01 August 2009

LEYTR's Top 'n' Tail part 4

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

Day 4 - Tuesday 23 June 2009

You join us on the most straightforward day of our historic jaunt, between John o' Groats and Land's End, for this was the day we sat on a coach until 4pm. It was a bog-standard coach, too: First Devon & Cornwall's 20532 (WV52 HVF), a Volvo B12M/Plaxton Paragon C49Ft. I had the foresight to have a look at the coach's odometer as we were stationary in Edinburgh, prior to us departing - it showed 442,358km - I'd imagine this is its second time round the clock. I would look again as we alighted in Penzance. Core-to-core, earth to the moon measures 384,403km, meaning on its second time round, this coach had been the equivalent distance of the moon and back almost twice

Despite its high mileage, she was in pretty good shape. The acceleration from a standstill was as good as any modern, i-shift-fitted Volvo, and the small steering wheel found in this vehicle type seemed to assist the drivers in the vehicle's overall manoeuvrability.

While the coach seemed in good mechanical condition, the leg room for such a lengthy journey was very poor indeed. Compare this shot with the one I took while aboard Bruces Coaches' tri-axle Scania/Levante.

We left the action in Part 3 somewhere not too far south of Glasgow when midnight struck. We called in at Hamilton and then Carlisle and then down towards Preston and Manchester. We had a particularly early first 'comfort stop', at Southwaite Services. We arrived at 0105 and were told to be back after 30 minutes. To our astonishment, our drivers, Eddie and Mark, just bailed out, leaving the engine running, all interior and exterior lights on and their personal possessions in full view. Wow. They must have been hungry.

Their announcements were very accurate and included some interesting phrases I've never heard made before over public address systems in coaches. My favourite was "We expect you as individuals to...." generally followed by ".... be back on board at the time we state". Back to the longest scheduled coach journey in the UK, and following our departure from Southwaite Services I remember falling asleep, with Preston being a very hazy blur. We omitted Salford University and despite a seemingly excellent run, were 10 minutes late by Manchester Central and even more at Manchester Airport! Quite a few alighted here, showing how useful the service is for those wanting to catch the first flights of the day from here.

We then we operated to Keele Services for our second 'comfort stop'. We all quipped that two nights earlier, we had our first 'comfort stop' of the jaunt on the tarmac on the other side of the M6 heading north aboard the tri-axle Scania/Levante bound for Inverness.

Keele Services at 0515hrs.

Again, both drivers just disappeared - they were always the first off the coach - and returned seconds before our departure. On each occasion they undertook a head count to ensure they weren't going to leave anyone behind, but I found it fascinating how the vehicle was only ever turned off in bus/coach stations, even if it was for a minute and yet kept running at motorway service areas for thirty minutes or so.

Birmingham Central was the half-way point and I think it's fair to say that we were all feeling rather chipper, despite it being 0645. Dawn was breaking and the daylight is a natural tonic to the overnight traveller. Another 'comfort stop' at Strensham Services was on the cards en route to Bristol, where yet again Eddie and Mark were the first off and last back on. By now traffic was building and the service stations were becoming progressively busier.

Strensham Services at 0810hrs.

You could be forgiven for thinking that by Bristol, you're almost there. I mean, they all speak like they're from Cornwall round there, don't they? You'd be wrong. We arrived in Bristol at 0910 and yet it would be another 6:50 before we reached Penzance. If you're not averse with the West Country, it takes ages to travel anywhere on account of the lack of motorways there. Our coach also operated through all the towns, cities and other tourist areas, additionally increasing the journey time.

When m'colleague undertook the 336 service a few years ago, he said that by Bristol he seriously contemplated leaving the service early, such was his boredom. We were a little fed up though the scenery was changing and I think we were all looking forward to completing the main element of the jaunt later on this afternoon.

Plymouth at 1230hrs.

From Bristol we travelled through Taunton to Exeter, where we had another short break, then onto Plymouth and then Truro though a whole host of smaller localities en route. We hardly deviated off the main roads though. Truro seemed like the nicest place along this section of route. As we were backing-off the stand in said town, a First driver heading northbound told our crew that there'd been a bad accident at Redruth and to go a different way. This we did but the traffic was awful. It got worse in Camborne, by which time we were over 20 minutes late.

Truro at 1430hrs.

Our drivers left us here and were relieved by a solitary chap who took us forward to Penzance via St. Ives. The bus station in St. Ives will certainly test Bruces Coaches' drivers if they're to use tri-axle Scanias on the 336 when they take over operation of the service soon! I'd never been to St. Ives before and did a mini 'double-take' at the three-point turn required on a cliff edge to negotiate the bus station. So many questions: "How safe *really* is this manoeuvre?" "What happens if a car is parked here, the owner nowhere to be seen?" "What if another bus is making use of the bus station?" Whether it was divine intervention or not, we had an empty bus station and a clear approach so we had no accessibility issues. We were still at least 20 minutes late though.

It was clear by now that this would have an effect on our journey time. We had planned an end-to-end time of 30:57, but thanks the our driver from John o' Groats to Thurso leaving 2 minutes late, could shave this to 30:55. Unfortunately this would not be attainable now as we had planned to catch the 1630 First Devon & Cornwall Service 1 to Land's End. We planned for the worst and assumed we'd not arrive for that time.

As it turns out we arrived at 1632, having completed 19 hours and 2 minutes aboard Service 336. We'd done it though. Tomorrow would see us undertake a trip aboard the UK's lengthiest bus service in terms of end-to-end journey time. We were getting quite a taste for this sort of thing! The odometer of the coach now read 443,454km, meaning we'd travelled *precisely* 1,036km or 681.02 miles. Beat that! Though taking 19 hours and 2 minutes, our average speed was a very disappointing 35.8mph. Still it's more civilised than walking the distance as some people do!

Precisely 681.02 miles after we left Edinburgh we arrive at Penzance - 32 minutes late.

With our arrival being at the time it was, the 1630 bus to Land's End had gone. We chose to visit the b+b we'd booked to dump our things and make for the next departure at 1740, Service 1A. This duly arrived in the form of First Devon & Cornwall's 34753 (A753 VAF), a Leyland Olympian/ECW, new to Western National in 1983. What a beast! Quite different to the coach we'd called home since last night! It was dirty, looked and sounded rough and gave an outrageous ride, but what a ride!

"It was held together by the rust mites holding hands", but what a ride - First's Service 1A to Land's End is thoroughly recommended!!

The scenery as you climb out of Penzance is excellent. The narrow roads, the overhanging trees, the hairpins and the awkwardness as you meet a similar vehicle coming the other way can only be very stressful for the drivers of this route, but superb for the traveller. I've never been to Land's End before - and Penzance only once during our 2005 LEYTR Railrover - so this was quite a surprise. It was a route sure to wake up any sleepy traveller.

A good example of what we encountered aboard Service 1A - this 1:7 gradient with a blind, single-track bend. Unfortunately, travelling into the sun prevented me from taking photos of the hair-pin bend, even narrower roads and a tricky situation when we met another bus heading in the opposite direction.

We arrived at Land's End precisely at 1832 hours, when the stopwatch was stopped. We'd done John o' Groats to Land's End in exactly 32:05, precisely 1:08 longer than we'd planned. It was an excellent journey though, we all thoroughly enjoyed it. We arrived a little too late to have a similar photo taken to that we'd posed for at John o' Groats just over 32 hours ago.

That was something else we were all suffering with: we'd mention something we'd done during the jaunt but we'd spend ages contemplating whether this thing had occurred either today, yesterday, Sunday or Saturday. You lose all concept of time undertaking this type of trip.

Our last journey of the day was aboard First Devon & Cornwall's Service 300, an open-top service, returning via an almost-identical route to that we'd travelled on from Penzance. Our chariot was 38000 (D700 GHY), a Volvo B10M Citybus/Alexander RV, new to Badgerline in 1987. It handled the hills and the hairpin better than our outward Leyland Olympian!

Ex Badgerline Volvo Citybus now an open-topper. We played an interesting game of 'chicken' with the foliage while sat on the top deck. The branches always won :-(

And that was it. The summer's evening and view across the bay couldn't have been better as we tucked into fish 'n' chips and then a drink or two in Wetherspoon's most southerly freehouse, The Tremenheere.

The Tremenheere is to Land's End what The Alexander Bain is to John o' Groats. Cheers!!

This wasn't the end though - we had to get back home, and that took place on Day 5.....

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