Stylist's deputy editor Susan Riley tries out her canal legs in East London's poshest floating hotel room
For anyone hankering for a weekend on water without actually having to set sail and drop anchor, a fancy pants of a barge boat has recently opened in Hackney.
Launched by the ever so exquisite makers of vintage tiles, reclaimed wood floors, and most recently vintage furniture, Burt & May, the barge is moored outside their Vyner Street warehouse studio (nearest tube Bethnal Green) and accessible only through the shop (they leave you the keys when they leave for the night which feels terribly clandestine).
Once across the gang plank and down an almost vertical stack of steps - an espadrille is key here ladies - the interior is like no barge boat you've seen. Minimalist, greige Scandi cool with a vintage leather chair here and slimline wood burner there, the combined effect leaves you wanting to run up and down the length of the barge (which really isn't far) shouting WOOOO HOOOOO. To ramp up the welcome, there's tuna sashimi in the fridge, a delicatessen board on the top deck propped next to two deckchairs, and a couple of bottles of wine chilling in the fridge. Not a bad welcome.
We visited in August and when the sun has got its hat in, the barge is a lovely place to lazily while away a day. We invited friends on board to share in the novelty and spent an afternoon and evening (pops were corked and pizzas ordered) lounging about on the top deck, Hackney hipsters staring enviously at us from the canal path opposite. Now that Autumn’s in full swing, unless you’ve got an overnight bag packed full of Sarah Lund-style sweaters, you’ll want to retreat below deck and sit by the fire with an unputdownable book (there's no TV). Up to two friends can stay over with you for an extra charge, although after their bed's erected - a second double bed drops down from a hidden compartment in the wall - it would definitely be COSY.
Of course, along with the charm of barge life, there's the little practicalities too. Boiling a very beautiful but very badly designed on-stove kettle when you want a cuppa, mopping up the shower water as you're on a tilt, having to close windows and light eucalyptus candles when dusk hits to try and outsmart the Mosquitos even though it's boiling and there's no air con. By no means will this dampen your spirits but it's enough to make you think one night might be enough.
Outside, the vista is not the most picturesque part of the Regents canal. There's a line of far less fancy boats opposite and a giant wall of graffiti but a beautiful view is never going to be this barge's big draw. With Victoria park around the corner - the barge comes with courtesy Brompton bicycles and Oyster card, with a vintage rowing boat cycle coming soon so guests can potter their way down the river - and Victoria Park village just beyond, this is about sampling a slice of one of London's most up and coming neighbourhoods in the most artsy and bohemian way possible. To picture yourself working your own hours in a warehouse workshop, or taking long leisurely lunches at nearby Bistrotheque.
For food, the Corner Room at the Town Hall hotel is a ten minute walk away (they do a very reasonable three course lunch for £23), or if you're in the mood for low key antipasti and plates of parmagiana, Venetian bacaro Ombra sits at the top of the street. But for me, if you're going to get onboard, stay onboard; whether than means picking up supplies enroute, ordering take out or arranging dinner and treatments through the hosts. Breakfast of course comes to you courtesy of Bert & May's staff and we enjoyed yogurt, pastries, granola and fruit sat on the top deck as the neighbourhood slowly woke up around us.
With more barges planned in Bristol, York and Edinburgh, the most intriguing thing about the Bert & May barge experience is that if you find yourself loving your floating hotel room that little bit too much, you can buy your own for £150,000. Which with London's batty house prices rising all the time, might appeal to anyone in the market for quirkier digs. And for the rest of us, dry land will just have to do.
Whatever Floats Your Boat
The very best places in the UK to spend a night on the water
The Four Sisters Boatel, Edinburgh
This green goddess of a houseboat is moored in central Edinburgh, minutes from the Meadows and just a mile from Edinburgh Castle. One of the plus points of sleeping on a city waterway is a central location doesn’t equal street noise and bustle; breakfast on the deck of the Four Sisters is a blissfully tranquil affair. Downstairs interiors are sleek, contemporary and Scandinavian, and the gleaming galley is a better equipped kitchen than you find in the average London flat. The friendly owners can rustle up a welcome hamper from £10 or bottle of prosecco on ice for £20 if you want to make a special night even more special.
From £185 per night; thefoursisters.co.uk
The Raft at Chigborough, Essex
Picture a floating log cabin adrift on a lake, complete with a hammock to swing in, a fire pit to cosy up next to, and - the cherry on top - a hot tub to stargaze from. The owners, Paul and Sam, run a farm and a fishery, so fishing from your raft is actively encouraged, and the smoked fish in your welcome hamper ensures you won’t go hungry if the fish aren’t biting today. Interiors are cosy and rustic, with vintage crockery, a selection of battered books, and an antique telescope for gazing at the constellations above. You’ll never want to return to dry land.
From £195 per night; canopyandstars.co.uk
Luxury Houseboat, Cambridge
With a beautiful, handcrafted hardwood kitchen, luxurious kitchen and contemporary decor, this luxurious houseboat on the River Cam leaves its landlubber hotel competitors for dust. There’s not a hint of nautical-twee here; the owner, Richard, has created a floating boutique hotel for two, compete with a private mooring and summer house. Linger on deck or in the summerhouse watching the college rowing teams glide past, or do a pub crawl around the surrounding residential streets before returning to be rocked gently to sleep.
From £108 per night; airbnb.co.uk