In which I say goodbye to a 17th-century ferry service that gave so many a taste of Abroad

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The Independent Travel
At 10 o'clock last Monday morning, the mayor stood on the Halfpenny Pier at Harwich to say farewell. Stena Europe, the last conventional ferry to sail between the Hook of Holland and the Essex port hooted as she slid mournfully past, destination oblivion (see page 11). The farewell party comprised His Worship, me, a photographer, and a Scandinavian hiker who is about to walk around the coast of Britain and coincidentally chose to depart at the same instant as a maritime legend.

In fact, the photographer and the mayor were present to wish the hiker well, rather than to mourn the end of an epoch. So I paid my own private respects to a ferry service that began in the 17th century and has since borne many millions of British travellers across the North Sea for their first taste of Abroad.

Since I wasn't around in 1671, my acquaintance with the Harwich-to-Hook ferry began in the Seventies, when it was the impecunious young traveller's best bet for a quick(ish) getaway. With a ticket from the Transalpino agency, you could travel from London to any station in Holland for pounds 6. Even the most dazed of hippies realised that this was a tremendous deal: travelling on the overnight boat meant you (a) saved on accommodation and (b) arrived at Oldenzaal, the last station in Holland before the German border, in time for a full day's hitching. You could be in Hanover by teatime for an outlay equivalent to a couple of Led Zeppelin LPs.

Cut-price crossings to the Continent have always been a British speciality. Philip Robinson of Sheffield reports that his first flight was aboard a Skywings plane between Lympne in Kent and Beauvais in northern France in the summer of 1963. It was such a good experience that he repeated it the following year.

At around the same time, Silver City Airways operated a car-carrying freighter between the Kent airfield and Le Touquet - your Vauxhall Victor or Humber Super Snipe was loaded into the cavernous hold of a propeller plane for the short hop. It wasn't cheap, but if you could afford a car then you could probably afford to fly it to Europe.

Ten years later, the cheapskate's fast track to Paris rejoiced in the name "Silver Arrow" - a marketing trick involving a regular old Southern Region train to Gatwick airport, a cramped old twin-prop plane for a 20- minute hop to Le Touquet, and a diesel train for the long, 150-mile chug into Paris. The process seemed to take most of the day, but you saved a fortune compared with the new-fangled Trident plane to Le Bourget.

Then the going got weird. Does anyone admit to having travelled on the air-bus deal to Ostend? You caught a coach from Aldgate bus station in London to Southend airport, where you boarded a Viscount plane to the Belgian resort. Strangely, that route never caught on. Neither did the attempt to persuade us that the sophisticated way to reach Paris was to catch a train to Southampton, sail across to Le Havre on the overnight ferry and travel onwards by rail.

If you were really poor but really keen to get to Ireland, then the way to go was on the small ferry between Campbeltown in Scotland and Ballycastle in Northern Ireland. This involved about 300 miles of extra hitching compared with the more usual ferries across the Irish Sea, but saved you a very small fortune. The one-way fare being charged when it closed was, I think, 85 pence. When, on 1 July, the Argyll and Antrim Steam Packet Company resumes sailing on the route, the passenger fare will be pounds 23 one-way.

Happily, British determination to get Abroad for less is unbending. From next Thursday, a flight from Stansted to Nykoping in Sweden is pounds 104 return on Ryanair. If Nykoping has yet to feature on your wish-list of destinations, you should know that it is 60 miles southwest of Stockholm.

The same airline may soon launch services to those great international gateways of Charleroi and Beauvais, masquerading as Brussels and Paris -and feeding the British appetite for that satisfying combination of obscurity and economy.