The smallest ferry crossings are often the most interesting. For instance, most souls these days go to Hades on a thousand-lane motorway, with six-million-year delays en route. But cyclists can still go in the traditional way, as travellers did in Ancient Greece, on Charon’s little skiff across the Styx. It’s a much cosier, more personal way to enter the Underworld, and it doesn’t contribute to Infernal Warming.
In the mortal world, we reckon one of England’s best quirky short ferry crossings is on the Thames, near Weybridge. It’s the highlight of the mostly car-free riverside day-ride along the Thames Path. For 60km from the centre of London to Windsor the path is unremittingly, well, nice, as if extra-terrestrials had mechanically replicated a Home Counties based entirely on Disney films, postcards, parish newsletters, and old Richard Briers sitcoms. (Except Staines rail station, which was derived from CCTV footage.)
The logical way to approach the ferry is westwards, from London; it’s about 30km from Putney Bridge to the ferry itself.
The few kilometres of the Thames Path through and past Walton-on-Thames is lined with houseboats and floating holiday huts. Quarter of an hour after you pass under Walton Bridge, which has the makeshift look of reluctant squaddies’ metalwork, you’ll see the towpath take a left at a branching-point in the river. The steps down to the ferry – modestly signposted and easy to miss – are immediately on your right, along with a bell and a small sign with information about the boat’s running times. To summon the boat, ring the bell, but only on the quarter-hour. They’re not joking: the ferryman over the other side has a special caesium-based atomic clock, constantly synchronised by wi-fi with the one at the National Physical Laboratory, and accurate to 100 picoseconds.
So if you peal away at 3 or 16 or 32 or 45¾ minutes past, however festively, then absolutely nothing will happen on the other bank, not even the twitching of curtains. Conversely, the over-eager who try their one-note changes three seconds early will find their campanology equally in vain. But get it just right, within the Planck-scale window allowed four times per hour, and you’ll see the ferryman appear out of the chandlery shop across the water, walk down to the jetty opposite, and start up his small boat.
The ferry has a capacity of perhaps ten or so bikes (though no doubt they’d do a shuttle if there was a large group of you). Seasickness is unlikely to be a problem on the 30-second crossing, which works out about about as expensive per hour as a rock star’s divorce lawyer, but it’s all rather fun. Lugging your bike on and off the ferry feels reassuringly real, like you’re in the Philippines or somewhere and have just made an intrepid transit to a tiny island thanks to a one-toothed local with a rowing boat.
In fact you’re now you’re in Shepperton, whose old centre a kilometre or so up and to your right is another place that looks as if it’s been conjured up from postcards in a twee-card-trick. Carrying on upriver though, it’s another 15km to Windsor from here. By far the nicest way is to go along to your left alongside the river and past houses beyond description by estate agents), but it’s one-way the other way; the official path goes along a road until it rejoins the river a couple of kilometres further up.
If the ferry is closed, or if you are a rock star impoverished by divorce proceedings and can’t afford it, you have to cross by Walton Bridge a kilometre or two downriver, which isn’t too bad. The bridge is in two parallel sections, the new one for cars and the old one for cyclists.