All aboard

How an old hulk on the Thames be­came a mag­i­cal fam­ily home in the shadow of the city, but with ducks and swans for neigh­bours. By Sharon Smith. Pho­to­graphs by Chris Tubbs

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents -

The Thames house­boat that’s also a fam­ily home

‘IT WAS LOVE at first sight,’ says prop­erty de­vel­oper An­drew Wadsworth, re­call­ing the day he and his wife Julie first viewed The Harpy, their house­boat on the Thames, al­most 40 years ago. ‘It was a for­mer cus­toms and ex­cise boat and very run­down, but we thought: “Great! A two-storey house on the river with 1,850 sq ft of in­ter­nal space [al­most twice the size of the av­er­age home in the UK] and 2,500 sq ft of ex­ter­nal decks.”’

The pur­chase al­most didn’t hap­pen, though. The cou­ple were ini­tially told by the es­tate agent that the boat was un­der of­fer, but sub­se­quently dis­cov­ered that it was owned by a nearby pub, and had been the world’s first and only float­ing cus­tom house, un­til it was de­com­mis­sioned in 1980. ‘The land­lord told us, “We have this agent who keeps telling peo­ple it’s un­der of­fer just be­cause he doesn’t want to row out there and get his suit wet,”’ says An­drew. He and Julie hired a dinghy them­selves, and sculled across to where the boat was moored at Green­wich.

That was in 1981: An­drew was in his early 20s and had just se­cured a £3 mil­lion bank loan to re­de­velop New

‘It was won­der­ful – a de­tached house with the big­gest gar­den in Lon­don, al­beit of­ten flooded’

Con­cor­dia Wharf in Lon­don’s Dock­lands. Hav­ing flunked his A lev­els and lost his place at univer­sity a few years ear­lier, he had be­come a suc­cess­ful en­tre­pre­neur. ‘I printed T-shirts with the logo “I Don’t Go To Univer­sity”, ad­ver­tised them in Pri­vate Eye and was in­un­dated with or­ders,’ he says. He ex­panded into re­tail in his na­tive Manch­ester, then later de­cided to go into prop­erty de­vel­op­ment.

The Wadsworths bought The Harpy

for £23,000 and sent it off for a £150,000, six-month re­fit, con­vert­ing the lower deck into the head of­fice for An­drew’s com­pany Water­house, and the up­per deck into a one-bed­room flat. ‘We moored it at New Con­cor­dia Wharf,’ says An­drew. ‘It was won­der­ful – a de­tached house with views of Tower Bridge and the big­gest gar­den in Lon­don, al­beit of­ten flooded.’

They moved out two years later, to a house where they brought up their three children, and Water­house took over the boat. It was not un­til 2003 that they re­designed it as a four-bed­room, three-bath­room home and moved back in with their children.

‘We’d al­ways re­gret­ted mov­ing out be­cause it’s such a unique space. Noth­ing can beat the gen­tle rock­ing on the tide, swans swim­ming along­side, ducks quack­ing by the bed­room win­dows and the stun­ning views of the city,’ says An­drew.

After the children left home, the boat un­der­went a third re­fit in 2016, which took 18 months. They re­dec­o­rated through­out, stick­ing to a neu­tral cream for the match­board walls and ceil­ings, re­sanded the orig­i­nal oak floor, re­placed the ap­pli­ances, and bought new fur­ni­ture. There are 54 pieces of 1920s oak fur­ni­ture from Heal’s on-board, part of a col­lec­tion formed over 20 years. The in­te­rior also re­flects that this is a fam­ily home. Art­works in­clude a plas­ter uni­corn head made by the cou­ple’s daugh­ter Rosan­nah when she was 12, and paint­ings by Julie, a grad­u­ate of Gold­smiths in Lon­don.

Over the years, The Harpy has seen highs and lows. One of the high­lights was meet­ing Bill Weather­all, an of­fi­cer on the boat for 37 years. When he died, the Wadsworths hosted his fu­neral on-board and scat­tered his ashes from the deck. An­other was the Queen’s Thames Di­a­mond Ju­bilee Pageant in 2012, which passed just yards away. ‘We had 170 guests and The Harpy was list­ing a bit. De­spite the aw­ful weather it was a spec­tac­u­lar oc­ca­sion,’ says An­drew.

The worst day was the Dock­lands bomb­ing by the IRA on 9 February 1996. ‘Sud­denly there was a tremen­dous noise that set the whole boat rat­tling. We rushed to the win­dow and saw a huge plume of smoke ris­ing from Ca­nary Wharf,’ he re­calls.

He ad­mits that a down­side of house­boat-liv­ing is the cost of up­keep, partly off­set by their rent­ing out the boat for short stays, at which times the cou­ple de­camp to their house in Dorset. It is a small draw­back, he says, and worth it to en­joy the view from the sofa of Tower Bridge lit up at night, or din­ing out on the deck with friends. ‘I love just sit­ting and watch­ing life go by on the river,’ he says. ‘It’s a mag­i­cal oa­sis in the city.’ the­

‘Noth­ing can beat the gen­tle rock­ing on the tide, ducks quack­ing by the win­dows and the views of the city’

Clock­wise from right Art­work, such as a plas­ter uni­corn head made by An­drew and Julie’s daugh­ter, gives the liv­ing room a fam­ily feel; a large model of an Amer­i­can Vought F4U Cor­sair fighter plane keeps time with the rhythm of the tide; the fam­ily en­joy views of Lon­don; the oak stair­case and floor­boards through­out have been ren­o­vated; the en­trance hall con­tains a model of an ear­lier HMS Harpy and an ab­stract oil by Julie

From right The Heal’s four­poster bed used to be­long to so­ci­ety beauty Daisy Fel­lowes, who re­port­edly tried to se­duce Win­ston Churchill; An­drew Wadsworth on the deck of The Harpy

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