My Big Ferry Love Affair | Pushing the Wave

My Big Ferry Love Affair

Opinion, 23 March 2023
by L.A. Davenport
On the Stena Ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland
On the Stena Ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland
In the past two weeks, I have rekindled a love affair that has been with me for as many years as I can remember.

Ever since I was a child, although sadly I cannot recall the first encounter with these wonderful workhorses of the sea, I have guarded in my heart a rather strange but undeniable passion for ferries.

Before I go any further, I would like to reassure you that this is not a trainspotter-style obsession. You will not find me at your local port, notebook in one hand, camera in the other, excitedly seeking out the latest model and scribbling down registrations. However, when I get the opportunity, I take a ferry, and I rejoice in the whole process of turning up to a busy harbour, watching the too-ing and fro-ing and the preparations for casting off, and finally getting to board.

This will no doubt sound a tad odd, but I find these most functional of boats rather beautiful. Like aeroplanes, they offer the promise the travel, of an adventure to be started, all mixed with the banalities of transport and the efficient designs required of mass transit. I am fascinated by who takes a ferry, where they are going, what they take with them and, especially with a car ferry, the intricate ballet that is the loading on and off of potentially hundreds of motorbikes, cars, vans and trucks.

And all of this takes place by the sea, which has been the launching off point of expeditions into the unknown from time immemorial. The expanse of water, leading off to the horizon, with no end in sight, is itself a source of inspiration but also of fear. It is made all-too clear, no matter how big the boat, that the wind and the sea are far more powerful than anything humankind can fashion, and in stormy weather one is forced to confront the limits of ambition and endeavour, and one’s mortality. It is a humbling experience, and one that makes us all the better for it.

One of my most treasured memories of taking a ferry is when I went from London to Amsterdam, taking advantage of a now no longer available Dutch Flyer service, in which one could take a train from London Liverpool Street station to Harwich International, then a Stena ferry to Hook of Holland and finally a train to Amsterdam.

In 2012, I took the 6:38 am from London to catch the 9:00 am boat to the Netherlands, which arrived at 4:45 pm, and then the 5:25 pm train to Amsterdam, finally arriving in the Dutch capital at 7:03 pm. Of course I could have flown from London and been in the air for just 45 minutes. But think of the tedium of having to get to the airport, waiting around for two hours before taking the flight, and then hanging around for my suitcase to be delivered before having to take the train in to town anyway. One can do that any time, and it would use up nearly five hours to go from door to door.

The extra time and effort to take a train to a busy international port and then a ferry across the North Sea was, to me, travel at it best. I had the time to see the world go by and appreciate the changes in scenery, and to feel directly the miles that we covered over land and water. I was really surprised by Harwich, having never been there before, and the flatness of the landscape seemed to mirror the calmness of the sea.

Once onboard and we set sail, I was once again taken by the majesty of the granite sea, the sense of infinity once we could no longer sight land, and the smallness of humanity against the vastness of the water and the sky. When I am on a ferry on the open sea I always reflect that it is no wonder that our forebears saw a sense of the spiritual in the beauty of nature out there on the oceans, and needed the reassurance of religion to keep them going.

The feeling is the inverse of what I experienced when standing on the quay, staring up at the massive boat that would take us across the water, which seemed at the time like a cathedral dedicated to human engineering and ingenuity.
When I finally arrived in Amsterdam, I stayed in a hostel for a few pounds a night. I was, at the time, completely broke and had little spending money. But I needed to get away after a difficult few months, and my mother took care of my dachshund Kevin while I spent five days reacquainting myself with one of my favourite cities.

While I was there, eking out a meagre existence and spending my evenings largely reading my book while lying on my bunk, I witnessed something that utterly fascinated me, and has stayed with me ever since. I won’t say anymore now, as I am going to turn the episode into a short story that will go into my next collection, which I hope to publish later on this year.

But suffice to say that it reminded me that there are so many reasons for traveling, and one of the pay offs of being in a hotel, and especially a hostel, is the close proximity of other people, from places that the we know hardly, if at all. It gives us the chance to broaden our perspective and learn something about ourselves.

And in Amsterdam, there are certainly more reasons for travelling there than there are for a typical European capital city.
Another pleasure of travel is, of course, coming home. When I got back from that trip, I was, in some ways, changed.

Believe it or not, it was the first holiday I had taken on entirely my own, on my own terms and with no one to consult. Okay, I had had no money to do anything special, or eat in a nice restaurant, but I had spent five days with myself, walking the streets of a beautiful city and seeing life, not through anyone else’s lens but directly and with no filter.

After that I did several other trips on my own, and now I often travel solo for work, but I will never recapture that first moment when I realised I was truly happy in my own company, exploring the world. I highly recommend it.
Finally, I published a short story from my collection Dear Lucifer and other Stories yesterday.

Drink, drink up, my friends was written in 2008 after yet another night out in London filled with the doubts and fears of youth, when I didn’t know myself or how to interact with the world in a genuine way.

It is set in a Pitcher and Piano bar, which were relatively new at the time and, along with All Bar One, were designed to welcome the rowdy and excessive drinker with pretensions of sophistication. The bars were anything but sophisticated of course, despite all the shiny fittings and the cheap, acrid Chardonnay, and I hated them. But all my friends went and I didn’t yet have the strength of character or maturity to say no and follow my own path.

This story follows me meeting with my friends, becoming too drunk because I didn’t know what else to do with myself, and my unpleasant bus journey home before I found my bed in my shared rental in Harringey.

It is intended to be ironic and amusing, although I fear it is somewhat of its time. I nevertheless hope you enjoy it.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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My Big Ferry Love Affair | Pushing the Wave