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Whatever floats your boat: Leo Buckley on the realities of the river

I agree to interview Leo Buckley about the realities of living on a houseboat with a certain amount of trepidation. In my opinion, any student who volunteers to move out of town and subsist in a barge on the River Isis must be slightly mad. However, the sun is shining and Buckley is smiling as he greets me on the towpath and welcomes me cordially into his floating home.

The barge is dark green and pretty dilapidated, with fallen leaves and empty bottles littering the back deck.

“Let’s start with a glass of rosé on the roof and then I’ll give you the Grand Tour,” Buckley declares, pulling back a heavy tarpaulin from the boat’s entrance and springing off into the galley.

I remain on the makeshift wooden gangplank, watching and waiting. As someone with bad motion sickness, I look at the river and wince inwardly.

“Here we are!” Buckley’s back, brandishing a bottle of cheap alcohol. He clambers onto the roof and spreads out a picnic blanket, before offering a hand to help me up. 

“How long have you been living on the boat?” I ask, pulling out my notebook and getting to business. 

“About a month, since the beginning of Trinity.”

“And what made you decide to leave college?”

Buckley sips his rosé and tells me the story: he was asked to leave college accommodation last term after throwing one too many parties in his room. Disliking Oxford’s high housing prices and the prospect of finalist digs next year, he decided to “seize the moment” and opt for this waterborne alternative. 

“Do you rent?” I ask, still deeply unconvinced by the wisdom of his decision.

Buckley nods, telling me that his landlord – or “boatlord” – is himself  a former Oxford student who now lives and works abroad. “He lets this boat to me for a mere £440 per month. I also pay an extra £40 for one of those big canisters of gas to keep the kitchen going, but all in all, it’s very affordable.”

I raise an eyebrow and take more notes. You get what you pay for.

At that moment, we’re interrupted, as a crew of rowers slices past on the river and almost crashes into us.

“Don’t worry!” Buckley cries, as the boat rocks from side to side. “Barges like this are very stable and hard to capsize. I’d say it’s unsinkable.”

I try to smile, feeling queasy. “Famous last words.”

“You get used to the rowers,” Buckley tells me, as they pull away and the cox cycles past us on the towpath, hollering. “They’re my community out on the river. I’ll be selling Pimms from my boat at Summer Eights and I’ve told the referee he can use my roof to plant the finishing flag!”

After that, Buckley shows me inside. Thankfully he’s had the houseboat’s small windows open, but the place still smells musty. Maybe you get used to it with time.

First my eyes are drawn to a cushion with Tony Blair’s face on it, grinning up at me from a scruffy green couch along the galley wall.

 “As you see, I have all I could possibly need,” Buckley says with a flourish. He then proceeds to show me the kitchen: it’s well-equipped, but a pan of… something… is congealing on the stove and the wooden worktops look like they haven’t been cleaned properly in years. Instead, they’re covered in crumbs and vintage issues of Playboy Magazine.

“Do you miss having a scout?” I ask.

“No, I think the scout system is morally questionable at best, and highly invasive at worst,” says Buckley, answering seriously this time. Then he smiles: “Besides, I love vacuum cleaning!” 

I find this hard to believe, and my eyes widen in surprise as he produces a small handheld vacuum cleaner from a cardboard box. The device is filled with a bird’s nest of hair, debris, and something which looks like sawdust, but it does appear to have been used recently – and quite possibly for the last time…

Next comes the bathroom. Before I know it, I’m staring at Leo Buckley’s porta-potty. 

“The toilet does work,” he assures me, “but it’s best left only for emergencies.”

As far as I’m concerned, the porta-potty is tantamount to an emergency in its own right, and I’m relieved when Buckley turns round to show me the shower.

This is actually a hose which pulls out of a tap in the tiny basin behind us. Meanwhile, a plughole is ingeniously uncovered when Buckley lifts the floorboard below. Nonetheless, he confesses that he’s never actually showered on the boat, wisely outsourcing his ablutions to the showers back at college or in nearby gyms.

“Do you find that life on a barge is conducive to work?” I ask.

“No,” Buckley admits. “Although it does force me to get out into town, to college, libraries, and the Union, where I usually write my essays.”

“How does it compare to life in college overall?”

Apparently there are advantages and disadvantages.

“The worst thing is honestly working out where to hang my suits,” he tells me. “As you can see, I have very limited options.” He pulls out a coat hanger bearing at least a dozen ties and holds it up for me. 

Another concern was whether he’d be able to stand up in the boat. At the height of 6’4, Buckley wondered if he’d end up with a bad back, but tells me he was pleasantly surprised to find he could stand up fully.

“Do you ever wish you were living back on land?”

He shakes his head. “Not at all. While I don’t spend too much time on the boat, it’s infinitely better than college and personally I think you’re doing Oxford badly if you spend too much time at home. I’ve also become surprisingly self-sufficient and I finally have the chance to live out my true Brideshead fantasy.”

I take a deep breath. The view across to Christ Church Meadows is certainly beautiful on a clear day, but barge life would never be for me.

Still, Buckley can’t recommend it highly enough. “I can sleep and I can host, and that’s all I need. I’m a happy man.”

As he shows me out, he invites me to “Barfters”, the slightly dubious name of his famous boat after parties. I’m personally immensely thankful to be back on terra firma, and think I’ve spent quite enough time onboard Buckley’s boat for one day, but as to whether or not I’ll return for “Barfters”, we’ll have to see.

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