Milton Keynes Coachway 0120 on the National Express 230 to Gatwick Airport (south terminal) for 0350
Gatwick Airport (south terminal) on the National Express 205 to Ringwood for 0905
Ringwood 1140 on the National Express 205 to Poole for 1220
Poole 1245 on Wilts & Dorset open topper 152 to Sandbanks Ferry Terminal for 1305
Foot passenger on the Sandbanks Ferry 1310 to Shell Bay 1315
Shell Bay 1445 on Wilts & Dorset open topper 150 to Swanage for 1505
Swanage 1640 on Wilts & Dorset 143 to Poole for 1750
Poole 1845 on Wilts & Dorset m2 to Blue Shutters Guest House, North Road for 1858
Very luckily indeed, and despite arriving 9 minutes after my next coach should have left, I still made my connection, no longer having to face the prospect of a 90 minute wait at Milton Keynes Coachway in the wee small hours. I arrived at 0129 - a whopping 49 minutes late - off the Silverdale B12B, as a direct result of the overnight roadworks on the M1 between junctions 6 & 10. Unbelievably, all the coaches that had departed Victoria before mine were yet to arrive! Except for one, which had to go via Luton Airport, all the others had opted to stick with the congestion on the motorway rather than divert off. I was staggered.
I chatted to a normal-looking couple with cases who both confirmed the 230 service to Gatwick hadn't passed through as they were waiting for it. This coach arrived a meagre 22 minutes late, at 0142, in the form of Veolia Nottingham's FJ54 ZDH, another Volvo B12B with Plaxton Panther bodywork. I managed to secure a double seat to myself near the rear and tried to get some sleep as we backtracked along the M1 southbound, although there was no staggering congestion in this direction. It was a nice, smooth ride and we managed to arrive at Gatwick's south terminal early at 0338 (scheduled 0350), though much of this was as a result of calling here first - before the north terminal.
If you're planning an overnight jaunt on National Express coaches to save shelling out for accommodation, I would urge you to opt for a connection at Gatwick over Heathrow. Amazingly, Heathrow Airport has bugger-all open in the way of refreshments in the small hours, whereas Gatwick's south terminal has a Costa Coffee (Costa Lotta!) and a Marks & Spencer open 24 hours. I wasn't particularly hungry so partook of an egg sandwich and hot chocolate with marshmallows and creme to fill the time as my next coach wasn't departing until 0530. Suitably fleeced for the privilage, I made a very interesting discovery in the gents toilet in the form of a Dyson Hand Dryer. It was specially shaped so that you actually insert your hands into it and it guarantees a 10 second total dry. I was fairly impressed by its bold claim, so totally saturated my hands and threw them into the dryer for a second go and, yes, 10 seconds later my hands were bone dry!
It's amazing how technology can astound you at 0430hrs!
I was going to sample my first ever ride on a coach operated by Excelsior of Bournemouth. The operate only Service 205 (Gatwick/Heathrow - Bournemouth/Poole) and also a summer Service 316 (Portsmouth - Cornwall) and a Friday/Sunday service from the south coast to Birmingham I think. I was on their 0530 departure on Service 205 to Ringwood (bound for Poole). The coach was 910 (A18 XEL), a Volvo B12B with Salvador Caetano Enigma bodywork. This was the pre-cursor to the now prevalent Levante bodywork and Dunn-Line and Yellow Buses both sampled some for NX to assess them. Excelsior bought an entire batch by the looks of things and they don't impress me! They didn't when I caught one on the 767 from Stansted to Nottingham 2 years ago and they've not improved. My main "beef" is the seat backs are about 6 inches shorter than the norm, so anyone my height or taller (5'-10") has trouble relaxing back. They also have no seat pouches so no Excelsior vehicles display the National Express Customer Information Card.
The driver - a Yorkshireman, managed to do the impossible and have a blazing row at 0515 with an Asian minibus driver and actually cause congestion in the airport. There are 6 pick-up stops at the south terminal and before 7am the notice says coaches will depart at any of them. Well this guy was going to stop at stop number 6 if it killed him, nevermind the other 5 in front - a quarter of a mile of bus stops - were all unoccupied. Course the Asian guy was part-parked on stop 6 so a huge row erupted. How unprofessional I though.
After about 7 minutes or argey-bargey, the minibus finally left and the driver parked the coach, undid the lockers and left us all stood there while he disappeared inside. I turned to one of the 4 others waiting to board and said, "I don't think I want to get on his coach now!" They laughed but agreed! This guy also did a full announcement on the microphone as we left - with 5 people on board - in a very nasty, out-to-get-you attitude, reminding us that he'd throw us off for smoking and that alcohol is illegal on board "any coach in the UK", which is incorrect. We had the same announcement as we left Heathrow and the last thing I remember before falling to sleep was him banging on about what position the interior door catch in the toilet needs to be in to avoid it locking from the inside.
We were very punctual and had 15 minutes to wait at Southampton (it's the only journey on the 205 that calls there) and matey got back on the microphone and said that there were drinks machines in the bus station but not to hassle staff for change. Back to sleep I fell again and we arrived into Ringwood at 0902 - 3 minutes early.
I spent the next few hours taking photographs of locations used in the town when it doubled for much of the 1990s as Whitbury Newtown in the BBC comedy, The Brittas Empire. I did managed to partake of a full English breakfast at a greasy spoon down the main High Street. It was called a Jim's Breakfast and was perfect for my preference - 2 bacon, 1 egg, 2 hash brown, 2 fried bread, 2 sausage, beans and a mug of tea. No soggy tomatos in sight or mushrooms!
My next coach was another Excelsior vehicle, this time sister to the first, 912 (A20 XEL), another Volvo B12B/Caetano Enigma coach. This guy was foreign and running a few minutes late as the 1140 departure was at 1147. We ran a few minutes late throughout, arriving into Poole at 1227, still 7 minutes down. It was in Poole bus station that I met up with Pete, who'd done an overnighter the night before me and had spent the day in Poole and Bournemouth photographing, hoping to snap as many Bristol VRs as he could before they're withdrawn - Wilts & Dorset being one of the very few operators to have Bristol VRs in service now.
We then jumped aboard an open top vehicle on Service 152 from Poole Bus Station to Sandbanks Ferry Terminal. Operated by Wilts & Dorset, the vehicle was quite possibly the newest open topper I've ever travelled on, numbered 401 and carrying registration HF54 KXT. It departed punctually at 1245 and we arrived at Sandbanks at 1305.
The crossing on the Sandbanks Ferry is 90p per person (if on foot) and change is not given. The automated machine seemed not to be working so Pete paid the chap in the kiosk, which happened to be open. I foolishly assumed that the guy would give change, so was a little shocked when Peter handed him two £1 coins and received no change. Normally human intervention assures you of change! The guys on board the 'ferry' were red hot in asking for your tickets, too; I'd half expected us to have ridden across unchallenged, though this was not the case. The Sandbanks Ferry runs on hidden chains, under the water, and so there is no real reason for a captain. All this chap does is to slow it down or speed it up. It was an interesting experience though.
Once at the other side, Shell Bay, we awaited the only bus service in Britain to travel on a ferry - the one we'd just travelled on. Service 150 travels from Bournemouth to Swanage via Compton Acres and Sandbanks/Shell Bay to an hourly frequency in summer months only. However, the crossing at 1315 we only photographed, in the form of Wilts & Dorset 3157 (M645 RCP); it was the 1415 departure we'd catch to Swanage, and this was formed by 3150 (M19 WAL).
At Swanage we had the customary alcoholic beverage in a local hostelry and then had a wander along the tourist railway line in the town. Whilst stood on a bridge just behind the Wilts & Dorset depot we were lucky enough to witness a steam loco pass beneath us and duly photographed it. Also, visible from our vantage point, were around 6 roofs that W&D engineers had cut from their double decker vehicles that are now open toppers - two seemed to be from their 54-reg vehiocles, one of which we'd travelled on route 152; the other four seemed to be from their M-reg vehicles that were working the 150 route.
We returned to Poole via the land, on route 143 with vehicle 3147 (M947 KRU), departing Swanage at 1640, arriving in Poole at 1750. The route was very scenic and undulating and especially picturesque from the top deck. For the routes we caught today operated by Wilts & Dorset, we bought one of their Explorer tickets, in advance, in the form of a scratch card costing £8.50.
Whilst in Poole we saw a W&D Bristol VR parked up on its layover in Poole bus station, fresh from returning on Service 5; we also called at the depot, just behind the bus station, and saw at least 3 other VRs parked up there, before going to Wetherspoons for a well-priced drink. Peter, having slept in a bed the night before, opted to go VR-hunting for another hour or so, with the aim of using his Explorer ticket to jump on one such vehicle, irrespective of its destination. I, meanwhile, caught the 1900 Service M2 to the Blue Shutters guest house in Parkstone - a suburb of Poole. The vehicle was HF54 HGP, a standard Scania/Wrightbus Eclipse Gemini single decker though with air conditioning!! Despite leaving 3 minutes late we arrived at the stop for the accommodation bang on time at 1855.