My dislike of boats started with a school trip on a cold, damp barge. The toilet didn’t work and at one point, a classmate’s parents had to airdrop clean trousers from a bridge as we passed underneath.
Then there was the time I flooded my cabin during a catamaran sailing around Sri Lanka, and my disastrous trip to France’s Sables-d’Olonne region. After a Vendée Globe skipper took me out in his rowing boat, I fell overboard and had to be hauled back onboard like a dead fish. I vowed there and then never to take to step onboard anything smaller than a bona fide cruise ship.
Until, that is, I heard about the turbo-charged Horizon river cruisers by Le Boat, a Thames-side boat rental company with bases in Surrey and Oxfordshire. Designed exclusively for Le Boat, these spacious river cruisers (10 of which were added to the fleet in early 2020) have kitchenettes, living rooms, separate toilets and showers, and roomy upper decks.
Their pièce de résistance is bow and stern thrusters which, with the flick of a switch, provide blasts of propulsion which transform the vessel’s manoeuvrability. Thrusters, it appears, are the marmite of the boating world – a blessing for beginners like me, but a dirty little secret for many. Shortly after departing Le Boat’s boatyard in Benson, Oxfordshire, a wind-wrinkled sailor wrestling his creaking vessel into place watches with disgust as we effortlessly nudge our hire boat into a crowded lock. He spits the word “cheaters” at us before disappearing below deck. Had a rotting tree floated past I suspect he might have fashioned a ducking stool and accused me of black magic.
On the Thames’ busier sections, thrusters are a godsend. The safety briefing had fuelled my anxiety, with warnings about open-water swimmers splashing their way downriver, and flimsy kayaks squeezing alongside larger vessels in tiny locks. Nudging an 11-metre boot into a narrow lock isn’t for the faint-hearted, but the lock keepers are fantastic, guiding us in and offering advice about the best places to moor up. One lock keeper informs me we’ve chosen the perfect time to sail the Thames, citing the lack of privately-owned boats. When coronavirus took hold, boat owners delayed renewing their annual registration fees, and many have now written off the entire year.
Before long, I no longer feel like a fraud, thanks partly to the friendliness of everyone we meet. As we glide past the Oxfordshire village of Moulsford, along a stretch of river which inspired Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, a couple on a passing boat takes the time to point out local landmarks, including a vessel with a plaque identifying it as a Dunkirk Little Ship. Later, a cox bellowing encouragement at his team of rowers uses his megaphone to complement my bright red hair.
We slip into an easy routine, starting the day with coffee on the upper deck, watching squadrons of geese strafe the water. I learn to lasso ropes around bollards with the dexterity of a cattle rustler, and grow to love the ease with which we can hop off and explore riverside destinations for as little or as long as we please.
Highlights range from Goring, a tangle of lanes lined with thatched cottages, and Lower Basildon, where wildflower-filled meadows roll towards a ribbon of river fringed with weeping willows. Near Pangbourne, we follow a short footpath from the riverside to Beale Wildlife Park, famous for its collection of peacocks. It was founded in 1956 by Gilbert Beale, famous for driving his Rolls Royce around the estate with peacocks in the passenger seat.
Back onboard, Reading looms on the horizon. Not quite ready to swap meadows and mallards for flyovers and fumes, we double back, chugging past Benson and on to Shillingford, where gabled mansions vie for space on sought-after patches of prime riverside real estate. One of the grandest is Shillingford Court, built in 1898 by Frederick Mortimer, King Edward VII’s one-time tailor. We moor up near Dorchester and follow a winding path across the fields to this pretty Oxfordshire village, famous for its twelfth-century abbey and its lead font, which dates back to 1170.
Our final stop is Abingdon, which feels like Manhattan after the slew of riverside villages. My favourite find is the Broad Face Pub, founded in 1734. A handwritten explanation on its exterior cheerily explains that its name alludes to the bloated face of a prisoner hanged at the gaol which stood opposite the pub in the 1800s.
As we queue to pass through our final lock, the lock keeper emerges to help a passing sailor fish her panicking Alsatian from the water. He admits that the growing number of people taking to the river for the first time has prompted some interesting encounters, most recently a naked swimmer knocking on his door at 3am after losing his dry bag. Then there were the drunk teenagers risking life and limb by navigating his lock on swan-shaped pedalos, and the first-timers who’d hired a boat for the day and wanted to know how many hours they’d need to sail to London – a journey of around five days. Suddenly a flooded catamaran cabin looks rather insignificant.
A three-night self-catered stay on Horizon 1, which sleeps three people, starts from £809 per boat (023 9427 3078; leboat.co.uk)