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From Sheerness to Vlissingen; Folkestone to Boulogne and Ramsgate to Calais, we look back at the ferry crossings Kent has lost over the years


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Want to get to the Continent with your car? Then today your choices - once lockdown restrictions permit of course - are relatively limited; a far cry from years gone by.

You can pop across on a Dover to Calais ferry - currently an option offered by P&O, DFDS and, later this year, Irish Ferries too.

Sealink ferries in 1973 - the company was taken over by Stena and then merged with P&O
Sealink ferries in 1973 - the company was taken over by Stena and then merged with P&O

Alternatively, DFDS can also deliver you straight to Dunkirk, a few miles along the coast.

Your only other option, currently, is with Eurotunnel which wins the race in terms of speed, if not adventure.

But it wasn't all that long ago when passengers could travel by hovercraft or catamaran; with Ramsgate, Sheerness and Folkestone all ferrying passengers to the likes of Ostend, in Belgium, Vlissingen in the Netherlands or the rather more tourist-friendly neighbour of Calais, Boulogne.

So just what happened to the ferry crossing options we once knew and loved?

We take a look at some of the most memorable.

A Sealink ferry, in 1991. The firm once served both Calais and Boulogne
A Sealink ferry, in 1991. The firm once served both Calais and Boulogne

Pegwell Bay to Calais

For those who live on the great isle of Thanet, once upon a time getting to northern France was something of a breeze courtesy of travel firm Hoverlloyd; a company keen to capitalise on the potential of the hovercraft.

Hoverlloyd heralded its arrival into the competitive cross-Channel market in 1966 when it launched its first hovercraft service from Ramsgate Harbour - initially a passenger-only jaunt which took customers down the east Kent coast and across to Calais.

But it was in 1969 when it accelerated its growth. The Duke of Edinburgh cut the ribbon to officially open the Ramsgate International Hoverport in nearby Pegwell Bay in the April amid great excitement.

With bigger hovercraft introduced onto the route capable of taking vehicles too, Hoverlloyd looked to try and make an impact, boasting a 40-minute journey time, quick turnaround and 28 sailings a day.

One of Hoverlloyd's vessels at the hoverport in Pegwell Bay. Picture: Colin Varrall
One of Hoverlloyd's vessels at the hoverport in Pegwell Bay. Picture: Colin Varrall

Another selling point was that the craft 'landed' just east of Calais' main port which meant travellers missed the worst of the traffic jams which could build up at the traditional ports of Dover and Calais.

It shared the Calais port with its rival hovercraft cross-Channel operator Seaspeed. That was British Rail's own hovercraft service (British Rail was also originally behind Sealink) - which was whisking passengers across the straits from Dover.

Less of a selling point was the often 'bumpy' ride which hovercraft suffered from and left many passengers reaching for the sick bag en route.

By 1979, 1.25million passengers were using the route - greeted by stewards and stewardesses in smart outfits - and Hoverlloyd was proving a major success. But how quickly things can change.

Increasing costs of maintaining its vessels and the oil crisis which saw fuel rates rocket, would take their toll however on both Hoverlloyd and Seaspeed. By 1980, the two firms opted to merge and Hoverspeed emerged as the new combined entity.

The once-booming Pegwell Bay hoverport near Ramsgate - with the Richborough power station towers, since demolished, in the background. Picture: Colin Varrall
The once-booming Pegwell Bay hoverport near Ramsgate - with the Richborough power station towers, since demolished, in the background. Picture: Colin Varrall

By 1982, the service at Pegwell Bay was suspended and the hovercraft moved instead to serve the Dover to Calais route.

The hoverport itself at Pegwell was eventually demolished - although still visible today as a large concreted area as part of a nature reserve - with the site being reclaimed by nature.

Ramsgate to Ostend/Dunkirk

Staying with Thanet for a moment, do you remember Sally Line? And if you do, then, inevitably, you'll remember its on-board 'smorgasbord' dining experience - an endless eat-as-much-as-you-like buffet in the days before such things were widespread. Now that was a selling point. And, arguably, it needed to be as the crossing to France was two-and-a-half-hours long.

The service to Dunkirk launched from Ramsgate Harbour in 1981 and was originally known as the Sally Viking Line - courtesy of Viking Line, Sally's parent company.

The Prins Filip - sailing into Ramsgate - was operated by Oostende Ferries with sales handled by Sally Line in the UK
The Prins Filip - sailing into Ramsgate - was operated by Oostende Ferries with sales handled by Sally Line in the UK

By 1988 it was carrying more than one million passengers a year.

In 1993, a service took passengers to Ostend, a little further along the coast in Belgium. But by then the cross-Channel market was getting super competitive, with Sealink, P&O, Hoverspeed and, in 1994, Eurotunnel, all upping their games and dropping their prices.

Sally couldn't compete any longer with its Thanet route and by 1998 it sailed out of Ramsgate for the final time.

Transeuropa Ferries snapped up Sally's boats and continued sailing from Ramsgate for Ostend until 2013, when it went bust. Sadly, no passenger ferries have operated out of Ramsgate ever since.

Prior to Sally's launch, coincidentally, the imaginatively named Dunkerque Ramsgate Ferries operated the Thanet to Dunkirk route - and was the first customers of the ferry port at Ramsgate in 1980. The company was backed by the owner of the Olau Line....more of which in one moment.

The Olau Line operated for many years between Sheerness and Vlissingen in the Netherlands
The Olau Line operated for many years between Sheerness and Vlissingen in the Netherlands

Sheerness to Vlissingen

Think about sailing to the Netherlands and you immediately think of the delights of Harwich or even Hull. But once upon a time it was Sheerness which could get you to the oh-so-flat nation across the North Sea.

Danish firm Olau Lines set sail from Sheppey in 1974, offering a direct route to the port of Vlissingen - about a 90-minute drive west along the coast from Rotterdam; a little further to Amsterdam.

Initially it has some inspired adverts - one which it ran in papers in Birmingham read: "It's a fact. Open up a map showing the various ports serving the Continent and you will find that Sheerness is nearer to Birmingham than you think. Simply drive south on the M1 into London and then along the M2 to the Kent coast. It's as direct and as easy to get to as that."

What, indeed, could be easier?

The Olau Britannia docked at Sheerness Docks in October 1990
The Olau Britannia docked at Sheerness Docks in October 1990

Once you'd made that 20 minute trip (by the sounds of it) from the Land of Brum you could then board a ferry which would take a rather leisurely seven-and-a-half hours before arriving at your destination. Those on board could book cabins or, if the budget didn't stretch, then a reclining seat. The main difference being whether you actually wanted to get any sleep or not.

By 1977 it had carried over one million passengers on the route and even started an alternative service to Dunkirk; although that was short-lived and ended within a year due to a dispute by French seamen which allowed only French-flag vessels to land there.

The service continued until March 1994 when in a shock announcement, the service was stopped and 550 jobs lost as a result.

An Olau executive said at the time: "The world is turning on its head with the Channel Tunnel coming along."

A freight-only service, operated by DFDS, is due to start from Sheerness to Calais in June of this year.

Boulogne was once a popular destination for day-trippers could get sail directly to the French port town. Picture: Office de Tourisme, Boulogne
Boulogne was once a popular destination for day-trippers could get sail directly to the French port town. Picture: Office de Tourisme, Boulogne

Folkestone/Dover to Boulogne

If it came to a straight shoot-out as to which port town in France offered the better options for a day-tripper, in truth, Boulogne once won hands down.

You got off the boat and were straight into the town; restaurants and cafes lined your route up to a gothic castle within easy walking distance. It short, it ticked all the 'day out' boxes for young and old alike.

Calais has its charms, undoubtedly, but you had to get a bus into the town from the ferry terminal and after 90 minutes on choppy waters, the prospect of more travelling wasn't one entertained by many.

However, one-by-one services to the French port town were ended; Sealink - which operated a popular service from Folkestone under its name and then after its takeover by Stena; P&O which pulled its Dover service in 1993 (citing the arrival of the Channel Tunnel); and the often forgotten LD Lines in 2010, after just two years, due to a lack of demand.

SpeedFerries operated a short-lived Dover to Boulogne service
SpeedFerries operated a short-lived Dover to Boulogne service

Hovercraft had served the town since 1968 - landing near the town - as did their successors - the space-age looking catamarans operated by Hoverspeed as the Seacat. But by 2000, as Folkestone prepared to shut the following year, the final crossing to Boulogne was made.

Efforts to revive the route have emerged over the years, with the short-lived SpeedFerries operating a catamaran service between 2004 and 2008 when it went into adminstration.

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