Many of us do it several times a day. The Jubilee line does it four times on every single journey. There’s even a way to do it by “flying” (not that anyone does). In much of London, crossing the Thames isn’t something you ever think about: it’s just something you do.
Still less do you consider that somewhere along the river, there might be people employed solely in the act of taking people back and forth across it. Because — well, bridges.
But every day, come rain or shine (but not lightning), you can find some assiduous boatmen doing exactly that in the Borough of Richmond, which straddles both sides of the Thames.
Hammerton’s Ferry, connecting Twickenham on the north bank to Ham on the south, is one of the last of its kind in London. It feels like a throwback to a past century; an illusion that’s further encouraged by the close-knit local crowd it serves, and the old-fashioned charm of the Spencer family, who run it.
Sailing on demand from 10am-6pm every day between March and October (including weekends) is a huge commitment for Francis and Andrew, the father and son who handle most of the ferry’s day-to-day operations. And it's a commitment that arose by chance. Francis recalls:
I was doing up a boat around here when I was approached by Stan, the previous owner. He asked, ‘you couldn’t man the ferry a couple of days a week, could you?’ That was in 2003…
Francis had been drawn to the area because it was the setting for some of his favourite memories. He grew up with Roger Daltrey and fell in with the band Daltrey began singing for: The Who.
Believe it or not, in the 1960s it was possible to live a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle around Richmond. Nearby Eel Pie Island — which hosted concerts by The Who and others — was a hotbed of hedonism, and it was where Francis would go to “pull birds”.
His son Andrew, 26, now pilots most of the ferry’s cross-river journeys, a role he has had for seven or eight years. “I was pretty young to be a captain,” he admits. “But I’ve been on boats since I was age 12. I started out on a canoe.”
Nautical novelty… or vital vessel?
In a part of London that’s so militantly non-urban it somehow manages to look even more quaint than the actual countryside, it’s a wonder there’s enough custom around here to keep the business afloat.
“The ferry is surprisingly lucrative,” Francis remarks. He reckons eight in 10 of his customers are leisure users: day-trippers, local dog-walkers, and even overseas tourists.
Sure enough, every second property on the horizon seems to be a stately home of some sort. Within walking distance are the painter JMW Turner’s old home Sandycombe Lodge, Orleans Gallery, York House, and Strawberry Hill House. Not forgetting Eel Pie Island, still a paradise for camera-wielding visitors.
“The ferry is a bit of a novelty,” says Amalie, who’s taking her visiting Danish cousin to the idyllic local ‘village’ of Petersham. “I’m not sure we have anything like this in Copenhagen,” adds Viktoria.
Roderick and Stephanie hop on board with their visitors from Shenyang, China: Rosie and Raymond. The quartet are having to communicate using phrasebooks and phone apps. “But this is a very special trip with a staggering view — whatever language you speak!” laughs Stephanie.
Francis says he’s unbothered by an active campaign for a bridge to be installed just a short way upstream. “People jump on board the ferry for the view and the experience,” he shrugs.
He’s also confident that his core passenger base is a relatively resilient group of commuters, schoolchildren, and other locals who’ve basically got no choice but to use his services.
“It’s one of the only places to cross,” explains Kelly, a literary agent who lives nearby.
Indeed, the Thames runs for some four-and-a-half miles between Kingston and Richmond road bridges (although there is a footbridge at Teddington). So, paying a £1 fare to cross the river at this point is a huge bargain for many locals.
“Yes, it’s a fun thing, but it’s not just about that,” says Sophie, a dog-walker who relies on being able to quickly hop across the river to make her income. “It would be so missed if we didn’t have it.”
“Terrible, shocking, a nightmare.” That’s how a man named Peter with a bike imagines life without Hammerton’s Ferry. “I’ve used it for 35 years. I need it to get over to Twickenham so I can put bets on the horses.”
It helps that taking the ferry is an exciting nugget of outdoor fun; it's as close as a child in 21st century London can get to living in Swallows & Amazons. Jacinth has brought her grandchildren Freddie and Lucille for a ride. “I just love being on the water,” says Jacinth. “It’s so idyllic.”
“It’s really hard getting on at the steps,” grins Freddie, relishing the adventure of it all.
We’re going to need a bigger boat
Thanks to an occasion when one of the British monarchs of the early 20th century (probably Edward VII) caught the ferry and took a shine to Mr Hammerton (the original proprietor), the business was granted a royal warrant and to this day can’t be moved on.
But the all-important piece of paperwork itself rests outside the possession of the Spencer family.
“That man [Hammerton] was actually the grandad of Phil Collins, the ex-Genesis drummer,” Francis reveals. “Phil rang me up once. He said, ‘I’ve still got your royal warrant. But you can’t have it.’”
The Spencers are only the fourth owners in the ferry’s 100-year+ history. The highlight of their time as boatmen was during the 2012 Olympics, when a cycle race that straddled both sides of the river caused an almost unmanageable demand for their services from sports fans.
“There were thousands of people,” Andrew recalls. “We totally underestimated it. People queued for almost an hour to get across. I had to actually reel in a mate to help.”
“We might have to get a bigger boat one day,” reflects Francis. The present vessel, the Peace of Mind, carries only 12 people — and all the signals suggest that Hammerton’s popularity is on the up.
“We’re actually on maps now, which does help,” chuckles Andrew.
Although the future sounds like a case of full steam ahead, the business was almost sunk in its early years of operation.
Begun in 1909 following the opening of land on both sides of the river to the public, Walter Hammerton’s ferry quickly provoked legal action from an older, rival (and rather litigious) service operating a short distance upstream — the Twickenham Ferry.
Hammerton was ultimately the victor, in a 1915 landmark legal case that travelled as far as the House of Lords. The Twickenham Ferry folded in the 1980s.
‘People rely on us’
In his time on the job, Francis has seen wedding proposals and, indeed, an actual wedding take place on deck. Sometimes people fall in, and sometimes people even jump in. Francis was on hand on the day a woman attempted to commit suicide. He sped over and saved her from drowning.
Then there are the objects Francis and Andrew have had to fish out of the river: speedboat engines (their own), mobile phones (often their own), a drone (their friend’s), and a Rolex (owner unknown).
It’s an honourable life, but no easy one. When you get sick, “you work through it,” explains Andrew. “Because people rely on us.” There’s the physical component to the job, and the fact the Spencers’ work is totally at the mercy of the elements.
For several weeks in November, there is no river to actually cross. The annual Thames ‘draw-off’ sees weirs lifted and the river drain to a low level so that maintenance can happen. At that point, the bed can actually be traversed by foot.
On top of the seasonal vicissitudes there’s the admission from Francis that “it can be an expensive business to run.” He means the growing financial burdens placed by the authorities on those who own a pontoon and rent out moorings (from which much of his income is actually derived).
For now, that seems to be a storm that Hammerton’s Ferry can weather, because the business the Spencers have built is insured by something non-monetary: it’s a spiritual investment from the community.
Locals Fleur and Grenville have used the boat for decades. Fleur remembers rushing home from concerts on the Twickenham side on the ferry. “I just wish it ran all year... and all night!”
“There’s a social sort of function to it,” Grenville adds. “There’s a group of people in this part of the world who know each other and talk to each other just because they all use the ferry.”
You don’t get that on the Emirates Airline.