STROLLING along by the Thames at Walton the other day, I was fascinated to watch a sizeable old barge called Richmond Venturer go chuffing past me with a group of wheelchair-bound guests on the deck enjoying the spring sunshine.
On investigation, I discovered the barge – which was built in Utrecht in the Netherlands in 1908, belongs to a group called the River Thames Boat Project, a charity which provides environmental education activities for schools, respite trips for young carers, day and residential trips for people with disabilities and older people.
Miranda Jaggers, the charity’s project manager, explained: “We’ve been running trips for 15 years and the whole idea is to introduce the river to a whole host of people who may never have had the opportunity to experience it at close hand before.
“In addition to the trips, we encourage local schools to make use of Venturer as a floating classroom, moored alongside where it’s convenient for the school – it adds a whole new dimension to learning about the environment.”
Richmond Venturer herself has had an interesting history. The 26m long craft, originally named De Tyd Zal l’Lerenen, (which translates as Time Will Tell) was first powered by a huge old Duetz diesel engine and her present owners believe she was one of thousands of boats commandeered by the Germans to take part in the proposed invasion of England in 1940.
Fortunately, that never happened but she did cross the Channel in the early 1980s when she was bought by Sir Richard Branson for use on the Thames. He subsequently decided to build himself a new boat and in May 1988 the old barge was donated to the River Thames Boat Project, a charity established by the then Mayor of Richmond, Martin Emerson, who wanted what he described as an ‘environmental boat’ for all to visit and learn about the river.
Renamed Richmond Venturer and completely fitted out to be accessible to those with disabilities, the old boat is a regular sight on our stretch of the Thames as she carries up to 12 passengers at a time between Kingston and Walton or Shepperton on day trips. She has a professional skipper and a number of volunteer crew to make sure things go smoothly.
Venturer also offers longer residential trips of between two and five days when she may head as far upriver as Windsor or, tides permitting, downstream to Richmond or Putney.
She is available for daily hire by charity groups at prices starting from £200 and for amenity groups from £350.
Miranda also points out that, in a new feature, individuals can also book a trip on Venturer.
“We’ve set aside four days this summer for people who don’t belong to any organisation to have the chance of a trip on the boat. The day costs just £28 and that includes the boat trip and lunch. We’ve still got spaces available for three days – May 21, August 24and September 17,” she said.
Personally, I can’t think of many better ways to learn about the river then pottering along on this stately old lady. For more details about the River Thames Boat Project go to www.thamesboatproject.org or phone Miranda on 020 8940 3509.