Even in his wildest dreams, former Barnardo’s boy Philip Morrell could never have foreseen the phone call he received just over a month ago.
© Geoff Caddick
It was a request from the Palace to use his barge, the Spirit of Chartwell, to carry the Queen along the Thames in a pageant to mark her diamond jubilee on June 3.
It will be a highlight of this special year, when the royal party will process from Putney to the Tower accompanied by an astonishing flotilla of 1,000 craft and even a floating belfry - it is set to be the greatest river pageant in history.
'When the call came from the Palace, they asked how much we would charge. And I said, ‘We’ll do it for nothing - we’ll do it for the honour.’'
Before Morrell’s barge was taken away to a top-secret location to be draped in diamond jubilee colours of red, gold and purple, Homes & Property was given an exclusive tour of the interior by its owner, who will see his dream come true - to thank the Queen and Prince Philip for the encouragement their regular private visits to children’s homes in the Fifties gave him and other youngsters then in care.
In particular he recalls, when he was 12, a visit by the Duke of Edinburgh to his Barnardo’s home in Dorset that helped inspire him in later life.
- © Geoff Caddick
- © Geoff Caddick
From Barnardo's boy to host of a royal pageant
This may be the year of the Olympics and the Jubilee but it is also the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, so it is more than appropriate to tell a rags-to-riches tale that the great author would have loved. The story of a little boy who fled a children’s home in Windsor and made his way along the banks of the Thames to central London with only baked beans to eat.
That boy, Philip Morrell, now a handsome, silver-haired 67-year-old, remembers: “I had one pair of shoes, a pair of open-toed sandals, and as I sat on an embankment wall watching the river run, dangling my feet over the side, one sandal fell into the water.”
With only one shoe, and exhausted, the little boy limped on to a bus but was unable to pay the fare - he was collared by the conductor as the bus passed St Paul’s and his first river adventure was over.
Returned to Windsor, Morrell began to settle into the Barnado’s routine, the highlights of which were regular private royal visits. These, he says, were part of a great deal of unsung and unreported work that the royal couple have done over the past 60 years.
Once grown up, Morrell’s adventurous nature took a global turn. He became a tour guide in Spain, then worked for Thomson Tours. But, when the firm’s founder, Lord Thomson, declined to exploit an invitation from the Chinese to run a tourist train through formerly closed parts of China, Morrell seized his chance.
In only three months he set up his own company, Voyages Jules Verne, and launched a Central Kingdom Express train service that ran 7,000 miles from Victoria station in London through China. More grand train routes followed, such as the Cape to Cairo journey, all evoking the glamour, style and spirit of the Pullman Company’s Orient Express. Other landmarks included running the first direct charter flights to Agra in India and to Kilimanjaro and Harare in Africa. Romance, adventure, and allure were always part of the package.
And, it was after a meeting with Morrell, with whom Michael Palin had taken a train trip, that the BBC made Palin’s hugely successful series Around The World in 80 Days.
The Barge is born
But in 2008, Morrell’s love of the Thames and the grandeur of great boats and trains took hold again. With a new company, Magna Carta, he stripped and fitted out a Dutch ship, then called the Van Gogh, 64 metres long and seven metres wide - just able to squeeze through Teddington Lock, with an inch or two to spare.
'The Spirit of Chartwell is being taken to a secret location to be transformed for the pageant into a barge fit for a queen'
After £8 million was spent on her, the now glossy vessel, a sort of floating Savoy, was renamed the Spirit of Chartwell.
Gleaming in the lock at Surrey Quays, looking, in her cream and brown livery, curiously like the Orient Express crossed with a very big chocolate eclair, she offers luxury dining trips and nights on board, up and down the Thames.
When the call came from the Palace, Morrell wasn’t sure if he was dreaming. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to let myself believe this,’” he says. “Then they asked how much we would charge. And I said, ‘We’ll do it for nothing - we’ll do it for the honour.’”
© Geoff Caddick
The designer barge and royal makeover
The Spirit of Chartwell is being taken to a secret location to be transformed for the pageant into a barge fit for a queen. It will be sumptuously dressed, on both the open top deck and main deck, by designer Joseph Bennett.
Regal gold, purple and crimson will be used, including, on the upper deck, a specially woven red-and-gold carpet, with a glorious gilded carving near the prow, and two thrones on a raised dais, under a fringed baldachin.
The whole ship will be garlanded and swagged with floral decorations, all supplied by the Queen’s own gardens and designed by Rachel de Thame. The windows will gleam with regal cloth of gold, while symbolic liveried oarsmen will stand on deck.
But even without any of that, it is a very special vessel. From the moment of stepping on board, Chartwell is immaculate in every detail.
From copious amounts of glistening solid mahogany, hand-fitted in situ, to 33 armchairs from a 1929 Pullman; to specially-made mahogany tables; Pullman-style table lamps; glowing Lalique panels (René Lalique also designed for the famous Train Bleu); and marquetry done by a mother-and-daughter team who design for the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
The shining steel kitchen could easily serve a restaurant, and there is a large bar. The 19 staff go through three changes of uniform to enhance the Chartwell’s day-long tours. Below, all 22 cabins are sumptuous, each with silk cushions and crisp en-suites.
© Geoff Caddick
From a technical point of view, which must interest the Palace, the Chartwell not only has transverse bulkheads making watertight compartments for safety, but propellers that can turn through 360 degrees, and a special bow thruster. Because of this, “she can turn on a sixpence”, Morrell says proudly.
“The reason why they chose us is that in terms of finish and technical prowess, there isn’t a ship like it in the world,” he adds.
Escorted by 1,000 other vessels, the Chartwell will provide a rare, historic spectacle as it makes its stately, two-hour progress along the river, viewed by millions - and all made possible by one man’s romantic imagination.
Morrell, who lives in St John’s Wood with his wife, their 18-year-old daughter and 26-year-old son, says, laughing, that he is thinking of training both children up so they can serve on the barge and be a part of the great day. But asked if he would like to be on board, too, he says he will be happy instead to admire the Queen from afar, as he did all those years ago when a small boy.