An Englishman's home is his castle - unless it's a boat. Andy Farquarson meets the teachers who have swapped terra firma for a life on the water
Vicki Royston was just 21 when, newly qualified, she took a job at Finham Park school, Coventry, a 1,600-pupil mixed secondary. That was 25 years ago, and she can't get away. "Every time I try to escape, they promote me," she says. Vicki Royston teaches PE, and coaches the school's gymnastics team, which has won a place in the British schools championships every year for the past 18 years, taking the title in 1998. She also produces the school's annual Easter musical - her credits include Fiddler on the Roof, Grease, Anything Goes and Oliver!
"Teaching and working with young people, is enormously rewarding," she says. That's why she happily devotes time to extra-curricular activities, taking children to shows and on skiing and windsurfing trips, or supervising competitive sports weekends.
But one of Vicki Royston's out-of-school activities turned out to be a turning point in her life. "In 1986, I took a party on a week-long canal trip," she says. "At that time, our local education authority ran two boats, available to all its schools. Each one took about a dozen kids and was skippered by a full-time, trained boatman. As well as being educational, the trip meant students had to live and work together as a team, to develop co-operative and social skills."
Vicki Royston (pictured right) was captivated by the tranquil and beautiful waterways she discovered - as were the "hundreds of students" she's taken since. "They've all loved it," she recalls, although financial cuts ended the LEA initiative in 1997.
After a few trips, she also became captivated by one of the boatmen, Ian Fly, who is now her long-term partner. "When Ian was not out with the LEA's boats, he lived on a 60-year-old working narrowboat," she says. Her new partner introduced her to the mystique and folklore surrounding these veteran craft. "I was sold on it all, and in 1993 Ian swapped his traditional boat, with its tiny cabin, for an equally old tug with enough accommodation for us both. Although we were living in my house in Coventry, we were out boating every weekend and all through the holidays," she says.
In 1998, she sold her house, took an unpaid sabbatical and joined Ian for a year-long exploration of the waterways. "We covered 2,500 miles," she says. At the end of the trip, they bought a waterside property near Llangollen, north Wales, which Ian began renovating while Vicki went back to her job in Coventry.
She needed a home close to work and so brought the tug south. She now lives in it during the week. The cabin is small and the facilities fairly basic. "But you soon get used to the lack of space, the coal stove heats water, and it's very warm and cosy in winter. I've got a radio, a little battery-powered television and a mobile phone. What other mod cons do you really need? It's cheap, too - apart from mooring fees, coal for the stove and Calor gas for the cooker, there are few outgoings. I'd happily live on a boat forever."
What is the attraction? "It's hard to pin down. I love the obvious things - the wonderful countryside and ever-changing view, the camaraderie of the canal community. But there's more to it than that - there's a magic about the waterways that gets into your soul."
Former teacher Graham Wigley, a lifelong devotee, also finds defining that canal "magic" difficult. He says:"Part of it is a wonderful sense of the past, of living history," he says. "I first felt that as a kid in Derby, cycling along the canal towpaths." In those days, the east Midland canals were deserted and run-down, but when Mr Wigley's family moved to Birmingham, he found much commercial activity remained. "Everything about Birmingham's canals fascinated me - the industrial landscape, the boats, the men who worked them, their traditions," he says.
He took his first classroom job in 1967, but was becoming increasingly involved with the waterways. Two years earlier, he and a group of business friends acquired some traditional narrowboats and started a small cargo-carrying company. "I was working evenings and weekends on the water while teaching all day," he recalls. "Something had to give and canals won the toss." So, just a year after qualifying, he left teaching to devote all his energies to the business.
And it soon diversified. As well as transporting merchandise, Mr Wigley pioneered low-cost educational trips for Midlands youngsters. The firm's working narrowboats were covered with tarpaulin and the holds fitted out with sleeping, cooking and washing facilities, enabling parties of up to 24 young people to spend a week afloat under canvas. Thirty-five years later, the company, Birmingham Canal Boat Services, still operates these "camping boats" between Easter and the October half-term, often with Mr Wigley living aboard and taking the helm.
Mr Wigley is an evangelist for the educational value of canals and rivers. "The waterways are a 2,000-mile linear teaching aid," he says. "There's something for all ages, from primary to A-level - and virtually any part of the curriculum can be covered. As a teacher, my subject was history and the canals are an incredibly rich source for that. Industrial, engineering and transport history are the obvious examples, but social history, the water-based communities and the boating way of life are studies in their own right. The canals are ideal for the sciences, too. Take physics - why can a single horse shift only a ton or two by cart yet move 40 tons of boat and cargo? What is the science behind lifting that load effortlessly in a lock?" There is plenty of opportunity for maths projects too - "from linear measurement of a lock, an aqueduct, or a whole waterway to geometry in all its forms or volumetric calculations such as the amount of water needed to fill a lock". And what about canals' place in the landscape? "I remember one piece of graffiti on a bridge that read 'geography is everywhere'. That's so true."
John Butterly, British Waterways national education manager, is based at Northwich, Cheshire, and can be contacted on 01606 723800. British Waterways runs three museums, all of which provide specialist schools packages. They are at Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, tel: 0151 355 5017; Stoke Bruerne, Northants, tel: 01604 862229; and Gloucester, tel: 01452 318054. For more details, call BW on 01923 201120 or visit www.britishwaterways.co.uk. Birmingham Canal Boat Services, tel: 0121 236 7057. The Midland Canal and Narrowboat Trust may be able to help with charter fees for children from disadvantaged or deprived backgrounds. Tel: 0121 236 7057
A LIFE AFLOAT
* Although a few river navigations are run by the Environment Agency, almost all canals and navigable rivers are overseen by a public corporation, British Waterways. Its canal network includes more than 1,500 locks, almost 4,000 bridges, 450 aqueducts and 60 tunnels. The corporation is also responsible for 2,800 listed structures and 130 scheduled ancient monuments.
* Waterside sites are extremely popular with urban developers. Birmingham's Symphony Hall and National Convention Centre has brought regeneration to Gas Street Basin and its surrounding waterways. Major developments in London, Leeds, Nottingham, Sheffield and Manchester all make a prime feature of once-deserted waterways.
* Most of the waterway network runs through undeveloped countryside. The canals, for example, are part of, or adjacent to, nearly 1,000 nature reserves and roughly 100 sites of special scientific interest.
* There are 25,000 boats on British Waterways' system. All must have a certificate of compliance (equivalent to an MOT) and a mooring to obtain the required boat licence. For residential use, boat owners must also have the agreement of the mooring manager and the local authority.