Wednesday, 23 June 2010

On Reflection...

I have just re-read my last blog entry and I feel I owe you all an apology.

Perhaps it was the beer. Maybe it was just exhaustion from the trip finally catching up with me. Or possibly that final post-prandial glass of malt whisky… Anyway, I’ve just re-read it and it all seems a bit… well, emotional. Sorry.

But it was pretty emotional at the time and that, I think, was one of the biggest surprises of the trip. Honestly, I really thought it would be a case of ‘right, job done, now let’s go home’ but it so wasn’t. It felt much, much better than that. OK, so it’s not like making a first ascent of Annapurna without shoes, or breaking the world land speed record on a unicycle or something, but it felt like I’d actually achieved something.

However, that sense of achievement was slammed into sharper focus the following morning as I caught my bus to Thurso railway station. The driver and I got chatting (as you do) and he asked me what I was doing in John O’Groats. So I told him.

“Oh, yeh,” he said knowingly. “ You’re my third one this year…”

Now, I suppose I could have felt crushed by this nonchalant dismissal of all the hardships I had endured on my long 29-day journey from one End to the other (if there’d actually been any, that is). But I didn’t. Instead, I just felt slightly encouraged, like I’d joined some select band of fellow idiots, and that what I had just spent the last month doing might not be quite as mad as I’d thought.

Of course, it could just be a ‘Caithness thing’ – after all, it’s a slightly strange place, this. It’s barren and windswept and a little bit ‘other worldly’ and it really doesn’t feel like anywhere else in the UK. The landscape leaves you in little doubt that you’re absolutely on the edge of everything and that the normal rules don’t apply. I rather like that.

Now that I’m back at home I can begin trying to make sense of the whole thing, which means reviewing my whole journey. I’ve written pages and pages of scribbled notes – with the complexity of the scribble relating directly to the smoothness both of the bus and the road (some of the Isle of Wight stuff is virtually unreadable) – so at least I’ve got something to jog my memory. But what really stands out is the sheer variety of the forms of transport I have used.

During my 29-day journey, I travelled on no less than 79 different buses of various shapes and sizes, as well as four coaches, three trams and one restored historic tram (in Birkenhead). In addition, I enjoyed rides on 3 preserved buses, about half a dozen London Underground trains, a London Overground service, a 1938 Underground train which now provides the Isle of Wight’s main railway service and one of the last British Rail slam-door commuter trains. I also used a taxi-bus, a funicular cliff railway, Europe’s longest escalator and a hovercraft.

When you look back on a journey like this, its tempting to start listing the best and the worst of things I’ve encountered on my travels - the ‘Best Bus Service’, ‘The Worst Ticket’ and “The Best Use of an Inspectors Cap in a Passenger Emergency’, that kind of thing. That would be slightly crass, of course. So here goes.

The newest, smartest and most comfortable bus I travelled on was probably Stagecoach’s 700 Coastliner service from Southsea to Hove. I think it was a Wright Enviro 400. Anyway, it was really smooth and comfortable and it had a pair of funny little seats right in the front by the door where the luggage should go. I also travelled on one of these from Manchester to Hyde. Brilliant

The worst bus is a little more difficult. One of the Western Greyhound minibuses I travelled in rattled so much that I thought it was going to shake itself (and everybody’s fillings) to bits, and there were a few others that we pretty scruffy. But I think the least attractive bus I travelled on was, coincidently, also a Stagecoach bus – their 500 service from Carlisle to Stranraer which was possibly also the oldest without being actually historic.

For some reason, I had expected a flash double-decker for this long distance service, but what we actually got was an elderly high-floor single decker with about 3 steps up into it, with no concession for anyone with mobility problems or with a pushchair. It had no area for luggage and it smelt musty, as though it had been sitting unused at the back of a garage for a couple years.

It seemed odd that the company should be running buses this antiquated when the rest of its fleet was generally so modern. Perhaps it was exactly what it felt like – a spare vehicle which was being pressed into service as an emergency replacement for a bus that had failed to start. I hope so.

The best journey is a tricky one, too. There were literally dozens that could qualify – Dumfries to Stranraer (despite the bus), Swanage to Bournemouth, Snake Pass in the mist, Northern Skye, Glen Shiel. Or perhaps over the Pennines in that 1959 Bristol Lodekka, or the hovercraft from Ryde to Southsea.

Overall, though, there were few moments on the journey that I didn’t find something to enjoy. And my final impression is one which has probably surprised me the most. I have discovered just how beautiful a country we are lucky to live in, and what a huge amount of the most varied and tremendous countryside we are blessed with.

And, finally – by simply catching a bus, what a brilliant way it is to see it all.

Monday, 21 June 2010

The End

Day 29:

I'd half expected at the very end of this trip to feel a bit deflated, a little sad that it was all over. In the event, I felt exuberant.


Arriving in John O'Groats today was the culmination of an idea I had a couple of years ago and months and months of careful planning, and you know what? It felt great!


I'd left Inverness at 10.15 this morning for what was always going to be one of the simplest journeys of the whole trip – bus from Inverness to Wick, then bus from Wick to John O'Groats. Throughout the 29 days of travelling that this crazy venture of mine has entailed, I've always enjoyed the actual process of travelling, especially the opportunity to just look out of the window and see what was there, and today was no exception.


As soon as we had crossed Inverness' elegant suspension bridge which carries the A9 over the salt waters of the Beauly Firth, you could sense that things were a little different. The landscape was changed, lower and grassier, with wide acres of cereals and tall stands of pines. This is the Black Isle, which is not an island at all but a blunt, rounded peninsula and the people who live there appear to grow most of the food stuffs for which Scotland is famous – oats for porridge, barley for whisky, potatoes, lamb, prime steak.


We cross the Black Isle and arrive at bridge over the Cromarty Firth, offering wide views down the firth where a couple of oil drilling platforms are sitting just off-shore, suggesting a different, less rural kind of local industry but one equally important to this area's economy.


And then we round a corner and, suddenly, the countryside becomes mountainous with hillsides thickly sown with gentle silver birch and wizened oaks, bright flowering gorse and purple heather, and rounded hills running to the sea with the road carved into their sides.


We pass a number of distilleries – Invergordon, where the whisky fumes have blackened the roofs of nearby houses with the curious black mould that feeds on what they call 'The Angel's Share', Glenmorangie at Tain, Clynelish at Brora – and the road becomes narrower, steeper, and, perched on the top of huge unseen cliffs, more precipitous. One minute it feels like the bus I took to The Needles (that seems like months ago), another turn in the road and it's like the road between Newquay and Padstow in Cornwall, we turn another corner and we could easily be on Dartmoor, or in the Peak District, or on the tops of the Pennines.


After three hours of travel, our entry into Wick brings me quickly and unexpectedly back to urban reality. Despite being so very, very far away – more than 100 miles north east of Inverness, in fact – the very first thing I see as we pass the obligatory 'Welcome to Wick' sign is, for me, that most dreaded of sights, an out-of-town retail park featuring most of the usual suspects.


Interestingly, it is faced across the main road by what appears to be the largest and most densely-populated grave yard I have seen since I visited Glasgow's Necropolis. There's a witty comment in there somewhere...


There is a certain irony in the fact that I have arrived in Wick on a Sunday, and on a Sunday there are no buses to John O'Groats . However, instead of my journey being brought to a shuddering anti-climactic halt, I was carried to John O'Groats using a service operated by Caithness Rural Transport, a largely publicly-funded organisation which picks up where commercial bus services leave off and provide essential transport for people who would otherwise be trapped at home. Their taxi-like service relies on volunteer drivers to ensure that local people, especially those with limited mobility or who have a genuine transport need, have a means of getting to where they need to be.


It is a public transport service, though a rather different one to those offered by companies like Stagecoach and Arriva, and it is an appropriate way of me to complete my End-to-End journey. I have enjoyed hundreds of miles of rural bus journey on my travels and I have encountered missing buses, irregular timetables and sometimes no buses at all. Few places are as resolutely rural or as remote (gloriously so) as Caithness, and what Caithness Rural Transport demonstrates is the kind of innovative solutions that are being employed to tackle the problems of rural public transport – or, indeed, the lack of it.


I could have taken a taxi, of course. After all, it was the monopoly enjoyed by the hackney carriages in London in the 1820's, as well as the expense of using them and their resultant exclusivity, which prompted the invention of the Omnibus, which was in effect a multi-person hackney carriage in which each passenger helped share the cost of the journey depending on how far they were travelling. But the opportunity to experience an innovative new form of public transport was too much to resist, and Caithness Rural Transport it was.


I did all the usual things I expect other people do when they complete their End-to-End's – go and have their photo taken by the John O'Groats fingerpost, buy a couple of postcards, chat to the steady trickle of other End-to-Enders, stare reflectively out to sea – and I have treated myself to a good meal, a couple of bottles of beer from the Skye Brewery and a glass of one of my favourite malt whiskies (it was a Talisker, since you're asking). Tomorrow I have one more bus journey to make, to Thurso where I will catch my train home.


I now face the huge task of trying to make sense of my journey, of picking out the interesting and important bits and making a start on the long labour of writing it all down and creating a story out of it. Tomorrow's long train ride to Tyneside will give me time, for the first time, to sit and begin to reflect on this mad 29 day journey of mine which has transported me from one end of this amazing country of ours to the other.


But, hey. Reflection is for tomorrow. I'm told that this hotel has no less than 130 different whiskies in its bar.


And so far, I've only sampled one....

Saturday, 19 June 2010

A ‘Ness’-essary Evil

Day 28:

I have deliberately tried to avoid express services and long distance coaches on this journey of mine because the whole idea was to test out local public transport and see if it was possible to cross from one local network to another all the way from one end of the country to the other.


However, when it came to the Highlands of Scotland, it was obvious right from the start that there would be very few local bus services to use. And those that there were looked to be, on the whole, very, very local – connecting outlying hamlets and villages to towns where there are important local services such as ferries, High Schools or clinics. Very few of them seemed to connect with neighbouring towns.


So, having put myself of the Isle of Skye the day before, I was already resigned to the fact that my only realistic way of getting off the island and onto the road to Inverness was to take a City Link bus – an express coach , effectively – all the way there.


I therefore turned up at the Market Square in Portree this morning for the 913 service to Inverness, which allowed me to quickly retraced my tracks past the Cuillins to Broadford and then onwards to Kyleakin.


Kyleakin used to have an important place in island culture as it was the Skye end of the crucially-important and therefore heavily-used ferry crossing from the mainland.


However, one of the conditions for the building of the privately-built Skye Bridge in the 1980's was that this ferry be forcibly discontinued to remove any potential competition for the bridge and allow its owners to levy a significant charge on anyone using it – as people would have to, as there are few practical alternatives.


Shutting the ferry effectively deprived Kyleakin of its sole purpose, but it carries on valiantly ibn a quieter way ably catering to the needs of the island's many visitors. The hustle and bustle of a busy little ferry terminal has gone, though, and I personally think the village is a little poorer because of it.


Many people regarded the building of the bridge as an essential, because it would provide a lifeline with the mainland that was not weather dependant. Others thought it ugly and intrusive and would lead to an explosion in crime. And at £5 a crossing, many thought it a rip-off. This last complaint was effectively dealt with by the newly-devolved Scottish Parliament in one of their very first acts - they abolished the toll completely. There was probably dancing on the streets of Portree that night!


We take a quick five minute stop in Kyle of Lochalsh, the other end of the former Skye ferry, near the now largely disused ferry ramp. Then we were off again, along the shores of Loch Duich which leads us past what is probably the most photographed castle in the whole of the UK, the improbably attractive Eilean Donan Castle.


Everyone in the UK knows what this castle looks like, even if they have never been there and don't know its name – it's on every postcard, every tin of shortbread, every website about Scotland, in every leaflet, in every film about Scotland, it's on the cover of thousands of different books; it is, in short, the ultimate Scottish icon. It's more famous than Sean Connery, for goodness sake.


It's easy to see why. The castle itself is quite small, but it is dark and craggy and so very, very Scottish. It is also absolutely perfectly formed, to a design that could easily have come from the crayon of a four year old child. It is so recognisably a castle, but what really gilds the lily is its setting. This trim little castle sits on its own rocky little island with a tiny stone bridge connecting it ever so picturesquely to the mainland. On three sides there is open loch and fabulous views to distant mountains. It is perfect. In fact, it is so perfect it looks like a film set. No wonder tens of thousands of people stop to take its picture each year. I'm surprised that Kodak haven't approached the castle's owners to sponsor it...


Our road takes us further along the road to the end of the loch at Sheil Bridge, sitting at the foot of Glen Sheil. This is a fabulous glen overshadowed by the towering peaks of the Five Sisters of Kintail, five huge mountains that seem to be trying their best to trip us up and block our way. In fact it's not at all clear for a while that there is a road up the glen, but we eventually find a way up what I believe is one of the wildest and most attractive glens in the Highlands.


The road eventually levels off and runs alongside the huge Loch Cluanie through what appears to be a barren, empty wilderness with no habitation of any kind for miles around – apart from the Cluanie Inn, that is, which suddenly appears as if out of nowhere. Then the road heads into Glen Moriston and the long descent to the Great Glen begins.


The Great Glen is the result of a huge primordial crack in the earth which runs from one side of Scotland to the other, much of it filled by the dark waters of Loch Ness. Those bits that aren't filled with water were eventually connected by canal, and then lock gates built at each end – Fort William in the west and Inverness in the east – to create the Caledonian Canal. This canal effectively provides a short cut for shipping wishing to travel from the North Sea to the Atlantic but without the faff of having to go all the way round the top of Scotland. This can sometimes though up the bizarre site of an ocean going trawler chugging purposefully along the clearly land-locked Loch Ness!


The road along Loch Ness is narrow and quick, and in a very short while we arrived in Inverness, the most northerly city in the United Kingdom – and my home for the night. It's been a long, three-hour journey through some of the best scenery Scotland can offer. And, from my position high up in a coach, I could scarcely have had a better view. It's been a brilliant day, relaxing and, thanks to the ever-changing scenery, endlessly interesting.


Tomorrow I get back on City Link coach for the final day of my journey which will, after 29 days on the road, take me to Britain's most distant and most northerly village, John O'Groats.


Then again, it will be a Sunday so who knows what will happen...

Over The Sea To Skye

Day 27: (Published Day 28 due to lack of mobile internet connection)

After the chaos of yesterday, I was looking forward to some plain sailing today, and that's exactly what I got.


Admittedly, there were a few chewed fingernails first thing when the taxi I'd booked to take me the mile and a half to the bus station didn't arrive, but it proved only to be delayed and we were soon on our way.


My Shiel Buses service to Mallaig left on time... well, nearly on time as the driver had to pop into Morrison's for bottles of water. Anyway, it was a comfortable midi-sized coach and we were soon barrelling effortlessly along the 47-mile long Road to the Isles.


It was a clear day so the views from nearby Corpach back towards Fort William afforded some spectacular views of Ben Nevis on one of those rare days when you can actually see the summit. Despite being the middle of June there was still plenty of snow in evidence but it wasn't the snow fields that made the sight so impressive – it was the sheer scale of the mountain as viewed from almost sea level.


We were soon running along the picturesque shores of Loch Eil before climbing up and over into Glen Finnan and one of the most photographed views in all Scotland, the Glenfinnan Monument at the head of Loch Sheil . The monument commemorates the moment when Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard to formally rally the clans to his cause, effectively firing the starting pistol to the whole Jacobite Rebellion.


Up and over once again, past lochs speckled with tiny islands, down deep and empty glens, through a gorgeous landscape which looks for all the world like a film set on a remake of 'Rob Roy'. A little further on and we pass Morar with its beaches fringed with astonishingly white sand. By now we are beginning to get distant views of the Hebrides, with the mountains of Rhum and Skye beginning to show.


The bus pulls into Mallaig, a busy little port complete with boatyards, an ice works and a Fisherman's Mission. There's not much that is pretty in the conventional sense here, but it has energy and purpose and by the time I've worked around the seafront my ferry is about due to leave.

It's a short 35 minute crossing to Armadale on the Isle of Skye and I'm reassured to see a bus waiting in the car park. I bought a day rider ticket with the intention of changing at Broadford and visiting Kyleakin before doubling back and heading on to Portree. However, a careful inspection of a timetable picked up on the ferry showed that this wouldn't be possible, so instead I made straight for Portree and dropped off my rucksack at the guest house.


I had a bit of time to spare, so I spent an hour or so exploring Portree before catching a bus which would take me north past the mighty Storr Ridge, across the island to Uig and then back again. That that this was also a school bus gave it a little added spice!


The bus duly left the Market Place and then queued with some eight other buses in the grounds of Portree High School, slowly filling with a group of remarkably well-behaved and polite teenagers. Then we set off up the eastern coast of Skye where the roads runs between the sea and a dramatic wall of charred rock called the Storr Ridge. This is a daunting and extraordinary natural rock formation which bears testament to the island's violent and volcanic past. Layer upon layer of black twisted lava are piled up into huge cliffs hundreds of feet high, watched over initially by a single bizarre spike of rock called The Old Man of Storr. If a flight of Pterodactyls were to sail into view over the ridge I doubt if anyone would be surprised, as this looks for all the world like a primeval landscape. But the ridge goes on and on and never really peters out until the island itself starts to disappear into the sea.


The bus driver begins dropping off youngsters at the ends of roads, at farm gates and at the ends of their drives. He seems to know where everyone lives and invariably pulls up without anyone having to ring the bell. The bus is almost empty by the time we leave Staffin, which is 17 miles from Portree, showing just how far some kids have to travel to and from school every day.


We continue up the evermore deserted coast of Skye then cross over the tops to the dropdown into the tiny port of Uig. Its principal claim to fame is its regular ferry service to the Outer Hebrides, a relatively short crossing which seems popular with lorry drivers.


The run back to Portree is relatively short but passes through yet more deserted mountain and moorland scenery dotted with crofts and cottages. It's been a two hour journey which has brought us round in a complete circle – and I can safely say that, although it never actually got me anywhere but back to square one, it has been probably the finest and most stimulating bus journey of the entire trip so far.


Tomorrow is my penultimate day on the road and will see me cross from the West Coast of Scotland to the east, by way of some more incredible mountain scenery.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Chaos in The Glens

DAY 26:


For the first time on the whole trip, things started to go badly wrong and they just kept getting worse. To be honest, I was wondering when I was going to get a day like this!

To begin with, I had to drive my kind and gentle hosts at The Crags Hotel in Callendar from their beds a little earlier than usual to cook my breakfast so I could make an early bus. This they did with not the least complaint and with no little culinary skill, for which I regret I didn't have time to properly thank them as I was rushing out to catch that early bus (top people, though, and I'd recommend their hotel unreservedly).


That bus was the C60 service run by Kinghouse Coaches from Callendar to Killin, which I caught at the bus stand near the Dreadnought Hotel. It took me on a spectacular journey along the shores of Loch Lubnaig and up over the tops to Lochearnhead which sits at the head of Loch Earn (obviously), at which point the views just got better.


More climbing, this time up the appropriately-named Glen Ogle (I couldn't keep my eyes off it) and more descents through pine forests, then we were turning off the main road and down to Killin, a rather pretty village more or less at the head of Loch Tay. The Falls of Dochart tumble picturesquely under the village's stone bridge making this a great place to get out and have a cup of tea (judging by the number of tea shops and cafes thereabouts).


Now, the only real reason I decided to visit Killin was so that I could travel on a form of public transport I hadn't yet encountered, namely the Post Bus. These are glorified post office vans but with a few seats for passengers and are restricted to intensely rural areas (so Killin clearly qualifies). I was intending to catch the Post Bus to Crianlarich and pick up the onward bus to Fort William from there, so I popped into the post office at Killin to double-check the time (it was at 12.30, I knew, but it's always worth checking).

What the postmaster told me was that there was no Post Bus, that it had been discontinued a month or two ago, and would I like to buy a post card?


This came as something of a blow. I was effectively stranded in Killin, though frankly I can think of worse places to be stranded in – Telford, for example. Still, I had a room booked in my name in Fort William and I simply had to get there - not least because I'd already bleedin' paid for it!

The post master, after selling me a postcard, a book of stamps and a dog license, told me about a taxi firm which runs taxis at certain times of the day for the same price as a bus ticket, so I thanked him, wrote down the number and left the post office (clutching the tartan kilt-shaped air freshener he'd also managed to sell me). But before I phoned and put Plan B into immediate effect, I checked the bus stop outside and discovered that the City Link bus to Oban was due in half an hour and that would also take me to Crianlarich. Right, then.

The Oban bus was late, and the elderly Dutch couple who were also waiting for it and I assumed it was simply not coming. Much fretting ensued. However, it eventually arrived some 20 minutes late and on we clambered.


The driver, it seemed, had not been trained to use the particular type of ticket machine he'd been issued with at the depot, so some delay was incurred whilst he tried to issue return tickets to Oban from my new Dutch friends. However, whilst he was trying to make sense from his single page ticket machine instruction manual, a coach driver popped his head round the door and one of those "have you heard the Police have closed the Crianlarich road for 4 hours" conversations ensued.


It was clear we were going nowhere.


The bus did eventually leave some 45 minutes late, but without me – it had decided to take a different route to Oban and I had decided to cut my losses and instead wait for the Fort William bus which was due in about 15 minutes (it actually arrived 35 minutes later). I might still get stuck at Crianlarich but at least I'd have a comfy seat.


In the event, the Police were just on the point of re-opening the road as we arrived in Crianlarich so we were soon on our way through some the most spectacular mountain scenery on the British mainland. The road to Tyndrum is crowded by big, muscular hillsides but it's when you get beyond Bridge of Orchy that the landscape becomes truly impressive.

The long climb up to Rannoch Moor, and the view back down the road to Bridge of Orchy, is good by most people's standard but when you get to the top and the moor just opens out in front of you... well, I ran out of superlatives almost immediately.


It's an extravagant view of huge rocky mountains, mist-filled glens, hanging valleys and bright reflecting water, with the lily-dotted lochans and the wiry heather disappearing off into a distance contained by sheer walls of mountain. We are soon across the moor and beginning our descent of Glen Coe, surely one of the most beautiful and picturesque glens in Scotland, and the most tragic, with its powerful, leering mountain tops seeming to crowd in and threaten the traffic on the road below.

Then we were down to the sea again at the village of Glencoe and along the shore to Ballachulish and the coast road to Fort William, my home for tonight.

Fort William, home to Britain's highest mountain, is a busy not-so-little town, but it looks much better since they pedestrianised and cobbled the High Street. It's still a clumsy mix of Scottish vernacular and 60's concrete blandness (from the time when Fort William really began to hit its stride) but it seems to have a little more time for people now.


Its seafront is effectively a dual carriageway, which is a shame. I brazened it out amongst the lorries and the caravans whilst I ate my sandwich, but it wasn't much fun (though the view was pretty good).


Speaking of which, the view from my guest house is even better - so I'm thinking about not going out tonight and just watching the sun sink behind the mountains whilst the gulls flap lazily down the loch. And not visit one of the three Indian restaurants I discovered in Fort William (yes, I counted them).

On the other hand, I am quite peckish now....

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

All Aboard the Clockwork Orange


DAY 25:

With the Transport Museum being closed, I found myself with a whole morning to fill and nothing much to fill it with. I was, in short, at a bit of a loose end. But not for long.


Glasgow's Buchanan Street bus station, where I arrived from Ayr yesterday, is absolutely enormous, with stands – or stances, as they seem call them here - for no less than 57 buses. It's no wonder they have to employ men with hi-vis tabards and whistles to carefully guide drives as they attempt to reverse their buses out of their stands and prevent them from driving into each other. With buses and coaches seeming to arrive or depart every few seconds, it's like watching someone trying to choreograph elephants. Great fun!


But they don't like being photographed, as I soon discovered. In fact, this was the first time on the trip so far that I have been shouted at for photographing buses. Well, after all, I could be a terrorist or anything....


The bus station also has information centres, ticket offices, a newsagent and, I'm delighted to say, proper left luggage facilities. So after leaving my Travelodge and with much time on my hands, my very first port of call was to be the bus station so I could drop off my heavy rucksack (in exchange for a fairly hefty £5) and hit the streets unencumbered.


I spent part of the morning wandering around Glasgow Cathedral, which is the only double-decker church that I can ever remember visiting, then climbed up to the Necropolis, a huge Victorian graveyard with some of the biggest and most extravagant (and therefore expensive) gravestones and monuments imaginable. All manner of worthy souls found their final resting place here, including one William Miller, the author of the well-known children's poem 'Wee Willie Winky'. It's an astonishing place which demonstrates just how affluent and industrious Glasgow must have been during Victorian times. Not for nothing was it referred to as the Empire's Second City.


I then made my way back into the city centre and climbed aboard Glasgow's diminutive underground railway, affectionately called 'The Clockwork Orange' on account of the fact that its trains are painted orange (mostly) and it looks like a clockwork toy. The carriages are tiny, much smaller than those on the London Underground -
I even managed to bounce my head off the roof of the carriage just by sitting down too quickly. Glasgow's subway also has the distinction of being the only underground system in the UK which is wholly underground.


In all other respects, it is as quick and as comfortable as it's bigger London brother, though a few of its stations, like Shields Road where I got off to visit the fascinating and beautiful Mackintosh-designed Scotland Street School – are little more than raised platforms between two sets of electrified track. It's a bit unnerving, that!


You can travel the whole circular route in about half an hour so that's just what I did, travelling from Buchanan Street in one direction and getting back on the same train for the journey back. That brought me back to the mighty Buchanan Street Bus Station in time to collect my rucksack and make the 13.02 bus to Balfron.


Now, I have to confess that I had never heard of Balfron before I decided to travel there, nor is there any good reason why I should have. It's only importance to me lay in its position, which is just to the north of the scenically-gifted Campsie Fells (which overlook Glasgow's northern suburbs) and therefore on the scenic route to Stirling which was where I was actually heading.


Having clambered out of Glasgow's dense northern suburbs (and at least I now know where Partick Thistle FC play) we were quickly out among the green fields and beneath the impressive slopes of the Campsies. These are the soft, rounded hills I saw tucked behind Glasgow's tower blocks yesterday from the top of my luxury double-decker coach. But they also have a hard edge, with the village of Strathblane seeming to be almost peppered with scree from the rocky westerly-facing crags towering above it.


We bowl along the Blane Valley, an intensely rich and conventionally-attractive glen with steep, thickly-wooded slopes that quickly mellow into wide flower-strewn meadows. No wonder the cows and sheep look so relaxed and contented. It's a lovely place and, to be honest, more than I had hoped for.


The bus makes a quick stop at the Glengoyne Distillery, which is well worth a visit, before carrying on to Balfron where it unexpectedly morphs into a bus going to Stirling Bus Station. On reflection, the driver probably told me it was going on to Stirling when I got on and asked for a through ticket, but then his accent was so, er... authentically Scottish, shall we say, that he probably said quite a lot of things that I didn't pick up. Like, two out of every three words....


Anyway, I stay on board and we are soon positively barrelling down the Forth Valley towards the fair city of Stirling, with its Wallace Monument and the aggressive-looking Stirling Castle clearly visible long before we get to the city.


I really like Stirling. I don't like its huge shopping mall (under which is built the bus station – wouldn't you just know it?) because it could be absolutely anywhere is the UK or America, but I love its streets, and its steep road up to the castle, and the old Stirling Gaol which has been brilliantly restored, and its youth hostel, and the tang of heather and ice in the air, its sheer unvarnished Scottishness. Yes, this is probably the last bit of level ground in Scotland –everything north of here is big, hairy and mountainous (and that's just the kids! No, sorry, only joking...)


Technically, the border between the Highlands and the Lowlands is defined by the geological fault line that runs sort of south-west to north-east directly through The Trossachs, where I am staying for the night (in Callander, in fact). Tomorrow, if I have not already crossed it, I will be crossing the divide into the Highlands properly, travelling deep into the Perthshire glens, catching a post bus to a place I can barely spell, passing the scene of a notorious massacre, before ending my day down by the sea again, only this time in the shadow of the biggest Ben of them all.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Taking The Ayr

DAY 24:

Today dawned bright and sunny and, frankly, it just kept getting better.


I'd been really looking forward to today's journey through Galloway, which I and many others think of as the forgotten Scotland, and thanks to clear blue skies and bright sun it was everything I'd hoped for.


I'd hoped that the service 500 to Stranraer would be a modern bus, and preferably a double decker to maximise on the scenic views. So I was slightly disappointed to see a rather venerable old single decker shamble up the bus stop at Dumfries. It was so old, in fact, that it had two steps up inside the door – no modern lo-floor kneeling bus, this – and no luggage rack or space for wheelchairs or buggies. It even smelt as if it had been lying at the back of a garage for a couple of years.


No matter. With my rucksac on the seat beside me, we were soon barrelling through the Galloway hills. It's strange and deeply attractive countryside, both soft and rugged at the same time, with heather-topped gorse-flecked hills overlooking lush fields filled with lounging Friesians and occasionally with the local breed of cattle, the delightful Belted Galloway cattle.

The towns and villages we pass through – Castle Douglas, Gatehouse of Fleet, Creetown, Newton Stewart - share the same simple style, with low granite or white-washed buildings topped with steeply sloping roofs strung along a single street, with strings of cottages behind. You see the same type of village and town all over Scotland and if nothing else it means you can seldom get lost popping out to the shops!

From Gatehouse of Fleet we begin to see the Solway Firth once more, with acres of sand flats and still blue water offering views right across Wigton Bay. We climb up onto the tops of unseen cliffs and the views become yet grander and more extensive. The hills become bigger, more heathery, then the landscape changes yet again to look a little more maritime, more sandy and windblown, with huge stands of oak giving way to more mottled woodland of birch, rowan and hazel.


Then we are into Stranraer with its busy little streets and its ship's funnels sticking up over the roof tops. It's a quick change here to the No. 60 service to Ayr which heads up the Ayrshire coast by means of the steeply wooded and achingly attractive Glen App (which sounds like something which turns your iPhone tartan). It's a spectacular run up the coast, much of it only inches above the rocky volcanic beach, with jaw-dropping views across the sea to the Mull of Kintyre (and I'll still never forgive Paul McCartney for that song), the remote mountains of Arran and the strange, breast-like rocky island Ailsa Craig.


This area was a real surprise to me. It's a fantastic road to travel along especially when you have the time to gaze into the distance. I'll be coming back here.


From Ayr I was going to catch a bus further up the coast and eventually into Glasgow. However, I spotted that Stagecoach were running an express service to Glasgow via Prestwick Airport using those extravagantly streamlined, triple-axle Skyliner double-decker coaches I used to travel to London on in the 1980's. They are such unusual and eccentric vehicles that it seemed an opportunity too good to miss so I took my place at the back of long queue at Ayr bus station.

I'd forgotten how huge these vehicles are, and despite being one of the last people on the bus there was still plenty of room. Better than that, because most of the other passengers were pensioners returning home from a spree to Ayr, it was the downstairs seats that filled up first, which meant that I could still bag myself a front seat upstairs! Bliss!

What followed was a smooth, almost silent, air-cushioned romp all the way to Glasgow through countryside which suddenly gave way to the Big City. Glasgow felt big and brash and noisy after the stillness of the Galloway countryside, but I love its vitality and it was a pleasure to be out on its streets.

In fact, I felt so generally happy and contented that I decided I deserved a curry tonight. So I popped into a miniscule little restaurant I'd heard of just around the corner from my Travelodge entitled, appropriately enough, the Wee Curry House. It was brilliant and I recommend it unreservedly.

Tomorrow I had decided to visit the Transport Museum, which is excellent but is also, I have discovered, currently closed. Apparently they are moving the whole collection to a brand new museum down on the riverside. So I will have a little time to kill, not that there's any shortage of things to see and do in Glasgow.

And the Wee Curry House does open for lunch...

Monday, 14 June 2010

Going To The Wall


DAY 23:


Ahhh, it feels good to be back on the road again for what will be the final phase of my epic Land's End to John O'Groats bus trip.

I've spent the last couple of days at home getting cleaned up after a long two and a half week trek all the way from London. Now, with a bag full of clean T-shirts and socks, I feel almost ready for anything!


Today's section of the journey took me from Newcastle city centre firstly to Hexham, which is half way up the Tyne Valley. I could have used a number of buses to get there, but I deliberately chose the rather bizarrely-numbered AD 122 service – bizarre, that is, until you realise that the year AD 122 was when the Emperor Hadrian ordered work to start on what was to become known as Hadrian's Wall.


The AD 122 runs right along the length of Hadrian's Wall – indeed, on some stretches right along the top of it – from Newcastle city centre to Carlisle, calling in at each and every important Roman site along the way, such as the spectacular Housesteads Fort, Vindolanda and Birdoswald. Just as important, however, the route takes in some of the wildest and most beautiful scenery the north of England can offer running as it does along the northern ridge of the Tyne Valley and offering views across to the Scottish borders, the northern Pennines and the Lake District.


I stopped off in Hexham for a while, then got back on the AD 122 for the run along what is possibly the finest part of the route – from the Chollerford river crossing near Chester's Roman Fort to the ruins of Birdoswald, which are so close to the road that they practically brush the side of the bus.


After a pause for lunch in Carlisle, and a peruse around this surprisingly attractive red stone city, it was back on the bus, this time Stagecoach's 79 service to Dumfries, though an area which for all it is flat and somewhat featureless still manages to form part of the Tourist Route to Edinburgh, the Solway Coast Heritage Trail and the Burns Heritage Trail. Not bad for flat farmland!


We eventually breach the border at Gretna and I begin Scot Spotting. Sure enough, scarcely a mile into Scotland I spot my first pub car park sign imploring customers to 'Haste Ye Back!' I was expecting red-headed locals wearing kilts, playing bagpipes and brandishing tins of shortbread to appear at any moment, but fortunately they didn't, which suggests that people outside of the licensed trade probably have a little more self respect.


However, tHpweverhey still have a cheesy, out-of-town designer retail park thing surrounded by car parks and called the Gretna Gateway Outlet Village, which frankly I think is unforgivable.


At least Gretna gives you your first clear view of the mighty Solway Firth, and it's a cracker, with the mountains of the Lake District piled up behind like some kind of improbable film set. It's a stunning view of dark mountains viewed over sparkling sea, but the scenery keeps getting better. A little further on the Galloway Hills start to make their presence felt on the horizon, whilst to the north east the Scottish borders hove mistily into view. This is a great place to be, yet comparatively few visitors come here. Which is great if you like a bit of peace and quiet, but not so good if you manufacture tartan wigs or shortbread for tourists.


I'm staying in Dumfries, the so-called Queen of the South (according to the local council's marketing and shortbread distribution department) and it betrays that look of slightly impoverished greatness that are the hallmark of many Scottish towns which have been built on Victorian money. It has, however, one major saving grace – a deeply attractive river which courses through the heart of the town and is crossed by a couple of spirited stone bridges. It's an animated and tumbling force which helps to bring the whole town to life, so much so that you can forgive it it's many (too many) take-aways and it's grey streets of boarded -up shops.


Tomorrow I head deeper into Galloway, the forgotten Scotland that so few people know about, before launching myself up the coast and into Scotland's premier city, Glasgow.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Shake, Rattle and Splash


DAY TWENTY TWO:

It seems I’m fated not to be given the chance to enjoy some of Britain’s finest scenery. Day 22 dawned in monochrome, with heavy skies that seemed barely able to raise themselves above the slate rooftops of Kirkby Stephen.

And today was the day I was intending to cross the high Pennines by classic bus. Oh, well.

I took my place in the queue for the once-a-week service from Kirkby Stephen to Barnard Castle, which lies at the foot of Teesdale. The service is operated by Cumbria Classic Coaches who use a variety of splendid old vehicles to run this and other weekly services in the area.

I was surprised to find a growing gaggle of elderly ladies with shopping baskets queuing at the bus stop. It was soon clear that they weren’t here simply to take a trip down Memory Lane, though. Wednesday is market day in Barnard Castle and they were all off for a day’s shopping, using their concessionary travel cards to get there.

Eventually, a rather stately 1959 Bristol Lodekka pulled up and a very jolly and attentive conductor – who seemed to know everyone by their first names – helped us aboard. Off we set into the thick penetrating drizzle and soon we are heading resolutely upwards towards the Pennine escarpment above us.

Despite being more than 50 years old, our rattly old Bristol – affectionately known as Harvey – made a pretty fair fist of the long upwards slog. Our driver was clearly an expert with the old-fashioned crash gearbox and his gear changes were pretty slick.

We were quickly into proper upland scenery – wide, barren moorland, dry stone walls, a scattering of sheep and lambs sharing nodding heads with the wind-blown bog cotton. Here was the North Pennines in all its grandeur and despite the limitations of the low cloud - which reduced visibility down to just a few metres in parts – it was a impressive and inspiring sight, especially from the top of double-decker bus.

Over a cattle grid and into County Durham and we began the long gentle decent to Middleton-in-Teesdale where we took a 10 minute break for ice cream (now, that’s what I call a bus service!). Then we had the steady run into busy Barnard Castle, me to say goodbye to Harvey and head onwards to Darlington, the others to accompany each other for a day of tea-drinking and gentle shopping at the market.

My Arriva service 76 got me into Darlington a lot more quickly than Harvey might have done, but to be frank our rather elderly L-reg single decker seemed a lot noisier and a lot more rattly than Harvey. Still, it was short trip over ever-broadening farmland which brought me swiftly to the centre of Darlington. From here I was heading via the X66 to Middlesbrough – another elderly bus, this time a double decker - for the sole purpose of riding that amazing and almost unique conveyance, the Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge.

The bridge is a kind of moving platform slung from cables which dangles over the River Tees. The land hereabouts is too low, and the ships that regularly plied the river too big, to have enabled a proper bridge to be built here – it would have to be around 100 feet high simply to allow ships to pass under it, so the ramparts on either side would have had to be vast just to get the traffic up to bridge level.

The solution, therefore, was to build a short section of platform which shuttled across and above the river suspended on cables, with the cables attached to electrically-driven bogies on a sort of aerial railway above.

It’s brilliant and, after my rain-soaked 10 minute walk through Middlesbrough, I was less-than-delighted to find it was closed for maintenance. What? Rats! Quite apart from the fact that I now had wet socks, that really screwed up my route for the day.

I had intended to cross the river, find a bus to Hartlepool, then Sunderland and eventually South Shields, where I was intending to cross that other great Northern river, the Tyne. But now I was stuck in Middlesbrough.

I made my way back to Middlesbrough’s dismal bus station (I say dismal, though that may be something to do with a) my mood, b) my socks – they really were quite soggy now, and c) the appalling weather) to review my options. Plan B was to catch a bus to Hartlepool and pick up my journey from there. However, that seemed to be a very slow and meandering service which would take hours.

So, I then came up with Plan C which was to take a bus to Peterlee and Sunderland and pick up the treads of my journey there. So I found my queue and joined it.

Of course, as luck would have it, the bus simply didn’t turn up, but then my luck changed for the better. I spotted an extremely smart X9 service to Newcastle pulling in so I raced across the station to catch it. This service – operated by Go North East – calls in at Gateshead en route so I figured I could pick up my journey from there. Besides, I’d had enough of being bounced around in rattly old buses and so when the opportunity to travel on one of Go North East’s very smart new double deckers presented itself, it was an easy decision to make!

We were soon hurtling up the A19 through sheets of rain and clouds that were barely above tree top height. Fortunately, we had a skilful and enthusiastic driver who really kept the speed up throughout the journey (incidentally, she was also the most personable and attractive driver I have yet had by a country mile, but obviously I can’t say that because this might be construed as sexist).

From Gateshead, I caught the Tyne and Wear Metro to South Shields and then took a five minute walk through the town centre to the ferry landing, where I joined a large group of commuters for the short five minute journey to North Shields. I then hopped on the waiting 333 for the journey up the hill to North Shields Metro station and my Metro home.

So, I am now at home busily washing my socks and generally re-acquainting myself with the children and the dog (all of whom growled when I stepped through the door – I haven’t been away that long, have I?). I’m having the week-end at home, then I’m off on the final week-long leg of my journey to John O’Groats.

Bizarrely, although I have now completed three-quarters of my journey, I still haven’t passed through the exact centre of Great Britain yet!

But I’ll be doing that on Monday.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Into The Hills... Again!



DAY TWENTY ONE:


This was a long day, but one that was filled with variety... in a public transport sense, that is.


The day was to have started with a tram ride all the way from Blackpool Tower to the northern terminus of Fleetwood. Unfortunately, because the whole infrastructure of Blackpool's tram network is so decrepit the entire northern section was closed for repairs. Actually, they said the closure was due to vandalism, and there may have been some, but the scale of the repairs and refurbishment they are currently engaged in suggests something far more major.


So, I could only get as far as Cleveleys by tram and that is what I did, in a dull, modern-looking single-decker which looked like a Leyland National on second-hand bogies and with possibly the most miserable and unhelpful driver in the Western world. Isn't it strange how in places where people have loads of fun the staff are universally miserable old gits?


Anyway, the driver declined to tell me if there was a connecting bus from Cleverleys to Fleetwood, despite me asking him directly twice, but when we got there a tram replacement bus was duly waiting so I hopped aboard for the short onward trip to Fleetwood.


Fleetwood is a busy little port, with its own fishing fleet and regular ferry services to Northern Ireland. It also has the shortest, podgiest little passenger ferry in the world plying the River Wyre from Fleetwood to the oddly-titled Knott's End, which sounds like it should be the setting for Tom Sharpe novel.


My reason for travelling to Knott's End was the catch a bus to Lancaster, but on arrival I discovered that the service only runs once every two hours, and that the last one left about half an hour ago. So, the good news was that I had a whole 90 minutes to explore Knott's End. The bad news was that I had finished inside nine.


What did I do? Well, I wandered around its spookily silent and empty streets believing that I had somehow arrived in the middle of a Hammer House of Horror film from the early 1970's. Then I discovered the village shops, which were eerily perfect – neat little bakers, proper greengrocer, a family butcher's, a post office – and I began to wonder if I had stumbled across a British village equivalent to the Stepford Wives. It's a very odd place


Anyway, after wandering out into the middle of Morcambe Bay for a while – and that really was scary -and then carefully vandalising a bus shelter (OK, I made that last one up) my bus eventually arrived and I scurried out of the rain into the warmth of the 89 Stagecoach service to Lancaster.


The first bit of the journey was through acres of bungalows and miles of bleak, flat and tatty farmland but the countryside had livened up a bit by the time we reached the outskirts of Lancaster and overall it was quite a pleasant trip.


Lancaster was where I was going to pick up the Daddy of them all, the bus service which Stagecoach claim to be the most scenic in Britain, namely the 555 to Keswick. His bus goes right through the heart of the Lake District and, being it was a double decker, I was keen to grab my seat at the front to get the maximum exposure to the view.


The landscape starts to rise and roll in anticipation of the mountains to come, almost like it is limbering up. The road quickly bounds into Carnforth, where Noel Coward shot the iconic railway station scenes for his great romantic film 'Brief Encounter'. Looks like they've cleaned the place up a bit, too, and not before time – the last time I visited the station looked practically derelict, but now I'm making a mental note to go back for a closer inspection.


The countryside gradually gets bigger and more boisterous and we soon enter Kendal, the southern gateway to Lakeland. This is where the mountains really begin to dominate but they are about to get a lot bigger and by the time we get to Windermere, and we get our first glimpse of the lake, we are well and truly in middle of the Lake District.


The scenery just keeps getting better and better as we pass through Ambleside and then Rydal. We are high up now and it feels like the mountains are crowding in on both sides, squeezing the scenery into compact little glimpses between the trees and over the lakes.


Finally, we make a rapid descent into the lovely town of Keswick, but I can't look around because my onward connection pulls in just as we do and I leap aboard. This is the X5 to Penrith and it's a coach, the first one of my whole journey so far. Somewhat bizarrely it has a chair lift fitted just inside the door, I suppose so that wheelchair users can get up into it – though how they then squeeze between the seats in what is a very narrow gangway I can't imagine. Still, they'd be company for the driver I suppose.


We are soon out on the A66 and romping towards Penrith, pausing occasionally to slip off the road into the numerous small villages that are just off this major highway. Here, the massive bulk of the mountain Blencathra dominates the northern skyline (it actually blots it out at Threlkeld) with the Helvellyn massif to the south.


By the time we get to Penrith, we have technically left the Lake District and now we are in the Eden Valley. Penrith is it's largest market town and it's got a sizable population with, amongst other things, a major office for the Environment Agency. And it is here that I get my last bus of the day, the 363 to Kirkby Stephen, which happens to be a mini-coach (another first) and the first vehicle I have travelled on since I started which has a manual gearbox!


We have a lovely run down the Eden Valley through scenery at one moment lush and green, and at another wild and lonely. It's not unlike Pendle and I only wish it wasn't raining so I could enjoy more the view.


It's been a long day, and one which has seen me travelling on seven different types of transport, and that's probably a record so far! But is hasn't been expensive. I bought a Stagecoach North Western Explorer Ticket from the driver of the Knott's End bus and I thought the price – it was £9.85 – was a bit steep. However, it has brought me all the way from Knott's End to Kirkby Stephen and it is the only ticket I have needed – and bearing in mind I've been travelling for around 8 hours, that's pretty good value.


And is the bus a good way, and a practical way, to see the Lake District and enjoy it's scenery? Oh, yes.....

Monday, 7 June 2010

Going Down To The Sea Again


DAY TWENTY:


I've stayed in all kinds of accommodation on my journey so far, but few can have been quite as scuzzy as the hotel I stayed in last night in Bradford. It was dark, it was gloomy, and I was the only person staying there, which probably says it all.


It was like stepping back into the 1970's (my room had brown wallpaper...I mean, brown wallpaper) but I think that it was the heavy smell of 40 years of engrained cigarette smoke that was the most memorable feature. Unless you count the cooked breakfast, that is, which resembled a road accident and had my arteries actually howling in protest.


Now, this distressing preamble (distressing to me, that is.... I mean, just thinking about it...) serves to explain why I was at Bradford's new bus interchange quite a lot earlier than I expected to be. But no matter, I had a long way to go today so an early start was all to the good.


My 662 Keighley and District bus to, er... Keighley (where else) was waiting for me on the stand as I arrived so I leapt aboard. To my surprise, this relatively modest single decker actually had leather coach seats and a funky name – The Shuttle. There must some intense competition from other operators on this route for K&D to go to this expense to win or hold on to customers.


Bradford has 'Northern Greatness' in spades – you know, big Victorian theatres and town halls, palatial railway stations and the like. But move even a few feet out of the city centre and you'll see it all painfully mouldering away. There are empty shops everywhere, buildings with trees growing out of the stonework, abandoned houses, and dozens and dozens of take-away's (which I think is often a barometer of a neighbourhood's poverty).


Once out of the city – and through the more affluent outer suburbs – the road passes the superb planned community of Saltaire, with its mill just below it in the dale. This is a similar set-up to the model community set up by old man Cadbury at Bourneville in the Midlands , which only goes to show what money can really achieve when it is put to good use.


The roads runs up the south side of Airedale to Keighley, a busy, sooty little town lodged in a cleft in the dale with its houses scattered over the valley floor and the surrounding hills. Here I transfer to another K&D bus which will take me on to Skipton, which is much higher up the dale. The scenery is becoming much greener now, with broad buttercup meadows filling the valley floor, the sky becoming huge as the road leaves the deep tree-lined dale and the country starts to broaden out. Skipton sits against a backdrop of grey hills giving us our first clear sight of the Pennines.


I switch to another bus at Skipton's modest little bus station – this time it's the Ribble Valley Express, which sounds like it's been taken straight from a cowboy film (albeit one based in Lancashire). This will take me all the way to Preston over the Yorkshire-Lancashire border through Pendle, a part of the country I'd ever before visited.


From Skipton, our single decker (shame) is soon rolling along through big, grassy uplands with just the occasional mill chimney sticking up over the trees to remind us that we are still in a land once more famous for its industrial prowess than its farming. We go sweeping down the A56 at speed, admiring the fantastic moorland skyline of farms huddled under trees long lashed by the wind and miles of dry stone walls snaking over the horizon.


We enter Pendle – and Lancashire – at Barnoldswick, which from the road looks a small town filled with purple slate-roofed terraces swirling around a huge mill chimney, with the massive bulk of Pendle Hill just beyond the rooftops.


I'd somehow always assumed Clitheroe, the next town on our route, to be a place of smoke and industry, so I was genuinely surprised to find an attractive little town of narrow winding streets and a romantically ruined castle above it, with the ever-present moors and uplands at its shoulder. It's a smashing little place, and the whole area is a complete revelation. So many views, so many trees and meadows, so many hills and uplands, and I had no idea that any of this was here.


At Whalley Bridge the countryside begins to broaden out and slacken pace, even though the village itself appears to be sheltering under a hill which rises up almost vertically from the end of the High Street. The meadows are soon even broader, there are sheep and cattle to fill them, and you feel that you are at last coming out of the dale. All of a sudden you can see for miles and miles, and the fast level run into Preston has begun.


Wherever I go I always try to find something to like, be it the architecture, the scenery, the people, or even just the beer (just?). In Preston, I had to work very, very hard to find something I liked. And even now I'm not convinced.


Preston has the look of a town that was very badly bombed in the 1950's and then suffered the ultimate indignity of becoming some kind of practical examination for weird and challenging 1960's trainee architects and town planners. The words 'breakfast' and 'dog's' sprang to mind as I wandered around, which is a pity as it has a truly grand town hall and an amazing covered market (even if the actual market stalls themselves are slightly less than amazing).


And then, of course, we have the bus station...


The fact that it is lodged under a car park should give you some idea of its awfulness. It's sheer scale – it can handle over 70 buses all loading and unloading at the same time – gives it's awfulness a sort of heroic and monumental stature. It's cavernous, its filthy and unwashed, none of the information screens work, not even the clock worked, and finding the right stand for my bus was as much down to luck as personal persistence. As for the underpass used to reach it... sorry, I really can't talk about that, it's just too awful...


How can people let buildings like this - important public facilities, for heaven's sake - get into this state? Why don't they try to make it better, easier to use, more human?


I know there are many who would tear it down, and I can understand why. But actually that would be a pity. As a major transport interchange, it could be one of the best. And the car park above it doesn't look half as bad as some I know of (the infamous Get Carter car park in Gateshead, for example), so there's plenty to build on.


But is there the will?


I organised a sharp exit from Preston aboard the 68 to Blackpool, but this proved a tiresome affair. The roads out of the town were completely clogged by traffic lights and parked cars, and the bus driver had to repeatedly stop to allow oncoming traffic through. We therefore inched our way, in jerks and lurches, out of Preston and onto the flat, featureless coastal plain leading to tonight's overnight halt, Blackpool .


I'm not really a Blackpool person. It's all a bit daft and noisy for my tastes, but I'm here as part of my researches to sample a Blackpool guest house and to ride on the oldest tram system in Britain. And to buy a stick of rock. And eat fish and chips on the beach, and wear a 'my wife went to Blackpool and all I got was this crappy t-shirt' t-shirt, and a 'Kiss Me Quick – Squeeze Me Slowly' hat.


Well, you have to, don't you...

Sunday, 6 June 2010

High Hills and Deep Dales

DAY NINETEEN:

Today almost didn't happen, or at least not in the way I intended.

The whole idea of being in Glossop on a Sunday morning was so that I could catch the one bus per week that goes up the breathtakingly exposed Snake Pass on its way into the Peak District. I'd heard it was one of the best bus journeys in the UK and I needed to know it that was true.

The bus was due at 10.07. By 10.20, I was reluctantly making plans for an alternative route to Bradford and had completely given up on the Snake Pass bus arriving. I was so disappointed, but everything I have heard suggests that rural bus services are a bit like that.


Just then, the bus trundled into view and, with not so much as a word of apology from the driver, we set off up the Snake Pass. I was annoyed but delighted – the journey as I imagined it was back on.


The Snake Pass is one of the highest passes in England and our bus seemed to be labouring uphill for ages. Finally it levelled off on top of a huge moor with amazing views for tens of miles around. This was what I had come to see – there can be few more spectacular views to be had from a bus anywhere in Britain. Tremendous!


The scenery kept getting better, though. Once off the wind-swept moors we were plunging down into deep tree-lined dales beneath the brooding bulk of Kinder Scout – which played such a major role in the mass campaign to secure free access to the mountains and moors for walkers in the 1930's. Every other passenger on the bus is a walker and we chat happily about the day ahead. The driver happily drops them off exactly where their footpaths leave the road – no bus stops on the high moors!


We were soon running alongside the sinewy Ladybower Reservoir before dropping into Bamford for my 272 service to Sheffield. It's a double-decker, the first I have ridden on since Birmingham, and I quickly re-acquaint myself with the view from the front seat on top!


The wild beauty of the Peak District slowly gives way to the busy streets of Sheffield and it's a rapid transition – open fields one minute, housing estates the next. We pull into the Sheffield Bus Interchange which is tucked away almost in embarrassment behind some truly appalling 60's and 70's concrete boxes, which leer over the bus station in a positively threatening manner. It (and the rain) discourages further exploration so I'll have to leave Sheffield for another time. Pity, really, as according to the inspector on duty my connecting bus to Holmfirth has broken down, so I have time to kill.


Eventually, onwards to Holmfirth past all manner of ugliness – steel-shuttered shops, factory units, bland new apartment blocks - along a valley lined with terraces of stone workers cottages until we get to Stockbridge. Here is evidence I had been looking for of Sheffield's former steel industry. The Corus works in Stockbridge is everything you expect a busy steel mill to look like, and they are truly vast, seeming to dominate the whole of the valley. That they are still working is cause for some celebration.


And then we are suddenly out into open country again, over moorland tinted green and brown by bilberry and bracken, with more impressive views to the north and east. The road falls away and we are soon running into Holmfirth, setting for the long-running BBC comedy series Last of the Summer Wine. Every corner we turn looks familiar, either because it has appeared in the show or because it looks like it could! One of them was definitely familiar – Sid's Cafe in the town centre – at which I pop in for a cuppa. Well, you have to, don't you...


Yet another bus, this time the 313 to Huddersfield and another double decker. When we arrived in Huddersfield it was love at first sight. It's a great little town, full of those huge, decorative and 'don't mess with us'-type buildings you associate with Victorian civic pride. It also has probably the most impressive railway station in the country, even though the forecourt is a kind of bizarre obstacle course of random fountains which seem to shoot up from between the cracks in the pavement when you least expect them. Fun, though.


The bus station was built under a multi-storey car park and is everything you'd expect from a piece of dull, featureless 1970's architecture. The waiting area itself is pretty comfortable, though, and there's loads of travel information to hand, and the car park is only 3 storeys high so it doesn't dominate the skyline. For this, it is forgiven.


The last bus of the day takes me to Bradford. Another double-decker, but this time I notice a supermarket trolley-type wheel just by the bus's front wheel. As we arrived into Bradford, it all became clear as we squeeze into a bus-only lane bordered by high concrete kerbs down the middle of the road. The high kerbs connect with the little trolley wheels on each side of the bus and effectively take control of the steering from the driver (who no doubt nips off for a fag). On a Sunday evening when there is very little traffic, I can't really see the point. But I suppose in the rush hour the fact that the bus is using its own road gives it a clear advantage over the queuing traffic. And because it is a guided bus way, no other vehicles can get in the way (unlike bus lanes), and it only takes up the minimum of space required for a bus.


So here I am in Bradford. Once the rain stops (for it is raining once more), I'll pop out and explore some of Bradford's rightly-famous curry houses in preparation for another long day - back to the seaside once more, only this time at Blackpool.


I suppose that mean's fish and chips, then... and trams!

Mersey Mission

DAY SIXTEEN:

SORRY ALL - this post didn't publish on Thursday evening for some technical reason or other, so this one is now out of sequence! I'll try to fix it later!

Wrexham has the look of a town that has having a hard time before the recession struck, and has faltered since. The main shopping street – ironically entitled Regent Street – looks anything but like its London namesake. Empty shops festooned with' To Let' signs stand out like lost teeth, with pound shops and even 99pence shops suggesting widespread consumer hardship.

There are other clues, too. There seems to be a great number of loud youngsters around, many driving soop-ed up and revved-up saloon cars with loudspeakers blaring out rap and hip-hop. There are lots of nightclubs, hot food take-away's and taxi offices suggesting a boisterous and noisy night life. Everything feels a bit aggressive, a bit out of control. To be honest, it feels like the frontier town I had expected Oswestry to be.


As we leave Wrexham on the bus to Chester, we pass through some lush and prosperous suburbs, so clearly it's not just poverty that is bringing Wrexham down. But where do the people who live here go to spend their money? Not Wrexham, it seems.


We are soon into broad and well-cultivated farmland, but then we suddenly beginning dropping into a wide plain with fields and poplars as far as the eye can see. It's strange because I had no sense that Wrexham was other than close to sea level, but it clearly wasn't – it's somewhat higher than the surrounding countryside which we are now quickly dropping into.


We cross the border between Wales and England somewhere between the villages of Rosset on the Welsh side and Pulford on the English – even the name sounds more English than Welsh. The flatness of the plain means we are now speeding into Chester.


Chester is stunning, and it's immediately easy to see why people would want to come and shop here. It's gorgeous – Elizabethan timber-framed buildings everywhere, medieval city walls, The Rows, which are raised walkways lined with shops but at first floor level, with more shops below att street level. It's a joy to walk around and reminiscent of that great medieval city of the north, York.


I took the First service 1 out of Chester for Birkenhead. This was a very different journey into a very different area. First we pass acres of business park, then through a vast and appallingly anonymous retail city called Cheshire Oaks which looked as though it had come straight out of the USA. Then into vast areas of council housing, a monument not only to the slum clearances carried out by local authorities straight after the Second World War, but is also evidence of the post-war imperative to create new homes after the damage wrought by bombing.


All the time, the tall stacks and massive fuel storage tanks of Ellesmere Port and beyond are visible over the rooftops.


I made a mistake when we got to busy Birkenhead. I knew I had to go to one of the Mersey ferry terminals but I for the life of me I couldn't remember which one. So, obviously, I chose the wrong one and ended up catching the bus to Seacombe when in fact I needed to go to Woodside.


Having arrived in Seacombe,I decided to catch the ferry up river to Woodside. It was a plan and a good plan, or would have been if I hadn't just missed the ferry. I therefore had to wait 45 minutes for the next one, which arrived late and when it did arrive promptly went out of service with engine trouble. Eventually, we got underway in the spare ferry and Woodside came up on starboard bow within minutes.


Leaving the ferry terminal, was I soon happily seated on a beautifully-preserved Wallasey tram of a type commonly seen in these parts during the 1920's, with open verandas at each end of the top deck. I tram took me in the time-honoured rattle-and-clang way to the Wirral Transport Museum where this particular tram, along with several others, was lovingly restored.


The museum also boasts a small collection of buses, motorcycles and other vehicles, with model railway displays and a recreation of a motor garage from the 1930's. It was free to look around, though there was every opportunity for people to donate to the museum. And, with all the money raised being spent on preserving some of the less roadworthy vehicles in the collection, it's obviously money well spent.


A tram back to Woodside, then, and the Mersey Ferry across the river to Liverpool. This must count as one of the most spectacular river crossings in the UK, especially as the Mersey is never less than choppy. The view across the river at the Liver Building, the Albert Docks and the cathedrals beyond can truly be described as iconic and it's a view I never tire of.


I'm lucky enough to be staying in the Albert Dock tonight at the slightly swanky Holiday Inn Express. The view across the dock at the Cunard and Liver Buildings at sunset is sensational. But then at these prices it ought to be.


I say farewell to Liverpool tomorrow as I move inland via St Helens and Warrington and Eccles (home of the cakes) to Manchester, in readiness for my multiple assault by bus of the mighty Pennines.


Can't wait.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Heading for the Hills


DAY EIGHTEEN:

I didn't have very far to go today so, as I was in Manchester, I thought I'd take the opportunity to renew my acquaintance with the Manchester Museum of Transport.

I remembered how big this museum is (really quite big) and I remembered it was housed in one end of an existing bus depot, although independent of the working part of the building. But I had completely forgotten just how big the whole thing was, depot and museum together.


I was reflecting on this mild mental failure as I slogged my way up Boyle Street along the huge, huge brick side wall of the depot which just seems to go on and on and on. It really is an astonishingly big structure - I don't know how many buses the operational bit can hold but it must be several hundred.


This used to be a Manchester Corporation bus depot, of course, from the days when almost everyone went by bus or tram and the local transport fleet was so numerous it needed an undercover garage of truly heroic proportions. It now provides workshop and storage facilities for bus operator First, who run a lot of the services in the city and who clearly must have an awful lot of vehicles.


I've been here before, of course, but this a transport museum I never tire of. There are dozens of buses and coaches to look at and the extensive collection also includes trams, trolleybuses and recovery vehicles. The museum's volunteers have also cleverly recreated some of the back offices of a transport company, and there are loads of other transport-related items too numerous to mention. Their cafe has a highly authentic 'works canteen' feel, too, and they make a cracking cup of tea. And there's a well-stocked shop, too.


As ever, it is the volunteers who are the backbone of the organisation and, in common with their counterparts in other transport museums, they are friendly, extremely knowledgeable and more than happy to answer questions.


I short, this is a great place to visit and it was hard work dragging myself away. But the call of the road was sounding in my ears, so it was back onto Cheetham Hill Road for the bendy bus into the city centre.


London's Mayor is famous for his unreasoning and unreasonable hatred for these prodigious machines – he has pledged to outlaw them in London and is commissioning a Routemaster for the 21st Century to replace them with. Personally, I rather like them, not least for the fact that they carry their engine in the trailer. I mean, how does that work? I just can't get my head around it. It's like building a car to tow a caravan and then putting the engine in the caravan! Now that's clever...


I then transferred onto a swish new Stagecoach double decker – it feels like months since I last rode on one of these – for the short journey to Hyde. I was slightly surprised to find that our driver was Polish, but even more surprised to see him using his mobile phone whilst driving. And at one point he even got out of his driving seat to take a photograph out of the door of a passing canal boat (though admittedly the bus was stationary at the time!) All very bizarre and not the kind of behaviour I have ever witnessed on any of my travels. I shall be speaking to Stagecoach...


At Hyde I changed for a service run by a local bus company, Speedwellbus. This was the 397 which was to take me on the final part of today's journey from Hyde to Glossop. I was enthralled to find that the route took us through some lovely North Country-sounding place names like Hattersley and Broadbottom (an affliction I personally expect to suffer from by the end of my journey).


It was amazed at how quickly we seemed to be surrounded by hill and moor. They seemed to appear out of nowhere – one minute we were pootling along quite merrily through Manchester's suburbs, and the next we seemed to in the middle of a TV production of Wuthering Heights.


I hadn't realised just how much I'd missed the hills after all the miles of travelling though the Cheshire Plain and through West Lancashire. Now they were rising up all around me and I was as happy as if I had a glass of beer in my hand (which I was making plans to have a little later on). It was an exhilarating ride, with the road running steeply down into a dale one minute, then steeply up the other side a minute later, then down again, then up once more, and so on.


At one point, I could swear that I recognised the village we were passing through, although I knew I had never been there before. But the sense of recognition persisted and it was all very odd. Then it came to me – I had seen it before! It looked just like the village in the TV comedy series 'The League of Gentlemen'. And then we passed a statue on a corner and it dawned on me that this village (called Hadfield) was in fact the very village where they did all the filming.


Fortunately, nobody asked me if I was local...


And so we arrived in Glossop, down a hill and past a sign next to a duck pond which said 'Glossop Swimming Pool'. Well, it was a pool, I suppose, of sorts, and the ducks were definitely swimming on it. Maybe this Royston Vasey thing is spreading...


I have a big day tomorrow, so I'm treating myself to an early night. Tomorrow I cross the Peak District by taking a bus up the mighty Snake Pass, before going on to Sheffield, Holmfirth (more TV comedy associations there), Huddersfield and eventually Bradford.


Hmm. I suppose I might have a curry tomorrow night...

Friday, 4 June 2010

Across the North West

DAY SEVENTEEN:

This was always going to be one of the most unremittingly urban sections of the whole trip, so I was prepared for a lack of countryside. Instead, I had a museum to look forward to and another ride on a tram to take me into my other favourite city, Manchester.

The day started rather badly, however. I'd visited the new and rather swish Liverpool One Bus Station the evening before and it appeared that my bus to St Helens – the Arriva No. 10a - left from there. Not so, however. When I got there this morning and checked on the departure screens there was no mention of it, and when I checked at the Information Desk I was told that it left from the other bus station is James Street.

But then I had the first of a whole series of pieces of good luck. As I arrived at James Street, my bus was just rounding the corner and pulling in, and a short spell of jogging brought me to the door of the bus just before it left. Result! I was even able to get a day ticket explorer thingy which would take me onward to Warrington and save me money. Double result!


We ground through Liverpool's suburbs, making our way through the city's dense web of terraced streets. Liverpool seems entirely ringed with densely-packed streets of red brick terraces, but things are slowly changing; many of those terraced streets are now making way for new, brighter and more varied housing. The days of having a choice between three up and two down or nothing at all seem to be passing at last, though not everyone is happy with the changes.


This is a very different Liverpool to the one seen from the Mersey Ferry yesterday. Here there are no shining glass apartments, no broad stone-paved streets, no fountains playing or carefully-nurtured trees casting their dappled shade on well-groomed passers-by. This is an altogether grittier Liverpool, and you wonder – and worry - whether anything of this brave new world has so far benefited the people who live out here, just a mile or two out from the city's increasingly fabulous city centre.


We soon run into Knowsley and you immediately sense a distinct 'village' feel. There's the Knowsley Museum with is proud sign, there's a rather nice church, and a registry officer. There is also a Family Martial Arts Centre... a what?. I mean, Family Martial Arts?


Perhaps it's just me, but I thought the whole idea of being a parent was to intimidate your kids to keep them from annoying you and everyone else. Training them to be 3rd Dan Karate black belts seems rather counter-productive – I mean, how can a parent be expected to discipline their kids if, at any minute, little 10 year old Darren could have you in a headlock?


I spotted another sign on the road out of Knowsley all across the front of a pub, which proudly (and in letters at least half a metre high) boasted that their kitchen had received a hygiene rating of four stars out of five.


Now, excuse me if I appear a tad picky here, but only four out of five? Think about it - if you order a burger and fries somewhere, do you want to find out that the kitchens preparing your meal are fairly clean but they're not brilliant? Well, do you? I mean, you can't help but wonder why they didn't they get that all-important fifth star - what exactly was it that the Environmental Health Officer saw on their inspection which led them to say, "Well, it's generally quite good but...,


'But' what? But for that fungus growing on the ceiling? But for the open drain in the middle of the floor? But for the army of mice which, although they always carefully wipe their feet before entering, really shouldn't be running around the food store like that? Does four out of five mean 'hardly any cockroaches'?


In football parlance, and it's practically a second language around here, I think that's what they call an own goal.


My next stop was St Helens and the North West Transport Museum (my fourth transport museum, no less), which is conveniently just around the corner from the bus station. It was closed, but in today's third piece of good luck (I hope you're keeping count), one of the museum's knowledgeable volunteers was in the museum building and spotted me with my nose pressed glumly against the window and agreed to let me in for a look around.


It's an impressive place. You can see that it used to be a bus depot, but it was a tram depot before that, and a horse tram depot before that, so this place has certainly got context. It also has a superb glass roof which absolutely floods the main exhibition area with light. It's vast and airy interior has dozens of buses and numerous other vehicles. There's also a lecture theatre and a mini museum all about tickets and ticketing. And it also has a huge workshop area which the public don't normally see but which gives you a fascinating insight into the huge amount of work that goes into the conservation of large commercial vehicles like buses (C'mon, guys, there must be a way of letting visitors peer through the door like I did?)


In short, it's well worth a visit and it's really easy to get to by bus (obviously). It doesn't look like its run by unpaid volunteers at all, it all looks pretty professional. However, because it is run solely by volunteers, the museum can only open at week-ends and bank holidays because that's when they can always guarantee to have people available to supervise the place. Which is a shame. It needs more volunteers – spread the word!


Onwards, then, to Warrington past more rows of terraced housing, many of them trying desperately not to look like their next door neighbour– some are stone-clad, others rendered, still more painted, and all of them trying to look a little smarter and a little less humble than they are. We pass a semi-reclaimed colliery spoil heap hinting at a long-gone mining industry – and perhaps explaining the large numbers of brick-built terraced homes nearby.


It's a strange mix, this area. It is densely populated but there's the occasional farm, too. Refinery chimneys poke over the rooftops one minute, then just down the road there is a roadside sign advertising fresh new Cheshire Cheeses for sale. Cereal crops, motorways, parks, spoil heaps – it' all here but little of it is pretty in the conventional sense.


We swing into Warrington, which probably doesn't look its best in...well, in any weather. There's nothing really wrong with it, it's just a bit of a jumble. And it seems like there are roads everywhere. Not a bad bus station, though...


Out of Warrington, then, on the 100 First bus service to Manchester. Overall it's a fairly unexceptional journey through an unexceptional landscape, except we keep ducking and diving under and over motorways, first the M6 then later the M56, and we even cross the Manchester Ship canal a couple of times over what seemed to be rather dilapidated swing bridges – don't suppose there's much demand for shipping this far inland these days. I think we also passed over the West Coast Mainline, which I hadn't seen since Coventry.


I tried to keep my eyes closed when we got to Trafford Park, the humongous out-of-town shopping city on the edge of Manchester. I don't react well to such places. I absolutely don't subscribe to the 'retail as a leisure activity' philosophy and if I did I think I'd exercise my retail proclivities in proper towns and cities, not on pointless wind-blown film sets such as this.


In its favour (just), it does have a cutesy little bus station which shares some of the architectural features of the centre it serves, but ultimately it just looks faintly ridiculous.


Sorry. I don't do retail.


Anyway, after my fit of the vapours at Trafford Park we duly arrived at Eccles Interchange. I was struck, and not a little disappointed, by the clear lack of Eccles cake sellers loitering around the bus stands and the apparent shortage of cakes stalls. I thought about popping into the nearby supermarket to buy a couple of the local delicacies, but of course there is no certainty that supermarket Eccles cakes were made anywhere near Eccles. After all, earlier in my journey I passed what looked like the biggest Carlsberg brewery in the world – and that wasn't Denmark, it was Northampton.


I therefore high-tailed it over to the tram platform so I could complete my journey into Manchester by Metrolink. Those of you who have read my previous ramblings will be aware of my growing fondness for trams. They are smooth, swift, comfortable, cosmopolitan in a small way, and entertainingly scary (will we crash into that refuse truck? Will that taxi get out of the way in time? Will that guy in the suit suddenly realise there's a tram breathing down his neck? Ooh, lovely!)


I therefore arrived at my hotel in Manchester refreshed and stimulated and ready for dinner.


And would you believe it? Manchester has a Curry Mile!

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Over The Border

DAY FIFTEEN:

I was so taken by the beauty of Shrewsbury last night that I was roaming the streets till late, and when I did make my way back to the guest house it was via a rather lovely old pub called The Three Fish and a rather fetching little restaurant just under the castle walls (as was the guest house, incidentally) called the Castle Thai.

Yes, I know, it was curry again... I'm a man, I'm weak. What else did you expect?

I was out before breakfast taking more photographs, then left for the Arriva service 70 to Oswestry. This bus had no less than 6 CCTV cameras inside, though interestingly no escape hatch in the roof. Anyone care to explain the logic?


Out of Shrewsbury and onto the A5 (I'm beginning to think its following me). This is lush, fertile agricultural land with fields of nodding cereals disappearing off into the distance in every direction. Large bulbous hills start to appear on the horizon - could this be Wales?


As we get closer to Oswestry (the local's I heard on the bus pronounced it 'Oztry'), the hills become a lot clearer and they seem to be standing right across our path. Except for the huge hill we passed under at Nesscliffe, which I didn't even notice until we were below it. How could I almost miss something that big? I think perhaps they're creeping up on us...


The landscape is definitely getting lumpier as we roll into Oswestry. The town is steeped in history but somehow doesn't show it, apart from the huge hill fort clearly visible on the road into town. I even missed the Transport Museum (blast!) though I suspect this had more to do with the Cambrian Railway than anything else (I'll have to check).


The whole town seems... well, a little bit run-down, somehow. It's lively enough, and the pedestrian streets in the town centre are sheltered and tending to quaintness (which is good), but the market somehow seemed a little half-hearted, and it's all just a bit knocked about. Pity. I was expecting more of a feel of a frontier town, but it was just another High Street.


Onwards via the pithily-entitled 2a to Crick, and this time we really were going over the border (the 'Welcome to Wales' signs in two languages on the outskirts were a bit of a giveaway). Crick is a fairly ordinary little village with a cobbled (though cobbled in the European flat brick sense) High Street and a pleasant park. But its real glory lies just behind the village.


Thomas Telford, builder of bridges and canals and improver of what is now the A5, was given the difficult task of constructing a canal across some of the deepest valleys in the Welsh borders, a job which, at Chirk, saw him create a massive 10 span aqueduct across the 700 foot-wide valley of the River Ceriog. It's a stunning piece of construction, but no less stunning is the 420m tunnel which immediately follows it (and which I walked through along its tiny towpath, in near total darkness – quite an experience!).


Of course, when the railway arrived in Chirk it made the canal look pretty slow and unfashionable and so last-century, fact the railway's engineers maliciously rubbed in by making their railway viaduct, which runs alongside the aqueduct, deliberately and unnecessarily higher. Showing off, in other words.


After lolling around under an oak tree in the park for a little while, I took the 64a Bryn Melyn minibus to Llangollen. This led us ever deeper into the hills and back along the A5, which seems at this point to be carved out of the hillside, with tier and tier of trees above us and the deep valley floor below. Thomas Telford, who built this road to ease the journey from London to Holyhead, certainly knew what he was doing, though I doubt he had tourists like me in mind when he built it. Nonetheless, the views across the valley are breathtaking.


This is big, muscular countryside. It has the ruggedness and roughness you'd expect of wild, mountainous places, yet it's leavened by the soft, sloping meadows and the flower-strewn hedgerows. The green counterpoises the purple of the heather above and it's a strange and beguiling mix, both tough and attractive, a bit like a rugby player in a Laura Ashley frock... but a little easier on the eye.


Llangollen caters very well to the millions of visitors it receives every year. There are shops dispensing all manner of tourist tat – postcards, toys, cheap ornaments, more postcards – and there are whole rows of cafes serving tea and scones and 'something with chips' for the kids. It's a profoundly attractive little town, lodged as it is in a deep tree-backed cleft in the River Dee so it's easy to see why people come here. Good heavens, it even has its own splashing falls under its bridge, and there's even a steam railway, whilst a little up the hill there's the canal again with the chance of a horse-drawn canal boat trip.


This is, I suppose, the Llangollen that most visitors will see. But look beyond the obvious, ignore the shop fronts and the ice cream sellers, and you will see a perfect little Welsh town with churches and chapels and steep, blue slate roofs. With the steep valley sides offering a lush and verdant backdrop, this really is a very pretty place and well worth a look. It's just a pity that millions of other people feel the same...


The short ride into Wrexham gave me the chance to try the other side of the valley, which seemed less hilly somehow, so either Telford really didn't know what he was doing or we have become a lot better at building roads since his day. Out of the Dee valley the road becomes more level and the landscape broadens out and we roll into Wrexham with the Welsh hills seemingly far behind.


Llangollen was certainly busy, but Wrexham seems infinitely noisier. Is it all a lot brasher and aggressive, or is it just that I've lost the knack of large towns and cities? Whatever it is, I'd better get used to it because tomorrow I'm going on a ferry across the Mersey to one my favourite cities, Liverpool. And that won't be quiet!