An Ode To The Woolwich Ferry

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 70 months ago
An Ode To The Woolwich Ferry

In January 2016, we took a trip on the Woolwich Ferry.

There may be no Loch Ness Monster but the Thames has dinosaurs — three of them — and they are called John, James and Ernest.

Captain Danny Ludwig stands on the bridge of the Ernest Bevin — one of three Woolwich ferries commissioned in 1963 which have been shuttling vehicles and foot passengers to and from Woolwich and North Woolwich ever since. The door is ajar and a breeze swirls around the cabin, but it's a mild morning and the Thames is still and glassy.

Danny has worked his way up to the loftiest point of the ship over 13 years, from deckhand to mate to captain. The three-step promotion involves a lengthy and testing apprenticeship ending in a qualification from the Company of Watermen and Lightermen (some Woolwich Ferry captains have rowed in the historic Doggett's Coat and Badge race). To qualify for this job then, you essentially need the riverine version of the Knowledge.

"We've learned the whole 95 miles of the tidal river," says Danny, "tides, bridges, reaches, points, all the different wharves and warehouses, all the different stairs."

"But a lot of us have basically ended up at Woolwich going backwards and forwards," he laughs.

The instruments in front of the captain betray the vessel's age; chunky switches, dials and a phone that somehow conjures up the Cold War. Over the decades the wooden wheel has been replaced by levers (the levers themselves look dated now), a computer screen's been installed, as well as a crackly DAB radio — important for eight-hour back-and-forths. This floating palimpsest is a museum of London's marine heritage, past and present.

"Hello, is that Premier Khrushchev?"
View from the bridge
Captain Danny Ludwig at the helm
The Woolwich terminal

The ferry's heritage stretches far beyond 50-odd years. The first boats to join up this width of the Thames were pre-14th century at least. At the start of the 1300s a waterman called William de Wicton was doing an early version of Danny's job, and did pretty well out of it. The modern ferry service has been in action since 1884, as a trade-off for the people of Woolwich. While Londoners in the west got toll-free bridges, Woolwich was granted free passage across the Thames by boat. On a day like today, that feels like a sweet deal.

The Cold War phone buzzes and Danny answers, asking after one of his co-worker's new babies, before diverting his eyes back to the Thames. His view is a unique one; to look down over the Thames from such a height you usually have to be on an actual bridge. The other ferry in service, the James Newman, waltzes by — the two things manoeuvre around each other like fat ballerinas. As is customary, the third ferry, today the John Burns, is moored up for maintenance, having a snooze.

Directly below the captain on deck are the white vans, tipper trucks and array of same-silver coloured cars — mostly local traffic, though some will be en route to other parts of the country. Passengers follow captain in winding down their windows and letting in the maritime air. A medley of radio stations mix in the breeze; no one bothers stepping out of their motor for the five minute-long voyage.

But though the ferry is — for most — the best way of avoiding the Blackwall Tunnel, there are still those who travel on foot (the alternative foot tunnel makes for a bleak stroll — the weight of the whole Thames hovering just above your head). Louise and Stan are heading from Blackheath to Dagenham, and sit on a bench, watching the seagulls. Stan used to work in Beckton, and has been on here 12 times he reckons, but for Louise, this is just the second.

£10 says he's a West Ham fan
The belly of the beast
Always wait for the ferry to arrive

"I like looking at the water," she says, "I love the scenery very much. If I had my camera I'd be taking pictures. I think it's romantic."

"It's very useful, vital transport," says Stan.

You can't argue with Stan's sentiments, but London's ferocious pace of change is snapping at the heels of this antique ferry. Forever patching up and replacing pieces of these boats is costly, especially as some of the parts are no longer manufactured. Danny speaks of two new vessels out to tender, due to be in action early 2018; the captain is resolute that any new crossing in these parts will be tolled, and the free nature of the ferry means its future is assured. But things are more uncertain than that.

TfL has voiced its preference to replace the Woolwich service with a similar one that runs from Gallions Reach. Some in the organisation, and in Greenwich Council, would rather it went altogether, saving them millions. That's prompted users of the ferry to fear its existence is threatened altogether.

One thing's already decided; the days of these particular diesel-chugging behemoths are numbered. Like three wise but wizened chain smokers, they've far outlived any expiry date anyone dared to give them. But they're knackered, and one day soon, they'll take a sharp turn to the east, and — sailing off into the sunrise — will never be seen by London again.

Last Updated 26 October 2016

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