Home Culture Sailing into History: The Untold Story of the Cross-Channel Ferries

Sailing into History: The Untold Story of the Cross-Channel Ferries

by David 16th March 2017

You’re not just taking a leisurely cruise across to France, you’re taking your place on one of the world’s most historic sea routes. As far as we know, it’s the world’s oldest regular boat crossing. This 22-odd mile route isn’t just responsible for our connections to the continent, but it actually gave us our name, too.

Our Bronze Age ancestors were among the first people in Europe to build boats – rather than use dugout canoes. Their new-fangled bronze axes could construct stable, plank-sewn hulls.

They called these craft ‘britts’ – from the old Germanic name for ship. And so, our earliest French-bound travellers were welcomed on the other side as the ‘Britt-folks’ – or the ‘boat people’. The word stuck. Our first cross Channel ferry made us all Britons, from Britannia – the land of Boats.  

So let’s celebrate our seafaring ancestry, and embark on a little voyage of discovery of our own, as we chart a curious passage through the amazing history of the cross channel ferry…

1 The first Channel ferry we know of dates to the Bronze Age – around 3500 years ago (pic above). The oak hull was discovered in 1992 (it’s now in the Dover Museum) and is the world’s oldest known sea-faring boat, capable of carrying at least a dozen passengers. No evidence of a duty free shop, though.

2 The gap in the white cliffs helped Dover secure its position as a major cross-channel port – it was the most important southern port for the advancing Roman army. The Roman Lighthouse (pic r) at Dover Castle dates from around 46-50 AD – one of the  first things they built after their invasion of Britain in 43 AD, to guard their new fleet’s HQ.

3 Curiously, it was the British who built Calais’ first dock. In 1366, Calais was under English rule. To transport English wool to the mills of Flanders, they built the Bassin du Paradis (pic r) – it’s still used today by small fishing boats, and is lined with cafes and bars!

4 If you’d have been a passenger on the first ever scheduled cross-channel service in 1821, you’d have needed a coat. Passengers were only allowed on the open deck. The paddle steamer Rob Roy (in the centre of the picture) looked after its payload of mail better than its human cargo! The chilly journey took three hours.

5 Just like the collaborative efforts of the Channel Tunnel, this first cross-channel enterprise was a real case of entente cordial – the Rob Roy (pic r) was Scottish built, but owned and operated by the French government. 

6 Launched in 1903, The Queen was the first steam-turbine driven cross-channel vessel, carrying 1250 passengers from Dover to Calais in luxuriously appointed saloons. In heavy fog, The Queen collided head on with her sister ship Onward in 1908.

7 During World War I, The Queen was used for troop transport. She was intercepted by a flotilla of raiding German destroyers in 1916 and, after her crew had been taken off, unceremoniously sunk. But not before totally transforming the cross-channel industry. It would never be the same again.

8 Townsend ferries were the first operator to transport cars across the Channel. A maximum of 15 vehicles were winched and craned onboard the inaugural service, in June 1928. The response was overwhelming. By 1930, the newer ship, Forde, transported over 4,600 cars.

9 After the interruptions of the Second World War, the drive-on-drive-off facility revolutionised the industry. By 1953, an average 100,000 vehicles rolled on and rolled off the newly installed ramps onto the boats.

10 When Brittany Ferries first sailed, their cargo

was of Breton cauliflowers and artichokes. Breton farmers wanting to export their goods to the UK founded the line in 1972.

11 Over the past century, Dover’s grown to become the world’s busiest passenger port, with 16 million travellers, 2.1 million lorries, 2.8 million cars and 86,000 coaches passing through it each year.

12 The Dover Harbour Board is one of the oldest corporations still in existence in Britain. It was formed by Royal Charter  in 1606 by King James I.

13 All passenger ships have a ‘godmother’ – usually a female civilian chosen to bestow good luck on the vessel – they range from Whoopi Goldberg to Melania Trump. For P&O Ferries’ newest ship, The Spirit of Britain, Dame Kelly Holmes holds the honour.

14 P&O Ferries’ Spirit of France and Spirit of Britain are the largest ferries ever constructed for the Dover to Calais route. Launched in 2012, with a tonnage of 46,000, the Finnish-built craft cost £160 million each, and can each accommodate 2,000 passengers.

15 Whenever a new ship is built, coins are placed under the keel for good fortune. The ceremony calls for a newly minted coin put in place by the youngest apprentice. There are two gleaming Euro coins under the Spirit of France.

16 Godmother of Brittany Ferries’ Armorique, Penelope Fillon, (wife of the then French Prime Minister François Fillon) is originally from Wales. Her Celtic connections secured her role as the first and only British Godmother of any Brittany Ferries vessel.

17 Brittany Ferries’ ships pride themselves on their collections of original works of art on board. Pont-Aven, named after Brittany’s ‘city of painters’, even has an original piece by Gaugin, who painted in the town.

18 The fastest commercial ferry crossing was by a hovercraft, which made the crossing in just 22 minutes in 1995. Sadly, hovercrafts, once seen as the future of cross-channel traffic, became much too expensive to operate.

19 It’s not just holidaymakers and freight – P&O ferries have been instrumental in reintroducing beavers to our shores, too. The industrious little dam builders have been transported from the continent to their new home, a nature reserve in Kent.

20 One of the few photographers to be named Official Painter of the French Navy, Philippe  Plisson‘s powerful images of the dramatic Breton coast adorn Brittany Ferries’ bulkheads. We love his powerful images of Breton lighthouses standing firm against an Atlantic squall.

21 Unlike the super-sized cruise ships, ferries can’t get much bigger. Their size is dictated by their need to turn around, unaided, within 45 minutes. On average, ships sail from Dover every 30 minutes.

22 Parked bumper to bumper, the Spirit of Britain has an astonishing 2.33 miles of parking on board.

23 P&O Ferries launched the innovative Pet Passport system, transforming the holidays of over half a million cats, dogs, guinea pigs and ferrets. The first beneficiary – a pug named Frodo, who sailed into Dover in 2000!

24 Brittany Ferries’ on board shops sell so much perfume they’re actually the third largest retailer of fine fragrances in France!

25 Despite being French, Brittany Ferries serve over 240,000 English breakfasts every year. But, just to redress the balance, they also serve 22 tonnes of langoustines and 330,000 cappuccinos too! These days, 21st century cross-channel ferries are replete with cinemas, luxurious club lounges with panoramic windows and squishy sofas, kids play areas and virtual reality arcades. Their bars and restaurants, private cabins and state-of-the-art safety features are a world apart from the breezy open decks of the original steam packet services, but the allure – and the romance – of the open sea, remains as potent as it did when we first crossed the waters 3,500 years ago.

So get your holiday off to a truly historic start, and add a ferry to your booking – we promise a ‘best price guarantee’, our sales team has access to more routes, and more sailing times, and many of our best-loved parcs are comfortably close to European ports: so talk to us, and let us get your continental voyage off to the best possible start – by sea.






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