It wasn’t until I moved to Whitechapel that I began exploring Hackney. I’d just gotten a FitBit and was eager to get in more steps, so I’d wander around most days until I hit my goal. Broadway Market and Victoria Circle were two of my favorite spots, and after awhile I realized I could walk along the canal between the two.
There are a lot of house-barges in London, and a ton of beautiful ones near Victoria Park. On an emptier stretch of the canal, though, there’s a large, jet-black barge moored behind a warehouse, and it has always caught my eye.
I recently discovered that it’s got a name-- Bert’s Barge; it’s a hotel! And the origin story is incredible.
The warehouse behind the barge is Bert & May, “a specialist supplier of handmade artisan tiles, engineered wood, natural pigment paints, and most recently, furniture, bathroom fittings and kitchens.”
Its story almost sounds made-up. Lee Thornley, the co-founder of Bert & May, gave up his career as a barrister and moved from London to Andalucia in 2003. He was slowly recovering from a life-threatening illness and wanted to go somewhere the opposite of London. On his first day in Spain, he met Amelia, a Scottish woman who left a busy catering company in London due to a long-term illness of her own; they were in the same Spanish class. They fell in love, and two to three months into their relationship, they bought and fixed up a crumbling Moorish apartment in the village of Vejer de la Frontera.
Soon after, the two doubled their money and sold the flat for €200,000. They married and decided to take another risk: building their dream home from scratch with reclaimed materials, selling their London flats to pay for the project. It took years to get planning permission from Town Hall, during which time Lee worked occasionally at a law firm in London to pay the €400,000 mortgage. As they waited for permission to build, the couple traveled around Spain in search of discarded materials. They found antique pieces from old monasteries, bodegas, and churches, including three huge wooden church doors.
When their house was finally built, it opened as a luxury boutique hotel (a separate wing operated as the couple’s home) called the Casa La Siesta, where rooms start at €340 a night.. The Casa La Siesta was featured in Conde Nast Traveler, The Guardian, and Tattler, among others. They were both under 30.
Inspired by the positive feedback on the hotel and its aesthetic, Lee decided to open a tile business. After working with Spanish tilemaker Juan Menacho on the hotel, Lee reopened and invested in the Menacho family’s old tile factory, where he designed and made sun-dried, encaustic tiles. The two collaborated on a new online shop called Bert & May, selling handmade and reclaimed tiles.
After having two children, the couple moved back to North Yorkshire to be near family. They left the day-to-day management of the hotel in control of a third party and focussed on Bert & May, which operated out of their garage. What began as an online store expanded, and in 2013 Bert & May opened a showroom in Bethnal Green.
Lee needed a place to stay while he was in London four days a week, but as anyone who has ever spent any time in London knows, London is really f*cking expensive. He looked out at the canal snaking behind his shop, and decided-- why not? He’d build a barge.
The barge was custom made for better insulation and underfloor heating, but Lee ran into trouble with construction. The woodburning stove was so heavy that concrete had to be added to the opposite end of the barge as a counterbalance; the roof was built flat to use as a balcony, but the railings were too tall to fit under bridges and had to be reconstructed; the marble kitchen cause the boat to list.
After working through the challenges of building a barge from scratch, the Thornleys opened Bert’s Barge in July 2015 as a one-room hotel. Plans are in motion for three more barge hotels to open in Little Venice, Bristol, and York. Bert & May now has additional showrooms in York, Chelsea, and Leeds.
67 Vyner Street, London E2 9DQ, England
0203 744 0776
£250 a night
Minimum stay 2 nights
Bert's Barges, The Telegraph
It Takes Two, The Guardian
Short Breaks: Ahead of the Pack, Conde Nast Traveller
Spain's Finest Heritage Hotels and Retreats, The Telegraph
Our Story, Bert & May
Living and Working the Dream, Express
Living on a houseboat in London: this barge has a roof-top terrace. You can have one too, for £150,000; ES Homes & Property
Is a houseboat the answer to affordable city living? The Guardian
Stay in This Design-Centric ‘Floating Hotel’ on London’s Regent’s Canal, Travel + Leisure
A Ray of Sunshine, Yorkshire Post
Space Man, easyJet Traveller
Hidden Andalucia, easyJet Traveller