Coast to coast
As the morning dew rises, hanging momentarily in a salt-tinged mist across England’s south coast, the Port of Southampton is already awake and operating. Towering cruise liners and commanding commercial ships cross paths as they go about their business, creating a hive of activity and an air of anticipation for a lively day ahead. Waving goodbye to the international fleet of cruise ships that has replaced the Blue Riband liners of the roaring 20s, a more serene scene emerges as the mist dissipates and we enter the Solent – elegant sailing boats and sleek motor yachts serenade the shimmering waters out on the strait. Gliding west at 20 knots with the golden sands and chalk-white cliffs of the Isle of Wight on our port side, it’s the perfect time to brew up a cup of coffee to savour on deck as we breathe in the sea air and take in the sights.
Our destination, Jersey, is beckoning from the Channel Isles, and at a mere 130 miles it’s tempting to rush straight there in time for a late lunch, but it’d be a waste to speed past all the lovely ports in the west Solent. Instead, we opt for a leisurely trip spread over three days, and our first stop is the beautiful Beaulieu River.
Owned by Lord Montagu and without argument the loveliest waterway for 100 miles, the river meanders through oak woods that once supplied timber for the Royal Navy, past hidden creeks with D-Day connections, up to Buckler’s Hard. We berth at the bottom of a street little-changed since Nelson’s Agamemnon rolled down the ways in 1781, take a walk up the leafy path to Beaulieu itself, and lunch at The Terrace Restaurant at The Montagu Arms Hotel. Michelin-starred since 2009, head chef Matthew Tomkinson cites the New Forest as his larder, and the menu changes frequently to reflect the local produce available. After indulging in the three-course à la carte lunch menu, the walk back to Buckler’s Hard is welcome. We decide it would be rude not to visit the village pub, where we spill out onto the grass, pint in hand, to soak up the last of the evening rays and
look down on the yacht, which is ready to catch the morning tide across to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight.
After Beaulieu, Yarmouth is a different world. It’s a town of flying flags, bustle and good humour and it’s so popular that it pays to reserve a berth. Not so long ago, all visitors moored on piles behind the wooden breakwater, but a modern walk-ashore facility in the harbour has put an end to all that.
A mid-morning arrival gives us time to stride out for the award-winning Red Lion at Freshwater, where lunches are legendary. It’s a two-and-a-half-mile walk, but the flurry of the port is soon behind us as we amble southwards along the river, cross the old causeway and stroll up the hill to the pub. Back in town, the garden at The George Hotel is spot-on for an aperitif while watching the Royal Solent Yacht Club’s evening racing. The fine-dining taster menu at Isla’s Restaurant is a real treat with five- or eight-course options based around local ingredients such as Heritage Beetroot, John Dory Shellfish Bisque and local Isle of Wight Blue Cheese. Full and satisfied, we wander over to the yacht club, where all who love the sea are welcome, and sip Cognac out on the terrace to score the best summer sunset on the Solent.
The real excitement comes in the morning. It’s 100 miles now to Jersey, four to five hours cutting across the English Channel in exhilarating fashion, monitoring the ships as we cross the busy mid-Channel shipping lanes and timing our arrival to neutralise the Alderney Race. With the serious passage under our belts, Jersey pops up over the horizon and we lock straight into St Helier Marina. Located right in the middle of town, it’s a gourmet’s paradise with no less than four Michelin-starred restaurants to choose from. With Jersey’s array of beaches, boutiques, museums, wildlife and gardens to discover, we settle in to the glamorous Grand Jersey Hotel for a few nights to explore and plan our next escapade.
The Welsh West Coast
Positioned on the lower curve of the Llyn Peninsula in north-west Wales, Pwllheli is a surprising place. Safe havens aren’t around every corner hereabouts, but as we creep in past sand dunes wondering what will happen next, the splendid Hafan Pwllheli Marina suddenly opens out and we swing into perfect shelter, to delight at the breathtaking mountain backdrop of Snowdon, Wales’ highest peak. We opt to dine ashore at Plas Bodegroes, an elegant Georgian manor house sat within an enchanting flower garden. The menu offers a fresh and inventive take on traditional local dishes. We opt for the Loin of Welsh Mountain Lamb and Aged Welsh Black Beef, paired with a full-bodied red and followed by a rhubarb and custard-inspired dessert, and regional cheeses. The meal is a perfectly prepared comforting treat, made all the more enjoyable by the informal atmosphere of a homely setting.
The following morning, we set sail for a day trip around the peninsula, making a stop for lunch on board, anchored off the sandy shores of Abersoch where the Cheshire set descends on sunny weekends. During the summer months, there are sailing regattas every weekend, followed by heady celebrations in the town’s lively pubs.
Continuing on, we make an afternoon pause at Saint Tudwal’s Islands to marvel at the wildlife and watch the seals and dolphins splash around. We wave hello to Bear Grylls, who bought and set up home on the West island five years ago, before rounding the headland and pressing on towards Caernafon as the evening takes hold. The town’s impressive castle casts a striking silhouette against the setting sun as we cruise into Victoria Dock. From here, the roads lead on into Dylan Thomas’ ‘mountains where King Arthur dreams’, and as we watch the clouds driving across the face of Carnedd Llewelyn in the sunshine, it’s easy to imagine passing many peaceful hours in this part of the world.
Northern Lands and Lochs
Scotland’s Loch Lomond is a revelation. Part of The Trossachs National Park, the loch is Britain’s largest stretch of inland water. At 24 miles long, it has so many anchorages and harbours, with jetties leading to tempting restaurants and bars, that we could easily spend the whole season here and still discover new places. With woodlands to walk, mountains to climb and sport of every sort, there really is something for all lovers of the outdoors.
The jewel in this remarkable crown is the Cameron House Hotel. Incredibly, this baronial mansion and marina is only 15 minutes from Glasgow Airport, yet as you approach along the twisting road you’re entering a different world. We check in for an early supper at Martin Wishart’s renowned Michelin-starred restaurant and dine like kings on dishes such as Marinated Mackerel, Orkney Scallop and Bone Marrow, Saddle of Borders Roe Deer, and Rump and Belly of Hogget from the eight-course tasting menu. We fall asleep deliriously full and happy, and awake early, excited to explore the loch. Even at 4am, it’s broad daylight in the summer, with the dawn chorus welcoming the day in full voice. After a hearty Scottish breakfast, we step aboard and cruise to the islands to anchor.
The loch’s fresh water is great for swimming if you don’t mind a short, sharp shock at first plunge, and the perfect way to build up an appetite in time for lunch. The Loch Lomond restaurant and bar on Inchmurrin Island (the largest island in the loch) serves an excellent ‘Boater’s Bite’ lunch menu out on the sundeck, which we wash down with a sample of peaty Inchmurrin Malt Whisky made at Loch Lomond Distillery.
As the afternoon wears on, the buzzards wheel above the crags as we weigh anchor and head north, bound for a distant pier under the Scottish mountains.
An Easterly Escapade
Leaving behind London’s cosmopolitan crowd after an early morning cappuccino at St Katharine Docks on the Thames by Tower Bridge, we navigate downstream headed for the Orwell, one of the east coast’s most charming rivers. An enjoyable two hours spent meandering the Thames takes us past the flood barrier, Tilbury Docks and historic Gravesend. As we enter the Thames Estuary, we lunch aboard on fresh seafood, hand-picked en route from Billingsgate fish market at Canary Wharf. We cruise past the pier at Southend-on-Sea and the twirling wind turbines at Gunfleet Sands to head up ‘The Wallet’ channel as our wash creams out astern. These ancient seaways kept London working before there were ever roads and railways. With them safely negotiated, pressing on past the huge container port at Felixstowe leaves no doubt about today’s Britain being a major trading nation.
Reducing speed as we cruise into the calmer waters of the river Orwell, fields soon take over and before long we’re moored up at Woolverstone Marina, with the Royal Harwich Yacht Club on hand. An adventurous stroll along the towpath leads to the famous Butt & Oyster Inn at Pin Mill, one of the nation’s great waterfront pubs.
With bare boards, scrubbed tables and an atmosphere that’s not for sale, it’s easy to imagine the bustling smuggling community long associated with the area, who frequented the pub in the 19th century.
After a leisurely lunch and pint of local ale, we cruise further to reach the lock at Ipswich, our destination being Ipswich Haven Marina at the head of the river. Perfectly situated in the heart of the town, the regenerated waterfront is a delight to discover, with restaurants, cafés, shops, museums, parks and historic attractions all within walking distance. One of England’s oldest towns, Ipswich boasts a rich and colourful history of craftsmanship, manufacturing and maritime significance, dating back to the 7th century when the town flourished through exporting wool and pottery to the continent. Today, the town’s cultural offerings extend into music, theatre, art and sporting activities, with an exciting events programme spread over the summer months.
Keen to see more of the Suffolk landscape, we end our trip by heading slightly out of town to spend an evening at the highly recommended Hintlesham Hall Hotel. The Grade-1-listed building features a grand Georgian façade, charmingly restored bedrooms, an award-winning restaurant and a luxurious spa, making it the perfect retreat for unwinding and reminiscing on all of our exciting expeditions. As the Elemis masseuse eases out the knots, my mind marvels at how truly great and beautiful Britain is, and how rewarding it is to explore the shores and history of my homeland.