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Dover: Lock and Key of the Kingdom


The hovercraft was invented by British engineer Christopher  Cockerell (later Sir Christopher). He produced his first working  model in 1956 and three years later his first full size test craft was  produced by Saunders Roe. On 25 July 1959 the, Cockerell  designed, Saunders Roe Nautical One (SRN1), successfully  completed the first cross Channel hovercraft crossing from Calais to Dover, exactly fifty years after Bleriot’s first Channel flight. The first regular passenger service from Dover started on 1 August  1968 when the Dover to Boulogne service was inaugurated by the  SRN4 hovercraft “Princess Margaret”. The craft was owned by  Seaspeed, the hovercraft operating subsidiary of British Railways,  and ran from the new hoverport built at the Eastern Docks. In  August 1969 a second SRN4 was delivered and the “Princess Anne”  opened a second route from Dover to Calais. By the mid 1970s increased traffic meant that there was a need for  increased capacity on the hovercraft. This problem was solved by  stretching the SRN4 hovercraft and turning them into SRN4 Mk3  craft, which increased their capacity to 424 passengers and 54  cars. The enlarged “Princess Anne” re-entered service in 1978 after which the “Princess Margaret” was also altered. Also in 1978, on 4  July, the new hoverport was opened at the western end of the  harbour alongside the Prince of Wales Pier. The SRN4 Mk3 craft  made the journey from Dover to Calais in 35 minutes. The fastest  ever crossing being recorded by the “Princess Anne” in September  1995 taking only 22 minutes to cross the Channel.   From July 1978 the SNCF (French Railways) owned Sedam N500  hovercraft the “Jean Bertin”, was operating with Seaspeed across  the Channel. Sedam’s development programme had been dealt a  crippling blow in May 1977 when the first N500 craft was destroyed  by fire. The second craft, the “Jean Bertin”, was unreliable and it  was withdrawn for modifications in September 1981. It returned in  March 1983 to the routes of the newly formed Hoverspeed  company but in July the craft was dealt its final blow when  Hoverspeed refused to accept it into their fleet. Hoverspeed was formed in October 1981 by the merger of  Seaspeed and Hoverlloyd, the Pegwell Bay based company also  operating cross Channel hovercraft. Hoverlloyd had started their  service from Pegwell Bay to Calais in 1966. By the Early 1980s  neither company was making an adequate return on investments  so the two companies merged to form Hoverspeed based at Dover. In 2000 Hoverspeed decided to end hovercraft operation. The  abolition of duty-free sales in June 1999 had resulted in a  significant drop in passenger numbers. To continue on the old basis  winter fares would have had to increase dramatically to recover the lost duty-free profits but higher fares would result in a further  reduction in passenger numbers. The hovercraft were replaced by  seacats, which could carry nearly twice as many cars and  passengers although with a slower crossing time to Calais of 45  minutes. The last hovercraft crossing was on Sunday 1 October  2000 and the seacats took over the service the following day.
The SRN1 on Dover beach on 25 July 1959 after the first crossing from Calais. The original Hoverport under construction c.1967. 'The Princess Margaret' c.1978.  Operating from the new Hoverport at the Western Docks but before she was enlarged. French owned Sedam N500 hovercraft in 1979.  The 'Jean Bertin' arriving at Dover. 'The Princess Margaret' in 1988. After enlargement - compare this picture to the un-stretched version further up the page. 'The Princess Margaret' in 2000.  Entering Dover on the last day of operation, 1 October 2000. Back to Ferries and Shipping Index