As A Bristolian brought up in the postwar era, I was bequeathed the dual delights of steam on the BR Western Region and the steamers of the White Funnel Fleet care
of P&A Campbell.
Even today I can enjoy the West Somerset, Lynton & Barnstaple and Brecon Mountain railways, while for the last three years I have been able to enjoy coastal excursions on the Bristol Channel to connect with them.
This has been courtesy of MV Balmoral, built in 1949 for Red Funnel, as a
car/passenger vessel maintaining a ferry service between Southampton-Cowes, but also offering summer excursions around the Isle of Wight.
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What is sometimes overlooked is that railway tickets could be bought from, say, Bristol to Cowes, and MV Balmoral would have provided the inclusive ferry connection – a ticket service that still applies to today’s operators GWR/Red Funnel. MV Balmoral transferred to the Bristol Channel in 1969 and, via several owners, has operated in this area for most of the time ever since.
The connection between rail and sail has been exploited in the Bristol Channel since the 1980s, whereby inclusive trips to the WSR, Woody Bay and Brecon Mountain Railway are run and, for the Welsh passengers in particular, provide the only practical way to visit these railways on a day trip.
Regrettably, MV Balmoral will not now be operating in 2018 due to the ever-tightening regulations overseen by the Marine Coastguard Agency, meaning that costings of £4 million will be incurred to return MV Balmoral to operational service.
The galling fact is that MV Balmoral is in a basically sound operational state but previous acceptable repairs such as double plating of the hull are no longer
to be allowed and fire regulations covering crew accommodation etc will need updating.
Operating coastal passenger excursion vessels is probably, with considerable volunteer input, at best a marginal business. However, public support for these sailings is strong and increasing but ship operation is, more than anything, governed by weather. On many occasions last year the ship was heavily booked but was unable to proceed due to adverse weather conditions, resulting in refunds.
On days we were able to run, the loadings to both ship and rail were beneficial to both ship and railways and on a Porthcawl-Ilfracombe sailing in August we produced two coachloads through booked to Woody Bay.
I noted that apart from gala days this helped to boost the daily visits to L&B to record levels.
MV Balmoral will celebrate its 70th year in 2019, so our fundraising via the MV Balmoral Fund will continue in the hope that the missing link can be re-established and we can continue our tie-up with the heritage railways of the Bristol Channel.
Martin Oatway, email
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