What future is there for river cruising in the UK?

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions
the African Queen tied up on the Thames

The African Queen ready for a cruise up the Thames

Ocean cruising has been popular for decades but the last twenty years has seen a breakthrough where it rivals the package holiday. More and more ports are being reconstructed to allow larger and larger ships to dock. But many people join the huge cruise ships that take 5,000 passengers and feel like they are moving into a small town?

At the same time more intimate ships that don’t carry thousands but hundreds are garnering popularity as they allow people to visit smaller ports and to feel as though they have a more intimate holiday.  Customers have shown that there is a market for both types of vessels.

Although modern ships and well-equipped to deal with storms and bad weather and rarely are there problems, some people prefer a more leisurely maritime break. There have been cruises, for example, along the rivers Rhine, Douro and Danube in Europe for decades and, more recently, the Mekong in Asia.

Initially, the appeal was limited but in the last decade there has seen a huge increase in appeal and in cruises down a variety of rivers across the world. Earlier this week, CruiseDeals.co.uk reported that its operators have seen river cruise sales grow by as much as 40% so far in 2016.

The appeal has been that the ships are more intimate, the customer service levels are perceived to be higher and any bad weather wouldn’t be on the same scale as on the open ocean. The downside has been that there are not that many rivers that are wide enough, long enough and navigable so that passengers can always find something new.  Most river cruise vessels in Europe are unlikely to carry more than 180 or so passengers and some carry less than fifty. Given that Europe has some wide rivers and that some are not totally navigable in dry periods, what hope is there for expansion in the British Isles?

In the UK and Ireland, river cruising is, depending on who you talk to, either in its infancy or is net to being a non-starter. Those who are negative about river cruising point to river width and depth as problems. This means – in their eyes – that boats only carrying tens of passengers can be used so the costs would be prohibitive. The economies of scale that big companies like are just not there so the future, if there is one, is with small companies.

For those who see no future they talk of narrow boats or small cruisers on the Shannon or on the Norfolk Broads. The bigger lakes can manage some vessels that offer short holidays but that is as far as thinking goes.

the bar area of the African Queen

the bar area of the African Queen

The owners of The River Cruise Line didn’t take that view. Having successfully sold river holidays in Europe since 2002 they wondered about an opportunity in the UK. Could a British rivers holiday product work both economically for the provider and for the passenger? Would passengers be interested in holidaying on their own waterways?

A number of problems faced the company which included finding a stretch of river that was suitable and finding a vessel that could carry sufficient passengers so that they had space, comfort and the facilities they had grown to expect from river cruising elsewhere. Finally, could any vessel provide the service and style that would live up to what passengers had experienced on the continent?

On the River Thames, the company found a converted Dutch barge called the African Queen. No, it’s nothing to do with the famed Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn film of the same name although one of the owners, Bonnie, comes from South Africa. Her partner, Andy, comes from closer to home –the Isle of Wight. The pair had discussions with The River Line and the African Queen is now a 14 berth ship with a bar, lounge and restaurant area. The route plotted was based around Mapledurham in south Oxfordshire. Why here? Because it isn’t far away from Reading station (just over three miles away) for those coming by train and the pretty village sets the right appeal for this cruise along the Thames. Think Jerome K Jerome and Three Men in a Boat but in a floating bijou hotel, a bigger and more convivial scale and no mishaps!

Mapledurham House © Mapledurham Estate

Mapledurham House © Mapledurham Estate

There is plenty of parking in the village for those taking the cruise but many of those that do spend a day looking at the only working flour watermill on the Thames and Mapledurham House, a building that was constructed in Elizabethan times by a catholic family so it has priest holes to incite interest. It was sacked in the Civil War by the Roundheads and the heir was murdered by a footman in London. Despite that, the house is still owned by the same family!

On the first day the crew of four sails the African Queen to Goring – on-Thames and then, on day two, to Wallingford. The food served on board might surprise you. On the first night, dinner is a Cape Malay dish, a South African dish cooked by Bonnie and which has become a firm favourite and almost a traditional start to the cruise.  Like George, Harris and J in Jerome’s book (not forgetting the dog, Montmorency) you have the opportunity of a leisurely lunch at one of the riverside pubs on day two.

At the end of day two the boat returns to Mapledurham, not for the end of the cruise but for the beginning of the cruise along the southern part of the Thames. There are two more days taking you to Sonning for a night (which includes a theatre trip to the Mill at Sonning, the inspiration for Toad Hall in another well-known book about the Thames, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame) and then on to Henley. Whilst in Henley, passengers have enough time to visit the River and Rowing Museum. Here you will find the story of  The Wind in the Willows as well the more traditional items that you would expect to find in a town forever linked to rowing.

an image of the River thames

a tranquil day on the Thames

The African Queen then returns to Mapledurham  at the end of its five day trip. It isn’t the longest cruise that you will ever travel upon but it surely must be one of the most delightful. Is that why the 22 voyages that it makes each year are virtually sold out? Even for cruises in 2017, you may find that you are unlucky in your choice of dates.

Will The River Cruise Line unveil new river cruise trips in the UK and Ireland? They are looking for other suitable vessels and other routes but it won’t be easy. But judging by the success of the African Queen, there must be some ship owners who think their patch of river could provide cruises for the seemingly insatiable cruising lust of the British!

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