'It was completely new' - A history of Norwich's floating restaurant
PUBLISHED: 06:30 28 February 2019 | UPDATED: 08:33 04 March 2019
It has been a familiar sight on the river in Norwich for more than 30 years, passed by hundreds of drivers and pedestrians every day.
The floating restaurant at Riverside has seen the area around it transform in its 33 years in Norwich, from an industrial zone to the lively commercial area it has become.
But today it stands empty, with its most recent tenants, Italian restaurant Vagabond, closing last year.
With repairs needed to the old boat and a challenging climate for restaurants, it has led to questions over what will happen next to the floating restaurant.
It was in 1986 that the boat, a traditional Dutch barge, was brought over from Amsterdam by the Kemp family.
Matthew Kemp, who now owns Urban Munch in the city centre, was head chef and owned the business with his parents.
Twenty-one at the time and with a successful career in the kitchen, he said his mother and step-father put forward the idea of a family business.
“We had a restaurant in north Norfolk prior to the boat,” he said. “We had that for a few years and decided to sell, and we were going to buy in Beccles and start again but we ummed and ahhed as we were signing the deal.
“It felt like we were all just agreeing with each other, but weren’t really passionate about it, so we thought about doing something different.
“In those days, there weren’t many restaurants on boats about - one in Cambridge and Ely, and maybe a few in London, but not many. It was completely new for Norwich.”
Their search for a suitable boat took them to Amsterdam, where they eventually found their Dutch barge, which earned the nickname ‘tardis’ for its deceptively large interior.
With its sea-faring days passed, the next challenge was getting the boat back home.
“We found these couple of blokes with a tug boat and said we wanted to get it to Yarmouth,” he said, “and I think we paid them something like £1,000 and they did it.”
Having made its way across the North Sea, the boat, which is roughly 120 years old, spent months in Great Yarmouth as the family prepared it for its debut, cutting in new windows, and restoring the engine.
He said his step-father, who had been in the merchant navy, was “in his element”, as Mr Kemp, 61, focused on the restaurant.
After navigating the planning process, and the river network up to Norwich, they moored up in its current site - about 18 months after the venture began.
“When we brought the boat over Riverside wasn’t there,” he said, “all that development wasn’t there. It was a totally different landscape.”
At the time, the area was dominated by the railway station, car parking and engineering firms.
Finally in business, the restaurant’s first menu was European, grills and steaks, and it quickly attracted loyal diners.
“We were quite successful,” he said. “We had it for about 12 to 14 years. We ran it properly. The problem is that people just think because it’s a boat people will come on because it’s a gimmick.
“I suppose it is a bit, but we needed them to come back again so it had to be run as a good quality restaurant.”
The Riverside development’s arrival throughout the 1990s proved more of a hurdle than a benefit, Mr Kemp said, with the area becoming more commercialised and valuable parking being lost.
But it was in 2001, after Mr Kemp’s step-father died, that it became apparent it was time to sell the business.
Today, he said the boat, which has changed hands several times since the sale, had started to become something of a sad sight.
“Under all the changes that have been made it is still the traditional, original Dutch barge,” he said. “It has been destroyed over the years though.”
In 2002 the boat was put up for auction after its owner, then Lester Bayfield, began a new chapter in America.
By 2003 it had become the Riverside Floating Restaurant, serving Chinese food, while from 2006 it was the well-known Thai on the River.
But that closed a decade later, with the Vagabond, an Italian restaurant, opening in summer 2018 and closing later that year.
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