09 August 2009

LEYTR's Top 'n' Tail part 5

Welcome to this, the final part of our epic cross-country, historic John o' Groats to Land's End jaunt. Unlike similar explorations, we're detailing our entire round trip, since the headline journey accounts for only 50% of our travels.

To view Part 1, click here.
To view Part 2, click here.
To view Part 3, click here.
To view Part 4, click here.

We left the action at the end of Day 4, successfully arriving at Land's End, having completed the main segment of the trip in 32:05 precisely. It was now time for home, but we opted to travel to London taking in England's longest bus service. We'd bagged its coach equivalent yesterday, and so it felt only right to dream up an itinerary that encompassed First's Jurassic Coast Service X53, that links Exeter with Poole in 4:40, or 280 minutes. It's the lengthiest bus route in terms of its end-to-end journey time, though it is pipped to the post when compared with Stagecoach's Service X5 for mileage covered.

We had an enjoyable breakfast at the b+b in Penzance town centre, where we resided overnight, and jumped aboard the 0717 First Great Western train service bound for London Paddington, though we were to alight at Exeter. The last time I'd departed from Penzance by train was during the 2005 LEYTR Railrover and today I got one of my travelling companions to replicate a photo of me in the same spot as that which m'colleague had done in 2005, and comparing the two now, I'm pleased to report I've lost weight (and a little hair!).

FGW's 43094 leads our Penzance-London formation, seen here as we alighted at Exeter St. David.

I think First's train livery really suits its Class 43 High-Speed Trains (HSTs), in fact, the livery suits all EMU, DMUs and locos I've seen wearing it. It's not too in-your-face as the Stagecoach variant for its HSTs is, and the bright pink pulse lines contrast well with the deep blue. The journey from Penzance to Exeter is no walk-in-the-park. It's not just down the road, as the uninitiated Cornish and Devonian traveller would assume. The journey time was 3:16, with our arrival in Exeter St. David being at 1054hrs.

The journey is also particularly spectacular, with very impressive views from the edge of the Cornish coastline and the very picturesque Dawlish Sea Wall within Devon. There aren't many main rail lines permitting frequent HST-hauled trains that see the route used hug to the coastline as much as this one. Then, no sooner have you left the seemingly innocuous station of Saltash, it's time to grab your camera and lean out of one of the windows for one of the most impressive shots that can be taken on our national rail network - crossing the Royal Albert Bridge into Plymouth.

The Royal Albert Bridge - now 150 years old. Our HST curves to enter the bridge heading east from Saltash towards Plymouth.

The month previous, the bridge had celebrated its 150th anniversary. Built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1859, the bridge is regarded as one of the most spectacular in the world. Its unique design makes it immediately recognisable and it is undoubtedly the gateway to Cornwall. It has its own webcam (click here), too. We were lucky to be ensconced in the Quiet Coach at the very rear of the train and so were able to capture the rake of Mk3s curving towards the portal. It's one of my favourite shots and I even managed a little bit of video recording thanks to my digital camera.

Today was the start of the mini heat-wave that ended June and kicked-off July and it was getting very warm indeed. The air conditioning aboard the HST was very good. 43094 was at the front of our eight-car formation, with 43012 at the rear. As they glided our train out of Exeter St. David, I must say I was a little disappointed at how un-intercity-like the new MTU41 engines fitted to virtually all HSTs make them sound. Time was - not too long ago - when standing on the platform as an HST departed actually made you deaf for a spilt second as rear locomotive screamed out the station. That was when their motive power was supplied by their original Valenta engines; all but those operated by Grand Central and Network Rail's test trains have the new MTUs installed, which are lacklustre by comparison.

The walk up hill to Exeter city centre was no joke. It was becoming very hot indeed and we were all heavily laden with our ruck sacks. Once we'd reached the Snowdon-like summit, we went straight to a 'greasy spoon' cafe for sustenance. I found a particularly good vantage point for photographs outside and was impressed at the turnout of the Stagecoach vehicles here.

With 20 minutes or so to go before our next epic journey was due to commence, we wandered to the bus station where we were greeted with a queue at our stand of about 80 people. "We could have problems here" I remembered thinking to myself. Upon further inspection, there were a lot of young people with luggage in the queue and I didn't expect the X53 to attract that kind of clientele. I'd expected a fairly long queue of people with blue rinses and no intention of paying.

I was right, after the 15-meter-long Trathens Volvo B12T and its traditional 12-meter duplicate had taken all those dwelling at our bus stop to London, with the exception of we three fare payers, the rest were of retirement age. The fare aboard the X53 was excellent value - £6, which also doubled-up as a rover ticket for all First services in the area. Our vehicle was 37585 (HX08 DHY), one of the nearly-new Volvo B9TL/Wright Eclipse Geminis.

Here is one of seven similar 58-reg Volvo B9TLs with Wright Eclipse Gemini bodies that work England's longest bus route.

We departed Exeter virtually on time and made our way along the trunk routes - passing though the wonderfully named village of Beer - before heading off the beaten track down narrow roads with steep gradients (it started to remind me of the Penzance-Land's End route) to Seaton. We clung to the coast more now, travelling through Lyme Regis, Bridport and eventually we spotted Portland Bill on the horizon. It wasn't too much longer after this that we dropped down into Weymouth. A couple of years ago, m'colleague and I visited this town to attend a bus rally therein. We made numerous journeys in the area aboard some of the historic buses and coaches that were providing free rides - my favourite was aboard a Mk1 Leyland National to Portland Bill itself. I'd grown up travelling on these vehicles and I was one of the only ones volunteering to travel on this over more historic half-cabs on the same run.

It was an excellent - if hectic - day. Today saw an equally hectic seafront at Weymouth; there were buses galore, mixed in with all the traffic. Fairly generous timings are given to the X53 at its easterly end, and I could now see why. We had our solitary driver changeover in Weymouth, just before reaching the sea front, and then it was off to Poole via Wareham. Traffic into Poole was particularly bad and we lost a good 15 minutes, not arriving until 1740 - almost 5 hours since we'd boarded.

One of our party, who had an early start back at work the following day, bailed out at Poole rail station and caught a much faster (and expensive) train to central London. Those of us remaining 'til the death, spent just over an hour in Poole before catching the last London-bound National Express coach departure of the day at 1900.

Service 035 is operated by Transdev Yellow Buses (Bournemouth Transport) on behalf of NX and they have a couple of different vehicle types. We travelled on 323 (FJ07 DWA), a Volvo B12B/Caetano Levante with seemingly inoperable climate control. Boy did it get uncomfortable travelling the extended route to London via Portsmouth! We had a full load by the latter and even sleeping was becoming an arduous task, what with the beads of sweat being produced by my and my fellow passengers' bodies.

It got very warm aboard this coach until the driver finally managed to get the climate control working less than an hour before the end of our 3:20 journey.

Then suddenly our mute driver (no announcement of any sort) seemed to jump into life and had a fiddle and the climate control started to work. Why hadn't he done this while waiting his departure time at Poole? He was not partitioned from the rest of the saloon, so was sat in his own juices like the rest of us! It was a very poor journey if I'm honest - an opinion shared by the remaining 'Top 'n' Tailer' sat next to me.

We were both glad to be off the coach once we'd entered London Victoria Coach Station Arrivals, a few minutes before our scheduled arrival time of 2220.

Was it really from this coach station that 4 days earlier - almost to-the-hour, we'd left bound for Inverness? It seemed like a lifetime ago, while at the same time only yesterday!

We caught a Tube to King's Cross - a very desolate Tube! - and boarded with plenty of time the last National Express East Coast departure of the day, the 2330 to Leeds, dropping off only at all its stops en route - the first of which being Peterborough at 0023. The train was formed of 43296 (leading) with 43313 at the rear.

This was to be our last journey that forms part of the LEYTR Top 'n' Tail. What a trip!!

Now technically in Day 6, we'd arranged a lift from Peterborough station back to Lincoln, from where the jaunt had started. It wasn't until much later on the sixth day that I finally made my own way home.

We've not mentioned in depth is the costs incurred. We said from the start that this jaunt would befit the current economic climate and we believe we conformed superbly. We spent two overnight stays in b+bs (Wick & Edinburgh), totalling £52.50 and each incurred only £32.65 in bus, coach and rail fares. This latter figure was so low because the National Express coach journeys were free of charge for us since we ran our idea by the now stricken company, who were more than happy to permit us travel for free as they rather enjoy our blog!

Many thanks to National Express for permitting us to utilise their network of coach services in order to make this five-day adventure total under £90 - including accommodation.

The entire LEYTR Top 'n' Tail has now been uploaded to the LEYTRavels site. Click here to read the entire jaunt in one post, as well as view other jaunts m'colleage and I have undertaken. (GL)