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Southwold ferry is a family tradition

PUBLISHED: 09:56 09 April 2009 | UPDATED: 08:48 06 July 2010

A new book about the Southwold- Walberswick ferry by oarswoman Dani Church is, like the boat ride itself, a small gift of calm. Ian Collins reports.

A new book about the Southwold-Walberswick ferry by oarswoman Dani Church is, like the boat ride itself, a small gift of calm. Ian Collins reports.

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On the eve of Easter Southwold has that happy and purposeful air of a resort being made ship-shape for the surge of a new tourist season. Huts, shops and kiosks are being painted and down at the harbour our little ferry boat is back in business.

It's waiting to ply us between Southwold and Walberswick, from bank to bank and beach to beach. This transport of delight short-cuts the pedestrian route over the bailey bridge (not to mention the nine-mile drive via Blythburgh).

And there's our lithe and youthful chum Dani Church, who would have made a perfect contestant on that vintage telly programme, What's My Line? She could easily be a model or a dancer.

She's actually the fifth-generation family member ferrying us over the River Blyth, taking over from her dad, David - a figure so mourned, near and far, back in 2001, that The Times ran an obituary.

These days Dani (née Daniella) has a team of four burly blokes - including partner Crispin - to share the rowing shifts, while she also tends to son Charlie, rising two and doubtless a ferryman of the future.

Each winter she used to turn to conservation work, but recent off-seasons found her nurturing a book as well as a child - a volume now launched with the help of writer-publisher Ann Gander, of Holton near Halesworth.

The title? The Story of the Southwold-Walberswick Ferry. Naturally.

The saga of a ferry first recorded hereabouts in 1236, but sure to have operated far farther back in history, makes for a restful journey for those of us not required to man (or woman) the oars.

Suffolk writer Simon Barnes notes that Dani handles her material with “the same insouciance with which she controls the big hardwood boat and its load of passengers - “hands inside the boat please” - when the Blyth is at its stroppiest”.

He writes in a foreword: “The ferry is efficient all right, but this is not efficiency as we know it. It is not about straight lines and high technology: it is about the economy of effort, the way the rowers use the river and their knowledge.

“Each crossing would be a battle for a novice, rendering him a wreck after a dozen crossings: the rowers of the ferry make it a form of judo, in which they use the strength of the river to their own advantage, conning the reluctant river into co-operation.”

And a writer normally inspired by horse-power adds: “Every ferry-crossing is a small gift of calm. Between engine and engine, between deadline and deadline, between phone-call and phone-call, between one appointment and the next, there is the ferry.

“It is neither one thing nor the other, neither Southwold nor Walberswick, neither past nor present: but for many visitors it is the hidden high spot of their time in Suffolk.”

The book opens with the shifting medieval fortunes of Dunwich, Walberswick and Southwold, but really comes alive with the tale of Old Todd, the veteran Victorian ferryman and the first recorded star of the story.

George Todd was all for saving energy - and words. Any snippet of news drew the reply “I knows it” until that was clipped to “I know't.”

Occasionally he could be more expansive, as when a passenger observed, “Why Mr Todd, you've a new pair of boots on today.” “I know,” he muttered. “I put 'em there.”

He knew everything about local ghosts. Once a man asked him to wait for a couple he had just overtaken, but then looked back on an empty scene. “We never waits for them,” said Todd.

Depicted by Punch illustrators and Royal Academy painters, the old-father-time-figure finally found the friends and funds he needed to save him from Bulcamp Workhouse.

Todd gave way to a hand-pulled chain ferry whose chief operator was Benjamin Cross - Dani's great grandfather's uncle. With that name he was born for the job.

His son Wessy (né Weston) had the task, in 1906, of putting out flags for the carriage of a car carrying the Princess of Wales. And then, as a photo shows, the greater challenge of holding open the gate, hanging on to his cap AND saluting as the royal vehicle tackled a rather watery landing.

A steam ferry owned by the Blyth Ferry Company ran from 1911 to 1940, operated by Wessy with help from cousins Ernie and Bob. Old Bob, that is.

Many still remember his long-lasting ferryman son (Young) Bob - Dani's great uncle, who was actually christened Cyril and who would have turned 100 this year…

I hope you're keeping abreast of these clan waves. One rule of Suffolk sea-faring, and ferry-plying, folk is that adult names rarely match those on birth certificates.

Some of these old boys with hand-me-down names lasted nigh on a century - a tribute to the rigorous outdoor life of ferrymen, whose faces sported regulation moustaches and fags (the latter sometimes replaced by pipes for healthy variety).

The Cross clan of ferrymen, crossing from oar to steam, smoked their way through and beyond short-lived bids to revive the fortunes of Southwold harbour - plus 50 years of the Southwold Railway, which ran out of puff in 1929 due to competition from buses and lorries.

In pre-war summers Ruby Canham, living in a tarred harbourside hut known as The Savoy, would launch her row-boat late of an evening - as when the Walberswick vicar, reeling homeward from Southwold pubs, bawled across the water: “Ruby! Will you come and get me?”

Frank Palmer and Arthur Brown took over from the Cross clan for a time, before the steam enterprise was (literally) sunk by the second world war.

Despite happily thwarted efforts to build a road bridge over the harbour between the landing stages for the old ferry, the 1948 opening of a bailey bridge for pedestrians and cyclists on the old rail crossing did not fully fill the transport gap.

So it was back to rowboats, and especially to Cyril Cross - by-now-not-so-Young Bob, that is. He put several small craft at the service of the community, and manned the oars himself when not tending rows of kippers and bloaters in his nearby smokehouse.

Bob/Cyril was full-time ferryman until the age of 81. He then handed over to nephew David Church who had helping from the age of 12.

Despite winning a scholarship to Framlingham College, training as an accountant, and roving around Europe in a Dormobile, David's main life's journey was to be measured in thousands of two-minute trips across the Blyth.

In winter he travelled far and wide for his secondary business supplying chicken farms. His entrepreneurial spirit extended to selling celebrated pairs of his hand-crafted leather sandals from the ferryman's hut.

Daughter Dani gained an ecology degree from York University and returned from global travels to pick up the oars and the family tradition. Which is were we find her now - when not chasing after Charlie.

A blissful job? Well, apart from the energy and expertise needed to cross and recross a fast-flowing harbour mouth, there is an ever-rising tide of regulation.

Dani now has to deal with: boat and public liability insurances; employer's liability insurance; boat and boatmaster's licences; ferry licence; landing stage rent; harbour dues; hut rents; boat upkeep/repaint; jetty maintenance/replacement; engine servicing; boat inspections; lifejacket safety checks; flares; life rings; first aid course; fire extinguisher checks/replacement; electric outboard motor; VHF radio and operator's licence.

Old Todd would be amazed, though he would probably still say “I know't.”

t The Story of the Southwold-Walberswick Ferry, by Dani Church with Ann Gander, Holm Oak Publishing, £9.99.

The ferry operates 10am-12.30pm and 2pm-5pm daily until April 19, then weekends to the end of May and daily again until the end of September. Fare 80p.

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