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Europe's Oldest Ferry Service

Updated: Oct 28, 2022

Would you believe that the oldest ferry in Europe is not the one on the Mersey?! Well the Strangford Lough Ferry Service was first recorded in 1180.

Europe's oldest ferry service
Strangford Lough Ferry

Did you know that the Strangford and Portaferry ferry service is probably the oldest in Europe, if not the world? John de Courcy left a great legacy on the east coast of Ireland. One of the first things he did was to set up the ferry service in 1180. The Savages, who were among the army, were then granted Portaferry as a means of protecting the eastern gateway to his precious Lecale.

On the 29th September 1604 James I sanctioned the use of land which in 1612 was granted to Peter Tumolton. It was in two quarters: one called Carhomada (now Bankmore Hill) on the Portaferry side; and the other Ferry Quarter on the Strangford side. The conditions of the grant cited:

"His heirs and assigns, at his and their expense for ever to maintain, keep and have in readiness, in and upon the ferry of Strangford, a good strong and sufficient ferry boat, and four able and efficient ferrymen to attend the ferry, for the transport of men, horses and other cattle and to perform other services at the said ferry as was theretofore used or accustomed to be done."

The ferry crossing was plied by many scales of vessel. In the 1830s there was a paddle steamer named The Lady of the Lake which operated the service. The first car ferries were operational in 1946. However, tragedy struck in the same year when one ferry capsized resulting in the loss of a life. For years afterwards only foot passengers could be ferried on the remaining ferry. It is not unusual for the ferry to be part of the daily commute and it used to be joked that the school boys who went to Downpatrick would me made to row the ferry home!

Three ferries, the original Strangford Ferry in the middle.

Animals were ferried across the Narrows until well into the 20th Century from the Horse Ferry Slip which is now a private slipway for the De Ros estate. Written into the deeds of a Strangford house are the grazing rights to animals who have missed the last ferry!

Major William Brownlow who held land on both sides came up with his own solution an Amphicar. He was an instrumental campaigner for the government to provide a ferry which came to fruition in 1968. It is this service which still runs today. The newest vessel is the Strangford II which entered service (eventually) in 2016! You can experience all of this yourself on the Sail across the Vikings fjord experience which I run throughout the year.

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