Caught by the River

Many Rivers To Cross

Melissa Mouchemore | 17th March 2017

The Sandbanks Chain Ferry

Words & pictures: Melissa Mouchemore

I was not in ferry-spotting mode at all. Too much to think about. Christmas – Oh God. Desperate for some sea air I considered the options given our commitments…

We have to be in Camberley on 27th to do Christmas (again)…where can we go on to…?

M3…M27…DORSET – cliffs, beach, geology, palaeontology. Yes, Swanage for New Year, here we come.

“You don’t want to go all the way round Poole on the A35,” my Camberley brother advised. “No, you can take the chain ferry across to Studland … go on a cruise!” and then proceeded to intone the exact route – no SatNav necessary. 2 hours MAX.

The Sandbanks Chain ferry – of course. I had been taken to Sandbanks a few times as a child. My dad had a fondness for the area because of holidays with cousins in his youth. Only a few rare day trips as it was an onerous journey from the Surrey-Hants borders in the early seventies on a winding variety of A and B roads, enduring the sickly smell of the warm plastic seats in the Triumph 2000 mingling with my dad’s incessant pipe smoke. But the eventual arrival could be magical, continental even to my young eyes, the sea of Poole Bay shimmering just as it did in other lands on the January holiday programmes. Had there really been palm trees and those frilly pines you saw in the background when Judith Chalmers was motoring round the Med? And sand, real sand I remember, not shingle or pebbles or mudflat. Pure sand that my dad would vigorously towel off my feet removing a layer of skin in the process before we got back in the car. But I couldn’t remember ever going on the chain ferry or what was over the other side.

Even on a late December afternoon there is a queue of cars reaching round the bend on the approach road to the ferry – Sandbanks is notorious for its astronomical real estate and sure enough many of the gateposts we crawl past are the dimensions of a starter home. Although not much point having massive gateposts if you can’t drive out because the ferry queue is blocking the way.

One resident had put up a polite notice:


Please keep clear

Access in constant use

Which was being resolutely ignored by the cars in front. So what could we do but switch the engine off, open a packet of Jaffa cakes and wait our turn with a not unpleasant feeling of mild dissent by proxy.

I have memories of a ritual from those childhood trips; we always knew we had arrived when we reached one of the ceramic Welcome to Poole signs. As our car passed the sign it felt as though we had reached the finishing line and we would all chant …

The car is in Poole,
Mum and Dad are in Poole,
We are in Poole!

Made in the 1950s by Carter’s Pottery of East Quay, the welcome signs promoted Poole Harbour in optimistic retro travel poster style – jaunty sailing boats zipping along the tops of the white-capped, blue green waves, scudding white clouds, man in nautical peaked cap at the helm, lady in cardi the same blue as the boat. My parents loved Poole pottery and we grew up drinking out of and eating off the stuff. I had a Poole pottery egg cup – pearly marbled grey on the outside, swimming pool blue inside. No other egg cup has ever quite matched up to it. So I almost yelped with delight when I saw one of these signs standing at the entrance to the ferry ready to welcome passengers from the Studland side. You see, I didn’t imagine them, some things survive.

Like the ferry which is a push-me/pull-you arrangement. Turrets at either end for the skipper, a black ball that rises and falls on either turret to signal which direction it is headed. Pleasingly manual in a digitalised age. Next to the ball a slightly drunken Christmas tree lashed to the railings – hanging on to New Year. But in more shipshape fashion a polished brass bell – the bell rope striped in the same smart company colours as the funnel – sky blue, yellow, navy, red. Very fitting for a company which calls itself the Bournemouth-Swanage Motor Road and Ferry Company – a shame Poole Pottery never made a ceramic sign for them.

On board we spring out and race up the steps onto the bridge. We have precisely 4 minutes to take in the view. No time for coats, we will just have to shiver. So here we are freed from the Christmas run-up, Christmas and the post-Christmas lull, breathing in the chill, salt air as the chains rumble and take the strain below us. And it is a mighty strain against the tide – the chain never lasts more than 18 months, lengthening gradually as the links wear out. To keep it the right length two links are taken out each fortnight and used by local fishermen and boat owners as anchorage – the ferry shedding its links across the bay like a sea monster shedding its scales.

Poole Harbour is so aptly named –a broad, generous pool, a shallow bowl brimming with islands. Looking inland from the ferry a story book map unfolds – Long Island, Round Island, Gigger’s, Drove, Pergins, Stone, Green, Furze and most prominently Brownsea – so much to explore, so much possibility…

But first our destination. A long sandy beach stretching round a peninsula – I know what that sand feels like scouring my feet – and hazy silhouettes of people and their dogs caught in the gauze of a creeping sea fret. A maze of dunes beyond – that might explain one of the local billboards that heralded us as we drove on the ferry.

In the background the glowering prehistoric hump of the Purbeck Hills. If you look closely the same purpling ridge curves across the background of the Welcome to Poole sign – there is contrast and depth in the design as there is in the view, it is not all chipper dinghies.

We were much taken with the Sandbanks ferry and decided to take it whenever we could. So over the week we crossed several times including in the dark on New Year’s Eve (the ferry runs daily until 11pm) looking down at the black swishing saltiness churning beneath and out to a chain of lights linking Sandbanks, Bournemouth, Southampton and beyond, ending in a tiny lit exclamation mark on the horizon which must be, we decided, the Spinnaker Tower, Portsmouth.

As we crossed on the ferry for the final time heading back to London, Poole Bay was awash with sunlight, soothed by reflections and fringed by frosted palms (I hadn’t imagined those either). I savoured my last breaths of sea air. The broad, generous pool of Poole had cleared my mind of all the Christmas detritus and strain. A moored wooden tender, navy and dark green rippled at rest – the boats were at their quietest now, their owners back doing whatever it was they did to be able to afford yachts and moorings and gateposts as big as starter homes. We drove past the ceramic sign for the final time as we clunked off the ferry. The M27/M3 ahead of us – is that better than a maze of A and B roads? In theory we should be able to get here quicker but then there is just so much more traffic.

The car is leaving Poole
We should come more often.
Mum and Dad are leaving Poole
It’s a shame my mum and dad came so rarely.
We are leaving Poole…
But we would be back.


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