Glance out across the Solent from anywhere along Portsmouth’s coastline and it won’t be long before a ferry hoves into view.
Those on board may be watching the rollercoaster at the Clarence fun fair, or maybe waving at people waving from the Round Tower. They’ll be on their way – to France, to Spain, to the Isle of Wight or even to the Channel Islands.
Wherever they are going, they’ll have come through Portsmouth’s International Port to get there.
But whilst the ferries which sail in and out of Portsmouth Harbour are arguably best-known for carrying passengers, below decks they carry an equally precious cargo – their freight traffic.
While it’s common knowledge amongst shipping buffs and ferry enthusiasts, it’s not widely known elsewhere that Brittany Ferries began its life as a freight-only firm, 40 years ago this January, after a co-operative of French farmers realised their best chance to sell their vegetables was to export to south west England.
Their idea was to export 40,000 tonnes of freight to and from Plymouth and Roscoff in the first three months of operation.
But they hit a snag.
They only managed to ship 17,000 tonnes of vegetables and other goods in that time, and so, with a Gallic shrug, the farmers decided to open their service up to the public.
At this point Portsmouth, despite its navy links, had no commercial port of its own.
But plans had been afoot from the late 60s to find a good spot for it, and when Brittany Ferries – having made a success of its passenger operation – started casting its eye around for ports it could expand into, Portsmouth was always going to be a prime target.
Originally built in 1976, the port had only two berths but was the home of three ferry companies. Of those original operators, only Brittany Ferries remains, joined now by Condor Ferries and DFDS.
It still runs its original Portsmouth route to St Malo, but that is now joined by its services to Ouistreham in Nomandy, the cruise ferries down to Spain, and from this summer its new high-speed service to Cherbourg and St Malo.
One of the people who was employed to work for Brittany Ferries before the port even opened was Jon Clarke, who is now the firm’s group-wide freight director.
He said: ‘I was down in Portsmouth to visit my grandma and I saw an advert, funnily enough, in the Portsmouth Evening News, advertising for people to join a progressive young ferry company.
‘I went for an interview in what’s now the Holiday Inn.
‘I’d stayed with my grandma over Christmas and I didn’t find out I got the job until January 18, and they asked me to start the next day.
‘We were living in Sheffield at the time.’
Jon began answering phones, taking bookings for the service which was to begin from Portsmouth in June.
‘Back then that was seen as women’s work,’ said Jon, ‘so they quickly moved me into the freight office, which was seen as more man’s work.’
The move also piqued Jon’s interest more than answering the phones would ever do.
‘I was just interested in what was going inside these lorries, he said.
‘I just wanted to know about them.’
But while Jon has remained at the same firm, Brittany Ferries’ freight business is unrecognisable now from the vegetable shipments of the 70s.
The first truck to roll off the Kerisnel in 1973 carried apples, cauliflowers, Corsican wine and cigarette papers.
Now, it’s more likely to be kitchen equipment, car parts, live food like crabs and lobsters, and the contents of people’s homes.
Each ferry crossing is a snapshot of how the economy in both mainland Europe and Britain is shaping up.
‘The exports between the UK and the continent are about 16 per cent down from their peak in 2007,’ said Jon.
‘Looking back, in the mid- 90s we would have 30 or 40 Scottish trucks on each crossing, typically full of either computers or whisky.
‘Today we’re looking at maybe one or two, because the companies like IBM have distribution centres in eastern Europe now.
‘As refrigeration has got better we’re seeing a lot of fresh fish coming through us. Spanish fishermen have got the rights to fish in the North Sea, but rather than send their trawler down to Spain, they’ll ship it through us so the trawler can keep fishing.
‘Also, most of the UK’s bananas come into Portsmouth, but we transport some of those bananas over to France. Not a lot of people know that.
‘Generally speaking we can see what’s happening with the economy about six to nine months ahead.’
One of the most telling things, Jon said, was both the number of lorries returning empty as the euro continues to be weak, and the number of people selling their homes abroad and shipping their belongings home.
‘We used to get them going over all the time, the removal trucks. Now they’re coming back.’ Sitting in the Brittany Ferries’ office, as Jon reads the cargo manifests, his point is made.
‘We’ve got a removal van going out,’ he says, jubilantly.
‘Ah, but then here there’s one going back – and it’s empty.’
The implication is that it’s already moved its cargo from Europe back to Blighty, and someone’s dream of sun, surf and Sangria maybe over.
However, while the economy continues to be shaky, Brittany Ferries’ operations remain strong.
‘When the Channel Tunnel opened we did have a dip,’ said Jon.
‘But what we did is we focused on our strength.
‘When the financial crisis really started to bite, that’s when we focused on our longer cruises from Britain to Spain.
‘We built a freighter, and we sent it down there.
‘Before, Brittany Ferries and P&O had 5,000 truck shipments a year, jointly.
‘Now we alone have 30,000, and 20,000 of those go in and out through Portsmouth.
‘The other 10,000 go into Poole.’
‘Our crossings are longer, and drivers can only have a certain amount of time driving before they have to take a rest break.
‘They can do that on board, and their cargo will be safer in the hold than parked up in a layby somewhere.
‘That’s especially true going down to Spain and Portugal.
‘France is also introducing an eco-tax on October 1, so freight will be pushed off the roads and will have to use the Route Nationale, which are toll roads and will cost the operators considerably more.
‘I expect we’ll see more freight using our long distance services in the future.’