Floating a big idea

They’d never owned a boat before or worked in the hospitality trade, so why have one Yorkshire couple plunged their life-savings into creating a floating hotel? Sarah Freeman climbed aboard to find out.

David and Karen aboard The Wessex Rose Hotel Boat

David Binney admits that had it happened 15 years earlier it would have had all the hallmarks of a mid-life crisis.

However, when the former transport manager decided he’d had enough of the humdrum he was already 55, a good few years past the age when men traditionally fool themselves into thinking a fast car will recapture their youth and while it came as something of a bolt out of the blue, crucially his wife Karen was also having the same thoughts.

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At the time the couple were living in Halifax and while both had enjoyed successful careers – Karen had worked for more than 10 years as a financial controller in a building distribution company – the niggling feeling that they were in danger of missing the opportunity to really live life to the full refused to go away.

“I had worked full-time for 33 years, the last 15 for the same firm,” says David. “It was a good job, but it wasn’t enough. I guess I’d got used to the routine, but doubts crept in. My road to Damascus moment came when I was sat in roadworks one morning on the M62.

“God knows how many hours I had spent on that motorway over the years, but I knew I didn’t want to spend any more. Waiting for the traffic to move, I asked myself what had I really achieved? I’d had a good career, I’d earned a good salary, but I wanted more than that. I wanted to do something that I could be really proud of.”

It’s the kind of inner monologue hundreds of people have every day. For most it’s nothing more than a passing daydream, but when David talked to Karen about the possibility of selling up and investing in a business of their own they both agreed that it was now or never.

“In 10 years time I will be 65,” he says. “I’d had enough of working for someone else, but I knew there was only a limited window to be my own boss. Sometimes it takes a deadline staring you in the face to make you act and that was certainly the case with Karen and I.”

Having taken the big decision to go it alone, the next step was to find their new venture. Despite having never worked in the hospitality or tourism business, the pair were drawn to the leisure industry. Given that they are both qualified gliding instructors, a flying school would have been an obvious avenue to explore.

However, determined to take themselves out of their comfort zone, the couple instead decided to build England’s largest canal hotel boat, embarking on the project despite never having so much as spent a night on the water.

It sounds like an act of lunacy destined to end certainly in rows and quite possibly in bankruptcy, but what the Binneys lacked in first-hand experience they made up for in enthusiasm and hard work.

“We’d gone to see a caravan park, but that didn’t feel quite right,” says David. “When we hit on the idea of building a floating hotel it was a bit of a eureka moment. When we told friends and colleagues what we were going to do, I’ll admit the reaction was mixed. Some were openly jealous and said they wished they had the courage to do something similar, some thought we were downright mad and others thought we would live to regret it. That’s human nature, but no matter what people said, Karen and I knew that we were absolutely doing the right thing.”

Having decided on a name for their boat – the Wessex Rose – the couple got together a business plan. While they were more than happy to sink their entire life savings into the project it still wasn’t enough, but having approached three high street banks – all of which agreed to loan them the rest of the money – their dream finally began to take shape.

It was last October that the raw sheets of metal arrived at Tyler Wilson works in Stoke on Trent. Once the hull was complete, the shell was transported to Milburn Boats in Daventry, near Northampton, ready for the fitting out. As temperatures plummeted during a particularly cold winter, David admits that the early days of the build weren’t easy. However, as the team of boat builders were getting to grips with the scale of the Wessex Rose, David and Karen were working out how to downsize their own lives.

While a move from a four-bedroom detached house to a three-bed apartment had already forced them to get rid of many of the possessions they had accumulated over the years, it was still far too much to fit on a canal boat, even one which is 70ft long.

“I was always something of an hoarder. If I saw something interesting in a newspaper I would cut it out, but this was really about having a fresh start,” says David. “Probably the best investment we made was a scanner which meant we could keep all the family photographs without the need for physical albums. Pretty much everything else went on eBay and anything that didn’t sell we binned. Every so often I would think, ‘Can I really throw that away?’, but we all surround ourselves with so much stuff, most of it we don’t even look at and getting rid of it was incredibly liberating.

“It was the same feeling as having a shower after a really long day at work. Instantly I just felt really clean.”

In February this year, the Binneys left Yorkshire for Northamptonshire to oversee the final weeks of the build and while the early spring brought no respite from the freezing temperatures, excitement that their adventure was just about to start kept the cold at bay.

“We were living in a caravan, which was pretty basic, but there was so much to do that every night we would fall into bed completely exhausted. We’d spent so many weeks and months imagining what the Wessex Rose would look like, but seeing it take shape was really something special.

“Most narrow boats are 6ft 6ins wide which means you can’t really get anything more than a single bed in a cabin. Right from the start we wanted a hotel that had an emphasis on luxury and that meant it had to be big.”

With three high-specification double cabins and a large saloon area, the Binneys boat is almost double the width of a traditional boat and weighing over 40 tonnes it makes something of an impact on the Kennet and Avon Canal which is now the backdrop for the couple’s new life. The boat was launched on May 1 and David and Karen welcomed their first guests on board two weeks ago.

“It is the most beautiful canal anywhere in England,” he says. “Even when the weather is grim, the scenery is stunning. There is a real floating community on the water, everyone is really friendly and even those in a similar business have bent over backwards to help. It’s a slow pace of life, too slow in fact to fall out with people.

“Canals are a wonderful part of England’s heritage, this one recently celebrated its 200th anniversary and while the world has changed so much over those two centuries, the landscape and the views here are exactly the same. Best of all there’s no M62 to look at. If our guests want to help running the boat and navigating the locks and swing bridges that’s great, but we are equally happy if they just want to sit back and watch the world go by. We all need to stop sometimes and do nothing.”

The Binneys plan to operate the boat as a hotel through April to September, running a series of three and four-night cruises alongside special trips at Christmas and New Year and during the winter is its available for charter.

While David admits his thoughts have occasionally returned to his previous life in Yorkshire, he and Karen’s future is very much on the 87 miles of waterway which runs from Bristol to Reading.

“It’s not a holiday, it is work, but it’s a job that we are at the controls of. We will sink or swim on our own merits and there is something really exciting about that.”

For more details about the Wessex Rose go to www.wessexrose.co.uk