THE loss of Poole’s year-round passenger ferry service to France spells the end of an era, not just for the port, but also for the area.

It was towards the end of the 1980s when Brittany Ferries originally decided to commission an 18,000 ton ship for its Poole to Cherbourg route.

The company’s Truckline freight division had been running a successful service since 1973, but only carried passengers during the summer season. Barfleur would boost capacity for the burgeoning tourist market, allowing passengers to travel in comfort all year round while continuing to cater for lorries and their drivers.

Barfleur and its sister ship the 27,000 ton Normandie – destined for the Portsmouth to Caen route – were part of a bold £190 million investment by the French company as it prepared to take on the competition from the Channel Tunnel.

The two ships together cost £140 million, while improvements to facilities in the ports accounted for the rest.

The £53 million Barfleur took shape in the Kvaerner-Masa yards, in the Finnish capital of Helsinki. It was designed to carry up to 1,304 passengers, 280 cars and 61 trailers.

“When the tunnel comes into service, cross-Channel travellers will be faced with two clear alternatives – use the tunnel or Brittany Ferries,” the company’s UK managing director Ian Carruthers predicted in 1991.

The gamble was whether the facilities on board the two new ferries, their departure times and routes direct to the west of France and Spain would make the sea crossing a greater lure than “going down the tube”.

Back then, Brittany Ferries was so confident of success that Mr Carruthers said the company had “every intention” of installing a second passenger ship in Poole within a few years.

Before the Barfleur’s arrival, Poole was abuzz with preparations. The Middle Channel and ferry terminal turning basin had to be dredged to accommodate the deeper draft of the new ship, with operations continuing day and night for months.

A double decker linkspan was installed at the ferry terminal and Poole Harbour Commissioners spent thousands of pounds on computer simulations to gauge the effects of such a large ship.

Barfleur was originally due to arrive in Poole in January 1992, but a 19 per cent boom in passenger numbers in 1991 prompted a rethink from Brittany Ferries.

Delivery was delayed by three months so the ship could be “stretched”. An extra nine metres was welded into its mid-section, adding £5 million to the overall cost, but increasing the ferry’s length and weight, providing 200 more cabin berths, and bigger public and car deck areas.

After sea trials, the ship sailed from Finland to Cherbourg at the end of March 1992, then crossed the Channel for a gala welcome in Poole on the sunny morning of April 4 1992.

Hundreds of spectators armed with cameras and binoculars lined the main vantage points as the Barfleur, in dazzling white and yellow Truckline livery, glided through the harbour, sounding its horn and decked with bunting.

The crowds seemed impressed, and when the passenger service started on April 15, the future seemed rosy.

For the first time, local people could “pop” over to France all year round. Many bought second homes in Normandy or Brittany.

Now Barfleur, which arrived amid such fanfare nearly 18 years ago, is scheduled to make its last sailing of the route at the beginning of February.

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