A Cruise on the River Thames Aboard Magna Carta
From the BBC to the Beatles to Bowie, “Cool Britannia” has besotted me for quite literally decades. It is this lifelong Anglophilia which sparks my desire to immerse in all things English from “across the pond”. Happily I was able to memorably indulge this passion during a cruise on the 4-star, 8 guest barge Magna Carta in October of 2019.
From the countryside in the Cotswolds to its commercialized swathe through the center of London, the Royal River Thames has played host to millennia of maritime activity. Continuing in this great English tradition is the barge Magna Carta. Owned and operated by the husband-and-wife team of Captain Dominic and Barge Manager KT Read, the Magna Carta floats through waterside villages, bucolic countryside, and residential enclaves, highlighting England’s iconic sights alongside small slices of daily life so often overlooked while traveling.
With her jaunty bow painted in blue and white and a hot tub installed on a spacious deck, upon first blush the Magna Carta introduced herself as a warm and welcoming vessel. Stepping into the cozy salon, which served as the barge’s social center, I was further invited into a convivial “Cottage Style” atmosphere with comfortable couches, local artwork, and a well-stocked bar featuring many brands of regional gin. Best of all, as the Barge Lady’s resident bookworm, I immediately began browsing the dozens upon dozens of titles in the onboard library.
Breakfast buffets, light lunches, and nightly dinner parties were presented in the salon on the gorgeous dining room table. I couldn’t help but swoon over the beautiful table settings, festooned with fresh flowers, stylish tablecloths, and chic dishware for each meal. Upon retiring, my roomy cabin provided a haven of contemporary comfort. The underfloor heating, unique to the Magna Carta, was the loveliest of surprises for my consistently cold feet! Bathrooms were also nicely appointed, with plenty of counter space for premium toiletries.
Outdoor areas on the Magna Carta proved as enticing as her interior. A wooden dining table on the deck provided a pretty perch to enjoy a local lager and admire the scenery as it slipped by. Many an afternoon was spent there lazing on the deck, chatting and laughing with my fellow guests while sipping freshly brewed coffee, reveling in the refreshing river breezes.
Visiting Captain Dom in his wheelhouse proved another wonderful way to while away the time, as he and the Magna Carta are the friendliest of fixtures along the cruise route between Hampden Court and Henley-on-Thames. “I most enjoy the fact that even though I have cruised England’s Royal River for over 25 years, every week is still different,” he revealed. “Whether it’s the seasons, or meeting regular friends out on their boats or meeting new boaters…also of course we have the full time lockkeepers, many who are good friends, but during the summer the new lock volunteers work…so many new faces too.”
Magna Carta’s sightseeing itinerary delivered an approachable dose of British history both ancient and modern. As a history buff, literature lover, and aristocracy addict, each escorted excursion was akin to stepping back into eras about which one has only read in books or seen in films.
A walk-through of the rooms, halls, and grounds of Hampton Court Palace, one of King Henry VIII’s favorite residences, was an astonishing glimpse into the daily life of the 16th century royalty. Along with St James’ Palace, Hampton Court is one of only two surviving estates out of the many the king owned, serving as a reminder of both the sophistication and savagery of the era.
Wandering through Hampton Court’s great halls still decorated with Flemish tapestries and official portraits was a privileged and extraordinary peak into the preserved recesses of European history. However, it was stepping into the Royal Chapel to admire its original Tudor ceiling, seeing the altar framed by a massive oak reredos, and walking by the royal pew where the King and his family sat to worship affected me profoundly. Thinking about a family sitting together for religious services, all these millennia later, was both beautiful and bittersweet.
Back onboard, the daily presentation (and consumption) of gourmet meals was one of the highlights of the barge cruise. “England is right at the very peak when it comes to food, both the variety available and the chefs who create it,” Captain Dom opined recently. Chef Swavek, who is a longtime friend of the Barge Ladies, helmed the Magna Carta’s galley with the professional passion and culinary creativity for which he is known.
The day began with lovely granola made from locally grown toasted oats; freshly baked bread complimented the gorgeously plated baked salmon and roasted asparagus for lunch; and a modern version of Shepard’s Pie topped off with market fresh potatoes served at dinner ensured I was a member in Very Good Standing of the Magna Carta’s Clean Plate Club. Cheese platters were absolutely decadent, with Stiltons and Shopshires and Cheddars taking center stage. Desserts ranged from rich chocolate confections to slices of cheesecake topped off with homemade strawberry glaze.
Wines were paired perfectly with the savory flavors and sweet treats, and the selections reflected both Old World classics and New World surprises. From the supple reds of the Cote du Rhone to the zippy whites of New Zealand, these pleasurable discoveries delightfully enhanced the onboard oenophilic experience. Cheers to the Magna Carta!
When recollecting my week on the Magna Carta, however, it is England itself which emerges as the most indelibly memorable. The scenery, where to begin…the expansive blue skies dappled with gray-tinged ellipsis of clouds…the weeping willows which shade the stately manor houses lining the shores of the Thames…the real country dark and and the real country silence…beyond extraordinary! The United Kingdom may not be top of mind when it comes to classic barge cruising, but seeing England’s natural beauty from the perspective of the water is nothing short of utterly spectacular.
It was with windswept hair and rosy cheeks that I reluctantly bade the Magna Carta a sad farewell. Many thanks to Captain Dom, Barge Manager KT, and their marvelous crew for a remarkable week full of scenic cruising, intellectually stimulating excursions, so many scrumptious meals, and a preponderance of peals of laughter. Meet me in London and PLEASE let’s do this again soon…!