A very different rowing opportunity


There has been a ferry at across the Butley River since at least the 1600s. When the marshlands on either side of the river were reclaimed, a means of getting livestock and produce across the river to market in Orford was needed. The land on both banks was owned by the Augustinian monks of Butley Priory and they would have operated a ferry to suit their needs. After the reformation, the land was given into private ownership by Henry VIII and the first recorded ferry service at the current location was recorded. It is now run by volunteers and supported by the Alde and Ore Association. It is one of only two ferries in the country powered by oars and is the smallest licensed ferry in Europe. The other is also in Suffolk, at Walberswick.

Unlike the other foot-ferries in Suffolk, like Bawdsey and Walberswick, ButleyFerry’s journey may vary between 70 metres at low water and 250 metres on a spring tide. There is a wide expanse of mud flats and saltings which, at high water, are covered with shallow water, making the use of an engine and propeller impossible. Outgoing spring tides, particularly, can be very fast, certainly faster than those experienced at Woodbridge, for example. Wind over tide at these times can make for a very challenging journey.

All of our current volunteers have some boating or nautical background. A number of them are in their seventies with two having turned eighty! The ferry is getting busier each year and some of our older ferrymen have retired or are sharing duty days with another. We need to find a few new volunteers each year to ensure that we can man the boat throughout the season.

The ferry operates between 11 and 4pm from Easter Saturday until the second Sunday in October, on Saturdays, Sundays, bank holidays and a few occasional days for groups such as walking and cycling clubs. As the ferry can carry only four passengers (or two passengers with two cycles) and busy day can see over 50 customers, it can be physically very demanding. At the other extreme, a dull, cold day may see only a handful of customers, and a lot of reading can be got through. There is a hut, where equipment is stored and ferrymen can hide from the rain.

A volunteer has a number of responsibilities when on duty, the most important of these is the safety of passengers. T                he ferryman must make sure the boat is properly equipped each day and is also responsible for deciding when conditions are unsafe to operate in. Taking fares, answering the mobile phone, record keeping and cashing up are mundane, but essential, chores. There is no vehicular access within a mile of the ferry (apart from for the ferryman on duty) so all of our customers, walkers or cyclists, have made an effort to get there. A good rapport with people is essential.

Out of season we have work-parties to get the boat off the water and into storage, winter maintenance, anti-fouling and re-launching. We also have to maintain and repair the jetties and boardwalks. The work-parties are a great way of meeting other ferrymen as it is possible to go through a season and not meet another as, traditionally, ferrymen have worked alone. This is changing as we encourage volunteers to share duties both for safety reasons and the increasing numbers of customers.

For anyone who enjoys rowing, the countryside and meeting people, being a volunteer ferryman is an excellent way to spend a few days. A knowledge of tides is useful but not essential as the characteristics of the river will be learned while under “training”. Volunteers must be over 18 and, due to the isolated nature of the ferry, have an independent means of transport as there is no bus service anywhere close! We like our volunteers to commit to at least 3 duties a season, more if they are sharing, and take part in a work party.

Any potential volunteer will be invited to join one of our experienced ferrymen to get a flavour of the job and undergo an assessment of their rowing ability in the ferry. This is nowhere near as intimidating as it sounds but is a requirement of our insurance and license and is done with lots of encouragement. If still keen, they will be invited to join an experienced ferryman on one of their duty days to practice the full range of tasks which have to be performed. It is not rocket science but it is a big responsibility.

The ferry carries full insurance liability and is licensed by Suffolk Coastal District Council.

The word “ferryman” is inclusive. We currently have one female ferryman and are keen to encourage more.

Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer, or requiring further information, should contact the Ferry Leader, Roy Truman, on rsstruman@yahoo.co.uk giving a contact phone number.

You can also visit our website at www.butleyferry.org