Symonds Yat – River Wye
Words & pictures: Melissa Mouchemore
Warm, still, overcast – my favourite summer weather – and a rare solitary weekend escape. The river languid and glassy, cumulonimbus woodlands rolling up towards the 500ft crag of Symonds Yat. Nothing to do but drink coffee on the terrace of the Saracens Head Inn and watch, as the sign near the pub calls it, the Ancient Hand Ferry. PERFECT.
Why ‘hand’ I wonder? The resting ferry is a sturdy punt, painted pavilion green; could it be propelled across the river Oxbridge style? The rope slung across the river above the ferry’s route gives a clue. And now here is the ferryman himself to show all of us sitting on our backsides on a Saturday morning how it is done. Well ferryman just, ferry youth would be more accurate, reed thin, all in black, Feargal Sharkey features beneath Ian Hunter hair.
Feargal unchains the punt, clips the rope from the overhead line to the harness round his waist, pulls back on the rope then flicks the loop along the line and in this way inches across the river. In less risk-averse times the ferryman was the only link between the boat and the line – he moved the boat hand over hand, hence the name. Today the first passengers are a group of silver-haired, fluorescently-clad cyclists and their bikes. They peer over their reading glasses at the ferryman – are they critically eyeing Feargal’s winkle-pickers for boat-worthiness?
At the table next to me a lightly anoraked man with his mother provides a running commentary;
“He’ll have fun getting them off …”
The bikes are lifted out with ease.
“He’s got nobody to pick up that side.”
Fergal nonchalantly steers the punt round and heads back to the pub side.
“I bet that was worth his journey.”
There are more bikes and bike trailers piling in as soon as he arrives. Along with helmets, saddle-bags, maps in plastic pouches and the people attached to them.
Off they glide.
“Like a gondola” the elderly mother suddenly pipes up.
A gondola. For a moment I am transported back a decade as another ferry springs to mind – a public service run by the Venetian traghetti across the Grand Canal. A pair of Gondolieri in Burglar Bill tops rowing back and forth with practised ease and synchronicity. They row with long oars standing up and all the passengers stand too for the short crossing, a point of honour it seems. I am just about standing, wedged between smart Venetians in cream macs, patent leather shoes and shopping bags filled with produce from the Rialto Mercato. We teeter past an elaborate waterside shrine protruding from the olivine canal, on hand in case a passenger tilts too far perhaps. The gondola itself a mezza-lune, fore and aft elegantly turned up, never quite getting wet. ‘The most beautiful instrument of transport on earth’ wrote Jan Morris … Like a gondola? I look again at the blunt-ended punt in municipal colours with sturdy health and safety handrails.
Flick, pull, flick, pull.
“it’s good exercise for your arm int it?”
Time to get on ..
There is a lull in passenger numbers so mine will be a solo trip. Feargal smiles, he just needs 5 mins to empty his money bag.
Luckily because if I had got straight on I might have missed the modest stone pIaque on the wall down to the jetty;
A singing ferryman – maybe the lady was right about the gondola? At the pub I ask about him – a local character Andy was, much-loved. Sang at full volume as he pulled on the rope – Unchained Melody was his signature tune along with What Shall We Do With a Drunken Ferryman (he never touched a drop when he was ferrying it was hastily pointed out) and that all-time classic, Just One Cornetto.
The latter, of course, to the tune of O Sole Mio – for Venetian Gondolieri the song most requested by tourists. Which is controversial because it is Neapolitan not Venetian and there have been calls to have it banned. My traghetti gondoliers were silent behind their shades but any glance on YouTube will confirm that gondoliers most certainly do sing O Sole Mio and occasionally something else which might be more local in origin. But whatever the repertoire, the narrow, high-walled waterways give the sound an unmistakably plaintive Venetian resonance.
I listen now to the sounds of the Wye floating towards me; the plash, paddle and buoyant knocking from the multitudes of kayaks and canoes, instructions hailing from one vessel to another. Singing to a captive audience, the sound held in the valley, amplified by all that water. The perfect stage for a fellow with a touch of the natural showman about him. A resident once asked if Andy could change his repertoire or just not sing. But that was never going to happen, I was told at the pub. There was no banning him.
I am wondering if Feargal will sing – I am hoping for My Perfect Cousin – but when the ferryman returns he is now the barman who served me coffee earlier – and he seems to prefer chatting to singing as he pulls on the rope.
“I applied to be a waiter … right you’re young and fit and strong and that was it … we take it in turns, better than serving behind the bar.”
I lean back against the smooth wooden side of the punt, the varnish rubbed off in patches. Canoes are being launched down a slide on the river bank. They scatter across the water’s surface like newly hatched water insects, splashes of bright blue, orange and crimson.
“People say it’s lovely round here but I’m too busy to notice. But this isn’t busy, you should see it on a Bank Holiday!”
Above swifts swoop and dart. A seagull follows the river valley. At water level you cannot really get a sense of how much the Wye writhes through the limestone landscape, managing an almost perfect loop round Symonds Yat as though it would be happy to curl up here and go no further.
“Still, it’s nice to get out here and meet all you lovely people!” the ferry bar-tender concludes as he brings us in to the bank where the queue is growing, a gathering of hands on hips and rucksacks down – it is nearing lunch time, they are eyeing up the last free tables on the pub terrace.
“That was your own personal cruise,” I am informed by one woman I pass.
I am planning now to walk along Ferry Lane to the next pub and the other hand ferry still in existence – at one time there were a number of them but at least with two left it means a circular walk is possible.
The river path climbs a shady bank. Up to the left red hot pokers escape from a cottage garden, down to the right the last knockings of cow parsley wilt to the water’s edge.
Midsummer Eve. Midday. So here we are. A still, evenly lit, even temperatured day, poised on the cusp, a tipping point – like a canoe about to slide into the water, like a gondola balanced midway in the Grand Canal.
You would think that Midsummer was simply a time for rejoicing and revelry – festivals, weekends away, drinking outside at the pub. But I often feel a strange melancholy… Oh but now the nights are drawing in again. Summer’s over before it’s begun!
Nick Groom in his beautiful book The Seasons explains this has always been a common English dilemma;
“.. all this festivity is twisted together with something darker. The turning of the summer solstice before the end of June leaves July and August already in anticipation of autumn, and of winter.”
And he adds that traditionally midsummer was a time when evil spirits were abroad.
So we had best make some noise to scare them away. And revel while we can. I know just the tune. Over we go ..
With thanks to Pete and Chris Rollinson of the Saracens Head Inn.
Venice by Jan Morris, published by Faber and Faber.
The Seasons, A Celebration Of The English Year by Nick Groom, published by Atlantic