BEFORE the Severn Bridge was opened in 1966, crossing the river could mean a bracing 15-minute boat journey. Martin Wade looks back at the Severn ferries and how one of them is being restored to its former glory.

IT may have taken only 15 minutes to sail across the estuary, but for Tim Ryan, to take the Severn ferry was a magical experience.

"I used to cycle to Beachley with friends and we'd watch the ferries sailing back and forth across the estuary" he says. "It was a difficult and dramatic place to cross and was incredible to see".

The Severn has the second-highest tidal range in the world and powerful rip tides play across the mouth of the estuary. "They would have to travel in an arc and punch against the tide." Tim says.

Before the Severn Bridge was opened in 1966, the quickest way to cross the river from England to Wales was by ferry. The alternative was a 60-mile detour via Gloucester took 2½ hours.

Taking the boat with Old Passage Severn Ferry Company Ltd was not without its hazards. As car ownership grew, so did queues at Aust and Beachley for the ferry.

Often drivers would wait for hours only to find that the tide had dropped and had missed the last ferry meaning they had to drive the long way round. Many times exhausts were torn off by the loading ramps.

"The ferries were unique in that they had their ramps on their sides, not on the bow or stern." This was due to the way the tide would deliver the boats side-on to the landing stage.

Another distinctive feature of the vessels was the deck turntable. Tim explains: "As the ferries were quite small, there would be no room to manoeuvre the cars off, which was quite a problem, until Ida, the wife of Enoch Williams, the owner of the ferries had the idea of fitting the turntable."

It was a short but difficult route to sail across the ever-changing tides. Because the ferries had to cope with tidal ranges of up to 13 metres, they had no keel, which made it easier to cope with the lowest of tides. This also made them more difficult to steer. This meant the crew had to be on their mettle. Tim is full of admiration when he speaks of them: "The skippers and deckhands were as tough as teak." He reels off the names the way that some would recite players of a cup-winning side: "Roger Savage and Billy Groves were the captains - they had experience of sailing around the world and they'd need that sailing on the Severn."

The sailors were "legends" Tim says, "People like Tommy Lanham, Ben Brown, Percy Palmer, Bill Morgan, Roger Sharpe and Jack Bollen."

The methods of those tough as teak men would probably not pass the health and safety test today. Tim recalls how the 19 cars which the ferries could comfortably carry would be squeezed on. “Each car would be so close to the next that you couldn’t open the doors. There’s no way you’d get away with that today.”

If they need to get another car on they would often sail with the ramps down with an extra vehicle perched on the ramp.

While drivers queue and seethe at the tolls to pay to use the bridges today, the crossing on the ferries was on an open deck and small in scale where the personal touch mattered. Tim tells how a cyclist arrived at Beachley just as the last ferry was leaving and had already began to edge away from the bank. He faced a 60-mile cycle via Gloucester in the dark if he missed the boat. The crew lowered the ramp and shouted to him to throw his bike on board for them to catch and then jump on himself, which he did.

So bracing was the journey that families from either side of the river would put sick children on the ferry to go back and forth all day. The river air was thought to be a cure for whooping cough.

The end for the ferries was dramatic. But their doom had been spelt out slowly as the spans of the Severn Bridge were strung across the river.

Most of the crews found jobs on the bridge and Tim admits to being as fond of the iconic crossing as he is of the ferry. On the day it opened, the three ferries took their bow and gathered by the crossing. As the Queen drove across the bridge to open it they sounded their hooters signalling the end of that special ferry ride across those difficult waters.

That day, the three ferries headed to Bristol with an uncertain future. The oldest, the Severn Queen was immediately scrapped. The Severn King went upriver to Sharpness where it broke its back after a collision. The Severn Princess, the youngest of the three, was sold to Ireland. She was found 33 years later in Connemara, abandoned and half full of mud.

Tim along with other members of the Severn Princess Restoration Group filled the damaged keel with concrete, re-floated the vessel and towed her back to Chepstow.

Local engineering firm Fairfield Mabey (now Mabey Bridge) helped with the restoration and the Severn Princess now sits beneath the Brunel’s railway bridge on the bank of the Wye.

Since they found her in 1999, her restoration has proceeded fitfully, as funding, like the Severn tide, has ebbed and flowed. Tim says he is "very, very optimistic" that they will soon bring her back to her former glory. "As Spring approaches we can crack on again" he says. "Hopefully, when she is fully restored, she will live on one of the Mabey Bridge slipways. We'll re-paint her just as she was on the day the service ended and people will be able to re-live those days again."

“She’ll never sail again” Tim admits. “Because the ferry has a single-skinned hull, it’s not considered safe by today’s standards.”

The sons of one of the deck-hands, Jack Bollen, joined the campaign to save her. Gary works still to restore the Princess, but sadly, his brother Jeff died last year having given many years to the project.

Tim too has family links to the ferry. His dad, a welder, often worked on the Severn Princess and the excitement in his voice is tangible when he says that some of the magic of that little ferry journey across the Severn will soon return to Chepstow.