One is not quite on the royal yacht – but I’ve certainly found my sort of gin palace as I board our hire boat to cruise the River Thames. To mark the start of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations, I’ve joined a party on an eight-berth vessel to steer from Chertsey to Windsor, Her Majesty’s home.
As befits such a regal occasion, I’m travelling in five-star style and have Union Jack flags to wave. But I’ve also brought along my Queen’s Jubbly mug – a misprinted piece of memorabilia cheerfully reminding me that even if you’re not a royalist there’s much to celebrate.
The Le Boat hire boat we are on is gleaming white, with a large, comfortable kitchen and dining area, a top deck for barbecues and sundowners, and four bedrooms, each with their own bathroom and, er, throne. But best of all, it is handsomely festooned with fenders – making it like a giant bumper boat for even the most amateur of skippers.
A self-steered boat cruise might not be your first thought for witnessing the Queen’s Jubilee, but it’s a perfect way to get close to the action – and soak up the royal history of the area. We head off from Surrey’s Chertsey, quickly adapting to our various roles.
Our chosen skipper Lynsey Devon settles in, learning not to oversteer, to keep the speed down and keep to the right – or starboard that should be. She’s also handily got bow thrusters on this vessel, which push the bow, aft, or even the whole boat, sideways to help moor this big beast. We’re ready with the ropes as we enter the first lock – one of 32 on the length of the Thames.
For novices like us, it’s been made a lot easier than in yesteryear, when you’d have to turn the wheel manually to open and close the sluices. Now they’re all manned (though you might have to push the buttons yourself if you find the lock keeper on a lunch break) and it’s a matter of entering the lock, waiting while the water level rises or falls, then gliding out the other side. Simple! (mostly).
One of the biggest perks of this view from the Thames is the property you can peer at en route. There’s everything from tiny shacks on a lawn to massive glass-fronted mansions, mostly with their own cruiser moored out front.
And it only takes a few hours of playing Through The Keyhole – and a few more locks – before we arrive at that most impressive of manors: Windsor. Who lives in a castle like this? Parking up couldn’t have been easier.
We pull in almost opposite Windsor Castle, knock pegs in the ground to hold us and step off for a five-minute walk into town. Dinner is at The Eton Mess, named after the cream, strawberry and meringue mix made famous by the nearby Eton College.
Strangely, there’s no traditional Eton Mess on the menu, but you can enjoy all the flavours of it in a cocktail and there’s a winter version of the pudding on offer. This version has rhubarb, whole meringues and comes with a glass lid so steam comes out when it’s lifted. It’s a reconstructed take – a not-so-messy Mess.
The restaurant also serves a very fine grilled octopus starter and my burrata with beetroot followed by Scottish salmon was delicious. We finish eating just in time to walk to the nearby Windsor Horse Show grounds for ‘A Gallop Through History’ – a feast of pomp, pageantry, brass bands and horsemanship in honour of the Queen.
The show, which was broadcast on ITV on Sunday 15 May when she attended, only ran for a few nights. But for anyone keen to see the full spectacle of our royal history, Windsor Castle is a year-round must-see. The next morning, I wake to a view of it across the Thames, which is already bustling with swans and early-morning rowers. Inside the castle, an audio guide of the Queen’s residence gives a fascinating mix of facts and opulent sights.
Highlights were the huge doll’s house with a tiny working gramophone; the bizarre array of gifts given by overseas dignitaries (The Queen must be well-practised in phrases like: ‘Why thank you – one can never have too many golden tiger heads’) and hearing about Charles II’s getting up and going to bed ceremonies, copied from France’s King Louis XIV. Who would have thought royal favourites getting to watch the king get dressed would be so popular?
The castle itself is spectacular, rising as it does smack bang in the middle of the town; it was of course the centrepiece for Harry and Meghan’s wedding in 2018. And while many of the Jubilee events this coming weekend will be in London, Windsor will be the site of the lighting of the Windsor beacon, fireworks, a party in the park (Saturday) and Sunday’s Big Lunch, with picnic tables running the length of the (very long) Long Walk.
As you might expect, many in the town are running with the Jubilee theme. So you could try a Jubilee afternoon tea at The Castle Hotel or, for something different, a Jubilee chocolate making and decorating class at nearby Dr Choc’s Windsor Chocolate Factory. Back onboard, we head eastwards again, stopping not far down at The Runnymede On Thames Hotel and Spa.
As the name suggests, it’s right on the riverbank – a perfect stopping point to moor the boat, soak up the sun and enjoy a rather splendid buffet lunch. The hotel is also just a short taxi ride from another high point in English history – the site of the sealing of the Magna Carta in 1215.
The area, where the treaty setting out our individual rights and freedoms was agreed, is steeped in historical importance. But as much as anything, it’s also a very pleasant stroll, with a monument to John F Kennedy tucked up on the hill and artworks to admire.
Further along the Thames, we stop again, this time pulling in at The Swan Hotel in Staines. Here too, you can step off the boat and walk only a few steps into the pub. The gastropub serves up stylish dishes – my steak au poivre with triple-cooked chips was a treat – and heading ‘home’ afterwards was as simple as stepping back on the boat.
Heritage hunters with more time to spare could easily head to King Henry VIII’s former home Hampton Court Palace, or to the country house of Cliveden, famous as the site of Conservative minister John Profumo’s affair with Christine Keeler, mistress of a suspected Russian spy. But with limited time, we start puttering towards Chertsey again.
There’s a long stop while we wait for the lock to fill with boats, but we’re used to that by now. With the sun beating down, it’s easy to adapt to this slower pace. So as we cruise the final stretch towards the Le Boat base I stretch out in the sun to enjoy the riverbank sights and a row of ducklings travelling in the slipstream of their mother.
Royalty or no royalty, it’s all rather majestic.
NEED TO KNOW
A three-night self-catered cruise on the River Thames on board a Continentale, beginning 3 June, starting and finishing at Le Boats’s base at Chertsey is priced from £999 per boat/ £166.50 pp. Le Boat operates on the Thames 1 April – 31 October 2022. A seven-night self-catered cruise on the River Thames on board a Mystique, starting and finishing at Le Boat’s base at Chertsey, is priced from £2,199 per boat / £275 pp. Windsor Castle: rct.uk/visit/windsor-castle; entry and tour £26.50 per adult / £14.50 per child / kids under five go free. Chocolate workshop: drchocs.com. The Platinum Jubilee workshop from £35pp. Guided tour of Runnymede with Vision of History: visionsofhistory.co.uk