Sunday, 8 March 2015

"Ferries Across the Humber", Kirk Martin

If you’ve ever been out of an evening on the north bank of the Thames near Charing Cross station you may well already be familiar with the Tatershall Castle. Known affectionately as “The Belgrano” by the MoD staff whose office is just across the road, it’s something of an institution, a floating bar often a convenient place to meet, but one suspects that few if any of its patrons give much of a thought about where she came from.

In this lavishly illustrated and engagingly personal account Kirk Martin sheds light not just on the origin of the Tatershall Castle, one of the last steam powered paddle steamers in service in the UK, but traces the history of Humber crossings from the earliest times (citing archaeological of the trade across the river by the Parisii and Coritani tribes and the Roman 'transitus maximus' between Lincoln and York) to the opening of the Humber Bridge, which brought ferry traffic to an end.

Central to the narrative, the Humber is portrayed as a complicated river, wide, with an extensive network of sandbanks, affected by tides and the vagaries of the weather, put simply, it is a "treacherous stretch of water, with mists and fogs that blot out everything and make the trip three miles of anxious hooting and peering from the bridge" (p.75) and groundings were frequent. Compounding this, in the early 20th century facilities for passengers were austere, New Holland pier is described as being "far more miserable to look at than Hedon Road Gaol" and the ships were little better, the "so called passenger steamer ... more like a farmyard than a passenger boat" (p.65).

In this context the arrival of the three "Castle" ships in the 1930s brought in new levels comfort and an ability to deal with the new demands placed by increasing car traffic. Spared war service due to the strategic importance of the trans-Humber trade the Castles were in use until the end of ferry services in the early 1970s, their longevity being partly explained by a lack of enthusiasm for investment in new ferries due to the shadow of bridge construction hanging over the route.

If Martin's account spurs you go and look for the Tatershall Castle and you're worried because you can't spot it on the Embankment worry not - as of early 2015 she's been taken off for a refit, fittingly being carried out in Hull.

Disclosure: a review copy of this book was supplied by Pen and Sword Books.

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