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For someone living in a boat or van during the winter, having a stove can be a matter of life and death, argues boater Mike Doherty.

Photos: Mike Doherty and Karla Hunter

Rewind 25 years, back to when squatting a house was a civil offence and not a criminal one and when being ‘green’ was a niche pastime and mainly involved rainbow jumpers, sandals and saving whales. A friend and I were spending the first night, lying on mildewed carpet in our sleeping bags, in a three storey Victorian terraced house in Bristol.

The first night in a squat, without electric, without music and without the rest of your crew, can be both nerve-racking and intensely boring, so partly for something to do, partly for warmth and partly for comfort, we checked the open fireplace for draft and then lit a fire of newspaper and gash-wood. We were unaware that we were releasing tiny carcinogenic particulates (PM 2.5) into the street outside, and even less aware that by burning wood on an open fireplace in a smoke control area, we were breaking the law.

Back to the present, and as I write this article in front of a multi-fuel stove in my 43’ by 6’ forty-year-old narrowboat, I am again burning wood, along with smokeless ‘coal’, to keep warm. I am also still releasing polluting particulates into the air around my boat. There are thousands of others like me, living on boats, and in vans, trucks and caravans in Bristol, Bath and beyond, doing the same.

Such is the online reach of the Bristol Cable that Stuart Phelps’ article on the rising problem of air pollution caused by “trendy” stoves in urban areas was posted on the popular London boaters Facebook page, and not just once but twice. Each post attracted many comments and, Facebook being Facebook, most of the comments were reacting to, at best, a skim reading of the article and, at worst, to the headline and graphics that appeared in the link. This meant that most readers missed the bit where Phelps writes: “Poverty is the only excuse for burning wood in the city”.

Although we all have choices, we do not always get to choose the circumstances in which we make them

So thanks Stuart Phelps, for your understanding that although we all have choices, we do not always get to choose the circumstances in which we make them. However, the problem is that we are under increasing attack over this issue, and not everyone has the same understanding about being skint with few choices, or understands that although we may sometimes cause a bit of localised pollution in certain areas of an urban canal, poorer boaters tend to have tiny carbon footprints when it comes to climate change; a tiny Coot’s claw in comparison to the clonking great Wellington boot-print of a much wealthier house dweller of the type who install wood stoves because the couple on the Grand Designs TV show did.

Obviously, there are alternatives to stoves on boats to keep warm, and alternatives to old-school diesel engines to propel them and provide electricity. A brand new wide-beam canal boat with the roof space crammed with solar panels powering a top of the range battery bank that powers everything – propulsion, heating, lights, wide-screen telly, washing machine, dishwasher – can be had for just north of £250K and no stove is required unless you want one for eye candy.

Bristol Cable stoves and air pollution

But many boaters don’t have that kind of money and many – who I sometimes call ‘caver-boaters’ – are living on old second-hand boats where even a fridge is considered a luxury because of the power it draws and the cost to fix it if it goes wrong. For most of us cave-boaters, we use as much solar as we can afford and can fit, we are frugal with our water and electric consumption, we are starting to compost our own poo, an intercontinental passenger jet flight is a maybe a once in a lifetime event, if that, most of us cycle and don’t own cars, and if we carelessly leave a light on and go out, our engine might not have enough battery power left to start the next day.

So forgive us if we sometimes get a bit defensive about our stoves. People can and do die on unheated boats in winter. I lost a friend to pneumonia and other complications the Christmas before last. He died on his freezing boat alone. We didn’t discover his body for two weeks, we thought he was away visiting relatives.

Even the Canal and River Trust, who manage the canals are with us on this. In their Government Clean Air consultation response, they said: “Boats on our canals and rivers only make a small contribution to emissions nationally but there can be localised problems… While we agree that vessels cannot remain exempt and must play their part in the battle to improve air quality, it is essential that the needs of boaters are accounted for when drafting any new legislation.” I hope policy-makers are listening.

Mike Doherty is an itinerant boater and editor/journalist – currently working for the Travellers’ Times – who has lived on the canals in London and the south east for 15 years.

He got in touch with the Cable about the opinion article we published on the dangers of wood burning stoves, which prompted us to commission this response. 


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  • Stuart Phelps says:

    Hi Mike, thanks for reading my original opinion piece, and recognising we’ve never wanted people to go cold. Shortage age of space in the article, meant it wasn’t possible to flag up an initiative RADE and UWE Engineering are launching – a look at low cost alternatives to stoves in Vans (and Canal Boats). If you, or anyone in a Van/boat in Bristol is interested in taking part you can email

  • Stuart Phelps says:

    Hi Chad, email us [see above] – we are working with the Engineers to see what the options are and work up any viable systems. We need as many Van [& boat] dwellers as possible to help shape options – the last thing anyone needs is a ‘solution’ that doesn’t work in practice because of something obvious to users, that is not obvious to people not living that way – like vans parked on the roadside have to remain ‘roadworthy’ & capable of moving.

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