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The English Channel stretches from the Straights of Dover in the east to Cornwall in the west and separates Great Britain from mainland Europe.
Southampton is the principle port along our southern coastline, especially for cruise ships and large container vessels, but smaller ships, including ferries, operate from here and other ports such as Dover, Plymouth, Newhaven, Poole and Portsmouth.

Southampton’s first dock was opened in 1842 and the following year the location was chosen by the UK Government as a major port for Royal Mail delivery to the British Empire. The prefix RMS (Royal Mail Ship) identified a sea-going vessel used to carry mail and this prestigious title has been used by many well-known passenger liners from 1843 to the present day, including P&O ships, Cunard’s liners and, of course, White Star Line’s Titanic.

  White Star Line was founded in 1845 and merged in 1934 with Cunard to become Cunard-White Star, although the latter part of the name was eventually dropped. White Star originally operated from Liverpool, but from 1907 to 1934 its ships sailed the Southampton to New York Transatlantic route, via Cherbourg in France. In 1907, the decision was taken to build three huge liners designated Olympic, Britannic and Titanic; of the three, the fate of Titanic, which sailed from Southampton in April 1912 on her maiden voyage for her collision with an iceberg, is well known. The Britannic was also destined for a watery grave following its conversion in 1915 to a hospital ship. During 1916, after five successful return voyages from Southampton to the Aegean Sea transported wounded soldiers back to England for treatment, she struck a mine and sank. The Olympic was the only one of the trio to enjoy a full career, although she did collided with the warship Hawke in the Solent in 1911.

  P&O (Peninsular and Orient) has been associated with Southampton since 1853 with sailings worldwide, but particularly to Australia, via Cape Town in South Africa. Today P&O Cruises operate mainly out of the Southampton with cruise liners that include Adonia, Arcadia, Aurora, Azura, Brittania, Oceana, Oriana and Ventura.

P&O cruise ship Aurora berthed at Barcelona

  P&O acquired Princess Line in 1974. Sadly, however, P&O and the aforementioned cruise line, as well as Cunard with Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth on their fleet, are no longer British owned but are now part of the American cruising conglomerate, Carnival.

  But back to the past. Samuel Cunard’s steamship company commenced transatlantic voyages in 1840 and the industry surged ahead during the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries as immigration to the New World (America) reached unprecedented levels. But it was all set to change as during the First World War many commercial vessels became troopships and, in 1921, the Immigration Act curbed the flood of people to the USA.

  However, society had changed since the Great War and the steamship companies recognised a time of new prosperity with a burgeoning middle class wishing to live the dream on a great ocean liner. Interestingly, by the 1950s and after surviving the Great Depression and the Second World War, ocean liners were again conveying a torrent of refugees to the United States, as well as lesser numbers to other destinations. But the industry was under threat from the air and it suffered a heavy blow in 1958 with the advent of the first commercial transatlantic jet service when the De Havilland Comet cut traveling time to America from five days to under eight hours. However, the shipping industry has always proved resilient to change and turned to cruising as another golden era beckoned which continues to this day.

  Worthy of mention at this point is the Blue Riband trophy which for many years was awarded to the ship with the fastest transatlantic crossing. Because of the multitude of start and finish ports, the award was based on the average speed of the crossing with a separate prize for both east and west crossings; originally, the ship holding the record proudly displayed a blue pennant from its topmast but, in 1935, Sir Harold Keates Hales, presented an award to be known as the Hales Trophy. Notable Southampton based liners that have held the award include Mauretania and Queen Mary holding it for 20 and 14 years respectively. In 1952, the SS United States, owned by US Lines, set a record of 35 knots that stands to this day. In the 1990s, however, several Catamarans attacked the eastbound record and it now stands to Cat Link V at 41 knots – but the United States remains the fastest commercial liner which, many believe, is more in keeping with the original spirit of the trophy.

  Certainly, Cunard has dominated the transatlantic run for over 150 years. The company moved to Southampton in 1919 from its original Liverpool home and over the years its fleet has included many fine ships including Aquitania, Mauretania I & II and, of course, the ‘Queen’ liners - Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, QE2 and Queen Mary 2. Mauretania was launched in 1907 and by 1909 had captured the Blue Riband which it was to hold until 1929. Aquitania survived service in both World Wars – as a troopship – and was the longest serving liner built by Cunard in the Twentieth century being in steam from 1914 to 1950.

  But, of course, the most famous liners in the world were the ‘Queens’. The first ‘Queen’ to be built was the RMS Queen Mary (QM) completed in March 1936 and was soon sailing the Southampton-Cherbourg-New York route. During the Second World War, she carried almost 800,000 troops in total and steamed around 600,000 miles.QM returned to the transatlantic route after the war, but could not compete with the newer and faster American liner United States so turned to Caribbean cruises. In September 1967, QM made her last transatlantic crossing and was sold to the town of Long Beach, California, to begin a new career as a hotel, conference centre and museum, where she remains to this day.

RMS Queen Mary 2 in Southampton Docks

  RMS Queen Elizabeth (QE) was larger than QM. Completed in March 1940, she was immediately pressed into war service as a troopship, traveling over half a million miles on active duties. Soon after cessation of hostilities QE began the transatlantic run, but during the 1950’s the gradual decline in crossings the Atlantic by sea was such that by 1962 she had turned to cruising to make ends meet. After a final transatlantic crossing in November 1968 she was sold to a group of Philadelphia businessmen, but their project was financially unsuccessful and the ship was sold on to a shipping group in Hong Kong for use as a floating university. Renamed Seawise University she sailed to the Far East for a refit; work was almost complete by January 1972 when a number of fires broke out throughout the vessel; the former Queen Elizabeth burned for days and then rolled onto her side and sank - a truly sad end for such a fine ship.

  Smaller than her two predecessors, RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) was launched by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 11 in September 1967 with the maiden voyage being from Southampton to New York in May 1969. During the Falklands conflict of the early 1980s, QE2 served as a troop and hospital ship; today, she is still afloat in Dubai with an uncertain future, a far cry from her many years as the only liner making regular transatlantic crossings, often combined with a supersonic Concorde flight in one direction.

Royal Caribbean International ship berthed at Southampton

  After the retirement of QE2, RMS Queen Mary 2, the only true liner still operating, took up the transatlantic baton. At the time of her launch in 2003 she was the largest ocean liner ever built at 151,400 tonnes; but Royal Caribbean International's Allure of the Seas, a cruise ship, has now takes that honour. However, in terms of length, width, height and speed, Cunard's QM2 out-performs the newer RCI ships.

  Other cruise lines operating out of Southampton include Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines and Celebrity Cruises, as well as ferries. Ferries have become larger over recent years, as well as more comfortable, and these operate from a variety of ports along our southern shores. To the far west at Plymouth, Brittany Ferries operate a service to Roscoff in France and to Santander in northern Spain, while from Portsmouth the same company's cruise-ferries operate a service to Bilbao and Santander, also in Spain, with such vessels as the 33,728 gross tonnage Cap Finistere. Shorter crossings to Cherbourg, Caen and Le Havre in Normandy are also in their schedule.

  Our busiest cross-channel port is undoubtedly Dover which also, incidentally, hosts cruise ships in the Western Docks area of the port. However, Dover is best known as the main stepping stone to France for the short channel crossing to Calais, or alternately Dunkirk some 25 miles or so to the north-east.

  The principle operators from the Kent port are DFDS and P&O Ferries who sail to Calais, although the former also plies the slightly longer Dunkirk route which has the advantage of reducing your mileage distance if heading to the east, ie., Holland or Germany. DFDS also operate a handy service to Dieppe from Newhaven, a few miles to the east of Brighton. This crossing is longer than the Dover route, but an overnight ferry allows you to get your head down and arrive fully refreshed for a long drive south, or wherever, an important consideration if you have a fair distance to travel in the UK to get to the embarkation port.

  Recently crossing to Dunkirk with DFDS we experienced an extremely slick boarding procedure and was on the ferry, eating a bowl of tasty soup, within 30 minutes of arriving at the port. On the other side, off-loading was equally efficient, although on the return leg our sailing was delayed due to a medical emergency on the ship, but registration and boarding was equally efficient.

  Shore facilities at Dunkirk are somewhat restricted, although we were traveling peak season so this was to be expected and, of course, the port is far smaller than Calais. Certainly, ferries have improved out of all recognition to those of yesteryear (bad memories of the now defunct Dover-Ostend crossing springs to mind) with up-to-date facilities, efficient staff and good wholesome food if our recent crossing on DFDS DoverSeaways was anything to go by.