sky. Languishing at the call of the soft tidal surge one would surely choose to be a boatman.

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4 Comments

  1. ‘One’ can very easily avoid thinking of
    Levellers lyrics!
    What I found funny about Shoreham was how this wonderful alt / boho / whatever encampment in what seemed otherwise a very generic and blanded town which could be anywhere on the south coast. Q

    1. Oh but I don’t think Shoreham is generic at all, firstly it has the weird geography, secondly it has a rather bohemian history as a place for artists and thinkers: both those two factors certainly helped give birth to the enduring boat community, which has been there rather a long time indeed.

  2. I love the Shoreham houseboats. The rickety wooden walkway and precariously balanced gardens are wonderful too. There is a DIY aesthetic which reminds me of allotments (you should write a post about allotments!). The clever appropriation of other peoples’ junk to make useful items, for example I recall a letter box safe made from a microwave oven 🙂

    1. I think that’s what I love too. It’s an intriguingly dense use of otherwise uninhabitable space, the DIY aesthetic is crafted and balanced to create a very embracing warmth. One can live in what is considered by some a marginal space and yet clearly have a very wonderful life.

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