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‘€8,000 barge in France gave us an off-grid retirement’

A British couple talk through their DIY conversion of an old working boat into a cosy floating home on the Canal du Midi

Gary Hepworth and Kate Wormald reconfigured the barge in 2017 to include two bedrooms, a family bathroom, living area and kitchen Pic: Gary Hepworth / Kate Wormald

When Gary Hepworth and partner Kate Wormald, both 59, began looking for retirement properties by the sea, they initially confined their search to Devon and Cornwall.

However, they quickly came up against a major obstacle.

“Property prices were astronomical,” says Kate, a former teaching assistant.

“We had not realised it would be so expensive.”

A trip to Looe in Cornwall had a silver lining though, by providing inspiration for their eventual move.

“Gary saw a houseboat there and wondered whether that might be the solution we were looking for.”

Finding the boat

On returning home, Gary, who previously worked in property maintenance and restoration, began researching Dutch barges and discovered Onrust for sale, moored in the south of France.

“I wasn’t 100% sure,” admits Kate, “but his enthusiasm was infectious.”

In October 2016, Gary went over to look at the boat, alongside one or two others he had found.

“He really fell in love with it,” says Kate, “so we began negotiations.”

Brexit moves plans forward

Although the couple were not yet at retirement age, the looming prospect of Brexit made them decide to realise their dream a little early. 

“We thought we would go for it while we were still in the EU and while we still had three good knees between us. If it all went horribly wrong, we could always go back to the UK.”

The couple completed a Royal Yachting Association-accredited inland waterways course – a weekend of tuition navigating UK canals on a 25-metre boat – in December 2016 as preparation for their new life afloat.

Two months later, they flew out to France to get the barge lifted out of the water and surveyed.

Finally, in April 2017, Gary moved to the banks of the Canal du Midi in Aude, where Onrust was then moored.

He stayed in a campervan as the boat needed extensive work. Kate finished her contract and joined him that August.

The renovation begins

Onrust was built in the Netherlands in 1906. The enormous 19m x 4.15m vessel was originally used for transporting coal, before later being converted to a live-aboard boat.

Getting to grips with renovating such a historic vessel proved a steep learning curve.

“When we had the survey, Gary jet-washed her off and there were lots of little ‘ping pings’,” says Kate. “It turned out the sides were full of holes.”

As a result, the couple negotiated on the price and secured their retirement home for just €8,000.

To make it liveable, however, took a lot more investment.

“Having the sides replated cost €45,000, and another €8,000 for the underneath of the boat,” says Kate.

Reconfiguring the interior

This was only the beginning. Gary, an experienced builder who has worked on countless property renovations on land, then gutted and reconfigured the entire vessel.

“The original conversion had been carried out in the 1960s but it had not been touched since,” says Kate. “All the wiring needed to be redone, the walls had become like Weetabix in texture. It was easier to start afresh.”

Gary’s skills as a craftsman mean almost everything in the boat has been built by hand, including the furniture.

“He was not fazed at all,” says Kate. “He just treated it like a different-shaped house.”

So what is the living space like?

“We have two bedrooms, one with our bed and a tiny en suite, the other with a sofa bed.

“We have a family bathroom with shower, and a lounge and kitchen,” says Kate. “It is compact, but I really love how cosy it is.”

For heating, the couple rely on a wood burning stove, although they had to replace their oversized original one as it was giving off too much heat.

“We had to sit outside whenever we lit it,” says Kate.

Recycling canal water

The barge is self-sufficient, meaning the pair can live ‘off grid’.

“We installed solar panels and a water filtration system, which means we can use water from the canal. The filtration system contains six carbon filters, then a metre-length of UV light that kills anything the filters have not taken out,” says Kate. 

“That said, we tend not to drink it, but rather use it for the washing machine and shower.”

Tranquil mooring

The couple enjoy a relatively quiet mooring in Colombiers, near Béziers, still on the Canal du Midi.

“There are banks either side, so people are not walking straight past us,” says Kate. 

“We also have special film on the windows, which stops 80% of UV rays coming in and means that people cannot see in.”

Kate, who produces stained glass artwork, now has a small studio on land, and Gary works in property maintenance in the area.

“We could not quite afford to retire yet,” says Kate. “We knew we would have to work.”

But the pair are enjoying their new life on the water in France.

“It’s a lovely part of the world to be in. The way of life is so much more relaxed and we could not be happier.”

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