Friday, 30 April 2010

A Childhood Dream Re-Lived

It used to be considered the ultimate children's travel accessory, the one thing that would make the longest and most boring journey bearable, and it was the gift which kept on giving long after a holiday was over.

I am alluding, of course, to the I-Spy books.

It was a few years ago now, but at one time no family holiday was complete without one of these tiny paperbacks to thumb through in the back of the car. Train journeys, ferry trips, visits to town or country, there was a book for almost every occasion, each one of them sufficient to turn any bored youngster into a rapt sharp-eyed observer.

And with points at stake, along with the promise of a commendation from Big Chief I-Spy himself if I managed to complete the book (which if memory serves used to be a gaudily-coloured goose feather), eyes were alert at all times in the hope of spotting that rare Victorian signpost, or bin lorry, or pub sign, or traffic cone, or Honey Buzzard...

Now, I have a confession to make. I've been worrying slightly about my ability to sustain my fullest attention on the journey in hand over 29 long days of travelling. Will I really find that much to look at, to think about and, ultimately, to write about? What if my attention begins to drift? What if, by the time I am taking my 40th or 50th bus journey, the hypnotic whine of the engine and the rythymic thud of the tyres begins to lull me to sleep? What if I miss something genuinely interesting?

I found what I think is the answer on Ebay of all places, after a fellow bus traveller used an illustration from an old copy of 'I-Spy Buses and Coaches' on his blog to illustrate some point about bus design. Suddenly it was clear. There's the answer, I thought. Buy a copy of 'I-Spy Buses' and not only relive a rather delightful bit of my childhood but also use the book as a kind of manual of bus travel, and let it ensure that my attention stays firmly rooted on modes of public transport at all times.

I had hoped for a vintage early 60's edition, but these are becoming quite collectible so they are not easy to get hold of, even on Ebay. However, I managed to find a 1992 edition of 'I-Spy Buses and Taxis' so that will have to do.

I have to admit to a certain frission of excitement when it dropped through the Lynn family letterbox. In fact, I've had to stop myself from immediately rushing out into the street in search of a Dennis Dominant with Alexander coachwork, or a Plaxton Supreme on a Leyland chassis...

Oh, happy days. And to think, I'll have a whole month to fill it in.

Hope I don't miss the scenery, though...

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Join The Club!

Heavens, it’s now only 17 days to blast off. So to celebrate I’ve decided to apply to join a rather exclusive club.

Now, I’m not really the kind of person who joins things, exclusive or not. All that cod official-ness, elections and minutes and chairmen and secretaries and things. I’m afraid I tend to side with that great American film comedian Groucho Marx who famously observed that he really didn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member.

But when I happened upon the 'Land’s End to John O’Groats Club', well I mean… how could I not?

The club is aimed squarely at that select band of travellers (me, in other words) who undertake to complete the journey between Britain’s two most distant destinations, to help them to broadcast and celebrate their achievement, to stimulate them a little, give them a little encouragement along the way. And, hopefully, to sell them the odd suitably logo-ed polo shirt or two.

Because whilst the LEJOG club sets out to celebrate the ‘whole end-to-end ethos’, which their website somewhat grandly contends is a part of our cultural history, and I have no reason to doubt it, the club’s officials are not beyond a little bit of harmless merchandising. Polo shirts, baseball caps, T shirts and fleeces, real stripped-down travelling togs, all proudly bearing the club logo, are available at prices to suit all pockets. Clothes to be worn with a certain amount of pride, and with the added bonus that everyone you encounter en route will immediately know that your are involved in that great undertaking, doing Britain’s longest journey.

But this is no scam. For just a £15 membership fee, you get a signed certificate fulsomely detailing your achievement, a year’s membership of the club, a privilege card entitling you and your immediate family to free parking and entry to all the exhibitions on the Land's End and John O'Groats’ sites, and an annual club newsletter. You also receive invitations to 2 club social events in June and November at the Land’s End Hotel, each offering the opportunity to catch up with, brag to and generally irritate fellow end to enders.

But it is their website which is the real glory. It's full of tales of daring-do on the high roads and by-roads, by bike, barrow and boot, with stories of real endeavour and stubborn endurance. All of which make my particular journey seem a bit, well… a bit nancy.

But do I care? Hell, no, not a jot. I know I'm only riding a bus (well, quite a lot of buses, actually) but I have few illusions about the geniune hardships I'm facing. Yes, its going to be buttock-aching, yes it will be mind-numbing at times, and yes, quite possibly totally infuriating. In the ranks of the end-to-enders, I believe I'll be able to hold my head up high, fix them with my steely gaze and utter those three little words - 'twenty nine days'.

Because most of the stories on their website are all about timed journeys - six days on a tractor, 32 hours on a bike, seven hours strapped to the under-carriage of a Tiger Moth, two weeks in a pram - but few will be as long, as painfully long perhaps, as mine. And that has to count for something.

To stand at litter-strewn, rain-lashed bus stops for hours on end waiting for buses that don't arrive, to sit on grubby buses for 29 whole days, to live on bus station pasties for a month ... hey, that's endurance, mush.

Who knows? Perhaps one day my own journey might rank among the tales of septuagenarian hang-gliders, fancy dress joggers and Formation "I'm Cycling Backwards for Charity" teams. Or even among those more humble end-to-enders whose own personal journeys are detailed on their website, all of whom I have no doubt have achieved their goal more quickly and, frankly, far more impressively than I ever could. I'd be happy to be part of that, which is what this club is really all about - sharing experiences, meeting new people, and enjoying a sense of fellowship.

Anyway, I’ve sent off my application, I’ve printed off a form which I’ll be asking the people I meet on the road to sign so that I can prove that I’ve actually made the journey, and I’m ready to go.

Might not bother with the polo shirt, though.

Monday, 26 April 2010

An Inconvenient Truth

Well, it’s now only 18 days before I set off, and today I fulfilled a modest ambition.

Anyone who has read my previous blog entries will have seen what I had to say about Barnsley and the fact that it has long been a bus’s final – indeed, terminal - destination. Well, today I visited two of Barnsley’s finest scrap yards to see just what becomes of a bus when it’s reached the end of the road.

It was a fascinating experience. Poking about in a scrap yard is always fun, but I also got to meet a couple of people who make a living out of obliterating Olympians, trashing Titans and rendering Routemasters (they’re all names of buses, by the way). I’ll probably write about my experiences today more fully in the book I’m intending to write, but here’s a few of the headlines.

To begin with, I hadn’t realised that the engines and gearboxes of many of the buses sent for scrapping were removed and sold for refurbishment and, ultimately, export. These newly-refurbished power units used to be exported to Hong Kong, but now it’s more likely that they’ll see a few more years of service in Africa before they finally throw the towel in.

I hadn’t expected to see so many obviously very old buses in the yard, neither. Alongside the fairly modern double and single deckers were the occasional Bristol Lodekka, the remains of a couple of half-cab Leyland’s and about a dozen London Routemasters, many of them dating from the 50's and 60’s. Most had been scavenged to within an inch of their lives, but the yard owner hung on to the carcasses so that the steady stream of bus preservationists - well, trickle, really – could hunt out long obsolete, and therefore valuable, parts for their own vehicles.

I even got to meet someone who was doing just that, though in his case he wasn’t an amateur preservationist but a coach operator with his own fleet of vehicles. He’d found a couple of interior blinds which he was intending to use to replace damaged blinds in one of his 10 coaches – at a fraction of the cost of new off-the-shelf units from the manufacturer.

However, the most interesting, and in some respects the most disturbing, discovery of the day was in relation to my bladder. Or, more accurately, its endurance potential. Or lack of it.

It was all a bit unexpected. I dropped off my wife at work then, before setting off on the road to Barnsley, paid a much-needed visit to a nearby petrol station. But not for petrol, if you get my drift… the second of the day, as it happens (I hope you are keeping count).

Duly refreshed, I pressed on down the A1(M) but only got as far as Wetherby before nature called out loud and clearly once more. Quite nice services at Wetherby, I thought….

Onwards then to Barnsley, a couple of hours of visits, then back up the road to Durham to collect my wife at the end of her working day, calling in at Costa Coffee at Wetherby (did I mention how nice the services were..?) en route. However, by the time I got to Stanley, it was obvious that my bladder was once more demanding immediate attention and it wasn’t in a mood to be ignored. So I was forced to make a slightly surreptitious call to an Asda supermarket for Call No. 4.

All of which got me thinking about public toilets - or rather the lack of them.

It occurred to me that it’s probably quite feasible that I could spend a whole day, right from leaving my hotel in the morning to arriving at my destination that evening, without once being anywhere near a public toilet. No, really. Think about it – if someone was to ask you where the public conveniences are in your town, could you direct them? No? See what I mean?

I didn’t used to be this way, of course. There used to be loads of them. But then it all got a bit grubby, and in the end the people making most use of them appeared to be the sort of people you wouldn’t want anywhere near you when you yourself were actually using one. If you found one that wasn't trashed, or worse. Eventually, it dawned on local authorities that they don’t actually have a statutory duty to provide public toilets, so as a result most of them decided they had far better things to do with their money (a.k.a., our money) than repair unsavoury, murky and constantly-vandalised public urinals.

So, getting back to today’s unexpected bladder predicament, and here’s the really disturbing bit, if this kind of thing happens when I’m out on the road and find I need to go from A to B via several P’s, what on earth an I going to do?

Suddenly, this trip of mine doesn’t sound quite so simple….

Sunday, 25 April 2010

As One Door Closes, Another One Slams in Your Face

Only 19 days to go, and my efforts to get a well-rounded, all-embracing view of the public transport sector before I set off has hit a bit of a problem.

I thought it would be a good idea to take a closer look at today’s transport industry by taking a peek around a bus factory. I wanted to see how buses are actually built and get a better understanding of how manufacturers cater for the needs of the public transport industry. I had assumed, in all innocence, that manufacturers would relish the chance of a bit of free publicity but that patently hasn’t been the case.

The first manufacturer I asked – I’ll do them the courtesy of not naming them – refused me point blank, saying it was the not a good time for such a visit given that their workforce were a little restless and concerned about the future (and therefore, one, assumes their jobs).

The second manufacturer I called was even less encouraging, as the company’s Director of Communications declined even to take my call (actually, it was his slightly tweedy PA who informed me, after I informed her that he didn’t actually know me but that I'd hoped to correct that imminently, that ‘I’m sorry, he’s not taking calls at the moment’. Sniff.)

(Have you noticed how some people find it second nature to say sorry whilst sounding not in the least bit sorry? What would you call that, do you think - practiced insincerity?)

Anyway, Miss Jean Brodie-knickers helpfully offered me an email address as an alternative t and I duly sent off a polite and exploratory email. Since when, nothing. Zilch. Silence (or at least the email equivalent).

It's disappointing, but I suppose it’s understandable. All manufacturing industry practically without exception has been having a tough time since the banks decided to set fire to the economy. Yes, things didn’t get quite as bad as they did in the US and, yes, the resulting recession is probably over now, but it’s a long road back and its full of troublesome potholes (as indeed are the roads, but that’s another story).

The bus manufacturing industry is in a difficult position, and it was ever thus. People who build buses rely on bus operators to buy the buses they build - but if those operators are having a tough time financially, and in a recession they would be, then they will almost certainly be looking to make economies. And what more obvious way to economise than to hold off buying that new fleet of vehicles for a few months more just to see how things pan out?

The result is obvious - fewer new buses ordered, therefore quieter production lines and therefore growing disquiet in the factory canteen. The government has been trying to help to some extent by offering grants and inducements to encourage operators to invest in new, greener buses. But this alone won't solve the general industry-wide problem of lack of demand.

Buses are rarely available from stock. Size, make of engine, gearbox, seat configuration, colour - a bus is much too specific a product and too specialised to expect to be able to buy off-the-shelf. So if nobody is buying, then manufacturers aren't building.

In recent months, the local press in the areas where these companies have their factories have been full of stories about possible future job cuts, and one of organisations representing the motor industry, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, which tracks the ups and downs of the bus market, has been highlighting a cooling in customer demand for some time now, especially for the larger types of bus.

So perhaps it was the sight of near-silent assembly lines that the two manufacturers I approached didn’t want me to see. I hope not.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Buses Plural

So what is the collective pronoun for a group of bus enthusiasts?

It's a serious question, and one that was prompted by a visit I made this week-end to the tree-lined lanes of Surrey.

I'd come down from Tyneside specifically to see the London Bus Preservation Trust's annual Spring Gathering, a popular event in the trust's calendar and one that usually sees a great many old London buses spruced up, rolled out and fired up for the day.

But this is more than just a rally for bus owners. Visitors (and there appeared to be many thousands of them) have the chance to actually ride on a wide range of vehicles to and from the trust's museum at Cobham, and they'll even collect you from the nearest railway station. Some of the vehicles were quite modern-ish and clearly recently 'in preservation', whereas others, and needless to say the ones that proved to be the most popular, were much, much older.

The show field itself was the former Wisley airfield and it was a veritable explosion of colour, though admittedly mostly red (these are London buses, after all) albeit with a fair sprinkling of green as befits the theme of this year's rally, the 80th anniversary of the inauguration of Green Line buses.

I don't think I'd seen so many red Routemaster buses gathered together in one place at one time, an amazing sight which prompted the thought that that every aged and time-expired Routemaster withdrawn from service must have been immediately snapped up by enthusiastic private owners - with the result that there' was probably as many of them on the road now as there ever was!

There were many much older buses, too, and more recent ones. There were splendid old taxis and coaches, fire engines, motor bikes and lorries, plus a rather magnificent horse bus complete with proud team of horses and a top-hatted driver and groom. But I still couldn't help feeling there was something missing.

Eventually, it dawned on me what it was. It was information. If you didn't know what it was you were looking at and you couldn't interpret the fleet numbers and license plates, then you were stuck. Few of the owners had brought information boards telling the story of their vehicles, though a couple had helpfully sellotaped a sheet of descriptive type to the inside of a window but not nearly enough. And with almost 90% of the buses on show being red, and all of them being roughly the same size and shape, telling one from the other was not easy, and without the necessary knowledge to distinguish one from the other I was surprised to find myself becoming (dare I say it) slightly bored.

As Elvis Presley might have said, 'a little more interpretation, a little less traction...'.

Was I alone? Well.. yes, I think I was. The vast majority of people present appeared tooclearly know their stuff, so lack of information on the various exhibits was clearly not a problem. Demand for the items on sale in the sales area of the show – spare parts, books, videos and photographs, for the most part – was also vigorous, with a throng of eager and knowledgeable enthusiasts.

Knowledgeable - that pretty much sums it up. And that's why I confess I felt just a teeny bit out of it. All of which I think is a bit of a shame because the spectacle of so many fabulous old buses, and the chance to ride on them, indeed the whole organisation of what was a truly major event (which, by the way, was flawless) could have made this a grand day out for the whole family.

So - a Garage of Bus Enthusiasts? Or should it be a Knowledge of Bus Enthusiasts? Possibly.

However, with a little work and a little more focus, it could so easily be a Family of Bus Enthusiasts.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

A Trip to the Cemetery

Ask anyone with an avowed affection for old buses if the name 'Barnsley' has any particular meaning to them, and don't be surprised if they involuntarily shudder. If such is their reaction, then be gentle with them, apologise quietly, for you have inadvertently uttered a name all too redolent of nightmare and destruction, of anguish and missed opportunity, of death and dismal hopelessness.

This is nothing to do with Barnsley per se, you understand. The town itself is, as far as I know, a place of wide sparkling streets, contented locals and joy from morn till night. No, this is something more to do with its reputation as one of the nation's foremost transport slaughterhouses.

I can't put too fine a point on this. That's just what Barnsley is.

The phrase 'off to Barnsley' has become something of a byword in bus circles for a vehicle's very last journey – the journey to the knacker's yard, the terminus to end all terminuses... or termini. Or... no, it's term... erm...

Apparently, Barnsley folk have been cutting up and crushing old buses for donkey's years, so long in fact that they have become true experts in the art of dismembering double-deckers and turning them into something new and useful. On the outskirts of the town there are at least four scrapyards, all of them, bizarrely, next door to each other and all of them specialising in ridding the world of old, unwanted buses. From space, and indeed from Google Earth which I think is every bit as good and frankly a lot cheaper, it looks like a massive concentration camp, a veritable elephant's graveyard of buses.

But this is not butchery for butchery's sake, for heaven's sake. In the spirit of these more enlightened, greener and more environmentally-friendly days, when sustainability is all and recycling is king, these butcherers of buses play an important role in keeping other buses on the move. Roofs may be crushed, oil may be spilled, windows may be sundered into shards, but engines are carefully removed and re-used, gearboxes too, and much, much else besides. In fact anything which is patently not time-expired can easily find a new life on someone else's bus, and help smaller companies keep their older, more modest fleets on the road, greatly extending the life of perfectly good vehicles which would otherwise be too expensive to repair. And which would themselves end up in the scrapyard.

Such places are also the happy (and the not-so-happy) hunting ground for people who own and preserve old buses and struggle to get them, and keep them, on the road, and most of whom are also on fairly tight budgets - though at least one scrapyard has actually banned bus enthusiasts from their yard because of their all-too-often anguished reaction to the Bosch-like vision of hell that is presented to them, as well as their tiresome tendency to throw themselves in the path of the cranes and the gas axes and berate the yard staff with exclamations of 'butcher', 'murderer' and 'oh no, not the Leyland'. Some have even been known to nick the odd souvenir, which frankly in a scrapyard is something akin to shoplifting.

So clearly Barnsley is a place I will have to visit so I can experience for myself the end – or at least one end - of a bus's working life. To that end, I phoned a couple today and extremely nice and helpful they sounded, too. Not at all like murderers. Anyway, I have arranged to call in and have a rummage around in their yards for a while and I have to admit I'm rather looking forward to it.

I suppose I will also have to see if I can witness the birth of a bus, too. So that's next on my 'To Do' list....