A stylishly decorated barge on the Regents Canal, close to Hackneys contemporary art galleries and nightlife, makes a refreshingly different, if pricey, option for a stay in London
The coots nest was very east London. As well as the usual twigs and foliage, the bird had used a discarded Golden Virginia packet and a coat-hanger in its carefully crafted structure. Maybe its an art installation, said my friend. After all, this was Vyner Street in Hackney, one of the capitals prime creative hubs.
It was a sunny summer evening and we were checking out the bird life on the Regents Canal from the roof deck of a brand new floating hotel, Berts Barges. The brainchild of Lee Thornley, owner of Bert & May, a bespoke tile company based on Vyner Street, the hotel is essentially a one-bedroom houseboat though Lee (Bert is his nickname) has plans to add six more barges here, and more later in Londons Little Venice, as well as York and Bristol, some with two bedrooms.
I wanted to create Londons first barge hotel, said Lee. Its really a floating suite for people who want a different experience of the capital.
It is certainly different, but with a price tag of 300 a night for two (less for two nights or longer), it is up there with central London hotel prices, though the setting is more unusual than most.
Lee already owns the Casa la Siesta hotel on the Costa de la Luz in southern Spain. He designed that from scratch in his first venture into the world of interiors, and his good taste is evident the moment I step inside the purpose-built barge. Its all pale grey painted wood, with bold patterned rugs and retro Scandinavian furniture. The 50 square metres include a bedroom, a living area (with massive fold-down bed for one or two more guests), a galley kitchen and a shower room (with Aesop toiletries) decorated with handmade black-and-white tiles. A wood-burning stove and underfloor heating will keep it cosy in winter. Its the kind of place youd be sorely tempted to sell your landlubber house to live in.
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We sat on deckchairs on the roof, sipping the organic wine provided in the welcome pack, while people jogged and cycled along the towpath towards nearby Victoria Park, waving or nodding at us as they went.
You could stay in and cook perhaps invite friends for dinner or even order takeaways but the area is awash with great places to eat and drink, so we wandered up Vyner Street, past shuttered galleries and neon signs saying things like Trapped in Freedom, in search of food. Ombra at the top end lured us in with its promise of cicchetti (Venetian small plates the dandelion lasagne was delicious) and a lively Italian crowd.
At the end of the evening, home was a short stroll away the barge is reached through the tile warehouse and suddenly we were in a tranquil world far from Hackneys noisy nightlife. All was quiet, bar the gentle sound of lapping water, and reflected lights twinkled prettily. With super-thick mattress, top-notch linen and duck down duvets, we slept soundly.
Birdsong filled the air next morning and a breakfast tray (huge bowl of granola, yoghurt and fruit, croissants, juice and coffee) waited on the deck. The good people of Hackney were out for their morning runs and a big ginger cat paced the length of the boat, eyeing a nearby gaggle of ducklings.
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It was Saturday, so we strolled up to Broadway Market with its artisan food stalls and independent bookshops. Theres no end of things to do here London Fields or Victoria Park for green space, Whitechapel Gallery and cutting-edge spaces such as IMT in Bethnal Green for a bit of culture. There are two Brompton bikes on the barge for guests to nip about on, topped-up Oyster cards for roaming further, and a vintage rowing boat will be added soon for leisurely paddling.
So who will be the clientele? Not the struggling artists who made Vyner Street cool in the first place, thats for sure. But for anyone who can swallow the price tag and fancies a spot of pseudo-bohemian boat life, Berts Barges is a fun and refreshing alternative to your average London hotel stay.