Pride of Burgundy & Pride of Canterbury

Dover to Calais and return, Sunday 5th November 2006.

It’s fascinating how people’s perceptions of a ship can differ so much according to the particular sailing they travel on.

I can remember my first experience of Pride of Burgundy was in her inaugural season in 1993. P. & O. had disappointingly decided to dispense with their Dover/Boulogne route and the charming little ‘Free Enterprise’ class vessels that served it. With very short notice they instructed Schichau Seebeckwerft A. G., Bremerhaven to complete the order of their fourth and final ‘Super European Class’ freighter as a multi-purpose vessel for Dover/Calais. The last-minute planning was to be very tangible in ferry that was created out of this strategy.

Not an attractive ship in the least bit, Pride of Burgundy was simply a European Seaway with an extra rectangular block of accommodation welded on amidships. The most unfortunate feature was an enclosed suspended gangway for foot passengers to board the vessel at the stern end. Now that really did look like a botch job!

Internally, in her maiden season, Pride of Burgundy was immaculately fitted out. Although the arrangement of her facilities was a bit of a ‘rabbit warren’, they were furnished to the highest specification of the time.

Making a crossing on her over thirteen years later was to be a revelation.

I rang P. & O. to book my crossing and asked if there were any promotional fares on offer. I was asked if I took any daily newspapers. I could deduce from this leading question that I needed to quote the name of a paper which usually offered discounted ferry tickets. I could recall buying the Daily Mail in years gone by simply to collect tokens for cheap day trips (certainly not for the content of its editorials!), so I mentioned the ‘Mail’, and found my fare dropped from six pounds to just one without the need for any wretched coupons! So that was a good start.

I turned up at the Dover Travel Centre in good time for the 0925 Pride of Burgundy sailing. There was a small crowd waiting, rather dodgy looking in some instances! But what surprised me was this was not the type of clientele I had associated with the P. & O. of previous years. Indeed, the booze cruise mob tended to be more of a Stena Line niche. Perhaps the merger of the two companies resulted in this cultural shift. Whereas P. & O. stood for high class service, Stena was a definitely catering for the lower end of the market. The creation of P. & O. Stena Line resulted in clashes of style similar to those encountered when the ‘cheap and cheerful’ Morrisons supermarket chain absorbed the more upmarket Safeway.

Boarding Pride of Burgundy via berth 9, I was not impressed to note that her previous moniker of P. O. Burgundy still adorned the entrance to her accommodation. This oversight was a sign of things to come, excuse the pun.

One entered into a lobby with stairs leading up to the pitifully limited sun deck at her stern end. This is now branded ‘Veranda Deck’. Venturing further inside I encountered what is now ‘Silverstone’s’ bar lounge to port. On the starboard side is a ‘Harbour Coffee Company’ lounge. I didn’t think much of the tacky ‘Costa’ logos stuck to the windows obscuring the view astern and giving the impression that one was marooned at a ‘Roadchef’.

Upstairs was the dreadfully bland motorway service station style ‘International Food Court’ at the forward end, with the expensive, but more stylish ‘Langan’s Brasserie’ on the starboard stern quarter.

What really appalled me was the generally poor standard of maintenance around the ship. The upholstery on a lot of seats was filthy and worn out. It was so bad it made Seafrance Renoir compare rather favourably!

There was nowhere peaceful to sit. Everywhere had some form of consumer outlet designed to milk as much money as possible out of passengers. A really down market move for P. & O. was the employment of a crew member to go around with a bag full of packets of cigarettes for sale!

It was a busy sailing with coach loads joining the car drivers and foot passengers. There was certainly no escape from noise of one form or another. I despaired to find myself besieged by sound effects from children’s arcade games coming from one direction and the frenetic orchestral accompaniments of ‘Tom & Jerry’ cartoons coming from television sets in the other. I suppose I should have forked out for a seat in the Club Class lounge (I was amused to read three days later about how Prince William was declined entry to this privileged section of the ship because he did not possess a ticket!). Elsewhere heavy vibrations that permeated from under the waterline caused ceiling fittings to shudder excessively. This was a problem I could recall when she was new and clearly no solution had been found after all these years.

A sign of how badly designed Pride of Burgundy was could be appreciated when finding a significant number of windows along her sides did not have a sea view! Instead lifeboats were hoisted in the way (a similar situation spoils the enjoyment of ‘Langan’s Brasserie’ on Pride of Dover and Pride of Calais).

So I sought refuge outside on ‘Veranda Deck’ and braved the wind as she departed Dover more or less on time. Here several smokers huddled in order to get a fix in the only area of the ship which now permits what is increasingly considered an anti-social habit. Another really unsatisfactory feature was the arrangement plastic seats bolted around tables so that nobody sitting on them had a decent view out to sea (I suppose one should have been grateful that any seats were provided at all!). And, in common with all other ferries these days, a section of deck space was roped off for no obvious reason other than to frustrate those seeking respite from the noisy and crowded conditions inside.

Having arrived at Calais one and half hours later (the ‘Blue Riband’ service certainly a thing of the past) I felt thoroughly sick of Pride of Burgundy and vowed to avoid travelling on her again! Slow, grubby, badly laid out, she really is the poor relation in the P. & O. fleet in my opinion. It was unfortunate that she was retained in favour of disposing of the older, but more impressive Pride of Provence. Presumably the younger vessel’s greater freight capacity and wider bow end access on the upper deck was what gave her the operational advantage. Maybe, having had my sleep badly disrupted the night before, I was not in the best frame of mind to judge her as I was feeling tired and irritable. However, she definitely did not represent the good old P. & O. that I had previously been familiar with.

So after another Sunday afternoon on the pier in Calais for further photographic exploits I made my way back to the port for the 1610 Pride of Canterbury sailing for Dover.

Although originally a sistership of Pride of Burgundy, the ’Canterbury’ was the product of a more recent and far better planned conversion from freighter to multi-purpose. As part of ‘Project Darwin’, she ‘evolved’ from her original incarnation as European Pathway into her current mode as a ‘superferry’.

I was surprised to be greeted on embarkation with a courteous ‘good afternoon’ from what presumably was what ferry companies like to call the ‘hotel services director’. This character was later to be found behind the information desk making cheerful announcements over the ship’s intercom such as inviting passengers to do some early Christmas shopping in the on board shop.

My immediate impression of Pride of Canterbury was ample light and space. Her polished wooden flooring sparkled and her furniture looked clean. The layout of facilities was simple and easy to navigate. But the overriding feeling I had was she was a ship with no soul. As I have grumbled before about other ferries, ‘global branding’ has eliminated individual character. The names ‘International Food Court’ and the like leave me cold. What ever was wrong with personalised names for bars and restaurants on ships?

Clearly P. & O. have been persuaded by the very well remunerated branding consultants that having impersonal facilities that feature generic names and logos are the key to making more revenue. I was particularly dismayed to see that instead of decent artwork on display in her cafeteria, there were large brochure photographs of food and drink with trite phrases superimposed. If it weren’t for the impressive floor to ceiling panoramic windows looking out to sea, one could easily imagine they were stranded in a franchised motorway service station outlet.

Having stood outside to witness our departure from Calais, I went inside and settled for a ‘tub seat’ in the ‘Horizons Lounge’ at the forward end on Deck 7. I would have liked to have taken one of the derisory six red plastic seats installed on the port side promenade deck to watch the French coast slip by, but alas, P. & O. had erected a gate which was padlocked shut! Oh why must they do that?! On the starboard side, away from the interesting view, one could see notices placed between cabin windows proclaiming ‘crew sleeping, please be quiet’. I haven’t yet managed to ascertain why P. & O. decided to introduce the ‘sleep on’ system for its staff. Previously they would do their shift and return ashore on a daily basis. That meant that passengers could enjoy the outside decks unimpeded and without fear of upsetting crew members by unwittingly peering through their portholes!

The ship felt reasonably full of people, families certainly very much in evidence. It was good to see that the sea crossing was still attracting the punters despite the aggressive competition from the air and under the Channel.

Arrival at Dover was at sunset and a spectacular red sky shrouded Shakespeare Cliff and the Western Docks as we entered the Harbour. Speed One, a Dover vessel that so often eludes me slipped away from Berth 1 as we docked at Berth 7. Seafrance Berlioz at Berth 6 dwarfed Seafrance Manet resting alongside her at Berth 5.

And so after the vessel was tied up and the gangway was lowered the crowd of foot passengers was allowed to disembark.

My verdict on Pride of Canterbury is that she is a reasonably pleasant vessel in as much as she is well cared for and is spacious. As a form of transport she does what she is expected to do satisfactorily; conveying her passengers comfortably and providing everything they are likely to need in the way of sustenance during their journey. The great disappointment for me as a ferry enthusiast is that she is devoid of many of the features that remind one that they are on a ship rather than in a floating motorway service station. She doesn’t even have any lifeboats! Utilitarian is the word that comes to mind when looking at her from inside and out. There is no hint of grandeur in her design at all, no sparkle. On the contrary, her French flagged rivals, Seafrance Rodin and Seafrance Berlioz, boast impressive twin tier atriums with panoramic sea views and stylishly decorated lounges.

The closure of Pride of Canterbury’s port side promenade deck and the insufficient amount of outside seating was very disappointing, but something we have had to become accustomed to in recent years on a lot of ferries. The trend began back in 1980 when Townsend Thoresen’s ‘Spirit Class’ were berated for featuring only a tiny ‘veranda’ at the stern end to sit and enjoy the fresh sea air, the aim being, allegedly, to keep more passengers inside where they would be tempted to part with their money in the bars and restaurants. That concept would appear to be championed by the likes of Pride of Canterbury. I think that is a shame, but in these cost-conscious times, when profit margins are perilously slim, every pound spent on board counts. Especially when some travel for just a pound!

It has been speculated that Pride of Canterbury and her twin sister, Pride of Kent, may be in the firing line if P. & O. eventually catches up with Seafrance and Norfolkline by ordering new tonnage. However I rather suspect the older Pride of Dover and Pride of Calais will be first up for replacement now that they are in their twentieth year. In a way that would be a sad outcome as those two vessels were very much a triumph of Townsend Thoresen’s technical department and were very much ‘state-of-the-art’ in their halcyon days. Let’s hope the P. & O. superferries of the future will be as inspiring, unlike the lacklustre Pride of Canterbury, or even worse, the botched up Pride of Burgundy which are really no match for the competition and have arguably helped to weaken P. & O.’s once formidable market-leading position!