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Destination: Great Britain : Floating through English History : Well-Preserved Medieval Villages Drift By as This 'Hotel' Barge Plies the Waters of the Great Ouse River Near Cambridge

May 08, 1994|MARK CHESTER | Chester is a San Francisco - based free-lance photographer and writer

CAMBRIDGE, England — Colin Glover could pass for the general manager of an elegant London hotel such as Claridge's. He moves with grace, decisiveness and authority. He is a promoter of quality service and an ambassador of fine taste.

But instead of a suit, Glover prefers to wear an old sweater with holes when he putters around his floating "hotel," two barges called the Barkis & Peggotty, named for characters in the novel "David Copperfield."

A Royal Navy man for 17 years, Glover jumped ship 10 years ago to run his own tour boat business with his first mate and wife of 30 years, Stephanie. Their twin barges ply the upper reaches of the Great Ouse River in England's East Anglia district near Cambridge, not far from a fascinating landscape of broad, flat marshlands known as the Fens.

The region--which, outside of Cambridge, is little visited by most Americans--is made up of well-preserved medieval villages and towns that seem to have been left untouched by the Industrial Revolution and World War II. The area is also rich in English history: Once the ancient Saxon Kingdom of Anglia, this is where Oliver Cromwell was raised and came to power, and where one of the world's great universities was founded.

Just an hour or so by car from London, the region nevertheless seems a world apart from more touristy spots west of England--one reason why Colin and Stephanie Glover feel at peace here.

I learned about the Glovers' barge trips while planning last September's vacation with my fiancee, Brooks. Since we were going to visit Cambridge to see friends, a short barge trip in the nearby waterways sounded like an offbeat excursion to add to our driving side trips through the surrounding countryside.

The Glovers know how to treat guests with first-class hospitality. Stephanie hails from a family of professional chefs and prepares all the gourmet meals (and sometimes drives one of the barges). Colin is the more gregarious one: part Viking, part Falstaff, part Peter Ustinov. In the evening, the salon of the Barkis is Colin's stage during cocktail hour when he holds forth with humorous comments about the British monarchy, politics, history and just about anything else. His provocative banter heats up the room faster than the coal-burning, pot-belly stove. Their son Simon, 28, also helps with some of the boating chores, but doesn't live on the barge as his parents do.

Beginning in spring, the Glover's barges run up and down a 60-mile strip of the Great Ouse River between Great Barford and Holywell, taking visitors on three-day or weeklong floats past medieval villages with English-sounding names: St. Ives, St. Neots, Eaton Socon, Hemingford Grey, each town with its own market day. The counties we visited, Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire, are a painting come to life: half-timbered houses, graceful swans on the river, villagers pedaling bicycles and majestic Norman cathedrals. These country landscapes were a favorite of the painter John Constable, in fact.

Each of the Glovers' barges, of a type which Colin described in river lexicon as "broad-beam narrow boats," measures 13 feet wide, 75 feet long and 6 feet, 7 inches high. The Peggotty functions as the sleeping boat, with five, two-person cabins that are tiny but designed well enough so that we didn't feel cramped. Each is carpeted, and has a chest of drawers, closet, outside window, private shower and toilet. Brooks and I had planned our vacation as a "growing closer" holiday, but we didn't mean to get quite this close: We could hear virtually every sound in the next cabin.

The other barge, the Barkis, functions the way the public rooms in a hotel do: It's equipped with the salon, a dining room, guest toilet, galley and captain's family quarters. It's comfy and airy, and Ben, the Glover's springer spaniel, usually lies quietly by Colin's easy chair.

Joining us for our three-day trip late last September were Ann and Jim Kuhn, and Betty and Irene Jost, coincidentally all from from Illinois. The bad news was that, unfortunately for us, our cruise was badly timed during the coldest days ever recorded for this season. The good news was that we found a hot water bottle in our beds each night.

The two boats travel independently on the river, side by side or following, and at night are lashed together and connected at the gunnels by a plank for guests to walk across.


The upper reaches of the Great Ouse River, which empties into the North Sea on England's mid-eastern coast, is narrow and placid, more like a canal than a river. And like a canal, it's dotted with occasional hand-operated locks, which take about 30 minutes each to pass through. The barge meanders through lush meadows with sheep and cows, and passes fishermen sitting along the banks under huge umbrellas and amid elaborate angling paraphernalia, waiting to catch something. They sit for hours, seeming to care less what they reel in; it's the tranquillity of the river that draws them here.

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