For years Llansteffan has been a tantalising prospect for people in Ferryside and the many tourists who pass through on the railway that hugs the coast. So close, with a line of prettily coloured waterside houses and the magnificent ruined Norman castle up on the hill, yet quite out of reach over the tidal waters of the Towy Estuary in Carmarthenshire, Wales.
Places often lose touch with the specific function contained in their name, but that shouldn’t apply when the key word is “ferry”. You would expect it still to mean something in a practical sense, as in a means for crossing over, unless the yawning gap it used to close has been replaced with a bridge or tunnel.
This month (August 2018) Ferryside recovered its original purpose for the first time in over 50 years, when Glansteffan, an agile little boat on wheels, once again made the crossing, from beach to shining beach, in a matter of minutes.
When two places are so close that, at low tide, it should be possible to have a shouted conversation across the narrow band of the river Towy, it makes no sense that they should be so far apart in journey terms in these days when a non-stop flight from Australia to London is routine.
Before the new service, run by Carmarthen Bay Ferries, began on August 10, it took a 32 minute car journey for the 17 mile road trip between the two villages, via the nearest bridge at Carmarthen. Public transport, by bus and train, takes a lot longer. (There is no railway on the other, western shore to Llansteffan.)
It took a £300,000 grant from the Big Lottery Coastal Communities Fund, administered by the government and the devolved administration in Wales, drawing on income from the Crown Estate’s marine assets to restart the link. It’s unlikely that in these still cash-strapped days in the public sector that any other grant would have been available.
The money paid for the nimble purpose-built aluminium-hulled boat designed for these waters. It is fitted with a ‘Sealegs Amphibious Enablement System’ developed by a New Zealand company. This enables the boat to drive out of the water onto the sand beaches on both sides of the estuary on three wheels. The wheels work rather like those on an aircraft undercarriage. They are fitted with hydraulic motors; the front one is steerable.
The hull, manufactured in Holland and assembled at a boatyard in Pembrokeshire, allows the craft to skim over the water rather than ploughing through it, at a top speed of 30 knots. Glansteffan will make the 5-minute crossing about four times per hour, for up to 6 hours a day. Because of the wide tidal range the ferry will only operate when there is sufficient water in the estuary.
The boat, which bristles with technology, including a depth gauge, and a GPS chart plotter, seats 10 passengers, and up to 4 bikes or two wheel-chairs.
It was a pleasant, sunny day for the launch, which was marked by some sweet singing by a soprano soloist, although the first full day of service, which was a Saturday, was blighted by a day of rain. But there’s still enough left of the summer of 2018 for the idea of a quick leisure excursion between the two villages to take hold.
They are likely to have been linked for many hundreds of years. Pilgrims would have needed to cross these waters on their way to St David’s Cathedral, further west in Pembrokeshire. The Normans probably operated a Llansteffan to Ferryside ferry 900 years ago when they controlled Carmarthen – seven miles upstream – and operated castles at Llansteffan, Laugharne (west around the next headland), and Kidwelly, just a few miles to the east.
Thereafter a ferry would have operated over this estuary down the centuries, as a vital link on the main coastal trading and travel route, long before the main road was built through Carmarthen and before the railway was established in the 1840s and 50s.
A sailboat ferry operated within living memory and was very popular in the summer when trains brought holidaying miners from the South Wales valleys to Ferryside station for the crossing to Llansteffan. But the motorcar, which finished off so many rural railways, found this river service an easy prey. The ferry last ran sometime in the 1960s.
The new service – Carmarthen Bay Ferries is, in commercial jargon, a “Community Interest Company” – has created a number of new jobs. It is currently scheduled to operate daily for at least eight months of the year. The company also has plans to make a range of journeys to local points of interest. Occasional destinations could include Laugharne, currently promoted as the main location in the popular BBC 1 series “Keeping Faith.”
The maxim “use it or lose it” is acutely relevant to the new ferry. One likely use is by cyclists, as a way to miss out the busy road to Carmarthen on their route around the coast.
In the summer months at least the railway could help it stay, figuratively, afloat. Many trains use this line and stop at Ferryside station. There are trains to and Manchester, and there is even one direct service a day to London. The rail companies could help by promoting excursions over the estuary, with tourists perhaps taking in a visit to the very impressive and imposing Llansteffan Castle.
The artist Turner painted his “Llanstephan Castle by Moonlight, with a Kiln in the Foreground” here in 1795 on his tour of South Wales. He would almost certainly have crossed on the ferry. The work is in the Tate Britain in London.
In an early example of inter community cooperation, pupils from the two villages’ schools came up with a unifying name for the new ferry, Glansteffan, sensibly, as one news report put it, discarding any thought of the supremely unimaginative Boaty MacBoat face.
This isn’t exactly a Montague and Capulet situation – the two villages have no reason to dislike each other. They just don’t know each other. Market research suggests that over three quarters of residents would use the service. If new friendships can be forged over the water, that might be just another way of supporting the ferry link for years to come.
For daily timings go to http://www.carmarthenbayferries.co.uk.
Adult single crossing £5 (£10 ); children half price (under 6, free). Family Ticket (2 adults – 2 children) £12 one way. Bikes and “well behaved” dogs are free.