Sussex has its very own link to Europe. Let’s cherish it.

Photo of a Transmanche Ferry
A Transmanche ferry sails between Newhaven and Dieppe. Photo credit: Martin Sinnock

I regularly go with my wife to Normandy. Why would we not when the means is on our doorstep? In our backyard lies Newhaven, for over 150 years Sussex’s very own gateway to the Continent. Sometimes, we may have gone further afield but mostly we just stay around Dieppe, enjoying Frenchness and the occasional fantastic lunch. We even love the crossing, though in 2011, contriving an escape to our neighbouring republic from the hysteria over someone marrying a prince, we found every screen on board showing their Ruritanian wedding.

Our experience of going to Dieppe is very different to that for Europeans coming to Newhaven. Dieppe ferry port is modern and efficient. The town is substantial and attractive, with its historic chateau, wide esplanade and many restaurants. A glance down many of its streets is picturesque and evocatively French, especially on market day (Saturday). Nearby towns and villages are full of interest and charm.
Newhaven’s dock is scruffy, rusty and feels like a goods siding of the 1950s.

Newhaven was its busiest during wartime

There is little reason to seek the town centre, to which time and planners have not been kind. Most arrivals head in the opposite direction, towards Lewes, Brighton, Eastbourne or London with barely a backward glance.  But it had better times. In peacetime, its boat trains brought the fashionable to holiday in Normandy but it was at its busiest in the two world wars. During the first world war, Newhaven was the principal port of transit for troops and material heading to the Western Front, playing a vital role in keeping the troops supplied and bringing wounded home.

During the second world war, its 19th century fort gained new artillery to defend the country from potential invasion, protect shipping and harass the Germans in and across the Channel. In 1942, the port was the base for a Commando group in the disastrous Operation Jubilee, much memorialised in Dieppe; and in 1944 was an embarkation point for D-Day. 

The French brought us Transmanche Ferries

After the war, English people “discovered” the Mediterranean and package holidays by air, abandoning former haunts. Newhaven became very much a secondary port, though still convenient enough for freight and passenger traffic to warrant French investment in the ferry service, branded Transmanche Ferries, now operated very efficiently by DFDS. As recently as 2019, it handled almost 380,000 passengers. Brexit border controls, lost Freedom of Movement and Covid-19 have changed all that. Fewer trucks and vans cross the Channel as tariffs, paperwork and delays render the trip unworthwhile.

Fewer Europeans want to visit our hostile shores. Fewer Brits casually or regularly venture abroad by car, facing quarantine for themselves and their pets even when allowed onto French soil. Second homes abroad are decreasingly attractive. The health risks attached to travel at least temporarily reduce its attraction to many.

Despite the constraints, during a tiny window of time allowed by Covid rules and risks before Christmas, my wife and I decided to use tickets optimistically bought in early 2020 and made it to Dieppe for the first time for two years. Despite the necessities of Covid rules, we managed to enjoy ourselves quite like old times. How many other masked strangers were on the “Cote d’Alabatre” with us? 15-20 truckers? 30-40 car passengers? As I write, France is (temporarily, let us hope) virtually closed to Brits, reducing traffic yet further. So what future does Newhaven – Dieppe have? How can it be viable on such meagre rations? It looks like a perfect storm for our Sussex gateway.

By 2030 Newhaven will be a vital and thriving gateway

Happily, all is not lost. The port has won big business supporting the off-shore Rampion wind farm. Tide Mills, the Fort and Castle Hill nature reserve are well worth visits, if in need of investment. Newhaven’s 2021 Town Investment Plan affirms that “by 2030 Newhaven will be a vital and thriving Southern Gateway to the UK”. It recognises and aspires to address the “poor gateway for passengers” and threat posed by Brexit and Covid. It speaks to the attractions which lie close to the port, in the South Downs, Lewes, Weald and surrounding villages, which could be leveraged to encourage visitors to spend more time and money in the vicinity, given suitable hospitality. Investment has been announced to start improvements, so let us hope that all is not lost.

Newhaven is important in Sussex history and could be in its future. Brexit may be unhelpful but does not prevent travel. My wife and I cherish our local route to France to remind ourselves of life beyond these corrupted shores and continue to enjoy another culture every bit as civilised and interesting as our own. Good luck, Newhaven and DFDS. Au revoir Dieppe et merci. Nous vous aimons.

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