Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Michaels Post-journey journey (part 1)

John O’Groats didn’t seem to me to be the right place to end our trip – It was hardly the end of a long
road and looking out north what could you see – Land, albeit an island or two! The journey to Thurso confirmed my doubts, How can this be the end when you can so easily catch another bus that goes a totally different way to the one you arrived on – There must be a true end beyond here., somewhere on Orkney.

So whilst Jez made his way back south, I wanted to push on north – but at this point some subtle rule bending was needed. Getting Orkney requires the use of a boat (obviously)… However, a scheduled boat that you can 'turn up for and pay'? It fitted the principle of being a “scheduled service” – but on water! 

Having taken advice from a driver the previous day, I set off on foot to walk from Thurso to the ferry terminal at Scrabster. The boat sails at 0845 and passengers must be booked in by 0815. The connecting bus arrives at 0824 which he felt might be too late. “If they have all the passengers they sail early” was the warning and a very accurate reflection of what happened. At 0835 we set sail from Scabster on the Northlink Ferry across to Stromness on Orkney.

The sailing takes 90 minutes and sunrise was seen over a still sea.  It seemed a good day to sail, but why was I crossing to Orkney? Looking at the Bus Map there was one route that stuck out, going out east almost as far as you could go. This looked like the true end of the road – the right place to finish. The final timing point confirmed this, Deerness Lighthouse Corner. Now that sounds like a place you cannot go much further than!

Stagecoach X1
The bus to Deerness runs a few times a day and I planned to catch the 1300 departure from Kirkwall, giving me some time on Orkney to explore a little.  At Stromness I caught the 1040 bus (route X1) towards Kirkwall. The X1 is the main route across the Orkney Mainland running hourly and also serving the “other” ferry terminal at St Margaret’s Hope.  Wishing to see something of the Islands I stayed on when we reached Kirkwall and continued to St. Margaret’s Bay Ferry Terminal, where we were due at 1145.

In the winter there are two ferry routes from the north of Scotland across to Orkney, The Scrabster to Stronmess which I had used was a large boat, on a service heavily supported by the Scottish Government. The second crossing is from St Margaret’s Hope to a small harbour called Gills Bay, mid way between Thurso and John O’Groats. This is a private venture, with no subsidy and operated by a large, vehicle carrying, Catamaran.   The contrast could not be greater between operations. The ferry was due to leave at 1150; as we arrived in the bus at 1145 someone was on hand to usher any connecting passengers from the bus to the boat. Not being there 30 minutes early, this was integrated transport at its best! At 1150 the thrust from the Catamarans engines spring the vessel into life and it was soon out of sight at a goodly rate of knots.

Stagecoach 3
I returned to Kirkwall and then waited for the service 3 at 1300 to Deerness. This would take me to “the end”. It seemed that few wanted to share this momentous event with me other than the driver - I was the sole passenger on the journey.  We left on time and arrived Kirkwall Airport where the driver advised me we had to wait 4 minutes. For some reason best known to someone somewhere the journey has a 4 minute wait at the airport.  Not that anyone was around; no one had jetted in with the intention of getting the bus to Deerness, so quite why anyone would want the bus to sit for four minutes was beyond both me and the driver, especially as other parts of the route are quite tightly timed.

At the allotted time we continued our journey to Deerness, via Tankerness, an enjoyable ride around the lanes – with the sea always in view, somewhere or other. My driver, who was the “regular driver”, gave a running commentary about who lived where when we went past and all that was happening in the community.  Eastward we continued until we reached the terminal at Lighthouse Corner.  Looking around there was no obvious lighthouse at this point - a road junction it was possible to turn the bus round at. My driver explained it was named because of the number of lighthouses you can see from that point (perhaps best observed at night!).

Reaching this outpost how was I going to record the fact that I was here?. Nothing for it... I would have to do a “selfie” (which I am assured by my daughter is the correct name of a photo you take of yourself!) with the bus in it!

Michael - not quite learned the art of the "selfie"

Thus ended the trip, not so much LEJOG but more LED. To be honest that doesn’t have the same ring to it! At least we have set a benchmark for eccentric bus (& boat) trips: Lands End to Deerness via Ipswich. If anyone wants to go one better it will be a challenge: With the inclusion of Ferries it could start from St Agnes (in the Isles of Scilly) to Haroldswick on Unst (in Shetland) by bus and boat, via Havergate Island in the east and Skomer in the west!  I think I would be prepared to accept that as going one better!

So that was it – the end of the line. All that was left was to return!  The journey back  was busier – we had two passengers, although no one boarded (quel surprise) at Airport Terminal Building.  From Kirkwall it was the 1435 Stagecoach X1 back to Stromness giving a good hour or so to explore the town before boarding the Ferry back. Stromness is a interesting town. The main street just feels like it should be traffic free – it would make an excellent pedestrianised area. It isn't though, and lorries squeeze past cars.  

The 1645 boat back to Scrabster was also quiet, which gave a chance to dine in the restaurant!  Not sure such a crossing needs such facilities, but it may explain the subsidy!  (Mind you the service was quick!). 

The evening is a repeat of the morning - there is a bus connection, but arriving too late to provide a reliable connection to the boat. However, it did offer the foot passenger off the boat a coach, not just to Thurso, but onward to Inverness.  Also, having the bus timed to arrive after the vehicles had disembarked from Orkney and those those waiting to travel were on board saved the bus from being caught in the various traffic movements!

Stage one of the journey home complete.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Jez's Post-journey journey

No lack of sense of humour in the far North!
Thurso is a nice place. Quiet – well, less so that I had expected, but it was very tranquil. In this part of the world, it is hard not to let the scenery soften you a bit. The weather was shirt sleeves; dry, calm and, well, beach walking weather. The hotel was lovely, with a landlady who came from London… I think the joke that she was in witness protection up here wore a little thin by the time I left, but she made us feel welcome and fed us a cracking breakfast (and even donated a tenner).

Michael had already left by the time I had my breakfast, and by the time I was ready to catch the X99 back to Inverness, Peter and Carol came down. Goodbyes said, I trotted (or rather rumbled) back to the bus stop. No hiccups on the journey, which drove through the highlands instead of around them. We met up with the coast at Dunbeath and by midday I was back in Inverness.

X99 from Thurso to Inverness
I don’t really feel ‘post achievement blues’, but as I had an hour to kill I found myself wandering back to Costa for a latte… it is hard to believe that it was only yesterday that Michael and I worked on the blog together here. It is also a bit odd not posting ‘facebook’ updates too… though I intended to give those wavering about donating a bit of a nudge later. I nearly bought several tacky gift items (but didn’t), nearly bought a tartan pashmina for Dionne and Harri, my sister in law (but didn’t). I nearly bought some more whisky (but I can get it in Southampton, so didn’t). After my successful shopping trip (depending on your perspective) I went to catch the 10.

A poor photograph of the 10 to Aberdeen
As the last journey, it was very picturesque. I took some of the photographs I should have took last time we travelled the route. There was no car crash en-route. Nothing overturned in front of us. We reached Aberdeen just about smack on time. Now I had three hours to kill.

 Wetherspoons was heaving for some football match so I went ‘off piste’ and visited a different pub, where they served the food on a piece of slate. Nice touch, although the slate was all but inedible. I went shopping, again, and bought a bottle of water. I could get used to shopping.

With 30 minutes to spare (which would have annoyed Michael) I sat looking at a giant burgundy coach that is the Stagecoach MegaGold Sleeper. I think it’s running number is G9, and it had come from Inverness. Yes, I have already been told several times already, I could have booked the trip home from Inverness… but it would still have been this coach, so I hadn’t lost anything.

This service is pretty new, only having run a couple of months. Everyone else around me was very excited about it all – I was wondering what the onsies would be like as I had promised to take a photograph (aren’t they called ‘selfies’). We boarded. This coach is very nice indeed. Note I refer to it as a ‘coach’ and not as a ‘bus’. That is because to get it wrong would undo all the hard work getting on to a bussies level this week. It is not a scheduled bus service (which is why National Express – as nice people as they are – couldn’t count to the journey).

The seats downstairs were leather, with mahogany tables and cup holders… electric points and even complimentary refreshments! As a double decked coach, we were shown upstairs to the bunks. “Choose the bunk that suits you sir” said the host. Lovely. It is fairly cramped but good enough for sleeping on. As it was 21.00, I figured that we would sit downstairs until sleepy and then retire to our bunk. Its probably best I recount as it is still fresh.

“Can I go downstairs now?” I asked.

A confused look came over the steward… “No sir, you travel in the bed”.  

“But I am not sleepy and would like to sit up if I may”

“Well, you can’t until we are loaded and on our way”

“Okay, but I haven’t been sent to bed at 9pm since I was 12 years old”

“Alright, sir, why don’t you go down and make yourself comfortable while I settle the other passengers”.

I smiled and thanked him, made my way downstairs and chose a lovely forward facing chair with a generous table… though I expected others to come down too. It was only bloody 9 o’clock! Bear in mind, please, that this was done with no malice, and the steward was delightful, polite and a bit confused as to why I didn’t want to go to bed.
The MegaGold Sleeper - it was S9 service to London

We got to Dundee, and no one joined me. I was alone. I could sit downstairs wherever I liked. I chose to stay in one place and write this… I think I may have caused sufficient confusion for one evening:-)

At around 0030 I opted to give the bunk a go and although it was rather rocky managed to sleep until 0500, in time to see us approach and weave our way through London to Victoria Coach Station. Tired, stinky and in no mood for rush hour London I made my way across to Waterloo and readied myself for my last journey home.

As if a fitting end to the journey, the train departed some 30 minutes late. So we got across and up the country between the furthest point on mainland UK, on buses, generally on time. But one train!!

I was met at Southampton by a rather excited little girl, her nurses and Dionne, my wife, bearing cupcakes (as promised). Not sure Cariad was so enamoured with her stick of rock from John O'Groats though.

Finally, from me: the truth about the case handle that came with us? Well, as pictures say so much more than words:

1st class travel home for the case handle...

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Day 8: People we met

Come on, it’s the far north of the UK… surely there is no one left to meet?!

The most wonderful people, of course, were there to cheer us in, take photographs (and buy us a coffee… and tea:-). Here is a photograph of Peter and Carol at the north pole… no, sorry, as John O’Groats signpost. And they definitely deserve to be there with us!

As always, with two cantankerous and chatty blokes, we met some other people during the day. The two most notable were the driver of the 80 (the wiggle bus, as I called it). Sadly we didn’t get a photograph of him. He was from Nottingham.
The other person was the funny (if opinionated) manager of the Pentland Lodge Guesthouse, Lisa. She refused to have her picture taken, but the hotel is very lovely if anyone is thinking of holidaying in Thurso.
I think they are both in some kind of witness protection!

Day 8: Inverness to John O'Groats

Stagecoach 58 to Inverness
Here it is. The last day. The last couple of buses… Would John O’Groats be privatised? Would we be allowed to have a photograph? The mood was tense.

Actually it was fairly relaxed. Michael needed a map so, catching the 5 into town again we did a bit of searching around. Then found the bus station… and went for a coffee. 0940 was the departure time and we boarded on the X99 ready to go.
This has to go down as one of the most stunning bus journeys in the UK. Gorgeous. We sat at the front (to get a better view) – and what a view. With running commentary of a local I failed to see seals and was told all about the Cromarty Bridge as we crossed it. ‘Wended’ is a word that I have used a few times, but surely it was meant for this journey.

Stagecoach X99 to Scribster...
Things are a touch more relaxed on the Highland buses. At each stop (or hint of a stop) one older gentleman was up and ready, cigarette in hand to disembark and smoke it. As there were no toilets on board, we stopped in Dornoch for a toilet (and another cigarette break for the old guy.) Me, well I took photographs… just as Michael regaled his family history in Exeter this was my chance for revenge. Soon I was spotting Mowat names on memorials and even a print and copy shop. Michael said that I was “a spelling mistake”… though to be fair, he is too!
We changed buses at Dunbeath, on board the X97, as the X99 didn’t go to John O’Groats. All well, the journey this time got flatter and more straight forward – although we had to drive up and down a couple of mountains before it flattened out.

Stagecoach X97... the one that would get us to John O'Groats
I have been here before, Caithness is a pretty wild place. I cannot use the term ‘desolate’ as there is plenty of life up here, but it is an untamed place.

We entered John O’Groats, the town and got off some 500 metres or so before the attraction that is the sign and shops. ‘Great, let me just post that we have arrived’… nope… let’s try again. No. Facebook had clearly had a melt down with the sheer number of people following us today. Actually, that may be a little big headed, but it was’t working – proof positive that while the buses were reliable in getting us from Lands End to John O’Groats, Facebook couldn’t quite hack it.
So, singing our choice of radio songs to ourselves… “I would walk 500 metres”, the wheelie case complaint just a little more and we were there. Peter and Carol had arrived first and snapped away at our triumphant entrance. Well, we walked past them in any case, laughing about where the sign may be and would we have to pay to get near it. Thankfully, it isn’t off limits and we had a number of photographs before going for another coffee break and taking a look at the most tacky gifts in the gift shop for the families.

We dunnit...
And that, ladies, gentlemen and everyone else is that. Lands End to John O’Groats (via Ipswich) by bus was completed.
Our last journey was ahead of us, but I felt the wheelie case could do with a rest before the wheels fell off – so it went into Peters car boot. Silently, we walked to the bus stop and caught our last ‘official’ LEJOG bus. The Stagecoach 80 service is a slightly older style of coach; manual shift and creaky. However, the driver kept us well informed of every sight (and every new house that was being built)! This was a village bus. So much of getting to John O'Groats has been focused on getting buses from A to B.  This was a bus that went via C,D,E,F,G,H,I,J and K en-route to B, so we found ourselves bouncing up single track roads to a collection of three or four houses and turning round. We picked up a lady walking her dogs (although one was more the size of a sturdy Highland Cow!) and carried a mile or so back home.  We passed the drivers house – which he pointed out and saw views across Dunnet Bay as we came to Thurso. Very much a bus for the community rather than a straight A to B route and pleasing to see some of the community were out using it.  The driver helpfully dropped us outside the wrong B & B – but there are so many places around here with Pentland in the name!

Stagecoach 80 - Not sure where it went, but the driver enjoyed it:-)
Looking at the figures it seems we have now reached in excess of £11,400 which is truly brilliant – it could even go as far as covering the fares we have paid!!! (only joking). Thank you to all who have contributed.. and those of you who meant to..  but will do so now to ease your conscious.
What next – well we will part our ways.  Jez will head back south whilst Michael will push on further!  Keep watching to make sure we get home!!
Oh, wait. would you like to know what happened to the case handle? Was the ASBO just too much for it - did it fling itself into the sea or has it now decided to go and live in a small communal group somewhere in the Highlands? Well, take a look...


Day 7: People we met

During the day, we weren't scheduled to meet anyone for PR and such-like... so we met the drivers:

Bruce... possibly the most courteous driver in the UK

David, our initial driver towards Inverness.

And in the evening, we weren't scheduled to meet anyone, so we had the fantastic surprise of meeting up with the Omnibus Directors, Peter and Carol Crichton:

Peter and Carol Crichton... our photographic team

Monday, 21 October 2013

Day 7 Part 2: Keith to Inverness

An alternative view of the Stagecoach 10
We exited Keith towards Elgin simply travelling and looking out of the window. We passed some 20 or so bonded warehouses belonging to Chivas Brothers – a bonded warehouse is where the whisky is stored, in wooden barrels for the years that it needs to age. They are easy to spot; they are (unless new) blackened by the evaporating whisky that leaches through the barrels (the Angels share). I was just explaining this exceptionally interesting and useful process to Michael when we stopped. And we waited – ahead were three stationary trucks and, ahead of them, flashing blue lights. Not again – was this a random spot check to ensure that no unlicenced travellers were making their way north? Nope, an accident… the police cordoned off the road with (very helpful) ‘SLOW’ signs… nice touch! Another bus pulled up behind us, and those who could turned around did and escaped.

The driver was informed that it would only be about half an hour… but after that time had gone it was time to stretch my legs (and see if I could get a photograph of the bonded warehouse… After another ten minutes, the driver joined me on the road, and then Michael and the drivers in the bus behind (which was running empty to Elgin). Much fun ensued – we put a case to the driver that technically he could take a break and press on to Inverness (I will let Michael explain that in a mo). He told us ‘where to get off’, and we had banter about such things as starting a new ‘busway’ using the disused railway track nearby.

An unexpected passenger
I think the highlight was seeing one of the vehicles involved in the accident eventually coming down the road. A pick-up truck that looked too new to have a great dent in its side….. And, as it came towards and then alongside us something seemed a bit odd: it was driving diagonally – the front pointing towards the grass verge and the back towards the centre of the road. The driver promptly said “That looks like a crab” and made a joke out of the window; understandably the car driver ignored!

The accident took an hour to clear in the end… but we didn’t mind. We retook our seats and were off towards Elgin again… albeit an hour behind.

We realised, in discussion with the driver, that there could be a problem ahead. This may get a bit complicated but I will try to explain. The bus we were on was the 1300 from Aberdeen to Inverness. The driver of this bus changed in Elgin at 1524 with a new driver taking over to drive to Inverness. When we got caught our driver contacted the supervisor in Elgin - so he was aware of the problem and try to minimise the disruption to passengers.

At this time of day the 10 runs an hourly service, so if any bus was missing it could be a 2 hour gap, which would not be good for those waiting.  The supervisor therefore had to decide what to do.

The first action was to find a spare bus and to give that to the driver who was supposed to take over at 1524 and to get him to start from Elgin on time. That way any passengers on the way to Inverness would not realise there was a problem.

The driver of our bus from Aberdeen and with whom we were stuck waiting was due to come off the bus at 1524, have an hours break and then take over the bus behind at 1624 and take that to Inverness. There are rules that dictate how long bus drivers can drive and also when they should have breaks. Once we got moving it was obvious we were going to be almost an hour late arriving just before 1624… the time our driver should be coming back from his break not starting (and he needed a minimum of 45 minutes). What we realised is we could arrive into Elgin and there would be no one to take over our bus or the 1624 departure! 

Replacement Stagecoach 10 to Inverness
When we arrived in Elgin all became clear. The supervisor had also realised there would be a problem – but he had a solution.  The passengers on our bus would transfer onto the 1624 bus behind, which as our driver could not drive it due to needing a break, so to ensure it was not cancelled or delay he decided he would have to drive it himself.  Having not driven that day he did not have any issues with drivers hours. He might have thought he was finishing about four o’clock, but now it would be more like eight. 

What was so impressive from a fly on the wall perspective was how well it was handled. Given the late running caused by the accident the actions taken minimised the disruption for every passenger on both journeys. Full credit to the Stagecoach Supervisor at Elgin – First Class job!

We arrived on the outskirts of Inverness a fair amount later than planned, although it was meant to be an early finish for the day in readiness for the final push to John O’Groats. We settled our stuff in the hotel and caught yet another bus into Inverness for the evening… they have a Wetherspoons you know.

Stagecoach 5 to Inverness
Being early, we had a beer before ordering food. I was reflecting on what had been and what would come tomorrow and suggested we order. “Not without us you don’t”, came the response from behind me. Peter and Carol Crichton had driven up to be our support and photographers when we reached the end tomorrow! Now, how many companies have Directors who do such things… Omnibus is a very special company.

So our early evening turned a little larger and we eventually got to our rooms at about 23:30. What a nice surprise and what a good day tomorrow is going to be.

Final leg of the journey tomorrow. Not that many people will want to get up here to join us for the last bit, but here is the plan anyway:

08:55 – Depart Inverness on Stagecoach (5A)

09:07 – Arrive at the centre of Inverness

09:40 – Depart Inverness on Stagecoach (X99)

13:02 – Arrive at John O’Groats

Day 7 Part 1: Dundee to Keith

Sorry, there is really no purpose to use this photograph, other than to demonstrate that in the last week the only person that I found to be taller and, well, more statuesque than Mr Michael Meilton – my travelling buddy (or should that be ‘my travelling bussy’) is made of bronze and… in fact… a statue.
I have more photographs like that… here is one:

But this blog is recording our journey, so here we go. Dundee. Slightly grey and not that early. We head for the bus station to catch the Stagecoach X7, Coastal Rider. All on time and ship shape.

Stagecoach X7 to Aberdeen

We were the first boarding and – not satisfied with the photo I took on the stand I figured ‘arty’ wins the day as proof and took some of the scenery. Here are some:

I am biased. My roots are in Scotland (remember). It was the most beautiful journey. Sea on the right and fields (and a few hills I suppose – give that this is east coast Scotland) on the left. Stagecoach bus driver Bruce was probably one of the nicest, most courteous bus drivers so far on this journey. Mr Souter (Mr Stagecoach for those unfamiliar with the bus industry) – please note and put this guy up for an award! This guy was fantastic to everyone that came and went on this bus! How do I know? I was sat right at the front behind the driver.

Everyone was pretty peaceful on the journey and other than noting that it was very well patronised for a Sunday morning, everything went according to plan. So we ended up with an hour to kill in Aberdeen… so we went for a coffee and a proper muffin.
It's very important to pack your rucksack right

Stagecoach 10 to Inverness
Silly photographs allowing, we connected with the 10 well. Another coach style bus (I am very impressed with how Stagecoach actually think about what type of vehicle each service needs rather than how many seats they can achieve… makes travelling much more enjoyable). We boarded and assumed our new favourite positions – one to the left and one behind the driver. Thinking about this, we had our wonderful ‘Privilege Passes’ (and on First Bus our golden ‘VIP Passes) so each driver must have thought we were inspectors! I had a number of raised eyebrows using these cards… not that I enjoy putting other people under pressure… Of course!!

Driver David (as we found out later) was good and we were making really good progress. I tried evesdropping but other than one passenger being lovely to another less abled passenger (Debbie, you know who you are and you made that young mans day just talking to him!) there is nothing particularly funny or meaningful to report.
The journey was nearly as beautiful as the first. We glided through the towns all the way to Keith (it’s a town… yes I know it’s also a persons name) where the lad got off the bus as happy as Larry. Things then went a bit wrong.