THOSE of us who regularly drive back and forth into England take the two Severn bridges for granted.
And those living in and around Chepstow moan when the M48 Severn Bridge is closed for maintenance, or because of bad weather, because it means a round trip using the Prince of Wales Bridge near Magor.
But before 1966 when the M48 bridge was opened by the Queen, travellers had to rely on the Severn ferries between Beachley and Aust – and if the weather made the crossing impossible, that meant a round trip via Gloucester, through the Forest of Dean and up through the centre of Chepstow to get into Wales, which added 60 miles and more than two hours to the journey.
In 2016 we looked back at the magical time of the Severn ferries and we’ve decided to bring it to you again.
Picture dated September 8, 1966, of the last car to be carried by the River Severn ferry – The Severn Princess, disembarking at Beachley, south Gloucestershire. Picture: PA
It may have taken only 15 minutes to sail across the estuary on one of the ferries, but for Chepstow man Tim Ryan, to take the Severn ferry was a magical experience.
“I used to cycle to Beachley with friends and we’d watch the ferries sailing back and forth across the estuary” he said. “It was a difficult and dramatic place to cross and was incredible to see.”
The River Severn has the second-highest tidal range in the world and powerful rip tides play across the mouth of the estuary.
Picture dated September 8, 1966, of the The Severn Princess, docked at Aust near Bristol. Picture: PA
This means the ferries would have to travel in an arc and punch against the tide.
Taking the boat with Old Passage Severn Ferry Company Ltd was not without its hazards. As car ownership grew, so did queues at Aust and Beachley for the ferry.
Often drivers would wait for hours only to find that the tide had dropped and had missed the last ferry meaning they had to drive the long way round. Many times exhausts were torn off by the loading ramps.
Cars disembark from the Severn Princess
Mr Ryan said: “The ferries were unique in that they had their ramps on their sides, not on the bow or stern.”
This was due to the way the tide would deliver the boats side-on to the landing stage.
Another distinctive feature of the vessels was the deck turntable. Mr Ryan said: “As the ferries were quite small, there would be no room to manoeuvre the cars off, which was quite a problem, until Ida, the wife of Enoch Williams, the owner of the ferries had the idea of fitting the turntable.”
The Severn Princess at her new home underneath Brunel’s Chepstow bridge where she is being restored
It was a short but difficult route to sail across the ever-changing tides. Because the ferries had to cope with tidal ranges of up to 13 metres, they had no keel, which made it easier to cope with the lowest of tides. This also made them more difficult to steer and meant the crew had to be on their mettle.
Mr Ryan is full of admiration when he speaks of them: “The skippers and deckhands were as tough as teak.” He reels off the names the way that some would recite players of a cup-winning side: “Roger Savage and Billy Groves were the captains – they had experience of sailing around the world and they’d need that sailing on the Severn.”
The sailors were “legends” Mr Ryan says: “People like Tommy Lanham, Ben Brown, Percy Palmer, Bill Morgan, Roger Sharpe and Jack Bollen.”
The Severn Princess with cars and van onboard and ramp down on the slipway. Picture: Tim Ryan
The methods of those tough as teak men would probably not pass the health and safety test today. Mr Ryan recalls how the 19 cars which the ferries could comfortably carry would be squeezed on. “Each car would be so close to the next that you couldn’t open the doors,” he said. “There’s no way you’d get away with that today.”
If they need to get another car on they would often sail with the ramps down with an extra vehicle perched on the ramp.
The crossing on the ferries was on an open deck and small in scale where the personal touch mattered.
A colour view of the Severn Princess ready to cross the estuary. Picture: Tim Ryan
Mr Ryan tells how a cyclist arrived at Beachley just as the last ferry was leaving and had already began to edge away from the bank. He faced a 60-mile cycle via Gloucester in the dark if he missed the boat. The crew lowered the ramp and shouted to him to throw his bike on board for them to catch and then jump on himself, which he did.
So bracing was the journey that families from either side of the river would put sick children on the ferry to go back and forth all day. The river air was thought to be a cure for whooping cough.
The end for the ferries was dramatic. But their doom had been spelt out slowly as the spans of the Severn Bridge were strung across the river.
The Severn Princess at the Aust landing stage as the final pieces of the Severn Bridge are put in place in 1966. Picture: Tim Ryan
Most of the crews found jobs on the bridge and Mr Ryan admits to being as fond of the iconic crossing as he is of the ferry. On the day it opened, the three ferries took their bow and gathered by the crossing. As the Queen drove across the bridge to open it they sounded their hooters signalling the end of that special ferry ride across those difficult waters.
That day, the three ferries headed to Bristol with an uncertain future. The oldest, the Severn Queen was immediately scrapped. The Severn King went upriver to Sharpness where it broke its back after a collision. The Severn Princess, the youngest of the three, was sold to Ireland. She was found 33 years later in Connemara, abandoned and half full of mud and was eventually brought back to Chepstow by Mr Ryan and other members of the Severn Princess Restoration Group.
She sat beneath Brunel’s railway bridge on the banks of the Wye and workers at the nearby Fairfield Mabey engineering business helped with some of the restoration work.
But the engineering business has since moved to Lydney and the site is now in the process of becoming a housing estate.
The Severn Princess sails past the Severn Bridge in the early stages of its construction. Picture: Tim Ryan
Update on the Severn Princess from Tim Ryan
In this most difficult of years perhaps we can offer a some optimism regarding the last of the River Severn ferries, the Severn Princess in spite of some pauses caused by lockdown.
She sits, high and dry, next to the what was Brunel’s famous Tubular Bridge in Chepstow. Unfortunately for the general public she is not accessible at this moment due to two housing developments in the Riverside area.
However, the Ferry Project has taken some significant steps forward recently.
Firstly we are now formally established as a Registered Charity, the Severn Princess Preservation Trust. This was a painstaking process but we feel it shows that the relevant authorities believe that our aim to cosmetically restore the boat is an achievable and worthwhile one. Where she current rests is close to the end of the Wales Coast Path and we believe she would be the perfect “museum piece” at the end of that Path.
The establishment of the trust has attracted some new and energetic trustees and in recent months not only has there been considerable work behind the scenes but also some very pleasing and rewarding physical work on the ferry itself.
Another very pleasing addition to what we are doing is a weekly “Ferry Story” on the “Chepstow, A Great Place to Go” Facebook page.
We have also put up some fantastic old photos of the boats and the old cars as well. A real “journey through the past” and some of these stories have had more than 3,000 visits. That tells us that there is real interest out there and a will for us to succeed.
So what is in the pipeline?
Firstly we have a programme of work we would like to be carried out before the Winter fully breaks including the removal of the decking timbers and the sealing of the metal deck itself to prevent any deterioration.
Secondly we hope to have a ferry-dedicated Facebook page and website up and running in the near future.
Thirdly we have commissioned greeting cards from popular local artist Susie Grindey which will be available at the Chepstow Tourist Information Centre shortly.
We are also in preliminary discussions with another interested party.
In short then, we are very optimistic about the future.