Who will pay the ferryman?

COUNTRY Britain's last inland ferries are operated by a handful of determined amateurs. By Clive Fewins
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The Independent Travel
Bryan Rogers, 63, worked for three years with a wheelbarrow moving 50 tonnes of mud and gravel from shingle banks and the riverbed to build the low jetties to enable him to run his one-man ferry operation across a muddy coastal creek in Suffolk.

In his first full season this year he reckons he rowed about 200 passengers - his dinghy takes two at a time - across the 70yd-wide creek. After paying his insurance and local authority registration fees and taking depreciation of his craft into account he reckons he lost about pounds 300.

Fortunately, Mr Rogers is not too worried. He retired to rural Suffolk aged 60 after being a director of several companies, sold his car, bought a rowing boat and decided that his prime retirement task would be to reinstate the ferry across Butley Creek near the village of Orford. It last operated in 1920.

"I reckon this has been a ferry site for 600 years," he says. "My wife and friends think I'm a little mad, but I believe running the ferry is a worthwhile contribution to the local community. People say it is a ferry to nowhere but it is used by coastal walkers and birdwatchers. A trip up the creek is a long journey for me - but I have got a paddle."

Throughout the summer months Bryan Rogers sits beside the creek, repairs the mud and gravel jetties, which are under constant assault by the ebb and flow of the tide, and occasionally goes crabbing. When a customer turns up he charges pounds 1 to row them to the other side.

In the winter he operates the ferry on demand, walking the half mile to the water along a field path from his home in the village of Boyton, the other side of the creek from Orford. During the winter months he urges walkers to phone him in advance and let him know roughly what time they will be beside the creek and in need of his services.

Mr Rogers's enterprise is one of the very few new inland ferries introduced in the past few years, according to Brian Margetson. A Bedford-based structural engineer, aged 40, Mr Margetson has for the past four years been researching and recording all the estimated 110 inland ferries in England and Wales. Next year he intends to move on to Scotland.

"Since the war the general pattern for ferries has been one of decline, although there have been more encouraging signs recently," he says. "The reasons vary. In many instances bridges have replaced ferries. But one of the other main reasons for the decline is the dislike of walking nowadays. You often have to walk to get to a foot ferry and so few people seem prepared to take to their feet."

One of the most colourful inland ferries is East Anglia's last, and England's smallest car ferry, which carries two vehicles over the river Yare at Reedham, on the B1140 between Beccles and Acle.

"For many years the ferry did good business," says the licensee of the Ferry Inn, David Archer, who owns the flat-bottomed vessel and the ferry rights which he inherited from his father, who bought the pub and the ferry in 1949.

"However, with the completion of the Norwich southern bypass in 1992, drivers sometimes find it easier to drive the 25 miles from Acle in the north to Beccles or nearby Loddon in order to avoid the ferry queues, which can be very long in summer. Fortunately, the ferry is still just viable but I am having to watch the situation closely."

If the ferry were to disappear it would bring great inconvenience to people living in surrounding villages and would mean the disappearance of a colourful landmark in the lowlands between Norwich and Great Yarmouth.

"At least there seems little chance of the ferry being replaced by a bridge," Mr Archer says. "The last time a bridge was recommended was in a 1949 Ministry of Transport report - 'Ferries in Great Britain'. We are still waiting for the bridge."

In Essex the ferry across the River Colne downstream from Colchester had been out of action for nearly 40 years before being revived by a band of volunteers in 1991. The Wivenhoe Ferry Trust now operates an April to October service in a motorboat that will seat 12. Twenty-five volunteers operate two-man crews on a rota basis on two routes, Wivenhoe to Rowhedge (eight minutes) and Wivenhoe to Fingrinhoe (two minutes).

Rod Smart, the founder chairman, says: "The service is popular with cyclists as well as walkers and shoppers, for whom it means avoiding an 11-mile drive via the road bridge at Colchester. We manage to break even and are even thinking of expanding the service next year."

A few miles round the coast near Felixstowe things have not been so flourishing. There the ferry from Old Felixstowe to Bawdsey, which was operated by three generations of the Brinkley family, closed briefly this spring when Robert Brinkley decided to give up the ferry in favour of fishing.

"It was a great shame because this year the Brinkleys celebrated 100 years of being ferrymen across the Deben estuary," says Robert Brinkley. "My grandfather Charles lost a hand when he was young and had a hook fitted in its place. Staff at the now closed Ministry of Defence radar establishment across the water at Bawdsey, whom we used to ferry to work, named one of the devices they invented Brinkley's Arm."

In June the ferry was taken over by Peter Weir who is optimistic that he can make it pay. "Between June and September I took more than 9,000 people, many with bicycles, over in my 20ft open launch," he says. "It cost them 50p a time for the two-and-a-half minute crossing. A lot of walkers and cyclists now use the Suffolk heritage coastlines, so hopefully I should be able to keep going."

On the other side of the country near Bridgnorth, Shropshire, it is many years since the Hampton Loade ferry made a profit for its operators. Kathleen Evans, 78, and Lilian James, 83, who are sisters, run the small rope ferry, which is driven by the current, across the River Severn at a crossing point reckoned to have been in use since the early 17th century and that has been in their family for 38 years. Although it is a labour of love rather than a commercial enterprise, the sisters, who were brought up at the nearby Unicorn Inn, have plans for the crossing to remain in the family when they become too old to work it.

"It is a way of life. We run it in all weathers except very high water," says Mrs Evans, who keeps a constant lookout for customers on the other bank from her sitting-room window which overlooks the crossing point.

The ferry is now independent of the pub, but pubs and ferries often go together. "The reason is quite simple," says Mr Margetson. "This is because rivers like the Severn and the Wye are fast flowing and unpredictable. It was not always safe to cross and so travellers in the past needed somewhere to stay in times of bad weather and wait for the river level to drop or the flow diminish. Once a waterside inn was established it was natural that the licensee should double as the ferryman. Fortunately the tradition often continues."

At Symonds Yat on the Wye the two foot ferries are owned and run by Ken Rollinson, who also owns the pubs on either side. Crossing is only safe when the river is not running too fast as both crossings are rope ferries operated by himself, his son Peter or one of the barmen. The flat-bottomed boat is propelled manually by the ferryman, who pulls on the plastic-coated cable suspended overhead.

And on the Thames at Bablock Hythe, to the west of Oxford, where the river can also be quite fast-running, the licensee of The Ferryman Inn, Peter Kelland, does his best to keep the flat-bottomed outboard-powered 12-seater going throughout the year. He reopened the ferry three years ago after a seven-year closure. Until 1965 it was a car ferry which could take three vehicles at a time.

"The best hope for small foot ferries - there are only three inland car ferries in England and Wales - is that they will manage to hold their own," Brian Margetson says. "On the Thames near London the foot ferry at Hampton, Middlesex, closed this autumn because the person running it could not make it pay, but earlier in the year another one, five miles up river at Isleworth church, reopened after many years. However, it is a non-profit-making service.

"Like village shops, it is very often a case of being run by the active newly retired and other community-spirited people. I should like to start an organisation to help these people keep in touch with each other, so that perhaps they can work together with the public to save ferries that are under threat for one reason or another."

Brian Margetson can be contacted at 8, West Street, Rushden, Northats NN10 0RT (01933 56963).

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