Ramsgate in the late 1950s and 1960s, when I first came to know it, was just a slightly tired seaside resort—
a lot quieter than in its heyday in the late 19th
century. And and there were no cross-Channel ferries. When Hoverlloyd started its cross-Channel ferry with the passenger-only SR-N6 hovercraft in 1966 it was quite an exciting time and we were soon driving down to Ramsgate just to take a look. The next year my parents thrilled me by booking a day trip to Calais
for the three of us—
not only would it be be my first trip abroad, it would also be a chance to travel on a unique cutting-edge craft.
I remember the trip to Calais as smooth and uneventful. But by the evening when we returned the wind had freshened considerably and the ride was quite bumpy—
every time the nose of the hovercraft hit a wave, the craft shook. The high point of the return trip (literally!) was flying over the Goodwin Sands. These are sandbanks that are submerged at high-tide and above water at low tide. They are about 10 miles long and just off the Kent coast, and in fact right in line with the direct route from Ramsgate to Calais. For such a gentle piece of the landscape they have an evil reputation, as some 2000 boats are believed to have been shipwrecked here over the years. Skimming over the sands was unexpected and a great thrill, made the more noticeable as the ride became smoother as we moved off the rough sea. In the distance, as if to give us a reminder of the sands' true character, we could see the bones of a wrecked ship sticking starkly out of the sea. The trip finished with my being the only passenger to be searched by the customs—
I'm sure they thought an innocent looking 15 year old was the ideal mule for smuggling booze and cigs for his father!
The SR-N6 passenger ferry operated from a ramp in Ramsgate Harbour, but I'm sure that Hoverlloyd were just using this service as a way of gaining experience before going for the big time. We soon started noticing construction of a large concrete apron on the sands of Pegwell Bay, a shallow sandy bay, part of the River Stour estuary just a couple of miles west of Ramsgate. In 1969 they started service to Calais using the much larger SR-N4 hovercraft which could carry 30 cars and 254 passengers. The speed of the hovercraft made them popular and the service was initially very successful.
But by 1982 reduced profitability caused Hoverlloyd to merge with Seaspeed and consolidate their SR-N4 hovercraft operations at Dover, closing down the Ramsgate/Pegwell Bay terminus. The SR-N4s continued operating until 2000. By then the expanded Mark III version could carry 60 cars and 418 passengers and the SR-N4 held he record for the fastest cross-Channel ferry crossing at 22 minutes.
Conventional boat ferries continued the connection between Ramsgate and the continent from 1993 to 2013 crossing to Ostend and Dunkirk, but there is currently no ferry service operating—just a pressure group to push for their return. So Ramsgate has returned to being a quiet seaside town.