Working Lives

Life and times at Reedham Ferry (1950s-2018)

Location: Reedham

David’s family took over the Reedham Ferry Inn and Reedham Ferry in 1949. He talks us through life working on the ferry and the changes that have occurred over the years.

Father had been in the RAF during the War and when he came back to London the family bought this little newsagent shop in Earl’s Court.  In those days I used to deliver the papers in the mornings before going to school and then again in the evenings.  Father used to come up to Norfolk before the War and did a bit of boating, so he knew the Broads to a degree.

First sight of Reedham Ferry Inn

One day father was looking through various adverts and this particular inn and the ferry caught his eye, so he came up with a friend to have a look at it. Then two or three weeks later mother and I came up by steam train; on the LNER. We arrived at Reedham station, walked down the road and lo and behold there was this countryside inn. It looked fairly dilapidated, but had a charm about it. I was interested in fishing, so I thought this was going to be heaven for me. The Benns family owned it at the time and they made us welcome. We stayed there for a while and went back to London that evening. Father and his friend returned later on and put in an offer, which was accepted.

The Archers arrive at Reedham Ferry Inn

We actually took over Reedham Ferry Inn and the ferry in January 1949, when I was 14. The Buckenham and Surlingham ferries had disappeared just before the War, so this was the only one in Norfolk at the time.

When we first arrived at the pub, it was just a beer and cider house.  Father went to Blofield and Flegg Courthouse and applied for a spirit licence. He told the tale that the Clerk to the Court said ‘why do you want a spirit licence Mr Archer?’ and he said ‘well somebody came in; he’d fallen in the river and all I could offer him was a pint of beer.’ So with that, we got a spirit licence.

It was a very small building originally, in fact, where the conservatory is now was just garden. You came straight in through the original door. There was the bar room and the Benns’ private room. There was a piano and I think she used to rattle out a few tunes on that. Where the pumps are, the cellar was there. You used to go down some steps into the cellar. There must have been six ft down below there and then there was a stillion, which is what the barrels sat on and you would open the tap and pour a pint out. Then you’d walk back up and then they’d say ‘can I have a packet of crisps?’ and you’d have to go all the way back again.

There was no electricity. It was either paraffin lamps, or Tilley lights, and then we got a little generator in, which did a few lights. We finally got onto the mains electricity. There was no water here; we used to have to go to Reedham for it.

We eventually had a well bored out the back. They were here for about two or three weeks getting through; they hit the seabed; 100 ft maybe and do you think they could get through the crust of this, but anyhow we did get water in the end. It wasn’t the best of waters; it had a high iron content for some reason, but nevertheless we had water, which saved us trotting up and down the road. I put in mains water many years ago.

Again there was no sewage; it was ‘a bucket and chuck it’. Then we put a small sewage system out the back, but in the end that couldn’t cope with the increased number of people. So now we’ve got a big holding tank and a couple of pumps, which pump it all the way up the road into the AWA.


Reedham Ferry Inn 1950s. Hal Archer (Landlady) is in the striped top

Previous owners

We have some deeds detailing previous owners. Jeremiah Hoggett came in 1864 followed by George Forder.  Forder is a great Norfolk name; especially in Reedham and he was here from 1874 to 1914. During the First World War I understand Reedham station was a holding point for horses and cattle, which were then shipped across to France. Charlie Stone came next and left in 1941. The Benns family followed until 1949.

Sculling boat and original ferry

There was a sculling boat, which we used to take foot passengers and bicycles over, as in those days there really weren’t too many cars about. Being just after the War, there wasn’t a lot of money around and so a lot of the locals used cycles. It could carry half a dozen passengers. This proved an easier job than winding the ferry over by hand.

The ferry didn’t have ramps to begin with, but there were wooden shocks, which were various sized blocks made out of elm, to allow for the tide coming up.  So at one time you’d have them all in. Then the tide would fall away and you’d have to take them all out.  So it was quite a manual exercise.

David doing repairs on the old ferry

When the sugar beet harvest started and Cantley got into full swing, in those days we could manage the small trucks, because a lot of them were ex-Army Bedfords. We would take those back over empty, as they were too heavy when they were loaded. There would be four or five of those queuing up in the late afternoon, because they only used to do possibly one, maybe two loads a day, because of the limited amount they could carry.

David 1950s

We eventually started to get a few cars and taxis, but still a lot of bicycles.  We then put ramps on the ferry and also a little Lister diesel engine, so we could chug across.

We had times, if the current was very strong, when we actually had to say sorry we can’t do it.  One such time was the first Easter we were here. The gear was fairly worn down, father and I were on the ferry and the chain actually broke. I managed to grab hold of the chain and we swung round on the quay head and there we sat all of Easter. Eventually when the wind calmed down, using the sculling boat, we put a link in and we were back in business.

Coasters, lighters and other river traffic

It’s always been a chain ferry.  We did look at cables at one time, but what with the stretch on them, being out of the water and, of course, the various river traffic, this was certainly a no-no. Of course, in those days there were coasters, tugs and lighters coming up to Norwich from Yarmouth, so you used to have to keep your eye open for them.

Coasters would fill up the lighters and there’d be two tugboats, one of which I remember was the Gemsteam. They would have maybe three lighters behind them and they’d go all the way up to Norwich, to the power station. The river is 18ft here and in the early days there was just one chain on the ferry and we would have to lower that deep into the mud to let them pass.  Now, of course, it runs on two.

Tug towing lighters

In the early 50’s there were one or two private boats and then the hire boats started to come, as people got more into holidays, which started to generate income. As people began holidaying abroad though, business on the Broads started to ease off.  I mean at one time if you didn’t get here by three o’clock in the afternoon, you would be pushed for moorings.

The Norfolk Show at Raveningham and Acle Sale

Because the ferry could only take one or two small cars, there’d be a queue round the corner here, particularly at busy times. I remember one year when the Norfolk Show was on at Raveningham, we started first thing in the morning and we carried on until late at night.

Acle Sale day was always quite a thing, where they sold livestock, including cattle and pigs, and that was always a busy time for us too. We used to have chickens, ducks and some pigs out the back and I used to walk the sow up into Reedham to get it serviced. I can’t imagine walking a pig up the road now.

We used to get a few horses and carts coming across too.  A lovely old boy used to come from the other side of Loddon on his way to Acle Sale. He had a little dairy and he used to make his own butter. I’ll never forget, he used to give me the odd pat of butter and you could actually still see an imprint of his hand on it and whether that was washed, or not; I doubt it.

David 1960s


I remember the wherries coming through certainly up until the late 50’s. They would be carrying sugar beet, going all the way up to Cantley. There was a grab on the quay head there, where they used to unload it. They used to come down from the Raveningham Estate to the Cockatrice the other side of the river there, and they used to load them straight in there off the trailers; they could back it right in there and fork them in, because it was all done by hand in those days.

Staffing the ferry and changing business

There’s three employees for the ferry during the week; Martin does six until two, Luke two until six and Alan covers six until ten. Then there’s two or three different people covering the weekend. The weekday staff come in at six in the morning and carry out the various checks on the ferry, ready to get going by half past, in order to catch people going to work. They can return this way too, so that has increased the footfall. Business is certainly going steady pretty well all day now, particularly in the summer.

At one time we used to sell sweets and things on the ferry, particularly to the lorry drivers, also tobacco was always available. Nowadays people mainly use the ferry service as a shortcut  and some even buy multi-car tickets.

There’s certainly still plenty of people coming across with bicycles, for instance, yesterday there were 30 during the course of the day.

She had a refit three years ago, which was quite considerable. She was out of the water for six weeks. She gets towed down to Oulton Broad and then goes through the locks and onto the yard.  Another refit is due next January/February, or next spring. She’s 35 years old, so she does need a lot of attention now.

The current ferry is similar in design to the first one, but she’s about 10ft longer. You can’t go too long, otherwise the tide catches her making it difficult getting in either side. She’s slotted-built, so that the tide hits her and then goes under. However, there are times when you get a wind and tide together then we do have difficulties getting here in, although the engines are powerful enough to do that. In the old days, with the old ferry, we had a block and tackle where you’d have to pull it in by hand. So there was a lot of manual work involved then.

Refit 2016

One of the most difficult times was when we were iced in.  I mean we were quite lucky here, because we kept going backwards and forwards and we had a clear passage through, so we were working alright. One of the tankers was up at Cantley and they decided to try and get through, so they cracked all the ice up. There was more snowfall though and it all froze together and they actually got stuck in Reedham for a couple of weeks before the ice thawed. That really was a bad period, because I guess that must have been January/February time and there was hardly anybody about and there was no ferry; there was no income at all.

We had camping here, but on a very small scale; people used to use the pub toilets. We decided that it was a market we ought to expand into. Eventually we got planning permission for a new toilet block, with solar panels and modern showers, for the touring park as it is now.

Drainage Mill

We’ve got about 50 acres of land here; the marshes goes with it and when we first came here, there was an opportunity to run the drainage mill. The old boy that was doing it was retiring, so I took that job on and I still do it to this day. I have to check that the water levels are right. There’s a weed screen, which is quite wide, and that has to be kept clean. So I take the weed out and just check everything’s running smoothly.

I do have a vehicle I use to get to it now, but at one time I just used planks of wood, the Norfolk term for which is ‘liggers’, and I had them in a straight line across to the mill. I used to possibly run one way and walk the other, but there has been the odd time when the fog has come down, I’ve gone astray. I knew where I was, but I didn’t know how I got there. It’s crazy with fog when it gets you like that.

Skylarks and coypu

This also gave me interest in the wildlife. We used to see a lot of things, which unfortunately you don’t see now. I mean at one time there were skylarks everywhere, but since the increase in birds of prey and so on I haven’t heard a skylark out there for a couple of years now.

There were coypu too in those days and we used to trap them. We skinned the pelts out and took them to Pettit’s. They then sent them to a company in Wisbech, where they were prepared for the fur trade.

New ferry launched at Newson’s Yard

The ferry was actually launched in August 1983 down at Newson’s Yard, which is the seaward side of Oulton Broad, by Fred Newson; a lovely man. He and I used to look after the old ferry and we used to kick a few ideas around together and eventually we sat down and drew a plan for a new one. We gradually added things to it and I suppose it took two and a half years to actually materialise. The old ferry was driven by V-belts, which are like large scale fan belts, and because that had been so successful we went for V-belts again, but that was a bit of a disaster.

The old ferry was timber-framed, where this one was steel-framed, so there was a struggle getting over against the tide. So she went back to the yard to be converted to hydraulic power.

Reedham Ferry mid 1980s

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency

In 1989 there was a disaster on the River Thames in London; the Marchioness, which was a passenger vessel, struck a dredger, and 51 people drowned. After that the MCA, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, came into being and then we, as ferry operators, had to come up with plans of the capabilities of our ferries. We get an MCA inspection on the ferry twice a year.

All the ferry operators meet once a year to discuss various rules and regulations that come into being. The other operators are down South; Reedham ferry is the only one on the East coast and is possibly the smallest. We’ve been meeting for years and it’s like a club.

Fortunately, we’ve had no major issues regarding health and safety and as far as the ferry’s concerned I can say, touch wood, we’ve been pretty good on that score.

Wherryman’s Walk

We get a lot of walkers as well as cyclists. They’re going to, hopefully, open up the Wherryman’s Walk by the middle of next year. Then they can walk all the way down to Yarmouth if they want, along the river wall, and then in the opposite direction through to Loddon.

After the 1953 floods they built up the riverbanks and the paths are much improved, but when it broke, it broke opposite here and it flooded the marshes all the way through to Haddiscoe. I was in the Army at the time and I got a leave and came back home, but by that time it had all settled down. I did get a rowing boat though and rowed all the way across to Haddiscoe on the flood water. We were lucky though the pub never flooded. It was touch and go whether it came this side, or went the other side.

I like to think that over the years we’ve become more of a destination pub. We use local produce wherever we can; we’ve got a very good butcher’s, greengrocer’s and fishmonger’s and I’ve got a good team in the kitchen.

We’ve also got a couple of fishing lakes. There’s a small charge for the fishing, to cover things like fencing to keep the otters out, but there’s free fishing on our riverbank here. I suppose we’ve got about half a mile of riverbank, not that it gets fished anywhere other than down this end of it, but there is scope for the future, if we wanted to expand the moorings, which I would like to do.

Actually the moorings do need considerable money spent on them, but there again the boating side has declined somewhat from the Yare and the Waveney. There’s a lot more boats on the northern rivers and nowadays you can hire a cruiser for as little as two or three days if you want. Looking back, when everybody was coming to the Broads, if you didn’t want to hire a boat for at least a week, they didn’t really want to know. So now a lot of those boats don’t come any further round than Yarmouth, because there’s several yards on the Yare and the Chet. There’s a lot more private boats around than there ever was and we get some rather smart boats down now from Brooms Boats at Brundall and so on.

Father retired when he was about 50, but he was a great man for his speedboat racing down at Oulton Broad; which he loved, so that kept him young and active. I took over in 1969; this is still very much a family business and I’ve got my daughter Harriet following in my footsteps.

David Archer 2018. WISEArchive

Photos with permission from the Reedham Ferry Inn Facebook page.

David Archer (b. 1934) talking to WISEArchive in Reedham on 15th January 2018. 

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