Charters - how an adventure 30 years ago established Peterborough’s floating real ale emporium
Peterborough’s floating bar Charters on the River Nene celebrates its 30th birthday this weekend and is now part of the fabric of the city - but how it came to be in 1991 wasn’t all plain sailing!
Paul Hook, who owns it with partner Patcheree Shaweewan, went to extraordinary lengths to establish the floating “real ale emporium” that is so loved today because he felt the city was lacking something.
And it proved quite an adventure - first finding the right vessel and sailing it across the English Channel not to mention the small matter of negotiating the lock at the Dog in a Doublet and Town Bridge.
“I used to go drinking in Peterborough and I used to moan that there weren’t enough good pubs,” Paul recalled.
“I had always messed around with boats (he ran the Nene Charter Company) so I had this idea I would get the biggest boat I possibly could into the centre of Peterborough, find a nice mooring for it and open a bar and a restaurant (which 20 years ago became East). And this was something I had never done before - I was not from the industry, I was always on the others side of the bar.”
So off he went.
“I went looking around trying to find a boat that would fit, bearing in mind there were various constraints particularly the lock at the Dog in a Doublet - that was the scale challenge - and indeed because of where the mooring was getting under Town Bridge itself,” said Paul, who also owns the Brewery Tap in Westgate which he opened in 1998.
“I spent a lot of time with a tape measure working out how big a boat I could get - that is length, width and height - and went looking.
“I couldn’t find anything in the UK so I spent many enjoyable weeks going around the rivers in Holland, Belgium and Germany .”
Eventually a broker called about the Leendert and Paul went to take a look.
“I do remember it was out of the water on a slipway and as I saw it thought ‘look at the size of that thing’ - it looked enormous.
“But it measured up so we picked a window in the weather with a Dutch skipper and his mate and with a bit of preparation sailed off to England.”
For a river boat, however, that was never going to be straightforward.
“It was not designed for the sea,” Paul pointed out. “It has a flat bottom so it is not particularly stable, which is why we were so interested in the weather. We had a little VHF radio so we could keep in touch with the world and headed out to sea.
“The pilot boat in the port we left from came on the radio and asked our captain, in Dutch, where we were going because we were heading in the wrong direction - instead of heading inland up the river we were going out of the harbour and out to sea.
“Our captain replied ‘England’ to which the harbour master had a great big raucous laugh. I think he thought we were mad.
“But it was a good trip, it took 25 hours as you can’t cross shipping lanes at an angle, but we went straight across to the UK coast and hugged the coast right up to The Wash and sailed though Sutton Bridge to Wisbech.
There it went onto a mooring where all heavy work was done before a “halfway house bar/restaurant on a boat” arrived in Peterborough having carefully got through the lock at Dog in a Doublet with nothing to spare and squeezed under Town Bridge
“But we did it and boldly set up Charters as a real ale emporium from day one with restaurant above.
“I told my bank manager it would probably take about three months for us to get up to speed and trading at where I thought it might go but in the event it took three days. We opened on a Tuesday and on the Thursday you could not move, the place was ram jam full.
“It has seen some changes in 30 years but has always been a great real ale emporium and has always had a great following. I think at the minute we are going from strength to strength. Everybody seems to love the character and quirkiness of good old Charters.
Co-owner Patcharee is particularly proud of the garden - a big part of Charters’ appeal - which was redeveloped during lockdown into something really special including two huge palm trees and a stunning South East Asia-inspired mural.
“I am very proud of what we have achieved,” she said. “It has taken a lot of hard work and investment to create what we have now and the feedback from customers is that they love it.
“With the palm trees and the mural of a beach, huts, waves, a sunset and a river, which will be completed with a floating market scene from Thailand, it will make people feel like they are taking time out to relax. We want to create a vibe that makes people feel like they could be on holiday when the sun is shining and they see the palm trees.
“There is not another place like it in Peterborough.”
30th birthday celebrations today will see Opaque performing from 3pm and Porky Pig from 10pm.