On a cold December Monday in East London, between bouts of snow, I visited a fascinating new project: the creation of an off-grid residential community and environmental activism hub, aboard 1926 Dutch barge the Vriendschap.
Much as the pun doesn’t directly work in Dutch – ‘schap’ means shelf – appropriately for the project, Vriendschap does mean friendship.
This hulking 50 meter barge stayed in the ownership of the original family, plying the shallow waters near Antwerp, until she was brought across the Channel in 2000 for residential conversion. After intermittent occupation, she is now showing extensive signs of wear.
Step in Paul Powlesland, a lawyer and activist who champions a range of causes, in particular environmental and social inequalities. Already used to living on London’s waterways, he took on the Vriendschap this year.
Plans for the future
Concerned about the inaffordability of London housing, and naturally inclined to community, Paul is planning a 7-bedroom commune in the bows. Inspired by the scale of the interior, a substantial part of the hold will become an environmental activism centre, with space for talks and cultural events.
For now, there is a lot of renovation work to do.
Stifling a panic attack and climbing aboard over the wobbling gang plank, I had great admiration for the task Paul has ahead of him. Already he and volunteers have cleared huge amounts of abandoned furniture. They have been rewarded in the process by finding mementos of the Vriendschap’s past: traditional Dutch clogs, old photos and a library of books. Work is forging ahead to make the cabin weather tight and insulated, install photovoltaic arrays and fit services.
I came away with the funny feeling I had glimpsed a modern day version of Noah’s ark. This off-grid vessel is being reborn with a spirit of human and planetary sustainability. Meanwhile, a bit like at Hockerton, this project is fundamentally about using co-operation to enable low-impact living. I look forward to writing more as the Vriendschap comes back to life. Also follow their progress on the Vriendschap Facebook page.