I grew up in west London, my first school a 5 minute walk from the bridge where the District Line crosses the Thames, which is itself right next to Putney Bridge. On that side of London the Thames is still a big river, and still tidal. But it's not so wide that plenty of bridges haven't been built across it over the years. Which is all to say that I grew up without ever thinking you’d need a ferry to cross the Thames.
Fast forward a few decades and we were looking for a route from Seaford on the south coast to Ely in Norfolk. The obvious route—
the Google route—
would have taken us around the east side of London on the M25, crossing under the Thames in the Dartford Tunnel, and returning south using the Dartford Bridge. (They alternate: tunnel northbound, bridge southbound.) But about 8 miles west of the Dartford crossings is the Woolwich Ferry, which is the way we chose to go.
Driving north the last few miles to the ferry on the A205 the first thing you notice is the large green space of Woolwich Common which ends in style with the imposing facade of the Royal Artillery Barracks. Woolwich’s relationship with the military started back in the 16th century with the Woolwich dockyard, and expanded significantly with the establishment of the Royal Arsenal—the headquarters of Britain’s armaments development and manufacture from the late 17th century until it closed in the 1960s. It was a town created by, and dependent on, the military. Today it seems to be a mixture of historic military buildings and new development which is plugging the holes left by the withdrawal of much of the armaments industry.
It seems an unlikely spot for a ferry, but it is well signposted. There was a wait when we arrived, but not long and with the service running every 15 minutes we were aboard with little more time than it took to take a few photos. At noon when we crossed our fellow travelers were about 60% trucks and vans and 40% private vehicles, with a few pedestrians.
The Thames here is about 400
wide at high tide, but the ferry operates from piers built to cope with tides of up to 30
, making the actual crossing only about 300
. The service is operated by the Ben Woollacott
and the Dame Vera Lynn
, two identical shiny new boats which entered service in February 2019. The crossing seems more of a dance between these two fairly large boats than an actual voyage, and is over far too soon. The boats have high sides, so you need to get out of your car to find a gap to look through. But the view west is especially worthwhile, with the Thames Barrier and then the office towers of Canary Wharf beyond.
The northern terminus of the ferry is at North Woolwich, on the south side of what used to be the Royal Docks, but which has since closed as modern shipping has moved steadily downstream. Now London City Airport is the main feature. The area suffered badly with the closure of the docks and as you drive through the few hundred yards from the ferry it seems prosperity is still waiting—
it was hard to tell if some of the decaying buildings were still in use or not.
The ferry operation seems pretty slick and modern, and there was plenty of custom when we were there. But it does seem a bit out of place. The Dartford crossings are not that far away to the east, and though there are no bridges upstream until you reach Tower Bridge, there are two road tunnels. I’m sure the cost-benefit of the ferry and the possibility of replacing with a bridge or tunnel are constantly discussed. But a ferry has been operating here since the 14th century, and has been free since 1889, and is protected by an act of parliament. New bridges and tunnels are always being proposed, but public pressure and the high cost mean this ferry will exist for a while longer.
There is in fact a tunnel running right under the ferry; the Woolwich foot tunnel which was opened in 1912. The entrances to this tunnel are visible as two round brick buildings close to each ferry terminus. And there is yet another tunnel close by, as the Docklands Light Railway connects King George V station on the north bank with Woolwich Arsenal on the south. And although Woolwich is the only vehicle ferry across the Thames, there another 5 foot ferries still in existence. Plenty of reasons to return to London!
So we could have taken the Dartford Tunnel and probably been in Ely an hour sooner and £2.50 poorer. But tunnels offer no fun. No view. No sense of being there and getting elsewhere. Climb in a box at one place and climb out magically transported to another. On our return trip south we were pressed for time so took the Dartford Bridge. But it was night, and raining—
a better view than the tunnel, but not much.