The Stranraer-Larne route was always at the forefront of the story of car ferries around the British Isles, with the very first drive on/drive off ship to serve open waters from these islands being introduced there as far back as 1939 in the shape of the first Princess Victoria. That vessel was a war casualty, but was soon replaced by a virtual repeat, the second-named Princess Victoria of 1947. The sad loss of this ship with 133 lives in the January 1953 storms did not deter the route’s ultimate owners, by this stage British Railways (through the Caledonian Steam Packet), from investing further significant amounts in new tonnage in due course. It is quite remarkable that, despite the booming traffic from Southern England to the continent, over the twenty-three years including and after the introduction of the Caledonian Princess in 1961 until privatisation in 1984, no BR/Sealink ports received more purpose-built British ships than Stranraer and Larne with, in succession, the Antrim Princess (1967), Ailsa Princess (1971) and Galloway Princess (1980).
All the listed ships were notable in their own ways, but the Antrim Princess, built by Hawthorn, Leslie on the Tyne, stands out as a landmark for British Rail ferry design. Although the Princesses Victoria had been motor ships, based on the preferences of the original designers and owners (the LMS), since nationalisation in 1948 British Railways had consistently chosen steam turbine propulsion. The ‘Antrim’ broke the mould in this respect, and was also the first drive-through BR vessel, complete with lifting bow visor, although in this she followed the lead of the futuristic Stena Nordica which had served on charter to the CSP since 1966. The car deck was full-height for lorries throughout and featured mezzanine decks on either beam – an interesting and possibly unique solution for a ship with a centre casing, presumably requiring motorists wishing to access the accommodation to walk along the mezzanines, down the ramps, across the main vehicle deck and up through the stairwells on the centreline. As with the Caledonian Princess the ship had cattle pens located aft on Lower Deck (beneath, but accessed from, the vehicle deck).
Although the ship was clearly designed with car and road freight traffic at the forefront, she retained a two-class layout on board, reflecting in part the railway aspect of her operations and the connecting trains that met sailings at either port. She has been noted as being slightly less opulent than the Caledonian Princess, clearly a move towards the robust but still elegant designs produced by Ward & Austin through the 1970s. The passenger saloons were spread across the Shelter Deck, with Second Class towards the stern – right aft a Tea Room, aft lounge and amidships a cafeteria (port) and bar (starboard). The First Class spaces comprised an oval-shaped lounge forward, with a restaurant (port) and bar tucked in just astern. Berths for 66 were available, mostly beneath the car deck on either side of the engine room (First Class forward and Second Class aft), and, in line with existing practice, passengers booking these on late night or early morning crossings were permitted to stay on board overnight either before or after the crossing.
Some of the decor presaged that of later Sealink ships, particularly the Vortigern whose dramatic Britannia Bar was in many ways a tidied-up repeat of the Antrim Princess’ Second Class Bar with rather more expensive furnishings. The oval-shaped First Class lounge meanwhile had an echo in the shape of the Vortigern’s minimalist forward cafeteria.
The Antrim Princess served at Stranraer until 1985 when she was displaced by the St David and transferred, on charter, to the Isle of Man Steam Packet, later being renamed Tynwald. Then, in 1990, the ship was sold to Linee Lauro for Italian service as the Lauro Express. Later serving on services to North Africa, the confusing break up of Lauro’s ferry operations saw the ship pass to the related Medmar in 2003. Subsequently renamed Giuseppe D’Abundo, the ship passed for scrap in 2007.
As a postscript, whilst discussing the Antrim Princess in their book Designing Ships for Sealink, naval architects Don Ripley and Tony Rogan noted that, “the onset of modern diesel machinery brought about a necessary change in funnel design and after much internal discussion… a new shape was evolved and proved in wind tunnel tests which were carried out at Swan Hunter’s for the [new Harwich-Hook of Holland car ferry] St George but used to devise the geometry also of the Antrim Princess’ funnel.” This connection with the St George is an interesting point, as the latter ship throughout her planning stage was shown with a combined funnel/mast, similar to the Antrim Princess but without the upper part of the exhaust stack which gave it the distinctive ‘fireman’s helmet’ look. The mast section was ultimately dispensed with entirely on the ‘George’, and all subsequent ships with this signature look followed the Harwich ship’s refined version in one way or another, save for the ‘Antrim’s half sister, the Ailsa Princess. Interestingly, as the Lauro Express, the ex-‘Antrim’ featured modified original safety plans with a funnel design not dissimilar to that originally proposed for the St George suggesting that the final design as used was a late adjustment.