Poole to Cherbourg and return, Sunday 31st July 2011.
The decision to withdraw Barfleur from service in early 2010 was greeted with dismay from the harbour authorities in Poole and Cherbourg. It was also a massive disappointment for those who had enjoyed crossing on her during the previous eighteen years. Brittany Ferries had disclosed that the vessel had been losing them money since 2003, such was the decline in popularity of the shortest Western Channel route. She spent a year laid up at Ouistreham, advertised for sale. Nobody came forward to buy her and the Company decided that it would be less expensive to have her back in service making some money, rather than incurring the cost of keeping her crewed and maintained in lay-up, making no money at all. The strategy devised for 2011 saw Barfleur manned with a reduced crew (to save operating costs) and therefore certified to carry just over four hundred passengers. She was to perform a daily round trip, with an additional overnight sailing from Poole at weekends, finishing in early October.
My first experience of travelling on Barfleur was back in October 2004. It was a promotional twenty pound daytrip ticket, leaving at 08:30 and returning at 19:00, allowing about four hours for exploring Cherbourg. This year the price was a little higher, and the amount of time ashore was somewhat less. However, I was going simply for the opportunity to enjoy Barfleur for what may turn out to be the last time.
I checked in at the passenger terminal in Poole in good time for the 11:00 departure. There were about twenty others waiting in the rather uninspiring Portakabin departure lounge. I asked at the desk how traffic was doing and the response I got was less than encouraging. There was definitely no committment as to whether Barfleur would be back next season.
Passage through Customs was swift and painless on this occasion and I boarded the bus waiting to take the foot passengers to the ship. At the gangway a Brittany Ferries official scanned the barcoded boarding cards. This, it seemed, would ensure that there was nobody on board unaccounted for. Embarkation was via the port side hatch on Deck 5. From here there was immediate access to one of the reclining seat lounges that flank the upper vehicle deck, and the stairwell up to all the other passenger facilities. On ascending to Deck 7 one arrived in the foyer, the centrepiece of which was a black round sofa on a bright yellow carpet. The colour scheme was very much a reference to the long defunct Truckline Ferries brand. The Information Desk was located to the stern side of this area.
I was impressed at excellent standard of maintenance evident throughout the ship. Clearly she had not been allowed to gently decay during her year out of service. Indeed, she was spotless. Since 2004 it appeared she had benefitted from some refurbishment of public areas.
I headed straight outside to witness the departure from Poole. The sun was trying to break through the thick blanket of cloud, and it eventually burnt through and stayed with the ship for the duration of the crossing. That was an unexpected bonus. Poole Harbour was fascinating as ever. The gentle passage around Brownsea Island made for great views across to the Purbeck Hills to the West, and the waterfront urban sprawl to the East. I was struck by the substantial lurch of the vessel as she turned sharply to navigate the harbour entrance. The chain ferry linking Sandbanks and Shell Bay was waiting on the Western side as usual. I could recall the numerous occasions that I had tried to photograph Barfleur from the Shell Bay slipway, and always find Bramblebush Bay stubbornly in the way. A Bournemouth-Swanage Motor Road & Ferry Company official told me that it was almost unheard of for them to wait the other side when the Cross-Channel ferries passed.
Out to sea the distinctive chalk cliff pillars of the Needles could be seen to the East and Old Harry Rocks to the West. I was thinking this has definitely got to be the most pictureseque of Cross-Channel gateways. Further out and Swanage emerged from behind Old Harry, and in the distance Portland loomed.
The wind was a bit brisk so I went back down and explored Deck 7. The bar lounge area, 'Les Alizés', was to be found at the aft end of the accommodation. A crescent of panoramic windows offered views astern between the unmistakable twin funnels. To the port side was the pleasantly decorated arcade featuring free-standing seats by the large windows. This was flanked by a disused retail space, then the foyer area, followed by 'La Boutique', a modestly proportioned shop selling luxury goods and some useful items for travellers. At the forward end of the ship one could find 'Le Turquoise' self-service restaurant. It was here were I settled down and consumed my packed lunch. I planned on buying a cooked meal on the return journey.
Later the mid-afternoon sun intensified and I decided to take a deck chair and sit and watch the wake from the stern. This was shipboard for the fun of it. Having then flicked through the on board magazine I ventured up to the sun deck on Deck 9 and from here it was possible to see the Cotentin Peninsula faintly ahead. It was a truly relaxing and pleasant experience to be at sea and bathed in warm summer sunshine. It seemed all the more puzzling that the ship was so lightly used.
At about 16:00 French time Barfleur entered the vast outer harbour at Cherbourg through the Western entrance. Now most passengers came out on deck to watch the vessel's imminent arrival. We waited off the inner harbour for the little Commodore Clipper to leave for Portsmouth. Our approach towards the vacated Berth 2 was gentle. Before continuing the report, perhaps it would be appropriate to explain the idiosyncracies of the berths at Cherbourg: From East to West, the four berths are numbered in the order; 2, 4, 1, and 3. The port's original linkspan, at Berth 1, was installed to serve Thoresen Car Ferries in the 1960s. The blue gantry still exists, but the ramp appears to be decommissioned. Certainly no ferries use it anymore. Berth 2 and Berth 4 feature the double-deck linkspans erected in the early 1990s to accommodate Barfleur and P. & O.'s stretched 'Super Viking' vessels. At the Quai de France is the single tier ramp at Berth 3. This had been replaced very recently due to the previous structure collapsing. A lay-by berth is provided at Quai de Normandie, between Berth 1 and Berth 4. Brittany Ferries' Cotentin has been known to rest there inbetween sailings.
I had planned my visit to Cherbourg to coincide with the two rival ferries that sail from Rosslare in Ireland. This happened to be a rare occasion when Celtic Link's Norman Voyager (previously operated from Portsmouth by L. D. Lines) and Irish Ferries' Oscar Wilde were both in port together. The former was sitting at Berth 3, whilst the latter was at Berth 4. Oscar Wilde was close by as Barfleur docked. I noted with interest that the former Norwegian Color Line vessel was still wearing her old livery of navy blue hull and white funnel (all other Irish Ferries vessels have a cruising white hull and green funnel). Furthermore, her superstructure was not white, but a pale shade of blue. In keeping with the trend of cheap 'flag of convenience' crews, her port of registry was not in Ireland, but the Bahamas.
Having tied up a little ahead of schedule, the call was made for foot passengers to disembark and I made my way down the stairs to Deck 5 where the gangway was in position. A bus awaited to cart us off to the terminal building. By the way, this was built around the same time as Berths 2 and 4, and is positioned a considerable distance away from the town centre (or centre ville if you prefer). Originally the ticket hall was housed in the old Gare Maritime at Quai de France. This is now the Cité de la Mer museum.
I followed the signs directing pedestrians across the port's embarkation traffic lanes and what appears to be a disused railway. From this point there was a long straight trek along the Boulevard Félix Amiot towards Quai de France where I hoped to get near Norman Voyager. Unfortunately, razor wire and dense fencing stood in the way of getting any decent photos of the vessel. A far cry from 1991 when I remember being driving off P. & O.'s Pride of Cherbourg at Berth 1 and pretty much straight on to the open road unimpeded. The port of Cherbourg is definitely sealed off very robustly these days.
I made my way along Quai de France, past Cité de la Mer (housed in the old harbour railway station building) and the adjacent former Trans-Atlantic liner terminal which is now used by cruise ships. From here it was possible to get a reasonable view of Oscar Wilde tied up across at Berth 4 and gleaming in the lovely sunshine. She was scheduled to leave at 18:00 and I figured I would have just about enough time to photograph her leaving and get back to check-in for Barfleur's return sailing for Poole. Hmmm... At 18:15 Oscar Wilde finally slipped her moorings and backed away from her berth. I then walked as briskly as I could all the way back to the ferry terminal. My timekeeping was poor as I didn't make it to the ticket hall until the clock there said 18:40. I ran waving my passport and ticket as I saw an offical locking the doors that stood at the entrance to the departure lounge. It was an immense relief when he took pity on me and agreed to open up again and issue me with a boarding card. I could recall on my previous daytrip to Cherbourg that I arrived at the advised forty five minutes before departure, then waited fifteen minutes before the call was made to proceed (with the typical interrogation from a customs officer requiring me to stand with arms stretched whilst being given the once-over with a metal detector). Arriving late had its advantages on this occasion as I was able to bypass the ritual of explaining my ferry hobby to a disbelieving official. They had already packed up for the day. The bus was sent back to pick me up and take me to the berth. My passport and boarding card was inspected en route.
Having boarded rather hot and bothered, I went straight up to the sun deck to watch the departure from Cherbourg. Norman Voyager was scheduled to sail at the same time, 19:00, but she waited for us to leave first so I didn't get any good close-up photos of her. Interestingly, as we headed out the Western exit, she went through the Eastern exit instead, passing the inbound catamaran, Normandie Express. Like Oscar Wilde, Norman Voyager had few alterations made to her livery the last time she changed hands. The L. D. Lines lettering was erased from her navy blue hull, and the L. D. flag emblem on her funnel was simply filled in with green and adorned with an amateurish looking 'C. L.' motif to denote 'Celtic Link'. She was to have just a couple more months with the Irish operator before her charter ended. She was then earmarked to open another new route for L. D. Lines, this time between Marseille in Southern France and Tunisia, Northern Africa. This had to be the most daring of L. D.'s enterprises to date, particularly in view of the civil unrest in that region.
A haze set in pretty soon after leaving Cherbourg and I found myself in conversation with a couple of gentlemen who had been on the outbound crossing that morning. I had noticed that they had been filming on board and it turned out that they were intending to make a commemorative video of Barfleur. Sadly they never did manage to send any clips to show on here, so you will have to rely on just my photos to illustrate scenes from the day.
At about 20:00 British time the watery sun disappeared behind a thick blanket of cloud and I decided to give up on my plastic deck chair outside and venture down to 'Le Turqouise' for a meal. I have read many a time criticism of ferries that don't have waiter service restaurants, but I found the self-service on Barfleur perfectly acceptable. She seemed even emptier of passengers than on the outward leg, so queuing simply wasn't an issue. The ship has a different main menu on each day and you take your pick of the desserts on offer. The Creme Brulée was delicious on this occasion.
Afterwards I decided to enquire to the lady at the Information Desk about the traffic levels. I was told that there were just over two hundred passengers on this crossing, with around sixty cars and just sixteen lorries. As it was a Sunday, the low freight load could be attributed to the French lorry ban, however, the poor tourist figures were very disappointing indeed for July. I asked if any decision had been made about next year and the answer was they simply didn't know. The route definitely was a loss-maker for the Company, and their assumption was that passengers preferred the fast craft to the conventional ferry. I said I found this hard to understand having experienced both recently. She said that everyone spoke very highly of Barfleur, unfortunately not enough people use her. The staggering revelation was that it cost the Company more to have the vessel out of service than running her at a loss. Why in that case was there any question of her not continuing next year? Of course, there is the matter of her status as a ship for sale. If she does find a buyer, that will definitely be the end of the Poole/Cherbourg conventional ferry service. I was also told that Brittany Ferries recognise that they are much more expensive than their competitors, but there was a correlation between price paid and quality of service. Clearly fewer people are choosing the premium option and going for affordability instead.
As darkness fell I bought a newspaper and whiled away the remaining time in a quiet corner of 'Le Turquoise'. I reflected on the sad situation regarding the ship. If it had been the halycon days; full to capacity, with over a thousand on board, it probably would have been something of a nightmare, with no escape from crowds of discontented holidaymakers and drunken daytrippers. So in a sense, to experience a comparatively small vessel like Barfleur at her best one had to travel on her whilst the route was in terminal decline.
To put things into context: Twenty five years ago Truckline had just been acquired by Brittany Ferries. In 1986 the tiny Cornouailles opened the Poole/Cherbourg route to tourists for the first time, with a passenger certificate for only three hundred. The seasonal operation was marketed as 'The Insiders Way to France' and the fares reflected the basic standard of facilities and accommodation. By 1989 there were two vessels, Corbiére and Tregastel, and far from being a well-kept secret, the service was thriving, despite established competition from P. & O. at Portsmouth. Barfleur was purpose-built and delivered in 1992, bringing in standards if comfort that Truckline was previously unknown for. Seven years later and the Truckline tag was dropped. Poole/Cherbourg became a standard Brittany Ferries product. This coincided with the abolition of the highly lucrative duty-free concessions and the emergence of the low-cost airlines; two devastating influences on passenger numbers. In recent years Brittany Ferries have been increasingly relying on their reputation for quality service to justify their premium rate fares. Unfortunately, when faced with a choice of paying hundreds of pounds to take a car from from Poole or Portsmouth, or travel for as little as thirty five pounds each way between Dover and Calais, holidaymakers have been abandoning the Western Channel routes in droves.
Arrival at Poole was on time at around 22:15. Barfleur edged past the linkspan bow first so that her stern was parallel to the ramp. Her bow thrusters then pushed her gently a full one hundred and eighty degrees so she could dock stern first at the berth. Shortly after the call was made for foot passengers to disembark. I stepped off with a feeling of great regret that this was likely to be my very last trip on Barfleur. A truly pleasant little ship. Totally unpretentious. Her public rooms are tastefully decorated and have some individual character. None of the tacky generic branding seen on other operator's vessels. And the greatest boon is having the run of her outside decks. One can walk along her promenade decks right up to her enclosed wheelhouse. I guess Brittany have not adopted the restrictive practices of the Dover/Calais operators in this respect, as there is plenty of time on the longer crossings for passengers to be persuaded to part with the money inside and spend a while outside too. P. & O., in particular, clearly choose to limit the open deck to such an extent that most passengers will stay inside rather than jostle with the smokers at the stern end.
Much has been speculated about the future for Cross-Channel ferries at Poole. An announcement is expected in September regarding what will happen to Barfleur next year. Some predict that she will be permanently withdrawn from the fleet pending disposal. The freighter, Cotentin, is tipped to be moved to Portsmouth, where there is the marketing advantage of direct motorway access to the terminal, coupled with the improvements to the A3 at Hindhead (where the bottleneck is now bypassed through the newly opened tunnel). And what of Condor Ferries? Will they abandon Poole too? There has already been a shift in their operations back to Weymouth, which is that bit closer to the Channel Islands. Could we be seeing the death of Poole as a Cross-Channel port next year? It would be desperately sad to see Poole follow the same fate as Folkestone and Southampton in this respect.
When Barfleur arrived for the first time in 1992 she was a sensational, modern looking ship and one that quickly developed a keen following. Today she still looks somewhat ahead of her time. The French operators have tended to give us ships that have been designed to combine operational capability with pleasing aesthetics too; the sweeping curve of the bow, the sloping funnels. There seems to be a national pride in creating something impressive and beautiful. To provide a direct contrast, just think of the British flagged Pride of Burgundy, built a year later, and probably the most utilitarian looking ferry ever to cross the Channel.
Harsh economics mean beautiful doesn't necessarily win anymore. The fact that the likes of Pride of Burgundy are still running profitably suggests that, for the majority, getting from one end to the other for the cheapest price is all that matters. The lovely Barfleur and her delightful route from Poole seem to have had their day, sadly.
Thanks Barfleur for the many happy memories.