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Walk on to cross the water

There has been a ferry running from Gravesend for centuries.

While the riverside may have changed, the vessel making its short journey from Town Pier Pontoon to Tilbury and back has remained a familiar sight on our shores.

The ferry has provided a crucial transport link from Kent to Essex, servicing passengers long before the construction of the Dartford crossing in 1963.

Tilbury Ferry passengers at Tilbury
Tilbury Ferry passengers at Tilbury

The second tunnel opening in 1980 and the construction of the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge in 1991 may have reduced its importance – and there may be another threat from the proposed Lower Thames Crossing, which is due to be announced in autumn.

But for many the ferry is still an efficient and cost effective way of nipping across the river.

John Potter, 70, has run the Lower Thames and Medway Passenger Boat Company, which operates the ferry, for 12 years and has 52 years of experience working on the river.

Owner John Potter
Owner John Potter

Mr Potter believes the ferry still provides a service valued by residents on each side of the Thames.

He said: “When the Dartford crossing was first opened it was the nail driven into the heart of the ferry.

“But the way that the Dartford crossing is going now, we are getting more people using the ferry because they are sick of the troubles they’re facing using it.”

The ferry has always served a wide variety of passengers, dating back to its first use in Saxon times.

It was used to transport farm animals such as sheep and cattle, which continued well into the early 20th century.

The ferry was once joint-owned by Lords of the Manor of Tilbury and Parrock before being purchased by the Gravesend Corporation in 1694.

It is also believed at one time a nobleman used the boat to transport his troops and cattle across the river to his fort in Essex.

Although the ferry only carries human passengers now, Mr Potter says little else has changed.

Tilbury Ferry Crossing from Gravesend. The Duchess M
Tilbury Ferry Crossing from Gravesend. The Duchess M

He said: “This is a five minute crossing and it is a vital link for workers, shoppers and for children who come over to Gravesend for school.

“Unfortunately, we’re going to lose quite a lot of our regulars now, as Tilbury power station is closed; that will have a big impact. But generally we get all different varieties of life.”

The ferry is used all year round, enjoying its peak times during the school holidays.

Friday is its busiest day, with eager shoppers coming over from Tilbury to splash their cash in Gravesend’s stores.

Mr Potter, who started as a lighterman working for sugar manufacturer Tate and Lyle, thinks more could be done to promote the ferry in Gravesend, especially in the town centre.

He said: “Gravesham council put up the new town pier, which was supposed to rejuvenate the High Street, but whenever I walk up there I never see any signs pointing out the pier and the ferry crossing.

“It’s important there’s a crossing like this on the river. A ferry from Gravesend Reach was mentioned in the Domesday Book.

Ken Fissendon
Ken Fissendon

“It is one of the most curious ferries in the country, if not the world. It has a lot of history.”

Dave Burn, 62, from Higham, is the ferry’s captain.

He said: “I’ve worked on the river for 47 years, so taking charge of the ferry is second nature for me.

“The lower Thames Crossing may be fine for cars, but what about pedestrians? How are they going to get down to Essex? People still need the ferry.”

The ferry’s mate, Ken Fissendon, 60, of Shephards Street, Northfleet, said: “I’m longest serving employee here – I’ve been working on the ferry for 16 years.

“I came here originally because I didn’t want to be on the dole and I’m still here now. I really enjoy my work, something different happens every day and I like meeting all the different people who use the ferry.”

Alex Hawkins, 16, who was cycling from Canterbury to Suffolk, said: “This is my first time using the ferry and I’m excited about using it.

“It was a bit difficult to find it at first, though. I cycled from Canterbury to Gravesend and I’m travelling to meet my family in Shropshire. The journey across the river gives me a nice little rest.”

Sonny Boy Smith and scooter
Sonny Boy Smith and scooter

Jeff, 71, and Wendy Palmer, 66, of Cruden Roadcorr, Gravesend, were on one of their regular trips. Jeff said: “We use the ferry a lot, at least twice a week. We have to visit Essex to care for my in-laws over there.

“Now that I don’t drive this is the best route for us to take. It’s also cheaper for us because we don’t have to pay fares as we’re senior citizens.”

Wendy said: “I don’t know how people would manage without the ferry being here.

“We know lots of people our age who use it to visit Essex to look after their families.”

Sonny Boy Smith, 17, was travelling from his home in Tilbury. He said: “I use this to see my family. I’m the only Essex boy, the rest of them live in Gravesend and Northfleet so it’s nice that I can use the ferry.

“It’s cheap and it’s quick. It would take me a couple of hours if I used my scooter.

“It’s also quite dangerous for me with how fast cars go when using the crossing.”

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