Following the sign to the Marina, I pulled up in the wind blasted car park and emerged to the lost soul howling of wind through rigging. A man emerged from a static caravan and stared at me silently.
“I’m here to meet Martin Simpson,” I said, feeling, however silently, he was demanding to know my status.
“You’re here to meet Martin Simpson,” he repeated, eyeing me in a way which made me feel I was dressed as a dog’s dinner not in jeans and a duffle coat.
He stomped away through the puddles to another porta cabin.
This was not the start to my journey I had imagined when I had decided to set out on a mission to meet people living in alternative homes on the North Kent Marshes.
Thankfully Martin arrived, full of jolly breeziness despite the bleak weather.
“The site manager,” he told me as we made our way through the houseboat marina along an assortment of wet gang planks and metal walkways above the mud, a scene reminiscent of Oliver Twist.
At the end of the walkway we boarded Martin’s huge tanker, climbing down a steep wooden gangplank. The tanker was painted a sunny yellow and topped with a gravel beach.
“The neighbour’s cat uses it as a litter tray,”said Martin. We looked out from the deck towards the squat fort on Hoo Ness island and away to the right the coastline stretched to the industrial cathedral of Kingsnorth.
“You have the best view on the whole marina,” I said as widgeon paddled beneath us in the shallow and oystercatchers piped along the bay.
Martin looked at it sadly. He knew he did but still he was planning to move.
Down in the beautiful living quarters we settled down with cups of tea on the leather sofa and Martin told me the story.
The site owner had been making life increasingly difficult for Martin.
“He doesn’t like the fact that I have a lot of female friends. They’re just friends,” Martin emphasised “but now he’s stopped me having more than 4 people on here at once.” A rule, it turned out, applied only to Martin.
The previous summer Martin had used his prime position on the estuary to take others out kayaking, wanting to share the beauty of the area but recently friends had turned up in the car park to find a sign telling them that ‘Martin’s event is cancelled.’
“He’s jealous,” I suggested.
Martin shrugged. One of the other boat owners had given it to him straight but without malice. “You’re face doesn’t fit.”
To tell the truth it probably didn’t. Martin had come to living on a houseboat from owning a 5 bedroom house in the ritzy waterfront village of East Farleigh. Here he had owned a waterfront property and kept a boat for pleasure cruising across to the continent. A sticky divorce had left him financially on his uppers.
“Poverty brings a lot of people here,” he said “but they choose to stay.” Martin loved the way that living on the river confronted all your senses, the way the tide rose and fell, the light changed, the noises of water hitting the boat in the storm. “The water gives me energy,” he said. “It affects me, the tide changes and so does my mood.”
Martin had built his life back up, from living on, what had once been his pleasure boat, he had bought and renovated this tanker into a swish bachelor pad, using his skills as a builder and architect. Now he owned a portfolio of properties. He spoke proudly of being a ‘Bargee’, a river gypsy but I could see why maybe he didn’t blend with the other boat owners.
He was moving the boat in a few weeks to Rochester Bridge, to an upmarket marina where, he hoped, his face would fit better. Here he hoped to bring together his experience of property development and on board living to convince the council to take seriously his vision of building a series of houseboats which turned with the tide, offering ever changing views of the river. These boats could provide affordable accommodation for people in a natural setting.
“But you need to change people’s mindsets,” he said. “They see houseboat owners as the rougher end of society, they think we make the river look scruffy, but all I see is new waterfront developments stripping all the character and community from the river and building ugly concrete walls. I want to make people see that they need to support the bargee’s and their way of life.”
Martin was being positive about the move, he needed to change, to maybe sell the boat and create something new but, as he looked out of his windows across the expanse of the estuary and spoke of his love for this every changing landscape, he suddenly said “I’m going to have boats 6 foot away from me on either side in Rochester.”
Martin spoke of the river as one community, a community which ended at the shoreline and, as we walked back down the gangplanks to the car park, other boatowners, emerged, swathed in waterproofs and offered him help with acquiring the tugs he would need to help move the boat. There was community spirit here but it was still a community where one man’s mean spirit and inverted snobbery could drive another away from his home.