Ferry of Dreams

By Jeremy Miles

Even Paradise gets clobbered by bad weather once in a while. I clamber aboard the Sandbanks Ferry in the teeth of gale. 

The rain is falling in sheets making the millionaire’s playground beyond the slipway look distinctly less exotic than those images we are so used to seeing of this curious spit of sand at the mouth of Poole Harbour.

A place where Russian oligarchs rub shoulders with footballer’s wives, where rock stars cruise the palm-fringed boulevards and, despite the credit crunch, property prices are still among the most expensive in the world.

Captain Steve Sabine is undeterred. His rain-lashed face, wreathed in a big smile, he announces: “Welcome aboard the ferry of dreams.”

The Sandbanks Ferry may look like little more than a 240 foot slab of steel tethered to chains and destined to chug relentlessly back and forth between Sandbanks and Studland - a grand voyage of little over 400 yards -  but for some it really is part of a dream.

A dream that came true for the winners in the crazy property race of the late 1990s, a period that saw house prices at Sandbanks not so much go through the roof as hit the stratosphere.

Prices reached silly levels when in 2001 local estate agent Tom Doyle sold a 1,200 square foot flat for a million pounds.

The media reached for their calculators and suddenly Sandbanks became internationally known as the fourth most expensive property market in the world, right up there with Manhattan, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

 The rest, as they say,  is history. Since then mega-rich buyers have routinely torn down their multi-million pound purchases to put up something a little more to their personal taste. Sandbanks has made national and international headlines but what’s really strange in these cash-strapped times is that it’s still going strong. 

Interestingly people like Steve Sabine merely shrug when you talk about  Sandbank’s massive wealth.

Long a magnet for yachties, beach bums and nature lovers, this isthmus has seen many changes. It all started back in the 1920s when a handful of building plots were marked out and offered for the princely sum of £200 each. Now prime sites on Sandbanks regularly sport seven figure price tags and the predominant demographic profile of the area’s residents has changed from lower middle class beach-lovers to the classless mega-rich.

One constant though, through good times and lean, has been the chain ferry. 

This is what is important to Steve, one of a team of duty captains, and his colleagues. When you talk to him about Sandbanks, money is a long way down the agenda.

 “I never forget how lucky I am,” he told me. “I could be stuck in an office with a bunch of drawing pins and a Sasco year planner, staring into a computer. Instead I’ve got this.”

He waves a hand at the extraordinarily beautiful scene that presents itself through the windows of his control cabin as the rain clears.

 “Take a good look around and you’ll see something that nobody gets to see on a regular daily basis.”

Steve, a 46-year-old, who has two disabled sons, admits that, unlike some of his passengers, money isn’t his main motivation, but rather a “life/work balance”.  

“Let’s just say if you can find another job that offers better food for the soul than this then I’d be very interested to hear about it.” he says.

His job offers a unique view of the phenomenon that is Sandbanks, including the celebrity comings and goings.

Steve, ever the professional tells me: “They’re customers and get treated like everyone else. We try to afford them the same sort of privacy you’d be expect yourself.“

“Yes,” I say “ but you must surely get just a little bit interested when you spot someone off the telly?”

Steve finally admits  that he’s not not totally blase about regulars like Jonathan Ross and Thelma Barlow (Mavis from Coronation Street) who both have homes in Swanage.

“Of course we get interested when we see someone well known. It’s only natural,” he says.

Other celebrity passengers have included Jack Dee, Su Pollard and Freddie Starr while Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp, often boards as a foot passenger to take his dogs for a walk on Studland Beach.

“Really nice chap.” says Steve. “He and his wife are very pleasant people.”

Other reconisable passengers have included everyone from Matthew Kelly to Margaret Thatcher. 

A previous regular was the late Beatle John Lennon who, in 1965, bought the woman who brought him up, his beloved Aunt Mimi, a bungalow in Panorama Road. 

Just yards from the ferry slipway and with stunning views across the water to Shell Bay and Brownsea Island, it cost £25,000, a considerable sum 45 odd years ago. Lennon who was assassinated in New York in 1980, used to often retreat to the little house. And it was was there that Mimi Smith received an early morning phone call telling her that he had been gunned down. 

The bungalow is no longer there. After Mimi’s death in 1991 it was bought by a millionaire sculptor  who, despite protests from Beatles fans, demolished it and built a luxury marine residence on the site. Some believe it was Lennon’s interest that kick-started the obsession with everything Sandbanks. Others believe that it’s a far more recent phenomenon. 

Whatever the truth, Steve reckons the ferry offers a unique view. “It’s like a microcosm of life on here… you get everybody from the famous to the ordinary, some are astonishingly wealthy while others are quite poor. Some are  incredibly courteous, a few are rude and  boring... you name it!”

He even has his own quasi-celebrity crew. There’s a non country singing Kenny Rogers in  the toll office and on any given day it’s quite possible to have a mini Dad’s Army in the form of Walker, Wilson and Pike on the duty roster.

“When you get that lot on deck and I can say ‘Wilson, take that man’s name.’ It’s quite  surreal,” chuckles Steve.  

Also on board is Brian Andrews - chief engineer for the past 26 years. He retired last summer but can’t quite give it up. Not only has he retained his title but he still works two days a week.

Like Steve he admits the job is not always perfect but he can’t think of anything he wants to do more.

Talking in his office I notice a lottery ticket pinned to the wall. ‘What are you going to do if you win’ I ask? 

“Retire,” he says, a big smile crossing his face,  but then adds: “Mind you I’d probably still like to work a couple of days a week.”

© Jeremy Miles 2022