Elgar’s variations

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GLOUCESTERHIRE: Helen Werin joins a Yorkshire captain on what is billed as probably the cheapest river cruise holiday in Europe.

Our captain, Jim Walmsley, Yorkshire Dales born and bred, has introduced himself as the “ancient mariner”, though he is certainly not the oldest on board the Edward Elgar.

He says he’s seen it all in his 48 years at sea, from picking up Vietnamese boat people to piloting ships through some of the most difficult waters in the world.

So a much smaller craft heading straight for us in narrow waters is not going to faze him. He’s already sounded the warning horn and the “I don’t know what your intentions are” signal. Yet the smaller vessel shows no intention of slowing down or giving way.

The passengers enjoying a cuppa on the Edward Elgar’s top deck are jolted out of their relaxation, eager to see how genial Jim counters the determination of the oncoming craft. Jim, who’s had to slow down and pull over, leans out and shakes his head as the offending narrowboat with its rather brazen occupants tootles past at all of four miles an hour.

Captain Jim, who’s more used to the Panama and Suez, is negotiating the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal. This was the largest ship canal in the world when it opened, built to accommodate the tall ships of the early 19th century. Nowadays, most of its traffic is for pleasure.

Ours among them; the Edward Elgar is a comfortable 88ft (27.7m) riverboat hotel with 11 two-berth passenger cabins. This means that the atmosphere on our weekend cruise is laid-back and chatty from the start.

There’s no pomp and circumstance here. The only concession to formality is when some of the passengers change in to their best cardies for the captain’s cocktail party.

Among them is Agnes, in her early 80s, who’s been treated to the trip by her daughter and who joins in the table quiz on our first night afloat with great enthusiasm. I notice Louise, who’s slightly older again, tapping her feet to the songs of Nat King Cole, Hoagy Carmichael and Nina Simone during our Saturday night live entertainment.

This is no ordinary canal and no ordinary cruise. The crew are pretty exceptional, too. Among them is hostess Eloise, who speaks Latin, French and German and has a degree in ancient history. The crew’s multi- tasking extends to Jim, who doubles-up as our wine waiter at lunch and dinner. When he excuses himself to go and wash the glasses. I’m not sure that he’s joking.

Jim is winding down to retirement after an international career on bulk oil and chemical carriers, ferries and tugboats. Winding down just about sums up our weekend cruise between Gloucester and Sharpness.

No television, often no phone signal, no distractions from the serene views of quintessential English countryside. There’s tea and coffee on tap. Delicious meals, included in the price, are served on the dot.

On Saturday afternoon, taxis arrive alongside the canal to carry us off to Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. The ride is included in the price of the holiday or it’s a 10 minute walk at most. Everyone agrees that the centre, founded by the late Sir Peter Scott, is one of the highlights of their cruise.

Going from hide to hide to see the huge variety of birds at here can take up your entire day. The tropical house has huge fish which almost eat out of your hands and the flamingos and otters are delightful. Seven hundred acres of wild reserve are a paradise for wildlife photographers and birdwatchers.

On Sunday morning, we moor at Frampton-on-Severn. My attempt at working up an appetite for a traditional roast lunch is a stroll through the picturesque conservation village.

Its claim to fame is the longest green in the country. There are a few dog walkers out and about and some flower-arrangers are adding the finishing touches to the church.

Otherwise the noisiest thing we hear all trip is a goose waddling at top speed along the towpath on a mission to be the first bird to get to a woman armed with a big bag of bread.

Our 32-mile journey to and from Gloucester Docks has taken us around the four-mile bend at Quedgeley, past dazzling fields of rape, through Saul Junction with its new marina and given us glimpses of the Cotswold escarpment. We’ve had waves from friendly lock keepers, families picnicking in the sunshine, fishermen and joggers who streak ahead of us. Many of them stare long and longingly as the Edward Elgar glides elegantly by.

Getting there

English Holiday Cruises offers five different full-board cruises on board the Edward Elgar (four-star Hotelboat rating by Visit Britain); two-night Unique Weekend Break; three-night Midweek Break taking in The Lower Severn Vale; four-night River Severn Heritage Cruise with stops in Tewkesbury, Upton and Worcester and six-nighters Cruise To The Views and Full River Cruise. Prices from £183 (for the Unique Weekend). All cabins en suite, with air conditioning/heating. Special dietary requirements catered for (advance notice required). Vessel not suitable for wheelchairs. Easy-rise stairs to cabins with banisters.

www.englishholidaycruises.co.uk

Tel: 01452 410411