July 22 2014 Latest news:
Saturday, May 3, 2014
Dani Church is the fifth generation of her family to ferry passengers across the River Blyth. Sheena Grant went to find out what makes the trip so special
It’s just a short hop by rowing boat ferry across the River Blyth between Southwold and Walberswick.
But what the journey represents is something altogether bigger.
No-one knows this better than Dani Church, who became the fifth generation of her family to row passengers across the river when she took over the ferry service from her father, David, in 2001.
It’s more than a job to Dani. It’s a way of life. She even first met her husband, Crispin, on the river.
“He was with a canoe club that rowed here. We would smile at each other as he went past,” she says.
Her “office” is like no other, with views towards the sea in one direction, up towards Southwold lighthouse in another, or back towards Walberswick, its marshes and rooftops beyond, in a third.
The soundtrack to this scene is virtually timeless: the cries of gulls, the lapping of the river and rhythmic splash of the oars as they break the water surface.
A lot may have changed over the years, from the number and type of passengers using the service to the technology that propels them to this place and informs so many aspects of their daily lives, but down here, on the river, things are pretty much as they always were. The river − and the tide − is in charge.
There’s time to think, reflect, breathe, strike up a conversation with someone you’ve never met before, remember and imagine the countless other lives this short ferry journey has touched.
And that’s just how Dani likes it. She wrote a book in 2009, telling the story of the ferry service from its first recorded licence in the 13th Century. It details the lives of the ferrymen and many of their passengers, including postman Richard Fisk, whose delivery round included a daily trip on the ferry with his bike and mail sack.
Dani’s great-great-grandfather’s brother, Benjamin Cross, a Walberswick fisherman, was the first ferryman of her family, in 1885. The line continued with his son and nephews, through to Dani’s great uncle and father, and her.
“When you sit down and think about it, what it must have been like in the past, you do feel a link with that history,” she says.
Dani’s own memories of the ferry stretch back to her childhood, when she used to help her dad on the boat.
“It is a responsibility to take on something like this but I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t want to,” she says. “It’s also a privilege. It is not a hardship coming to work. I love being outdoors. It’s great exercise and you get to meet lots of interesting people. That is what makes it, really. I’ve been on here 13 years now − people come back year after year. Some of the children I first saw as babies are now teenagers.”
The crossing can take anything from 30 seconds to four or five minutes, depending on tide and wind, but although the distance is short, the knowledge of the ferryman is crucial.
“You have to know how to use the tides to your advantage,” says Dani, as she rows me across to the Southwold side of the Blyth. The tide is coming in and the river is flowing fast but, of course, she makes it look easy.
“I remember being on the boat with my dad when I was six or seven and, eventually, him letting me have a go at rowing,” she continues. “I just had a real affinity with being down here. I went to university, did a degree in ecology and worked for the Environment Agency for a while, but I always expected to take the ferry over from my dad. It just happened 10 or 15 years earlier than I imagined.
“Dad died of cancer. He stopped work in the February and died in the May.” The ferry doesn’t operate during the winter months and has only just started up again this year. The village is quiet today, now the day trippers and Easter holiday makers have gone home. You get a sense of how Walberswick used to be, before it became a tourist hotspot.
“It’s particularly special when it’s quiet,” says Dani. “We’ve got a seal that pops up most days; there are fish and birds − you see a lot of geese migrating. It’s just magic.
“It’s only recently − in the last 20 years − that it’s got so popular with tourists. Not so long ago, even in August, dad used to have a swim between customers. Years ago, most passengers were local, many using the service to go to work.”
Since becoming a mother (her son is now seven) Dani shares the rowing with four others, including her husband, other relatives and friends. On busy days, she runs two boats. The one we’re in today is 60 years old. It can carry nine people, while the second boat, built 18 years ago, can carry 11.
As to the next generation of ferrymen, Dani hopes the job stays in the family but says there will be no pressure.
“My son came down last weekend and earned a bit of money cleaning the seats. I’ve got a nephew who loves the ferry, too. It’s just a nice place to be.”
The ferry runs from 10am to 5pm, weekends and bank holidays, until May 18. There is a daily service from May 24 to September 21.
For more information, visit www.explorewalberswick.co.uk/ferry.php.