Loads love Essex

Loads love Essex

A night-time crossing to the Hook of Holland

I departed for the Stour estuary hoping to connect with the past. ‘Harwich For The Continent’ was the old slogan for the ferry port that for over a century was the principal conduit between England and northern Europe.

Here is was that the Kindertransport children poured in the Britain in 1938 and 1939 as the Nazi assault on Jewish communities took hold. A few years earlier, Arthur Ransom’s endearing, fictional, heroes watched from their boats as the nightly ferries sailed for Germany and Holland. The ‘butter boat’ was a familiar daily arrival in years past bringing in dairy produce from Denmark. 

Even 20 years ago, Parkeston Quay, as Great Eastern Railway’s saltwater interchange was known, served three destinations. Now rechristened Harwich International, Cuxhaven (Germany) and Esbjerg (Denmark) have been deleted form the departures board. Two sailings daily to the Hook of Holland are its only passenger services.

My hope, this May evening, was to find some connection with that heritage, even if my expectation was for a service perhaps nearing its final port of call.

Journeying there for a night crossing, it was the latter prospect that seemed most likely. I arrived beneath Liverpool Street Station’s vast iron-and-glass canopies as the stock-broking commuters thinned out. Intercity services to Norwich now use smart new rolling stock, albeit of a scale suggestive of a lesser rank than the East and West Coast Mainlines.

Direct trains – boat trains, indeed – are no more, necessitating a change at Manningtree. A handful of passengers – cat lady, the young shoppers, drug mule, and I – crossed the station to climb aboard a modest, locomotive-less, stopping train two hours ahead of our 11pm sailing.

Two stops down the line we disembarked into a spruce, if largely empty, terminal building. Directed to the gangway, we found ourselves before a locked door. A staff member arrived to let the four or five of us through. Unlocking the barrier, she radioed ahead. “I’ve got a few randoms coming aboard” she told her colleague. I bristled. Little could my expectations have been further lowered.

A large Ropax ferry moored up with a disembarkment ramp attached, and its fleet name, Stena, partially visible.
Stena Holandica at berth in the Hoek van Holland

The covered gangway that took us aboard was a long one, but our walk was repaid by a ship as huge as it was glossy. Two hundred and forty meters long, and 32 meters wide, Stenna Holandica accommodates 1200 passengers in 538 cabins. I had imagined my companions from the train comprising a meagre passenger list. Then I took in the sight over the the ship’s aft. On rolled the lorries – full-sized articulated vehicles large enough to each carry two standard shipping containers. I lost count as the tally boarding topped 100, but noted that at capacity the ship could carry nearly 350 such vehicles on seven cargo decks. A sophisticated roadway within the ship enabled these massive trucks to drive into position on the 64,039 gross tonnage vessel. 

A large articulated lorry turns around on the deck of Stena Holandica, a Ropax ferry loading at Harwich International.
On the rear loading deck of the Stena Holandica, an articulated lorry turns into the hold

I glanced over the water at Felixstowe dock’s 29 huge gantry cranes, and realised that freight arriving on the 5000-container Neopanamax ships they unload, represent only half the story of seaborne goods traffic. I had pictured cat lady, the young shoppers, drug mule and I rattling around this behemoth. Instead, we foot passengers were indeed inconsequential randoms soon lost in a crowd of logistics professionals.

The ship, built in Germany in 2010, is swish, glossy even. Its resturant, inevitable casino, and cinema are all shiny surfaces and inbuilt lights. Where no place for smoked glass could be found, polished light oak takes its place. Chrome is much in evidence. Perhaps this serves the modern trucker well? It had a whiff of the 80s nightclub aesthetic, but is unquestionably smart, modern and well-maintained.

Ferry technology has clearly moved on too. Time was, on a boat of this size, vibrations from the engine transmitted throughout the vessel. No more, it seems. I took a cabin for the overnight crossing and when I awoke could feel nothing. I assumed was that we had docked early. Pulling back the curtain on my enormous porthole, there was no land in sight and we were moving at something approaching its 22 knots service speed. I marvelled at the silence for some time until the daybreak resumption of cheesy canned music broke my reverie.

A ship's cabin with a large porthole and a passengers baggage. The photographer's reflection is visible in the porthole.
A cabin on the Stena Holandica

Two hours later we docked and disembarked to a drizzly Dutch early morning, with enough other boats in sight to confirm that the Rhine delta, whose canalised mouth we were berthed in, is among the world’s busiest waterways.

With my bicycle to help me down the long, covered gangway, I was the first of the randoms to reach the shore. I might have worried as I set off a-wheel that the hundreds of lorries with whom I had sailed would soon by thundering past me. The Netherland’s extensive network of cycle lanes took care of that, however. I set off for The Hague with the prospect of ten miles undisturbed by mechanised road users.

Light precipitation was sufficient to put off even the nudists for which the dunes between the Hook and Scheveningen are famous. It provided a moment to reflect that my nostalgic quest has revealed an unexpected present. A convoy of lorries might lack the charm of the butter boat of yore. It is proof positive, however, that the sea remains our most significant means of shifting freight – even if most of that work now happens beyond the public gaze.