Orford Ness: The Butley Ferry

Around 7 miles (11 kilometres). With partner and silly dog. May, warm but overcast.

TL;DR Taking an ancient rowing boat over to an ancient landscape

It has become apparent to me that most of my most favourite walks involve plenty of water. The Butley Ferry is an extraordinary piece of history and the moment I heard about it, it was already a fait accompli. I was going to be rowed across the river by a man from the 1500s. For £2.

It was a very rare occurrence for the two of us to be away together, three of us if you include Shovell, and I hankered after the coast, ideally a wild and lonely one. So we went to Sweffling in Suffolk with an idea of walking Orford Ness. It was in Sweffling I saw a flyer for the ferry, so I can’t even claim it was planned. With serendipity it found me.

After a bit of hasty research I found the start of a walk which would give us enough time to get across to Gedgrave Marshes, walk alongside The Gull, around to Orford and back in time for the last ferry back across the Butley river. As it was, we came inland just before Orford as we’d spent so much time taking in the terrific views and we really didn’t want to miss the last boat home. If you can’t break your own rules, whose can you?

We started just a few hundred metres east of Capel St Andrew at a parking spot where the green route begins. There seemed to be a few people starting here, I was immediately worried about having to queue and wait hours to cross, the boat can only take 4 at a time. Surely everyone would want to go on the ferry? I don’t think any of them did, why not I cannot say. It’s been here for hundreds of years, maybe it was old for them. We raced ahead anyway. It’s a decent walk across the marshes, there was a breeze and the clouds were hanging heavy but the Suffolk skies are huge, even with a shroud over them.

We passed Butley Farm, where the last of the walkers fell away. It was just us. Ahead of us, just by an embankment was a black shed, inside a couple of oars and a vacant comfy chair. We had found the Butley ferry terminal.

We climbed the riparian stairs and looked out at the quay. There was a table with leaflets and a megaphone, a jetty, a rowing boat… and no boatman. We sat, then padded around, took some photos and sat again, were it not for the megaphone I might have lost confidence and assumed the ferry was closed. So we waited. A cyclist turns up. But the Butley ferry goes when the Butley ferryman is ready, and when he’s on a break you just need patience. We need more of that.

Before too long an older man in an astonishingly good wide brimmed, turned down at the sides, felt hat turns up and we all exchange pleasantries and £2 to the ferrywoman who keeps charge of the megaphone, which seems a good deal for the amount of effort that goes into the endeavour. So we all clamber into the little boat and I am disproportionately over excited.

It seems like a hell of a row. Our captain, Simon, tells us when the tide is turning it is a real effort to row into the tidal river and for an 84 year old he is rather fit. He tells me they are all volunteers and he’s been doing it for 16 years give or take. His hat, he explains, is a 16th century Suffolk workers’ hat. I briefly consider getting one before realising it looks excellent on a Butley ferryman but ridiculous on everyone else. The ferry has been running for centuries, no one seems to be able to agree since when, but we know in 1383 it was moved 700 yards down the bank so must have been something of a fixture even then.

It’s a short journey with an exciting landing, while our oarsman battled the tide and the cyclist grabbed the jetty to help us in. We note the last crossing time and set off to walk along the coastal path, for once not on the OS map but rest assured it’s there and it is excellent. Already I can’t wait for the boat back.

At first the views are across the tidal river. It’s quiet, just us and the footprints of waders. We are walking along an elevated grass path with uninterrupted views. It’s muddy and marvellous, stark and beautiful.

Turning the corner you are looking out to Havergate Island reserve and the avocets. It’s wild, it’s bleak and it is very calming: so much space. There is something about walking with water on one side, it draws your eyes one way only.

The water here is known as the Gull; the River Ore splits in two around the island and becomes the Gull and the Narrows. Soon there are views out to Orford Ness itself, that bizarre cross between a nature reserve and a military atomic weapons research station. Like Foulness, Orford Ness was once M.o.D, a secret weapons testing site during the Cold War, and just as wild, untamed and unapproachable. Without a dog you can visit at certain times, with a dog you have to stare at it longingly across the brackish water.

We carry on as far as Chantry point and we are running out of time. There would be no time to do much of anything in Orford, let alone grab coffee and food, it’s three miles back, so we reluctantly turn inland so we won’t be stranded here, up the creek without a paddle.

Inland we see other walkers, everyone is friendly, smiling, as if we all share a secret, being here when there are so many other places to be. We all chose this one. It’s all farmland with rich red sandy soil. We come to the turning back to the ferry. I sense a tradition here, maybe you’re supposed to give a rock for safe passage. Maybe I’m romanticising. I put a little stone on, I don’t want to miss that ferry.

And we’re back on the shore. From here you can look across to Iron Age Burrow Hill. I add it to my mental list, and then immediately forget it even though I walk right past it on the other bank. Curses.

Back at the ferry we look across ready to gesticulate. There is no one there. I can see people waiting on the far bank to come scross but no sign of the ferryman, or the ferrywoman with the megaphone. In fact no megaphone. We wait for a painful amount of time watching two kayakers bobbing about and coming in to the jetty. It’s only when they are done, and their kayaks are lifted out of the water that the ferryman eventually appears. He’s been at it all day, he must be knackered. I can’t begrudge him sitting in his comfy chair at the terminal with a cup of tea while waiting for the traffic to die down. Who really wants to drive during rush hour?

Walk info

The GPX for this walk can be found here and the Butley Ferry timetable can be found here. The Ordnance Survey map at time of writing doesn’t show the coastal path but it’s there and signposted.

Other walks in the area

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3 responses to “Orford Ness: The Butley Ferry”

  1. I definitely “get” enjoying walking around lots of water being appealing. Great photos. Lots of views as far as the eye can see!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. Perhaps we see life reflected back at us in the water

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That sounds like perfect reasoning.🙂


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