Dragonflies skim across the lake as I sit on the wooden deck of our cottage, fishing rod in one hand, glass of wine in the other. As dusk settles, the only sound is the rustle of the wind in the reeds and the occasional hoot of an owl. Just as I’m about to give up and head back to the hammock, I feel a tug on the line. Dinner.
There are two things you need to know about the Raft at Chigborough. First, it’s a self-contained wooden house that floats serenely on its own lake. Not a boat, not a house on stilts, but a floating cottage. The second (and perhaps equally surprising) fact is that this little slice of heaven can be reached within an hour of leaving London.
It’s fair to say that Essex is not the obvious place to go looking for adventure or romance. But the Raft is one of a handful of quirky new places to stay that are putting the estuaries and islands of this most maligned of England’s counties on the map; places such as Osea island, a former army base and rehab centre in the Blackwater estuary, which has opened up a cluster of charming weatherboarded cottages and an Edwardian manor house to holidaymakers. Or the audacious new “House for Essex” taking shape on the banks of the River Stour, designed by artist Grayson Perry to give guests the experience of sleeping in a work of art.
Set in this context, a floating cabin doesn’t seem quite so outlandish after all. The raft was the idea of Paul and Sam Tallowin, who own Chigborough farm and fisheries, a 130-acre expanse of lakes, farmland and forest near Maldon. “We wanted to create a place where people could really immerse themselves in the environment,” says Paul. “We thought about having a tepee, but didn’t think it would be special enough.”
Paul, who regularly builds rafts for maintenance of the lakes, set about creating a floating log cabin from scratch, lashing barrels together and then building the house from pine and larch from the family farm. The finished result, which took a year to build, is a winning combination of the rough-hewn and gloriously romantic.
The adventure begins as soon as you cross to the house on the little wooden rope-ferry and step “on board”. Although it is tethered to the lake bed by ropes, there’s a certain amount of drift and sway, which is a bit odd at first but soon becomes deeply relaxing.
The main living space is a bright, cosy lounge with wood-burning stove, sofa-bed, rocking chair and glass doors opening on to the wraparound deck, where there’s a rustic outdoor kitchen with gas stove and barbecue. Upstairs there’s a small sleeping area under the eaves, perfect for two children, with its own little balcony. Tucked round the side of the cabin are a toilet and shower room, where you can enjoy the novelty of showering semi-al fresco in front of a bemused audience of ducks.
The ingenuity and attention to detail are a source of delight: from the little hatch that pulls up in the middle of the living room floor so you can see the water beneath (and, in theory, fish from the comfort of the sofa), to the vintage telescope for stargazing.
There’s no TV but this place is all about turning off gadgets, stretching out in the hammock and tuning in to the peaceful surroundings. Sam and Paul have thought of everything to make their guests feel at home: tea lights, a wind-up radio, playing cards, board games, magazines, a great selection of books on everything from birdwatching to cloud-spotting, and a hamper that includes wine, jams and chutneys from Wilkin & Sons in nearby Tiptree and smoked trout from Chigborough’s own smokehouse. There’s even a fishing rod if you want to catch your own supper – the lake is well-stocked with trout.
The raft would make a perfect bolt-hole for two, but it’s equally suited to a Huckleberry Finn-style adventure for families with older children. I’ve brought my sister, my 12-year-old niece and her school friend. Within minutes of arriving, the girls have commandeered the rowing boat to explore the lake. On the shore there are bikes for hire and a firepit where we toast marshmallows under the stars.
If cabin fever sets in, there’s a lovely tea room, the Old Cart Lodge, a 10-minute walk away at the entrance to the lakes, or you can head to Maldon for a trip on a Thames sailing barge. But the real attraction of this place is the rare peace and privacy it offers and the sense of taking time out from the real world. That night I wake up in the early hours and step out on to the deck for some fresh air. As if by magic, a family of swans comes drifting across the lake in the moonlight. If there’s a more magical spot to stay within a 50-mile radius of London I’ve yet to find it.
Joanne O’Connor was a guest of Canopy and Stars (canopyandstars.co.uk); the raft sleeps four and costs from £195 per night