London student quits uni house for a boat

The boat on Canada Water that became this student's home

Being a student in London is tough. Sure there’s the nightlife, restaurants, galleries and more – but how are you supposed to enjoy any of it when you’ve got no money?

Back in 2010, the NUS published figures indicating that the average annual cost of living for a student in London was £13,388. And with inflation, this number will only have gone up.

So what did UCL student Claude De Rijke-Thomas do when the contract for his student house in Camden expired back in June? Naturally, he started renting a boat.

“Everyone from the house had different ideas and different budgets so, and this sounds really strange and crazy, I kind of wanted to live either on a boat or up a tree.” De Rijke Thomas said, enthusiastically, “I do a lot of climbing so I thought it might be feasible living in a portaledge but I’m incredibly glad I didn’t do that!”

The ‘living room’
Copyright Étienne Fermie

The second of four very different siblings, De Rijke-Thomas is in a difficult situation. He gets the minimum student loan, as his parents earn just above the threshold, but with four children to pay for, this isn’t always easy. When asked about the extra student loan London-based students receive, he is unequivocal.

“People say you’re getting more student loan because you’re in London, but £600 a year, it’s like a joke. It really is. I think I spend that on transport alone. It’s drastically different.”

His university life started conventionally enough. He spent his first year living in Schafer Halls, Euston, paying £175 a week, before moving to a five bedroom house in Camden, where, with bills, the figure was a similar amount.

“Money is insanely tight, even after all this time I’ve really tried not have an overdraft, to the extent where I’ve had to borrow £400 from friends to pay my rent.”

Having left Camden, another option caught his eye.

“An old babysitter of mine had an empty boat on Canada Water available, so I thought why not?” he says, deadly serious, before adding, “The rent is £100 a week, everything included, it helps a lot, it’s really nice because it includes mooring fee as well.”

It must be shocking, for students based in cities like Cardiff or Newcastle, that £100 a week in London gets you a small boat, but Londoners will know that this is a bargain.

“It’s not a city where £60 a week gets you a nice room in a five bedroom house, when this opportunity became available, I had to take it.”

Those of you picturing a yacht, capable of sailing the mediterranean – don’t. This boat is small. As I walked in to meet Claude, it was clear to see that this place is full to capacity. But everything has its place. Every nook and every cranny is occupied by one of Claude’s possessions, and this doesn’t bother him.

“I actually really like it, if anything I’d have it slightly smaller! I’m the opposite of claustrophobic. It’s nice to look at the space and think, everything is mine.” he beams, “Everywhere you look there are things. Everything’s got its place and there is a place for everything. Only I know exactly where every single one of my possessions is.”

De Rijke-Thomas’ kitchen
Copyright: Étienne Fermie

The De Rijke-Thomas family home is situated in a picturesque little village called Downderry, located on the south coast of Cornwall. Their back garden leads out onto the beach, and this childhood connection with nature stood their second eldest child in good stead ahead of moving to his new, unconventional home.

“It sounds strange but perhaps even more so than my family, I missed the sea.

“It’s one of those indescribable things when you’re missing something you’re so used to. You can Skype with your parents, and I did, it’s not so much that you have to see them in physical form, whereas with the sea it’s different. It doesn’t feel the same.”

If any student can survive boat-life, it’s this one. But this life may not be for everyone. First of all there’s no shower aboard, let alone the luxury of a bath. Washing has to take place in a communal shower block nearby. The toilet is cramped, and the bedroom is a bed with space for nothing else. But these are the compromises De Rijke-Thomas is willing to take to be in the heart of the city.

“There’s something about London, it’s a 24 hour city, you can do anything at anytime, with anyone, anywhere – it might just come from a fear of missing out – but I definitely wouldn’t trade this for a bigger place and an hour’s commute every day – not a chance.”

This is a very real example of what some students have to do to stand a chance. Claude De Rijke-Thomas still by no means lives in comfort financially, but he gets by. Our meeting brings home the reality of what people will do to succeed, it’s not easy.

“I see myself here for the long haul.” De Rijke-Thomas finishes, “I want to attain a master’s degree in physics, so it could be me and my boat in it together for a while. I can’t really see myself anywhere else.”


Words: Étienne Fermie | Subbing: Reuben Pinder 

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