Countryside profile

PUBLISHED: 15:07 02 July 2012 | UPDATED: 21:34 20 February 2013

Countryside profile

Countryside profile

Norfolk's Scoult Head Island ferryman, Peter Bickell

The last ferry

The ebb and flow of river and sea set the timetable of Norfolks island ferryman, writes Rowan Mantell.

As the sea trickles and seeps up channels, filling in the mud-flats and tidal bays around Scolt Head Island, ferryman Peter Bickell prepares to take to the water. He grew up on this wild and complicated stretch of the north Norfolk coast, learning its creeks and currents, finding the best places to chance upon shoals of silvery mackerel and simply messing about in boats.

In high summer, for the four hours around high tide, Peter takes his ferry back and forth along the river channel from Burnham Overy Staithe to the beach on Scolt Head. Families clamber in and tumble out, trailing buckets and spades, picnic hampers, toddlers and towels.

Its an idiosyncratic service, depending on tide and time of year and demand, beginning in May weekends and shuttling over to the island every day through the six weeks of the school summer holidays. At low tide, those with local knowledge will take the cockle-path as it emerges, oozing mud, between island and dry land.

Peter has been running the ferry for 15 summers but fears this may be his last.

He charges 3 per journey but says: "Its getting harder and harder to earn a living."

Out of season, and between-times, he works as a painter and decorator. He has also been a shepherd and a merchant seaman and works his ferry, called simply Island Ferry, with his partner, Celia.

Born in nearby Burnham Deepdale, and living in Burnham Overy Town, he is fiercely protective of this place of mingled land and sea.

Best of all, Peter loves being out on the water. "Its the peace and quiet, a different way of life without the hassle," he says.

Ashore, he regrets the shut-up second homes which once housed whole families all year round, and the lack of campsites and caravans for the kind of holidaymakers who dont have their own boats and need to be ferried out to the island.

"Theres been a ferry here all my life," says the 51-year-old. "But last year I lost money."

This summer, at least, he will still be at the helm of the Island Ferry, powering through the shifting tidal channels to an island circled by an ever-changing mix of river and sea.

The ferry timetable shifts with the tides and seasons too try Peter on 07836 523396 for details.

Latest from the EDP Norfolk Magazine