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SealinkRemember Sealink?

This is a bit self-indulgent. I was going to call this 10 great things about Sealink, but I couldn't find enough to list.

I used Sealink a lot in the 60s, 70s and 80s as a child and then as a student going back and forth from France and Spain. For those old enough to remember, Sealink was what we used to get to continental Europe before the Channel Tunnel came along. It was real travelling. No antiseptic, air-conditioned high-speed trains here. This was real contact with the wind, air and diesel fumes.

integrated transport

The beauty of Sealink ferries was that they connected with ports with railway stations, Dover Western Docks, Folkestone Harbour, Newhaven Harbour, Calais Maritime ("Calais Maritime, ici Calais Maritime, tous les voyageurs descendent du train, assurez-vous de rien avoir oublié dans la voiture"!), Boulogne and Dieppe Maritime. Just get off the train on to the boat. Now that was a great thing! Simple really.

student travel

I used the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry a lot from 1980 onwards. It took me on my first permanent move to France in 1981. I had a suitcase and a yellow rucksack on my back. I travelled light in those days. I was a student in Brighton, so with short train journey to Newhaven, I'd leave at lunchtime and be in Paris by mid-evening. In the late 70s and early 80s, that was fast, believe me.

first-class on cross channel ferries

In these days of low-cost cattle truck airlines, it's difficult to imagine the latter-day colonial atmosphere of the MV Invicta (see photo) with its first-class tea rooms, wicker chairs and promenades. Invicta was built for the Southern Railway in 1939 and went straight into war service. It transferred to British Railways in 1948 and worked the Dover-Calais route until 1972 when it was retired and scrapped. It connected on the British side with the Golden Arrow, the old Pulman service whose coaches are now used by the Orient Express. I can still remember the table cloths and the protective wooden barriers around the tables that prevented the cups from falling off.

bad weather

I was only ever seasick once, on a hovercraft. But those boats that crossed the English Channel in the 1960s weren't big, they carried no cars and some had no stabilisers. It may be just because I was a child, but I'm sure I can remember seeing just sea on one side of the ship and just air on the other. I didn't like it very much.

sleepless nights

I'm the first one to have a swipe at low-cost cattle truck airlines, but the worst cattle truck of all was the Dunkerque - Dover crossing used in conjunction with the Paris to London train as it was called. The train arrived in Dunkerque at 2.30 in the morning and the boat left at 4. Sleep? Forget it. One of the two times I took it, admittedly after a rather well-oiled dinner, I fell asleep on the train. The port in Dunkerque is a long way from the town centre and I woke up after the train had reached the port and returned to the siding in the station back in the town. I had to get a taxi back to the port and only caught the boat because it was running late. I arrived in London with something of a hangover and fell asleep in the theatre that night. Sorry to Griff Rhys Jones - 25 years later. It was nothing personal.

slightly less sleepless nights

The Dieppe-Newhaven version of that journey was more civilised and both routes had a cheaper fare over night. At 150 francs, it was a bargain for hard up students. The train arrived at a much more civilised midnight and was followed by a 4 hour crossing that tended to extend sometimes so you could get a good amount of sleep. If you were smart, you could get in the bar and lay out on one of the benches. Those were the days! .

the train goes on the boat

Years before the Channel Tunnel, it was possible to get on a train in Paris and get off in London.  Three boats on the Dunkerque route, the Chartres, the St. Eloi and the Vortigern all had rail tracks fitted to their car decks. I never took it but it seems that loading the train on to the car decks was a little shaky. The service first started in 1936 and although it was suspended during World War II, it continued until October 1980 -  I remember selling the odd ticket for it in Paris that year. In March 1982, the Vortigern was beached on the way in to Ostend and it seems that only its hull that was reinforced to take the weight of the trains prevented it from breaking up.

schooltrips

An unnamed Sealink ship with very 1950s/1960s wooden interiors (Invicta perhaps?) appeared in a famous French film A nous les petites anglaises in which a couple of French schoolchildren were sent to Kent to improve their spoken English. Generations of both British and French kids have done the same thing (I even met my wife on one - that's another story).

And so went Sealink, privatised in 1984, through a variety of corporate mergers and takeovers before sinking into oblivion. I'm sure the old ghosts of the Invicta, the Vortigern, the Horsa and the Hengist are out there somewhere, rattling about under the waves of the English Channel.

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