The English Channel Ports


The first commercial Cross-Channel activity from Ramsgate began in the 1960s with Hoverlloyd. Their foot passenger carrying S. R. N. 6 hovercraft used the old Royal Harbour, but the delivery of the much larger car carrying S. R. N. 4 versions saw a short move down the coast to Pegwell Bay in 1969. Swift and Sure were followed by Sir Christopher and The Prince of Wales, with half hourly flights to Calais were operating in the hey day of the service. At low tide the hovercraft would skim across the sands to reach the terminal. The Pegwell Bay Hoverport was reduced to repairs and maintenance operations soon after the formation of Hoverspeed and closed altogether in 1987. It was both sad and remarkable that the state-of-the-art facility had only thirteen years open to traffic. It was allowed to gently decay, with no alternative use being found, and was finally demolished in 1995. All that remains is the concrete apron on the beach and the approach road.

Back in 1981 Thanet District Council provided an exposed linkpsan outside the Royal Harbour's West Pier. It was from here that Finnish-owned Sally 'The Viking' Line made its debut on the route to Dunkerque (Ouest). A previous service initiated in 1980 by Olau Line's founder (Dunkerque Ramsgate Ferries) had quickly ended in failure, with their vessel Nuits St. Georges being arrested for non-payment of debts. The need for a protective outer wall for the new car ferry terminal was recognised and eventually responded to. Perhaps the zenith of Ramsgate's Cross-Channel operations was reached in 1994 when Oostende Lines transferred from Dover in conjuction with Sally Line. This brought the total number of departures to France and Belgium to sixteen daily. However, Eurotunnel was soon to open and Dover was enjoying improved road access via the new A20 dual carriageway from Folkestone. The Port of Ramsgate remained terribly awkward to reach through residential suburbs, the final hurdle being a ludicrous hair-pin bend on a mini-roundabout. This was a particularly nerve-wracking manouevre for lorry drivers! It was ironic that a by-pass from the outskirts of town to the ferry terminal was not completed until Sally and Oostende Lines had long gone.

Today the sole operator from Ramsgate is TransEuropa Ferries, operating up to six daily crossings to Oostende in conjuction with L. D. Lines. The illusive Euroferries, having already failed to deliver a planned high-speed Dover/Calais service in 2006, signalled their intention to open a Ramsgate/Boulogne operation in March 2009. This launch date was subsequently amended to June, then November of that year. By April of 2010 there was still no sign of Euroferries setting up operations.


Dover has always been strategically positioned to offer the shortest crossing to the Continent. Just over twenty miles separates the Kentish town from Calais in northern France. Since before the Romans settled there, Dover has been involved in maritime activity. The large outer harbour is enclosed by the Eastern Arm, the Southern Breakwater, and the Admiralty Pier. It was here that the Marine Station (later known as Western Docks Station) was built at the beginning of the twentieth century to serve boat trains from London Victoria. Passenger ferries docked alongside the rail terminal and carried travellers to Oostende, Calais, and Boulogne.

The train ferries which conveyed rail wagons to Dunkerque were accommodated in a tidal basin complete with the port's first linkspan for roll-on loading. The first car ferry berths were built over at the Eastern Arm within the 'Camber', a small inner harbour. These opened in 1953 to serve the first drive on ships of the time.

The Eastern Docks mushroomed from this location through a progressive series of land reclamation schemes. It is here where all the large 'superferries' dock these days, with seven double deck linkspans available. The vast terminal filters millions of people and their vehicles through the Port of Dover every year. The Hoverspeed operation was based across the harbour at the International Hoverport adjacent to the Prince of Wales Pier. The Admiralty Pier was last used by a ferry in 1995 when Nord Pas-de-Calais closed the train ferry service to Dunkerque (Ouest). The Jetfoils which had succeeded the passenger boats to Oostende were removed in 1994 with the closure of the Western Docks Station. This listed building was converted to become Dover's new cruise liner terminal, and included amongst the list of impressive visitors is Star Princess and Carnival Destiny. With hovercraft never expected to make a return, the Hoverport terminal building was demolished in 2009 to make way for a planned redevelopment of the area into a second ro/ro ferry terminal.

Dover has always been the jewel in the crown of leading Cross-Channel operators. In 1996 P. & O. offered twenty five sailings a day to Calais. Stena Line ran twenty daily return trips which were matched by Seafrance. This amounted to an incredible one hundred and fifty single crossings of the Channel on the Dover/Calais route alone every twenty four hours. This was an unprecedented level of activity at the port. Not included in these statistics were the now defunct Hoverspeed services and P. & O. freight runs to Zeebrugge. Such figures were never likely to be repeated again. The huge amount of surplus capacity was leading to financial ruin for the ferry companies. Services on the sea were outnumbering Le Shuttle departures through the Channel Tunnel. P. & O. and Stena Line got together in 1998 to reduce their combined contribution by a third.

The first decade of the 21st century saw a surprising number of upstarts at the port, one being an amazing successe and others failing miserably. Norfolkline (now D. F. D. S. Seaways) struck gold with their revival of the route to Dunkerque. SpeedFerries and subsequently L. D. Lines could not make Boulogne pay, long after P. & O. had reached the same conclusion in 1993.

Today Dover is still by far the largest and busiest ferry port in the world. It is Mecca for anybody who takes an interest in Cross-Channel shipping.


Only seven miles down the coast from Dover, Folkestone was once a serious contender for the Channel throne since the evolution of the railways and their connecting passenger boats to the Continent. It was the arrival of car ferries which really made a crucial difference. Dover was already in the process of facilitating drive-on ships, whereas Folkestone could only offer cranes to winch vehicles into the holds of antiquated passenger vessels. A linkspan was finally built in 1972, by which time Dover was far ahead in terms of market share.

British Rail built two sister ships, Hengist and Horsa, dedicated to the Boulogne route. Its French and Belgian partners continued to offer additional services to Calais and Oostende in parallel with Dover. However, these disappeared in the 1980s when it made economical sense to direct all traffic through the larger port.

In anticipation of the opening of the Channel Tunnel, Sealink British Ferries had given notice for the closure of the Folkestone/Boulogne route by 1993. The axe came earlier than expected when Stena Line succeeded the route and its ships and was seeking massive reductions in overheads. The last sailings were in 1991 and the Stena Hengist and Stena Horsa were sold.

Hoverspeed stepped in the following year with Hoverspeed Boulogne to inaugurate high speed crossings to her namesake. Boat trains to the Harbour became limited to spasmodic workings by the 'Orient Express' train. Folkestone lost its Seacat service in October 2000 and the small freight operator, Falcon Marfreight soon folded thereafter.

The linkspan at Folkestone has long since been removed, leaving just the gantry in place. It is widely doubted that there will ever be a Cross-Channel ferry service from the port ever again.

Photo: © FotoFlite.


The East Sussex port of Newhaven was also developed by the railway companies for Cross-Channel traffic. Train services from London Victoria used to bring foot passengers straight to the quayside for the ferries to Dieppe. Direct through workings lasted until 1994. This was determined the most direct London to Paris route.

Traditionally the Newhaven/Dieppe service was a joint venture between the former London, Brighton & South Coast Railway and S. N. C. F./French Railways. A fascinating formula for dividing revenue was carried out by calculating the length of track from the ports to their respective capital cities. Hence the French received the lion's share of the profit since its Dieppe/Paris portion of the route was the longest.

As a Sealink service, the joint operation continued until 1985 when S. N. C. F./French Railways took over completely. Dredging was required to accommodate Newhaven's largest ever visitor in the form of Champs Elysées in 1990. The port has two linkspans situated along the eastern side of the River Ouse. There is enough width for vessels up to 142 metres in length to turn within the harbour confines. Newhaven has a long outer wall on the western side of the river which made an excellent viewpoint to watch the passing ferries until it was closed to the public in 2005.

The Dieppe ferry became a P. & O. Stena Line business and was maintained by Stena Cambria and the fast Elite catamaran. With the ship having been downgraded, there was speculation that Newhaven's ferry activity would sadly decline just as Folkestone's had. The four hour crossing could not match the shorter and much more intensified Dover/Calais run. Unofficial speculation that the route would close was confirmed when the Elite was withdrawn from service at the end of 1998 and her charter was not renewed. Stena Cambria was a poor performer, suffering mechanical failures, and offering a rotten standard of accommodation. It was therefore not surprising that P. & O. Stena decided to cut their losses and finish for business at Newhaven. The Dieppe route made a staggering twenty seven million pound loss since 1995, despite savings made by the joint operation.

A glimmer of hope for Newhaven was provided by Hoverspeed who stepped into the breach with a seasonal service to Dieppe using one of their 'Superseacat' fast mono-hull ferries in 1999. Unfortunately revenue did not live up to expectations and the Company withdrew in 2003, before going out of business altogether a couple of years later.

Conventional ferry operations returned in 2001 in the form of French state owned Transmanche Ferries who wished to fill the gap left by P. & O. Stena's departure. Now under the wing of L. D. Lines, they maintain a one-ship service year round with the 2006-built Seven Sisters.


Probably more famous for its historic naval dockyards than its Cross-Channel services, Portsmouth is the youngest Continental ferry port on the south coast of England. Since the arrival of the railway, a train connected ferry has been maintained between Portsmouth Harbour Station and Ryde Pier on the Isle of Wight.

It was not until 1976 that Brittany Ferries arrived with Armorique to launch an experimental route to St. Malo. The nine hour passage was a surprising success and the French firm introduced the larger Prince of Brittany two years later. Meanwhile, Townsend Thoresen was interested in the possibility of moving its Southampton business twenty miles east to Portsmouth. The advantages were two fold: The sea crossings could be reduced by an hour, avoiding a lengthy journey along Southampton Water and around the Isle of Wight. The port also received direct motorway access. The 1964 built Viking I was renamed Viking Victory and began a new Portsmouth/Cherbourg service in 1976. Townsend Thoresen transferred the rest of its Southampton based ships by 1984.

Brittany Ferries broke into Normandy territory in 1986 with a new link to Ouistreham, a small fishing port close to Caen. The route is now the company's best selling service. The Sealink operation to the Channel Islands from Portsmouth was abandoned in 1986 after just eight years. Their place was taken by Channel Island Ferries who beat the competition by undercutting the fares. The Guernsey (St. Peter Port) and St. Helier (Jersey) destinations were lost when the operator moved to Poole in 1989. However, ten years later Commmodore Clipper revived the daily crossing on this route for passengers.

Portsmouth is the biggest player on the Western Channel. It is served regularly by five giant ferries, including Pont-Aven, the flagship of Brittany Ferries. It offers daily services to four French destinations and a thrice weekly crossings to Spain. The M275 motorway brings vehicles straight to the port gates. The length of the Western Channel crossings does make the ferries less productive than those on the 'Short Sea' routes, but operators risk driving away business if they raise fares significantly above those charged on the Dover Straits. As long ago as 1998, P. & O. was describing its Portsmouth ferry division's performance as 'still unsatisfactory'. Their Western Channel routes to France were completely wound up by the end of the 2005 season, with the route to Bilbao going five years later. Fortunes for Brittany Ferries have been hard too, with a generous French state subsidy making the difference between profit and loss.

Photo: Ferry Fantastic Collection.


Always regarded as a great Atlantic liner terminal, Southampton retains its cruise ship business, though its container handling facility is it biggest trade. The Continental ferry industry began with the railway associated passenger boats to Le Havre, St. Malo, and the Channel Islands. These long crossings dwindled in the 1960's and British Rail opted to close them and convert the obsolete vessels to 'short sea' car ferries.

In 1964 the Norwegian entrepreneur, Otto Thoresen took the brave move to pick up the pieces and order three highly advanced drive through car ferries to serve Cherbourg and Le Havre. The Thoresen 'Vikings' provided passengers with comfortable sleeping accommodation and introduced novelties such as Scandinavian style Smorgasbord buffets. The enterprise was highly successful and a competitor was attracted to Southampton in 1968 in the form of Normandy Ferries. They offered their own purpose built Dragon and Leopard for a rival service to Le Havre. Later the firm made unprofitable attempts to run ferries to Northern Spain. Townsend Thoresen introduced two larger 'Super Viking' vessels in 1974, but a decade later moved to nearby Portsmouth. Soon after their rivals had departed, Normandy Ferries was taken over by Townsend Thoresen and Leopard was sold to Greece. Dragon was transferred to a Scotland/Northern Ireland route.

The absence of Cross Channel activity at Southampton lasted until 1991 when Stena Line decided to make a stab at the Western Channel market. They took St. Nicholas off the North Sea and relaunched her as Stena Normandy for their new service to Cherbourg. As a fast vessel, she could manage twice daily round trips, with crossings completed in less than five hours. This could match the rival Portsmouth route. The Stena Line operation made an initial impact but was doomed after fare slashing on the Dover Straits dragged their Southampton service into financial disaster. The charter fee for Stena Normandy became higher than the revenue she was generating and 1996 was to be her last season. It was a pity as she was a smart vessel, with spacious facilities and plentiful outside deck space. A cabaret act was provided in her terraced stern lounge to entertain passengers. Sadly, with passengers travelling for just one pound a head, it made no economical sense to continue. Southampton can now only offer ferries to Cowes on the Isle of Wight.


The attractive natural harbour at Poole in Dorset is the largest in the world, at least at high tide! Being of a very shallow nature, it was surprising that the inner confines of the harbour were chosen to inaugurate a Cross Channel ferry service.

Truckline was set up in 1973 using two very small freight vessels to carry lorries over to Cherbourg. It was immediately realised that much dredging would be required to allow the operation larger, more suitable tonnage. The Coutances and Purbeck were delivered in 1978 and facilitated much increased business. The first passenger ferry was a deployed on a summer seasonal service as of 1986.

Under the ownerhsip of Brittany Ferries, Truckline saw the potential to develop the holiday trade and so Corbiére and Tregastel were operated together in 1989 to improve frequency. That year also saw the arrival of British Channel Island Ferries who operated the Havelet and Rozel to St. Peter Port (Guernsey) and St. Helier (Jersey). They had just ceased sailings from Portsmouth and Weymouth in a move to streamline their service.

With six ferries using the harbour, it appeared that Poole was entering a boom period. Although Weymouth was the closest port to Cherbourg and the Channel Islands, Poole had better access and larger freight handling space. All change occurred in 1992 when the capacious Barfleur was delivered to replace the three of the smaller vessels within Brittany Ferries/Truckline. The following year saw British Channel Island Ferries cease business.

The St. Peter Port (Guernsey) and St. Helier (Jersey) connection was revived in 1997 when Condor Ferries introduced their catamaran, Condor Express. In 2001 Condor started the now well established seasonal charter of their Condor Vitesse to Brittany Ferries, providing a daily high-speed service to Cherbourg. In late 2007 a new purpose-built freighter, Cotentin, replaced the veteran Coutances at Poole. In addition to Cherbourg she also resurrected sailings to Santander. Barfleur was controversially mothballed for most of 2010, but after much local protest was reinstated on a seasonal basis the following year. The Company had complained that the vessel was no longer profitable to operate. Her return was on a 'use it or lose it' proviso.


The charming little harbour at Weymouth is now the least significant Channel ferry terminal. The quayside docks were developed to serve the Great Western Railway coming down from London Paddington through Castle Cary, Yeovil, and Dorchester. Trains would proceed along the tramway (which still exists) to meet passenger boats sailing to the Channel Islands and St. Malo.

Weymouth was the natural departure point for such destinations as it was the nearest possible port. The London and South Western Railway service from Waterloo was originally incidental, but now is the only direct train service to Weymouth from the capital. Rail connected passenger trade was highly lucrative in its hey day.

British Rail took delivery in the early 1960s of the purpose built Caeserea and Sarnia to accommodate the numbers travelling to the Channel Islands. Their unusual names were in fact derived from the Latin names for Guernsey and Jersey. In 1974 the car ferry linkspan was opened at Weymouth.

The train business was dwindling in competition with air services and the future was to carry vehicle accompanied traffic. The least wanted Sealink fleet members ended up at Weymouth before being sold. This was not surprising considering the small size of the harbour which necessitates the reversing out of vessels in order to head away.

The diminutive Earl Godwin wound up car ferry sailings to the Channel Islands in 1986 after a disastrous season when passengers were sometimes outnumbered by crew members. The Earl Harold was retained to initiate seasonal sailings to Cherbourg. Although only capable of nineteen knots, she proved that France was within less than four hours of Weymouth. Unfortunately, the hopelessly cluttered streets providing access to the ferry hindered any serious amount of traffic from using the service. The Cherbourg sailings ceased in 1988.

British Channel Island Ferries chartered the former Lion of Dover/Boulogne fame, and named her Portelet after a bay in St. Helier (Jersey) to run a seasonal service from Weymouth during 1987 and 1988. She was replaced by Havelet when the company moved to Poole. Meanwhile, Condor Ferries were developing their high speed link to the Channel Islands using small hydrofoils. Their big breakthrough came with the delivery of a car carrying catamaran in 1993 which enabled them to steal the lion's share of the market from B. C. I. F. at Poole.

Condor deserted Weymouth in March 1997 in favour of Poole, but returned in May 1998 with a seasonal service to St. Peter Port (Guernsey) and St. Malo using Condor Vitesse. At the end of the summer, she stayed in a relief capacity, then the company decided to resume year-round services from Weymouth again.


Millbay Docks in Plymouth was the base for the original Brittany Ferries service which was inaugurated in 1973 to convey farm produce from the French village port of Roscoff. The second purpose built vessel for the route arrived in 1977 as Cornouailles. She was succeeded by a series of larger second hand ferries in the form of Benodet (which later became Corbiére), Tregastel, Quiberon, and Duc de Normandie. The first purpose-built ferry for Roscoff in thirty-two years arrived in the form of Armorique (II) in 2009. She was described by the Company as being perfectly designed for the service. An interesting claim considering there are no double-deck linkspan facilities at either end of her route.

The Plymouth/Roscoff route is now seasonal and very much a secondary source of trade for Brittany Ferries, who reap most of their turnover from their Portsmouth-based business. Nevertheless, as the most westerly Channel crossing it draws upon a significant amount of local usage in Brittany and the South West of England. It too has been affected though by price cutting on the short sea routes. People have been prepared to drive further out of their way in order to take advantage of bargain fares across the Dover Straits.

The Plymouth/Santander route opened Northern Spain up to British holiday motorists when it was launched by Brittany Ferries in 1978. For many years it enjoyed a profitable monopoly, but this was threatened when P. & O. came over the horizon in 1993 with Pride of Bilbao, bigger and more impressive than the French flagged Val de Loire. Brittany Ferries seized the initiative with their formidable Pont-Aven in 2004. Her higher than average service speed reduced the journey to just eighteen hours, and her facilities were second to none. P. & O. struggled to make their Portsmouth routes pay, and completely withdrew by the end of 2010. Brittany Ferries meanwhile continued to shift their focus away from Plymouth in favour of Portsmouth. From 2011 there was just one weekly sailing to Spain from Plymouth, whilst four were offered from Portsmouth.