17 June 2015

Crossing the North Sea: Hull to Rotterdam

Ferries have been running across the North Sea for many years, and living in the southern part of the country they would not normally be my first choice as a means to get to Europe. But on this trip I was meeting up with friends from Lancashire for a trip to Germany, so the crossing from Hull to Rotterdam seemed to fit the bill.

It is a lengthy crossing, taking around twelve hours, but the timings are favourable with evening departures and a not-too-early arrival at the other end. The route is operated by the sister ships Pride of Hull and Pride of Rotterdam, which are two of the largest ferries serving the UK and resemble floating hotels more than typical ferries.

Hull ferry terminal is on the banks of the Humber, not far from the eponymous bridge - which is toll-free for motorcycles. Road access is straightforward, and ferries go from there to both Rotterdam and Zebrugge.

Outward Crossing

The outward ferry was the Dutch-crewed Pride of Rotterdam, and boarding commences early so there was little waiting on the quayside. I caused some minor disruption, and obvious irritation, to the lady at check-in as I did not have my booking reference number to hand. For some reason they are unable to locate a booking any other way, despite having my full name and registration number on the booking. That was me told.

I was travelling by motorbike, and was directed towards the upper car deck via a fairly steep, curved ramp. There were a lot of bikes on the crossing, and once on board I was disconcerted to discover that riders are expected to secure their own bikes instead of the more usual arrangement where a member of the ship's company does it.

I was directed to use a tie-down eyelet directly below by bike, which was in the wrong place and, as far as securing the bike against a rough crossing is concerned, served no useful purpose. So, making the best if it, I used a different tie-down point, much to the displeasure of the deckhand who pointed out that the strap was now across where people had to walk. Tough. And on the subject of straps, the single strap provided had a friction-buckle instead of a ratchet, which made getting sufficient tension on the strap to hold the bike nigh on impossible.

Once upstairs in the passenger accommodation I began the game of hunt-the-cabin. I had been given my cabin key-card at check-in, but not told what my cabin number was: for obvious reasons it is not printed on the key-card. The customer service desk put me right by pointing out that it is printed on the boarding card, although with a lot of other information. I suspect that was my penance for upsetting the check-in process earlier.

Signage around the ship could be better, and not all the cabins are signposted - including, perhaps inevitably, mine. Eventually having walked most of Deck 10 there was one remaining row of cabins, and there was mine.

The cabins are compact, and my two-berth had its bunks folded up against the wall. With a bit of experimentation we got both bunks down and secured, and freshened-up in the compact en-suite shower. There is not a huge amount of room, but they are adequate for a one-night stay and the bunks themselves are comfortable.

I knew that we were meeting up in the Sky Lounge on Deck 12, but the challenge was getting there. The layout of the ship is confusing, and not particularly well signed. Having wandered up and down many flights of stairs, none of which seemed to go to Deck 12, we eventually found a lift that did. And it was worth the effort. The lounge bar was bright and spacious with a good selection of drinks on offer, but no food. Later in the evening a pianist provided some musical accompaniment.

The on-board catering was sorely disappointing. There was a long queue for the mysterious "Kitchen", which had an ambitious fixed-price admission charge but with scant information on what was available within apart from vague "tastes of the world" allusions to curry and lasagne. None of us felt inclined to risk it, and whilst The Brasserie did have a menu on display it was clearly aiming for the upper end of the market.

That left the coffee shop, which had a selection of sandwiches, some sorry-looking pies and made-to-order pizzas. The best of a poor choice was the pizza, which was adequate, but for some reason the food discount voucher issued during the booking process was not accepted there. There is undoubtedly scope for a self-service cafeteria on board, and next time I will remember to bring my own packed-lunch.

On the same deck as the coffee shop there is the main bar with entertainments. The singers and dancers had plenty of energy, and had an esoteric repertoire of songs. What was lacking in polish was certainly made up for in enthusiasm.

The two cinemas showed various films throughout the voyage, and for those fancying a flutter there was a small casino with a couple of tables and some slot-machines.

It was a smooth crossing, but despite a comfortable cabin I did not manage a particularly good night's sleep. Two hours before arrival in Rotterdam we were awoken by an announcement, and that allowed plenty of time to get up, washed, dressed and join the huge, slow-moving queue in the coffee shop for a coffee and a pastry.

Once we arrived in Rotterdam we were asked to return to the vehicle deck, and again the lack of signage meant that we ended up at the wrong end of it. Thankfully the bikes were still upright, and before too long we were heading out through Passport control and on to the Dutch motorway network.

Return Crossing

The return journey was on the other ship, the British-crewed Pride of Hull, and the facilities were virtually identical. The arrangements for securing the bike were worse than on the outward crossing, with me being expected to secure the bike to steel hawser threaded along the deck. As it was only attached to the deck intermittently, as I attempted to pull the strap securing my bike taught, it released some of the tension on the neighbouring bike already secured to it.

As riders are responsible for securing their own bikes and for any damage caused, what would happen if one of the bikes fell over as a result of previously secure bike falling owing the another being attached to the same hawser? Fortunately it was another calm crossing, but I serious concerns over the arrangements for securing bikes, and do not intend using that crossing again. I wonder if P&O expect lorry drivers to secure their own vehicles too?

The crossing seemed busier, and by the time we got to the coffee shop for some food there was nothing left but pizza as they had obviously underestimated demand; although I was told they had more food on offer than usual.

In the morning, the coffee shop was even busier than it had been on the outward crossing, and the situation was not helped by a number of passengers occupying tables when they were not eating or drinking, and the shortage of chairs was compounded by passengers wanting to ensure the comfort of their luggage by using them for their bags. I mentioned this to a member of crew, but was told that it was not his problem.

On arrival at Hull, we were directed to the vehicle decks and once disembarkation had begun it was a short ride to a holding area just off the ship. Where we waited. And waited.

It took over an hour to get through immigration, with very long queues. Fortunately the weather was favourable or it would have been very unpleasant waiting on the bike on the quayside in cold, wet and windy conditions. I appreciate that immigration is not P&O's responsibility, and that all the available lanes were open, but the ferry terminal is simply not big enough to cope with the size of ferries now being used on the route.

Returning from holiday is never the most joyous of occasions, but the lasting impression could have been so much better.

Overall I was disappointed with my experience. It is not a cheap crossing: my return ticket with cabin was £355 booked two months in advance, and the on board catering was very poorly organised, with insufficient seating capacity and very limited supplies of food.

Most members of the crew I spoke to were friendly and helpful, and the cabins were clean and comfortable - although my cabin on the return crossing had a broken shower, which was duly fixed a few hours after reporting it. The ships are modern and clean, but could have better signage to help passengers find their way around.

P&O needs to improve its arrangements for securing motorcycles on its ferries because the current arrangements are inadequate for anything other than a calm crossing, and look at improving the Hull ferry terminal to cope with the volume of arriving passengers in a more timely manner.

Would I travel on the route again? Probably not, and certainly not with a motorbike.

Ratings for the Pride of Rotterdam & Pride of Hull:
Value: 3/5
Service: 5/5
Food: 2/5
Facilities: 4/5

05 June 2015

Marshall Motor Group

I'm a fairly relaxed and easy-going person. I accept the imperfections of daily life, and that sometimes things don't go entirely to plan. It takes a lot to get me worked up, but in 2008 the Marshall Motor Group, specifically their Bedford Land Rover branch, managed it.

As a rule I don't hold grudges, but when you've been over-charged, told falsehoods, had defective parts fitted to your vehicle, had promised work not done, and then had management poke fun at your name in an attempt to placate you, it's not surprising that I will not give them my custom.

The reason for this post is that I got a call from them inviting me to have my Defender serviced. I bought it from an independent, franchised dealership in Halesworth, Suffolk, which has now been taken over by Marshalls. It's a shame, because the staff there were friendly, the service good, and I never had any cause to complain; the polar opposite of Marshall's ethos.

I didn't realise how strongly I still felt until I received the call.

Without wishing to go in to boring details, although it's all documented, none of the items were in themselves catastrophic, but cumulatively they indicated that the company did not really care about their customers...

...and it hasn't changed now. They're so keen to build a relationship with their customers that instead of someone you know calling you from the dealership, they use a call-centre to take bookings. Calling the dealership I used to use before it become Marshalls to ask them to remove my details too, I offered to explain why but they didn't seem interested.

I've also tweeted to @mmglandrover about their offer but obviously didn't get a response. Same as the letters of complaint I wrote at the time to the dealer principle.

Land Rover are making some great vehicles, but my local dealerships (all owned by Marshalls) are a real deterrent to buying one. I've been in touch with Land Rover directly, but they said it was nothing to do with them. Shame.

Things go wrong from time-to-time. It happens. That's life. What really matters is how you put things right. Sometimes all that's needed is the word "sorry". It's not hard. No, really, it isn't.

Blaming other people, making excuses and not even making a vague attempt to put things right is how not to put things right.

And a final tip: If you have a disgruntled customer on the phone and you're trying to convince them to bring their business back to you, think very carefully about poking fun at their name. It will be a very cold day before I buy a vehicle from, or let them anywhere near, one of my cars.