Caught by the River

Many Rivers To Cross

Melissa Mouchemore | 31st October 2014


The Harwich-Shotley-Felixstowe Foot Ferry
Words and pictures by Melissa Mouchemore

I am not alone. I am not the only middle-aged woman who has felt the urge to make a collection of ferries. I have found a companion – in book form at least. Found in the wonderful Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, River Ferries by Nancy Martin is a late 1970s record of ferries in existence at that time up and down the coast of Britain. Written in the clipped tones of a Valerie Singleton or Peter Purves – Nancy was a script writer for BBC schools programmes – it is a black and white book of soothing certainty stating the tolls, operating times and names of ferrymen of the day, as if they were never going to change again, held in 1970s aspic long before the ever-updating internet could be imagined.

Actually “urge to make a collection of ferries” is not really true of Nancy, as she makes clear in the Preface that she was asked to write the book (quite likely following on from the success of her previous titles such as The Fire Service Today, Teresa Joins The Red Cross and Four Girls in a Store.)

Nancy’s main hurdle during her research was her inability to drive so she limited herself to ferries that could be reached by public transport or in the case of the Shotley – Harwich Ferry, got a friend to drive her there. They drove to Shotley ‘on a fine Sunday morning at the end of September 1977’ although the ferry ‘ had long ceased to operate’ – Nancy doesn’t let on whether she knew this in advance or was really cheesed off when they got there – but they did find a yacht club with some retired ferrymen in it who reported rather needlessly that the ferry used to run every hour from Shotley to Harwich to Felixstowe. Hopefully she treated her friend to a nice lunch.

I felt quite cheered when I read this because I know that in 2014 the ferry is running regularly, at least in the summer months. Perhaps some ferries just never say die and keep popping up again? It was time to celebrate a ferry revival on the Essex/Suffolk border where the Rivers Stour and Orwell meet the sea.

It is blustery and murky when I arrive in Harwich – classic disappointing July weather. As I wait on an empty boat at the end of Halfpenny Pier I wonder how long this particular ferry revival can keep going. A weather-beaten man with bleached highlights has charged me 12 pounds for the round trip and now sits in the wheelhouse texting.

A second man with FERRY CREW written on the back of his fleece, appears and nods at the skipper in greeting.

We wait in silence for any other customers as the boat is jostled by the tide. I hope the day becomes more lucrative for them. I feel guilty that there are not more of me. Like Nancy I should have brought a friend. A sign saying Cycle Route 51 above the wheelhouse door gives a clue as to who might use the ferry. Although an effigy mounted on the wall of the wheelhouse, a miniature tandem made of twisted wire, and the handwritten sign next to it -WE HATE TANDEMS! – sends out a contrary message.


With no other takers for the crossing the crewman unties the ropes. First stop Shotley.

In River Ferries, Nancy Martin includes a copy of an 1830 engraving depicting the scene at Shotley; in the foreground a white cottage bordered by trees with steps leading down to the estuary where a couple of rowing boats are coming and going. In the background across the water in fainter lines the port of Harwich looking very Flemish – sailing boats, the low buildings of the town, the only high points the church spire and some taller masts further out to sea. The scene is much the same now with the church still the centrepiece of the skyline. And looking forward to Shotley beyond the yacht club where Nancy found her ferrymen, there is still a fully wooded headland.

It is to the right of the ferry looking across the harbour to Felixstowe that the proportions completely skew in an alarming Fritz Langian way; a line of sky-scraping port cranes loading storey upon storey of containers onto, well what are they? ‘Ships’ seems too small a word, too light, too sleek. Container hulks?

As if to emphasize this, a Thames barge in full sail slides into the foreground from the Orwell side, its mast barely making it above the line of one hulk’s hull. The rust-red and bright blue of the barge match the colours of the containers – a colour swatch next to a warehouse.

We pick up a man and woman in office clothes from the marina at Shotley. They huddle together as the ferry chops its way back, looking like they are off for a long illicit lunch at the Pier Hotel.

Back at Harwich a guy wearing a Help for Heroes hoody perches himself on the storage box on board – the best vantage point I realise. He pays his fare wordlessly and stares out at the horizon. I make a note to nab that spot if I can on the journey back.

The ferry is now heading straight for the metropolis of containers at Felixstowe. It is hard to see where the cranes end and the ‘hulks’ begin – which cuboids will stay put and which ‘sail’ away? The Thames barge has still not made it to the end of the line of hulks even though its triangles and quadrilaterals slice so neatly through the water and air. The sheer size of the CHINA SHIPPING LINE lettering makes me tremble a little – I try to imagine the size of the stencils needed. Should letters be allowed to get that big?


The ferry crunches into the shingle beyond the container terminal and the gangplank is lowered onto the beach. And now there is a line of prospective passengers, almost a full dozen approaching from the car park. Things are picking up and the atmosphere becomes a little more convivial on board although the ferry crewman remains impassive as he slots two bikes into the racks on board. They fit snugly – tandems would be more challenging I can see. The cyclists, two tanned men with shades pushed up on mops of greying hair, obviously haven’t seen the wire effigy and chat away at the crewman. As we approach the wake of a motor-cruiser they thank the skipper for slowing the boat,

“Cheers! My bike doesn’t like salt water!”

But we won’t get back to Harwich without a bit of a dowsing; the wind has really picked up now and is whipping the waves into blades of flint. I know I will feel the ghostly remnants of the jolting they are giving us long after I am back on land. But it doesn’t put me off. Already I am planning a cycle ride along route 51 myself and I will bring a friend for the next crossing. Hopefully we won’t turn up and find the ferry has ceased to operate. And we won’t use a tandem.

Did they get many? I ask the skipper as I leave.

“Too many” he replies darkly, obviously not grateful for their custom.

Many Rivers To Cross archive