North Woolwich’s ‘Toughest’ ferryman talks about life after BBC show
After spending a fortnight in Bangladesh for BBC2’s ‘Toughest Place to be a Ferryman’, Colin Window has returned to find himself attracting rather more attention for his day job than he used to.
Currently working as a Bridge Officer on the Woolwich Ferry crossing from the River Thames, Colin followed his grandfather and father into the profession in 1970 - even securing a place in the Order of the Watermen, an ancient guild created by Parliament in 1555.
His father moved from East Ham to Canvey Island in 1953 and Colin still lives there now with his wife and four children - one of whom is also a ferryman.
Two weeks after the episode aired on BBC2, the Recorder set sail on the Woolwich Ferry to find out how Colin has adjusted back into the life of a ferryman and how making the programme has affected him.
Colin, 57, said: “I didn’t know anything. I hadn’t even watched the programme before I went. A couple of guys got it up on their iPhones and went ‘look at this’ and I went ‘Ohhhh right’ but that’s all I knew.
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“I didn’t know where I was going, when I was going. Once I got in the airport, just before I got on the plane, was when I knew where I was going for the first time.”
After a 14 hour flight, Colin arrived in Dhaka where he was kept in a hotel under armed guard for two days ‘to deal with the jet lag’ before filming began.
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Colin found himself having to get used to a few things very quickly such as communicating with everyone via a translator and working in the heat.
He said: “It was always too hot, 37 degrees and the humidity was too much.”
On day two, Colin was introduced to Mr Loteef, the skipper of a Sampan - a small wooden rowing boat - who charges one penny to cross the river to feed his wife, three sons, and two daughters. He used to be a farmer in a nearby village but was forced to give up due to bad weather and hard times.
The relationship between the two ferrymen - Mr Loteef and Mr Colin as they became known - proved to be one of the most compelling aspects of the programme as Mr Loteef sang traditional songs to Colin as he showed him the ropes. Colin laughs as he tells the Recorder he only found out what Mr Loteef was actually singing weeks later when he saw the subtitles on film.
Most of all, Colin said he was impressed with the strength and skill of the 70-year-old. He said: “It was his agility more than anything. He was bending down and in and out and I’m standing there creaking.”
Another memorable moment for the viewers was the sight of the Dhaka street children who spend their days foraging for plastic to recycle so they can feed themselves while living underneath a flight of stone steps.
Colin was visibly moved by the sight of the children and meeting them has stayed with him.
He said: “You see poverty on the telly all the time. You look at it and you feel sorry for them but you’re still detached from it all.
“You realise that these people aren’t set up for the celebrities or whoever’s there but these people are really living like that.
“One thing that does strike you though is that these people are so bloody happy, no one complains like they do here. I definitely still think about them all the time.”
Viewers of the programme also have a heartfelt response, something which Colin feels duty-bound to act upon.
He said: “I’m getting emails from a number of people wanting to help the kids so I’ve been on to the BBC trying to set up a charity or find one that we can direct the money to.
“Because you can’t just make a programme like that and let it go when you’re getting this interest. You only saw an hour of it but I was filming for 80 hours.
“So what I need to do now is carry that on and make sure the money gets to the people it’s intended for.”
Colin has also gone some way to doing that himself as, upon his return, he set about buying two cows for Mr Loteef so he could return back to farming in his beloved village.
Colin bought one cow himself, then encouraged his employers Serco to buy the other and he hopes Mr Loteef has an easier, happier life as a result.
But one legacy that lives on after the trip is a new nickname for the ferryman inspired by Mr Loteef.
Colin said: “This lot (the ferry crew) have been calling me Mr Colin and I get customers come on and ask for Mr Colin now. I give them a quick wave and get on with it, really.”