Living on a houseboat in London: this barge has a roof-top terrace. You can have one too, for £150,000

Lee Thornley built his own barge to live on when he couldn’t afford London house prices. It works so well he’s making them to sell.
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When is a house not a house? When it’s an urban barge. And if design entrepreneur Lee Thornley, 34, gets his way, there will soon be many more on London’s underused waterways, with people like him living on them.
Bert’s Barges are custom-built, with lots of insulation, underfloor heating, solar windows and log-burning stoves. There are also plenty of modern comforts such as marble-clad kitchens, solid wood floors, big terraces and power showers.
Thornley’s new London floating home, which his firm designed and built, sits on the increasingly smart Hoxton stretch of Regent’s Canal alongside traditional narrow boats. A street of former light industrial units backs on to the canal and there is now a continental café, an Italian deli and flats.


Thornley doesn’t hang about when he has an idea. Born in Blackburn in 1980, the first of his family to go to university, he studied law in London and became a barrister.
“As a guy in Blackburn, you’re expected to do something like that, but I quickly realised it wasn’t for me,” he says. “I was too entrepreneurial.” So he went to Spain to learn the language and consider his next step. The day he arrived in Vejer de la Frontera, Andalucia, a young woman opened the door for him.
“I asked her to help me park my car,” he says. In no time Amelia, who hails from Scotland and ran a London catering company, became his wife.
Twelve weeks after meeting they bought and did up a flat in the village. Then they bought an old farmhouse and turned it into the luxury country retreat Casa La Siesta, which was named in Tatler’s Top 100 best hotels in 2011.
However, once Lyla, five, and Iris, two, came along, in 2013 they came home and settled near Thornley’s family in North Yorkshire. 
During the building of the Spanish hotel, a local tile maker suggested to Thornley that he use him — which he did. As a result of their meeting, Thornley set up Bert & May, an online company run from his garage in the UK, selling handmade and reclaimed tiles, using the same artisan. Bert & May quickly expanded into a showroom warehouse in Hoxton.
Thornley needed a place to stay in London for four days a week, but couldn’t afford local prices. Since his showroom backed on to the canal, he hatched the idea of building his own barge. “I looked out at the water and thought, ‘why not build something beautiful to go on it?’”
Working with a creative consultant and an architect, Thornley went to Liverpool and met five companies, finally settling on one that built him a small, steel-framed barge, almost 56ft long, that he took to Yorkshire to fit out.
The roof was made flat so it could have a terrace paved with reclaimed tiles on top — traditionally, barge roofs are curved. The team also had to refine aspects of the interior design as they went along, for floating homes have their own rules.
Some lessons were painful. “I didn’t think about weight distribution,” admits Thornley. “We put in a marble kitchen on one side, and the barge listed. We had to take up the floor to adjust the weighting.”
Sleek: Thornley has avoided overcluttering his barge to maximise the space, using modern fixtures and fittings 

Then, having created a rooftop terrace, he realised that children might fall off it, so he put up railings. “But barges have to go under low bridges — so we redid them so that they fold down,” he adds.
Despite its sparse and modern interior, the barge offers a stylish, roomy shower room. As well as a double bed in the front, there is also a folding double bed. And it definitely doesn’t have that poky caravan feel.

The final thing Thornley didn’t realise is that barges need blinds. “I came back along the towpath one evening and it was lit up like a casino,” he says.

But, having addressed the teething problems, this is a terrific little pad, with gorgeous views and moorhens nesting right next door. Who gets a view like that in London — plus all the fun of splashing about on the river?
Buying a Bert's Barge
  • It’s not quite a life on the open waves, but with a £150,000 price tag and a lead time of 16 weeks to make a barge, it’s an attractive idea if you are fed-up with looking for a flat, and fancy an adventure. The interior design can be tweaked at a cost.
  • Currently there are few mortgages on the UK market for motorised barges, however Arkle Finance (a subsidiary of Wetherby's Bank) does offer them: Repayment terms are short — often just seven years —  so repayments reflect that, and you may need around a 30 per cent deposit. Meanwhile you can also finance with cash or money raised in another way; and a marine finance insider tells Homes & Property that "there is a strong possibility that there may be another mortgage available for motorised barges in the new year, but its terms are not yet known."
  • You will also have to pay for a mooring. Thornley can help buyers find one — but warns that they can cost £1,000 a week. However, there’s a growing band of barge owners who rove the waterways, tying up where they like, but moving on after a fortnight. They are called the continuous cruising community. If you do that you don’t have to pay for mooring. Thornley also points out that outside London you can get a mooring for much less. If you do have a mooring you will also have to pay council tax.
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