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
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
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
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
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