Caught by the River

Many Rivers to Cross: The Butley Ferry, Part II

Melissa Mouchemore | 6th September 2020

Melissa Mouchemore heads back to Suffolk to make further crossings on the Butley Ferry.

Crossing 2: May 2015

While I was whooshed away by babies, the river walls of South Suffolk were having their own challenges. The Thames barrier and the flood gates of Hamburg slammed shut in preparation for the 2013 tidal surge but all the earth embankments could do at Butley was stand firm. Which they did to the best of their ability, over-topped in some places, breached in others turning farmland to salt, invading back gardens, kitchens and pub cellars. It would all have been worse if there had been a spring tide.  The Alde and Ore Association had warned about this; back in 2005 they had responded to the DEFRA guidance on river and coastal defence policy, alarmed that whilst there was an understanding of rising sea-levels and land tilt, there was no reference to planning for naturally occurring storm surges. Experts were consulted, reports commissioned. The Association was trying to be realistic and seek solutions wherever it was possible. Sacrificial flood compartments and managed breachings provided hope – the line could be held but flexibly, intelligently, as long as ‘someone’ was prepared to pay for it.  

Gradually my own flood of nappies and toddler groups subsided. 

‘The ferry’s still running,’ said Jo.

We really didn’t need a map this time; the ferry was so well sign-posted – bright circles of plastic staple-gunned on gateposts and stiles – an official had been very keen.  

Before the rising river wall there was a gate now, and beyond a smart black hut, side on.  Large wellingtons standing ready for an owner at the foot of the steps. We walked round to the open door and there was a still life of a picture book ferryman – a tall, aged gentleman, felt-brimmed hat, baggy jeans muddied at the hem. Only the tan brogues didn’t quite fit the picture. We all jumped, but quickly recovering, he introduced himself as Simon and, ignoring the wellies, led us up and over the ridge.

I was pleased to see on our way that the old signpost still leaned at the top. It had been marked now by the keen official – Orford Loop via the ferry – but the old piece of hardboard remained, still shaped just like a boat, the prow pointing towards the river. A playful but precise sign – we looked across to the jetty and just such a boat was waiting for us. Simon was clearly a purist.

As he rowed us confidently across, Simon announced that he was one of the oldest ferrymen in the Alde and Ore Association – three shifts a season qualified you for the lunch in November.

‘There are 19 of us and no one ever leaves.’

On the other side he pointed out a metal contraption from which hung a saucepan. We were to bang on it if we needed him.

We set out along the river wall, ignoring its false promise of a short-cut to the sea. Up here on the wall, you could see for miles.  I now knew the tricks of light and distance, the giddying effects of the great bowlful of sky that I had found so unnerving at first.  It all looked like solid land, as though you could gallop a horse all the way to Orford Castle.  But the masts of boats sliding along like periscopes marked out hidden channels that would stop you in your tracks.  

As we made our way back to the ferry, I noticed a hill; a small but proper hill, over on the other side, not far from Ferry Farm.  How had I missed that? By gazing out to sea too much, perhaps.

Simon was in playful mode as we banged the saucepan. ‘Can’t hear you,’ came his reply through a megaphone from over the water. 

‘Now what did you like best about this ferry trip?’ he asked as he rowed us back.

I can’t remember what we replied at the time, but later Jo told me that she had wanted to say ‘your hat!

Crossing 3: June 2016

Midsummer, but the sky is glowering, pouring. The windscreen wipers are set to hysterical, headlights on. Scarlet poppies spatter the fields, the verges. Who ferries on such a day? 

But here at the farm track again, the clouds lighten a little, the rain eases. The psshhtt-psshhtt of crop waterers is the only wet sound.

That hill, Burrow Hill, curving up from the farmhouse: it’s a hill now, but in Anglo-Saxon times it was an island cut off by tidal mudflats. A ferry house was still marked on a 16th century map. A stepping stone to Orford. I plan to climb to the top later. But first the existing ferry.  

I know the ferryman will be there from the website that boasts the £2.00 fee is per-inch more expensive than Concorde. And here they are, for it is a ferryman and woman today as I stand on the river wall, the familiar drop to the path leading to the jetty. I comment on the approach, the sudden reveal,

 ‘Ah yes, like a ha ha,’ the ferrywoman smiles. They clearly have not minded being here in the rain all morning.

 ‘Oh no,’ says the ferryman. ‘People fight to get the days.’

The tide is low as I am rowed across, listening to the gentle click and swash of oars.  Mudflats are not flat from this low down in a small rowing boat – archipelagos of salt marsh rise up, the sides miniature cliffs, mini-gorges carved below. Each island crowned with sea lavender and sparky sand spurry too. From The Alde and Ore Association reports, now helpfully up on their website, I have learned of the secret powers of the saltmarsh, calming and absorbing the might of the North Sea. I think of the emerald samphire holding its green brine. But is there enough of it out there? In some places, it has entirely died out along the river wall; enclosure has long starved it of the marine sediment it needs. That was the problem with resolutely holding the line. Deliberate breachings, letting the salt water in, can sluice and nourish the plants of the saltmarsh so that their powers might be unleashed.

As I step out the other side there are no negotiations about saucepan banging. They will be down by the water.

‘Just give us a wave.’

Mud is not smooth this close up. I stop to peer down, try to get near without sinking. It is pocked with holes, some as thin as a pinprick and stitched with the prints of gulls and oystercatchers. Spiky too with debris under the surface, marine and human-made, I know from barefoot explorations.  And mud is not silent but crackling with the static of an old radio – tiny pops and licks. I imagine capillary creeks threading downwards, crabs lurking until the tide comes in. In Anglo-Saxon times, the salt marshes would have been far more extensive. Building banks and reclaiming land came centuries later. On Burrow Hill in the 1960s, a man digging for gravel unearthed an iron chain, a similar design and age to the cauldron chain buried in the Sutton Hoo ship 10km away. I have peered at that treasure through the glass at the British Museum, at the intricate designs and motifs. Although the famous helmet would have been gleaming silver when forged, what is left is the colour and texture of Suffolk mud, the repeating, interlacing patterns of the helmet panels like the runnels of creek water braiding through it. 

It is not really a day for standing still. The air is blustery and only just holding on to the rain. I am completely alone in the landscape, I realise – on the exposed river wall you can see how solitary you are. When I arrived in Suffolk, I knew absolutely no one. Perhaps in those early days the problem was not just the mud? It was very cheering now to be able to wave at the ferry people. 

I climb Burrow Hill, knee-high in downy pink grasses and experience a South Suffolk first – a look-out. Water and land fold into the distance, seawards – the Gulls, the Narrows, the Island, the Ness. Now I can see what my map has been telling me for years; you would have to sail south off my map and on to the next to ever get out to sea.

But here on this inner rim the sea is coming to me; the creek widens with water, the salt marshes fill. Mirror beads of sky dot the fields. The Association literature is not all tidal wear assessments and maintenance budgets – there are lyrical descriptions of the impossible beauty of the place and what it means to the people who spend their time here.  And it is understood:

“Though in a state of perpetual change, it has been there for centuries in a form more or less identifiable with the river of today – draining the land, taking the tide in and out in a way that convinces us that it knows what it is doing. The river is our heritage. Our purpose? To look after it, and hand it on to succeeding generations.”

I search for the river walls but from up here they are flattened. I know they are there, otherwise all below me would be sky. Marsh, river, sea, land; can it all work together? The ferry hut stands on the brink like a sentry box.


Read the first part of this piece, published a couple of weeks ago, here.

The Butley Ferry is now running again following lockdown – weekends and bank holidays until October.  More information here.