The Floating Bridge – Is it a ferry or a bridge?
In the early nineteenth century, the great engineering giant Isambard Kingdom Brunel planned to build a bridge across the River Dart at the site of the current Higher Ferry, but his idea proved too expensive, so the locals had make do with a ferry instead, authorised by an Act of parliament in 1830. Some relics of Brunel’s plan survive though, including the name of the road leading down to the ferry – Bridge Road and the early ferries were called the Floating Bridge (a name which continues in the pub on the opposite side of the river). Over the years the ferries were been powered by hand, horse and steam, but the current ferry, the eighth to cross at this site and renamed the Higher Ferry, is powered by electrics. Installed in 2009, it can carry upto 36 vehicles, twice the number of its predecessor.
The photo below shows the new third ferry launched in 1876 and powered by steam:
The Little Railway Cottage that Hosted Secret Councils of War
Before QuerQuay was built during the 1990s, a single-storey clapperboard railway cottage called Inglenook stood on the site. This cottage housed the keeper for the Britannia Halt station and the level crossing. The station has sadly since closed, but as you will have seen, the crossing is still very much in operation for the steam trains now passing by.
The photograph below shows Locomotive 4555 steaming past Inglenook on the left hand side towards the level crossing and into Britannia Halt station. This small and most rudimentary station was raised on pillars and actually cantilevered out over the river’s edge. It was built to serve the sailors of the Britannia Royal Naval College who could travel from London Paddington on the Great Western Railway, alighting here to take the Floating Bridge Ferry over to the College on the other side of the river. Of note, to the right hand side of the approaching train and just beyond the crossing gate you can see the the back of the wooden diamond shaped Electrical Cable warning that still stands today.
On the left above the roof of Inglenook you can see that the hillside had been cleared of trees and taken over by allotments. Bob Ashton was the station keeper and lived with his wife Edith and two children in Inglenook for many years. He used the allotments to keep his pigs and Edith would grow flowers there to sell to travellers in the ferry queue. Sadly they were asked to leave by the railway when the station closed.
The photo below predates the one above and shows the first electrical cable being laid underwater from Dartmouth to the Kingswear side – hence the diamond shaped Electrical Cable sign has not been installed yet! There is also a clear view of the back of Britannia Halt station cantilevering out over the water:
As well as providing us with a historic snapshot this old newspaper cutting from the Dartmouth Chronicle hints at the uncertain future this railway line once faced. It writes “The railway runs through the middle of the house….” runs the old song (actually a misquotation of the 1956 Vaughan Monroe song) and in this case it’s not far wrong. But how much longer the trains will rumble past these homes by the higher ferry is something only British Rail and the Minister and Transport knows. And they aren’t telling…..” Fortunately, and unlike so many other rural lines, the Dartmouth to Paignton line survived the Ministry of Transport’s closure plans by transforming itself into a successful independent Heritage line.
In the latter part of the Second World War, Dartmouth was a base for American forces and acted as one of the departure points on D-day for their landings on Utah Beach in Normandy. Just up the river at Noss Marina (previously Philip & Son boatyard), hundreds of landing craft were built, but closer to home, Inglenook itself served as the location for secret wartime talks between General Eisenhower, Lord Mountbatten, General Montgomery and General Patten. It was around this time in April 1944 that Exercise Tiger was launched, a training operation for the Normandy landing on nearby Slapton Sands, which tragically resulted in the loss of over 900 American servicemen.
Here we see a landing vehicle loading up with American Sherman tanks and soldiers at Britannia Quay with Inglenook Cottage in the background. Note the additional slipways (with various parked vehicles on them), which the Americans constructed, to the right of the higher ferry slipway and in front of Inglenook. These have since been removed.
The scale model of Britannia Quay below (constructed by model railway enthusiast), clearly shows the old station and the additional slipways.
The neighbouring houses to the left of Inglenook, heading up Bridge Road, were taken over and used by the Americans as field hospitals, with the neighbours garage acting as the mortuary.