City rocks the boat

The view of Tower Bridge at night from our houseboat on the River Thames
Houseboats became popular thanks to the Henley Royal Regatta

I was very fortunate recently to be invited to a friend’s 40th birthday celebration which involved staying on a houseboat on the River Thames just a few hundred metres east of Tower Bridge.

The boat, which was constructed in 1904, is permanently moored and commands spectacular views of the famous bridge and central London. We were blessed with glorious weather which enhanced the amazing modern architecture of iconic glass buildings such as the Shard, the Walkie-Talkie Building and the Gherkin (I know some of these structures have proper names, but as I don’t have a clue what they are, nicknames it is!).

Because it was a midweek in January, and despite being in the heart of the London tourist trail, where we were was relatively quiet which made it a pleasure to walk along the river, through the famous Borough Market and past the Tower of London without having to fight our way through hoards of people. I even got a seat on the tube whenever I needed one.

Staying on the boat was a wonderful experience. As the sun went down, the pink-gold light reflected upon the multitude of glass windows in the City, and as the sky gradually darkened, lights began to come on along the streets and in the buildings, including on Tower bridge itself, until the whole lot was illuminated like the set of a Christmas film. It was a privilege to be able to sit on the upper deck in the dark and just marvel at the uninterrupted and very special view in front of us. Because we were on a boat, despite being so close to the City, it was very quiet, apart from the sound of lapping water and boats passing by.

For some reason, because we knew it was permanently moored, it took us by surprise to find that the houseboat would rock on the water, especially when other vessels passed by. Lying in bed, it felt like it had set off, even though we went nowhere. It was quite a strange sensation. We soon learned that the Thames has two rush hours, just like the roads. The first one is between 6am and 9am, and the second, between 4pm and 7pm, and that’s when our boat was at its rockiest. For one of our guests, it was all a bit much, and she became genuinely seasick. She was quite relieved that she could only stay one night!

Thankfully, I didn’t suffer in that way, and found the gentle undulating motion quite relaxing. The boat was very smart, with oak flooring over its two storeys, expensive furniture, four double bedrooms, two bathrooms, and all the other mod-cons you’d expect in an upmarket holiday let.

Owning houseboats became popular in London in the wake of the Henley Royal Regatta, the first of which was held in 1839. The mayor of Henley-on-Thames, which lies around 40 miles west of London, decided that his town needed a public attraction, and it was originally set up as an annual fair with amusements, stalls and boat races.

The races were extremely popular with attendees, and so the emphasis of the event focussed on rowing contests for amateur oarsmen across two days of competition (which has stretched to five today). In 1851, HRH Prince Albert consented to be the regatta’s patron and since his death in 1861, the reigning monarch has always agreed to be patron, allowing the event to add ‘Royal’ to its title.

The regatta became the must-see occasion for anyone who was anyone in Victorian times, and the fashionable elite who could afford it started to buy fancy houseboats so that they could watch the races from an unparalleled position on the river itself. Soon, the water was bustling with houseboats, so much so that other rich spectators started to show a preference towards more permanent holiday homes along the riverside. And as such, the popularity of houseboats waned and by the dawn of the 20th century, they had became a less common sight upon the River Thames.

There are thousands of people who live on houseboats today, and it is considered a more eco-friendly and sustainable way of life. How would you feel about living on the water?

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This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 17th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 15th February 2023