11 March 2010

Gibraltar (part 1)

You could say that ever since the town of Gibraltar was captured in the name of Archduke Charles, back in 1704, the Province was always likely to be on the LEYTR Editors' 'places to do' list. For since then, the town of Gibraltar, famed for its 1,400-ft high rock and Barbary apes, has remained a dependant territory of the UK. We have always been fascinated that there can be such a British state situated in the hinterland of the Mediterranean, availing itself of all associated with such a prized location.

Having never really researched the rocky road (sorry) that shapes the present-day Gibraltar, we had wondered whether or not we'd be in for many shocks and surprises once we landed. We knew that the main road into the peninsular crosses the Province's runway; that the Police wear a uniform identical to that seen on the streets of the UK; that traditional red pillar boxes, served by the Royal Mail, are used throughout; and that a near-identical currency is employed: the Gibraltar Pound. We also knew that Gibraltarians remain fiercely loyal to the UK (though this may be since the only alternative sovereignty is Spain) and that the Province has been - and continues to be - a real source of diplomatic tension between the UK and Spain.

With temperatures here in Blighty having been so low for so long, and with the 2009-10 winter being recorded as the coldest in 30 years, the prospect of a few days' worth of relatively milder weather, coupled with an excellent deal from airline operator easyJet, helped make our minds up!

And so it was that, last Friday - 5 March - m'colleague and I boarded the 0610 East Coast service from Peterborough to London King's Cross. It's such a shame that an earlier departure from within Lincolnshire to the Capital isn't possible. Happily, though, we were able to cadge a lift from the mother of an LEYTR Associate. I'd not been on a train since last October, on a day when I caught this self-same train to London, in order to review the new West Coast Main Line route, courtesy of Virgin Trains. I may well have ended the longest period of my adulthood without having stepped foot on a train!

East Coast is both the name of the franchise and the name of the operating company while under state control. Richard Branson's Virgin Trains looks likely to be the first to show its willingness to bid for the franchise when invitations to tender are requested in the summer.

As with my last journey, today's 0610 departure from Peterborough travelled empty from East Coast's Bounds Green depot in North London, arriving in very good time so that it conveniently dwells to enable a drip-fed style of boarding. It was very civilised and convenient last October and I'm please to report it was today, too. Today was also the first time we'd both travelled on the nationalised East Coast rail franchise, managed by the Department for Transport's Directly Operated Railway company.

We departed punctually and were soon trundling through Holme (the lowest point in Britain) and headed towards Huntingdon. With spring approaching, the lighter mornings really make a difference. Despite the temperature hovering tantalisingly close to freezing, the prospect of three days in temperatures in the region of 18°C really lifted our spirits. Our journey was punctual throughout and we arrived at London King's Cross a minute early.

The walk between King's Cross and St. Pancras International can be done without the need to go outside, though as we had time to kill we traversed the streets of London, capturing the frontage of St. Pancras basking in glorious morning sunlight.

We did witness a new request from the guard, though, which was to ask all passengers in Standard Class not to walk through First Class in order to alight at King's Cross. Apparently, passengers in Cattle Class (paraphrasing sentiments made by Anne Widdecombe this week) make their way into First long before the train has arrived at King's Cross in order to alight nearest the concourse. First Class coaches always face London on the East Coast franchise and accordingly passengers therein have less far to walk. So high are the numbers of displaced passengers that the on board crew have problems setting up for the next journey, so now First Class cannot be used as a time-saving method.

Our journey had been propelled by the only Class 91 electric locomotive to have gained the erstwhile National Express East Coast livery - on this occasion being 91111.

Our flight to Gibraltar departed from Gatwick North at 1000, with departure gates closing at 0930. Since neither of us were travelling with luggage for the plane's hold, we weren't too bothered about arriving with hours and hours to spare, so opted to travel to Gatwick Airport using the Thameslink route, rather than the more expensive Gatwick Express service. That said, once on board the 0748 departure from St. Pancras' Thameslink subterranean station, I soon mused that the end-to-end journey time was comparable with that afforded by the Gatwick Express - especially when the requirement to travel from King's Cross to Victoria was factored in.

Seen here at Gatwick Airport is on of FCC's Electrostar '377s'. Luggage provision isn't anything to write home about, though when faced with the thousands who use the service to commute into London from either Brighton or Bedford, it's not a high priority.

Although we crossed the Thames at 0800, our Bombardier-built Class 377 'Electrostar' was very lightly loaded and had been as it arrived at St. Pancras. A fair few had left here, but the journey was far from the nose-to-arm-pit standee experience I'd been expecting. St. Pancras International's platforms for Thameslink trains has been built with the route's upgrade very much in mind - 9-car trains are dwarfed by the platform length. The platforms are very deep, too, and while we were there the spaciousness this created was very calming - you'd never have guessed that it was bedlam above.

We did realise, though, that by catching the 0748 First Capital Connect Thameslink service, with its 0840 arrival at Gatwick, we probably didn't want to be cutting our arrival at the departures gate any finer than we already were. I'd Googled the transportation means between the South Terminal (where the train station is located) and the North Terminal, and found that the usual inter-terminal shuttle train was out of action while it was being overhauled as part of a package of improvements to both terminals totalling £1 billion. Instead, a shuttle bus service would operate and 'around 20 extra minutes' needed factoring into our transfer.

Normally the inter-terminal shuttle service links both North and South terminals, though this is currently undergound overhaul and upgrade and is due to re-open during August.

Though in the event everything went as smooth as it was conceivably possible for it to be. Our journey from home to the airport was absolutely flawless. Signage was both obvious and plentiful in directing passengers to where the shuttle buses leave from and once here (the South Terminal bus station - just down from where NX coaches leave) there were people on hand to ensure efficient use of the vehicles. It really was a model trip by public transport - and so far, we'd both paid £17.85.

There were three Dennis Dart SLFs parked at the South Terminal, awaiting passengers to transfer to the North Terminal. Having never flown from the latter, we were both very impressed with the welcome and ambiance.

And things continued in the same, impressive vein throughout the embarkation process onto one of easyJet's Airbus A319s, docked at Gate 106. Our departure was at 1000 and in keeping with easyJet's check-in policy, the departure gate would close 30 minutes before this time. Gatwick North is very much newer than its southern counterpart and more spacious - this vastness never more in evidence than when actually walking to a departure gate - especially number 106. It was displayed at 0918 and off we all trundled along a corridor, headed in that direction; however, it took two slightly unfit adult men, both devoid of luggage, save a ruck sack each, nine minutes to reach the departure gate - and this saw us take full advantage of the travelators.

The two Virgin Atlantic planes in the background are actually docked at the South Terminal - such is the expanse of both North & South that they meet. In the foreground is the wing of the plane on which m'colleague and I were sat. A plane can be seen coming into land in the top right-hand corner.

Technically, then, we arrived at the departure gate three minutes before easyJet could officially deny us access and yet made our way very briskly and without hindrance the second the gate was displayed. As it was, we were about mid-way in the queue once we arrived and around 70-or-so people congregated behind us. Check-in didn't start until 0930 in any case.

It was the first time both of us had flown from Gatwick North and the same for boarding an easyJet plane using a proper, enclosed bridge. So often boarding an easyJet or Ryanair plane is from the tarmac. Boarding via a standard bridge appears to be the norm at Gatwick North, and it was very welcome. Once inside, we had a choice of seats - 156 to be precise - all arranged in the standard 3+3 formation. I chose to have a window seat on the outward journey and m'colleague elected to have one when we returned.

A very unusual experience is shown here - all eastJet flights from Gatwick North use movable bridges to load and unload passengers. Normally you walk onto the tarmac in order to board.

easyJet's boarding policy has altered slightly since November 2008. Previously, those who'd booked Speedy Boarding were allowed to board first, followed by those in boarding group 1 and finally boarding group 2. Boarding group 1 comprised the first 34 people to check-in, of which the majority were those without hold luggage, and boarding group 2 was everyone else. During 2008, Speedy Boarding Plus was introduced, which offers travellers a dedicated check-in service at many airports used by the company. Now, Speedy Boarding and Speedy Boarding Plus travellers are checked in together (including travellers with children under the age of 5) and everyone else is allocated boarding group 2 status.

I've never really had any cause to complain about the level of service I've received by easyJet, and I assume its sister no-frills airlines have near-identical operational protocols. All stewards/stewardesses are incredibly friendly and polite - though not to the point that sycophancy creeps in. Who'd have thought that bright orange shirts would look reasonably trim and, dare I say it, fashionable! Having taken our seats, we were given the full safety drill - unbelievably while the young woman sat next to m'colleague was texting her boyfriend - and at 1002 were we began taxiing to the runway.

The take-off is an experience that I very much enjoy. It's one that many people detest, though. There are lots of anxious faces as the captain engages maximum thrust and you're sent hurtling along the runway at 160mph. I've flown on five occasions - Alicante, Almeria, Belfast, New York and Inverness - and never tire of the experience. I've grown accustom to looking out of the window 20 seconds or so after take-off and witnessing the horizon at 45° and not being unduly alarmed, though one thing I find very awkward still is when a turn is made - especially at relatively low altitude. I vividly remember my descent into Inverness Airport requiring a very low-altitude 180° turn over the Moray Firth. Course, m'collaeage isn't affected by this one jot and found it all most entertaining.

The Airbus A319 is the plane of choice for easyJet, who in 2003 placed an order for 120 of these planes, which was seen as the largest plane order in modern times. The company has 107 in service today, with an order for a further 227 ongoing. easyJet also operates the highest number of this type, with US Airways coming in second-place having 93 operational and 114 on order.

We flew west from Gatwick and while over the New Forest headed south and left Britain over a very familiar coastline, that of Sandbanks and Brownsea Island. In the distance the peninsular linking Portland Bill to Weymouth was also visible. During 2007 m'colleague and I visited a bus rally in Weymouth and made a visit to Portland Bill aboard a number of vintage buses. So far as I'm aware, Portland Bill is the name of the lighthouse, which sadly was unrecognisable from this altitude. From here, we headed over northern France for a time and then Guernsey before the Bay of Biscay. We then headed over northern Spain and then south-east over Malaga before bearing west along the Costa del Sol, where Gibralta came into view.

Sandbanks - reputedly the most affluent area in England - can be seen at the end of the peninsular on the right. To the left is technically the mainland, too, though travels right the way round Poole Harbour, which can be seen in the background. A chain ferry links both Sandbanks and the Studland area opposite and a tiny white speck can be seen in the gap, which I believe to be the ferry itself.

Here is Portland, at the end of the Portland Beach Road peninsular. The lighthouse is situated at the far right of the photo - the southernmost tip - though can't be seen.

Prevailing westerly winds are the norm along the Mediterranean, though owing to the 1,400-ft granitic mountain that overwhelms Gibraltar, the winds can, at times, be from a different direction. Strong, eddying currents can be found directly over the Province's runway, and I'm glad I didn't spot the following video before travelling!

Today, then, an easterly wind was being felt and so we had to land into it, which meant heading in from the west, so we circumnavigated the rock, turning tightly at low altitude (wonderful) before coming to land on the runway - which is an experience like no other. The close proximity of the plane to, well, everything - cruisliners, hotels, cars, water - is such that it provides real insight into how the captain has to get everything precisely right! From my research, I knew Gibraltar's runway was actually longer than the land on which it was built, so overhangs into the bay somewhat. I also knew, that at the opposing end (due east) was the Mediterranean Sea, so wanted to ensure we stopped as soon as possible!

An aerial shot of northern Gibraltar, where the Province's runway can be clearly seen to be longer than the land on which it is built is wide. We landed from the west. The yellow crossing the runway is in fact Winston Churchill Avenue, the main road in and out of Gibraltar.

Just when you think that the most surreal landing you're likely to endure is over, you notice that on either side of you are cars queuing at red and white barriers, waiting to cross! The reality of a road - Winston Churchill Avenue (no less!) - crossing a live runway was very evident now. And how odd it was! The advantage of the runway (and airport's) proximity to the population meant that walking into the centre of town was no problem at all. Unless you're headed to Spain, you have to cross over the runway in order to do so and first-time visitors are identifiable by their willingness to pose next to the skid marks left by a Boeing 737.

Wonderful signage can be found along Winston Churchill Avenue!

As you leave the airport, you are stood opposite Gibraltar's bus station. It is comprised of a large, deep bay with two bus shelters. Publicity is not the Gibraltar Bus Company Limited's strong point. A linear-style route map is produced, but precious little else. Most shelters we found displayed the map and details of bus service operation on Boxing and New Years Days 2009, though one did display what we assumed to be an up-to-date timetable, albeit crudely stuck to the shelter with super-glue. More on this later.

A Caetano Nimbus-bodied Dennis Dart MPD is seen here in Gibraltar's bus station, conveniently located opposite the airport and adjacent to the Frontier (Spanish border).

Five bus routes operate in Gibraltar - four are run by the state-owned City Buses (Gibraltar Bus Company Limited), Services 2, 3, 4 and 9, while the remaining Service 10 is operated by Euro Hopper (Calypso Bus Company Limited). The City Buses fleet comprises 18 Dennis Dart MPDs with Caetano Nimbus B27F bodies; a couple of Toyota Hiace minibuses are also used on Service 2 and we also spotted a coach and two elderly double-deckers parked at their depot, which is behind the bus station. There is no travel office. Calypso's Euro Hopper service operates just one route between the bus station (airport/Spanish border) and the coach park to the west. This company has a fleet of ageing double-deckers from Germany - a couple were Neoplan Starliners in a red (London?) livery. Calypso is the face of entrpeneurism in the Province.

Our trip to Gibraltar is to be continued.....

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