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Lazy Weekend on the Thames

With more than 2,000 miles of navigable rivers and canals, seeing Britain by boat is a viable alternative for visitors who want to do something a little unusual. Now is the time to go, as the waterways are enjoying a £2 billion rejuvenation and revival that includes new marinas, boat-lifts – even new routes. The canals (of which more later) are one option, but I decided on a lazy weekend on England’s ‘royal river’, the Thames.

“You can sail that way for history, or the other way for mystery,” said the friendly boatman at the rental base near Windsor. “That way you could get to Hampton Court Palace and back in a weekend or, the other way--well, it’s a mystery to me where the River Thames goes!” he joked.

The only mystery to Lorraine and me was how long it would take us to master the boat, a cruiser called Lady Rosina, ours for the next three days and nights. The patient instruction at the boat yard made it sound easy: and so it proved. Within an hour or so we felt like old hands.

We decided against the eastward voyage to King Henry VIII’s Hampton Court and instead set off upstream, a journey through 1,000 years of history: past the world’s largest and oldest inhabited royal castle, ancient abbeys, woodlands, water meadows and picture-perfect towns.

It's a stretch of waterway barely changed since Jerome K. Jerome described it in “Three Men in a Boat” -- and England's royal river. The nearest thing to a medieval motorway, it linked the monarchs' most important residences, after meandering out of the Cotswold Hills.

The pace of life slowed dramatically as soon as we cast off. We began to notice little details that would otherwise be missed. Our voyage, from Datchet to the regatta town of Henley, with its interesting stores, tea shops and pubs, would be a round-trip of just 30 miles “as the crow flies”. But how far by river, which snakes around in wide, lazy loops, first west, then north and south? Thirty-five miles? Perhaps 40 or even more? We didn’t know and we didn’t care: we had left the 21st century behind, time slowed and distance wasn’t important.

Our boat was a Lady in more than name. Her feminine charms included fitted carpets, a well equipped kitchen, two double berths, shower and an enclosed driving position (ideal for summer showers). Her sleek hull revealed a sliding sunroof (ideal for sunny intervals).

There are more than 40 locks on the Thames, but unlike those on the canals, they don't require much work. They are operated by official lock keepers, dressed in smart uniforms, who work all the machinery. Like everyone we met on the river, they were friendly, too, and a mine of information.

Among the highlights of our trip were:

  • Being able to moor opposite Windsor Castle and stroll to see the Changing of the Guard.
  • Passengers waving to us from a real steamboat, similarly a happy band of canoeing youngsters.
  • Gazing up, past wooded cliffs, to stately Cliveden House and its lovely gardens.

One day we stopped for lunch at The Bounty, a riverside pub situated on a wide marsh with no road access, you had to arrive by boat or on foot. Nevertheless, it was full of chattering customers and atmosphere: even the bar was shaped like the prow of a boat.

Each night it was exciting to moor up virtually wherever we wanted, first making sure there was a pub or restaurant within easy walking distance (don’t forget a torch for the return to the boat).

On our last day we bought delicacies from a farmers’ market at Marlow, then moored the boat for a picnic in a buttercup-filled meadow. We felt like Mole and Ratty from “Wind in the Willows” and by then, like them, we had fallen in love with the river.

The cost? Prices vary according to size of boat and time of year. My trip cost £697, excluding fuel, for a three-night weekend in June in a four-berth boat (four nights mid-week cost the same). The boat-yard – there are many to choose from -- was six miles from London’s Heathrow Airport.

BRITAIN’S NEW ‘CANAL AGE’

Britain’s extensive canal system is getting its biggest makeover since it was built 200 years ago. The waterways are being restored at the same rate that they were constructed at the height of the so-called ‘canal mania’ of the 1790s.
The revival is opening up new opportunities for those wanting to explore by boat, on foot or bicycle, or simply see some remarkable engineering feats. British Waterways, the government sponsored body which looks after the network has also restored several great structures; created a 21st century landmark and built a brand new waterway. Highlights include:

  • A new 115ft-high rotating boat-lift, the Falkirk Wheel, linking two Scottish canals, opened to the public in May 2002. Part of the Millennium Link, largest ever UK canal renewal. Visitors can tour using special amphibious craft. Website: www.millenniumlink.org.uk.
  • The Anderton Boat Lift in Cheshire, a 19th century wonder known as ‘the cathedral of the canals’, reopened in March after lying idle for 19 years.
  • 200 miles of waterway are being reopened.
  • A new route, the Millennium Ribble Link, joins the isolated Lancaster Canal in Northern England, with the rest of the system in September 2002.
  • In London, new marinas are being built; disused wharves transformed; Docklands is getting floating hotels, restaurants and water-taxis; and 150 events, from festivals to guided walks, are held each year.

‘Holiday home’ boats can be rented from dozens of companies dotted around the network. Choose your location carefully as you cannot cover long distances this way.