You don't have to be on dry land to get all the frills. Book a berth on the 'Gallinago', the Dutch barge that plies the rivers of England while plying guests with champagne. Robert Nurden takes to the water

The sweet smell of roast Gloucestershire Old Spot pork had been wafting our way from the Aga for about an hour. Then the aroma of the promised Victoria plum crumble started vying for our attention. So when the champagne cork popped, followed by a few bottles of St Emilion, we were well primed for the gourmet dinner that lay ahead.

Derek thrust a glass of Veuve Clicquot into my hand and we drank a toast to Patrick and Michelle, who were celebrating their 32nd wedding anniversary. We took our places at the table just as Emma was carrying her first creation from the galley: Somerset goat's cheese in a puff pastry parcel.

Then, just a few feet away, a family of ducks decided this was the time to squawk. It's only fair that I come clean and tell you that, rather than dining at a five-star hotel, we were passengers on one of Britain's most sumptuous Dutch barges, the Gallinago, plying the waters of the River Avon. We were in a luxury hotel, but one that moves serenely across the inland waterways of southern England.

I'd met Derek and Emma Fearnley, who run the week-long trips on the Medway, Thames, Severn, and Avon, and guests Patrick and Michelle only a few hours beforehand, but already they seemed like lifelong friends. That's a testament to the combined informality and style on this 70ft-long and 13ft-wide barge. After five years spent building it in a field in Milton Keynes, Derek and Emma can finally claim it as theirs.

But the Gallinago way is certainly not one where you lie back and let the crew do all the work. Derek has a nice line in encouraging guests to lend a hand, whether it be working the locks, throwing lines, steering or even donating a bottle of wine at dinner.

Because of the linear nature of the trips, guests are encouraged to arrive and depart by train or coach rather than get stranded at the finish. "Energy-saving and sustainable tourism are all part of our philosophy," said Derek. "Most of our produce is local and organic where possible. If there's someone enquiring who wouldn't fit in, we discourage them."

A trainee chef turned boatman, he has been running hotel cruises on narrowboats since 1958, but he'd always dreamed of owning a Dutch barge. During the winter months this 56-ton beauty becomes home for the Fearnleys, whose own romance started on the banks of the Thames when Emma acted as emergency crew for Derek when his staff had jumped ship.

"Helping out is all part of the appeal of being on the boat," said Patrick, who was taking his 20th holiday with the Fearnleys. "It actually helps you to adapt to the slower pace. It couldn't be more relaxing. Within hours you slow right down."

As we chugged through the lush meadows of Gloucestershire, cows and humans came down to the water's edge to cast admiring glances at Gallinago's sleek lines and gleaming brass. "Now, that's what I call a boat," shouted a lock-keeper. "I've not seen one like her in all my years. She's gorgeous." We knew that already but with comments like that floating our way, we found ourselves folding our arms with a worrying degree of smugness. But it was 4pm and time for Emma's tea and homemade banana cake on deck. On this civilised voyage they believe in elevenses too.

They also believe in centrally heated comfort. There is room for four guests, in either twin or double cabins. There are two bathrooms, a washing machine, a lounge and a laptop - and the engine is so quiet you wouldn't know it was there.

This 55-mile trip, passing 18 locks, had actually started on the Severn in Gloucester but we joined them on the second evening at Tewkesbury. So the first night stop for us, after following the Avon round the graceful contours of Bredon Hill, was Pershore, where we moored up beside the garden of the Brandy Cask pub.

These holidays offer a remarkable amount of variety. "We try to be as flexible as possible," said Derek. "We visit interesting sights and if we have keen walkers on board they can trek through the countryside and join us later. Oh, and we're responsible for eight marriages."

The next morning a kingfisher kindly ferried us towards the Vale of Evesham. Because it was tricky steering, Derek took control. But it was the bridge at Bidford-on-Avon that proved our undoing. We couldn't get under the low arch, so we had to weigh anchor. The Fearnleys had anticipated this and arranged alternative transport to Stratford-upon-Avon, our destination. Even for an elegant beast like the Gallinago it's not always plain sailing.