My Home: Christy Fagan, restaurateur

An extraordinary houseboat that was once the haunt of Zsa Zsa Gabor
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The Independent Online

Before I lived here, I used to walk my dogs along the opposite bank in the mornings, gazing longingly at this houseboat, "Riverside", and wishing I could live there. About that time, my relationship with my partner fell apart and I had to move on. Looking through the papers, I was astonished to find the houseboat was up for sale, so I took my chance and grabbed it.

It's a 100-ton, German, steel-hulled barge with a concrete addition forming the accommodation. The location overlooking Home Park is absolutely perfect, and the rear looking out to Hampton Court Palace gardens, has an ever-changing view of the beautiful old trees and river life. The early mornings here are blissful.

As you enter the front door, you pass through the kitchen, which is, appropriately, a galley kitchen, rather small, but functional. One idiosyncrasy of mine is that I only ever use chrome pots and utensils, because I like to know that they're clean, I suppose.

When I acquired the houseboat, the walls were papered in woodchip over dodgy plaster, which I stripped off before re-plastering all the walls. There was a hideous painted stone fireplace in the sitting room which I have recently replaced with a huge dark wooden one, which is my pride and joy.

The ceilings are wonderfully high, which is unusual for a houseboat, and complete with their original plaster covings. Above the fireplace hangs a gigantic mirror, with a gilded frame, and with gothic candle sticks on either side, which almost reaches the ceiling. The result is really thrilling to me, and I feel it's the best thing that I've done for a long time. I've stained the old floorboards in a dark shade too, and the sofas and armchairs are all white, in a mix-and-match variety of styles. The effect is very atmospheric and quite romantic, I like to think.

I bought the old gramophone player from a local junk shop, as part of a quest to discover the music that my grandfather recorded, back in the days of 78s. I have all sorts of people back in Ireland trying to track his songs down for me and when they do I shall have somewhere to play them.

The boat has an interesting history. It was originally bought as an iron barge by George Sanders, the actor who was big in the 50s and 60s, starring in films like Rebecca and Village of the Damned, and providing the voice for Shere Khan in the Walt Disney version of The Jungle Book.

George converted it to a houseboat for his own use. He named it "Sanders on the River" and used to entertain Zsa Zsa Gabor here, before marrying her, which is an enthralling thought.

Sanders lined it with concrete and built the equivalent of a cottage above, with lovely, big, leaded Georgian-style windows and pitched roofs at either end. It is the most unusual-looking boat on the river. You could take the concrete part out, drop it in a field and it wouldn't look out of place. In the future, I plan to remove one pitched section of the roof and build a conservatory, to allow more light into the sitting room.

From the sitting room, doors open out onto the patio, overlooking the water, where I grow all my plants. They flourish here, and some are 10 feet tall, all grown in pots; Dracaena, Ficus, Cycas Palms and Medinilla. I love to sit out here among my plants and watch the swans and geese, and the little Mirror dinghies and canoes that pass by in the summer.

The tranquillity is heavenly. I'm mad about plants and flowers, and produce the table decorations for the restaurant myself, with flowers bought from "The Living Room", a wonderful local shop with a reliable supply of interesting and unusual stock.

We have a little outboard that we use for crossing over to the far bank to walk the dog in Home Park, or for popping into Kingston to do some shopping. Waitrose has a ramp for you to take your trolley down to the water and unload your shopping into the dinghy.

The boatyard itself houses many other houseboats, and it's a great community. We get along really well: I had most of my neighbours round for supper last night. I love to entertain, and although I spend my working day cooking at Christy's, with the help of my fantastic assistant, Kalin Stoykov, I am always happy to carry on cooking at home. Last night I made Chateaubriand, with mash and caramelised carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and seasoned roasted vegetables. I love to entertain my customers at the restaurant too, circulating around the tables, stopping for a drink and a chat, throwing them the odd insult.

If I'm busy, I might ask them to help me lay the tables, too. No one seems to mind. In the near future, Kalin and I are opening up a second restaurant in Surbiton, to be called Kalin and Christy's. I've lived in this area for about 24 years and I think I have found the perfect spot in many ways.

But my ultimate goal would be to buy a plot on the river's edge where I could moor the boat, freeing myself from the costly mooring fees associated with owning a 62-foot barge. Unfortunately, these are few and far between. I'd also like a place in Tuscany, but who wouldn't?

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