Cruise by the Severn is no bore
Time and tide being what they are, we didn’t manage to see the Severn Bore but then again, cruising gently alongside the River Severn on Britain’s first-ever ship canal wasn’t a bore, either.
It turned out to be a really indulgent treat and an education rolled into one, travelling on the Gloucester to Sharpness Canal in splendidly-catered comfort on board the 153-tonne MV Edward Elgar, thanks to English Holiday Cruises.
The 4* Elgar is the largest hotel boat on Britain’s inland waterways, actually built on the Severn at Stourport in 1999, and with length of 88ft, a beam of 19ft and a draught of just 3ft 3in, has the maximum possible dimensions to cope with the smallest lock on its cruising routes. Neat features which were not needed on our cruise include a folding wheelhouse, with drop-down windows and roof so that the vessel becomes a ‘convertible’ and can pass under the lowest bridge when it sails as far as Worcester – not a pleasant task, said skipper Nick Rose, when it happens to be pouring down.
A fair bit of rain on just one day of our four-day/three-night trip, but largely on an excursion when the boat was moored up, so there was no trapped-on-board feeling to make us feel in the least bit hemmed in. Having said that, it was a pleasure to be on board, and there was plenty to see and do from the moment we boarded at the historic Gloucester docks.
We had travelled from home in the Rossendale Valley the day before the cruise, to give us time to look around the cathedral city before sailing, so we extended our break by staying at Hatherley Manor Hotel – recommended by English Holiday Cruises and setting the tone for a few days of being pampered, with a four-course dinner and a spot of wine followed by a night in the rather plush Room 232, overlooking the front and side lawns and boasting a huge four-poster bed.
The manor, just four miles out of Gloucester in 37 acres of sweeping grounds, was rumoured to have been built for the illegitimate son of Oliver Cromwell, no less, and it glows with history, but has been carefully refurbished and has all the mod-cons you could wish for.
A full English breakfast was a leisurely treat before an easy drive to Gloucester, with plenty of time to drop off the luggage at the Elgar and then have a good look round before an excellent discounted lunch (I said it was an indulgent break!) at the High Orchard pub just around the corner, a Marston’s house with a menu that takes a good 20 minutes just to read, with the new chicken rotisserie also competing against board full of daily specials. With a breakfast behind me and a ship-board dinner awaiting, I went for a sandwich, which turned out to be big enough to almost qualify as hand luggage – so be sure to take an appetite.
Walking it off doubled as retail therapy, with the car secure for the duration of the trip on the multi-storey car park which is part of the Gloucester Quays shopping mall. Armed with complementary money-off vouchers, there are plenty of places to at least take a look at, before exploring the historic docks, Waterways Museum and Soldiers Museum, or maybe its Antiques Centre, and then heading for the boat for 6pm, in nice time to find your cabin and then muster for a welcome drink and introductions all round, before dinner and a table quiz to further melt the ice and with no TV to annoy or interfere with getting to know one another.
Dinner? An excellent creamed leek soup to start with, then salmon fillet en papillote with fresh veg, an individual cheesecake, and a selection of cheeses and coffee to finish with, all helped by inclusive, very drinkable house wine.
A good natter in the well-stocked lounge bar rounded off the evening and bedtime beckoned quite early for everyone after a busy day of doing not a lot apart from eating.
Sleep is on the lower deck, with berths for 22 passengers in 11 outside twin cabins with a window well above the waterline, all en-suite with a walk-in ‘wetroom’ shower and all mod cons, and with everyone looked after by a five-strong crew.
Captain Nick is leader of the team, helped by deckhand Fran Lance, who is also a dab-hand behind the bar and later at organising deck quoits, backed up by attentive stewards Phil and Tomos, along with chef Rowan, who turned out excellent traditional British fare from his compact galley.
Nick, a mariner all his working life, is also a qualified hovercraft pilot, and this could well explain how adept he was at keeping the Elgar on the straight and pretty narrow when the wind was blowing, catching its high sides and nudging the vessel sideways, testing his expertise at easing it through the narrow, funnel-like approaches to many of the swing bridges on the route.
His skills were evident on our first morning, when he deftly pulled away from the West Quay mooring next to the now-static Oliver Cromwell Riverboat Hotel and restaurant – owned by the same family company – giving credit to the two Perkins diesels and the handy bow thruster, before heading off to exit the docks under Llanthony Bridge, lifted bang on time to let us start our journey along the canal.
This gave us time to practice standing on the upper deck and waving to the people we held up on their way to college or work, a rehearsal for our meticulously-timed arrival at Two-Mile Cut and the huge, modern Netheridge Bridge, which carries Gloucester’s south west bypass.
It also carries a fair amount of traffic, which we could see building up steadily as the bridge swung open to allow our stately progress but then the canal did come first!
There are a good many more bridges en route, both manual and machine-operated, each with a smiling bridge keeper – and invariably a wave and a smile from drivers and pedestrians alike during our brief transit.
Eight of the 15 original bridges on the canal have charming keeper’s houses beside them, built in the 1840s in the shape of a Greek cross, with one arm of the cross a porch held up by two Doric columns and that was just a start of a fascinating voyage to the past.