The Sandbanks Ferry

The Sandbanks Ferry is an icon of Poole Harbour and a mode of transport that has featured in my life since I was a babe in a pram and my parents used to take me across to the beach at Shell Bay where the whole family would gather. Even now, all those years later, I feel I have a connection with this somewhat quirky way of crossing the harbour entrance, and any walk I take that involves this ferry is still richer for the experience.

Bramblebush Bay
The Bramblebush Bay

Poole Harbour is one of the largest natural harbours in the world with nearly 15 square miles of water and 100 miles of coastline but the entrance is just 300 meters wide.  The peninsulas either side of the entrance were originally just sand spits without roads but now the situation is considerably different, and totally contrasting too. The southern peninsula, South Haven Point, comprises just heathland and beaches whilst the northern shoreline, unsurprisingly known as North Haven Point, is made up of some of the most expensive real estate in the world – you would need to be a multi-millionaire just to buy a plot of land here!

Between the two is that short stretch of fast flowing water as the tide fills and empties the harbour, much as a tap fills a bottle.

On the Sandbanks Ferry
On the Sandbanks Ferry

It was in the early 1900’s that the first suggestion for a harbour entrance crossing was muted, in order to avoid a road trip of some 25 miles around the inland perimeter of the harbour.  The suggestion was that this should be a transporter bridge although the proposal failed, as did several other schemes.

From the early 1900’s, foot passengers were catered for by a rowing boat ferry that operated during the summer, carrying passengers across to and from the wild and remote Shell Bay. This must have been really hard work for the oarsman especially when the strong tides were running through that narrow harbour entrance.  This rowboat ferry was eventually changed to a motor boat service.

Looking Out to Sea
Looking Out to Sea

It was just before the First World War that the suggestion was made that a vehicle ferry should be set up and some 9 years later, the Bournemouth-Swanage Motor Road And Ferry Company was formed to progress this.  Roads needed to be built and slipways formed with Purbeck Stone being brought in from the Dorset coastal quarries either overland or by barge.  With some of the land being boggy marshlands, copious amounts were needed.

On 15th July 1926, the first ferry, a small coal fired, steam driven craft carrying up to 15 cars, commenced service.  This continued to operate for over 30 years, although the service was suspended during World War Two as the whole area was taken over by the military.

In the mid 1950’s, a new and larger ferry was installed.  This carried up to 28 cars and again operated for some 35 years before being taken out of service.

The current ferry, The Bramblebush Bay, came into service in 1994 and was larger again with a length of 244 feet and a beam of 54 feet.  This carries up to 48 cars but when fully loaded still has a draught of only 3 feet 9 inches – despite its size, the average depth of the water in the harbour is just 48cm.

In Transit
The Poole Harbour Entrance

The ferry operates on two hardened steel chains, each 1,235 feet long, anchored at either side of the harbour entrance.  Wear and tear on the chain causes it to stretch and two links have to be taken out each fortnight in order to maintain the optimum length.  Although there are two chains, the ferry actually drives on one side at a time only (the side farthest from the flowing tide) in order to make it easier to manouvre at the slipway and to reduce cost.  There is a tremendous strain on the chains, especially when a strong tide is flowing and a chain has been known to break.  The chains are replaced every 15/18 months and the old ones sold off, often for use as weights for lobster pots or boat moorings etc.

The Evening Ferry
At the End of the Day

To travel on the Sandbanks Ferry is a delight and there is no better way to start and finish a walk.  It is still one of my regular haunts and I thoroughly enjoy both the quirkiness and the amazing views, especially at sunrise and sunset.

Thanks for stopping by.

Until next time,
Your friend The Dorset Rambler

If you would like to contact me, my email address is – comments and feedback are always welcomed.

All photographs, poems and words in this blog are the copyright of The Dorset Rambler and must not be reproduced without permission.


  1. Yes I like the ferry too. My parents have been taking me on it since I was about 4 too! You probably know, the old ferry this one replaced is still in Poole harbour. You can see it from the far side of Brownsea Island. I think it is used as an Oyster farm these days.

  2. I am another one who was taken on the Ferry from a very early age. I remember being fascinated by the sight of the chains running across gears inside the vessel. I can still smell the oil.
    I also remember being taken across the water in motor boats (Davis I think).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s