Why Ferry Fantastic?

I grew up within sight and sound of the Port of Dover for the first twelve years of my life. I guess had this not been the case I probably would not have developed an interest in the Cross-Channel ferries. However, much to the amusement (and derision!) of my school mates, I did become fascinated by the ‘boats’ as Dovorians tended to affectionately call them. Every other child I knew had parents who worked on the ferries. One in particular was a survivor of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster in 1987. The town was badly shaken by that shocking event. The following year brought further unhappiness for Dover when members of the National Union of Seamen went on strike over reductions in manning levels at P. & O. The stale-mate that ensued saw the local fleet out of action for several months and subsequently many lost their jobs. This was not to be the last time the biggest employer in the town would shed hundreds from its workforce. The recent recession in tourist traffic has further taken its toll on the industry.

I remember summer evenings at Langdon Cliffs watching the frequent arrivals and departures from the Continent through my binoculars from the stunning vantage point provided by this setting. My earliest memories were of the orange-hulled and green-funnelled Townsend vessels (who could not avoid noticing such an obnoxious colour scheme?). I can still recall being taken along the Admiralty Pier by my father and noticing what seemed like several yellow-funnelled Belgian vessels tied up alongside. There was the fascinating spectacle of the in-filling of the Camber, one of the many land reclamation schemes that have taken place over the decades since the Eastern Docks developed at Dover. The odd unusual visitor also came to my attention such as Harwich’s Cambridge Ferry. And the Wellington Dock got interesting in the winter when ferries from other ports hibernated there. Weymouth’s Earl Harold was a particular surprise for me to see in the late 1980’s. And I can remember Pride of Hythe tied up in the Granville Dock one Boxing Day. Of course, now the ferries are much too large to be accommodated locally for refit purposes. Instead they are taken far away, sometimes even abroad to receive maintenance work.

Another spot I used to enjoy with regularity was The Prince of Wales Pier where I could get close to the dreadfully noisy hovercraft (or ‘horrorcraft’ as friends of the family called them!). I remember having to quickly duck to avoid the onslaught of sea spray as the extraordinary vessels swept past. The giant S. R. N. 4 hovercraft were a phenomenon that became unique to Dover after Pegwell Bay closed to Cross-Channel services. They could be heard some miles inland when the wind blew in the right direction. And the distinctive smell of kerosene fuel permeated around the vicinity of the Hoverport.

My one and only ever experience of crossing on an S. R. N. 4 hovercraft was at the age of around ten years old. I would often cycle down to the hoverport of a Saturday morning, in all weathers, and chat to the Hoverspeed stewardesses about the 'noisy ladies'. I must have driven them to distraction with my interminable questions! On one particular occasion I was asked if I would like to have a 'flight' to France. I jumped at the chance. Having obtained my mother's permission over the telephone I was led 'round the back', avoiding passport control and customs, where I met Captain Tony Stand, in charge of The Princess Margaret. Having walked up the bow ramp into her vehicle deck we climbed the ladder up to the cockpit. I remember it being quite a confined space. In order to communicate during the crossing I was given a headset with earphones and mouthpiece to speak into - this was needed because the hovercraft was so noisy once it got going! I pushed one of the four buttons that controlled the ignition of the gas turbine engines - the responsibility of which somewhat terrified me! Once all the propellers were spinning we were ready for 'lift-off'. All of a sudden the 'Maggie', as Captain Stand nicknamed her, rose several metres off the pad and she was turned around to face the sea. The sensation of her floating down the slipway on to the water was extradordinary. Fortunately it was a smooth crossing and it was fascinating to spot passing vessels as the The Princess Margaret roared across the Channel at full throttle. Arrival in Calais was about half an hour later and I got my chance to walk around on the roof of the hovercraft, inspecting her air-intake ducts, massive propellers and tail-end fins. On the ground below I was invited to give the giant rubber skirt a kick just to see how strong it was. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I will always remember the kindness shown by Captain Stand and his crew.

My final childhood years living in Dover saw the arrival of some of the most influential ships in the history of the port. Indeed the twin sisterships that entered service in 1987 were to set the mould for future new builds. I am, of course, referring to Townsend Thoresen’s revolutionary Pride of Dover and Pride of Calais, which were substantially bigger than anything built before. Two decades on they have been eclipsed in terms of size, and new innovations in interior design certainly have appeared. Sealink’s Fantastia and Fiesta were not a sight for sore eyes from the outside, the clumsy result of reconstruction from freight ships to car ferries. However, their passenger spaces were boldly styled in a way never seen previously.

Unfortunately I did not get my hands on a camera until the early 1990s, having already moved with my family away from Kent. However, I made the occasional nostalgic visit back to Dover to see the ferries of the P. & O and Stena era. I also got to know the vessels sailing from the other Channel ports.

What was I to do with all these photographs then? For some years I wasn't quite sure where this was all leading. At times it seemed rather pointless I have to admit! 'Shipboard for the hell of it' wasn't always everything it was cracked up to be. Some experiences were less than enjoyable indeed. What I hoped to find was others who shared a common interest. I spotted an advertisement in 'Ships Monthly' for the 'M. V. Southsea Society', a group set up with the aim of preserving a vintage Isle of Wight ferry (which, after four decades of service, was destined for the breakers unless someone had the money to rescue her). Sadly the Southsea was never saved, but the club newsletter became an outlet for publishing photos and articles about ferries in general.

Then came the 'information super-highway'; the internet revolution had begun. Most of us would now probably find it hard to imagine how we ever managed without such a powerful means of communication. The true democracy it affords those who wish to share their interests is undeniable. This way everyone has the opportunity to reach a world-wide audience!

So, having learnt some HTML, I started work on Ferry Fantastic in 2004. It was difficult to decide what to call the website at first. Then I was inspired by a banner I saw on board Seafrance Berlioz in her maiden season. It proudly proclaimed 'Ferry Fantastique'. And, despite the term 'fantastic' being so liberally applied to all manner of things these days, I think it was justified in the case of the 'Berlioz', a truly exceptional Cross-Channel ferry indeed.

Ferry Fantastic simply aims to pay a fond tribute to these particular ships of the sea through its articles and photographs. The website is maintained as a hobby and I enjoy keeping it going. I hope you enjoy looking at it too!

All the best,

George Holland
(Ferry Fantastic's webmaster).

Website Dedication

This website is dedicated to my late father, Spencer. Having dipped his toe into 2010 he passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of sixty five years. It was my father's career as a teacher that brought him and his family to Dover in the late 1970s. In his spare time he was an avid railway enthusiast and his extraordinary knowledge in this field extended to the associated harbours and shipping activities that were once an integral part of the United Kingdom's rail transport infrastructure. It was the bygone age of steam that he was passionate about, and whilst he was still able-bodied he took great pleasure from working as a volunteer on the preserved locomotives of the Bluebell Railway.

Dad was to prove a highly informative consultant on the origins of former railway-owned fleets. Many a lengthy conversation was enjoyed going over the history of the Cross-Channel ferries and comparing modern day operations with those of the past. He was not particularly enamoured with recent vessels, although there were one or two exceptions; I can recall sitting with him at Langdon Cliffs on his final visit to Dover in June 2009. He expressed a liking for the sleek lines of Seafrance Moliére as she glided into port, even if she was light years away from the likes of the steamship Canterbury. That was praise indeed!

Thanks for the many memories Dad. You are missed. Rest in peace.