I’m walking on water. Signposts on the eight-mile, looping coastal trail from Southwold to Dunwich tell me I’m on terra firma, but sea mist has turned Suffolk’s estuary laced coastal landscape into an ethereal vision. Dunes, marshes and feathered veins of rivers run fuzzy edged into the haze: a very East Anglian alchemy. Ahead, I spot one always-reliable sign of a shoreline: the waiting figure of Dani Church, pilot of the little wooden rowboat that ferries passengers across the Blyth River.
“Rain, shine, sleet: we have to be here. It’s a public service, really,” says Dani who can be found, March-September, rowing this 12-berth ‘ferry’ across the estuary between the coastal towns of Southwold and Walberswick; the fifth generation of her family at the helm of a service that dates back to 1236.
“That’s when local landowner Lady de Cressy got the rights to run a ferry across the Blyth,” she says. “But there was probably a service in some form before that.”
Chain-, oar- or rope-operated ferries have long operated in England’s eastern region, whose flat, marshy coast frays and fractures into the sea at inconveniently regular intervals for all those not of feather or fin. Dani rows me the short but crucial three-minute/£1 journey. “Otherwise it’s a one-and-a-half-mile walk to the bridge and onto Southwold,” she explains. Or a foolhardy swim; tides can be treacherous. “It doesn’t sound far but that’s a trek — if you’ve trudged miles on the coastal path, or after a day on the beach with kids.”
The ferry’s route has changed with the shifting flow of the river. The mouth of the Blyth once joined the sea at Dunwich, three miles south, but when the river silted up, Southwold hand-dug a cut to the sea.
“Not least to make some money from port taxes,” smiles Dani. “There’s been a bit of rivalry between the towns ever since.”
One of Anglo-Saxon England’s most powerful regional capitals, by the 14th century, clifftop Dunwich had largely eroded into the sea: a slow-forming Atlantis. Southwold, meanwhile, rose to fame and is today home to the ever-booming Adnams Brewery and its annex The Swan Southwold, recently revamped to swanky standards — much to the delight of both the lifestyle glossies and the weekend migration of what can seem like half of north London.
“It’s over 70% holiday homes now in Southwold,” says Dani. “In some ways it’s sad — weekdays in winter here are desolate — but in summer we’re busier than ever. We now run riverboat trips inland up the Blyth, my mum on board telling smuggler stories. A favourite is Granny Cox, who’d hide her loot under her skirts. No one would dare approach her.”
Smugglers’ tales, World War yarns and family feuds and fortunes populate The Story of the Southwold-Walkberwick Ferry, a book Dani wrote as a tribute to her dad, previous ferryman David Church. “Dad and I discussed doing a booklet on the ferry’s history. When he died, I put an ad in the local paper asking for stories. I was sent photographs, newspaper clippings, boxes of archive material. It went from a booklet to a 210-page book, and it turned out the ferry has been in operation for over 800 years. We had no idea.”
The service’s second known ferrywomen, today Dani is assisted by crewwoman Rachel, plus we’re hoping for an appearance by her aunty Hazel, who regularly ferries reviving cups of tea down to the river from her house just over the bank.
“We’re all local girls — we all have a real affinity for this place,” says Dani. “I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t on the boat. I used to sit on the life rings in the back when I was really small and go out with Dad on crossings. I was probably about 11 when he first let me have a go properly. I just always wanted to be on the boat; this is where I want to be.”
The Suffolk Coast Path, including the section taking in the Southwold to Walberswick ferry, is featured in the Suffolk Walking Festival which will run from the 12 May-3 June.