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End of an era as Stranraer ferry sails for new waters

ON Sunday at 7.55pm, HSS Voyager will leave the dock at Stranraer and edge into Loch Ryan on its way to Belfast for the last time.

When it departs, the Galloway town’s time as a ferry port will also sail into history.

After 139 years and many thousands of sailings, Stena Line are moving their Irish Sea ferry service seven miles up the coast to Cairnryan.

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On Monday, the service will come from a new terminal building with new, bigger ships – the largest ever to make the crossing – all part of a £200 million investment the firm has made on the route.

Stranraer, meanwhile, will start its new life as a former port. It is possible – probable –that it will take longer to adjust to the new arrangements.

Stena Line’s move is the culmination of years of planning by the company. Paul Grant, Stena Line route director, said: “When we start our new route timetable on November 21, it will be from one of the most advanced ports in the UK. Loch Ryan Port is the culmination of years of planning by Stena Line and it will provide our customers with a world-class facility.”

It sounds a great improvement on the rather ramshackle accommodation that travellers from Stranraer have had to put up with in recent years. And the two new ships – the Superfast VII and the Superfast VIII – will be able to carry up to 1200 passengers and 660 cars and make the journey in two hours and 15 minutes.

Stena Line is hoping the change will cut costs and stem the losses the route has incurred in recent years. Project manager Alan Gordon said in an interview this week: “The route has been losing money and that is the harsh reality of it. We couldn’t sustain the route, potentially. We have had to make this investment to make this route profitable and give us all a future and keep the jobs and so forth in this area, because that is what’s important.”

Away from the economic reality, though, there will be an inevitable twinge of nostalgia for those of us who have been regular travellers on the ferry.

As a child, I first made the trip from Northern Ireland to Scotland in 1970 for a holiday. As a teenager, I spent a day in Stranraer on a Sunday School outing. As a student, I would make the journey from Northern Ireland to Galloway and back again three or four times a year.

I’ve slept on that ferry, I’ve been kissed on that ferry and I’ve been sick on that ferry. One of my countryman once told me that as a child Stranraer was his Scottish football team because it was the only Scottish town he’d ever heard of.

That thread of Scots-Irish history is now ready to be consigned to the past. In future it is possible the abiding memory of the Stranraer ferry will be the one time tragedy struck, at the end of January in 1953 when a huge storm sent giant waves crashing over the stern doors of the Princess Victoria, flooding the car deck.

Passengers took to lifeboats to escape – and they in turn were capsized in the severe weather. More than 130 people died.

The town is sounding bullish about its future. A marina has already been opened as part of plans to turn the shallow Loch Ryan waters – too shallow for the big new Stena Line vessels – into a “centre of excellence for marine leisure and tourism”. Links between harbour and town are also to be developed.

But the departure of the ferry will have some economic impact, if only for the loss of passing trade (no more cars filling up at the local petrol stations, no more Northern Irish Sunday School classes trying to avoid their minders and head into a bar).

ScotRail has scaled back train services to the town in recent years due to a lack of demand and some locals fear the town will become isolated with the ferry’s departure.

And for those of us who used to make the journey to Stranraer on a regular basis there’s the realisation we may never visit the town again. We’ll just see it in the distance from Cairnryan.

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