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LUXURY CRUISE: luxury BARGING ON THE THAMES

A REGAL swan peers through my porthole on the luxury hotel barge Magna Carta. Should I curtsy or retreat? We had just puttered quietly past Windsor Great Park and were now moored within sight of the castle where the Royal Standard is flying stiffly at attention.  As “Seigneur of the Swans”, Her Majesty owns all mute swans on sections of the Thames and the annual Swan Upping was at hand. Held in July, the ‘royal’ swans are rounded up, marked and released. We don’t want to ruffle royal feathers. 

 

Our royal progress along England’s river of history began at the gilded gates of Hampton Court Palace. The 6-night Classic England Cruise itinerary would take us from Hampton Court to Runnymede, past Magna Carta Island, where King John sealed the momentous document, to Windsor, Cookham, Hurley, and Henley-on –Thames, a journey of 60 miles spread over 6 nights of dawdling along at a stately 5mph. This is Slow Travel at its finest. Like Slow Food – it entrances with immersion in the culture, history and gastronomy of a region.

Our quintessential English experience began with an elegant Cream Tea with all the trimmings at a favourite London landmark, the impeccable Stafford Hotel which is perfectly positioned in St James. Here we met the captain and fellow guests (North American, Australian and English) for the drive to Hampton Court where Magna Carta  was berthed at the gates of Henry V111’s pleasure palace – and his wives’ ruin. Welcome-aboard bubbles were shared as we marvelled at the vision splendid: the beauty of the Thames, and Hampton Court with its tudor chimneys (241) and stupendous gardens. We could even smell the roses.

We adjoin to our suites to prepare for dinner. All have ensuite bathrooms and are more roomy than we had imagined. Magna Carta may be a traditional Dutch-born barge, but she is British to the bootstraps. In the thirties she was a cargo barge before being transformed into luxury boutique accommodation in English country house style with plump sofas, piles of books, fresh flowers and an open bar. She carries eight guests and a crew of five and is available for private charter. A chauffeur-driven minivan takes guests to excursions further afield with admission tickets to iconic sights bought in advance.Life on board resembles a floating house party. Would Charles and Camilla appear?

Wining and dining is an important ritual. Guests gather around the communal dining table and listen to the tasting notes on wine pairings delightfully presented by our two hostesses. (Wines are included with meals). Enter chef, who describes the dishes and origin of locally-sourced regional produce in the four-course menu du jour. Weather permitting, lunch is served al fresco on the upper deck amid pots of pansies and tubs of herbs, tended by chef. The next morning we are off on a guided tour of Hampton Court Palace’s magnificent interiors and its impossibly gorgeous gardens: the Great Fountain, Privy and Pond gardens, Lower Orangery and The Great Vine planted by Capability Brown in 1768. We pass through the vast tudor kitchens, Henry’s chapel and corridor– reputedly haunted by the luckless Catherine Howard – and on through the Baroque Palace of William and Mary. Meanwhile at Windsor, once through the Castle’s gates, we were in time to see the changing of the guard before viewing the State Apartments, Queen Mary’s Dolls House, St George’s Chapel where ten monarch’s lie, a quick glance in the Royal Library, and back to the barge. Next, a drive to Dorney Court, a tudor manor house which has been in the same family for 450 years. It has often been used as a film location, for example “Elizabeth: The Golden Years”; “The Other Boleyn Girl”, and “The Invisible Woman”. Magna Carta is eager to get moving.

There are locks to navigate, weirs to consider, and low bridges to negotiate. Along the banks, the boughs of mighty chestnut trees dip to the waterline from the weight of fragrant blooms – some pink but most, creamy white. Passers-by strolling the towpath clad in Burberrys and Barbours wave cheerily - some reminiscent of Kenneth Grahame’s anthropomorphised characters in Wind in the Willows and there are willows aplenty lining the banks. We pass the fabulous riverside houses in the town of Bray - famed for its 3 Michelin-star-rated restaurants – the Roux Brothers’ Waterside Inn and Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck - then glide along beech-lined banks of Cliveden Reach which form an avenue leading the eye up to magnificent Cliveden House. Once home of the Astors, to some, it is still remembered as the setting of the Profumo Affair sex scandal of the ‘60s which felled the Macmillan government. But now  it is a fine Relais & Chateaux hotel set amid superb gardens and views of the river whence we have come.

Next morning we glide past water meadows, woodlands carpeted with bluebells and drifts of primrose. At Cookham, we visit favourite son, artist Stanley Spencer’s gallery, and have a pint at the local.   Back on board, we can go no further. At the locks, the red boards are up because of heavy rains upstream. Instead, a bonus excursion is arranged and we are take on a tour to Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill. We rejoin the barge at Henley on Thames – site of the legendary regatta and the very fine museum of River and Rowing which traces the past, present and future of the Thames, the international sport of rowing, and has a permanent exhibition of Kenneth Grahame’s endearing characters from Wind in the Willows - Toad, Ratty, Badger and Mole, as illustrated by E H Shepherd in Wind in the Willows.

Our final excursion to Oxford provided a fitting finale with a stroll among its lovely buildings, and a visit to Christ Church, Oxford’s grandest college founded by Cardinal Wolsey and then again by Henry V111. Its Great Hall chimes for many as the setting for Harry Potter films. But on the back wall of the Great Hall is an image of another legend of children’s fiction – Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll. Returning to Magna Carta for the last time, a grand farewell dinner awaited. The bubbles flowed, as did a few tears. We were of one voice. While most of us had visited these sights before, nothing equalled seeing them from this river of liquid history.

 
Maggy Oehlbeck was a guest of European Waterways, the Stafford Hotel, and Rail Europe. European Waterways: www.gobarging.com
Posted 5/2/17
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