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Winter might seem a strange time to take a holiday on a boat. But having lived for 10 years on a boat moored in London, it’s the summers I have come to dread: tourist ferries forging back and forth, passers-by posing for snaps on the stern, neighbours returning from day trips parking badly, shoving all the other boats along like grumpy children roused in a dormitory.
Come November, everyone hunkers down and peace returns – a deep peace that can be felt in marinas all over the country, even in the busy Devon port of Dartmouth, seven miles downstream of the ancient market town of Totnes and one mile upriver from the sea.
Faithful is a 53ft fishing trawler, built in 1965 and hard at work in the North Sea until she was decommissioned five years ago, being converted first into a dive boat and then this year into the floating equivalent of a holiday cottage. She is moored in Kingswear marina, on the opposite side of the river from the town of Dartmouth itself, and is one of several boats now let out in this way in the area. In the summer the area is rammed with tourists buying nautical cartoons of seasick bosuns. But come winter, things have long slowed to a pace far more mysterious, more romantic.
Kingswear gets the sun for an hour longer than Dartmouth. In the late afternoon a handful of boaters gather on their decks to watch the light flare and fade over the town across the water. Pink and blue houses rise up into green hillsides as though this were southern Italy. So pretty and captivating is the view that it’s hard to find room for it all at once – the eye forever flicking from house to passing yacht, to lights winking in portholes along the marina, on to darkening hills. Even the water here is picturesque: a pale pea-green in the shallows deepening into a blue that can look implausible – in a certain light, even like something from a story book Sultan’s treasure vaults.
With its whitewashed wooden interior and scrubbed, warm kitchen big enough to cook a family roast, the conversion of Faithful is just right. Vessels like these – hardy trawlers that once encircled shoals of pollock off the coast of Northumberland – can often be stripped back and revamped to look disappointingly like floating flats.
Faithful is still very much a boat, with the whirring of mysterious pumps in the night and a shower in a funny place. That said, anyone staying onboard is welcome to use the luxurious pool and spa at the nearby Dart Marina Hotel. Here, in the evenings, they serve scallops as big as side plates and local plum liqueur as thick and sweet as treacle to diners who keep raising their glasses over candles to inspect it.
Even the journey down to Devon can feel celebratory. On certain departures, the train from London Paddington to Totnes includes a Pullman carriage – a silver-service dining car with menus designed by Mitch Tonks, chef at Dartmouth’s award-winning seahorse restaurant. It’s open to all classes of ticket holder; you simply reserve by phone on the day, or ask for a table on boarding.
It is the marriage of stillness and motion that makes any time on a boat so dreamlike. Moored, you are static, but ever-swaying and shifting too. After a while though, the urge to move faster can be impossible to fight.
One afternoon during my stay, I hired a little motorboat and chugged up the Dart, right through the main channel of the river, past oyster beds, and eddies and rocks marked on the map as the Brat and Dancing Beggars, to the village of Dittisham. Here, on a pontoon, I found a child swaddled in a scarf cradling a bucket crammed with gigantic Dartmouth crabs, each one covered in barnacles and furiously fighting, as the boy sat completely mesmerised, crab-drunk, crab-happy, dropping little pieces of ham into the snapping murk.
On the way back, an immaculate clipper with a highly polished tiller shaped like a musical stave passed by, steered by a man with his face set very serious against the wind. I wondered, as you particularly do about a lone person on a boat, who he was and where he was heading. Was this boat his house, or his weekend refuge?
Boats moored on buoys in the river reached far into the wintery distance. The Dawn Treader, the Pegleg, the Tearaway. Some cherished, some shabby, some possibly even long-abandoned, but each of them rocking and waiting, the business of life seeming very far off.
Antonia Quirke was a guest of Canopy and Stars (canopyandstars.co.uk), which rents the Faithful, sleeping two, from £130 per night. Motorboats can be hired from Dartmouth Boat Hire (dartmouth-boat-hire.co.uk) from £140 per full day. For details of trains, including the Pullman dining carriages, see firstgreatwestern.co.uk