Caught by the River

Many Rivers to Cross: Ferry Cross the Mersey

Melissa Mouchemore | 14th November 2020

Melissa Mouchemore makes her latest crossing in the company of Gerry and the Pacemakers.

…We saw a landing-stage, actually floating, and enough boats of all shapes and sizes to keep one’s mind afloat too…

My top ferrying primer is from 1969: Ferries and Ferrymen by G. Bernard Wood, aconvivial ferry-collecting companion with Second World War memories of a boyhood visit to Liverpool;

It was a new world, and part of that glamorous world of ships and wailing sirens were the paddle-boats that steamed back and forth to an arpeggio of their own.  When my father jingled a few coins in his pocket and boyishly suggested a trip on one of these ferry-boats, our day was made…

In February half-term 2020, at the tail-end of Storm Dennis, my teens have not had their day made by this ferry trip.  I, on the other hand, am girlishly enthusiastic.  I have never even made it to Liverpool before, let alone been on the ferry. But I feel I know it – The Liver Birds (sitcom not statues), Polly James in a poncho on the deck, a blast from a ship’s horn, a glimpse of a solid diesel vessel, no steam of course by the 1970s.  The river, the sky, the people, all faded in washing-up water colours. The Scaffold chirping the intro.

Storm Dennis is jostling us as we splash towards the Pier Head.  Head down, hood up, I am too set on getting to the shelter of the ferry terminal to even stop for a moment of devotion at The Beatles statue.  

Striding down the ramp towards a huddle of other anoraks, I am trying to resist a song, that song – I can feel its catchiness and wistfulness rising as the wide weepy fullness of the river appears.  I had jokily sung it in preparation for our trip and had received eye rolls.  It would stay in my head, I promised.  But as we watch The Royal Iris dock with diesel blasts and churning, floor-mop grey water, the crooning of Gerry Marsden from the on-board tannoy is inescapable.  More eye rolling.

We have tickets for the 50-minute round trip via Seacombe, Wallasey and Woodside, Birkenhead.  As we wait to board, Dennis salt-burning any exposed skin, I see how open-air the decks are.  There are some sealed windows in the bow.  Better head there.

Centuries of ferry passengers have known all about the elements when crossing the Mersey. In 1698 the traveller Celia Fiennes described the river;

…the waves toss and the rocks great all round it and is as dangerous as the sea.

She ferried over with her horses and men in ‘a sort of Hoy’ – a single-masted sailing boat. It took ‘an hour and halfe in the passage’.  Imagine the horses and riders leaping, clearing the gunwales, the plunge of the horses’ hooves, the calls, commands and away into a town no longer just a fishing community.  Already ‘London in miniature.’  A spire, windmills, townhouses and an Exchange ‘on 8 pillars.’

Fifty years on from Fiennes when Daniel Defoe crossed over, Liverpool was already powering up, with dire implications.  Within 30 years, it would be the largest slave ship construction site in Britain.  

There may have already been a dock by the 1750s and many a rich merchant but Defoe still had to disembark ‘not on horseback but on the shoulders of some Lancashire man who comes knee-deep to the boat’s side to truss one up …’

The 21st century jetty spares us such indignities.  An updated version of G. Bernard’s floating landing stage, it has been engineered to allow for the second highest tidal range in the UK. 

I head straight for the bar to get in hot chocolates while the teens bagsy seats in the windbreak of the bow. I can almost hear Celia Fiennes tutting at our soft ways.

As we pull away and the safety announcement cuts Gerry off mid-emote, the waterfront pans out.  The maritime buildings so reverentially called The Three Graces.  ‘Iconic’ states the tannoy commentary.  They are impressive; the Port of Liverpool, the Cunard and the mightiest of them, the granite-clad Royal Liver Building.  Inscrutable gate-keepers of the Empire and its commerce, hiding behind vertiginous windows.  

But even as I am looking up, the tannoy time-shifts to Charles Dickens and off I am swept with him on the ferry over to Birkenhead and along to New Brighton for a change of air and his famous constitutionals.  He and Liverpool were mutual fans and he visited on many occasions, either to depart on the Cunard transatlantic steamer for an American tour, or to perform at places like the Theatre Royal and St. George’s Hall.  And when his head was ‘worn by gas and heat’, he sought out the ferry.

What Dickens would have seen from the deck is hard to imagine now.  Not the Three Graces – they are only Edwardian-iconic.  But certainly a river and docks alive with movement and noise.  On the water sails, funnels, ropes, steam-blasts, hooters, masts and on the docks gantries, pullies, sacks, barrels, crates. Loading, unloading. Stripping the world, raking it in. Continents of characters.

Dickens travelled on a steam-powered ferry. Not the first one – the combustibly-named Etna spluttered over the Mersey as early as 1817, just two hulls decked over with a paddle in between. Passengers could choose to be drenched on deck or boiled inside the hull.  But perhaps he travelled on the later deceptively inert-sounding Waterlily, a large gasometer hidden under the deck powering the sepia glow of the coal-gas lights.  

There is absolutely no gas or heat on the deck of the Royal Iris today. Dennis is menacing the more easily startled passengers, me included, knocking paper cups into laps, whipping off hoods, karate-chopping the water. But the engine steadily rumbles somewhere below us and the tannoy trips cheerfully on over the tongue-twisting ‘six-faced docker’s clock in Victoria Dock.’  There it is, a gothic tower, clocks at every angle so mariners could always set the time as they departed, a fog bell housed inside.  Now a Grade II listed shell with no bell to ring anymore. No vessels to warn either – at least not today – although I have seen photos of the liners that visit this port and dwarf the ferry.

When he was wanting to clear his head, Dickens would have had a fleet of ferries and landing stages to choose from all along the shore.  As G. Bernard puts it in 1969;

To anybody living on Merseyside the names must ring like so many bells…

Rock, New, Monks’, Egremont, Tranmere.

But the bells – both the fog bells on each one of the landing stages and the chiming names of the ferries – were already being silenced only a couple of decades on from Dickens; the rail tunnel was built in 1886.   The only names still ringing are Seacombe and Woodside.  We are over at the Seacombe stage now where a fog bell still hangs.

Although it was predicted that the rail tunnel would be the end of the ferry, it was the road tunnels that really did it – the first in 1934, the second in 1971, a fatal blow to the New Brighton ferry that made G.Bernard’s day. 

But while this all is lost, it is the heritage industry born out of the loss that is keeping this ferry afloat; in 2015 Sir Peter Blake created the ‘dazzle’ design for Snowdrop to ferry brightly and poppily alongside Iris and Daffodil. Part not only of the 1960s heritage industry in this city but also the wartime heritage industry rampant across the UK, its design a reference to the innovative dazzle painting of First World War vessels.  As we reach the Woodside landing stage, some part-frozen families leave for the German U-Boat experience.  

Setting off again back to the Liverpool side, the tannoy points out the Camell Laird shipyard. Snowdrop was ‘dazzled’ here, The Ark Royal built here, Cunard Liners…Boaty McBoatface…

Boaty McBoatface? The teens actually look up from their phones and beam.

Now that really is a boat of importance and purpose – Polar Research!    And there’s us just going round in a circle with a tannoy.   It is hard not to hanker after a more purposeful sort of ferry.   A black and white photograph of post-Second World War shows a busy boat of men in suits and bowler hats and women in coats with high heels and handbags, perhaps shipping clerks and secretaries from the Royal Liver Building? All getting from one side of the wide river to the other without commentary or backing track.  Just greetings and gossip, chance meetings, assignations.

I look back at Birkenhead.  Dennis has overdone it now and is working up to the foulest of tea-time tantrums, tears horizontal.  I wanted to go to Port Sunlight, I sigh to the teens.  They shrug.  Come back at Easter. Leave us behind.  Yes, I think – spring and Port Sunlight after the storm. A walk to New Brighton. What could stop me?  

The tannoy now reminds me. The Beatles performed on the ferry pre-Ringo Along with Acker Bilk and his jazz band, they took part in the Cavern’s Riverboat Shuffle concerts in 1961 and ’62 – ‘Aboard the MV Royal Iris … boat sails at 7.45pm, returning 11 pm.’   There have been several Irises over the decades and The Riverboat Shuffle Iris with its dancefloor, tea room, cocktail bar and fish and chip saloon is now the saddest of ferry-phantoms collapsing in the eastern mud-banks of the Thames. So much for the heritage industry.   

Gerry chips in with reassurance that life goes on as The Royal Liver Building looms once more.  But of course, life changes.  Even somewhere as muscular and solid as this Grace, now a visitor attraction with sea-miles of office space.  I sip the last of my tepid chocolate.   Although we too are visitors at an attraction, we have certainly been taking the air.  

‘Of New Brighton itself,’ says G. Bernard Wood, ‘I recall little…It was the ferry voyage that counted.’

Taking the air like Charles Dickens, braving the elements like Celia Fiennes, the thrumming of the diesel engine not quite the lyrical arpeggios of G. Bernard’s paddle steamers, but certainly its own distinctive Merseybeat.  

As Gerry emphasizes for the final time that here he will stay and the water jiggles and shimmies with a thousand Royal Liver lights, a bell rings for me. This Iris has been going since 1959 and was only renamed in 2001.  Before that it was called the Mountwood and that’s the ferry on the opening credits of The Liver Birds.  I have always known this ferry.  And it is still here.