I was there for the golden era of Harwich ferries. Do you remember these?

Stephen Brown with his book. 'The port, along with the ferry industry in general, has long suffered

Stephen Brown with his book. 'The port, along with the ferry industry in general, has long suffered the effects of the loss of duty free, the increased competition from low-cost airlines, the Channel Tunnel and the ever-rising price of fuel.' - Credit: Su Anderson

Stephen Brown could see the busy quay from his school, so perhaps was fated to end up working there himself and falling in love with ferries. STEVEN RUSSELL enjoys a homage to the halcyon days of travel from East Anglia

The Dana Anglia on the day of her arrival at Parkeston Quay - May 6, 1978. Photo: Stephen Brown

The Dana Anglia on the day of her arrival at Parkeston Quay - May 6, 1978. Photo: Stephen Brown - Credit: Archant

There’s the chance of some thrills when you’re a lad and your dad is a marine engineer. Stephen Brown recalls his father taking him on trips across the North Sea from Harwich many years ago. “In those days, not that many people went for day-trips. I remember once going over to Holland. I was only so high.” Father and son were bound for Eindhoven. A tall Dutch customs officer with a pistol in a holster – quite a sight for a little boy used to unarmed bobbies – posed the usual formal questions.

“And you go back to England when?” “Tonight.” “You’ve come just for the day? Oh, you crazy English!”

Stephen smiles at the memory. “So, from way back, it’s been a bit of an adventure to go over there.”

A view of the St Edmund anchored in Port Stanley harbour in the Falklands in 1982. It was used as a

A view of the St Edmund anchored in Port Stanley harbour in the Falklands in 1982. It was used as a a floating garrison during the war. Photo: Stephen Brown collection - Credit: Archant

I’m with him on that one. There was such a sense of romance in years gone by. “Harwich for the Continent” said signs on station platforms and roadsides. This gateway on our doorstep promised cosmopolitan fun, in the era before cheap air travel and the internet undermined the mystique of “abroad”.

Those heady days are but memories. True, there’s still much to be positive about. Around 600,000 passengers continue to pass through Harwich International Port each year, taking superferries Stena Britannica and Stena Hollandica for the twice-daily sailings to the Hook of Holland. Then there’s the line’s freight service to Rotterdam.

The terminal we once knew as Parkeston Quay has seen significant investment since becoming part of Hutchison Ports (UK) Ltd in the late 1990s and is still one of the UK’s most important passenger ferry terminals. Cruise ships call, too.

A poster produced for London & North Eastern Railway, promoting the Harwich-Hook nightly service on

A poster produced for London & North Eastern Railway, promoting the Harwich-Hook nightly service on three new luxury ships - the Amsterdam, Prague and Vienna. Photo: NRM/Pictorial Collection - Credit: Archant

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On the debit side, DFDS last autumn ended its sailings to Esbjerg, meaning there was no longer a ferry route between the UK and Denmark.

While Parkeston is still home to a substantial and modern quay facility, says Stephen Brown, “Sadly, there are times now when not a single ship can be seen tied up alongside... its current state of activity makes it hard to imagine that what rose up from a wasteland of mudflats and tidal saltings was once a port of unrivalled versatility amongst all of Britain’s cross channel ports.”

He explains: “Practically all semblance of what could be termed ‘the good old days’ has now gone. The port, along with the ferry industry in general, has long suffered the effects of the loss of duty free, the increased competition from low-cost airlines, the Channel Tunnel and the ever-rising price of fuel.

The Dana Regina arriving from Esbjerg on August 5, 1976. Photo: Stephen Brown

The Dana Regina arriving from Esbjerg on August 5, 1976. Photo: Stephen Brown - Credit: Archant

“Nowadays it is further threatened by the introduction of ‘green’ regulations concerning fuel emissions, a factor that caused DFDS to close its historic link to Esbjerg on 29th September 2014. Doing so then left the port with just one remaining [passenger] ferry route, a situation that hasn’t existed at Harwich since 1854!”

So many different ferries would sail in and out during the golden age of the late 1970s to the mid ’80s. “They were like floating entertainment centres in some respects; floating hotels. The ships were modern – comfortable, reliable. Really quite exciting times,” he tells the EADT.

“You regularly would get a million-plus passengers using the Hook of Holland service, and 300,000 to Sweden; 300,000 to Denmark; 300,000 to Germany at certain times. Now we’re down to one passenger route and half a million people.”

The Tor Scandinavia inaugurates the transfer from Felixstowe to Parkeston Quay of DFDS�s passenger s

The Tor Scandinavia inaugurates the transfer from Felixstowe to Parkeston Quay of DFDS�s passenger service to Gothenburg on April 1,1983. Photo: Stephen Brown - Credit: Archant

His book Harwich Ferries – Parkeston Quay under Railway Ownership begins the story early in the 1200s, when Harwich (or Herewiz or Herewych) is thought to have started as a modest seafaring community. But it’s in the 1840s, as “railway mania” gripped England, that things started moving.

There was no quay until the railways arrived in the late 19th Century. “From the outset its railway-owning managers sought to open up more links and better facilities for trade between Britain, Holland and Belgium, and for more than a century it thrived as a place of expansion, variety and innovation.” The Great Eastern Railway, the London & North Eastern Railway and British Railways “in turn operated not only the cargo and passenger steamers of Victorian times that later developed into large scale passenger and ro-ro ferries, freight ships and container vessels out of Parkeston Quay but also train ferries and river boat services out of Harwich itself.

“In addition a number of other operators, such as DFDS and Fred Olsen, RMT and SNCF, were attracted into ultimately linking Parkeston Quay with all of the Continent’s North Sea and Channel-facing countries from as far north as Norway all the way down to Spain.”

The morning of the first commercial arrival of the St Nicholas from the Hook of Holland - June 11, 1

The morning of the first commercial arrival of the St Nicholas from the Hook of Holland - June 11, 1983. Photo: Stephen Brown - Credit: Archant

It certainly moved on a lot from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, when Harwich established itself as a port of exit and entry. “A Customs officer, acting as a deputy to the officer at Ipswich, was stationed there in 1577 for the ‘examination of passengers’,” writes Stephen.

In the second half of the 1600s, Harwich was a “packet-port”, with the postal service benefiting from a direct service to Holland.

When that service left Harwich, business suffered. “Local industries such as fishing, shipbuilding and cement-making were unable to compensate for the loss and it soon became apparent that any future revival or development would largely depend upon better transport links with London and many places inland, and the faster those links were the better.”

The Koningin Beatrix towers over the harbour workboat, the Pinmill, in April, 1986. Photo: Stephen B

The Koningin Beatrix towers over the harbour workboat, the Pinmill, in April, 1986. Photo: Stephen Brown - Credit: Archant

Ah, railways! But there were many false dawns in connecting Harwich. Eventually, in the 1850s, the Harwich Corporation commissioned engineer Peter Bruff to build a quay and 243ft pier.

“The structure would officially be referred to as the Corporation Pier, and was opened on 2nd July 1853. Today it is known as the Halfpenny Pier, from when, in the 1890s, it cost those who were not travelling one half penny to enter.”

Work started in 1853 to build a single-track railway from Manningtree. It cost £177,000, officially opened to passengers in August, 1854, and came under the Eastern Counties Railway.

A Great Eastern Railway timetable of continental crossings from January, 1868. Photo: Stephen Brown

A Great Eastern Railway timetable of continental crossings from January, 1868. Photo: Stephen Brown collection - Credit: Archant

By the following July, a paddle steamer to Antwerp was running three times a week. Departures sailed after the arrival of the 8.30pm mail train from London. Sadly, the service flagged and closed a week before Christmas, 1855, having lost the company nearly £6,000. Still, things were well under way.

The whole story is too long – too many twists and turns, hopes and disappointments – to chronicle here in detail. But here are a few selected highlights:

By 1865, Harwich was said to be “an indescribable labyrinth of rails, with carriages and trucks of all kinds”. Work was under way on a new pier to cope with the growth in traffic. It opened in 1866.

The number of passengers carried on GER ships in 1866 was 9,350. By the start of the 1880s, traffic levels at Harwich were still growing despite outdated facilities, says Stephen. “Since August 1879 the Great Eastern Railway Engineering Department had been responsible for constructing a ‘fine commodious dock’, ie the Stour River Quay... some 600 acres of low-lying land were being reclaimed and bounded by a two-and-a-half-mile-long sea wall”.

The quay was 1,800ft long ? enough for six ships to lie alongside at any one time.

“In October 1881 the GER Board decided that this new quay would be named ‘Parkeston Quay’ in honour of its chairman, Mr Charles Henry Parkes, though it would be a while before the name was officially adopted.” Stephen writes: “The difference between the space available at Parkeston Quay and the cramped conditions experienced back at Harwich was enormous. The facilities offered were at that time the most magnificent anywhere in the country...

“With the new quay at Parkeston now open for business, all railway passenger boats ceased sailing to the Continent from Harwich. The town once again fell very quiet. In time the old Continental Pier was reduced to being a fish jetty.”

Parkeston, over more than 100 years, became an efficient, multi-purpose port.

In 1980, DFDS celebrated 100 years of sailings between Esbjerg and Harwich/Parkeston Quay. “In their first month of operation back in 1880 the company ran six sailings to Harwich, bringing in 1,208 oxen, various other livestock and 110 tons of general cargo,” says Stephen. “In 1980 DFDS were importing 15,000 tons of cargo each week.” Change was a constant in the industry – both triumphs and setbacks – and there was talk of privatisation. In 1984 Sealink was sold to James Sherwood’s Sea Containers Ltd for £66m, the Government judging that during the previous five years Sealink’s ships had been losing an average of £2.5m a year. The £100m British Rail had spent on them could arguably have been better spent on the railways.

In September, 1986, British Rail announced it was ending its contract with Sealink to run the Harwich train ferry service and that the route to Zeebrugge would close at the end of January. It was said to be losing £3m a year.

There was still plenty going on, though. In 1987 the weekly sailings from Parkeston were 14 to the Hook, eight to Esbjerg, three or four each to Gothenburg and Hamburg, one to Helsingborg and one to Hirtshals/Oslo.

For the book, this is where the journey ends. The 1980s, Stephen reckons, were probably the best time to have been a passenger, travelling on ferries “that were amongst the most comfortable of their era. In future years Parkeston Quay was to see further changes both in ownership and operation that arguably never quite matched the supposed heydays of previous years”.

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I’m being a bit mean to Stephen, asking if he might be a ferry “anorak”, but he takes it in good spirit.

“Well... in Germany and places like that they call them Ferry Freaks,” he smiles. “Yes, I have been on ferry tours. The magazine Ships Monthly used to organise quite a few.

“They would take you all the way round Scandinavia. Some of those ferries were fantastic: big, glitzy, luxurious. So, yes... I’m not quite sure how many ferries I’ve been on, but it’s likely to be well over 100.”

His family hails from Doncaster. His father, an engineer, trained on the railways before switching to the marine industry and moving to Harwich in 1959.

As a pupil at Harwich County High School, Stephen could see Parkeston Quay from the top floor.

He took a degree at Derby but didn’t really know what to do afterwards. The port had vacancies, so he began work there in 1976 – in quayside offices that then had rows of desks laid out like an old actuary’s office.

Then, it was the British Rail Shipping and International Services Division – BR’s ferry arm – but before too long was rebranded Sealink.

Stephen spent 18 years there before getting a job at Manningtree with what was then One railways. He’s been there ever since, working at a station that gets busier and busier.

“There’s almost as many people travelling through the station each year as there used to be travelling on the ferries to the Hook of Holland each year. That’s just on one (ferry) route. That gives you an idea of how busy it was: 1.1m was the peak on the Harwich-Hook route.”

Today, he finds it sad to remember the bustle of only 20 years or so ago.

Yes, the port gets the cruise ships and the huge ferries to the Hook, but the breadth isn’t there.

“I have been down to Shotley Gate and looked over the river, and there’s often not been a thing there – and it’s unbelievable to think you once had all this going on.

“You are going to ask me why it’s happened... Changing patterns of habit, really. The cheap airlines: you can jump on a plane and two hours later land in Scandinavia. You’re not on a boat for 20 hours or so, ‘wasting time’ as people would say now. But in the days of the ferry, people would say it was part of their holiday.

“Plus you’ve had fuel costs going up, health and safety costs built into the more advanced design of a ship. It all puts the fare up. And the loss of duty-free in 1999. It all conspired against it. Gradual knock by knock.

“We are all to blame. We don’t want to pay the fares. For the enthusiasts it’s a sad day; for the travelling public it’s one less option.”