by Peter Hitchens

I wish there were more ferries. They transform a journey into an adventure and they give a place a mystery. What is it like on the other side? What if I am too late and cannot cross? How would it be, to be pursued, and to leap on to the ferry just in time to escape my pursuers, left standing and mouthing threats on the shore? I especially remember the Gosport Ferry that still crosses the narrow entrance of Portsmouth Harbour many times a day. 

For a few years in my childhood we lived on the far side of this, and any journey to the big city, as that gnarled, bombed, beery, and raucous old seaport then seemed to be, required a brief but enthralling voyage. The boats in those days were ancient tub-shaped miniature steamers with tall funnels, just as a child imagines a ship to be. They had powerful engines which shook the plank decks and churned the brownish oily waters violently as they pulled away from the jetty, or made the complex maneuvers needed to dock smartly on the other side. Silent seamen untied and tied up the vessels with amazing efficiency before crashing the gates open to let the passengers on and off. 

The clear message was that we should get a move on too. We had bought rough paper tickets for a few copper pennies. We did not expect anyone to come round with complimentary cocktails. The journey was just long enough to climb on to an upper deck behind the bridge, and scan the waters for whatever happened to be tied up alongside at the time, usually in those days including an actual battleship, a monster with fifteen-inch guns, as well as a couple of cruisers, half a dozen destroyers, and perhaps an aircraft carrier. If I had known that the Royal Navy would almost completely vanish in the following sixty years, I would have paid more attention, but it gave me great pleasure. As George Orwell noticed in Spain, the sight of big guns lifts the heart in some strange way that it ought not to do, and the lovely lines of warships have ever afterwards seemed to me to be some of the most perfect works of art achieved by man, even though I know very well what they are for.

In my memory I see the journey as always taking place in a sort of brassy Edwardian late afternoon sunshine, fogged with an industrial haze. If we made the homeward crossing at the right time, the whole vessel would fill with wiry dockyard workers on their way home in their faded brown and grey clothes and their flat hats, often hunched over the handlebars of ancient black bicycles. It was a very British scene, but even more so were the mudlarks, lithe, naked urchins who stood in tidal slime by the ferry ramp on the Portsmouth side, hoping that we would throw pennies down into the stinking muck so that they could dive for them. But at some point in the years beyond, such things were stopped. I began to wonder if I had seen it at all, an increasingly common problem for someone of my age who grew up before the many revolutions of our era. But the records show it really happened.

My brother and I both loved this journey. Many decades later, after my father had died in his native Portsmouth (“Pompey” to those that know her) and we had buried him in the Hampshire chalk hill high above the sea, we both by common consent went down to the ferry and took a wordless farewell ride to Gosport and back. I have done it several times since but it has not had quite the same power. I discovered later that one of the authors I love the most, the detective story writer Josephine Tey, had heard of this small, unusual joy. She describes Bill Kenrick, the likeable and gravely wronged murder victim in her book The Singing Sands as having had “a mania for ferries.” This is said to have begun “when he was a kid at a place called Pompey.” And so “he spent all his time on a penny ferry.” When I read this for the first time it gave me a special delight. As so often in my life, it had never occurred to me that anyone else, even a fictional character, could have shared such an eccentric pleasure. 

Ferries also always make me think of a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s surprising and faintly fishy film of 1940, Foreign Correspondent. This movie, dating from the final months of America’s neutrality in World War Two, is strangely equivocal about its Nazi villain and not as pro-British as I should have liked. After various adventures in sinister windmills whose sails turn the wrong way, Joel McCrea and Laraine Day escape their Gestapo pursuers by a whisker on the eve of war, by catching the ferry from Holland to England at the last possible second. The Nazis, inefficient for once, can be seen stamping, scowling, and raging on the dock as the emphatically British steamer pulls away and gathers speed—after which the pair, huddled in the dark on the storm-swept deck, fall in love and decide to get married. This sort of thing could never happen at an airport. At an airport the Nazis would arrange to have the plane held up, or perhaps shot down. Likewise, the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy would have come to a pretty abrupt end if there had been a bridge over the River Brandywine at Bucklebury, rather than a ferry. The poor hobbits would have been caught and massacred by the Black Riders before they had even set out on their fateful quest. That particular pursuit brings into mind the ancient superstition that evil cannot pursue you across moving water. This is glancingly referred to in M.R. James’s grisly story “The Experiment,” in which a woman pursued by a horror she has herself raised from the grave seeks to escape by crossing to Holland over the sea where “such as they cannot follow.”

Though I have never chased anyone to the water’s edge, nor ( I am glad to say) been chased there, I have been the disappointed person, cursing by the riverbank, infuriatingly unable to travel the few yards that make all the difference. In my own watery city of Oxford, where there were once many ferries over its maze of channels, it is not all that long since the only feasible late-night crossing between very respectable North Oxford (where I then lived) and the much less respectable Northway estate (where my then girlfriend lived), was the Marston Ferry. It was just a leaky punt attached to a wire, but between the heart of the city and the outer bypass there was no other way across, after dark, unless you were ready to swim through the muddy water and the weeds, across the often powerful current—which I was not. (Mrs. Hitchens, who has swum the Rhine and the Thames and the rushing, freezing green Aar in Bern, would by contrast have plunged in cheerfully.) The fare was a silver sixpence, a pleasing coin then known as a “tanner,” a little bigger than a dime, which I always associated with pleasure. But the grumpy pub landlord who had charge of the ferry was not always that keen to earn his tanner, and would usually make me wait until someone else wanted to share the brief sloshy journey. If I got there too late, a thing which could happen easily on those romantic expeditions, it was a very long trudge round. Now all trace of the ferry has rotted away, though I can still make out where it used to be, looking down from the huge bridge and roaring road which made it obsolete half a century ago. I also recently learned that the picturesque White’s Ferry, which crosses the Potomac north of Washington, D.C, is closed for some impenetrable legal reason. I used to love taking this route in December, on our annual family expedition to the Blue Ridge to choose and fell the family Christmas tree. The ferry crossing transformed it from a mere drive into a quest. What a pity nobody can do that any more. 

But this abolition of ferries is mostly a consequence of the age of concrete. Until quite recently a bridge was a great undertaking, sometimes founded on grisly sacrifices and requiring heavy tolls from the traveler, and inclined to fall down without warning. The way across went by the ferry or the ford.

No wonder that our forebears, in a world that was often without bridges or ferries, imagined the final crossing we must all make as a huge, forbidding river. In the miserable afterlife of the Greeks, the nightmare ferryman, Charon, would take you across the Styx for a tiny fare, a coin called an obol, often placed in the mouth of the deceased before burial. Charon must eventually have become extremely rich from all those obols, though what he could spend his profits on in the underworld, I do not know. He was recruited into the Christian hellscape by Dante and Michelangelo, who portrays him, in the Sistine Chapel, testily thwacking reluctant mortals into his miserable boat with his oar. After all, why take a ferry, let alone pay a fare, to somewhere you very much do not wish to go?

Perhaps there just is no ferry for the most desirable journey and destination of all. John Bunyan, in the Pilgrim’s Progress, thought we would just have to manage without one, relying on faith alone to buoy us up through the billows. Bunyan, a fierce and indomitable old soldier who believed that no good thing could be done without some difficulty and decision, describes how Christian and Hopeful finally arrive before the Celestial City. They can see it shining across the rolling water and for a moment think that they have arrived, but there is one last ordeal. “Betwixt them and the gate was a river, but there was no bridge to go over: the river was very deep. At the sight, therefore, of this river, the Pilgrims were much stunned; but the men that went in with them said, ‘You must go through, or you cannot come at the gate.’”

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