Messing about in boats

What could be better, on a warm summer day as sitting at a riverside pub, a glass of something cool in hand and watching the river flow past.

How about – sitting on a river boat, a glass of something cool in hand and watching the rest of the world flow past? That’s how our June family holiday on the river Thames began.

According to Ratty, in Wind in the Willows – “there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” And after a week’s leisurely cruise along the Thames, in a comfortable 6 berth cruiser, I’m inclined to agree.

Our boat 'Caprice'We picked up our 39ft, 6-berth cruiser called Caprice from the river boat cruise company Le Boat, at their marina in Chertsey, Surrey. Arriving an hour early for a briefing, we were shown around the two double bedrooms, two bathrooms, the well equipped kitchen and all the domestic arrangements were well explained. The boat handling briefing was not so detailed, little more than that’s how you turn it on and there’s the steering wheel. So, when we reached our first lock at 5pm, and the lock keeper was off duty, we got stuck for two hours until another boater came along and showed us how they work.

Although there’s a steering wheel, a boat doesn’t steer like a car. It takes a while before it goes in the direction you want and the wind can push you sideways, so it felt a bit like driving on ice. This makes accurate mooring a hair-raising experience until you gain confidence – which came 24 hours and several locks later. All locks on the Thames are manned by friendly and helpful lock keepers but only between 9am and 5pm, the rest of the time it’s self-service.

Mooring at WindsorOur first landmark was Runnymede where we intended to moor and visit the Magna Carta, JFK and Air Forces memorials but No Mooring signs lined the banks; so we continued on to Windsor and  moored up for the night. Everything on a boat is on a smaller scale than at home so it takes a while to stop tripping, knocking and bumping over steps, bulkheads and low doorways. The beds were comfortable, there was no sense of floating, although creaks and bumps took some getting used to.

Life is slow on the river – it’s not about getting to a destination, it’s about enjoying the journey. A chance to opt out from the hectic world of rushing crowds, busy schedules and noise. It’s a tiny bit of the world where everyone is friendly, people in every boat wave to you, walkers on the tow path wave and when you stop at a lock everyone will chat.

This slow pace, around 6-8mph, allows plenty of time to admire the tree lined banks, grand river frontage properties (why are they mostly empty?) and wildlife is not scared away. Swans and ducks are everywhere, large fish splash in the water, herons perch on branches eyeing lunch, kites circle above, the occasional song of skylarks can be heard and bats hoover up midges at dusk. Early one morning I was thrilled to see what I thought was a young otter loping along the tow path, but checking wildlife images, it turned out to be a mink.

Thames footpathThe 180 mile Thames footpath is my favourite long distance walk, mainly because there are no hills and it’s practical to walk from one pub (B&B) to another. It follows the river all the way from source to sea so whenever anyone wants to stretch their legs there’s always a riverside path to stroll along.

We moored up in Maidenhead for lunch on day 2 and called in at one of its many riverside pubs. Meandering on we stopped for the night in the picturesque village of Cookham. The fabulous Stanley Spencer gallery is in the heart of the village, which he immortalised by painting village life, its inhabitants and re-imagining religious scenes such as ‘Christ Preaching at the Cookham Regatta.’

Pottering along towards Marlow the following day it is easy to see how Kenneth Grahame’s childhood years in Cookham provided the inspiration for The Wind in the Willows. We glided past the lovely Georgian town of Marlow as our onboard children wanted to play in the park at Henley. It was June and preparations were already underway for the Royal Henley Regatta and the river was teaming with rowing boats getting into practice.

Rowers on the ThamesFrom Henley to Reading is a beautiful pastoral stretch, with a surprising number of islands, and we moored for the night at the pretty village of Sonning, where the lock has a little tearoom. Traffic queuing to cross the bridge aside, the village and the Bull inn are unchanged since Jerome K Jerome stopped there in his Three Men in a Boat adventures, published in 1889.

As a local I have to admit that Reading looks better from the river than it does on its streets, so we quickly passed through. The green meadows to the west looked peaceful as they await the deluge of multicoloured tents and debris from 90,000 Reading festival goers in August.

I was disappointed not to catch sight of the splendid Elizabethan Mapledurham House, a popular TV and film location. It has a rare working water mill and is said to be the inspiration for Toad Hall. The Swan at Pangbourne makes a good lunchtime stop and has its own mooring for patrons, otherwise there’s free mooring beside the field opposite.

Overnight mooring at GoringWe carried on to Goring, some of us went shopping and others sampled its three pubs and all of us had a splendid meal at the 350 year old Catherine Wheel.

Most of our crew voted Wallingford the last and best stopover. It’s a lovely market town with a impressive history of kings, queens and battles. Packed with historic buildings, small shops, restaurants, pubs, a museum and Friday was market day. My great surprise was that Agatha Christie spent the second half of her life in Wallingford at Winterbrook Lodge. She wrote many of her mysteries there, Wallingford is certainly not the basis for St Mary Mead but Danemead, Miss Marple’s house, was probably based on Winterbrook Lodge.

Hambleden LockOne more lock and 20 minutes cruising brought us to our final destination at Benson Marina.

Ironically, the boat ahead of us got stuck in the lock, as we did at the beginning, but now we became the friendly and knowledgeable boaters who helped them on their way.

All told we only cruised 60 miles in four full days but it was along a stunningly beautiful stretch of waterway that no one would wish to hurry through. The landscape of rolling chalk downs, woody vales, villages, market towns and historic landmarks are an absolute joy and something everyone should experience.

Practical things a novice boater needs to know

Don’t take charge of the boat until you’ve had some supervised practice at manoeuvring, mooring up and understand how locks operate. The captain will need at least one but ideally two able bodied helpers to jump on and off the boat to tie the mooring ropes and operate the lock gates.

Enjoying the sunOn top of the basic hire charge there will be a damage waiver fee (£85/5 days); an optional but desirable one way fee (£105); boatyards usually charge £10 to empty the septic tank if necessary but there are plenty of places to top up your water tank for free. There’s free mooring along the river but organised mooring locations often charge £5 per night but a marina might charge £15.

You will need a credit card to leave an additional £400 deposit plus another £150 deposit to cover the fuel used; we were charged £85 for fuel for the 60 miles between Chertsey and Benson.

As well as food and drink consider these little extras which we didn’t think to bring – sun cream, insect repellent, soap, extra toilet rolls, bin bags, rain gear and sun hat.

Le Boat also offer to relocate your car to your final destination for a fee and you can add bicycle rental (£7/day) if you plan to explore further afield at stop-off places.

Chertsey to Benson on a Caprice boat 

PrPlenty of room to playices for a one-week family break this summer start from £1,220 for a Caprice boat leaving from Chertsey for 7 nights sleeping four or six, £305 or £203pp. Shorter breaks are also available from three nights.

Sleek, modern and with most of the amenities of home, the 12metre (39-foot) Caprice boat looks smart inside and out with seating on the upper deck and at the rear, as well as a large inside rear saloon. It sleeps up to six people with two cabins and two bathrooms and the saloon converts into sleeping quarters. No boating license or previous experience is required. Price includes renting the boat and its equipment, a galley (kitchen) with all the necessary utensils and appliances, towels and linen for all passengers.

To find out more visit www.leboat.co.uk or call 023 9280 1172.

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Peter Lynch

Journalist, rail and wildlife specialist & contributor to Great Train Journeys of the World

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