An oarsome woman
PUBLISHED: 15:19 07 July 2014
Sheena Grant meets Dani Church, a Walberswick ferrywoman following a family tradition Photographs by Sarah Lucy Brown
There’s something about this place that makes you exhale deeply and start to relax.
It could be the sound of the sea in the distance, the cries of the gulls overhead, the gentle lapping of the river water or the timeless quality of our surroundings – who knows? But everyone feels it. You can’t help it, even today, on a windy bank holiday afternoon.
It’s a primeval thing. People and boats go back millennia. They’re part of the history of this island nation.
And as we wait on the jetty for the boat to come in, listening to the oars break the surface of the water, making that dense, satisfying wood-on-wood sound as they knock against the edge of the vessel, it’s not hard to feel a connection with the past.
For Dani Church, that connection is particularly strong. She is the fifth generation of her family to row passengers across the River Blyth between Walberswick and Southwold. She took over the summer ferry service from her dad, David, in 2001, when she was in her mid-20s.
Before that, she’d travelled the world, gone to university, completed an ecology degree and worked for the Environment Agency. But she always knew that one day she’d be back, on this short stretch of river crossing which has a significance way out of proportion to its mere distance.
The river, ferry and its black weather-boarded hut on the Walberswick side of the Blyth have been part of her life since childhood, rather as they are for her own son, Charlie, and nephew, Oscar, today. Dani even met her husband, Crispin, on the river. He was rowing with a canoe club and the pair would wave to each other as their boats passed. She wouldn’t swap these surroundings for anywhere else.
“Even when I was at university, travelling or working elsewhere I knew that, eventually, I would come back,” Dani tells me as we chat, between passengers. “It just happened 10 to 15 years earlier than I thought it would.”
Dani’s dad, David, died of cancer aged just 59. He had rowed the ferry since the age of 12 and worked until February 2001, three months before his death.
Her great-great-grandfather’s brother, Benjamin Cross, a Walberswick fisherman, was the first ferryman of her family, in 1885. The line continued with his son and nephews, through to Dani’s great uncle and father, and now her.
“When you sit down and think about it, you do feel a link with that history,” she says. “It is a responsibility to take on something like this, but I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t want to. It’s also a privilege. The exercise and the people – that’s what makes it really. I’ve been here 13 years now. Some of the children I first saw as babies are now teenagers.”
Dani wrote a book, published in 2009, telling the story of the ferry from its first recorded licence in the 13th century. It details the lives of the ferrymen and many of their passengers, including postman Richard Fisk, whose delivery round included a daily ferry trip with his bike and mail sack, and Philip Kett, a Walberswick schoolboy who on Mondays had the job of errand boy, collecting meat from the ferry for the pupils’ meals that week.
As well as human passengers and dogs, the ferry still transports bikes – Dani squeezed three tandems and six people in last year. Without the service, travellers would face a lengthy road journey or have to walk much further along the river to a footbridge. The crossing can take anything from 30 seconds to five minutes, depending on tide and wind.
Dani is gearing up for her busiest time of year, as school holidays approach.
“It’s only in the last 20 years that the area has got so popular with tourists,” she says. “Not so long ago, even in August, dad used to have a swim between customers. Years ago, most passengers were local, many using the service to go to work. Now most are holidaymakers.
“The actual service hasn’t changed. It’s particularly special when it’s quiet though. We’ve got a seal that pops up most days – there are fish and birds. I even saw a snake wrapped around the ferry post one morning.”
Nowadays, Dani shares the rowing with four others, including her husband, other relatives and friends. As to the next generation of ferrymen, she hopes the job stays in the family, but says there will be no pressure.
Anyway, she doesn’t intend a vacancy for decades to come.
“With any luck I’ll be like my great uncle, who rowed into his 80s. I can’t see myself retiring at 65,” she says.