The final British 'classic' cross-channel railway passenger ship, the Avalon of the Harwich-Hook of Holland route perhaps laid claim to being the most beautiful and powerful-looking of them all. Yet she was almost outdated when she was built - replacing the old Duke of York of 1935, she entered service just seven years before the introduction of the first Harwich car ferry, the St George of 1968. It is intriguing therefore that this last traditional passenger ship was actually named by the arch-moderniser of the railways, Dr Richard Beeching, in a ceremony at Harwich on July 25th 1961. Whether she should ever have been built is debatable, at least in the form of a pure passenger ship. British Railways did however build into the ship's design one alternative function which she fulfilled during the off-peak season - that of part-time cruise ship. Consequently, the Avalon was fitted out to an unusually high standard and throughout her Harwich career short cruises to various destinations around Europe and beyond were offered - Portugal, Spain, Morrocco, Scandinavia being typical destinations in addition to around-Britain sailings.

Yet the
Avalon's destiny was ultimately, inevitably, to lie as a vehicle ferry; the introduction of the second British car ferry at Harwich, the St Edmund of 1974, ended her mainline role at that port. With BR now desperate for additional car-carrying capacity around the UK, she was sent to Swan Hunters on the Tyne for the conversion which stripped out her two lower decks (mainly comprising cabins) for use as car garages. With a capacity for 210 cars loaded via a stern door, her new career would be on the Irish Sea, starting on the Fishguard-Rosslare run in July 1975. In 1979 she was replaced by the chartered Stena Normandica and moved north to Holyhead for the Dun Laoghaire run (on which route she had previously relieved on occasion since the conversion). The end was near however - at Holyhead she was largely a reserve ship and in September 1980 she was sold for scrap, assuming the name Valon.

A career of under 20 years was a sad reflection on a ship that was badly conceived - not only a passenger ferry that should have been a car ferry, but a steamer that should have been diesel-driven. The former was resolved (partly) by the 1974/75 conversion. The steam power though was perhaps why she did not see further service beyond Sealink - like several of her fleetmates with similar propulsion, there was simply no market for these ships in the 1980s. Uneconomical for their existing owners, fine ships like the
Avalon, Earl Leofric, Earl Siward, Caledonian Princess, Maid of Kent, Caesarea and Sarnia failed to find any significant sea-going careers after they were sold out of the railway fleets. The best that could be hoped for a fortunate couple was static use as nightclub/restaurants. Avalon was not one of the lucky ones and in January 1981 she arrived on the beaches at Gadani in Pakistan to be broken up.
Avalon in her original livery - the buff funnel and black hull of British Railways.

in her final days before the conversion to a car ferry - with the 'Sealink' trading name now prominent on the hull. (Picture thanks to Trevor Kidd)
Avalon from astern showing the stern door as well as the extension to the main passenger decks that had resulted from the conversion - the latter housed additional cafeteria space. (Picture thanks to Trevor Kidd)
A series of pictures showing Avalon, still as a passenger ferry, after the change to the new BR corporate livery, including the double arrow device on her funnel.
BR Sketches of the Avalon's 1975 conversion showing how space used for cabins and other accommodation was sacrificed for car decks. Only eight high-sided vehicles could be taken in the new space (at the aft end) - the garage being one deck high (suitable only for cars) in the centre section with car spaces on two levels forward. Aft there were hoistable platform ramps on either side which could be raised when the full deckheight was needed for commercial vehicles.
Click here for interior pictures of Avalon.
Click here for interior pictures of Avalon.
A classic view of Avalon, still in her original livery, alongside at Harwich Parkeston Quay boarding passengers for the overnight sailing to the Hook of Holland.
Avalon the car ferry, after the conversion. From this angle she looks very much the same as she had when built, but from astern the impact was much more noticeable.