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

Chester is a San Francisco - based free-lance photographer and writer

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.

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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.

Time seems to stand still on the river. Floating at about 3 m.p.h., what takes 50 minutes by barge between two points might be a five-minute drive by auto. But at the same time, the days somehow go quickly. Time was also something of a paradox in Holywell the day we visited the Old Ferry Boat Inn, one of England's oldest pubs. A white-washed stone building with a thatched roof, the river bank pub is said to date from to AD 560. It was bustling with descendants of ancient Saxons, who were downing pints of English ale while watching the "telly."

Just next door to the inn is the home of George Peacock, one of England's few remaining practitioner's of the almost-lost craft of roof thatching. His logo--a peacock made of wire and reed--marks the tops of thatched roof buildings in the area although, interestingly, Peacock's own house has a slate roof. He recently handed down the business to his son. At one time, perhaps 200 years ago, England boasted approximately 13,000 thatchers, Colin Glover told our group; today there are only about 500. One reason is economics: a thatch roof on a house today can cost as much as $60,000.

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One of the highlights of the Ouse cruise is a day-long "shore excursion" into the famed university town of Cambridge, led by a so-called "blue badge" (or docent-quality) guide. Cambridge is actually on the River Cam (a tributary of the Great Ouse), but only a few miles down highway A604 from where we moored at St. Ives.

Originally a Roman settlement, Cambridge is one of England's two great learning centers (the other being Oxford) and also one of its loveliest cities. Cambridge University started in 1284, with Peterhouse as the first of 31 colleges that now include Trinity, Queen's, King's, St. John's and others.

The architecture--vaulted arches and vine-covered buildings--and the students in their school colors reminded me of a scene from "Goodbye, Mr. Chips." Especially impressive is the King's College Chapel, built by King Henry VI, with its spectacular architecture, stained-glass windows and the Reubens' painting "Adoration of the Magi." The best view of it is from the walking paths behind it, called the "Backs," an area of lawns, formal gardens and open spaces on the banks of the River Cam (where visitors can rent flat-bottom boats called "punts"). At Trinity College, Isaac Newton wrote his "Principia Mathematica;" other students included Charles Darwin, and the poets Wordsworth, Tennyson, Byron and Milton.

(Other side trips offered by the Glovers for guests on weeklong cruises are tours of two area mansions. One is Woburn Abbey, home of the Duke of Bedford, and William Cecil's Elizabethan-era Burghley House, completed in 1587 and set on 10,000 acres with 35 major rooms and 400 paintings.)

After the Cambridge tour, the Glover's served afternoon tea back on the Barkis, moored at St. Ives. St. Ives is a 15th-Century Roman town noted for its bridge with a chapel built into it. Just 10 years ago, the town had 3,000 people; now it's a London bedroom community of 20,000. The hour train commute to London, one local told me, is a small price to pay for the joys of living on the river and waking up to fresh air and chirping birds.

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St. Ives is also notable for its statue of Oliver Cromwell, reportedly one of only two in the country (the other is in London, in front of the House of Parliament). We are, in fact, in "Cromwell Country." After dinner, Colin lead us to his favorite hang-out, a noisy, smoky pub in St. Ives called--what else?--the Oliver Cromwell.

Nearby Huntingdon is the birthplace of the famed English statesman, who led Parliamentary forces against the British monarchy during the English civil war and became lord protector of the Commonwealth from 1653 to 1658. Besides St. Ives, where Cromwell lived briefly, he spent most of his time farther west in Ely.

Although we visited Ely by car from Cambridge, the Glovers also offer shore excursions to this charming market town, the site of what some say is the finest Norman cathedral in all of England. It was in Ely that Cromwell was imbued with his strict Calvinist beliefs and became known as "Lord of the Fens" for defending the local swamplands and bogs from attempts by the British monarchy to drain them.

For many centuries before this period, people lived off the nearly 300,000 acres of fenlands in eastern England, where they harvested peat for fuel, reeds for making thatched roofs, fished for marsh eels (the name Ely means "eel isle") and hunted game. But to outsiders the Fens were useless tracts, and eventually engineers prevailed. The English brought in the Dutch to erect hundreds of windmills to pump out the water and turn the area into farmland. Some of the windmills still stand, and today the rich soil of the flat expanses of East Anglia produce the majority of the country's vegetable crops.

The only stretch of the Fens to retain its undrained, medieval character is a parcel of 605 acres that has been preserved by the National Trust as a nature preserve at Wicken Fen. It is England's oldest nature reserve, giving visitors a view of a unique topography, with a variety of wildlife and flora.

Every village in this region is allocated a small plot of communal land to garden, and it was in one of those towns that I met two local gardeners enjoying their hobby. Horace Taylor, 76, and George Ansell, 65, are plot neighbors in Stretham, just outside Ely, who garden every day, religiously. It's good therapy they said, and explained that the temperate climate of East Anglia produces something of a garden friendly "mizzle"--somewhere between a drizzle and mist. During the growing season, Ansell said, he eats two tomatoes from his garden every day. "Nothing tastes as good as a home-grown tomato," he said, echoing the pride of gardeners everywhere.

For Brooks and me, the barge trip aboard the Barkis & Peggotty tagged on to our driving excursions from Cambridge turned out to be a varied way to see a part of England most North Americans never discover. We ate good food, were entertained by Colin Glover's British wit, and got an education in history and local lore that cannot be duplicated from the inside of a tour bus.

GUIDEBOOK

British Barging

Getting there: Cambridge is about 60 miles north of London via the M11 highway, or via regular train service from Liverpool Street station in London. BritRail offers numerous, multi-day use passes for travelers planning vacations to various sites. Contact BritRail Travel International Inc., 1500 Broadway, New York 10036-4015; (800) 677-8585 or (212) 575-2667.

Booking a barge: Most travel agents can book journeys on the Glovers' twin narrow boats, the Barkis & Peggotty (we used a Seattle company, Fenwick & Lang; 800-243-6244 or 206-382-1262). Cruises operate from April-October; low season rates (April and October) are about $1,800 per week per person, double occupancy; in the high season, May-September, the cost rises to about $2,000. Half-week cruises are available at about half the cost.

Prices include all meals (sample entrees: Pheasant with Wild Mushrooms, Supreme of Duck in Cranberries, Debden Chocolate Pudding) and liquor served on board, and transfers to and from London to the barge mooring in Brampton, near Huntingdon station. The Glovers can pick up guests at the train station, just two minutes from their boats.

There are also self-driven narrow boats available for hire in the area for those who want to pilot their own barge and cook their own meals. Contact Blake's Vacations at (800) 628-8118 (this agent can also book the Barkis & Peggotty).

For more information: In Cambridge, the Cambridgeshire Tourist Information Center is located on Wheeler Street, Cambridge CB2 3QB. Or contact the British Tourist Authority, 551 Fifth Ave., Suite 701, New York 10176, (800) GO2 BRITAIN. The BTA will send a free brochure, "Waterfront Britain," that contains additional information on cruising England's inland waterways.

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