How I gained a new perspective on Britain by cruising around it

·10 min read
viking venus - Viking Cruises
viking venus - Viking Cruises

As I am about to enter Portsmouth Cruise Terminal, I notice that my mind has flicked back to the greatest series of the best ever British sitcom. Namely, to the second, Tudor, incarnation of Blackadder.

And specifically, to the third episode, Potato, wherein Rowan Atkinson’s Machiavellian title character connives his way into the Elizabethan Age of exploration in an attempt to win the Queen’s affections – only to come close to disaster when he embarks on an impromptu voyage with a drunken sea dog played by Tom Baker.

It is not that Viking Venus, moored beyond, resembles a leaky galleon in the command of the fourth Doctor Who. Quite the contrary.

The latest addition to the Norwegian-Swiss cruise line’s fleet is a study in seafaring luxury; a vessel of 465 staterooms, nine decks, seven restaurants, and one LivNordic spa, so gleamingly new that it couldn’t wait for the pandemic to end before starting operations – casting off for its maiden sailing on May 17.

LivNordic Spa - Viking Cruises
LivNordic Spa - Viking Cruises

But as I clamber aboard, it is Baker’s voice that rings in my ears. To be exact, the part of the episode where Captain Redbeard Rum admits that he is as ill-prepared as Blackadder for a lengthy odyssey into the Atlantic, and doesn’t know the way to Africa anyway.

“What were you going to do?” he is asked. “Oh, what I usually do,” he replies. “Sail round and round the Isle of Wight until everyone gets dizzy – then head for home.”

The itinerary ahead of me over the following week is not quite as limited as a few laps of the Solent – but, at first glance, it does not feel far off. The cruise sector has been one of the corners of the travel industry most damaged by Covid – so vulnerable to contagion sweeping ships that many of its biggest have spent the last 16 months anchored and empty.

As the crisis has rolled into a second year, lateral thinking has been required. In March, Viking – whose vessels normally dock in harbours as diverse as Hong Kong, Sydney, Tokyo, Vancouver and Los Angeles, and whose river cruises trace the likes of the Danube, the Nile and the Mississippi – announced three editions of an eight-day voyage that would keep squarely to British waters.

The logic behind England’s Scenic Shores was obvious. In difficult moments, when international travel is so complicated, why not remove the complexity by taking out the borders – or, at least, any attempt to cross them?

But if this might have suggested a pragmatic lowering of ambitions when it was revealed four months ago, the response has been one of raised-arms enthusiasm. The voyage has proved so popular that Viking has now scheduled two further departures for August – and may even keep Britain-only cruises as part of its brochure once all restrictions have lifted.

 Kynance Cove - Getty
Kynance Cove - Getty

Settling into my cabin, I start to appreciate why. Viking Venus and I may not be going far – a 1,100-mile round-trip from Portsmouth to Liverpool which, as a one-way dash by car, would be a matter of 250 miles and four hours. But we will do so while taking a leisurely yet detailed look at some of the most glorious areas of the English seafront. At Portland, Weymouth and the Jurassic Coast. At Falmouth and Cornwall’s south flank. At those endgames of the British land mass, the Isles of Scilly – wrapped in their subtropical climate.

It will also be – I realise, as we inch west along the Channel over the first 18 hours, then turn north, Land’s End visible low above the swells as we forge up into the Irish Sea – that rarest of things for a Briton. A chance to be an introspective tourist.

As a nation, our travel viewfinder generally peers outwards, to destinations over the rainbow – to the Mediterranean, and the beaches of the Caribbean.

But here, I have a literal opportunity to gaze inward at our own islands. And without the traffic jams that often characterise a drive towards St Ives – or the sold-out signs and high prices of our second Covid summer.

There are, of course, caveats to this freedom. The Covid test quickly establishes itself as an intrinsic part of my life on board – not just when I arrive at the terminal in Portsmouth, where the temperature of my forehead is gauged before I can begin the check-in process, but at regular intervals during the cruise. There is a health questionnaire, probing for viral symptoms, to be box-ticked every day via the Viking app – while a facial scanner at the door of the World Cafe on the seventh deck determines my health each morning before I sit down to breakfast.

Not that I leave my cabin until I have completed the daily ritual of depositing a few drops of saliva into a plastic tube, to be assessed in Venus’s on-board lab. All this in addition to Viking’s policy that, as of July 3, all passengers must be double vaccinated – and the requirement that face masks are worn while moving around the ship.

But any idea of this being an imposition is nullified by a palpable willingness to protect fellow passengers and crew, and the joy of being able to travel again, even in Liverpool, where the need for bubbling sees the morning tour confined to a coach. But it is all there through the glass – the Royal Albert Dock, and the International Slavery Museum within it, telling two sides of the city’s tale; the Beatles, forever present on side alley Mathew Street, and in the suburbs on Penny Lane; the epic architecture of the sibling religious bastions – the Anglican Cathedral a Gothic Revival pile built to the blueprint of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, its Catholic near-neighbour still a striking exercise in post-war modernism.

It is there, too, in the afternoon, and in person, via one of Viking’s inside connections – to Knowsley Hall. The seat of the Earl of Derby, 10 miles east of the centre, is only open to the public one week a year. But a handful of us are beckoned in, to be guided around the (largely 18th-century) property by the curator, Dr Stephen Lloyd.

If its walls could talk, they would not need to. Lloyd sketches their stories with knowledge and wit, through drawing and dining rooms. James, the 7th earl, has pride of place in the library – his portrait over the fireplace recalling a royalist who was beheaded during the Civil War (in 1651) for his support of Charles I. The picture of his uncle Ferdinando, the 5th earl, is tucked into a gloomier corner. He was poisoned in 1594. His killer was never identified.

knowsley hall - Knowsley Hall
knowsley hall - Knowsley Hall

Political skulduggery and arsenic seem the last things on the horizon when we pause at the Isles of Scilly a day later. There have been flutterings and mutterings on deck that a full visit to the archipelago is not guaranteed; that rough weather might make it impossible to leave the ship. But when Venus halts just off St Mary’s, we are welcomed by flat waters and clear skies.

There are seals staring back at us from the rocks at Mincarlo as we decant into local tenders – and cormorants swirling in the blue above. Bishop Rock Lighthouse, marking Britain’s most south-westerly point, stands stoic in the distance. Bryher turns a golden face towards us where weekday sunbathers are making the most of the conditions on Rushy Bay; Tresco repeats the greeting with the sands of Appletree Bay, the ruins of its abbey peeping through the gardens up the slope. Further on, St Martin’s Vineyard is about as idyllic a spot as you might find anywhere in the UK – its grapes swelling in the sunlight, and bottles of rosé available to sip at the table by the gate.

There will be more views to soothe the soul in Cornwall. And a small case of personal discovery. In four decades in this country, I have never walked the Lizard Peninsula. And yet, there it is, on a warm morning, a short hop from Falmouth – the British mainland’s southernmost point. It is in a playful guise too: sunshine baking the path hard and dry under foot; the rocks and sea below silent and still, belying the many wrecks they have caused over the centuries.

This sense of all things in a temporary state of calm is infectious. Half a mile east, a young couple are playing beach tennis on Housel Bay, the “ping” of each shot resounding in the natural amphitheatre formed by the cliffs. Behind them on the pebbles, the tent in which they have wild-camped overnight is pitched safely above the tideline, a rudimentary sanctuary pegged down in a Covid storm.

durdle door - Getty
durdle door - Getty

I find myself admiring their initiative. And I will retain that positive impression into the afternoon, wandering the slanting fields of Tregothnan Estate – another of Viking’s clever tie-ins with intriguing local attractions. To witness tea flourishing in what is the only site in the UK where such an exotic crop is grown – fat green bushels of the stuff, cascading down a hillside on the banks of an inlet of the River Fal – is remarkable and yet strangely British. As British, in fact – considering our national love of the drink – as the greatest hits that await the following morning when Venus docks in Dorset: Chesil Beach an extravagant 18-mile sea-forged arc of shingle, stretching out beneath the pale quarries of Portland; Durdle Door a geological icon, many millennia in the making; Lulworth Cove as lovely a fragment of Wessex as when Thomas Hardy celebrated it in poetry, in 1920.

If these are all definitive visions of this country, there are reminders, around the ship, of the wider world that awaits us again soon enough. Some are strictly Scandinavian – the artful replicas of Bronze Age petroglyphs dotted around the decks (including a re-creation of the Loberg rock carvings at Skien in Norway, with their horses, riders, ships and sun circles); the decor in the Wintergarden lounge, where afternoon tea is served under the face of the Norse god Odin, subtly present in lattice ironwork. Some are evocative of an ever-romantic Europe – the black-and-white photos, along the stateroom corridors, of fishing boats in the Lofoten Islands, of ancient temple columns in Athens, of the prow of a gondola on a Venetian canal.

This card is played again, in Manfredi’s, Venus’s Italian restaurant, where sepia images – of back-street Naples, of St Peter’s Square, of girls in 1950s dresses, smiling on Amalfi harbourwalls – complement the crab-meat fettuccine in its vermouth and saffron-cream sauce. Some – the giant reproductions of the Bayeux Tapestry in the stairwells – reflect upon the eternal link between Britain and the continent.

There is one more such echo as we re-enter the Solent, for a concluding half-lap of the Isle of Wight. It is a swarthy apparition on the port side – Spitbank Fort, one of the four Palmerston Forts that were constructed to defend Portsmouth in 1859, when the threat of French invasion was high. As of 2012, it has been an exclusive hotel.

Crises pass. Softer situations emerge. And until they do, we can sail our own waters, hoping for gentle tides.

The details

Viking Cruises (0800 298 9700; vikingcruises.co.uk) still has spaces on its next departures of England’s Scenic Shores (from Portsmouth, on August 7 and 14), from £1,490 per passenger, including excursions, all meals, wine and beer with lunch and dinner, use of spa facilities and gratuities. An eight-day Scenic British Isles cruise – which will also call at the Inner Hebrides – will leave Portsmouth on August 21 (also from £1,490pp). As of July 19, domestic cruise itineraries are permitted to visit Scottish ports.