Cunard Back Where it Belongs
Author Peter Elson sails on the Queen Mary 2 in this guest piece to celebrate the launch of our Land Cruise Liverpool tours – entertaining educational explorations of Merseyside’s Maritime history (take a look at our tour Testimonials).
Cunard Back Where It Belongs. . .by Peter Elson
BACK in the 1960s, Cunard Line and the Beatles were twin totems of Liverpool lore. Although the former was a venerable old institution and the latter the epitome of that newly-minted swinging decade, both seemed immovable objects reflecting and projecting the great port’s effortlessly unassailable status as a world class city.
Yet like so much that appears so solid to the complacent crew, both disappeared within a year of each other at the end of that iconoclastic decade. Cunard closed its Pier Head passenger liner sailings to New York with RMS Franconia’s final departure in 1968 (ambiguously called a “suspension”), and the Beatles self-destructed a year later.
Maybe Henry Ford was right when he said history is bunk, as surprisingly nearly half a century on both remain cultural fixtures: the Beatles’ back catalogue is more popular than ever and Cunard, which moved its HQ to roost in Liverpool’s deadly southern rival, Southampton, is back big time, albeit under US ownership.
Liverpool has just hosted the Three Queens – One Magnificent City event, when all three of the biggest Cunard liners ever built sailed up and down the River Mersey, performing a synchronised ‘river dance’ to the appreciation of 1.2m riverside spectators and nearly 7,000 passengers onboard.
This was to celebrate Cunard Line’s founding in Liverpool 175 years ago by Samuel Cunard in 1840 and, to be honest, although other Three Queens events have taken place elsewhere, the combination of this narrow river and the sensational Pier Head waterfront made Liverpool the event on May 25, 2015.
Nevertheless, that the city was so lucky in getting this attraction is thanks largely to Michael Gallagher, Cunard’s press and public relations manager and historian, who comes from up the road in Kirkby, and his close working relationship with Angie Redhead, Liverpool Cruise Terminal’s effervescent manager, a native of West Derby, who previously worked all over the Mediterranean for Thomson Holidays.
Michael dreamt up the Three Queens idea for Liverpool four years ago and told me: “I like setting Angie challenges, knowing that she’ll never say no!”
My personal belief in the importance of this event is not merely an ethnocentric boast by someone who spent years in the local press pleading for Liverpool’s renaissance as a cruise liner port, culminating in my successful Liverpool Daily Post and Echo Get On Board (‘GOB’!) campaign to change legislation banning passengers from boarding turnaround cruises (i.e. starting and ending) in the city.
I’ve always believed cities which have suffered a serious reversal in their fortunes should look to their natural assets as a way of climbing out of their difficulties. They should cash in on their history (sorry, Mr Ford) and look at what can be reinvented for the benefit of the future.
In Liverpool’s case this is international fame as a seaport (on which its World Heritage Site status is based) and its fine architecture funded directly by mercantile trade.
And, as 1.2m people watching the Three Queens confirmed, the river still flows through their veins, as every Merseyside family was once involved in shipping and its service industries. Thankfully, it has now dawned on the city fathers that we must embrace the Mersey and not turn our backs on it.
In modern parlance it is our unique selling point. Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham have nothing remotely like it. Old rival ports like Bristol, Glasgow, London and Newcastle are too far upstream to bring today’s cruise ships into their city centres. In Liverpool, as we witnessed, the largest true ocean liner ever built, the Cunard flagship RMS Queen Mary 2, can majestically sail into the heart of the city – with room spare for her two sisters and a flotilla of attendant yachts and tugs.
As a guest of Cunard Line, I was extremely fortunate to board this exceptional ship to experience the Three Queens event at its very heart. Lucky indeed, as I can guarantee I won’t be around in 175 years’ time for a similar occasion.
However, for another blessed boatload, QM2 returns on July 4th to mark the actual 175th anniversary, to the day, of when Samuel Cunard and his daughter in 1840 sailed from Coburg Dock, Liverpool, to Boston, Mass.
This launched the world’s first scheduled steamship passenger and mail service with Cunard’s ship, the paddle steamer RMS Britannia, and simultaneously, as Merseyside maritime historian Pat Moran says, inflicted “the new tyranny of the timetable” on the travelling public.
Retracing this inaugural Cunard Liverpool transatlantic crossing for the first time in 47 years, QM2 will sail, as Samuel Cunard did, to Boston, but also to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada (another regular Cunard past port of call), and of course, New York. The latter replaced Boston after about seven years as Cunard’s US terminus as its port was less prone to freeze over in winter.
Meantime, at the Three Queens event, initially, the weather was not freezing, but foggy. The chair of Liverpool Pilotage Services, Capt. Chris Booker, who boarded QM2 in Greenock (the nearest she can get to Glasgow), and his team of five pilots, had spent 18 months planning the event.
He told me visibility on arrival at the Mersey Bar was only three quarters of a mile, dampening spirits somewhat for those who rose early in the morning for the occasion.
It’s an on-going joke I have with Angie Redhead that it always rains when Cunard liners visit, but we were spared both drizzle and downpour, with the day continually brightening into sunshine.
QM2 departed the Cruise Terminal early on Bank Holiday Monday to meet her two fleetmates Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria at the Mersey Bar, undertaking a breath-taking manoeuvre just off Crosby beach. This giant ship performed a 180′ turn in the river so close to the shore that, perched as I was on the forward observation deck, one could seemingly have lent out to shake hands – or any other appendage – with Gormley’s naked Iron Men sculptures.
This superlative act of seamanship was followed by the close formation of the three liners majestically sailing in line upriver as far as the Liverpool Echo Arena and Cammell Laird, Birkenhead, then turning and returning in arrow shape formation, led by QM2 back downriver.
Although there was at times only about six feet of water beneath QM2’s keel, her master Capt. Christopher Wells, was unfazed: “As long as you do your homework and know what to expect, the Mersey is no more difficult than anywhere else.”
Tall and slender, Capt. Wells has the cheery donnish air of an antiquarian book seller or your favourite history teacher and his “just another day at the office” attitude is very reassuring. He added: “It’s simply marvellous and so rare to be able bring a really big ship like QM2 into the heart of the city. It’s terrific for our guests as they can simply walk off the ship into this wonderful city.”
My abiding memory is the sheer number of on-lookers, rammed so closely on the Mersey waterfront that this dark huddled mass even filled the streets running up from the river. I’ve seen nothing like it, and this must have resembled, if not also upstaged, the maiden visit of Cunard’s previous flagship, the much-eulogised Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) on the company’s 150th anniversary in 1990.
Finally, after the Red Arrows fly-past and a twin blast on her four great whistles, QM2 pulled ahead of her two consorts and made for the Crosby Channel and the open sea. My trip was a three day tail-end to her Southampton homeport of this fully-booked anniversary West Coast cruise, which had also taken the liner to Cobh (for Cork), Dublin and Oban.
Such is the pulling power of visiting Liverpool for the 175 Cunard anniversary that passengers had come from as far away as California and Australia, while plenty of others were from Merseyside and trekked to Southampton to join the ship. Many people were staying onboard to sail on the next transatlantic crossing to New York, departing 10 hours after our arrival in Southampton.
Cunard is aimed particularly at the US East Coast traveller (onboard currency is in dollars) and shows the power of a long-established British brand when boosted by savvy American marketing techniques (not to mention French naval engineering).
As the world’s biggest ocean liner (as opposed to cruise liner), QM2 is vast and easily swallows her 2,620 passengers without any sense of crowding. Such a short trip barely allows time to find your way around a ship of 17 decks, 148,528 gross tons, a length of 1,132 ft and a beam of 135 ft.
Like her illustrious predecessors, QM2 is designed to tank across the Atlantic in any weather and, to achieve this at 30 knots/35mph, she is driven by four Rolls-Royce propeller nacelles (called Azipods) beneath her stern. Able to turn through 90′, these amazing devices, with bow and stern thrusters, also allow her incredible manoeuvrability.
Her hull is also streamlined like a traditional ocean liner to achieve this high speed. Most cruise liners’ top speed is 24 knots and QM2’s hull is also strengthened by 30 per cent more steel than used in a typical cruise liner design, to cope with harsh Atlantic conditions.
To my astonishment, QM2’s celebrated British designer Stephen Payne was onboard sailing as a passenger lecturer, but in spite of a half-hearted stalking plan I failed to track him down. We have history, Mr Ford, as Stephen Payne kindly supported my (failed) campaign to save SS Manxman, the last Isle of Man passenger turbine steamer.
All three current Cunard Queens are decorated in a retro art-deco ocean liner style inspired by the first Queen Mary in 1936, which generally works well, differentiating them from rival cruise liners and a world away from the plastic interiors introduced in the 1960s.
Cabins, such as mine on deck 12 with a balcony, have an elegant contemporary décor. However, one couple told me they felt recent redecoration schemes were undermining the ship’s cohesive interior look.
Of course, there’s always anxiety on any cruise focused on when you’ll next eat. Sometimes it’ll be as long as 15 minutes if you’re forced to change dining room or lounge. A wake-up cuppa and biscuits delivered to your cabin can be followed by cooked breakfast, morning coffee, lunch, afternoon tea, four or five course dinner and the midnight buffet. In case you’re peckish between the above, the QM2’s King’s Court offers food practically round the clock.
My travelling companion and former Liverpool Echo colleague Tony McDonough insists on a full English breakfast, so each morning we descended into the two deck Britannia Restaurant to stack our victuals. Even after this major refuelling, a primitive hunter gatherer mindset prevails, with the compulsion to eat any food you see (which means almost everywhere).
There is a class system by stealth on board. While first class no longer technically exists, the costlier your ticket the more exclusive your dining option, with Queen’s Grill being the top grade. We were entitled to Britannia Club which is located in two separate rooms behind the main restaurant.
Both the Irish Sea and English Channel were very kind to us and, apart from forward movement at 14 knots, our leviathan glided along as smoothly as if on castors crossing a polished floor. Temperatures rose and the sea changed hue from its North West putty or dun-colour to a more exotic jade green.
Our sole call at St Peter Port, Guernsey, Channel Islands, was not until the afternoon following our Liverpool departure; opportunity was taken for a full body massage in the Canyon Ranch Spa for $150 each.
“Please, God, tell me you weren’t in the same massage room,” squealed Tony McDonagh’s manager at the Echo down the ship – to – shore line. I don’t know what kind of lowly establishments she has in mind, but this is such an efficiently done experience in single treatment rooms. Wrapped in a sheet, only about four square inches of flesh is exposed to be pummelled and punished at any one time.
Lulled into a state of tranquillity and one-ness, I was totally unprepared for the following slap in the face from the fates near the end of this small, but perfectly formed trip.
The liner is too big to dock in Guernsey (in fact, she’s probably only fractionally smaller than the island itself), so anchored off-shore, passenger disembarkation is by tender. Seated on its top deck, I used my mobile phone to take a series of unusual shots as we passed under her clipper bow.
Besides my colleague Tony, the only other person was a Filipino stewardess, who beckoned me over to ask what currency was used on Guernsey. Ever helpful, I leant forward to give her benefit of my offshore fiscal knowledge, an action which squeezed my fleece jacket and, combined with a lurch of the tender, caused the phone to eject from my pocket.
I heard it bounce down the tender’s side with a trio of thumps into the watery hands of St Peter Port’s mermen. The stewardess was most upset and offered to ask the tender’s driver to turn around to look for it. Although I only scraped my Physics ‘O’ Level, I know that metal phones don’t float, even in salt water.
It’s a reminder that there’s no such thing as a free cruise, or on this specific occasion as Gore Vidal wisely opined: “No good deed goes unpunished.”