Crossing the Yare – Buckenham Ferry

From Great Yarmouth, the River Yare takes you across Breydon Water before winding its way through the Norfolk countryside for a distance of around 25 miles to Whitlingham where it meets the River Wensum which takes you into Norwich. Until the Breydon Road Bridge opened in 1986, followed in the early 1990s by the Postwick Bridge on the Norwich southern bypass, the only road bridge crossing the River Yare between Norwich and Great Yarmouth was the Haven Bridge. The alternative was a detour into Norwich to Carrow Bridge, or to cross the river at Reedham on the chain ferry.

The first known Haven Bridge was erected across the Yare at Southtown nearly 600 years ago. The Breydon Road Bridge crosses in almost the same place as the old Rail Viaduct which opened in 1903 and closed fifty years later, with the rail bridges at Thorpe and swing bridge at Reedham being erected in the 1840s when the rail line was first built. In the 19th century, if you wanted to cross the river, you caught the ferry. I touched briefly upon the two different types off ferry which once operated on the Broadland rivers in the last blog post. Foot ferries were found at numerous locations throughout the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads, and the Yare was no exception. They were usually a man with a boat who would row you across the river for a small fee, and it is thought that there could have been over twenty of these operating at different locations between Great Yarmouth and Norwich over the years. I’ve managed to locate nine which were operational during the 19th century using a combination of old Ordnance Survey maps and Bryants 1826 map of Norfolk.

There were two foot ferries running on the Lower Yare, between the harbour mouth and Haven Bridge at Great Yarmouth. Another was marked as running from Marsh farm near Polkey’s Mill, situated between Reedham and the Berney Arms. Further foot ferries were shown at Raveningham, Coldham Hall, Bramerton Woods End, Whitlingham, Langley and Cantley. The ferry at Coldham Hall is remembered by many as it was still running in the 1970s. At Cantley, there appear to have been two foot ferries. One running between the Red House Hotel (now the Reedcutter) and Langley Dyke, with another running between Langley Round House and a staithe just downstream of the sugar beet factory. 

Yachting at Cantley c1905

I decided to revisit the subject of the Yare ferries after a mystery was thrown up by the postcard on the left, recently discovered by Peter Waller. Dating from c1905, it is captioned “Yachting at Cantley” but clearly shows a pontoon ferry in the background. All the evidence I have found so far indicates that there were only ever three pontoon ferries operating on the River Yare, and several local history books and online resources seem to concur. These were at Reedham, Surlingham and Buckenham, with Reedham chain ferry being the only one still remaining. Originally known as “horse” ferries, these were large pontoons which were capable of transporting horses and carts or livestock across the river, hauled manually from one bank to the other using ropes or chains. This was later done by mechanical winch and, as the 20th century progressed, motor vehicles gradually replaced the horses. With no evidence of there having been a pontoon ferry at Cantley, it made me wonder what we were seeing in this postcard. Was it artistic license, a purely imaginary Broadland scene, or had it just been captioned with the wrong location?

The Beauchamp Arms pub at Buckenham Ferry - photographed by John Chesney in the 1970s

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time I’d seen an old Norfolk Broads postcard which had been captioned incorrectly. I recently discovered a view of Hickling Pleasure Boat Inn which was labelled as being Stalham Dyke, and was also shown a postcard of Beccles captioned as being Falmouth in Cornwall. The landscape in the postcard also didn’t really look right to be Cantley to me either, so I started to look further afield. My first thought was that this might possibly show Buckenham Ferry, a little further upstream but not a million miles away. I couldn’t find a similar view of the modern day Beauchamp Arms pub amongst my own photos, but this is where having an archive full of old images of Broadland comes in quite handy! Above right is a photograph taken by John Chesney in the 1970s. It’s not quite the same angle, but it is close enough to compare the general layout of the riverbanks and background which do look similar to the 1905 postcard. It wasn’t close enough to be certain though, so I continued to search for more images and information about Buckenham Ferry.

I strongly suspect that the painting in the old postcard is likely to have been produced in the late 19th century when the original Ferry House Inn was still standing. I’m not certain when the current pub replaced it, but William Dutt made mention of the “new” Ferry House in his book The Norfolk Broads which was published in 1906, so I am guessing that it must have been around the turn of the century. The style of architecture would certainly fit with that. George Christopher Davies provided this description of the original hostelry in the 1880s: “The Ferry Inn is noted for its comfort; and its limited staying accommodation is good. The fishing is good both up and down the river, and there are good boats for hire for fishing purposes. In a dyke among the trees which surround the Ferry-House, a little cabin-boat is moored in which an artist has lived all winter. On wet days he amuses himself by painting the view seen from the window of the inn, which is simply a windmill and a belt of reeds with the river in front; and in his many pictures of the landscape, the artist shows how varied are the tones which the water receives from the sky, so that on no two days are the colour and effect precisely alike.

Buckenham Ferry - Donald Shields 1904

Further searching through the Broadland Memories archives produced the photograph on the left which was taken by Donald Shields in 1904. It shows the new building with the ferry sitting in its dock in front of the pub. What interested me about this image was the collection of outbuildings on the left which bear a strong resemblance to the ramshackle collection of buildings seen in the mystery postcard.  However, there were considerably less trees in Donald Shields photograph than are shown in the painting. George Christopher Davies provided a possible explanation for this, mentioning the gale of October 1881 which downed around fifty or sixty of the poplars which lined the avenue leading down to the ferry. It’s likely that other trees would have been lost too, or they may have been removed when the new pub was built. If the 1905 postcard was Buckenham, then it did seem a little odd that you couldn’t see the old Ferry pub. The painting below by Joseph Stannard dates from 1826 and shows The Ferry House Inn from the opposite riverbank.

A beautiful painting which shows that the inn was set back from the river and would possibly have been obscured by trees when viewed from downstream. Note the ferryman pulling the pontoon across via a rope. To the left are a collection of outbuildings that look similar to those seen in Donald Shields 1904 photograph and which also appear to be in our mystery postcard. It’s still very hard to judge from a painting as you can never be sure that the scene was depicted accurately. I turned to the Norfolk County Library & Information Service or, more specifically, the Picture Norfolk website and found the following two photographs which date from the late 19th century. My thanks to them for kindly allowing me to publish them on here.

This view, looking across the River Yare to the Buckenham Ferry House Inn c1890, shows that the scene hadn’t really changed much at all since Stannard’s 1826 painting. You can see part of the winching mechanism on the left.

Another view of Buckenham Ferry c1890 by courtesy of the Norfolk Library & Information Service. This was the photograph which interested me the most when comparing it to our mystery “Cantley” postcard. Taken from just downstream of the pub, the ferry itself is seen on the opposite side of the river and the tree line behind it does look remarkably similar to that in the mystery postcard. I’m pretty much convinced that this image gives us our answer, and that the postcard did show a painting of Buckenham Ferry.

The pub seems to have been known as both the Ferry House and the Beauchamp Arms at various times over the years, the latter being derived from the Proctor-Beauchamp family who owned much of the surrounding land for several centuries. The Norfolk Pubs entry for it has records from the Loddon and Clavering registers for licensees dating from the 1780s onwards, but make mention of a Ferry House on this site in 1704. The ferry itself was believed to date back to medieval times and the Norfolk Record Office have recently uncovered what may be the earliest record of a ferry crossing the River Yare here. Previously uncatalogued manorial rolls and papers revealed detailed accounts from 1372-3 by John Pulle who was bailiff for the Kerdiston family of the neighbouring parish of Claxton.  These included a written account of the costs involved in the building and launching a ferry boat on the River Yare. Items listed included timber imported from the Baltic along with nuts, bolts and other ironwork, with a total expenditure of £5 8 shillings and a halfpenny.

Buckenham Ferry - Peter Henry Emerson c1880s

The final photograph was taken by Peter Henry Emerson c1880s and shows a horse and cart, laden with what appear to be milk churns, waiting to cross from the Buckenham side of the river. On the left you can see the bell which was rung to call the ferryman. The importance of Buckenham Ferry as a river crossing was colourfully illustrated by Emerson in his book On English Lagoons, published in 1893.  On mooring up at the inn he wrote: Day and night the ferry-bell was jingling and the winch clanking as the actors of country life passed before us in endless panorama. Milk carts, carrier’s carts, wagons laden with grain, flocks of sheep attended by shepherds and barking collies, stylish ladies in smart Norfolk carts and herds of cattle. Those animals nearest the water stood with forelegs firmly planted and backs raised, bellowing with fright as they stared into the swift river as the ferry crossed over. After them passed and old granny with a child in a perambulator, a shy-looking couple with much luggage, a portly farmer going to catch a train, and lastly, the lord of the manor passed over.

I’m not certain exactly when the ferry ceased operating here, but evidence seems to point to it having been shut down during the early 1940s as a consequence of the outbreak of the Second World War. However, a report into ferry operations in Britain was commissioned by the Ministry Of Transport in the 1940s, and it appears that many of the old pontoon ferries which were still operating in the UK were considered to be outdated and unfit for purpose and were subsequently withdrawn from service. It seems likely that it could actually have been this report which struck the final death knell for Buckenham Ferry.

Update 12th March 2014 – new information from Steve Silk, author of the Wherryman’s Way book, on the closure date of Buckenham Ferry, plus memories of Cantley Ferry from patrick Brister. New blog post here.

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