It's well-known there aren't many Thames crossings to the east of London, but there aren't that many to the west of London either. In the ten or so miles between Kingston and Chertsey there are only two bridges, one at Hampton Court and the other at Walton-on-Thames. This lack of connectivity is bad news if you're a Surrey driver, but there are two additional options for those on foot or two wheels, both of which are ferries. And Woolwich it ain't. [5 photos]
There's been a ferry between Shepperton and Weybridge for nigh on 500 years, such has been the historic need for folk to cross the Thames hereabouts. Shepperton lies on the northern bank of the river, originally clustered around the medieval church, then slowly strung out to the north after the railway arrived. The Shepperton branch line opened 150 years ago this month, but the planned extension across the river to Chertsey never materialised hence the terminus today has a fairly unrushed feel about it. The famous filmstudios are to the north, on the banks of the Queen Mary Reservoir, while the M3 motorway curves through the edge of the built-up area between a series of flooded gravel pits.
Old Shepperton is cut off behind the cricket ground, a single winding road with cottages and larger homes off to each side, bending out towards the Thames. It's most pleasant, or would be without all the parked cars, not least the focal point of Church Square running down to the river. St Nicholas's is built on the site of a 7th century church, and is about the only building hereabouts not to serve beer and/or food. The Anchor used to be a coaching inn and is now a hotel, and a romantic haunt of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor while they were filming up the road. The Warren Lodge hotel is merely 18th century, but boasts Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton amongst its more famous courting couples. Which begs the question what are quite so many hostelries doing here on the edge of nowhere opposite nothing much at all?
The answer's the Shepperton Ferry, which once ran from the quay by the church but long ago shifted half a mile upstream. Ferry Lane is a bit of a trek out of the village, through waterside meadows to the edge of the Thames proper. This is a place dominated by Britons Who Like Boats, indeed if you own any of the large homes hereabouts it's probably because some nearby sleek motorised craft is at the heart of your recreational life. The only shop is therefore a marine suppliers, namely Nauticalia, also found in Covent Garden and Greenwich but which began here in 1974 as a floating antiques shop in a converted rubbish barge. It's less rope and anchors and more jackets and giftware, but ideal if you ever need a comedy brass plaque for the door of the captain's cabin.
Tied up at a short jetty is the latest incarnation of the ancient ferry, this a small skiff with bench seating down each side and two outboard motors at the back. Getting aboard's intriguing because the timetable's unusual. The ferry only runs every 15 minutes, specifically on the quarter hours, but to summon service you have to ring a bell. Arrive at any other time and you're urged to wait, presumably because the boatman has other activities to fit into his life and doesn't want to be called out willy nilly. I arrived at 11.46, which was awkward, but while pondering what to do the boatman emerged from deep within Nauticalia and introduced himself. Game on.
A crossing costs two pounds, or one quid extra with a bike or for a return, There's even a weekly season ticket for a mere £6, which is a bargain, but only if you have regular need to cross between two fairly quiet Thames-side outposts. The pilot gets to stand beneath a protective awning, but you're out in the open so get wet if it rains. You may also have to wait for river traffic to pass, in our case a pair of rowers and a narrowboat, which extended the minute-long crossing time by about 100%. From midriver there's a fine view of the Weybridge Mariners' boathouse on Shepperton Lock Island, and someone very wealthy's back lawn, plus a steeply arched footbridge to a private island a short distance downstream.
And then you're across, at the steps on the Weybridge side, not that the centre of Weybridge is especially close by. Impressively there's also a ramp, making this a step-free ferry crossing and therefore more accessible than several much younger southeastern transport projects. By this time the boatman will be off, steering back across the river and tying up on the northern side, then using his intermediate ten minutes to do the crossword, have a cup of tea, go to the toilet, whatever.
The Shepperton Ferry has a fictional claim to fame, which is that HG Wells set most of chapter 12 of The War of The Worlds right here.
Fear not, no Martian has collapsed here recently and the ferry continues to run daily from 8am (nine on Saturdays, ten on Sundays). And that's especially good news for anyone walking the Thames Path, which officially crosses the river here to avoid detouring round the mouth of the Wey. So you might well have good reason one day to come pay the ferryman... but time it right, else there's a three mile detour to get to the other side.