Caught by the River

Many Rivers To Cross

Melissa Mouchemore | 31st March 2014

Felixstowe Ferry - the ferry is running today

Words and pictures by Melissa Mouchemore

Many rivers to cross
But I can’t seem to find my way over
Wandering I am lost as I travel along
The White Cliffs of Dover
(Jimmy Cliff/Coby Recht 1969)

Collecting ferries. A strange project for a middle aged woman. A ferry anorak, a ferry spotter. How did that happen? I will start by blaming Jo’s lurcher. Born on a houseboat then abandoned by her first owners, she always seemed confined in municipal parks and often Jo would invite me to join her in attempts to wear out the dog, driving east out of Ipswich on the A14, sandwiched between lorries from the low countries thundering homewards via Felixstowe. At first we parked in the Pay and Display and scampered down the hill to the esplanade but even that did not seem enough for the lurcher who would immediately start hurdling one groyne after another as we trudged through the shingle behind her.

That is how I first came to know the tiny fishing hamlet of Felixstowe Ferry. Separated from its mighty bruiser of a brother, the port of Felixstowe, by golf links and Martello towers along the sea wall, it is at the end of one long winding road that gives up as it nears a racing, often treacherous estuary. Here some shacks, huts and weatherboard cottages cluster on the shore of the River Deben just where it meets the sea. The lurcher had to be restrained from worrying swans and trespassing on barges as we sought refreshment at the Ferryboat Inn. Often we would peer across the river at the far bank and catch a glimpse of an eccentric turret or spire through some trees – Bawdsey Manor we knew where radar was developed in WW2. We must drive the thirty miles round to the other side one day to take a closer look we agreed. It really did take a long while and many cups of coffee at the Ferry Cafe for the penny to drop; for ages I made these visits, vaguely assuming the names of the pub and cafe and the whole place were just historical remnants and that nothing as simple as a ferryboat to take me across the water could possibly survive in this age of cars and cutbacks.

Then one day in summer I became intrigued as a group of cyclists stood on the jetty, picked up what looked like a ping pong bat hanging from a post and started to wave it in the direction of the far bank. Almost immediately a wooden boat motored towards them, a man in a peaked cap at the helm. The bikes were carefully loaded and the passengers piled aboard. And fanciful and sentimental as it sounds I felt a thrill – a Mole-like, encountering-the-river-the-first-time and meeting- the-water-rat sort of thrill.

A few months later I was on a brief and very damp holiday in Holland – the sort of half term break when you come home a day early. The inside of the Fiat, strewn with CDs, sweet wrappers and take-away coffee cups was a testament to the enclosed, car-bound nature of the trip. I was in charge of the map, searching for the “scenic” route back to Calais as my friend navigated us through waves of attacking rain, windscreen awash, visibility nil, with the determination of a trawler skipper on the high seas. We had agreed that anything surely was better than hurtling back down the soulless autoroute through the bleak flatlands of Belgium and I had taken up the challenge, my finger on the map tracing the coastline as it branched like coral, separated by so many estuaries and inlets.

“It’s bloody miles!” the skipper calculated with seasoned accuracy.

She was right. The coastal road looped round each peninsula, marking out every twist and kink of the land where it gave in to the sea. And rather than being scenic it turned out to be as barren and exposed as the autoroute, only much, much longer. Deep silences from the skipper were accompanied by increasingly fierce gear changes and acceleration reminding me of a fly hurling itself repeatedly at a windowpane. We had been hoping for watery vistas of harbours and yachts but had forgotten that on these reclaimed tendrils of land there could be no sweeping views over anything, it was all literally above and beyond us. Occasionally the road met up with and ran along the base of a steep dyke and once the sudden shadowy looming of an elevated vessel of ocean-going girth sharply reminded us that we were below sea-level. I marvelled inwardly at this disorientating phenomenon but made no comment- I doubted that the skipper would share any wonderment until she saw the White Cliffs again.

A long period of gazing into the grey middle distance wondering if we would develop rain blindness, was finally broken by the skipper prodding her finger past my nose,

“That channel, does it show on the map how we are supposed to cross it?”
I started to scan the pages frantically aware I had deserted my post and was now unable to pinpoint our exact whereabouts on the maze of waterways. We drove through a plantation of trees and for the first time the rain lessened and the wind stilled. In this unexpected calm we both saw the bend in the road heading straight for the water.

“I think” I ventured.

“What the ..?” the skipper started, like Elmer Fudd realising he has run off the edge of a cliff.

“It might be ..”
A sign showing a symbol of a jaunty toy boat greeted us in confirmation of my last half-spoken thought as the car turned the corner, rolled down the slope, and with a clang of tyres bouncing over a metal ramp, came to a halt.

“..a ferry.” I finished as a weathered face appeared in the window proffering a ticket. The skipper and I looked at each other and laughed, the first of the day.

The journey brightened up somewhat after this – we examined the map and realised we could hop over several more peninsulas following the red dotted lines over the water signifying a ferry. We actually got out of the car on these crossings, our over-warm, air-conditioned bodies shivering in the salt spray and north wind, our pasty faces peering down into the churning brown water. At last we had sweeping views, in one case looking back over the sunken town we had left with its traditional defunct windmill and looking forward to the synchronised semaphore of a modern wind farm. And for once we were not alone, we had some fellow passengers – not many, all sporting mullets and staring into their beers at the bar but at least it was a brief change from the isolation of the car. As the boat docked and we prepared to squeeze ourselves back in the Fiat, the skipper collected all our travel detritus, the wrappers, cans and cartons, into one plastic bag and deposited it in the bin on board.

“A tidy camp is a happy camp!” she chirped. She had cheered up considerably.

I look back now on these two episodes as markers in some way. In both East Anglia and Holland, flatlands mirroring each other across the North Sea, it felt as though I had been wandering in watery landscapes for a long time before I finally woke up and became aware that I, an ordinary, urban-dwelling landlubber, could stop loitering at the water’s edge wondering what was on the other side. I felt a tingle of possibility. I had always fancied that I liked boats, that I wanted to get in them and yet my adult life seemed to have been uniformly land-locked until now. I began to wonder if there were other ferries around me as I scuttled from job to car to house and back again. How many more were there to discover? And was my assumption that most ferries were now a thing of the past well founded – all in all too slow, lacking in cost-effectiveness and the people to run them? Was I in danger of waking up too late, a classic case of missing the boat? It was at this point that I must confess the seeds of my future were sewn and I became a collector of ferries.