For just over ten years between 2000 and 2011 I worked for South Holland District Council and if ever I went away to a meeting or a conference and introduced myself I almost always had to explain to at least one person that this was in Lincolnshire in the UK and not in the Netherlands. It seemed appropriate therefore that a year after leaving employment there that I and my regular travelling companions (also all ex-South Holland) should visit the country after which our region was named and whose symbol is the tulip.
Normally we take a low cost airline flight to our chosen destination but now that I live in Grimsby near to the passenger port of Hull this time we decided to take our chances on the high seas and take a P&O mini-cruise. The P&O website makes everything sound rather grand and markets the North Sea crossing like this:
‘Mini cruises to Amsterdam include a 2-night stay, travelling in style in one of our ensuite cabins and taking advantage of a host of facilities onboard. You will find a fantastic range of dining experiences with the famous West End Langan’s Brasserie and our Four Seasons buffet restaurant. After your meal why not relax in one of our stylish bars, take in a film at the cinema or even join the high-rollers in the casino? There is also live entertainment for the whole family, plus hundreds of great deals can be found in our onboard shop’.
I have never been cruising so this all sounded rather seductive until Micky pointed out that this wasn’t really a cruise at all but just a simple ferry crossing and more of a sow’s ear than a silk purse and that I wouldn’t need my dinner jacket because there was no chance of being invited to the captain’s table because he would be too busy negotiating the ship through the busy shipping lanes of the North Sea regions of Humber and Thames.
It was a Sunday evening crossing and so in the late afternoon we crossed from Lincolnshire to Yorkshire over the 2,220 metre Humber Suspension Bridge which is the fifth largest of its type in the World. This statistic used to be even more impressive because when it was first opened in 1981 it was the longest single-span suspension bridge in the World for the next sixteen years and the distance by road between Hull and Grimsby was reduced by nearly eighty kilometres as a consequence of the construction.
Two sad facts associated with the bridge now are firstly that at £3 a crossing, each way, it is the most expensive toll bridge in the UK (now reduced to £1.50 by-the-way) and secondly it is a favourite jumping place for people committing or attempting suicide. More than two hundred incidents of people jumping or falling from the bridge have taken place since it was opened and only five have survived so it is a fairly reliable way of doing yourself in! As a result, plans were announced in December 2009 to construct a suicide barrier along the walkways of the bridge but this was never implemented with design constraints being cited as the reason but it probably had something to do with cost and now there is talk of installing a Samaritan’s Hot line on the bridge instead.
After we arrived at the King George Dock and eventually found the correct terminal after first trying to go to Zeebrugge we went through the ticketing process where we were allocated our cabins and then the security checks where I was singled out for a body search presumably because I looked the most likely to be the one to be attempting to carry alcohol on board, which is not allowed – not because P&O have anything against alcohol rather that they would prefer you to buy it on board at one of their bars rather than from a supermarket in Hull.
Once on board we wandered around the maze of narrow corridors on deck ten searching among five hundred and forty-six identical looking cabins until we finally found our inner berth shoebox and after Kim and I had negotiated sleeping arrangements in a fair and democratic way I did as I was told and prepared the top bunk for myself for later.
Without any smuggled on beer or wine there wasn’t a great deal to hang around for in the cabin so we made our way to the Sky lounge and the Sunset bar at the very top of the ship to see the sunset that was dipping down over the River Humber to the west. Actually, the Humber isn’t really a river at all because for its entire length of only sixty kilometres or so after it originates at the confluence of the Rivers Ouse and Trent it is technically an estuary but this didn’t matter to us as we watched a flaming red sun make its grand exit for the day as it slipped slowly below the skyline somewhere over the English Midlands.
“A large drop of sun lingered on the horizon and then dripped over and was gone, and the sky was brilliant over the spot where it had gone, and a torn cloud, like a bloody rag, hung over the spot of its going. And dusk crept over the sky from the eastern horizon, and darkness crept over the land from the east.” John Steinbeck, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’
There was now two hours or so before departure so we sat and caught up on gossip while we waited for the captain to finally announce that we were leaving and the 8,850 tonne, 215 metre long ship finally moved effortlessly away from the quayside at the beginning of its two hundred nautical mile overnight journey across the North Sea to the Rotterdam Europort to the south-east.
First it had to leave the Humber estuary and it glided past the port of Immingham to the south which handles the largest quantity of goods by weight in the UK and by day is an untidy, grimy place dominated by ugly petro-chemical works and soulless grey industrial buildings but by night is transformed into a glittering Manhattan skyline of tall buildings and bright lights and occasional dancing plumes of flames burning off excess gases which actually makes it all look rather attractive.
The ferry has a passenger capacity of 1,360 but tonight there were barely five hundred people on board so it felt spacious and relaxing as we enjoyed our drinks, visited the duty-free shops, had an excellent all you can eat buffet (and for someone who doesn’t really like all you can eat buffets, I really do mean excellent) and then finished the evening in the Sunset Show Lounge where a live band was knocking out disco classics and the stag and hen parties were getting more and more boisterous and noisy. I don’t know what time it closed however because some time around midnight we called an end to the proceedings and retired to our rooms.
After negotiating the narrow aluminum ladder the top bunk was surprisingly comfortable and it didn’t take many minutes until the low rhythmic heartbeat of the engine somewhere in the belly of the ship nudged me into a deep sleep.