Published: 06:00, 18 May 2020
The booze cruise - the retail phenomenon that involved hopping on a cross channel sailing to save money on fags and booze - may be gone but it's certainly not forgotten in Kent.
The popular daily crossings from Dover and Folkestone not only gave passengers a day out in France and Belgium to savour the sights, smells and flavours of the continent, it provided a chance to stock up on wines, cheeses and pastries.
Then, with plentiful deals on cigarettes, beer, wine and spirits on board the ships themselves, the introduction of the "non-lander" round trips became a time-saving option to get those non-taxed goods without even stepping on foreign soil.
Nick Stevens, former Sealink PR manager for the Folkestone-Boulogne and Dover-Calais routes, recalls the heyday of the booze cruise was the 1970s and 80s.
According to him it was a time when ferries were "rammed" and the port towns of Dover and Folkestone were humming with the arrivals of coach, train and car loads of passengers about to embark on a day trip abroad.
He said: "They would come from all over the country.
"Boulogne was the preferred destination so the Folkestone to Boulogne crossing was the prime route.
"The ferries were packed all the time, the town was packed all the time. These were the days when you didn't need a passport, you just needed a photo and you'd pick up an identity card at the port. That would be your passport for the day."
He recalls the popular sailings were always full. "It was a great atmosphere, particularly to Boulogne, being so busy."
The ferry industry is in Nick's DNA. His dad Gerry was a former ship purser turned shore manager for Sealink who became manager at the Port of Boulogne.
Known as Mr Boulogne, Gerry was also Her Majesty's Honorary Consul for the town and would ensure visiting Brits were behaving themselves, a task sometimes far more demanding than his day job because "people would go out and have too much to drink".
A Daily Express article in 1986 said the part-time diplomat handled around 400 issues for Britons in the town in the year before the feature was published. Issues would range from lost passports to punch-ups.
Of course most wouldn't drink to excess. The term booze cruise came from the intention to buy alcohol and bring it home but any issues that came to him would have been swiftly ironed out by Gerry.
Speaking in Sealink News in 1985, Gerry said: "Daytrippers come in their thousands and have a great day out. In one day you can see 60 British coaches outside a hypermarket.
"I walked into one store and if it had been a ship it would have capsized - all the Brits were down one end at the wine and cheese!"
Nick, followed in the footsteps of his father, who died in April 1989. He said keeping day trips in the public eye was a big part of his job.
"We were very actively promoting them, to the press, media to everyone.
"Daytrippers come in their thousands and have a great day out. In one day you can see 60 British coaches outside a hypermarket..."
"We had loads of TV coverage on this sort of thing. It wasn't exactly a new phenomenon but people were starting to realise just how cheap things were in France and on the ferries.
"We offered very cheap day trip excursion fares because we knew the revenue would come from people buying on board.
"It was such a busy, lucrative time for the ferry industry."
With offers changing all the time, and varying with tastes and popularity over the years, no particular deals and prices stand out in his mind, but he recalls there were always special offers on board.
"We were very much in the promotions game," he said.
"Taking your car over was very popular as well as the foot passenger market. You could do good deals for them as well because they could buy boxes and load them into the car."
With the introduction of Hoverspeed at Dover in 1981, sailing times became even quicker.
Nick, who became PR manager for Hoverspeed from 1986 to 2002, said: "There was the French Flyer offer. You'd go from Dover, get on the hovercraft and you'd get there in about half an hour to buy your duty free. There was a duty-free shop in the Calais terminal and the Boulogne terminal. You could go ashore, buy cases of beer and wine and go back. You could do that within a couple of hours."
But for those who preferred the more sturdy and lengthy ferry sailings over the vigorous motion of the "vomit comet" there was the option to enjoy a slap-up meal and cruise in comfort.
Some wanted to make a night of it and would book the special Dance to France sailings.
Set up by Sealink in the late 1970s, the regular party nights offered exactly what they said on the tin, a disco in the bar in the middle of the English Channel with the chance to buy booze and fags in the duty-free shop.
Afterwards, party-goers would merrily arrive back at Dover and Folkestone sometime after midnight, clutching their Sealink carrier bags full of what their duty-free allowance permitted.
Dancing aside, late-night drinking was always a draw for the people of Dover.
Former Mercury journalist Andy Stevens, brother of Nick and son of Gerry, recalled he would never go out on the town without his passport in the 1980s in case he and his chums decided to extend the night with a non-lander.
He said: "We'd get to the Eastern Docks for a late-night sailing after falling out of one of the pubs, usually Images nightclub.
"We'd get to the Eastern Docks for a late night sailing after falling out of one of the pubs, usually Images nightclub.
"We'd do a non-lander, stock up and hit the bar."
With all great and simple things, they are open to exploitation.
Known as bootlegs or fag runners, people looking to earn themselves an easy buck would do multiple non-landers in a day, buy multipacks of discounted cigarettes and spirits which they would sell on per-unit in the pubs around East Kent and beyond.
"The runners were the downside of the market because it did become completely saturated with, shall we say, "not the right sort of clientele", Nick said.
As a one-time stewardess in the duty-free shop of the Stena Cambria, Kentonline's Beth Robson recalled: "We'd ask for passengers' boarding passes before serving them, clip their card with a hole punch to show they'd used their duty-free allowance, and passengers would return to the bar.
"'Are you using your boarding pass?' was a frequent question crew would hear in the bars, restaurants and walkways of the ships in those days.
"The runners hailed from all over the country but in the late 1990s it was the Liverpudlian accent I remember more than the others, probably because it was so distinctive.
"You would hear them chatting outside the shop, trying to round-up boarding passes from non-smoking passengers so they could buy up their allocation.
"Much the same, there would be a rush of last-minute purchases as the ferry juddered, spirit shelves clanking, into Dover Harbour at the end of each round trip.
"Most of the runners were fine. Some tried charm to persuade us to sell more cigarettes than they were allowed with no success - they were eyeballed all the while by a stern-faced security guard.
"One man in 1997 begged me to put 400 cigarettes through the till as we were arriving back at Dover. He was a regular and had been in and out of the shop throughout the trip with multiple boarding passes.
"They were not all runners though. Most were passengers driving to France but sometimes you would see a familiar face from Deal on a round trip or heading to the hypermarkets in Calais for the day."
On March 6, 1987, the high days and holidays spirit of the day trip turned to tragedy when the Townsend Thoresen Herald of Free Enterprise capsized.
The Townsend Thoresen ferry was full to capacity with passengers, many whom had travelled on The Sun newspaper group's Belgium for £1 promotion.
She had left the Belgian Port of Zeebrugge minutes before with her bow doors open. Water flooded the car deck and in a few violent jolts, she listed to her side, hitting a sandbank.
The disaster killed 193 passengers and crew and prompted dramatic changes to shipping industry safety practices.
Confidence took a minor dent, but the booze cruise culture remained intact where demand for cheap drink and cigarettes was unquenched.
Ultimately the draw of the booze cruise petered out when the European Union abolished duty free, swapping the foreign shopping benefit to duty paid in July 1999.
Nick said the effect on the industry wasn't just a reduction in foot passengers, whole routes stopped operating - Folkestone being Kent's main victim.
"Before it ended The Burstin Hotel at Folkestone Harbour would get people staying there from all over the country.
"Part of their holiday package was a day trip to France.
"It couldn't have been any easier for them. They would just walk over the road, through the harbour, go straight through controls and they'd be on a ferry in minutes. In Boulogne, they would just go through control and walk into the town.
"For people travelling from London, they would get off at Folkestone Harbour train station, but it all stopped.
"The Folkestone to Boulogne route stopped operating in 1991 and trains no longer stopped at Folkestone Harbour. The foot passenger market hasn't existed since duty free was abolished.
"They were great times.
"I'm proud to have been part of it and, because of my dad, it lives on through my DNA."
Nick thinks a resurgence is a strong possibility if duty free makes a comeback after Brexit but believes we'll never see a return to those heydays.
"With us now being out of the EU there could certainly be an upturn in the shopping market," he said.
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