Ben, owner of Higgledy Garden Ben, owner of Higgledy Garden

"The canals have slowed down my pace of life and left me feeling much more relaxed."


Meet Ben from Higgledy Garden

This is a long read. Take a few minutes to read the story of Ben, who runs his flower seed business from a boat.

Like thousands of people, I've dreamed of what it must be like to live on a narrowboat but haven’t been in a situation to do it. Fortunately for me, I found myself owning a business that was just about possible to run from a boat whilst exploring the waterways. As long as I can get internet reception and am in striking distance of a post box, I'm good to go. I can run my flower seeds business, Higgledy Garden, from anywhere.

I've met dozens of people who've made the leap to become continuous cruisers because the internet has given them the opportunity to work while on the hoof. I think the numbers of people doing this will grow and grow, and it will not only change the demographic of waterway liveaboards but will also bring in more cash. I always buy goods made and sold by the roving traders and I have great difficulty passing a canalside hostelry without bumping up their coffers.

I moved onto my boat, Casper in November last year. Within weeks we were icebound on the Oxford Canal. I was surprised how easy it was to keep the boat warm if you're organized. I have a wonderful Morso Squirrel 4.5kw multi-fuel stove and on the Oxford Canal there’s a fantastic fuel boat called Dusty who patrols the waterway once a month and keeps us all in coal, gas and diesel. The liveaboard boating community was incredibly kind and generous when I moved aboard - showing me the ropes and bringing gifts of kindling and coal (and wine) to keep me going until Dusty did the rounds. I was later to discover just how close-knit the boating community is.

What advice would you give someone considering living on a boat?

Living on a boat isn't for everyone and it is certainly worth hiring a boat for a fortnight in deepest winter to get a taste for what it's like when the days are short and the towpaths muddy. When you're packing up your belongings to move aboard, lay out what you want to take onto your boat in one room of your house and then halve it. A cluttered boat is no fun.

Have there been any surprises for you in your time on the canals?

The canals have slowed down my pace of life and consequently left me feeling much more relaxed. Thus far I've travelled about 400 miles and met hundreds of people from all sorts of backgrounds. Previously I generally only seemed to meet people of my own age and with similar interests or from within the same work sector. But now I meet folk of all ages from all over Europe and beyond.

Another great benefit from being on the canals is the ever-changing availability of dog walks. My dog, Flash, is a hard-wired working dog and consequently needs heaps of exercise. We walk for at least two hours every day and cover about eight miles. Having new places to explore on a regular basis keeps this from being a chore.

You’ve been quoted as saying you preferred the idea of owning a narrowboat, than being owned by a house with a hefty loan. After living and working on your boat for a year, would you still say the same now?

Most certainly. Don't get me wrong, if I was wealthy I would own both a house and a narrowboat. But right now, paying a mortgage and bills on my own would be such a millstone and I would have to work all the hours I could just to make ends meet. My narrowboat cost £25,000. I used the money I had been saving for a house deposit. Of course, a house would be a better investment but now I own my own home outright. I don't owe anybody anything. I think that counts for a great deal. It makes me feel very free.

Flowers on a boat

Do you think that running your business from a narrowboat, rather than from a more conventional place, has helped its success in any way?

Many small businesses like mine use social networks like Instagram and Facebook to promote what they do. A narrowboat is a very photogenic background. My customers certainly like to be connected to that sort of lifestyle. Showing my customers how I live and how I run the business from a boat sends a strong message that Higgledy Garden is not a large and faceless corporation. When we were icebound I got sent (Post Restante) a dozen or so hand-knitted socks from some of my customers. When your customers are sending you woollen goods to keep your tootsies warm, you can rest assured that your public relations strategy is working rather well.

Does your dog Flash have a very important job role in your business?

Flash loves boat life. He's very good at reminding me that 'all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy'. If I've been sat at my desk too long, he will make it very clear that it's time to get out onto the towpath and into the fields, which is course good for both of us. He appears in lots of promotional material for the business and adds to the quirky charm that is, 'Higgledy Garden'. I generally leave my ugly mug out of shot, I don't like to frighten people.

Flash the dog on board

Does living and working on a canal boat give your everyday life a simplicity that others miss out on? Is life better on the water?

Most boaters would say that of course, but then they are the type of people who are/were drawn to a life afloat. I have a Continuous Cruiser's Licence and I have to move on every couple of weeks. This comes with its own set of problems. Then there is making sure your boat is kept well maintained, happily Casper has remained floating over the last twelve months in my ownership, which makes me unduly proud. Living 'off grid' means you have to be constantly aware of your stocks of gas, diesel, coal, and water. Running out of any of these can make life pretty miserable pretty quickly. Then there is keeping your batteries topped up for your electricity. While these things are not overly complicated they are certainly more complicated than living in a house. It is also considerably more difficult to get a doctor’s appointment and to receive post.

Living aboard is a wonderful life, but 'simple' it ain't.

What's next for Benjamin, Higgledy & Flash?

We've been travelling for nearly a year now and have just got back to the wonderful Oxford Canal where we will hang out for the winter. It is a very friendly canal and I'm looking forward to spending Christmas here. Then in the spring we shall head off again. I keep changing my mind as to where we will go. Certainly north, probably Llangollen but I also am busting to get onto the Leeds & Liverpool, and the Lancaster is also looking appealing. By the looks of things all I can safely say is that it will probably begin with 'L'.

Ben & Flash, Oxford Canal