Many of us dream of a life on the water. Hilary Harrison and her family did just that. Three rivers have been their home and their outside space, sanctuary, swimming place and wildlife wonder all year round.

Imagine living on a boat.

Imagine bringing up your children on a boat on the Broads.

Oh, and you home-school, and one of you is blind, and the boat is also home to a guide dog and a shifting roll-call of family pets.

Great British Life: Hilary and Thomas Harrison, with dogs Moses and Chester, Thomas' guide dog, at their barge, the Golden Mean.Hilary and Thomas Harrison, with dogs Moses and Chester, Thomas' guide dog, at their barge, the Golden Mean. (Image: Denise Bradley)

Hilary Harrison, her husband Thomas and their children, Digby and Celeste, live on their sailing barge, Golden Mean, on the river Yare.

Three rivers have been their home – and their ever-changing outside space, sanctuary, swimming place in summer and wildlife wonder all year round.

When I spoke to Hilary the family were moored a few miles east of Norwich, but about to move again.

Hilary and Thomas held their wedding reception on the Golden Mean; Celeste was born on board, and the boat has been the family’s home on the Thames, and on the Waveney and the Yare in Norfolk. When they moved to Norfolk 15 years ago, the children were tiny, just a baby and a toddler, nicknamed Port and Starboard. Their ‘Great Voyage’ took them along the Thames through central London, out into the North Sea and up the East Anglian coast, coming inland through Oulton Broad.

Great British Life: Hilary and Thomas Harrison, with dogs Moses and Chester, Thomas' guide dog, in their barge, the Golden Mean.Hilary and Thomas Harrison, with dogs Moses and Chester, Thomas' guide dog, in their barge, the Golden Mean. (Image: Denise Bradley)

‘I longed for the wide open skies and far away horizons of my childhood home,’ said Hilary, who grew up in Wiveton, near Blakeney.

‘Some people said we were completely mad, with Thomas blind, to live on a boat, to bring up our children on a boat.’

But both Thomas and Hilary were happy around boats. Hilary sailed as a child in Blakeney and Thomas enjoyed boyhood boating holidays and sailed at school and university. Their own children have never lived anywhere else; never known anything but the gentle lap of currents and tides rocking them to sleep, waking to the calls of ducks or geese, with kingfishers, otters and even the occasional seal among their neighbours.

The family spent 13 years on the Waveney. But sometimes they change address for just a few hours, perhaps to moor beside a pub or a riverbank to meet friends, or tie up close to a favourite swim spot.

As they arrive it will be Hilary who is driving, with Thomas ready to throw ropes ashore – directed by Hilary’s shouts.


'He stands on the boat and gets a loop of rope ready to throw over a post. On the Thames we used to have to do locks too!’ said Hilary. ‘In a small boat people offer to help but in a bigger boat like ours they assume we are experts – and they don’t know that Thomas is blind.’

Thomas lost his sight while still a student due to a genetic condition. He completed his engineering degree but was already blind when he and Hilary first met as volunteers for the Samaritans.

She went on to train as a teacher and Thomas landed a job with the London Underground. Living in crowded city house-shares, they began day-dreaming about setting up home together in a boat.

The dream became reality when the couple found a fine three-sailed seafaring barge, built to skim between Hebridean islands, moored on the Thames just west of London.

Great British Life: Hilary Harrison in the galley of their barge, the Golden Mean.Hilary Harrison in the galley of their barge, the Golden Mean. (Image: Denise Bradley)

The wood-paneled rooms beneath the deck include a galley kitchen and comfortable living area, a saloon, wet-room and cabins. There is a wood burner for heating and hot water, portholes and skylights for daylight and views of water, and birds flying over or night starry skies, and entire riverbanks for outside space.

Thomas navigates staithes, pontoons and paths with his guide dog and white stick. An engineer by inclination and education he has always been the maintenance man, feeling his way around the inner workings of the boat to diagnose and repair any problems. He looks after the engine, mends the boiler, organises sails and ropes and sort leaks – all by touch.

After many years working for London Underground he now has a job troubleshooting websites for clients to ensure they are accessible to blind and partially-sighted people.

Great British Life: Thomas Harrison at work in his barge, the Golden Mean.Thomas Harrison at work in his barge, the Golden Mean. (Image: Denise Bradley)

Thomas’ first guide dog, Magic, arrived when Digby was a baby and Celeste not yet born. He was perhaps the only boat-dwelling guide dog in the country. Two years after Magic retired Thomas was paired with Chester, who was joined on board by the family’s pet border collie, Moses.

‘After settling in Norfolk the pet-to-person ratio started to increase,’ said Hilary. Over the years the Golden Mean has been home to guinea pigs whose cage slotted neatly into a cabin cubby hole and lop-eared rabbits who graduated from boat-rabbits to a riverbank run, and the family hatched and released ducklings and quail.

Hilary, who was home-schooled herself as a teenager, boat-schooled the children until very recently, when both teens enrolled in college in Norwich to complete public exams. She also ran musical theatre groups for children, and for adults with special needs, in Beccles and Loddon for 10 years, and has written a book about the family’s life on board the boat.

‘As soon as we say we live on a boat, people are fascinated,’ said Hilary. Her book, Rock the Boat, with a cover designed by Celeste, satisfies some of that curiosity.

Great British Life: The woodburner in the barge, the Golden Mean.The woodburner in the barge, the Golden Mean. (Image: Denise Bradley)

But Hilary said that in many ways boat life is not so different from living in a conventional house. When the children were young the door up to the deck was kept shut, just as people close their front doors. None of the family has ever fallen in and the discipline of living on a boat is particularly helpful for Thomas with everything having to be kept, well, ship-shape.

‘It’s a very orderly environment. Cupboards are built in and click shut. Everything has a place and we have not got room for clutter,’ said Hilary. ‘We have to be very careful about what we buy, operating on a one-thing-in-one-thing-out basis.'

She said lack of space was perhaps the biggest downside of boat life, and with the children preparing to branch out into land-lubber life the family is now mooring closer to Norwich, or to a railway link into the city and beyond.

Thomas and Hilary are Christians and the boat is sometimes a church as well as home, with people from the Garden Church ( network across Norwich joining them on the boat or a riverbank for get-togethers. They are also musicians with Thomas playing the guitar and Hilary keyboards.

Great British Life: The Golden Mean moored for a riverbank church meeting. The Golden Mean moored for a riverbank church meeting. (Image: Supplied)

Hilary particularly loves summer on Golden Mean when their domain includes the river for swimming and grassy riverbanks for picnicking and playing.

‘I grew up on the Arthur Ransome books,’ she said. ‘We don’t own any outdoor space, but there is a great sense of space. You are just so aware of nature.

‘It’s a bit like Narnia if you are at a marina where you pass through a barrier, you go into a different world.’ said Hilary.

While family and friends visit and Hilary has a car to get around on land (as well as the dinghy they use on the river) she said: ‘It’s a very private life. We prioritise spending time together as a family in these golden days while they are still living at home’.

Great British Life: Watercolour by Philip Gardner. Watercolour by Philip Gardner. (Image: Supplied)

She is also launching a website dedicated to her artist father’s watercolours. Philip Gardner served as a Spitfire pilot in the Second World War and then worked in advertising before becoming a full-time painter in north Norfolk.

He died when Hilary was just 12 and she wants to bring his paintings - sparse, atmospheric landscapes and seascapes, portraits of people sketched mid-expression or far-away on a distance shoreline, pictures of beaches and boats – to a new generation.

Many of his paintings were bought by art lovers, including three members of the royal family.

‘He painted this picture of Holkham beach with a tiny dot and two tinier dots, which were supposed to be corgis, and called it HM Queen Elizabeth,’ said Hilary. ‘It was sold at his exhibition in Holkham and bought by a lady in waiting and presented to the queen.’

Great British Life: Golden Mean under sail. Golden Mean under sail. (Image: Harrison family)

As well as displaying and selling paintings which have been in storage since his death almost 40 years ago Hilary is planning a book about his life as an artist and father, and exploring childhood grief.

Philip’s paintings and Hilary’s writing, which she hopes will help people working through childhood grief, can be seen at

The Golden Mean needs a new mast before she can sail again but one day Hilary would love to take her back out to sea and around the coast to Blakeney, for a holiday where she first sailed with her artist father.

Great British Life: Rock the Boat by Hilary Harrison. Rock the Boat by Hilary Harrison. (Image: Celeste Harrison)