Hampton Ferry crosses the Thames between Hampton and Molesey, a mile upstream from Hampton Court.
One side's in London, the other in Surrey.
And it's been running, incredibly, for 500 years.
Bridges were in very short supply on the Tudor Thames - one in London, one at Kingston, one at Staines - so a prolific squad of watermen plied their trade ferrying goods and passengers across the river. Hampton's ferry has records going back to 1519, making it one of the UK's twenty oldest companies, and the waterside was also a place for fishing and boatbuilding. Between 1890 and 1962 the ferry thrived on passenger traffic bound for Hurst Park racecourse on the southern bank, after which there was a bit of a hiatus before fresh leaseholders took over in 1996. Half a millennium, though, is still damned good going.
The ferry operates until 6pm throughout the summer on a turn-up-and-ding basis. In April and October it only runs as a commuter service in the early morning and late afternoon, and over the winter months the boat goes into hibernation. The current ferryboat is a retired army assault craft with space for 12 passengers, powered by an outboard motor. The fare is £2 single or £3 return, with bikes an extra 50p and dogs carried for free. Five years ago the single fare was only £1.50, so there's been quite an inflationary hike, but it's hard to begrudge the fee when it saves a two mile walk.
The boathouse is on the north bank, in Hampton, close to St Mary's Church and The Bell Inn. Head down Bell Hill, which sounds far more dramatic than it really is, eschewing the canoe club for the hut and jetty. You might find the boatman at the picnic tables or he might be sat on his verandah or he might be out on the water. If not visible, ring the bell. His job appears to involve a heck of a lot of sitting around, or at least it does in September, but the business stays afloat by majoring on boat hire (and also a freezerful of Wall's ice cream).
Down the jetty we go. It's not far, and the boat proved very easy to step into. A selection of coins is laid out on top of the steering column, and further down is displayed the 2019 licence from the Environment Agency. Take a seat on one of the three benches - hardly luxurious but far better than the original complement of soldiers would have enjoyed. And be prepared, because the journey is going to absolutely whizz by. The Thames is only 100m wide at this point, so there's barely time to catch sight of the moored cruisers, the midriver aits and the low scudding water before you're stepping off at the other side. Thanks, cheers.
The boatman can be back on the Hampton jetty in under a minute, and checking his phone again in two, other passengers notwithstanding. I lingered on the Surrey side for some considerable time, watching the occasional motorboat chug through, but nobody else turned up for a ride. On a sunny summer Saturday it must be different, but practically speaking this is no vital cross-river connection. The former racecourse is now a 1960s housing estate segregated from the river by a linear park, highly pleasant but no economic draw. At least the ferry service should continue while the boatyard survives, subsidised by boathire and mooring charges, hopefully for many decades to come.
What to do on the north bank(Hampton)
• Hampton riverside, where accessible, is very pleasant.
• The esteemed 18th century actor David Garrick lived in Garrick's Villa overlooking the Thames.
• In his gardens by the river is Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare, which is open on Sunday afternoons.
• The Bell Inn is an attractive independent gastropub.
• The entrance to Bushy Park, with its roaming deer, is very close by.
What to do on the south bank(Molesey)
• Immediately adjacent to the landing stage is the Thameside Heritage Marker, a combined memorial/sundial/ seating area/historical resource. Before being a racecourse these meadows hosted duels, bare knuckle boxing, hot air ballooning, Jacobean golf and one of the first recorded cricket matches, which is an astonishing sporting combination.
• Today Hurst Park is essentially dogwalkers only, dozens of them.
• East Molesey's a lot nicer than West Molesey.