On my recent trip to Northern Europe and Scandinavia, I had a few goals.
Being an incurable "gondola fanatic", some of those goals involved finding boats I'd heard of and always wanted to see in person.
The town of Stratford-Upon-Avon was high on my list.
And honestly, when we got to London, seeing some old friends and going to Stratford were the only things I cared about. No offense to the royals, no disrespect to all of the amazing places and landmarks in the UK,
I had one goal - to see the gondola that Nick Birch had in his fleet.
My family and I, along with one of our friends who now lives in London, took the train up to Stratford-Upon-Avon, had a nice walk through town, and arrived at the boathouse.
Nick's operation is not solely a gondola service;
they have a large fleet of rowing craft that folks can rent and row for special occasions or just for fun.
(for photos of the rowing boats, see "Rowboats in Shakespeare Coutry")
Nick and I had written back and forth for some time, and he'd been more than gracious to my parents when they visited his boathouse a few years earlier, so I wasn't concerned about how I'd be received.
It was like meeting an old friend.
Nick and all the rest of the folks working there were friendly and hospitable - made us feel like visiting relatives.
We got a tour of the workshop, talked about all the different boats on the property (both in and out of the water),
and then we took a walk across the grass.
Hidden in a separate building right next to a brick bridge built in the 1820's,
I was introduced to the Corelli Gondola.
Even if I knew nothing about this gondola, or gondolas in general,
it would have been clear that the boat I was looking at was special.
Here's a sign that is posted when the Corelli Gondola is on display but not available for cruises:
Further details about the boat can be found on the Avon Boating website.
from the Gondola Hire section, more information includes:
In keeping with one of Stratford's lesser known traditions Avon Boating are proud to own and offer trips on an authentic Venetian Gondola. At the beginning of the 1900's Miss Marie Corelli, the famous and eccentric, romantic novelist owned a gondola on the river here. We only thought it right that we restore the presence of a gondola on the river in honour of her eccentric lifestyle. If you have ever been in a gondola you will understand why she loved it so much and what it is that makes them so unique and unrivalled on the water.
Lately I've been involved with numerous discussions about who has,
and where is the oldest gondola in the world.
In this pursuit, I've started thinking that if you spend too much time obsessing over which boat gets the title, you'll miss out on appreciating some really great boats - great boats with even greater stories.
This little 1904 piece of history is a perfect example,
and I do mean little - the boat is shorter than the standard gondola.
As mentioned in my post "The Dream", this gondola is 25 feet long.
Arriving at the boathouse, I didn't just want to see the Corelli Gondola (although I would have been thrilled if that was all I could accomplish), after reading and writing about this boat, I wanted to know how she rowed.
Imagine my delight when Nick said to me:
"so, would you like to have a go at rowing her?"
My response was something along the lines of:
"What is that, a trick question?"
Within a few minutes Nick and one of his staff members rolled the gondola out on her cradle, and carefully but quickly had her in the water and ready to go.
Here's a photo sequence of the rollout and launch.
Guiding the boat out of the building.
Beautiful details exposed by the light.
Like the reins of a horse bridle,
Nick controls the direction of the wheels on the cradle.
Splashdown was more of a "swooshdown".
Retrieving the cradle was simple and sensible, and once the gondola was off of the cradle I could get a better idea of how it was constructed.
And there she was:
a one-of-a-kind, perfectly restored, 108-year-old, 25-foot gondola - floating on the River Avon, just like she had back in 1904.
Nick rowed her over to the dock in front of the boathouse,
and in a short time she was dressed and ready to be rowed.
But that's another story for another time.