The Walberswick Ferry (or Southwold-Walberswick Ferry as some call it) connects two of the loveliest beaches on the Suffolk Coast across the swift tidal currents of the River Blythe.
I'm not sure what I was expecting when I arrived dockside but a random assortment of tourists, hikers and seaside sunbathers, plus a baby buggy, two dogs and a tandem bike, all waiting to board a rowboat, probably wasn't it.
They've been operating a regularly scheduled and licensed service that crosses the mouth of the Blythe River since 1236. Today it is one of the last remaining rowed ferries in the UK. As part of a fine day out, visitors can spend time in the pretty beach resort town of Southwold before boarding the rowboat ferry at the southernmost end of Southwold Beach (the dog-friendly end). The boat takes about two minutes to cross to Walberswick harbor and it's then a short walk to another long, white sand, dog-friendly beach as well as one of the Suffolk Coast's nicest pubs, The Anchor at Walberswick.
The day we tried it, a fit young woman rowed us across. And although the boat (which carries 11 people, plus dogs and bikes) was full, her arms weren't even as muscular as Madonna's. Her technique - traveling in either direction - seemed to be to point the boat into the center of the current, slightly upstream of the dock, then letting the swift current help turn the little row boat and carry it to the opposite dock.
It's a technique that Dani Church, our ferrywoman, has been perfecting since she was six years old and accompanied her father - the ferryman before her - back and forth on the little wooden boat. In an interview filed by the BBC, Dani explained that her family has been operating the ferry for more than 125 years and she is the fifth generation of her family to row it - keeping the ferry's over 800-year tradition.
According to the BBC, in 1885, when her great-great grandfather's brother was the first in her family to run the ferry, he replaced the rowboat with a hand-cranked, floating bridge chain ferry (later steam-powered). But in 1942, when the configuration of the little harbor was changed, the chain ferry became impractical and the traditional rowboat was put back into service.
Dani has since written a book about the history of this unusual little ferry. The Story of the Southwold-Walberswick Ferry, by Dani Church with Ann Gander, was published by Holm Oak Publishing and is available from several online booksellers.
Southwold-Walberswick Ferry Essentials
- When: The ferry runs every day between May 25 and September 25 and weekends only between April 26 and May 24 and September 26 and October 25.
- Hours: 10am to 12:30pm and from 2 to 5pm. The ferry departs whenever people wanting to cross show up during those hours. Since a crossing takes between two and five minutes, there is never much of a wait. During busy times of the year, Dani sometimes runs two boats at the same time, calling upon standby helpers.
- Cost: The fare is £1 each way for adults and children older than 5. Bicycles also cost £1. Dogs are carried free.
- From Southwold: Head for the southern end of Southwold beach. Turn right at the River Blythe and follow the track past the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) Museum and the RNLI lifeboat station. You'll see small boats moored on the river to your left and a brown shed that's the ferry house. The ferry is on the left, just past the caravan park.
- From Walberswick: Take the B1387 through Walberswick, past the Anchor Pub, and almost to the end of the road. Leave your car in the public parking area, before the "residents only" permit sign. The ferry house is another brown shed.
- To find out more: telephone +44 (0)1502 724 729 or visit the Ferry Website.