Robert Lidster takes a return crossing on Brittany Ferries’ Normandie Express.

Normandie Express

Normandie Express

My journey had started some eight hours earlier, 155 miles away in Essex, I had travelled by National Express coach from Clacton-On-Sea via London to Portsmouth Ferry Terminal in order to catch the high speed ferry Normandie Express from Portsmouth to Cherbourg in France.

I had arrived at the ferry terminal at Portsmouth at 13:40 and as my crossing to France was not due to depart until 15:30 I had plenty of time to check in, relax and use the terminal facilities.

I was able to check in at the Brittany Ferries check in desk immediately I arrived, it only took a couple of minutes for me to hand over my passport and copy of my booking invoice showing my booking reference and then be handed my boarding card and informed that boarding would commence at 15:00 at gate one. I had booked my ticket on-line on the Brittany Ferries own website, it was easy to do with the site being easy to understand. The fare for me as a foot passenger was £51 which I thought was a little on the expensive side for a three hour crossing for a foot passenger.

Portsmouth Ferry terminal is not a large terminal but it does have two Bureau De Change, a Café/Bar, shop, plenty of seating, toilet facilities, vending machines and check ins for Brittany Ferries, P&O Ferries, LD Lines and Condor Ferries, all of whom operate out of Portsmouth. Besides these facilities for the foot passengers, there is also a smaller terminal by the car lanes for those travelling with their vehicles. The facilities here include a Shop. Café ( with views of the port and across the harbour to the Navy Yard ), Bureau de Change and W.C.

I had worked here at the port once as an Interviewer for the Office of National Statistics, but that was just one shift thirteen years ago and I remember very little about the port other than it was pouring down with rain that day just as it was now. I had come prepared with a packed lunch and so I found myself a seat, which wasn’t hard to do as there were very few people in the terminal, I ate my food and had a drink and waited for boarding to commence.

At 15:00 as promised boarding commenced for the 15:30 sailing to Cherbourg onboard the Normandie Express a high speed ferry which would complete the crossing in exactly three hours. Introduced in 2005 the Normandie Express will in 2010 operate from 12th March to 30th October providing two return trips a day supplementing the conventional cruise-ferry. The onboard facilities include a shop, video games, open viewing deck, baby changing room, disabled toilet, bureau de change, reclining seats ( free seating arrangement, advance booking not necessary), three café/bars.

We were quickly through security checks and on our way to board the ferry, however, at this point if you have not travelled through Portsmouth Ferry Terminal before as a foot passenger it gets a bit confusing. There is a distinct lack of signage to point foot passengers in the right direction and no staff were on hand to help, once outside the terminal building it was not clear in which direction to go or how. At some ports you are taken by bus to the ferry, others will have gangways where you walk directly onto the ship, there didn’t appear to be either option here.

I followed other foot passengers who seemed to have as little idea as to what to do as me, at one stage a family stopped to try and check on the route and looked at me in the vain hope that I knew what I was doing, I explained that I was simply following them, talk about the blind leading the blind. Eventually with a combination of luck and judgment we found ourselves on the ferry, we had to board via the car deck along the same ramp used by those in vehicles.

When booking this trip I did so in total ignorance that the following Monday was a bank holiday and that the schools would be on yet another holiday, luckily I was one of the first on board and secured myself a good seat by the window and not too far away from the bar for it soon became apparent that the ferry was full with English families off to France for a bank holiday break and I was soon surrounded by noisy school and pre-school children.

The ferry can carry 235 cars and can accommodate 850 passengers in 850 seats so once you have a seat you dare not leave it for fear of losing it and having difficulty in finding a replacement. At one point I did leave my seat in the misplaced hope of securing a meal on board, there is no restaurant only the café/bars selling snacks and drinks so I promptly returned to my seat with just a cup of coffee. Someone had placed a magazine over the arm of my seat and so I removed it and placed it on the empty seat beside me as I did so a woman appeared and picking up her magazine asked me if I had been sitting there previously, I replied that I had and that I had just been to the bar to get a coffee, I informed her that the seat next to me was free to which she replied “That’s no good I need two seats” and left.

The crossing was a little on the rough side and a lot of the children were starting to feel sea sick (although whether it was sea sickness or just the effects of the rubbish that parents seem to feed their children nowadays was hard to tell) at least this made them a little less noisy. Thankfully the time went fairly quickly and we arrived in Cherbourg on time. Disembarkation was much easier with a proper foot gangway in place and we were then taken by bus to the ferry terminal.

I can’t say that this was the most enjoyable ferry crossing that I have ever had but it probably isn’t the worst either, it got me to where I needed to be quickly and on time. Robert Lidster.

Brittany Ferries Official Site