At the Pier Head ferry terminal you can buy tickets for travel to Birkenhead and get vaccinated in the same building. The waterfront contains multitudes: an edifice (once voted Britain’s worst new building) that manages to house a ticket office, a Covid centre and pan-Asian restaurant; a stunning view of the Three Graces — and throngs of American tourists sightseeing. And who could blame them: Why wear out your shoe leather when, instead, you could see the city by gliding along the Mersey?
By some accounts there’s been a ferry crossing the Mersey here for almost a millennium. Some were simple rowboats, staffed by monks. Some went to war. Some inspired Gerry Marsden to write perhaps the best-known song about diesel-engined passenger boats. Nowadays the two ferries in service, Royal Iris of the Mersey and Snowdrop, carry 150,000 passengers a year across the river. But in the late nineteenth century, 44,000 people per day were taking this journey. Where did all these people go — and who is still taking the Mersey ferry, day after day?
Sam Bytheway has been taking the ferry to her job in Liverpool for the last quarter of a century. By my reckoning that means Sam has taken roughly 15,000 ferry journeys — or one in every 250 trips since 1997.
“It’s part of waking myself up for the day, it’s part of that process,” says Sam. She tells me she’s used to being in work really early and that “the walk and the ferry is part of that ‘getting into the day process’. I wouldn’t be without it.”
Sam tells me about occasionally spotting porpoises, getting free pancakes on Shrove Tuesday (an annual tradition that may or may not have died off) and being able to tell the time by the relative position of fellow commuters at specific times as they approach Woodside (the other Wirral terminal at Seacombe is currently closed due to a refurb). “There’s a very sociable aspect to it because on your way to work you see the same people at the same time.”
Sam admits she is “word perfect” on the pleasure cruise commentary, but says the journey is an integral part of her life. “I can’t understand why you’d take any other form of transport,” says Sam. “Once you do it, you’re hooked.”
Clearly to understand the appeal I need to try it for myself, so I head down to the newly-minted Gerry Marsden terminal on a sunny day in May. At the Pier Head, the throngs of tourists have just finished the last of the River Explorer cruises at 5pm. I press on and at the top of the ramp I find Joe, looking out to the Everybody Razzle Dazzle ferry, enjoying some late evening rays.
Joe hails from County Wicklow but came to Liverpool in 1971 to work on the roads and houses — “like all the paddies,” he laughs — and stayed. It was all different in those days, he says of the Pier Head. Back then there’d be steady streams of people travelling to and from their jobs; today there’s a modest trickle of commuters, casual in hi-vis vests and Ray-Bans.
Joe comes here often, particularly since he lost his partner 18 months ago. “I’m still grieving,” he admits, but he can use his free bus pass to get down to the ferry and across the water. Sometimes he chats to the people he meets, but mostly he reminisces. At least here he’s out and about. “You have to get away from the same four walls,” he says.
We walk down the gangway together and I ask whether he’ll have a pint on the other side. “Been there, drinking,” he says, looking down and shaking his head. “There are no answers at the bottom of a glass.” We part with a fist bump; his hands are enormous.
At the stern, I stumble across Dan, sporting an almighty beard. He’s on the ferry today for the first time in years, having come to Merseyside for a mini break. He’s staying in Birkenhead overnight (it’s cheaper, he says) but visiting Liverpool to see the Tate and the Doctor Who exhibition at the World Museum. “There isn’t a better way of seeing the Waterfront,” he says, when I ask why the ferry, rather than the bus or train. On a gloriously warm, clear evening it seems like a silly question.
The ferry may be a welcome moment of mindfulness for some, but for others it’s almost a lifeline. Ellis Palmer is a frequent and enthusiastic commuter on the ferry, which allows him easy access using his handcycle. He says other modes of public transport can be problematic — or even impossible to board.
“The ferries are incredibly accessible,” he tells me after meeting me at Woodside, where a superb food hall offers Japanese, Caribbean and Portuguese food. “The train is more chaotic and it takes a bit more energy.” He explains that if he gets a bus and there’s another wheelchair user, he has to wait for the next one. “The beauty of getting the ferry over is you just get on, listen to your podcast, get off the other side and you’re up and away.”
Dan using the ferry on a blustery day
Ellis believes that the new cycleways on the Liverpool side are a vital cog in a micro- mobility system; a way to encourage people out of cars and onto more inclusive, sustainable modes of transport. The humble ferries, over 60 years old, are a fundamental part of this joined-up network. He can take his handcycle, Bob, to the Pier Head and onto Lime Street, up and down the coast or over to the football grounds. But he says the ten minute commuter service is the perfect start to a working day.
“Getting the ferry over, having that Liverpool skyline on your commute… it sets you up for the day. It gives you a real energy, you know, a real buzz and a real feeling of ’wow’. You even realise the beauty of Birkenhead’s post-industrial heritage as well.”
I’m not the first to buttonhole commuters on the Mersey ferry. In 1978, photographer Tom Wood started to document his daily journey to work, over the water from New Brighton, before buses travelled through the tunnels. Wood would often miss the ferry, so he found himself hanging around at the terminuses with time — and film — to spare. He became the ‘Photie Man’, reeling off candid shots of passengers as they waited for the ferry to return.
Liverpool photographer Pete Carr describes these photos as portraying the “ever changing face of Merseyside, shot against a backdrop of Liverpool’s typography, architecture and terminals. “It shows people from all walks of life thrown together and comments on their reasons for using the ferry,” he says. “People in work clothes, trendy clothes and beach clothes…”
He explains that there is a wondrous sense of someone pausing time and saving it for future generations to look at and wonder: who were these people? Where did the ferry take them, and who are they now? “Throughout all the changes of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s the ferry doesn’t seem to have aged a day.”
Karen, Wendy, Theresa and Marie
I’m back on the top deck at the prow and approaching a quartet of ladies, two of whom are reenacting the “I’m flying!” scene from the Titanic. “Very risky,” is how one describes my suggestion of a quick chat, which is conducted with the same dynamic as four cats toying with a mouse. The four — Karen, Wendy, Theresa and Maria — are up on a girls’ weekend from Hertfordshire, ticking off their Liverpool bucket list items.
They’re not getting off at Woodside and are on the ferry for the views. Karen asks if I have any photo ID to prove my identity but my plea that passports are not usually required to enter the Wirral falls on deaf ears. “I told you this was risky,” laughs Theresa. I bid them farewell. They’re off to Turtle Bay for tea and I’m calling it a day. I’ve got what I came for — and not solely the words of the people I spoke to.
Every day people head over the water, to and from Liverpool and its less chaotic neighbour. They might have swapped docks and shipyards for the gleaming offices and food markets but the gentle rhythm of movement continues. Separated by a mile of muddy water, the two shores of the Mersey continue their slow cultural exchange.
We’re back at the Gerry Marsden Ferry Terminal — named for the singer’s surprisingly bleak song about the everyday angst of people with their own, hidden, “secret care[s]”. Karen, who used to live in Liverpool, says you’d always get a blast of Ferry Across The Mersey, even on the commuter service. But not today. Instead, there’s the lapping of the waves under the boat and cries of gulls above.
I look ahead and think I can just make out Joe at the top of the ramp and hasten to wish him farewell. But by the time I make it to the top he’s lost, in the early-evening thrum of the Pier Head.
• Originally written for the Liverpool Post. Click here for the original version: ‘I wouldn’t be without it’