Visits to Boulogne-sur-Mer are always slightly haunting for me. This port town, which was massively damaged in the Second World War, rebuilt itself into the Channel port in the 1950s and much of the 1960s. For my family, it was almost always the continental port of arrival for motoring holidays – even back in the ’80s it was still a major port with two or three million passengers passing through each year. The years since then have been tough, and it is sometimes difficult to reconcile the busy, tourist and transport-oriented Boulogne of my childhood to the more sedate town of today. Boulogne lost out to Calais in the end for a variety of reasons but it was a protracted decline, culminating in December 1991 when Sealink Stena Line, ultimate successor to the railway operators who had placed such importance in sailings to Boulogne, closed their car ferry service from Folkestone.
Just over twelve months after Sealink’s exit, the final mainstream conventional ferry service, operated by P&O, closed. Various low-profile freight services continued to Folkestone for a few years, together with Hoverspeed’s SeaCat but both ceased not long after the turn of the century. For three long years the port was desolate until Speedferries, sometimes more of a PR machine than a ferry operator, arrived in May 2004. As with most of the more recent operators, they proved to be a short-lived affair and closed amidst unpaid port dues and an arrested Speed One in late 2008.
LD Lines are the latest operator to try their hand in Boulogne. Their Norman Arrow and CÃ´te d’AlbÃ¢tre have operated between them from Dover for much of 2009 but now it seems that the route’s real saviour will be the Norman Spirit (ex-Prins Filip/P&OSL Aquitaine). Operations will, however, be from the new hub port in the Darse Sarraz Bournet – which is nearer the hoverport at La Portel than the Gare Maritime in the heart of town. And so, any unanticipated future operation by Euroferries aside, use of the traditional arrival point for cross-channel passengers has come to an end. I’ll be looking at the history of Boulogne in more detail in the future, but here are a couple of images of the famous quayside from last month. The sad state of the linkspan at berth 15, built in 1965 to coincide with the introduction of the Dover, is of particular interest – this was for many years used by Sealink’s Hengist and Horsa and is the oldest remaining span at the port; the original 1952 linkspan around the corner at berth 13 was replaced by the present double deck structure in 1984 which, having been modified for fast craft use, was in operation right up to the transfer of LD Lines to the new port in September 2009.
Standing on the Quai Gambetta to take those images, with the post-war Gare Maritime in the background, one can turn 180 degrees to see further evidence of the post-war reconstruction. Firstly, still dominating the portscape are the ‘Quatre buildings du Quai Gambettaâ€™, four twelve-storey tower blocks, icons of French modernism which were recently the subject of an interesting exhibition at the local School of Art. Along the quayside slightly is the 1950s Chamber of Commerce building, whose interest in this case lies inside where it houses a model of perhaps the most contemporarily famous ship ever to have served the port.
The Canterbury was completed by Denny of Dumbarton in 1929, being launched just before Christmas the previous year. She was built especially for use in connection with the all-first class Golden Arrow which operated from London Victoria to Paris Nord (via Dover-Calais) from May 1929 onwards. The Canterbury benefits from perhaps the finest biography of any cross-channel vessel, the mesmerising The Canterbury Remembered, a difficult to find limited edition of only 150 copies by Henry Maxwell. Certainly I find it hard to dispute Maxwell’s assertion that the Canterbury was “probably the best known, certainly the best loved cross-channel steamer there has ever been”. It is difficult to place this fame in a modern context when ferries only attain such prominence through infamy. Yet, used as she was by the ruling elite on one of most important transport connections with the Continent she, and the Golden Arrow, seeped into the public consciousness.
Modern historians, rightly, look for an empathetic angle to any historical situation – this first class deluxe service is all well and good but how did the “real people” live, what does this ship have to do with them? During World War 2 and in her later years, the Canterbury managed to bridge the class divide that she was born in many ways to represent. A notable war service saw the ship deliver troops to Calais and Boulogne not long before both ports fell, then being present at both Dunkirk and D Day. Post-war, replaced at last by the new Invicta (which had been due for delivery in 1940 but entered railway service in 1946) she was moved over to Folkestone and operated for most of the rest of her career to Boulogne where, latterly, her passenger complements were, “in the great majority either day excursionists or members of tourist parties organised by the big travel agents: Lunn, Workers Travel Association, Wayfarers and the like”.
As such, and together with the Isle of Thanet and the early car ferries, she helped re-popularise Boulogne both as a transit port and a destination. And it was the Canterbury which opened the new Gare Maritime which we today note the closure of: designed by the architects Georges Popesco and AndrÃ© Lacoste this was a modernist, almost utopian vision of the future with sweeping concrete ramps and a quite unique and complete integration of car ferry terminal with railway station. Delays in the completion of the car ramp saw the official opening delayed until 16 June 1952 with an arrival by the brand new Lord Warden but it was the Canterbury which made the maiden sailing, on 30 May.
The model of the Canterbury which resides in the foyer of the Chamber of Commerce was presented to the French nearly 50 years ago, on 4 December 1959. It was the (BR) Southern Region’s own model and was given to Boulogne at the suggestion of M. Sarraz-Bournet “as a permanent reminder of the town’s historic links with England, and as a souvenir of the ship’s long association with the port”. To this day, however, it retains its little sign noting that “this model is on loan from the collection of the British Transport Commission” (BTC).
The BTC was abolished by the Transport Act of 1962.
Boulogne was the quintessential Cross-Channel port â€“ unlike Calais, the ferry port was physically a part of the city itself, yet clearly with a view beyond its visible horizons. Boulogne was the first taste of France for hundreds of thousands of travellers over many decades and for many the experience of arrival by ship and onward connection by rail was gripping and memorable. In his book Gateway to the Continent E W P Veale remembers â€œthe childhood thrill of a day trip from Folkestone to Boulogne in the Lord Warden [of 1896], the old town of Boulogne rising behind the quay and crowned by the Cathedral; in the foreground the unfamiliar French rolling stock, French locomotives with working parts freely exposed and stove-pipe funnels; carriages in the smart green livery of the â€œNordâ€; and the brown match-board panelling of the Wagons-Restaurants and Wagons-Lits.â€
Recent years have not been kind â€“ the post-war Gare Maritime remains, but in a continually declining state. Until just a couple of years ago however it was possible to wander around the abandoned railway station with its ripped up railway lines and the adjacent quaysides. Today, chain link fencing prevents even that nostalgic pleasure. Despite its cultural and architectural significance, the only future seems likely to be demolition.
The Canterbury was towed away from Dover for scrapping in Belgium in July 1965. For now, the Gare Maritime which she opened still glowers across the Liane at the Chamber of Commerce building housing that perpetual reminder of both the ship and of the sea links between Boulogne and England.
“She is moving. She is moving ever so slightly forward and as she moves her bow swings round to port and she is headed up towards the jetties…. she becomes an anthology of images: she is a swan gliding upon a lake, a floating island upon some inland sea, a seagull with wings folded at rest upon still water, a ballerina bourree-ing her way before the footlights. Barely moving and yet already with all her lines, rakes and sheers melting and deliquescent.
And now she grows in size and majesty as she enters the channel between the jetty arms, seeming taller as funnel and masts converge into one ascendant perpendicular; moving with only a sluggish ripple curving from her bows, and with another lazily upheaving behind her stern: surprisingly and surpassingly beautiful.
And behind her, in the Inner Port, there is a sudden emptiness as her presence is withdrawn – that presence which all afternoon has drawn the eye and which has constituted, of itself, a kind of heart-beat in the port, a heart-beat now stilled.
And all along the seaward-reaching jetty fishermen with their rods and lines, and innumerable strollers promenading there, see her pass. And the sluggish tide beneath them, already low about the jetty piles, falls in her wake lower yet and is sucked backwards uncovering the dark barnacle-encrusted stone on which the piles are set.
And the water as it is swallowed backwards and then sluggishly regurgitated produces a sound as of a low, reluctant sigh: as if the tide were bidding the departing ship adieu.
And as she passes the jetty’s end and stands out into the roadstead the afternoon sunlight falls directly upon her retreating stern, illuminating it with golden fire so that the lettering across it seems all to be ablaze –
Henry Maxwell, A Boulogne departure in ‘The Canterbury Remembered’