Historic cross-Channel ferry hop faces Brexit test

Pauline Froissart with Chloe Coupeau in Dieppe
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The Newhaven-Dieppe ferry reverses out from the port in Newhaven, southern England

Taking the ferry along a historic route between England and France has become a way of life for British retiree Peter Baker, who awaits Brexit with more than a little trepidation.

The 63-year-old lives in the town of Plumpton in southern England near Newhaven, where he boards the boat to Dieppe about once a month to his second home in Normandy.

"It is an excellent, excellent line and we fear for its future," said Baker, a member of the TUG-Horizon users' association which lobbies to preserve the often-threatened service.

Twice a day, three times in the summer, the ferry from Dieppe unloads up to 140 cars, 40 trucks and 600 passengers into the small fishing port of Newhaven, home to 12,000 people.

The route is also popular with French tourists travelling to London -- which is only 75 minutes away by train -- the seaside resort of Brighton or the English countryside.

The line is currently subsidised to the tune of 25 million euros ($29 million) per year by the Seine-Maritime County Council.

That subsidy was renewed for another four years in January but the concern is that potential customs controls after Britain leaves the European Union could slow down traffic.

That could hit small seaside towns like Newhaven and Dieppe disproportionately hard.

Jean-Christophe Lemaire, an official with the group that oversees the management of the port of Dieppe, said Brexit does not immediately threaten the passenger line.

But he warned that a tough Brexit would "impact on the profitability of the line".

"And the line will only be able to continue if we maintain a high level of freight," he said.

- 'Antidote to Brexit' -

Between 70 and 80 percent of the ferry's 350,000 annual passengers are British, but most do not stop to enjoy the charms of Dieppe, with around 5,000 visiting its tourist office every year.

"I have English customers who come once or twice a year," said Michael Charaoui, 39, French owner of English pub "Le Cambridge", located a stone's throw from the pebble beach.

"We can feel they are worried, but I reassure them," he added.

Charaoui said Brexit could even be a benefit for him if duty-free on alcohol is reinstated on the ferries, increasing the demand for "booze cruises" from British customers.

Brexit is also not a major concern for Marica Rolin, who runs three guest rooms in her red-brick home.

"My British customers are regulars, who come two or three times a year," she said.

"They will always come to buy wines and cheese," said the Dieppe native, whose clientele is 30 percent British.

But the ferry being cancelled would be "a disaster", she said.

Although Britain will leave the EU, the country "will not move", and links with Newhaven are of historic depth, said Brian Collinge, 70, who retired from publishing and moved to Dieppe's former English quarter 18 years ago.

As early as 1824, customers of the General Steam Navigation Company boarded in Brighton to reach Dieppe in nine hours, before the line moved 9 miles (15 kilometres) east to Newhaven.

Britain's decision almost two centuries later to leave the European Union came as a huge shock to Newhaven resident June Bradbury.

"I think for a week I cried," she said. "It just felt like a terrible loss."

The trauma led her to invite tourists into her home, putting her spare room on Airbnb two months after the vote.

"This is my antidote to Brexit," she explained, calling it an "open door to Europe."