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When it’s the journey that counts

Steve Ambrose

Reporter:

Steve Ambrose

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01635 886648

George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces television programme doesn’t do ‘ordinary’, but explores the extraordinary world of small builds where people turn spaces into the most incredible places to live, work and play. Which explains the appearance of David and Karen Binney’s 48-tonne, 69ft by 12ft 5in broad-beamed barge Wessex Rose on the Channel 4 show. Some four years ago, David made a life-changing decision. The 50-something Yorkshireman, who’d worked for an international transport and shipping company for more than 30 years and never lived more than 15 miles from Halifax, where he was born, decided there must be more to life than working in a high-stress environment, travelling all hours and sitting for a good part of the day in motorway traffic. He considered the future and came up with a plan. It was not, he insists, a mid-life crisis, more a Eureka moment. When his wife, accountant Karen, returned from a three-day work trip, he handed her a business plan, taking her and both their grown-up families by complete surprise. He’d had a bold idea that three high street banks bought into and so, once past the initial shock, did she. Despite neither having any experience in canal boating or the hospitality industry, they would take a leap of faith, sell up, plunge their life savings and more into building their own barge, head down South and enter the niche market of floating hotels. And now the couple’s majestic six-berth Wessex Rose, a five-star luxury hotel boat, is about to enter its second full season of cruises along the beautiful waterways of the Kennet and Avon Canal and River Thames, offering fully-crewed and catered three- or four-night short breaks and seven- or nine-night holidays, and is already taking bookings from returning visitors. This is hardly surprising, as David and Karen really are the most congenial hosts. We spent an afternoon on board, enjoying their hospitality at the winter mooring of Devizes Marina, just as the boat was about to go into dry dock ahead of the coming season. David prepared us lunch in the modern galley, testing a couple of new dishes he is developing for this year’s menu. Previously a hobby cook, he had to step up a level to meet the boat’s exceptional facilities with fine dining. We enjoyed a satisfying spinach and rice frittata with cherry tomatoes and mixed leaves, followed by Greek yogurt pannacotta garnished with grapes, and chatted over wine brought up from the ‘mini-cellar’ beneath the galley floorboards. A healthy and interesting menu is set for each trip, but David will incorporate guests’ individual dietry needs, including vegetarian, dairy or gluten free. The cruising day begins with a choice of a cooked English breakfast or toast and cereals in the upholstered saloon at the bow, with its sun-roof and panoramic windows open if the weather’s set fair. If not, there’s a cosy stove and underfloor heating. Lunch is served after a couple of hours travelling, then the boat gets under way again before mooring for the night, when a three-course dinner, is served. After the meal, guests can either stay to enjoy convivial conversation with their fellow travellers, watch satellite TV or DVDs, read, play board games, or retire to their cabins, of which there are three, configured as twin or double rooms, all with full-size beds and en suite wet rooms, and fitted with individual thermostats, reading lights, televisions, and tea/coffee-making facilities. Wi-fi is available throughout the boat. This comfort is a far cry from the tough life on the old working barges of the past, and David is keen to share his knowledge of Britain’s 250-year canal heritage as the Wessex Rose journies through “living history”. Most of Britain’s main canals were originally industrial arteries and pass through a lot of built-up areas, but the Kennet & Avon is delightfully rural and the most scenic of them all, he says, in particular the Devizes to Newbury section. It follows the route of the Great Western Railway, so passengers are collected and returned at designated stations along the way. Each of the cruise options offered between Bath and Oxford takes in stretches of the Kennet and Avon navigation and River Thames, passing through some of the most beautiful and diverse waterway scenery in the country, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, wooded dells and protected marshland. Guests can take advantage of the roof-top terrace, help at the lock gates, or go off to explore the many interesting canal and riverside towns, villages and other attractions. There is no typical Wessex Rose ‘cruiser’ – they have guests in their 30s and 40s right up to their 90s, people who have retired or taken early retirement and are taking advantage of their new-found freedom. Others are on anniversary or birthday treats and some, having enjoyed previous boating holidays, feel no longer able to manage a self-piloted trip. And, contrary to the expectations of David’s original business plan, they are welcoming a large number of international guests – in particular from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, tourists ‘doing Europe’, who appreciate the respite from their whistle-stop tours. The Wessex Rose is not about the destination, but the journey. One ‘wound-up’ passenger, persistently enquiring about the boat’s progress, awoke on his second day to announce, “Oh, I get it…” David and Karen offer a luxurious life in the slow lane, some peace and tranquility, a chance to relax and unwind. As another guest put it: “It has been eight days since we were on the Wessex Rose, tomorrow we head for Italy, but in some ways wish we could trade that for more time – and food – aboard this wonderful canal boat with David and Karen. “We cannot and will not forget the experience. See you again one day…”

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