“This lever here, this is your thrusters. You push this way, you go that way; you push that way, you go this way” … thus went the brief but comprehensive instructions of Carlos. He was about to hand over full responsibility for a Horizon 4 River Cruiser (otherwise known as a Floating Gin Palace – FGP) a leviathan of the River Thames run by le Boat.
It transpired that the boat had bow thrusters to help swing it back and forth in tight situations. At thirteen and a half metres long, it was going to take some swinging I thought, a far cry from the little wooden skiff of Three Men in a Boat fame, more akin to a cross channel ferry manoeuvring into Dover Port.
The rest of Carlos’s instructions went in one ear and out the other, and then we, that is Four Persons in a Boat, cast off and we were on our own. Our mission? A two nights-aboard jaunt from the le Boat base in Chertsey upriver to Windsor and back with various diversions along the way.
I had declined the kind offer of sharing the driving, opting instead for the far less stressful rope-handling and diverse washing-up duties, so I gave helpful advice to our Captain, sat back on the top deck, and surveyed the passing scene.
And what a scene! Every inch of the river’s banks was packed with homes and gardens of every possible description from millionaire’s modernist cube, concrete and glass constructions to wooden shacks put up before the days of planning permission. Stately weeping willows framing immaculate striped lawns; hot-tubs nestling in cosy nooks; pretentious pools; the occasional scruffy weed-infested lot. But each had that winning lottery ticket – a mooring – bumping the property’s value into the stratosphere. From the upper deck of our FGP I could indulge in that most satisfying of occupations…being nosey.
My musings were interrupted by a shout from the captain, “Lock ahead!” The crew sprang into well drilled action, that is to say we looked blankly at each other, then ran around shouting “Don’t panic!” Thames locks are, unlike the canal variety, very wide and manned by a lock-keeper. This one was a dead-ringer for that bloke in the fish-finger adverts with scruffy white beard and greasy cap. He was called Martin. We obeyed his shouts and somehow got into position remembering Carlos’s instructions… “You push this way, you go that way; you push that way, you go this way” and tied up. Martin opened the floodgates and we rose in a stately fashion to the next level.
Locks are the water-coolers of the river, a chance to pause awhile, chat, exchange views, cast a disparaging eye over an FGP smaller than our Horizon 4, and be regarded by proper boat owners as the scum of the earth. According to one of our crew all lock-keepers are called Martin although this may have been influenced by his imbibing several restorative gins after a hard day on the thrusters.
We moored that afternoon at Windsor and headed for a tour of Windsor Castle where the Royal Standard fluttering from the flagpole signalled that Her Royal M. was in residence. I had a good poke round corners and corridors but never got a glimpse, although our guide swore she saw a flunkey walking Candy and Fergus the Dorgis (dachshund/corgi mix) that morning. Mmm.
St. George’s Chapel holds the tombs of ten sovereigns including Henry VIII and Charles I. The weight of a thousand years of history clings to the air in the dim interior. Then on through the State Apartments the lofty walls crammed with priceless weaponry, gifts from servile colonies grateful to be under the rule of our distant King or Queen, endless rooms with Rembrandts, Rubens and the like. I couldn’t help thinking HRH wouldn’t miss the odd one, the sale of which might go towards easing the pain of many of her subjects struggling to keep body and soul alive.
Back in the real world, time to eat at The Eton Mess, a nearby restaurant. We chose from an excellent a la carte menu created by Executive Chef Mihai Bratu with his emphasis on healthy, fresh, and creative cooking, supervised by eagled-eyed manager Jon Hilton. The Horizon 4 was still moored up thanks to my superior rope skills and we battened down the hatches for the night. With four ensuite cabins leading off a roomy saloon and kitchen area it/she can accommodate eight in comfort.
The sound of a gaggle of mute swans bugling on the water woke me (correct descriptions…I checked) to a beautiful sunny morning. Captain authorised breakfast on the upper deck and the ample provisions from le Boat were laid out and duly scoffed. It is hungry work being a deckhand. As we brushed off the last croissant crumbs an official-looking young woman from the Environment Agency wielding a ticket machine hailed us for our mooring fees. We were delighted to discover she only wanted £10 for our massive boat to park in the middle of one of the hottest tourist sites in the UK! Well done and thanks EA.
We cast off and the captain thrust the thrusters… “This lever here, this is your thrusters. You push this way…” etc., turning us back the way we’d come, travelling time-machine-like eight hundred years to 15 June 1215 and the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede.
The memorial to the signing proved to be a considerable let-down, more like a concrete bandstand than witness to the charter of liberties constituting a fundamental guarantee of rights and privileges still used today throughout the world. The buttercup strewn water meadow it stands above had more resonance for me.
Aside from property spotting, the upper deck of the Horizon was an excellent place to look at wildlife. Swans aplenty, parents being harassed like rowdy teenagers by their cygnets: female Moorhens perched precariously on floating nests of weed and twigs, bobbing in the wake of passing vessels: swooping Housemartins gorging themselves on unsuspecting insect life.
Lunch next in glorious sunshine on the garden terrace of the imposing Runnymede Hotel, greeted and treated like royalty by Lisa Rose, the Business Development Manager. From our superior position we could cast critical eyes over passing FGPs. Uncoiled ropes, crew lolling about, some even drinking alcohol. Imagine! All too soon it was time to return the Horizon to the le Boat base after a splendid weekend of right Royal fun.
To learn more about hiring your own boat in the UK or in one of their many destinations across Europe visit Le Boat online.