Only in Central London is the Thames easy to cross. Head upstream past Chelsea and the bridges space out. Venture beyond Hammersmith and the crossings spread further apart. But once you pass Richmond, then any bridges become genuinely far between. Traffic can't drive across for three whole miles between Richmond and Kingston, while pedestrians get only a single bridge, at Teddington. But there is another means of passage, a water-borne means of transport that harks back to an earlier age. It's Hammerton's Ferry. And it's an absolute bargain. [website][twitter][history][map]
The Thames above Richmond is a place of beauty. Stand on Richmond Hill, as hundreds of artists have done over the years, and the river meanders round a sharp curve through verdant meadows. Nobody lives down there, bar the Petersham herd of cows, though there are two impressive mansions hidden in the trees. On the south bank is Ham House, now a National Trust jewel, for three centuries home to the Earls of Dysart. Their private estate covered many acres, hence there was no need for the hoi polloi to ever cross the river here. For them there were ferries at Richmond and upstream at Twickenham... at least until the turn of the 20th century. In 1901 Marble Hill House, a Palladian mansion on the opposite bank, entered public ownership. Local resident Walter Hammerton opened a boathouse close by and began hiring out boats to daytrippers, some of whom pleaded for a ferry across the river, and so Hammerton's Ferry was born.
The owners of the Twickenham Ferry weren't best pleased, so started legal action to shut their competitor down. The case eventually advanced to the House of Lords, who ruled in Hammerton's favour, and his 12 seat clinker-built skiff continued to ply back and forth. Walter finally retired in 1947, passing on ownership to a boy called Sandy Scott. Both ferries survived in competition until 1985 when the Twickenham Ferry faded away, but Hammerton's is still going strong and is claimed to be the last privately-owned ferry on the London stretch of the Thames. The latest pilots are a father and son team, Francis and Andrew Spencer, and if you turn up at the right time they'll chug you cheaply across the river.
A jetty stretches out from the edge of Orleans Gardens, with no obvious place to stand if the ferry's not in. To the left is a big barge with a disguised portakabin on top, used by the ferrymen as a comfort stop and hideaway. To the right are the boats and kayaks for hire, not really a goer in December, nor are the 60p cans of soft drink currently a big seller. But continue ahead to the end of the jetty, at this time of year weekends only, and the ferry should be returning soon.
The latest iteration is an aluminium hulled boat, shallower than previous because the river's rarely dredged, but still with seats for 12 to get across. She's called the Peace Of Mind, a very simple beast with a throttle at the back and three lifebelts perched on the front. Yesterday it was Andrew on duty, wrapped up warmly in blue jacket and grey beanie, running a slimmed-down service 'til three. Fine weather had lured many families, walkers and dog walkers out, so the crossing service was surprisingly well patronised.
The fare to cross is £1 single - up from 60p ten years ago, and one penny when the ferry opened in 1909. Pay up and sit down, taking care not to sit in the muddy patch left by a recently disembarked dog. Once everyone's stepped aboard, then the journey can begin. There's quite a view as the crossing progresses, notably towards Petersham Meadow and Richmond where the Star and Garter Home looks down from the hillside. All around are some post-autumnal trees, upstream that's the tip of Eel Pie Island, and across the water is the splendid frontage of Ham House. Breathe it all in quickly because the crossing's only brief - I timed it at two minutes flat.
These are the final miles of the tidal Thames so the height of the river varies. Stepping off at the other side might therefore deposit you on the riverbank, or might leave you having to ascend a set of damp stone steps to reach grass level. A bench and a muddy patch mark the point of departure for those returning the other way, and then Andrew's off on his endless shuttle again. Make sure you're back in time before he shuts down for the afternoon, else it's a bloody long walk around.