Uncertain future for the ‘wee ferries’

Happier days: Wyre Lady ex Ashton on the River Don in the summer of 2019

News that Wyre Lady, the former CSP Millport ferry Ashton, was damaged by fire at Doncaster on Wednesday 24 June means that both of the ‘wee ferries’ are facing a difficult future. Ashton’s sister Leven, latterly known as Bristol Queen, has been out of the water for six years at Weston-super-Mare as restoration work continues.

Having sailed along the River Don on Wyre Lady last summer, Charles McCrossan counts himself lucky to have been one of the last ship enthusiasts to step aboard either vessel.

One excursion which had been on the ‘to do list’ for a long time was a trip on Wyre Lady — the former MV Ashton, built by Denny at Dumbarton in 1938 and based on the River Don at Sprotbrough, near Doncaster, since 1978.

After being put up for sale by the CSP in 1965, Ashton was bought by Gourock ferry master Roy Ritchie, who renamed her Gourockian. She was sold off the Clyde in 1971, and went to Lancashire and the Severn before sailing round the south coast of England to Yorkshire

Details of sailings in recent years suggested that the operators were focused primarily on the charter market, but in 2019 the programme of sailings was revamped and a significant number of public sailings were made available, along with feature trips and special occasion outings.

Over the years the vessel had undergone some essential changes for her role as a river excursion boat, but a significant proportion of her was still exactly how she was during her years on the Clyde.

Seeing her again last summer, I found myself wondering how the ferry service moaners of today would have coped with Ashton or Leven on a blustery voyage between Largs and Millport?

Sold by the CSP to Gourock ferry master Roy Ritchie in 1966 and renamed Gourockian, she operated the Gourock to Helensburgh summer ferry service until 1971, when she changed hands again and became Wyre Lady, operating the Fleetwood to Knott End ferry service in Lancashire. After a brief, unsuccessful time on the River Severn from 1975 to 1977, she sailed all the way round the south of England to Doncaster, where she has been employed ever since.

Looking again at the images I took last summer, I count myself extremely lucky to have had such good weather for what seemed a pleasant, if quite short, trip (about 90 minutes for public sailings) along a section of the River Don which forms part of the Sheffield & South Yorkshire Navigations.

Sailing from Sprotbrough, we travelled westward, passing under the impressive Conisbrough Viaduct, which is 1,527ft long with 21 arches and has a 150ft iron girder span over the river.

When we reached the locks at Mexborough, we turned and retraced our route.

So it was with a feeling of sadness that I read the report in the Doncaster Free Press about this week’s blaze. Describing Wyre Lady as ‘a party destination for generations of revellers’, it said she had been ‘ravaged by fire’, and quoted local excursionist Gill Barton as saying “Awful news, hope she can be repaired, won’t be the same without her.”

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All photos of Wyre Lady on the River Don were taken by Charles McCrossan in the summer of 2019.

Leven latterly operated on the Bristol Channel as Bristol Queen. She has been out of the water for some years, and now occupies land between Weston-super-Mare station and a car park

Wyre Lady ex Ashton at her overnight berth on the River Don in the summer of 2019

Moving down to boarding point from her overnight berth on the River Don: Wyre Lady in the summer of 2019

Day tripper: Wyre Lady moored alongside the Boat Inn at Sprotbrough to allow passengers to embark for the next trip

Looking well kept

Stairs to lower saloon

Aft deck with toilets: ‘a significant proportion of her was still exactly how she was during her years on the Clyde’

Aft deck — almost like the old days

Different to CSP days: a well stocked bar

Opened in 1909, the 1,527ft Conisbrough Viaduct has 21 arches and a 150ft lattice iron girder span over the river. It was closed to rail traffic in 1965, but local trippers were hoping to sail under it again on Wyre Lady before this week’s fire damage to the forward part of the vessel

And now a selection of images from the CRSC digital archive, celebrating the contribution of the ‘wee ferries’ to Clyde steamer history:

In the beginning: Leven departs Bridge Wharf in 1938 on a downriver cruise to the Empire Exhibition. This image has been restored by Club member David Sinclair from the badly damaged original glass slide in the Club collection

For King and Country: Ashton and her sister served as tenders at the Tail of the Bank throughout the war years

From 1946 to 1964 Ashton and Leven faithfully served the people of Cumbrae. They sailed in fair weather and foul, often going between the Eileans in the face of a strong southerly

Leven in the inner harbour at Millport in the early 1960s

Ashton underway off Largs on 6 June 1964, her last summer under CSP ownership

Leven with Talisman at Wemyss Bay on 3 August 1963

Ashton with Bute at the Old Pier, Millport

Ashton at her traditional berth at Millport on 16 July 1962, with an ABC ferry on the other side of the pier

Up for sale: Ashton awaits a new owner in the Albert Harbour in the spring of 1965. Also in view are (left to right) Waverley, Jeanie Deans, Arran and Caledonia

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Published on 25 June 2020