29 July 2009

LEYTR's Top 'n' Tail part 3

Internet woes have meant that we've not been updating our most recent jaunt around the country. We'd got up to Part 2 on the 28th of last month and then nothing... until now. If you remember, the LEYTR Top 'n' Tail jaunt aimed to see us travel from the most northerly settlement on the mainland to the most southerly in a manner befitting the current economic downturn, i.e. as cheaply as possible.

Part 1 (Day 1) saw details of how we all converged in central London to commence the overnight trip to Scotland in order to position ourselves for the mammoth trek. Part 2 (Day 2) detailed the final part of our journey to Wick, where we stayed overnight and sampled, once again, the facilities within Wetherspoons' most northerly hostelry (and walk along the world's shortest street). We now move onto Part 3 - Day 3, in which the journey-proper commences....

Day 3 - Monday 22 June 2009

There's nothing worse than having to get up with the milkmen at silly o' clock in the morning to start an historic trip! Our first bus of the day was thankfully at a reasonable hour - 0845hrs, from Wick rail station, taking us to John o' Groats. In the past 4 years, I've made this specific journey on three occasions and each time the journey has thrown up something interesting. The first time, back when m'colleague and I undertook our 2005 LEYTR Railrover, the chap driving Rapsons' Service 77A mis-charged us the fare for their Rover ticket and we saved a couple of quid; the second time in Febraury, my friend and I travelled aboard a full-sized coach with National Express trim and a huge hole in the back where the toilet and servery used to be. On this occasion, our driver was from Kent and spent 27 years living in Scunthorpe - in the heart of the LEYTR area!

Our first vehicle of the day: Stagecoach in Caithness Service 77, seen here parked outside Wick rail station.

It was quite a revelation - so too was the Kent stuff, since one of we intrepid three lives there, too. Our vehicle was a full-sized coach again - a Dennis Javelin/Plaxton Profile, 27054 (SY51 EHX), still wearing the overall dark blue Rapsons livery and bearing both Rapsons and Stagecoach fleetnames. It featured 2+3 seating (C70F) and had just come off a school run. The driver of Service 77 (on this occasion we caught the slightly more direct journey, compared to the once-daily Service 77A) was based at Thurso and explained how recently, in a bit to improve the frequency of various services in Caithness, Stagecoach had allocated a large amount of what was traditionally operated Wick depot work to Thurso, which sees a lot of empty running in the mornings and evenings.

The only 'person' that paid on the journey was a tray containing 10 loaves of bread. This was put onto the bus at the Somerfield stop in Wick, with the baker paying the bread's fare with instruction to drop the haul off at the John o' Groats Post Office on his way back. Everyone else travelled free.

We arrived at John o' Groats bus terminal in light drizzle on time at 0940. En route, the driver's offside windscreen wiper stopped working, but with a small amount of manual adjustment, he set it right. 2+3 seating really is awful for any journey carrying people over 5-feet tall. Having wandered around the tourist areas located nearby, and having had our photo taken under the historic sign post on top of a concrete plinth, we went to board our next vehicle - the first of this historic trip.

"Surely you want 'LEYTR' on the sign?" said the guy taking the photo. That would be going just too far - "The working title of the jaunt will be sufficient," said we!

This was the 1025hrs Stagecoach in Caithness Service 80 to Thurso, operated on this occasion by 27588 (SN56 AXS), an integral ADL Enviro with B60F seating arrangement - yes, you guessed it, 3+2 seating. Obviously, if the alternative was for these services to cease operating if they couldn't be combined with school runs in the daytime peaks, having to contend with this rather cramped and particularly uncomfortable seating is a small price to pay for the ever-expanding network of local bus services in the area, which appears to have grown since Stagecoach came to town last year.

3+2 seating on this integral ADL Enviro300, seen here as we alight in central Thurso.

Our stopwatch was started the second we pulled away - 2 minutes late at 1027hrs. We were scheduled to arrive at Land's End the following day at 1722hrs, totalling 30:57, but with our 2 minute late departure, could this be shaved to a mere 30:55?

As with Service 77/77A, I've travelled on this route on three occasions now; this, the latest, offered the best views of Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of land on the mainland. The bus passes through the tiny village of Dunnet but the road to the historic outcrop is a further couple of miles by road.

You can't get any more northern than this - Dunnet Head, with a large dollop of cotton wool on top.

Our journey did look as though it would run into trouble after only 15 minutes, as the photo below shows.

Luckily, our Nottingham-born and bred driver (where are all the Scots drivers?) chose to do the only sensible thing with a trio of long-distance travellers on board, and that was to mount the ornamental grass verge to pass. Well done him! We were all impressed. We were a couple of minutes late arriving in Thurso, alighting on Sir George's Street at the time we should've arrived at the town's rail station, 1130. Not to worry though as our next journey wasn't until 1305hrs.

Having visited the most northerly Tesco for supplies and following the wander to the 99p shop in the town centre that sells microwaves (sadly, not for 99p!), we headed to the rail station in the drizzle. This stands at the top of Lovers Lane - at the foot of which is the town's bus depot. When I visited here last November, the Rapsons signs were still in evidence, now it's Stagecoach everywhere - except, weirdly, on the buses - some of which continue to only bare Rapsons fleetnames; others have both Stagecoach and Rapsons and others have just Stagecoach names (generally these are the ones in Stagecoach corporate swirls).

Stagecoach's bus depot in Thurso. Until last November, Rapsons names still were shown on the sides of the buildings; they can still be seen on almost all the buses.

I assured my companions that this particular train journey on the Far North Line would be very quiet indeed. We had seat reservations that accompanied our online advance ticket purchases, but I was confident they weren't really needed. How wrong I was!

For on the platform, as our Class 158 approached, were over 25 people. On board - and the train had only called at Wick - virtually all seats were taken, including those we had reserved. Shearings had booked a coach load of people onto the train from Wick to Golspie, for reasons unknown, and their driver had apparently told them to "sit in any reserved seat". What he should've said was "your seats are reserved and you can identify these over those that have been reserved for the other passengers as your surname has been written on your reservation slip".

158725 stands at Thurso station, just before the game of musical chairs inside.

The conversation I had with a gaggle of over-60s as I asked them to move from our seats was just surreal. Asking politely had no effect; the guard seemed completely lacking in the areas required to marshall the situation, and so diplomacy was ignored as I virtually ordered them to move. It worked (take note United Nations!). Having realised I was legitimately invading their airspace, the people sat in our reserved seats buggered off somewhere else. The completely ludicrous logic of these people in sitting where they did still baffles me to this day.

All that was needed was for the Shearings driver to have conveyed with much more accuracy what the situation was, and for the First ScotRail guard to ensure - prior to the train's departure from Wick - that the coach load were sat in their reserved seats that corresponded to their surnames, and none of this unpleasantness would've happened. As ever, it was down to the little people to sort out - successfully.

Rant over and we were now aboard 158725 and from what you've read above, our Plan B to sit in first class legitimately (there is no first-class fare on the Far North Line, thus occupying first class is perfectly okay) was scuppered as it was full of yet more Shearings people. However, it was a very nice, scenic trip (that got a lot better after Golspie!) and didn't seem to drag on as long as it has done in the past when m'colleague and I made two trips along the route during our 2005 LEYTR Railrover.

Neither of the two I was travelling with had been on the Far North Line before and the journey certainly represented a box ticked for them. On reflection though, I'd still prefer to travel between Wick/Thurso and Inverness by coach over train; the fare is cheaper and the journey time is quicker. Both offer equally dramatic scenery though completely different sorts. You see a lot more of the sea by road and more of the fascinating villages en route.

Inverness was our tightest connection of the entire jaunt: 5 minutes. We were due in at 1648 and out on a connecting Class 170 'Turbostar' at 1653, or so we thought. The dashing around wasn't really needed as the 1653hrs First ScotRail departure was actually timed at 1656. Yet again people were sat in our reserved seats, though a mild pleasantry got them to shift on this occasion. We departed on time with a heavy load aboard 170394 and made good progress along the Highland Main Line, south to Edinburgh. It's not far south of Inverness that a lengthy 1:60 climb is undertaken for quite some time to reach the highest point a railway on the National Rail network - just over 1,500 feet at Drumochter Pass.

Compared to the '158' we'd just been on, this '170' was much gutsier and handled the steep inclines very well. The comfort was excellent, though the air conditioning poor.

First ScotRail's trains travelling south of Inverness along this route do so to either Glasgow or Edinburgh. The journeys bifurcate at Perth and it was here, on our Edinburgh-bound train, that Glasgow passengers had to change. This saw the load reduced somewhat, as we headed off to the Fife coastline at Markinch, and south through Kirkcaldy and over the Forth Rail Bridge and finally onto Edinburgh. It's always a fascinating experience, crossing the Firth of Forth by rail. I remember asking my comrades how long it'd take to complete painting the bridge; none of them fell into the trap I was expecting them to as the both read this blog!

There wasn't complete carnage on the streets of central Edinburgh as we'd been told to brace ourselves for, what with the building of the city's tram network. It was decidedly calm along Princes Street. We'd arrived at 2029hrs as booked and the city centre was dying down, so perhaps that's why things seemed so calm. To my regret and - soon after - eternal shame, I found myself in the queue at a McDonalds, purchasing a perfectly-formed tiny burger in an equally tiny and perfectly-formed sesame seed bun. From the fast-food establishment (that's curiously started painting all its outlets a organic green colour - we weren't fooled!) it was only a couple of minutes to the city's bus and coach station.

It was from here that we were booked on the UK's longest coach service - National Express' Service 336, linking Edinburgh with Penzance daily. The service has been operated by First Devon & Cornwall for many years (possibly by Wessex before that) and it was a fortnight ago that I learned the company had been unsuccessful in the latest round of tenders, losing 5 contracts from its bases at Camborne and Penzance - the 336 is one such contract, passing to Bruces Coaches.

We didn't know any of this at the time and at 2115hrs boarded an all-white Volvo B12M/Plaxton Paragon C49Ft in readiness for our 2130hrs departure. The vehicle, despite its lack of livery, was a First-owned vehicle and had operated NX services since new. It carried contravision boards on both sides - in the slots were signs stating 'National Express', though I assume equally easy could they show 'First', should the vehicle be needed for their own work. Specifically, our steed for next 18.5 hours was 20532 (WV52 HVF).

M'colleague and I have travelled on the 336 before, from Edinburgh to Birmingham, so I knew that there was no point getting bedded down for the night as there'd be a 30 minute break at Glasgow from 2230-2300. Having loaded around 20 people there, we left punctually, bound for Penzance and into Day 4, which is where Part 4 takes over.....

Day 3 draws to a close here in Glasgow, where we take our last proper break until around 4pm the following day when we arrive in Penzance.

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