Saturday, 31 July 2010

Crossings of the River Thames 32: The Woolwich Free Ferry

I am very wary of landmarks. Why? Because one day, you might actually reach them...

Charles Michel Duke


Woolwich is blessed with two crossings. The Woolwich Ferry and the Woolwich Foot Tunnel (three if you want to include the Docklands Light Railway, which transports you faster than either of the other two under the River).

While it would have been lovely to have ended this series on the landmark Ferry, the actual fact is that the Foot Tunnel is just a few yards downstream and so the Woolwich Free Ferry is now the crossing for this month, and also, the penultimate River Crossing on this long series down London's great waterway. Since 2007, I have reported from the riverside, taking in a London Crossing point and seeing a little bit more of London. Exploring the Capital, both for this blog and most importantly for myself.

But this fine journey is coming to an end, and so I take you to one of London's most famous landmarks. The Woolwich Free Ferry.

Now the ferries that I have so far been on in London (and they are few and far between) are no bigger than this:

They also cost money to board.

The Woolwich Ferry is different. It is HUGE! Come on it carries juggernauts across the river. And the Woolwich Ferry looks something like this:

Plus, and most importantly, it is free. The only free ferry crossing on the River Thames, and it is free for both pedestrians and vehicles. This is quite important if you are driving, as this is the final road crossing in London. That is it. There is nothing, until you head out towards Dartford, which is beyond the London borders. Not only that, it is pretty easy for a lorry or a bus to get on board (trust me on this). You try squeezing a large load into the notorious Blackwall Tunnel...

Anyway, let us go to the Ferry itself. This grand crossing has one thing in common with a cousin far to the west. This is where the South Circular meets the river. The South Circular is a crap road, but out of the two Inner Ringway Roads of London, it is the South Circular, not its more famous cousin to the north that actually touches the River. Once at Kew Bridge in the West of London and here, at the Wolwich Free Ferry.

And one more thing, right up to the pier itself, the route is patrolled by TfL itself. The Woolwich Ferry might not run 24 hours a day, but it is definitely a lynchpin in the transport network of this part of London. Oh yes, the queues are long if you need to drive over the Thames at this point. Why oh why, was the East London Crossing cancelled!

(Queues for the ferry - normality for Woolwich).


Many cities of the world have ferries that connect their waterways. In this country, the Mersey Ferry of Liverpool is possibly the most famous of the lot, being immortalised in song.

Meanwhile, across the world, the ferry can be a tourist attraction in itself. The Staten Island Ferry is New York's greatest tour ride, taking in the views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island as well as transporting you from one borough to another for free! Hong Kong has the Star Ferry, a sight that is spectacular day or night as you cross the harbour between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

In London, the Woolwich Ferry has not reached these lofty heights. The ferry links the two not so glamorous suburbs of Silvertown in the north with Woolwich in the south. They are a part of London far away from the centre of town. Not a part of London tainted by glamour. This is working London, the real London, the place where ordinary people like me actually live. But do not think that there are no views from the ferry. Being at the Eastern End of London, you get to see the panorama of the city. Canary Wharf, the Dome and the Woolwich Barrier are some of the sights that can be seen, even on a cloudy day, from the decks of the ferry itself.

While looking to the east, the vast estuary of the Thames awaits. Inviting you to the North Sea and the remaining suburbs of London...

And what a world to step into. As you cross the threshold, from the pier onto the ferry, you come into a world from the 1960's itself. A time, when to be frank, these waterways were far busier. Workers would have commuted daily across the river, to work on the dockyards and wharves that were once bustling at this point of the Thames. The Ferry was built to cope with that. Below decks, is a huge area for passengers to sit in relative comfort for the few minutes that it takes to cross the river. Three ferries are in operation today, two at any one time cross the Thames while the third sits as a spare. Named after politicians, that reflect London's political ties with the establishment of workers' rights, the ferry is a symbol of political will in itself. At a time when the rather posh parts of West London were getting their bridges made toll free, why not the ferry in the poor parts of East London? And so, even today, the Woolwich Ferry remains toll free. And, to be honest, an entertaining way to cross the river.

And ever since the establishment of the modern ferry service in the 19th century (with references to a ferry at Woolwich as far back as the 14th century), there have been plans to either supplement it or replace the service in itself. This showreel is pure gold in not only showing the possibilities of replacement, but also the traffic jams that have long plagued this river crossing. Next came the idea of a huge motorway, to the east of Woolwich town centre, but that went tits up. Finally came the Thames Gateway Bridge, but that also was chucked out. And so despite the obvious short comings, the Wooliwch Ferry survives, providing locals and not-so-locals a chance to cross the River Thames, by car, by bike, by lorry or by foot. The only other supplements to the Ferry are the Docklands Light Railway and the Woolwich Foot Tunnel, but that crossing, is another tale for later on...


Getting there and away:

Woolwich town centre, on the South Bank is served by a plethora of bus services which include the 51, 53 (24 hour), 54, 96, 99, 122, 161, 177, 178, 180, 244, 291, 380, 386, 422, 469, 472 (24 hour) and night bus N1. They either stop by the pier or in the town which is a short walk away from the riverside. The nearest station is Woolwich Arsenal (National Rail/DLR).

On the north bank in Silvertown, routes 473 and 474 (24 hour) serves the ferry pier. King George V (DLR) is a few minutes walk from the ferry terminal, and there is a handy pointer if coming from this station to direct you to the boats:


Asad said...

A fantastic post...32 down, one to go!

magiceye said...

oh wow! that was so interesting and good to know that they have managed to keep it free!

el director! said...

@magiceye - and the best things in life are free!