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.