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Wending through Chaucer's countryside by barge

It has been called by many names, but none more apt than the Queen's Highway. For this is Father Thames, the noble English waterway in which every drop is said to be "liquid history." Traditionally, the Thames belongs to the crown and even today, if a bit of your front yard happens to fall into the river, you have lost it to the Queen!

By world standards, the Thames is not considered a mighty river, but it is majestic as it wends through the countryside some 215 miles from its source in the Cotsworlds, down to London and out to sea. The most famous part of the route is between Oxford and London, for it is lined with innumerable locks and gates, gentle fields, manicured lawns, and carefully tended gardens, all reflecting 2,000 years of life. This is the so-called Thames Valley, where Chaucer once lived, Tennyson was married, the "Wind in the Willows" was written, and some of the houses are 600 years old.

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As a way of transportation and a view of England's unchanging countryside, the river is even more enjoyable today than ever because of the Thames Conservancy, which keeps a watchful eye on the cleanliness and sparkle of the water. (Nothing may be dumped into the river these days.) So, to thoroughly refresh the spirit, get away from the clogged motorways and cruise along at no more than four miles per hour. As you watch life unfold on both banks, the everyday and mundane (at a faster speed) becomes quite sweet and cherishable. And, if you haven't brought your own boat along, there are many for hire by the day or week -- provided you know something of navigation and promise to close the gates of the locks behind you. (Hoseasons Holidays Ltd., represented by Floating Through Europe, has 2,000 boats for hire.)

Better yet, you can book space aboard one of the popular hotel-barges and leave the driving up to someone else (as well as the cooking and the washing-up)! This is the most splendid way to travel the Thames, but bookings should be made several months in advance to ensure availability, because the season is short and the boats are small. The most circuit are the Clemence and Cadence, similar but not identical vessels that carry 12 passengers each and always cruise together on the six-night itinerary. These 65-by-15-foot barges are operated by the London-based Continental Waterways (whose own Julia Collins has just opened a Boston branch at 11 Beacon Street, telephone (617) 227-3220). Continental pioneered barge cruising some 15 years ago in France, and this year embarked its 10,000th passenger.

The Clemence and Cadence have four twin and four single cabins on their lower decks as well as two showers and two toilets. The upper deck has an outdoor sitting area and a large lounge/dinning space inside. They are comfortable but what they might lack in luxury, they make up in spirit due to the river expertise of their captains, Maurice Dowdall and his son-in-law, Simon Baker. Simon, especially, is a veritable thesaurus of local lore and doesn't miss a bird, willow, or blade of grass during the morning or afternoon cruising periods. The distances are short and the whole experience delightful, especially if you have to go through a lock where the keeper greets evryone and passes on the latest news. Once the barges are moored for the day, there are excursions into the neighboring towns by minibus. Here, you have a chance to savor such places as Upper Shiplake (where Tennyson was married in the Norman church), the watercress beds at Chaucer's village of Ewelme, Mapledurham and the museum at Abingdon, and the "kissing gate" at Sonning next door to a half-timbered dwelling that was built in 1404. And, all the while, Simon will parlay a bit of history and gossip in the same breath.

After a few hours of touring, you return to the barges for more cruising. Mooring for the night is always in good time, so that you can explore the environs before it gets dark. The favorite stopover is at Henley, home of the Royal Regatta and White Hart Inn, for it's always full of interesting boats and boat people. The Clemence and Cadence cruise on a six-night itinerary (Monday p.m. to Sunday a.m.) between Oxford and Windsor. Dates for 1981 are April 20 through October, and rates are $660 per person, double occupancy, and $745 single. You may also take the cruise for just three days at half the rate (mid-point is Reading).

Continental is launching a more luxurious barge next summer called the Patience. The vessel will carry 20 passengers in cabins with private facilities (they will have central heating) and cruise on a Sunday to Saturday schedule between Tower Bridge in London and Windsor, passing such historic sites as Runnymede, Hampton Court, and numerous riverside inns. Prices will be $890 per person, double occupancy, and $1,045 single for the inaugural season.

Another interesting hotel-barge on the Thames is the 12-passenger Actief, a former Dutch Klipper (built in 1907 of wrought iron) that Jonathan and Katie Parratt converted themselves about four years ago, and make their home as well as their work. The Actief is joining the Floating Through Europe family next year and will cruise under that banner, replacing the Bonjour (which has gone to the Midi to say hello). The Actief will cruise on a Sunday to Saturday schedule next season, stopping overnight in such lovely places as Cliveden, Hurley, Sonning, Panbourne, and Shillingford, between Oxford and Windsor each way. The vessel has a large sun deck, a very charming lounge-dining area full of family heirlooms, and six spacious cabins with private facilities. Meals are gourmet, under the supervision of Katie, and include her famous Actief salad (with watercress from Ewelme). Rates for 1981 are $995 per person, double occupancy and $1,140 single from May through September, $940 and $1,075 in April and October. Suites are slightly more, and the entire barge can be chartered for $ 11,675 or $11,020.

But the most charming barges of all are not even on the Thames. These are the fair maidens of the River Avon, the Beverly and Jean. Owned also by Floating Through Europe (501 Madison Avenue, New York 10022; telaphone: [212] 832-6700), the Beverly and Jean travel the "Shakespeare route" between Stratford-upon-Avon and Tewkesbury, a medieval town of half-timbered dwellings and one of the most famous abbeys in England. Operated by Philip and Janet Bidwell, the B and J always cruise together (one has the motor, while the other gets a free ride)! The Beverly carries the main salon/dining and kitchen area (plus crew quarters), while the Jean contains the passenger accomodations. These are four twin and two double bed cabins, with large picture windows right onto the river (and private facilities). The six-night cruises (Wednesday p.m. to Tuesday a.m.) include an evening at the Royal Shakespeare Theater in Stratford, and a connoisseur's tour of the Royal Worcester porcelain factory. Moorings for the night are along the banks of such lovely towns as Welford, Bidford, Evesham, Craycombe Corner, Pershore, and Tewkesbury. And cruising the River Avon is more peaceful and leisurely than the Thames because the distances from shore are less and you can hop off anytime for a walk or a ride on one of the barge bikes. And when you come to a lock, it's definitely time to get out and help the barge through. Rates for this adventure in 1981 are $980 per person, double occupancy and $1,205 single from May through September; $920 and and $10,400, respectively.

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