Irish ferries are seeking creative solutions to the fierce competition from cheap flights. The latest ruse? Themed crossings. Ian White sails away for the day with David Dickinson

During the six-hour train journey to Holyhead, I finished a book (reading one that is), studied my train ticket more times than was strictly necessary and finally fell into semi-consciousness, dreaming of intros for a piece I had yet to write about an event which had yet to unfold. Here's one of them.

"The ferry pitched and rolled across the Irish Sea as little old ladies clutching priceless antique vases zigzagged perilously down the passageway towards the lounge bar where dapper David Dickinson was holding court, a vision in orange, mesmerising all before him with myriad catchphrases."

The next day, the facts got in the way, as usual. The ferry crossing from Holyhead to Dublin was as smooth as silk and, in the three-and-a-half hours I spent in the company of Britain's most parodied antiques dealer, not once did he utter those three little words, "cheap as chips". But he was pretty good at mesmerising people. Just the sight of him walking around in his snappy suit or peering over those multi-coloured glasses seemed to do the trick for most passengers - one woman went all wobbly when, catching sight of her diamond ring, he turned to her and delivered his killer line, "My word, what a bobby dazzler!"

Dickinson was on board Stena Line's gleaming and rather stylish new superferry, Stena Adventurer, to present the "Antiques Boatshow", the first of a proposed series of themed crossings intended to attract customers by "combining travel with popular hobbies and pursuits". Passengers had been invited to bring along small treasured items for Dickinson and two fellow experts, Barbara and Tony Howard from Barmouth, to assess. The passenger whose trinket was deemed to be the most valuable would have the cost of his or her original tickets refunded - hardly egalitarian, but not a bad idea one might think.

As the Adventurer - a floating tower block of cabins, restaurants and lounges which can accommodate 1,500 passengers - set sail, we sat in the huge C.View bar on deck eight, waiting for the anticipated queue of treasure-hugging hopefuls to form. A handful of people came in and sat at tables a discreet distance away. Friendly glances were exchanged but no one came forward. Dickinson, looking unperturbed and affable, chatted to his colleagues about the price of fish, Chippendale chairs and the interesting bits and pieces you could pick up at Irish country-house sales.

Surely someone would approach him with an example but no, they sat in silence. After half an hour or so, they had all finished their drinks and gone, as had any prospect of a queue forming. This wouldn't happen to the Antiques Roadshow I thought, but then that is a TV show that travels halfway round the country to meet its audience, rather than the other way round.

I decided this would be a good time to interview the man who was memorably described as the lovechild of Peter Stringfellow and a mahogany hat stand. Does he mind? "No, I love it to death. I'll tell you why." Dickinson does like to preface a statement with a line that announces its imminent arrival. It's a device that must have served him well both as an antiques dealer and as a presenter trying to hold the fickle attention of daytime television viewers. So, why? "Because all these jokes and impressions people do of me are good for my career," he says. "I'm grateful. The last four years have given me a new lease of life and I'm amazed at this celebrity status - I'm even recognised in New York."

At 62, Dickinson is having a good time and he's not too cool to show it. He tells me about being on Parky, Jonathan Ross, meeting The Darkness, doing university gigs, launching a beer called the Northern Smooth for Thwaite's brewery (honestly) and making a strong case for Only Fools and Horses in the BBC series Britain's Best Sitcom.

In his 30 years as an antiques dealer, had he ever made this ferry crossing?

"No. But Ireland is a great source for collectors. I used to fly to the Dublin antique fairs and find some marvellous furniture. When I bought anything, I would arrange transport with the Irish dealers. It would be just as easy for a dealer to drive his van on here, go to a country-house sale, have a couple of nights out in Ireland, load up and come back."

I am about to discuss the point that, for the great majority of people living in Britain, Holyhead is still a long way away, when we are happily distracted by a man from Chester who has a tiny porcelain Pekinese for inspection. Dickinson is nothing if not tactful. "It's in the feel of the Miessen factory," he begins. "It's certainly mass-produced, probably early 20th century. It's a nice piece. I'm afraid it's not worth very much."

At last it's time for Dickinson to give a talk. Stena's PR people have managed to round up 20 or so passengers (including the handful we saw earlier) and chairs are put out for them. Dickinson introduces himself and gets straight into the story of how he became interested in antiques and offering advice on how to spot the genuine article from a fake. The audience is, once again, spellbound. A woman on my right has the strangest look on her face and cannot take her eyes off him, even to blink. For a while Dickinson talks earnestly about antiques, but then stops and looks curious.

"Are there any dealers in the audience?," he asks. There is a silence.

"Am I right in thinking that you're buyers then?" he ventures. There's no reply.

"Are you interested in becoming collectors?" There's some shuffling and then Dickinson gets the message.

"Would you like to hear about my television career?" There is a murmur of approval and he launches into a well-rehearsed series of star-studded anecdotes. It goes down well and even prompts a few people to finally reveal their precious gems and heirlooms (the winner is valued at £300).

Afterwards, it's agreed by those involved that this wasn't a bad result for a wet Tuesday in winter. When the ferry docks in Dublin, Dickinson and the PR people are chauffeured away to the airport where Dickinson, in particular, is hoping to catch an early flight.

Ian White travelled on the 'Stena Adventurer' courtesy of Stena Line Ferries (0870-577 3773; www.stenaline.co.uk) which will be running themed crossings on a variety of topics through the year. Stena Line sails between Holyhead and Dublin four times a day, departing Holyhead at 02.30 and 14.30 and returning from Dublin at 08.30 and 20.45. The crossing takes three hours and 30 minutes. Until April, single fares cost from £114 for a car and driver, with additional adults paying £12 and children aged over four years paying £8. Single fares for foot passengers cost adults £26, and children £14.

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