If I had spent my study year abroad much earlier, I might have found myself travelling to France sat among crates of vegetables. That was how the first ferry service from England to Brittany began. Fortunately, Brittany Ferries has transformed itself since then.
Twenty-eight years ago this month, I set sail for France aboard a ferry to St Malo. My parents took me to Portsmouth and waved me off on the overnight trip.
That was the start of my student year abroad, as part of my degree in French and German.
Brittany Ferries ran a night-time service that got me into St Malo early the following morning.
The company’s maiden voyage took place just over a decade earlier, on a blustery New Year’s Day in 1973. It was no coincidence that that day was chosen – it was also the day that the UK joined the European Economic Community.
The common market, as it was known, was the cause of the launch. Breton farmer Alexis Gourvennec wanted a quicker route to export cauliflowers and artichokes to Britain, rather than transporting them by road across to Calais and then over to Kent.
A service directly from Roscoff in Brittany to Plymouth in Devon would ensure the vegetables arrived fresher.
No shipping companies were interested in operating such a service, so Gourvennec encouraged some of his fellow farmers to help him raise the money to buy a ship.
Things didn’t go smoothly in those early years – a couple of ferries ran aground off St Malo and another three suffered engine problems. Industrial action didn’t help either.
However, that didn’t prevent other routes from being added to the service over the decade and into the 1980s.
It was all plain sailing by the time I set off on my year abroad in September 1986. It began a year that has shaped the person I am today. It was also one of the best of my life.