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Surfing the net with P&O Ferries

Blue VHS Tape! by jm3

John Hillman goes online in search of P&O Ferries, and winds up catching an eyeful of the Pride of Hull

The internet is a remarkable place when it comes to discovering the weird and wonderful world of human interest.

A search on YouTube has uncovered a staggering 40 videos that have been uploaded by the great British public paying homage to 150 years of P&O Ferries and Cruises.

Add to that the fact that tens of thousands of you have actually downloaded them and I think it’s safe to say that good old P&O Ferries now boasts cult status amongst an elite troop of discerning travellers. Move over Seasick Steve.

The kudos for most dedicated YouTube ferry watcher has to go to CrazyCars and IRI5H J4CK for their production of a photographic slideshow of P&O’s fleet, to the soundtrack of Goldfinger, which quite frankly borders on ferry-porn.

Nothing quite like getting back from a hard day at the office, pouring yourself a long cold draught of ale, then settling down at your PC and copping an eyeful of that mesmerising little 25,000 ton stunner The Pride of Hull, eh lads?

A lot gets written by trendy media types decrying the fact that, thanks to the internet, the public no longer have to watch and read everything they say because they can now produce their own special interest content on-line.

But some of us that think that it’s the kaleidoscopic differences that make life interesting and frankly if it wasn’t for people like CrazyCars and IRI5H J4CK the world would be a much duller place.

A weekend in Cherbourg inspired by Oliver Reed

Stop me if you've heard this by Barbara L Slavin

Grim European port it may appear, but for John Hillman the town of Cherbourg conjures up a rather exciting image

Whenever I hear the name Cherbourg my mind instantly races back to the enduring image of Oliver Reed, resplendent as the Musketeer Porthos, waging a bet that he could take the outer wall of the town just long enough to enjoy lunch with his comrades.

Champagne and fois-gras flowed as bullets and canons roared overhead – the very essence of boneheaded manliness. It made such a lasting impression on me as a child that the last time I visited Cherbourg I attempted to recreate the memory by becoming Oliver Reed for the weekend.

It entertained some of the locals but caused a considerable problem with my travelling companions, who for some reason left their sense of humour back in drizzly old England. Fortunately it didn’t take me long to find a new job afterwards though.

The fact is that Cherbourg has been on the brunt of so many conflicts between England and France; Catholics and Protestants; that it’s hard not to walk around the town without feeling the walls resonate with the sounds of military.

From the 4th to the 20th century Cherbourg has been the scene of countless battles, invasions and last gasp defences, making it a town as accustomed to the ebbs and flows of geopolitics as it is to those of the English Channel.

“Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum”

Bacardi Rum by Julia

Two important elements lurk behind a swift and eventful voyage: a good gust of wind and a good measure of rum. John Hillman explains from behind the bottle of Bacardi.

When taking to the sea the average passenger feels a great connection with the waves and wind for we are after all an island of seafarers.

No other country in the northern hemisphere has developed such a natural affinity with the sea; we’re a nation with salt in our bones.

So it’s no surprise that most of us head straight to the duty free shop and stock up on supplies of old Kill-devil, or Nelson’s Blood, whenever we’re on board – I refer of course to the ancient mariner’s favourite tipple: Rum.

Ever since the British Navy captured Jamaica, in 1655, rum has been closely associated with all manner of seafarers from pirates and smugglers to officers and oarsmen. The Royal Navy saw rum as the only effective counterweight to sodomy and the lash to such an extent that it couldn’t bring itself to abolish the daily grog ration until as late as 1970.

Rum’s origins can be traced back for centuries and there is no official date or place that can lay definitive claim to having invented the drink. Some say it was first discovered in ancient China, others that it was invented by Caribbean slaves in the 17th century.

Rum’s Caribbean connection is of course much stronger than China’s, unless someone knows of a good Chinese rum – in which case please do let me know.

However, it was actually once America’s drink of choice (before the invention of the soda machine obviously), in fact prior to the American Revolution it was estimated that 13.5 litres of rum were consumed each year for every man, woman and child in the American colonies.

Indeed; one can only imagine the happy equilibrium that would exist in the world today had these colonials remained sober for long enough to properly consider the consequences of their actions.

So whether you like yours light or dark, flavoured or spiced, the main thing is that you enjoy your rum socially, responsibly and avoid all political discourse whatsoever, lest you awake to discover that your house has declared independence and elected the one of the garden gnomes as president.

The next great travel book

A Vietnamese fish market

Any aspiring travel writers could do worse that tackle the world of fish markets John Hillman argues. And some of them sit in the most unusual of places.

Anyone stuck for ideas about what there next travel book should be about could do a lot worse than a tour of the world’s major fish markets.

From Tokyo to New York to London these aquatic trading floors have been doing the business for a lot longer, and far more successfully, than any disgraced city-trader could dream of.

The three largest fish markets in the world are Tsukiji in Tokyo, Mercamadrid in Madrid and Sydney Fish Market, Sydney. Together with London’s Billingsgate and New York’s Fulton these industrial institutions constitute a huge chunk of all the seafood that gets caught and sold in the world today.

It might be surprising to see Madrid outstrip New York and London, but not when you consider that Spain is a country were fish flavoured baby-food is readily available on supermarket shelves.

Touring a fish market in the early hours of the morning is a truly awesome spectacle; just the sheer volume of fish on display makes you wonder how on earth the oceans will ever manage to sustain our demands. Indeed there are many people who will tell you that they cannot.

So before supersize fish-markets disappear off into the historical sunset it might be time to pay them a visit. If you are catching a P&O ferry to Zeebrugge you can find one of Europe’s largest fish-markets next to the main port, a good place to start.

Unfashionable Hull is on the up

The Cold Yorkshire Sea. by Leeds Yorkshire

First maligned, then stereotyped before being finally forgotten. Hull’s football team have wrenched attention back in the direction of the little Yorkshire port, which at the end of 2008 is undergoing a little boom. John Hillman explains all.

For many years now P&O Ferries have been sailing from Hull to Rotterdam and Zeebrugge, making this small Yorkshire city the north’s gateway to Europe.

But while it has always been an important place to P&O Ferries, for many people around the UK Kingston-upon-Hull has been synonymous with post-industrial decline and hardship.

As a prosperous merchant town in the middle-ages it made a fortune importing wine and exporting local wool, joining the Hanseatic League (a sort of go-getters private members club and precursor to the EEC) and generally having a pretty good time of it right up until the First World War.

Unfortunately however the 20th Century was going to be tough one for the residents of Hull and it has suffered disproportionately since the outbreak of World War II.

Firstly, its importance as an industrial port and military arsenal attracted the unwanted attention of everyone’s least favourite unsuccessful Austrian artist, Adolf Hitler, and so he sent the Luftwaffe to inflict terrible and continuous terror, making Hull the second most bomb damaged city in the UK after London.

To add to the misery the collapse of the British fishing industry in post-war Britain, culminating in the Anglo-Icelandic Cod Wars of the 1970s, and the decline of industry in general at this time, lead to Hull becoming one of the most maligned cities in the UK.

But things finally seem to be looking up for Hull and its residents; a fact reflected in the increase in tourism brought about by some recent economic developments and a lot of new building work. Cafes and bars line the new marina and there’s a growing self-confidence amongst its small population.

Nothing reflects this more than Hull City FC’s spectacular ascent to third place in the premiership; inflicting terrible heartache on Arsenal, with a stunning victory at the Emirates, only to go and cheer the Gooners up a week later by heaping even more misery on their local rivals Tottenham.

Indeed it seems that the manager Phil Brown and his boys can do no wrong at the moment and this is reflected in sell out crowds for home matches and some local fickle footy-fans even ditching their Manchester United shirts for that of their local club.

Hull finally looks like it’s crawling its way out of the dark days of the 20th century and into the brighter future of the 21st, and here’s hoping that it continues. So while many of you may head through Hull on your way to board a P&O ferry to Rotterdam or Zeebrugge, it might be time to think about checking into a hotel a day early and having a look around before you set off.

The William Wilberforce Museum certainly deserves a visit, and who knows? Maybe Fat Boy Slim, Hull’s famous musical product, might give up on his soft southern lifestyle and ditch Brighton in favour of some beach parties by the Humber. Although to be fair you can reinvent a city but you can’t change its weather, not yet anyway.

The eel: a forgotten hero

John Hillman decides that it is high time that the European Eel got some of the attention that it deserves

With the Pride of Britain Awards having been broadcast this week it has become apparent that, amidst all the Z-list celebrities and weeping firemen, we have forgotten our less glamorous heroes.

Who? Who have we so callously defamed with our disregard for their contribution to the advancement Britain? I refer of course to that most noble of species the European Eel.

Now obviously an eel has never been responsible for rescuing a baby from a burning building, but in their own quiet way they have been making the ultimate sacrifice for us northern Europeans ever since our hairy, and slightly unattractive, ancestors first grunted their way up here all those thousands of years ago.

In the modern world, where you can buy a kiwi fruit or mango in the middle of winter, it’s quite easy for us to lose our connection with the natural environment so many of us don’t realise that without this slippery little sea-snake we would have been a pretty malnourished excuse for a nation. Too weedy to pick up dung let alone fire a long-bow.

During the harsh winter months these fish, found in abundance around our estuaries and coastal waters, provided a cheap and plentiful supply of food rich in vitamins A, E and B12, all of which are essential for the aid of a healthy reproductive system, at a time when popping to the vitamin counter at Boots simply wasn’t an option.

Eels might look boring and un-exotic but they actually begin their lives in the Sargasso Sea, off the Caribbean, before catching a lift on the gulf-stream and floating over here on a three year cruise. They then hang around providing us with food for 14 years before swimming all the way back to where they came from for their one and only bash at coitus before nobly dropping dead from exhaustion.

So remember that without this selfless act of sacrifice the chances are that our ancestors would have found life up here in the northern hemisphere that little bit harder, meaning that there’s just that little extra chance that you or I wouldn’t be around today.

Sure, now that we have 24 hour supermarkets we’ve forgotten all about them; you probably think that they’re completely unappetizing compared to your organic rocket pesto and goats cheese pizza, but maybe one day in the future, perhaps when the world economy totters on the brink of collapse after being run by incompetent morons for eight years (oh, hang on a minute), you might want to reflect and give thanks to the common European Eel, a true hero of Britain and a damn sight more appetizing than Simon Cowell and a pair of blubbering traffic wardens.

Why do we bother with the sea?

The Sea: “Big blue wobbly thing that mermaids live in” (Baldrick – Blackadder III)

It’s worth thinking for a minute about the emotional tug that draws us human beings off towards the sea, because quite simply it is not the most logical place for us to spend our time. The majority of us wouldn’t survive much more than a minute under water; we can only propel ourselves through liquid at a fraction of the speed that we can travel on land, and, most pressing of all, once we are any more than twenty metres from the shore we become part of the food chain in a most distressing way.

Despite these realities we flock to the world’s oceans in swarms. We like to swim in it, float on top of it, go diving deep within it and sit on sandy beaches and gaze lovingly out at it. The sea is our great mystical treasure, and if someone happens to get gobbled up once in a while the best we can do is commiserate and carry on regardless.

I suppose that much of our fascination with the sea is nurtured during childhood, as we are fed numerous stories of cheerful turtles, cheeky dolphins, clumsy whales and forgetful mermaids. Then, of course, there is Popeye, the great champion of the juvenile, who just needs to chew his way through a tin of spinach before he can jump in his boat and charge off imperiously into the blue.

I had my own brief fixation with the sea when I was about five or six years old and ITV broadcast a biopic of Captain James Cook. He was portrayed as a quiet but ambitious man, with a talent for avoiding sandbanks and judging the strength and direction of the wind. Cook, I learnt for myself, started off in the grimmest corner of North Yorkshire which after his success on the high seas he was able to substitute for the sun-bitten beaches of Tahiti, the beautiful landscapes of New Zealand and the Great Barrier Reef. Not a bad exchange.

The idea of setting off around the world in search of adventure, surrounded by soldiers in blood red tunics with muskets appealed to me, and I suppose summed up the draw of the sea. It offered the possibility of adventure, the chance to do a dangerous dance with nature – it was a way of taking on the unpredictable.

The prizes might be chests brimming with gold or silver or lazy days in the South Pacific under the eucalyptus trees, or it might be the discovery of something fantastic like a North West Passage, anything was possible. But something engaged the spirit, almost as if the sea was floating there with two fingers up to us all on terra firma goading us to take it on if we dare.

And that’s exactly what we continue to do. Sailing is undergoing a boom in popularity, so are diving and snorkelling, our top sailor Ellen MacArthur is so popular that we’ve made her a dame and more people are swimming The Channel than ever. By 2008, we’ve put men on the moon and a Blur single on Mars, but we still remain fascinated by the seas – attracted primarily by a cocktail of danger, adventure and unpredictability.

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