Boating passion that keeps careers afloat

16th May 2003 at 01:00
Renata Rubnikowicz meets a supply teacher couple whose jobs go with the flow

Virginie Doux and Jonathon Gilkes are a pair of teachers who are going places - at four miles an hour. These two well-organised wanderers, the ultimate peripatetic teachers, have decided to live on a canal boat and make their careers follow suit.

They spent the spring term at President Kennedy school in Coventry, while their boat, the Bosun, was moored at Leamington Spa. Although Virginie usually teaches French, she was covering for an English teacher on maternity leave, while Jon provided long-term science cover. Before that, they were tied up in Birmingham, supply teaching at secondary schools. They cruised down the Kennet and Avon canal over Easter and are spending the first half of this term in the Bristol area before moving on to Hertfordshire. They have a mutually happy arrangement with their agency, Celsian, which found them work in Coventry.

The couple, both 31, met at Liverpool University, where Jon was studying for a PhD in mechanical engineering and Ginny, who had already taken a degree in English in her native France, was doing a master's in English cinema and a PGCE. They have been together six years, and hit on the idea of life on the water after a canal boat holiday.

"We just fell for it," says Jon. Their only previous experience of nomadic life was their camper van and the odd sailing holiday. But they had travelled and liked the idea of a life taking photographs (Jon) and writing diaries (Virginie), which they hope to publish.

Jon was working as an engineer and the couple were renting a flat in Stafford when they found the Bosun at Penkridge on the Staffordshire and Worcester canal in December 2000. They bought it for pound;20,000 from the marina manager - "We call him Paul Bosun," says Jon - who'd built it and had just finished restoring it.

They stayed a year in Penkridge before heading to Birmingham, and fitted in two cruises in the school holidays. Virginie insists that a Christmas cruise to Stoke-on-Trent was "really romantic, all white everywhere".

Jon started teaching the second year they were in Birmingham. As he did not have a PGCE, it was up to heads to decide whether to accept his experience of university tutoring as valid for secondary schools. Today, with a clutch of good references in a shortage subject, he finds it relatively easy to get supply work and prefers school life to the "cut-throat" atmosphere of his previous job in industry.

"Understanding the system is more difficult for me than for Ginny, who's properly trained. But because we move around, we rarely get to that stage.

You spend three or four weeks just getting the kids to settle. So far, I've been lucky and the kids have been very good."

They have met no other supply teachers on the waterways. "At first people couldn't understand why we were doing it," says Virginie. "They didn't think it was suitable for teachers. But for us it's good. You come back from work quite stressed, into your little boat, and it's a different world." Having to be organised enough to finish school work at school or find a computer in a public library is another benefit, they believe.

"It's as if we've found the magic thing that no one else knows about," adds Jon: amazing, he adds, when 90 per cent of Britain's population live within five miles of a canal.

Their students have been surprised, but impressed, by their lifestyle, says Virginie. "In the beginning, I didn't know what to say to the kids, so I waited until I was leaving to tell them." Now she and Jon are considering offering talks for schools about life on the canals.

Housekeeping takes up a significant amount of their spare time. There is a lot of brass to be polished, but Jon enjoys the fact that although the Bosun was built in 1979 and has a modern kitchen and bathroom, it has in other respects kept to the traditional pattern of a narrowboat, with a coal fire at one end of the cosy 6ft 7in-wide cabin.

They're also kept busy with their photo-gallery website, and with planning a change of venue every half-term. And their ambitions aren't confined to Britain. Once they've fully explored England's canals, their long-term plan is to move to France and cruise a whole new set of waterways.

Jon's photographs and Virginie's diary can be seen at

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