28 June 2009

LEYTR's Top 'n' Tail part 2

Click here to read Part 1.

Day 2 - Sunday 21 June 2009

Day 2 dawned for us somewhere along the M1, as we headed north to the temporary coach stop near Milton Keynes, at which all National Express coach services are calling while their dedicated Coachway undergoes refurbishment. Timings aboard Service 588 seemed a little tight: we left VCS punctually and didn't stop once until Milton Keynes and yet were 5 minutes late! From here we progressed north, leaving the M1 for the M6 and had our first break of the journey at Keele Services just after 2am.

30 minutes later we departed, and followed the M6 through Greater Manchester and Lancashire to our first official stop since Milkton Keynes: Penrith. We were a minute or two late here but it didn't seem to phase our drivers. We didn't stop then until Glasgow, where we were timed to arrive at 0715 and depart fifteen minutes later. In actual fact, we both arrived and departed at 0730. Megabus give a straight 8 hours travelling time on its direct, overnight London-Glasgow services; NX offer 30 minutes more and yet call via Golders Green, Penrith and Lockerbie.

11.33am at Inverness bus station. Our driver unloads everyone's luggage in glorious sunshine.

As we were leaving Glasgow, one of our driving duo alighted with his overnight bag; we presumed he lived nearby and would walk the rest of the way home. Our second driver took us about 10 miles up the road towards Stirling before pulling off the motorway and onto a bridge to swap drivers with a chap who'd come from the Bruce's depot by red van. We continued northbound, passing through Stirling and Perth and onto the picturesque section of the A9 towards Inverness.

By now there were only 10 people on the coach and we all reflected on what an enjoyable journey it had been. There had been no problems with any of the passengers, the drivers had been great, their announcements pretty good, the coach comfort very impressive and the spaciousness resultant in the additional leg room was terrific. Fares appear to start at £22 single if booked online and while Megabus offers some of its seats for £1, they're incredibly difficult to find on its equivalent services - plus a change of coach at Edinburgh is required, the leg room is worse and you never know what type of vehicle is going to transport you over 500 miles.

The additional leg room that passengers aboard NX's Anglo-Scottish Scania/Levantes have. Very nice.

We all agreed that National Express definitely still have the edge on Anglo-Scottish coach journeys, especially those taking place overnight. Would they operate them the way they now do had Megabus not come along as a wake-up call? That's another question!

We arrived in Inverness 2 minutes early at 1133 and after some nice shots of our home for the past 12.5 hours, we headed to the city's Wetherspoons. From within, we devoured three very large all-day breakfasts and quaffed a fair amount of liquid. It was soon time to let it all settle while we travelled for a relatively short 3:15 journey to Wick, curtest of Stagecoach' Service X99.

I've travelled aboard this new-ish service on three occasions now and have noted alterations to its operation since last November. Initially, brand-new Volvo B7Rs were used, though due to there being no toilets on board (an end-to-end Thurso-Inverness journey is around 4 hours), they were replaced with ageing Scottish Citylink-liveried Volvo B10Ms. Today's 1415 departure was formed by a Scottish Citylink-liveried Volvo B12B/Plaxton Paragon. Equipped with climate control, 53102 (SV08 GXN) was a much welcome sight. Very similar to our 2005 Railrover, the temperature was starting to rise and, despite heading to the Far North, there's nothing worse than sitting in your own juices aboard a badly ventilated coach.

Off we go again: time for a 3:15 journey to Wick aboard this Stagecoach in Caithness (Thurso depot) vehicle - not that you'd know it from the livery of another operator it displays.

Our service was the only one on a Sunday that extends to Scrabster, where passengers can catch a ferry to the Orkneys and Shetland. I was pretty sure that the 35 passengers on board weren't all going to the very end, with a few alighting en route, and around 25 remaining as we approached Wick. The X99 has been re-numbered since the summer timetable was introduced last month. Initially numbered 25X, this service now only operates 'shorts' to Tain; the extensions northbound are all numbered X99, probably to distinguish the journeys better. On a Sunday, the X99/25X timetable is a seven-vehicle working, with Thurso providing 3 coaches and Tain depot 4. Ours was a Thurso working.

The route between Inverness and Wick is completely different by road to that by rail. The road (A9) stays close to the coast, whereas the railway meanders inland for much for the furthest section north. We arrived in Wick punctually and made our way to our overnight accommodation.

We'd booked rooms in a Wick b+b and one in Penzance. We were to have two overnighters, thus keeping the b+b bill down. Our Wick establishment was a 10 minute walk from the town centre, during which we passed the shortest street in the world, Ebenezer Place. Despite a road sign pointing us in this direction, and naming the No. 1 Bistro that occupies the only property along said street, it wasn't immediately noticeable to us. See what you think:

By sheer fluke, we'd booked to be in the second-most northerly town on the mainland on the longest day of the year. Tonight's official lighting-up time, according to a local Wick paper, was 2223. In actual fact, we staggered home from the country's most northerly Wetherspoons (I've made many a visit to The Alexander Bain in the past couple of years) at 2300hrs and it wasn't what you'd call especially dark then!

Tomorrow though, Day 3, would see this merry prelude end and the main journey commence: John o' Groats to Land's End in 31 hours and 5 minutes, being undertaking as quickly and as cheaply as possible by public transport.

Following the final part being uploaded, the entire Top 'n' Tail jaunt will be published on the LEYTRavels blog.