On a cold, rainy day, Eileen and Tony's houseboat offers a ray of sunshine and a stark contrast to the greyness of the landscape of Kings North power station and a restless wintry sea. The boat was bought fourteen years ago and is moored on the Medway with views of a Napoleonic fort, the harbour mouth and out to the open sea beyond.
The approach to the vessel is an adventure in itself. The walkway is made of metal gratings that are slippery in some places, with only the hint of a handrail along some of its length. But the perils are all made worthwhile by the first step aboard the Anita C, a 128ft German coastal barge that used to run ballast from Wandsworth to Brightlingsea. An easy step through the front door? No fear. It's a backwards descent‚ "boat style" as Eileen describes it‚ down the steep wooden steps to what the couple calls "the winter quarters".
Tony and Eileen lead us into a bright and colourful sitting room with a welcoming log burner sitting between sofas covered in embroidered Indian fabrics. The room is full of family photos and mementos and it's clear that family is a huge part of Eileen and Tony's life. They have three children: daughter Faye (34), sons Dustin (31) and Ricky (26) and four grandchildren aged 10, 9, 7, 6, who all come on board and visit frequently. Portholes and a skylight fill the room with light even on this dark day. "It was originally the crew quarters and was split into three," explains Eileen. "So we used it as the boys' bedrooms, and a small sitting room." But it was plenty big enough: "We've had sixteen people to dinner here," she says.
Off the sitting room is the winter bedroom, a snug cavern with a bed covered by a magnificent piece of Indian hand-embroidery that sparkles and reflects the light.
Eileen and Tony used to collect antique china, but everything changed after a visit to India. Eileen fell in love with the country and decided to import and sell Indian textiles. "I adore the embroidery, textiles, country, food, people ‚ everything," she says. "I said to Tony, That's it, no more china, this is what I want to do now." They have travelled extensively around the subcontinent to source material. In a room below deck there are neat boxes full of interesting and tempting fabrics. "I'm such a hoarder," says Eileen. "I really enjoy selling, but I still keep such a lot of the textiles that I buy."
Eileen also sells material and artifacts from her website and at fairs and exhibitions. When visiting India, she and Tony are keen to encourage and aid local women to keep alive their traditional skills: "If we meet someone we like and want to help, we set them up with a sewing machine so they can start up their own businesses," says Eileen.
Her dream is to set up a huge house in Karnataka in southern India for India's ‚ leftover women'. "These are women who can't support themselves because of either separation, divorce or the death of their husband or family members," says Eileen. "I'd like to encourage them to look after themselves by producing hand embroidery which would get sold in the West with 100% of the profits coming back into the community. Once they are trained, they would be encouraged to set up their own businesses, but would owe the community two days per week in either cooking, cleaning or teaching. My dream charity is for the women, but it is also to keep traditional embroideries alive, and this is what they would teach when the house was up and running."
When the weather begins to get warm Eileen and Tony move to the "summer quarters", which entails a return journey up the steep steps, along the deck, through a heavy metal door and down more steps backwards. We're now below the waterline, but the first thing that hits you is another amazing bed, again with a glorious Indian sequined bedcover - suspended from the ceiling by ropes. "Sleeping on a swinging bed is amazing," says Eileen. "If you can't sleep you just have to pull one of the ropes to rock yourself to sleep ‚ I recommend it."
The room is divided by two decorative columns from Rajasthan, which have been integrated between the bedroom and the sitting room. "We've got a friend who imports architectural bits and pieces and these came directly out of an Indian temple," says Tony. The dividing wall is also made up from stained glass windows salvaged from a pub and the wood panels along one side of the bedroom wall were reclaimed by Tony from the river. Hanging along one side of the bed are bright traditional Indian wedding canopies that look like pretty embroidered bunting.
Eileen and Tony's past as antique dealers is evident. There is a huge brass palm tree, collected on a buying trip to Brussels: "We turned up at a market at 4.30am and the tree was the only thing there and I knew we just had to have it," says Eileen. There is a First World War ‚ 100 man stove', named because it used to feed 100 men and, though hard to imagine because of its vastness, it is portable.
The bathroom has a suitably Mughal theme and Tony has lovingly shaped the mirrors to reflect the domed shapes of the Taj Mahal. On the walls there are pretty mirrored tiles reflecting the light. Incongruously, there also stands a tall German barge shower. "I found it at a market and swapped it for a chest of drawers," laughs Tony. It's a tall tubular machine that can hold a tank of water with a shower head towering overhead. You can light a log fire underneath the tank and have a fire-heated shower. "Perfect if ever the electricity runs out," says Eileen.
Eileen and Tony have been on this mooring for four years. "Our kids were brought up on a different mooring in Wouldham, we were there for 16 years. It was a fabulous place, we had land, plenty of space for the children and we were near a village and the kids loved being brought up there. They had the most free and unrestricted lifestyle," she says.
The couple have been married 35 years. They met when they were 13 and got together when they were 18. "We lived in a flat and Tony always liked boats and it was an affordable alternative to a house." She explains: "We've never been driven by money. Where I was brought up there was a saying: ‚If you have a tanner in your pocket, you're a rich man."
Tony's work is endless and he works non-stop every day on the boat. He has installed solar panels and wind turbines. Tony says: "We try to be as self-sufficient as possible. In the summer the water is heated by solar panels. There's nothing like turning your hot tap on with water not heated by electricity. We're not totally self-sufficient, but everything is built using reclaimed materials and on a budget."
Beyond the sitting room at the very top of the boat is Tony's workshop and store for his collection of reclaimed wood and materials for maintaining and renovating the boat.
From the bridge, we have the marvellous peaceful view of more houseboats, weekend fishing boats and a couple of swans gliding by. There is a small island nearby, which Tony often visits in the dinghy, where wild birdlife abounds. Tony and Eileen are thinking of downsizing and getting a vessel that needs less maintenance and affords them more time to sit back and relax more. Whatever boat they next choose to live on, one thing is clear, it will exude their infectious enthusiasm and joyful warmth.
To contact Eileen for Indian fabrics and artifacts email email@example.com, tel: 01634 254331, or visit www.ethniquities.com