More fun by Ferry, May 2011

We’re at the start of National Ferry Fortnight. This is a campaign by the UK’s ferry operators to encourage us to go places by boat rather than just jumping onto planes.

This seems really relevant to us. Not only are we planning to go north to Shetland by NorthLink ferry in the next few days, but we’ve also decided to abandon our plans for a long haul trip in October and to instead spend some time using the many Caledonian MacBrayne ferries that frequent the west and north of Scotland.

There is something about going places by ferry that just feels more civilised than most forms of air travel – the pace of life is slower, there’s space to walk around (and to take pictures), you can eat and drink if and when you want to, and on overnight crossings it’s possible lie down in a real bed without needing to re-mortgage the house.

Ferries were always part of my younger travelling life.   I can recall many crossings of the North Channel between Larne and Stranraer, and also lots of times when summer holidays involved ferry routes.  Rosslare to Le Havre was always my favourite way of getting from Ireland to France, and some of the strongest memories involved using the Caledonian Macbrayne ferries to go to the Outer Hebrides.   I can even recall quite a few Dover to Calais crossings when I was student – this was the direct route for weekends in Paris before the Channel tunnel was an option.

Once my student days had passed I seemed to rather abandon ferries and go pretty much everywhere by air. I can remember the excitement when we booked CalMac to go to Islay about ten years ago. I also realised that although many things had changed in the UK over the almost 20 years since my last long ferry crossing, the meals on the CalMac ferry were still pretty much the same. Mind you it is hard to improve on fish and chips or scotch pies.

Over the last ten years I’ve left the British mainland by ferry heading in lots of directions – I’ve been across the North Sea to Norway and to Denmark, I’ve gone south from Weymouth to the Channel Islands and I’ve revisited the Outer Hebrides and gone north from Aberdeen to Shetland several times. In the case of the Shetland route lots of time in the last twelve months.

Getting to Shetland by the Northlink ferry takes much longer than the air route (even on FlyBe’s bad days), but it always feels like a more satisfying (and authentic) way to make the journey. No matter how bumpy the crossing has been it’s always good to see and on rough crossings feel the ferry come into Bressay Sound as it approaches Lerwick.

from MV Clansman in the Sound of MullThis autumn I’ll be heading up to Shetland, but I’m planning to do this by one of the more indirect and ferry intensive routes. Rather than heading to Aberdeen and getting the direct ferry from there we’re intending to head to Oban on the west coast of Scotland then use CalMac to go North via the Hebrides.

The first leg of the trip goes through the Sound of Mull then across to Coll and Tiree in the Inner Hebrides. After a few days there we head north west across the romantically named Sea of the Hebrides to Barra on the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides.

 From there slowly northwards to South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist, Harris and finally Lewis. When I first visiting the Outer Hebrides in 1975 that collection of islands would have involved lots of ferry crossings, now-a-days the Uists and Benbecula have been causewayed together so getting from Barra to Stornoway on Lewis only needs two short ferry crossings.

From Stornoway, the next step is eastwards across the Minch with CalMac to Ullapool then across Caithness and Sutherland to Gills Bay for the short ferry crossing to Orkney. Then finally picking up the Northlink Ferry for the overnight crossing into Lerwick.

As I've been putting these words and images together, I've realised how many of the routes I've mentioned have either changed or stopped operating altogether .  The ferry from Stranraer now goes into Belfast rather than Larne (although there is still a Cairnryan to Larne), the Rosslare ferry now goes to Cherbourg and the Newcastle to Bergen service I used to get to Norway has stopped altogether. And one of the services I've always wanted to use - from Shetland to the Faroe Islands - has disappeared before I got a chance to use it.

In places were the services receive a life-line subsidy the services do continue to run, but in other places where market forces dominate the routes are more than slightly vulnerable. I hope that National Ferry Fortnight does succeed in encouraging more passengers, I'd be really sad to see any more services disappear.