Monday, 31 May 2010

Er... Actually, I’m More Of A Leg Man Myself...


Today – which is Bank Holiday Monday – offered the chance to visit Birmingham's two transport museums and to travel between the two of them on buses you would normally expect to see in a bus museum. This one event was the sole reason for my being here today. Let me explain.

Now, I'm a real sucker for museums and transport museums are a particular favourite, so the opportunity to visit two of them in one day was probably a good enough reason to be here. And the possibility of a curry, of course – this is, after all, the home of the balti (I may have mentioned this already).

But the opportunity to travel on real museum pieces was a huge bonus and an experience that doesn't come along every day. Plus I was keen to see and meet bus enthusiasts up close and chat to them about transport and stuff.

Oh. Big mistake.

I arrived at Aston Manor nice and early (in fact, it was before they'd even opened, but they still let me in... easy-going bunch, these bus enthusiasts). I soon got chatting to one of the museum helpers, but as soon as he realised that I hail from the North East of England, he immediately launched into an extremely technical and detailed conversation about Bristol REMH's, after first admitting to me that "...he'd always been a Bristol man" and had even lived there once.

This was all slightly disconcerting. I hadn't a clue what he was talking about, yet he clearly thought that I was just as knowlegeable as him. However, before I had a chance to commit a major faux pas by telling him that Bristol's are all well and good but I was personally more a leg man, it slowly began to dawn on me that we were actually talking about buses. So I quickly slipped into MRM (Male Recovery Mode) by starting to nod, smile and generally "ah, yes... ah-ha, well now..." in a non-committal sort of way in a bid to keep him going whilst I figured out what the hell we were talking about.

Incidently, and I probably shouldn't be giving this away, but this is a technique practised by most men, usually on their womanfolk. Blokes can find the "ah, yes... ah-ha, well now..." technique very useful for covering up the fact that whilst their wife was explaining something terribly important about, say, next door's washing machine, they were in fact thinking about what that weathergirl off the telly would look like in just her underwear and a pink duffle coat. So when said wife then proceeds to seek the husband's perspective on, say, next door's washing machine, he can use this technique to flannel about convincingly for a bit whilst he picks up enough clues from his wife to make a reasonable stab at an answer.

Anyway, I finally figured out that this gentleman was referring to the long-distance coaches that I used to travel on to London as a child, so after exchanging a few personal anecdotes we eventually parted on good terms. But it was a close-run thing.

And it illustrates an important lesson on the dangers of speaking to any kind of enthusiast – unless you really, really know your stuff, I mean right down to chassis numbers and engine specifications and moquette variations, you can quickly get out of your depth.

In fact, the same thing happened to me again later in the day when I shared a picnic table with a father and his teenage son. It was a simple enough conversation, but I was totally floundering within seconds. Thank God they didn't ask me any questions...

Whilst Aston Manor Transport Museum was fairly big – it has previously been a corporation tram depot - the museum at Wythall was a lot bigger and rather well laid out. The main exhibition hall was carefully arranged by period – the 30's, the 40's, that sort of thing – with loads of well-written and helpful information panels for idiots like me. Outside, there were two other hangars full of buses, some preserved, some less so. And some a lot less so!

There was also a collection of electric milk floats and other vehicles to look at, plus there was an exhibition of model buses from a local modelling group. There was even a little steam railway in the grounds.

What was common to both museums, however, were the trade stands selling all manner of model buses and other vehicles, books and videos about buses, photographs of buses and bus jumble – cap badges, mechanical items, bus tickets, that sort of thing. These all seemed very popular.

Eventually, I caught an elderly Daimler double decker back into Birmingham and even though the bus was more than 50 years old it was a pretty smooth ride – at least as smooth as some of the more modern buses I have used on this trip – though a little slow on the hills.

So, it was an enjoyable day even if I was afraid to speak to anyone. It's been a pleasant enough day off, but the journey to John O'Groats starts again tomorrow and, if I'm honest, I'm itching to get going again.

And tomorrow starts with a tram ride...

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Excuse Me, Haven’t you Got Any Change...?

Day 12, and it's probably been the shortest day to date.

All I had to do today was to travel from Coventry, where I stayed last night, to Birmingham which was little more than an hour away. So, with a whole day ahead of me and only an hour of travelling to fill it with, I decided to take another look at Coventry's cathedral.

It being a Sunday, it seemed like a good idea to attend a service so that I could really see this amazing building in use. But in the event, it was even better than I could have hoped. I'd arrived in Coventry in the middle of their International Church Music Festival, so Sunday's Eucharist Service was to be against the background of Schubert's Mass in G delivered with the help of a 100-strong professional choir, a couple of fine soloists and the full might of the BBC Chamber Orchestra.

It was an amazing, spine-tingling experience and one I'll not easily forget.

I made my way to Coventry's Meadow Pool Bus Station, which probably the most palatial bus station I have yet encountered – shops, information screens, seating, even picnic tables, and it was wholly lit my natural daylight. Why can't they all be this way?

Unfortunately, things went disastrously wrong when the Stagecoach 900 service pulled up. I asked the driver for a ticket to Birmingham and handed him a £10, but he turned me away saying that he could only accept the right change. I rummaged through my pockets for loose change to drop into the slot device on the driver's door and managed to scrape together exactly £1.69p. The ticket to Birmingham cost £1.70p

So off I got to find a shop so that I could buy a packet of Polo mints with my £10 note. Barmy! It seems the drivers are not given the chance to handle any money at all as all the change falls into a sealed cash box via a sort of trapdoor with window so the driver can check you've put the right amount in. If any I'd known beforehand – but there were no signs, no warnings, no nothing.

The actual journey to Birmingham was quick and uneventful. The scenery was pretty uneventful, too, though we did pass through Meriden which used to be the home of the British motorbike industry (for a little while) and which also holds claim to the title of the absolute centre of England. Apparently nowhere else in England is as far from the sea as Meriden. Not the centre of Britain, however – I'll be passing through there much later in my trip.

Anyone getting off an airplane at Birmingham International Airport is able to catch a bus into town very easily – the bus stops are right outside the terminal. There is also, somewhat bizarrely, a fully-functioning Job Centre Plus in a set of Portacabins right next to the terminal. Crikey, things in the airline business must be bad!

I have not visited Birmingham in 25 years and the city as changed markedly in that time. It looks a lot more busy and prosperous. Shiny new office blocks, pedestrianised streets where once there were streets of dense traffic, it was all rather disorientating.

Birmingham being the home of the balti, you can probably guess what I had for tea tonight. Well, I had to, didn't I?

Tomorrow is Bank Holiday Monday and, more importantly, it's the day when the two local bus museums - at Aston Manor and at Wythall - get their exhibits out onto the road and use them to run visitors from one museum to the other. That's the whole reason for being here tomorrow – and I have to say I'm rather looking forward to it.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Sending Myself to Coventry


I have done Northampton bus station a slight injustice.

I admit that I was highly critical of it when I arrived last night, but I have subsequently discovered as I waited this morning for my bus to Rugby that it is, in fact, remarkably well equipped. There are abundant wooden benches to sit on, there is travel information in abundance, it is logically laid out, and is generally clean and litter free. Underneath, there are toilets and a cafe with escalators linking them to the platform waiting areas. I mean, it even has a bus wash.

It's just a pity it looks like the kind of alien abattoir that would be summoned from the imagination of Ridley Scott in one of his darker moods, and is accessed via an underground sewer.

Sorry, Northampton, that's as close to an apology you are going to get. Now, on with the journey!

This morning's driver on the 9.45 Stagecoach service to Rugby helpfully pointed me in the direction of a mega gold saver day thingy which saved me a couple pounds (i.e., at least a pint!), so clutching my ticket and having embraced my new found friend, we set off together into the rain.

Once through the sprawling suburbs of Northampton we were quickly into pleasant, open countryside. This appears to be landed gentry country, too, as the huge sandstone walls and the achingly attractive estate cottages which we kept passing seemed to testify. I thought this bit of the journey might be flat and boring, but it's proving to be anything but.

Picking up where we left off yesterday, we were once more crossing and re-crossing the M1 motorway and the West Coast mainline and the Grand Union and even, at one point, the A5. The whole purpose of the road we now call the A5 when it was built was to link parliament and the Crown with its troublesome colony over there in Ireland. That heroic road builder Thomas Telford did much to improve it and I hope to be catching up with some more of his works a little later in my journey.

Most of the older buildings around here seem to be made from a very bright and friable yellow sandstone which looks scarcely strong enough to bear its own weight. There's quite a bit of thatch, too, and lovely aged Victorian brick and tile, and the lanes joining these hugely attractive hamlets gently roll through the countryside along strips of smooth road fringed with cow parsley and flowering hawthorn. Smashing, despite the rain!

Daventry International Rail Port is passed on the road into Rugby. It's giant white sheds – and I mean absolutely flipping enormous airship-sized sheds – provide a distribution base for dozens of high street stores and supermarkets and I suspect that almost everything you buy in a chain store these days has probably passed through this place at one time or another.

As for Rugby, at which we arrive a few minutes later, well... I don't think it looks its best in the rain. I think we'll leave it there.

The run into Coventry aboard the 86 was every bit as pleasant as the trip up from Northampton, through astonishingly pretty villages of mixed and varied architectural styles. Most of these, I suspect, provide homes not for farm workers and village postmasters but for well-heeled commuters from Coventry, but frankly who could blame them.

Into Coventry, out into the rain and straight into the Coventry Motor Museum, which to my amazement is right in the heart of the city and is absolutely free.

And it's brilliant. I was in there for three hours all told (and, yes, they did have a display of locally-made buses – mainly Maudsleys and Daimlers, as you're asking) and the only reason I wasn't in there longer was because my wife wasn't there to keep holding me back saying "Hey, have you seen this". She'll do this, oh... 80 or 90 times in any one visit, and to be quite honest I've absolutely come to rely on it. So instead, I just went round twice. Well, it's free, isn't it...?

The rain had stopped by the time I visited the stunning Coventry Cathedral which was built almost amidst the ruins of the former cathedral which was destroyed in the appalling blitz of 14 November, 1940. It's a highly atmospheric and moving place which I intend visiting again before I leave.

As for the rest of Coventry city centre... well, it probably doesn't look its best in the rain.

Tomorrow I pass through the centre of England en route to Britain's second city, Birmingham. And I may possibly take a ride on the longest bus route in Britain. Or not!

The Well-Trodden Path to the North


Day 11 was always going to be something of a break-out, a determined effort to get away from London's cloying crowds and get myself up-country towards the next bit of the journey which begins in the West Midlands.

However, it was all so much more than I was expecting.

Watford had seemed pretty dismal when I arrived last night – poor-looking terraces, pizza take-away's and massage parlours – but the town centre I discovered this morning had a much more optimistic and brighter air and I rather liked it.

Onto the bus to Aylesbury then, and we were soon heading towards London's outer boundary, the M25, then under it and out the other side. As if to confirm that we had indeed left London behind, the first thing I spotted was a herd of Jersey cows resting in a roadside meadow. Red-tiled villages soon followed and it was clear that we were definitely out the other side.

We arrived in Hemel Hempstead via one of the most unnecessarily complicated roundabouts I had ever seen, which was negotiated in both directions of travel with the help of additional mini-roundabouts at each of the five junctions. Absolutely mad!

Despite its tall modern buildings close to the infamous roundabout – located there, one assumes, to give office staff a good view of the carnage and mayhem below – the centre of Hemel Hempstead has a late 50's feel about it with some rather fine post-war public buildings. Its architecture tells Hemel Hempstead's story, in that the town was developed almost from scratch just after the Second World War to provide new homes for London's bombed-out masses.

The road out of Hemel Hempstead takes us across water meadows and over a canal which I assume is the Grand Union Canal connecting the Thames with the industrial Midlands. We then dip under the West Coast mainline and the impression that this is a countryside often travelled through grows yet stronger. It's all very different to the counties bordering London's southern border. It's just as green and tree-lined and just as busily farmed, but its more spacious somehow, the sky seems bigger and the roads wider. It's almost like this is a countryside designed to be travelled through, which I suppose it probably is.

We visit a number of pleasing Chiltern towns and villages – Berkhamsted, Tring – before arriving at Aylesbury's subterranean bus station, an underground horror roofed with sewerage pipes and air conditioning ducts, dimly lit and hidden from sight beneath a sprawling and unnecessary shopping mall. It's truly horrible.

Venture outside and you'll immediately find a beautiful market place with a clock tower and a busy market, bustling and attractive streets and you wonder why on earth such a foul, windowless shopping mall could have been dropped into such a place.

I couldn't get out of Aylesbury – or, at least, its underground fume-filled bus station - quick enough and luckily I didn't have long to wait. My bus to Milton Keynes had leather seats, which was a luxurious touch in what was in all honesty a fairly ordinary and elderly single decker.

Through field after field of rape, bean and wheat we head towards Milton Keynes through gently rolling countryside with the tree-top Chilterns never far away. We cross and re-cross the West Coast mainline and the canal before arriving at Bletchley, which is busy and bustling and has the simplest and least stimulating bus station I have ever seen. It's a car park around the back of some tall building and nothing more. No attempt at design has been made, no imagination or creativity deployed. Well, it's only a bus station...

Let me tell you what it is like to find yourself in the middle of Milton Keynes.

Being in Minton Keynes is like being trapped on a vast business park, with islands of tall anonymous buildings set in a sea of tarmac and shrubbery. It's like a set for an episode of Doctor Who, but scarier. Despite the trees which optimistically line the broad boulevards, trying for all their might to lend a European and cosmopolitan air to the place, the effect is to distance people still further from the world around them – or at least one mad vision of the world.

I mean, separating people from traffic is logical enough, but the degree of separation is so extreme that it banishes pedestrians to the edges of the undergrowth which actually feels quite threatening. Reducing people to walking beneath roads in dank, graffiti-scarred underpasses whilst motorists above bask in the full blaze of the sun is difficult enough to justify during the hours of daylight, but at night...

For these reasons, and many more, Milton Keynes feels fragmented, furtive, abandoned. And this is on a bright sunny day in May. What it must feel like on a cold January morning can scarcely be imagined.

Eventually, I am out on Milton Keynes along its many, many shrub-lined dual carriageways, vainly looking for a view that may or may not be there, and on the road to Northampton. More lovely farmland and rough stone cottages, the road tracing ancient field boundaries on its journey from village to village.

Eventually, we arrive in Northampton - to an underground bus station of such a vast scale and of such mind-boggling awfulness that I'm genuinely surprised to see anyone waiting for buses there. It's enormous. You get to it by crawling all what feels like a drain to a flight of sick-spattered concrete stairs. It saps the will, it is a Dementor of a bus station, and I've got to go back there is the morning. Oh, God.

Time for a curry, I think...

Thursday, 27 May 2010

On The Town

This was to be the day that I finally, at the second attempt, nailed London. It was also to be a day of history and exploration, and I was really rather looking forward to it.

The day started with a visit to King's Cross railway station so that I could leave my rucksack at the Left Luggage office there – an experience which left me pondering on the way railway left luggage offices have changed over the years.

Once upon a time, which is approximately from around the dawn of time to I'd say roughly 1979, such places were generally tucked somewhere around the back of a station where they were overseen by a kind of superannuated porter in a waistcoat and cap. He (and it must have been a trade union diktat that it had to be a bloke, because it always was) would scribble your name with the stub of a pencil onto a khaki label, sprinkle fag ash on it from the butt that was permanently wedged in the corner of his mouth, and charge you fourpence for privilege. He would then absent-mindedly fling your bag or case into the farthest, unlit and cobweb-ridden corner of the office, ensuring that your return visit to reclaim your luggage would take at least 20 minutes and you'd probably miss your train.

Then in the 1980's, after the Thatcher Government had began helping British Railways to become leaner and meaner and had offered all its porters, left luggage attendants and other workers the amazing opportunity to embrace capitalism and seize the chance to become Aston Martin-owning entrepreneurs themselves by sacking them, we had irritating metal boxes to cope with, huge lockers of the kind you normally see in gyms and sports centre changing rooms, and which somehow never seemed quite big enough.

Then we had the London bombings, and that effectively was the end of Left Luggage.

But it's back, and thank goodness, only this time its run by a private company. It's got a shop front right on the concourse at King's Cross and it uses one of those luggage x-ray machines you normally see at airports. Well, you can see their point. And it probably helps to explain the cost - £8 for 24 hours – which is clearly calculated to turn a profit.

Anyway, having dropped off my bag, I headed for the Northern Line and the Angel underground station. For a long while, this station had the longest escalator in the world – now it's just the longest in Europe. And its long, I mean really, really long. In fact, it's so long that one wag decided to put on a pair of skis and do a Franz Klammer down it on the basis that it's probably the only decent ski-able slope in central London (it's certainly the longest, but I think we've established that). This mad fool also thought it would be a good idea to strap a video camcorder to the side of his head (as you do) before making the descent – and indeed it was a good idea, as the resulting video makes the phrase 'white knuckle ride' seem very, very inadequate. It's well worth watching - you'll find it on YouTube somewhere.

From there, I had a spot of lunch in an old Routemaster which has been converted into a vegan restaurant and parked up in the yard of the old Truman's brewery in Spittalfields. It's called the Root-Master (its vegan - get it?) and the food is quite brilliant, as is the whole atmosphere on the top deck, which has been rather stylishly laid out as a dining room. It's a must-do.

I then took a ride on the newly-reopened East London line through the first tunnel ever to be dug under the River Thames, by no less a person than Isambard Kingdom Brunel's son, Marc. This was also the first tunnel to be dug using a shield. Teams of diggers gradually moved this great circular digging platform forward inch by inch and once they had dug out sufficient clay and sand a huge cast iron ring was inserted. This clever system ensured that there was never more than a few feet of unsupported earthworks at any time. Then the shield was moved forward and process begun again and it kept going foot by foot and ring by ring until the whole tunnel had been dug. The same process is still in use today.

I then got lost in Rotherhithe for a bit, but I eventually found my way to Tower Bridge Road and caught a bus over the eponymous Tower Bridge. One of the bridge's many claims to fame is that it was once jumped by a double-decker bus whilst in the process of opening. This bizarre event happened during the 1950's (1951, I think) and was widely reported in the press at the time. The driver was happily driving across Tower Bridge when it inexplicably began to rise, presenting him with something of a dilemma – attempt to brake and risk ending up in the river, or just put your foot down and go for. Well, he went for it, breaking a leaf spring in the process but successfully making it to the other side. In truth, the gap was probably only a couple of inches but I'm quite prepared to believe that it seemed like a great deal more at the time! The driver, needless to say, was feted by the public for his undoubtedly quick thinking - and rightly so!

Then it was off at Tower Hill and onto one of the few Routemaster buses still running. Though withdrawn from service around the turn of the century, a small fleet of these most recognisable and iconic of London buses have been retained for so-called' heritage services' and I was able to catch one which ran past the Tower of London, St Paul's Cathedral, Fleet Street and The Strand. It's a hugely enjoyable experience which I'd recommend to anyone visiting London and to my mind there can be few finer or more atmospheric ways of seeing the sights.

The day ended with a journey by Metropolitan Line – the first underground railway in the world, no less – to Watford. This showed the other side to travelling in London –the sheer frustration of it.

Things began to go wrong when an Underground train broke down at Liverpool Street resulting in huge delays on the Circle, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan Lines. Minor chaos and long delays ensured. Then there was a train breakdown on the Jubilee Line at Waterloo bringing that to a standstill. And as if that wasn't bad enough, there were no less than two separate signal failures at different stations on the District Line which brought that to a virtual standstill, too. And all this during the rush hour!

Hopefully, I'm now well out of it – though Watford doesn't really feel that far, or that different, from London. Nice Underground station, though, even if it is miles from the town centre.

We'll see what Watford really looks like in the morning...

A Journey Through The Smoke


I'm back in London for the start of Bus Stop Britain part two – and, boy, am I going to be busy!

With all socks and t-shirts duly washed and ironed (the t-shirts, that is, not the socks...), I have completed my all-too-brief sojourn at home and made the long journey down from Tyneside to London for the start of the second phase of my journey through Britain by bus.

This phase of my travels will basically see me travelling back home again, albeit by way of the West Midlands, Wales, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Lancashire again and the Lake District. They don't call me Iain 'Scenic Route' Lynn for nothing! Actually, they don't call me Iain 'Scenic Route' Lynn at all because that would be rather silly... still, the scenic route home is the one I'll be taking and over the coming two weeks I'm looking forward to having you along with me- by Twitter and blog - on the way.

Today, which is actually Day 9 in my great Land's End to John O'Groats odyssey, will be spent doing two things – firstly, finishing off my aborted journey by bus into Central London that I attempted last week only to be thwarted by traffic and very, very,v-e-r-y slow buses, and secondly exploring some interesting public transport-related 'hey-wow's' that can be found within our nation's crowded capital.

As ever, if you know where to look you can come up with all kinds of surprises – but I'll leave that for tonight's blog.

In fact, I have already started, as you will see from the slightly bizarre photograph that accompanies this blog entry. You probably weren't expecting a churchyard but there's a good reason why I've been headstone-spotting and here it is.

I decided to begin this stage of my journey by paying my respects to the man who basically invented the omnibus as we know it, George Shillibeer. It was he who first launched the very first regular horse-drawn carriage service in London which, unlike private carriages or hackney cabs, was so inexpensive that almost everyone could use it. It revolutionised London, allowing people living some distance from their places of work – which most people did – to travel to work more quickly and in some comfort, and for the cost of just a few pennies. George gave his first public carriage – which was little more than a van fitted with bench seats, really – the rather grand name of Omnibus, and the name stuck.

It was soon apparent that George's idea was a good one and a highly lucrative one, too. Within a few short years, many more such omnibuses appeared on the streets of London and poor George, the progenitor of the whole public omnibus idea, found that in he couldn't compete against such overwhelming competition, and he was forced to sell up and move on.

George made a new life for himself in the east of London, in Chigwell, where it is thought his former omnibuses were adapted by him for his new life as an undertaker, which at least ensured that he continued to use his revolutionary vehicles to ferry people around – albeit dead people!

Actually, it is believed that he converted one of his now unused omnibuses into a revolutionary hearse-omnibus hybrid which allowed both the living and the recently-departed to share a vehicle for a cosy journey to the graveyard, but I understand they were not a great success (largely on the grounds of taste, I should think). George was himself to make that final journey in 1865 and he now lies, largely uncelebrated, in modest plot in the graveyard of St Mary's Church in Chigwell.

Well, having paid my respects to George Shillibeer, I'll be putting his invention, which first turned a wheel some 185 years ago, to excellent use over the coming two weeks as I make my way north from London. Much of the estimated 450 mile criss-crossing journey to Tyneside will be undertaken by bus, with the odd tram or ferry thrown in for added spice, so it should be possible by the end of all that to see whether George's invention has stood the test of time.

The question is.... will I?

Friday, 21 May 2010

Thwarted at Last


It was never going to be easy, it was never meant to be pleasant. But in the event, it was all much, much worse than I expected.

My simple aim was to find a way into and across London by bus, but calling in at Croydon en route to take a ride on one of their trams. I've given myself a head start by pitching my tent (metaphorically, that is, I was actually staying in a Travelodge) in Leatherhead last night, still technically in Surrey but very near to where London really starts.

The first part of the journey was fine, with me back on the 479 only this time I was going all the way through to Epsom. The change over to the 470 in Epsom was pretty smooth, too, albeit after a 25 minute wait. But that's where things began to unravel.

I was travelling to Sutton so I could pick up the 407 to Croydon. Having arrived in Sutton, I spotted that my bus was pulling into a bus stop that also catered for the 407, so I quickly jumped off. Then I realised that the 407 I would be catching from that stop would be going in the wrong direction so I needed to cross the road. Fine, I thought. It was a warm sunny day. So be it.

Waiting as I was for a gap in the traffic, it slowly dawned on me that the road I was attempting to cross was, in fact, one-way – so there was no bus stop on the other side. Somewhat irritated, I began to wander around looking for the right bus stop, but there appeared to be one-way roads going off in all directions and none of them seemed to have bus stops for the 407. It was maddening, not to mention hot and tiring (did I mention it was a warm sunny day?).

So after walking for what seemed like eighteen or nineteen miles, I eventually made my way back to where I had first got off and – quite cunningly, I thought - caught the 407 going the wrong way so that I could catch the bus at the terminus. Except there wasn't really a terminus at all – the driver just shoved everyone off and then parked up to have a fag and a sleep somewhere. At least he told me where to go to catch the 407 which was going in the right direction (more bloody walking).

Anyway, the 407 turns up and off we go to Croydon where I pick up a swish tram at the exotically-titled Centrale. Oh, this is the way to travel – smooth, silent, you feel like you are being wafted on a carpet of air. It runs partly on its own tracks along what I assume are disused railway lines, and partly down the middle of the street – very European!

I get off at Beckenham Junction and look for the 54 bus to Woolwich. This, too, arrives pretty quickly and we are soon underway but the traffic is really building now and its taking ages to get there. Eventually we arrive in Woolwich and I spend another 10 minutes looking for the bus stop for the 53 to the Old Kent Road (more walking – did I mention it was a warm day? Well, by then it was hot).

The 53 takes so long getting through the traffic, it actually seems to be going backwards. So instead of getting off at the Old Kent Road for a bus over Tower Bridge that would connect me with a Routemaster to Trafalgar Square and an Underground train to Kings Cross and thus home to change my socks, I decided to stay on until we got to Westminster and proceed directly to Kings Cross passing neither jail nor Go!

I was looking forward to the Routemaster and the crossing of Tower Bridge, so I'll have complete this part of the journey next week. I'm aiming to spend at least a day looking at transport in the capital anyway but at present I am speeding home to Tyneside by rail so I can spend the week-end washing my socks and generally being cosseted by my family (if they still remember me).

I may blog a few reflections over the week-end, of course, but the journey re-starts in earnest next Wednesday (27 May 2010).

See you then....

Thursday, 20 May 2010

The Road Turns North


Today was always meant to be a travelling day to get me from the South Coast of England, which has been pretty much the basis of my journey so far, to the outskirts of London where a whole new story about public transport starts to unfold. But, of course, it wasn't as simple as that.

Today's travels started outside of Brighton's joyously insane Royal Pavilion where I caught the bus to Tunbridge Wells, after waiting in the sun at one of a number of what appeared to be art deco-style bus shelters dating from the 1930's. They are amazing and strangley uplifting structures, which only goes to show that in Brighton there are surprises around every corner!

I had already decided that I wanted to visit Tunbridge Wells, which in cultural terms is the very acme of conservatism (with a small 'c') and the home of that newspaper letter's page cliché, "Angry of Tunbridge Wells". And the reason I wanted to visit was because of the town's erstwhile stage coach and a certain delicious irony attached to its name.

During the 1700's, most large towns had their own stage coach which would take passengers – usually well-heeled passengers – up to London. In turn, the coaches brought news from the Capital and thereby almost by accident became responsible for disseminating the news of the day from the city, from government and the Crown, to the rest of the country. It wasn't long before the stage coach operators started to give themselves imposing names like 'Telegraph' and 'Herald' and 'Star', names which they felt reflected their new-found importance and which helped to give their services a certain style.

Later, when the publication of newspapers became more widespread and people developed the habit of taking a paper, their editors and publishers looked around for titles which would give them the necessary gravitas - and most looked no further than their nearest coaching inn, where stage coach names had already become synonymous with delivering the latest news. Hence the profusion of Argus's and Telegraphs's and Herald's and the like.

Now back to Tunbridge Wells. Given its undoubted conservatism, it's as unlikely a place you can imagine to have an association with the Communist Party of Great Britain, yet I've discovered one and it's all thanks to the name of its former stage coach to London. This coach was called The Morning Star, which is also the name with the Communist Party's own newspaper. I suspect this might have been the only occasion on which The Morning Star was actually welcomed into Tunbridge Wells!

From Tunbridge Wells I journeyed across an area of South East England called The Weald, which was somewhere I knew little about. I was genuinely astonished by the beauty not just of the landscape – mature trees and well-tended farmland as far as the eye could see – but of the towns and villages we passed through.

This is archetypal English country landscape which I assumed was little more than a rose-tinted myth but, as a result of today's travels, I'm now going to have to completely reappraise my opinion of those flag-waving, stiff upper lip war films of the 1940's and 1950's which I had thought painted an idealised picture of Britain - cricket on the green, ivy-covered pubs, roses around the cottage windows, that kind of thing. Now I find they clearly didn't - they simply painted a picture of The Weald. And its still there...

My journey brought me to Crawley and thence to Horsham and Guildford before I made the final leg of today's journey to Leatherhead. All told, it's been a lot more interesting and much more enjoyable than I had been expecting, so it wasn't just a matter of putting the miles in, today was definitely a bonus.

Tomorrow will see me looking for a way into London (this part of the trip is mostly unplanned) where I hope to have an appointment with a tram, travel over one of London's iconic landmarks in the wheel tracks of a bus driver-cum-Evel Kenevil, and travel on London's favourite bus, the Routemaster.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Floating On Air... and Definitely In The Pink


I'd popped out last night to check out my means of leaving the Isle of Wight in the morning – at the hovercraft terminal just next to the pier at Ryde.

I can't tell you how excited I was at the prospect of a trip on a hovercraft. I'd assumed that these amazing machines had been consigned to history until I began researching possible routes for my end to end trip. All of the cross channel services had disappeared in the 1970's and whilst I knew that the armed forces still use a military version, I'd assumed that was it.

But no – here they were, still providing a regular ferry services across the Solent between Ryde and Southsea. I simply had to try one...

Boarding a hovercraft is a little like boarding an aircraft. They even talk about hovercraft 'flights' rather than crossings, there is a departure lounge procedure to go through with bar-coded boarding passes though fortunately no security, and the interior of a hovercraft looks very much like a wide-bodied aircraft – right down to the aircraft-style seats (but no seat belts).

Feeling the craft physically rise up of the concrete apron as the engines revved, and then gradually start to disappear backwards and sideways onto the beach was a bizarre experience. And then we were off, gathering speed over the beach until we were absolutely hurtling towards the sea.

In no time at all (well, about ten minutes actually) we were in Southsea under bright sun and clear powder blue skies, and my first ever journey on what must be one of the most unusual and unique forms of public transport was over. I was so moved by the experience, however, that I sat on the beach in the warm morning sun next to the terminal and watched the 'Solent Express' disappear back over the Solent with more passengers. It was such a startling sight that just couldn't tear myself away, so I watched it come back again, too!

Fortunately, it was but a short step from the hovercraft terminal to the bus stop for the 700 Coastliner service. This service runs all the way from Southsea, into Portsmouth and Chichester and along the coast to Brighton. The first stretch to Chichester was through lush open farmland fringed with elms and poplars and with clear views of the Downs beyond – a classic English landscape.

I got off at Chichester to find a bit of lunch and have a walk around this attractive little town (or is it a city? Certainly, it has a cathedral). In fact it has a lot more than a cathedral as there is a whole complex of religious buildings around it – Deanery, Treasurers House, a row of priests' houses and much else besides. The shopping centre around the cathedral has a delicious country town feel to it which I rather enjoyed and I could have spent much longer there. But the road, as they say, goes ever on...

I'd hoped to be able to see the sea on much of journey to Brighton, but in fact I had to wait until the bus reached Worthing for my first glimpse of the English Channel. The beach here runs close to the road and frequently is only divided from it by shingle bars, lines of fishing boats and neat rows of beach huts.

Past Shoreham and its busy harbour and docks then on to Hove, another picturesque seaside town and one which appears to morph seamlessly into Brighton, where my journey ended.

The whole journey by Coastliner takes around three and a half hours, and with a Day Rover ticket you can get off and on as many times as you choose, which for only £7.30 seems to me rather good value.

Brighton is bright, busy and brash and there's clearly something here for everyone. Last time I visited I'd just completed the London to Brighton Cycle Ride, so I'm looking forward to being able to take a look around whilst not being absolutely fagged out!

Brighton, of course, has a flourishing gay scene which certainly accounts for some of its liveliness. It has a Gay Quarter where most of the city's gay pubs, gay nightclubs and hotels are based. And where my hotel is based - right slap in the middle of it.

Of course, their website said nothing about it being bang in the middle of the pink quarter, did it..!

So Far, So Good...

It's now Wednesday 19th May and I am just about to undertake the sixth day of my journey. And with five days of travel behind me, I've been reflecting on my journey and consider how it has gone and what I have learnt so far.

In five days I have travelled all the way from Land's End to Ryde on the Isle of Wight. I have made a total of 17 bus journeys, two of them open-top, four by minibus and another four by fairly elderly double decker. I have travelled on two ferries (one of them whilst still sitting on a bus), on a former commuter train which I thought had been scrapped long ago – and which by the end of this week will be - and on a refurbished London Underground train.

And all things considered ,it's a case of so far, so good. All the buses I have taken have turned up pretty much on time – except one which didn't turn up at all, forcing me to wait more than an hour for the next one. Generally, I haven't had to wait for ages at bus stops and that's a lot better than I expected.

Bus drivers have, on the whole, been friendly and genuinely helpful, and from my vantage point at the top deck of a bus – open top or not – I have privileged to witness some tremendous views and a lot of truly stunning scenery that I would never have encountered behind the wheel of a car.

I feel rested and relaxed and I'm beginning to wonder why more people don't do this.

However, having now passed through four counties, and having just passed the night on the Isle of Wight, I'm preparing to make the short voyage back to the mainland in some trepidation.

I'm heading for Portsmouth now and then travelling onwards to Brighton and things, I suspect, are going to change because I am starting to travel through much more heavily-populated areas. More people means more cars, more congestion, more out-of-town shopping centres. More importantly, more cars could mean more delays caused by traffic congestion, and therefore longer waits at the bus stop.

So, will it all become a lot more difficult from now on?

Well, we'll see....

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

I've Got A Ticket to Ryde


I stayed in a rather lovely – and, apparently, famously haunted – 17th century coaching inn in Lymington last night. But before turning in, and after easing down a rather fine curry, I thought it would be a good idea to walk to the Isle of Wight ferry landing to see how long a walk I would have in the morning.

I eventually arrived at the pier and it was already apparent that the walk would take a good 20 minutes which, with a heavy backpack, would be no small undertaking. Fortunately, it was at this point that a train pulled into the hitherto unspotted railway platform alongside the ferry terminal. I'd passed the main Lymington town station on my way from the restaurant but assumed it was a terminus – but it patently wasn't, the pier was the real end of the line.

What really caught my eye, though, was the type of train that pulled in – it was one of those old slam-door types I myself (along with millions of South East commuters) had used in the 1970's when travelling between Waterloo and Godalming in Surrey. As these trains were now more than 50 years old, I'd assumed they had all been scrapped long ago, but here they were. And when I looked properly, I noticed a poster on the platform saying that this was they're last week in service.

Well, could I resist one last ride on a train loved and loathed in equal measure by millions of City gents? What do you think...

So, yes, I caught the train for the 60 second journey from Lymington to Lymington Quay where I embarked (that's naval term, apparently) for the short crossing to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight. Fantastic. I love ferry journeys. They're such an event, people throwing ropes, ringing bells, it's all so theatrical. And the fresh air is good, too.

After arriving, it was quickly onwards to The Needles by open-top bus where I spent hours just lounging in the sun and admiring the views. Then it was back to Yarmouth and on to Newport to the Isle of Wight bus museum - my first such museum of the trip.

In my experience, which admittedly is not extensive, I find you can always rely on bus museum folk to be friendly and aproachable, and this museum is definitely no exception. Though small, it has an interesting collection of vehicles with many more to call on for open days and the like.

It's future is uncertain, however. Leased from the local council, the building – it's a shed, really - is in a prime quayside redevelopment area and the museum believes its only a question of time before the Council decides to decline to renew it's lease. However, finding somewhere else, with a purpose-built structure close to the island's preserved steam railway being the favoured option, is not without its problems, not least from the planning point of view.

These are good people and I hope they are successful and that everything eventually works out. In the meantime, pay them a visit and swell their coffers a bit – I have a feeling they are going to need every last penny.

Back on the bus, this time to Shanklin on the souh coast of the island. I wasn't going for a paddle, though.

I was always going to include the Island Line in my journey because it is local public transport and not part of a national network and therefore fair game. But more importantly, I wanted to ride the Island Line because it is a piece of living history.

To those who don't know, the island's regular railway system which runs from Shanklin to Ryde Pier is operated using former Underground trains dating from 1938. That's right, since before the war.

Think of all those black and white photos of people sheltering from the Blitz, sleeping on the platforms of Underground stations whilst the trains passed by a few inches from their heads. Well, these were the trains that were doing the passing. In the blackout. With Nazi bombs going off overhead. And it was one of those very trains that carried me to tonight's overnight stay in Ryde, in perfect comfort and without breaking down.

To my reckoning, these lovely old trains have been in almost continual service for more than 70 years – now, that's got to be some kind of record.

The only buses hereabouts that are anywhere near that age are probably in the Isle of Wight Bus Museum...

Monday, 17 May 2010

Blue Skies, Blue Waves, Blue Rinses


The weather in Weymouth was so beautiful this morning that I should have expected to see a few more people on the bus. In the event, I was lucky simply to get on.

When I got to my bus stand after a swift look around the harbour and backstreets of Weymouth, I was greeted with a lengthy crocodile of pensioners all along the pavement and across the seafront - and they were all heading my way. Still, I managed to squeeze onto the X53 and found a seat on the top deck (those steps really sorted the youthful from the not-so-youthful) and, in a gentle haze of camphorated oil and lily-of-the-valley, we set off.

I was bound for the historic town of Wareham, but I didn't have time to check it out because I had an onward connection to Swanage to make. This route – service no. 40 – was stunning. We sped out of Wareham and soon found ourselves staring that the gaunt ruins of Corfe Castle. Impressive stuff, but what was even more impressive was the village which appeared from behind it. Each building was crafted out of honey-colour stone, with Yorkshire Dales-like stone roofs, giving the effect of the village being some kind of idealistic to-good-to-be-true film set. You know, the kind of place Hollywood executives think we all live in. But this was for real and, yet again, I found myself quickly running out of superlatives.

The steep climb out of Corfe Castle offered stunning views back at the but I'd already run out of superlatives by this time so I just moaned gently. Didn't half give the old lady sitting next to me a fright...

Then we were down into Swanage, a bustling seaside town with its own preserved railway and, of course, its own preserved railway station (how lucky can some towns get). I changed to the service 50 – the so-called Purbeck Flyer – and we climbed out of Swanage and down to the open healthland of Studland and onto the narrow neck of Poole Harbour and the Sandbacks Ferry which plies it.

The ferry works in quite a smart way. It doesn't have propellers or anything, it simply drags itself through the water on chains which are attached to each bank, but that's not the weird thing about it. What is really weird is sitting in a double decker bus and watching powerboats and sailing dingys floating past the windscreen. Couldn't get used to that...

We were soon in Bournemouth, which at first I hated but then I discovered that it is possible to nip down away from all the shops into the bourne, or chine... you know, the grassy bit with the steam that runs through the centre of Bournemouth, and walk a few minutes past neat flower beds and blossom-laden trees and find yourself suddenly and unexpectedly on Bournemouth Pier, with miles of golden beach disappearing to left and right. Neat!

I resisted the urge to paddle (just) but had a quick play on the beach for old time's sake.

The X12 took me to Lymington at the foot of the New Forest and it turned out to be a pretty dismal journey, past cruelly expensive beachside villas looking for all the world like beached ocean liners, and street after street of wannabe detached homes which you just knew were expensive but which I couldn't find anything in them to like. It was all so competitive, so conservative, characterless, complacent. I tell you, if I ever upset the Big Guy and he decides to send me to hell to punish me, I reckon this is where he'll send me.

Lymington is... (sorry, had another superlative failure there) and what made it even better was the fact that the bus station was right opposite my hotel, which is an 18th century inn. I was so pleased, I marched straight up to reception and promptly ordered a pint of Ringwood Bitter and applied it orally. Well, what better way to end a day.

Actually, there is a better way. Sorry, I didn't mean to, honest, but somehow I found myself in an Indian restaurant. So I had a curry. Oh, bliss...

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Coast and Moorland


I only made two bus journeys today, but they were both long ones – from Plymouth over Dartmoor to Exeter, and from Exeter to Weymouth along the Jurassic Coast of Dorset - so in fact they took up most of the day.

The day started badly, however – as, frankly, any day would if it started at Bretonside bus station in Plymouth. This subterranean drain, which some architectural basket case decided to build underneath the main road into Plymouth's joyous central shopping area, must rank as one of the most unpleasant, dank, and downright awful bus interchanges in the UK. Grotesque just doesn't do it. It is elaborately and mysteriously fluid-stained, it feels positively dangerous even in daylight and I just couldn't wait to leave.

Unfortunately, I had to wait because the bus, despite actually starting at Bretonside and not being delayed by previous passengers and traffic en route – and this was early on a Sunday morning, after all - was late in arriving. No reason was given and I assumed the driver was just as reluctant to be there as his passengers - and frankly who could blame him.

We made excellent time, however, and were soon up on the slopes of Dartmoor in wide open moorland (apparently, as we were actually in a heavy fog at the time). The fog began to clear the higher we climbed onto Dartmoor, however, eventually revealing that classic landscape of rocky tors and wiry moorland grass interspersed with groups of damp Dartmoor ponies.

Overall, the views from the bus were just stupendous – and if it had been a double decker they would have been even better (First Bus, please note). There was a lot of scenery to enjoy before we left the moorland heights and began the long, woody decent into Exeter.

I could happily live in Exeter. It's a fine, clean, attractive and well-ordered city which I found difficult not to like. I kept coming across ruined churches in the city centre, however, so perhaps it's a little more dark and boisterous than it seems...

The X53 from Exeter Bus Station (which is definitely not a drain) took me on the long run along the Jurassic Coast of East Devon and Dorset - so called because of the wealth of seriously big and important fossils this coastline has produced over the last 150 years or so.

You don't have to be a transport enthusiast to enjoy this journey. Freed of the responsibility of driving (or navigating) I was free to just take it all in, and it was just as well. Every single village we passed through today – Lyne Regis, Seaton, Bridport, Abbotsbury – was insanely and elaborately picturesque. I mean, real jaw-dropping, gasp out loud gorgeous, chocolate box stuff,with a picture post card around every single corner. It's incredible. How can one area of the country get to have so much obvious beauty in such a small area? Doesn't seem fair, somehow.

As a result, today's journey on the X53 was an absolute treat, despite the misty grey weather. What must it be like on a sunny day? Pretty amazing, I'd think.

But if it's amazing you want, then that first view of the extraordinary seven-mile long Chesil Beach from high, high above Abbotsbury could leave you utterly speechless. It's stunning, viewed from such a height it's just like an aerial photograph - and I think this view alone is probably worth the price of the bus ticket.

Eventually, more than three hours and no less than three driver changes later, the bus pulls onto Weymouth's elegant Georgian seafront. It's been a breath-taking trip today, but the West Country is disappearing behind me now and frankly I'm sad to see it go.

Tomorrow I set sail across Poole Harbour on an open-top bus... and I think I forgot to pack my wellies. Oh, well....

Saturday, 15 May 2010

A Tale of Two Cities


Almost anywhere looks better on a bright sunny morning, but I don't thinh it was simply today's weather that made Truro look so pretty. This is in every sense a perfect little city of cobbled streets and fine old buildings dressed in pale warm granite. There's a host of crooked ways and its easy – and rewarding - to get lost among them. I did, and I loved it.

There's a fine old Brunel railway station up the hill, of course, but for me the architectural top dog has to be the cathedral, which manages to look both cool and simple and exquisitely decorative at the same time. Worth a peek inside, too.

But I didn't have time to wait around – I had a bus to catch and I was all too soon on the road to Newquay, which is on Cornwall's Atlantic coast. The journey there, by double decker (guess where I was sitting – that's right, on top at the front), was along Cornwall's by now familiar narrow country lanes, but this time the landscape had more of a downland feel to it with soft rounded hills and huge airy skies. There were very few trees and those that were had that withered wind-blown look that spoke of Atlantic gales that blew for 12 months of the year.

Newquay must have been quite grand during Victorian and Edwardian times but like many such seaside resorts along Britain's coast has fallen on harder times since. It's still a-buzz with activity, though, thanks to a youthful surfer crowd who now swarm over this coastline and who are catered for by the dozens of brash and noisy bars which have recently sprung up. That this youthful influx is not always a happy state of affairs for local residents - despite the much-needed income they clearly bring to the town - is evidenced by signs in some shop doorways informing people that "this is not a toilet" and that CCTV cameras are being trained on them.

Newquay was followed by a spectacular run up the coast to the once-pretty village of Padstow – a place now so full of tourists that it difficult to see much pretty in it any more. The setting is wonderful, of course, a cluster of shops and bars around an old harbour with a warren of pictureseque narrow streets behind.

But there are two centres to Padstow now – the harbour, and the renowned TV chef Rick Stein's own fish and chip shop which is based in a strikingly modern building a little further along the quay. On a bright and sunny day like today, the crowds are split equally between those who are in and around Rick's chippie and are eating fish and chips as if the cod is about to become extinct (which, of course, it is), and those who have already eaten their fish and chips and are now strolling contentedly around the harbour. Leaving Padstow was something of a relief, I'm afraid to say.

Onwards then to Bodmin where I take yet another of my now customary strolls around the town whilst waiting for a connection. Here were all the features of a fine Cornish town – higgledy piggledy narrow streets, stately granite buildings, cunning little back lanes – but the presence of empty shops and numerous 'To Let' signs (which I'd seen very few of so far) suggested that Bodmin was feeling the wearing effects of the recession rather more than other towns, and was showing them.

I got off in the centre of Plymouth, the second city of my travels today, and I immediately felling love with the place. Personally, I blame the Germans.

Even by wartime standards, Plymouth had a hard war. Thanks to the proximity of the Devonport naval dockyards, the city took a right old clobbering from the Nazis during World War Two, with the result that there wasn't much of the city centre that was still standing by 1945 (apart from the medieval Barbican area which miraculously survived and which is a joy to behold). So after the war the city fathers set about re-building the city centre in the mode of the modern-thinking but essentially pre-war trained 1950's, with the result that Plymouth now boasts a grand and elegant central shopping centre joyfully crafted from that most dignified of building material, pale Portland stone. It is a joy. And it's clearly commercially successful.

It will be difficult to leave tomorrow, but the road leads me ever onwards - to Dartmoor and the Jurassic Coast of Dorset. Unfortunately, it will rain - but at least it might lend yet more character to Dartmoor's misty wastes!

Friday, 14 May 2010

Here We Go....


At last, after all the months of planning, the trip is underway. And appropriately enough, the first bus journey of the whole End to End thing, indeed the first leg of the trip, was carried out in a bus operated by First (see picture). Well, who else!

I strongly suspect I tasted what will prove to be the two major aspects of rural bus travel in Britain today. One of them, the other less good.

The good bit was my enjoyment of the spectacular journey from Land's End to Penzance at the capable hands of Jason, our fearless driver. The scenery was superb – soft, lush and wind-blown - but it was made doubly so by the fact that it wasn't me who was driving so I was free to take in the view. And, just as importantly, I was on the top deck of a double decker which meant that unlike someone in the passenger seat of a car I could easily see over Cornwall's customary high hedges.

At the front of the top deck I was also in roughly the same airspace occupied by birds such as swallows and finches, so I sometimes felt that I was flying along not only with them but actually amongst them, which was rather nice. They seemed to be enjoying it as much as I was!

Equally splendid airy ride from Penzance to Helston, but then the downside of rural bus services became painfully apparent.

I was aiming to take a bus from Helston to The Lizard and had planned accordingly. Unfortunately, and unknown to me, the bus companies had in the past few weeks changed, which meant that the service I was looking for no longer ran. Fortunately, a competitor (Western Greyhound) had taken over the route but left later so I ended up with a longer wait at the bus stop than I bargained on. And when the bus came, of course, I couldn't use my previously purchased First day rover ticket and had to buy another.

But it was the journey back to Helston that proved to be the real nightmare. Despite bursting several blood vessels and tearing muscles and ligaments a-plenty ensuring I was back at the bus shelter in time for the return leg, I found myself waiting for an hour and a quarter anyway because the bus simply didn't turn up. All of which made me an hour and a bit late for my onward connection to Truro where I am presently staying.

Still, I find that the minor frustrations of the day can be effectively cured with curry, so proceeded to apply said remedy the help of a rather splendid Nepalese curry at one of Truro's numerous restaurants, the Kathmandu Palace.

So, what have I learnt? Well, it seems that buses cannot always be relied upon (which I suspected all along but didn't expect to fall victim of such so quickly!)

I have a feeling that I'm going to have to get used to this sort of thing...

Thursday, 13 May 2010

The End

Well, it's taken the best part of a day to get here, but at last I am at the start – Land's End.

Actually ,it was a pretty easy journey. The flight from Newcastle to Exeter was smooth and without incident, though nobody can make the whole process of flying anything less than ghastly. Getting through security, even for an internal flight, is excruciatingly stressful though at least I did not have to take my shoes off to prove that I wasn't carrying gelignite in my socks.

Airports themselves are pretty chilling, soul-less places at the best of times – with all that waiting around, the constant warnings over the PA about unattended baggage and the crazy security, its no surpriose there's a tangible unseen terror pervading everything. Frankly, airports often seem to be a bit like a shopping mall crossed with an operating theatre.

Compared to the stresses of flying, catching the bus into Exeter was a piece of cake. As was catching the train to Penzance – a much more pleasant way to travel. Stunning views as the track clings to cliff before plunging deep into the low rolling hills of Cornwall.

Penzance is an attractive little town set against an enviable ocean backdrop. It is a town of small shops, and all the richer for it. Yes, the big High Street chains are here, but they are constricted by the generally small size of the buildings themselves and therefore there is plenty of room left for smaller shops to succeed. And succeed they do, it seems.

The bus station is on the harbour side and passengers wait beneath white tented canopies which look appropriately like sails. Nice touch, I thought. One slightly worrying feature, however, was the length of time I had to wait for my bus to Land's End – about an hour and a half! When it came, though, I was delighted to find it was an open-topper so everyone trooped upstairs and we all enjoyed an exhilarating, sun-blest and wind-blown ride to Land's End.

Land's End itself is in every sense a visitor centre (ker-ching...) with amusements (ker-ching...), Ye Olde Pasty Shoppes (ker-ching) and about a dozen other ways for you pointlessly spend your money. It's a sort of smaller, less fun-packed Blackpool but with fewer lights.

I'm staying at the Land's End Hotel, which is rather smart and has a fabulous dining room looking out over the cliffs. I bathed during my meal in a rather wonderful sunset with finished the day off better than a malt whisky (though only just).

Tomorrow, I'm going home... though it may take a little while!

Monday, 10 May 2010

Look, You Don't Know Me But...

I'm one of millions of people who travel to work each day on a crowded bus or train. I then spend most of my working day in a busy office filled with ringing phones and with people, lots of people, most of whom I know quite well and quite a number I'd count as friends. At lunchtime, I'll usually go shopping, dipping in and out of the crowds to buy food or a paper, or take yet another roll of my son's colour film in for processing.

And, when the working day is done, I clamber back onto my crowded bus or train and head for home, which for me is a modest house filled (in no particular order) with young adults, their friends, a particularly waggity-tailed dog who adores me, a wife who used to adore me and probably still does providing I don't forget to put my shoes away or leave my jacket over the back of the sofa, and with sundry rabbits and guinea pigs who don't adore anyone but are content to be treated as pets by anyone who is happy to feed them.

You see, there's always something going on. Questions to be answered, homework to be checked, issues of the day to be discussed and, inevitably, new 'things' to be costed and payments to be agreed. Tickets to order, bills to be paid, diaries to be coordinated. Frankly, there's hardly time to sleep...

But then this slightly mad end-to-end trip of mine comes along (in 4 days time, actually) and it all changes. Home will be the same, of course - a little quieter, perhaps, fewer shoes in the middle of the room - but I won't be. I'll be completely on my own, going where I want to go, eating what I want when I want, making my own decisions, and almost all of them decisions which will effect nobody else but me.

So I'll be alone. Independent, probably for the first time since I was a student. Utterly free. Free as a bird.

That's good, then...

Except - what happens when I see something truly amazing, a fabulously beautiful view perhaps, or an especially mad garden filled with fluorescent concrete gnomes and stuff, and I find myself turning around and involuntarily uttering those four little words "Cor, look at that!"... and there's nobody there to share it with?

When you are around people a lot (and in my house, that's pretty much a given) you can't help but get used to sharing things. Not just the customary viral infections and socks and under garments and stuff, but real things like thoughts and reactions, opinions and ideas, the sort of thing which can make even the simplest concept - like, exactly who's turn is it to clear the table - the subject of a long, explorative, detailed and frequently heated debate.

But its more than that. It's interaction, its chat, its contact and ultimately its the glue that holds us as a family together. It's mostly good-natured, and entirely natural.

Once I leave the family behind, though, and I head off alone for the furthest bus stops of Britain, it's all going to be very, very different.

To begin with, I doubt I will ever have spent so long without seeing someone I know. It occurred to me a while ago that I'm extremely unlikely to encounter anyone during my 29 day trip that I am presently or previously acquainted with, and that's just a little bit unsettling. Being constantly surrounded by strangers instead of friends will be a bizarre experience, and its not one I am especially looking forward to.

So, as a defence against that, I'm having to develop the skills - and quickly - of initiating conversation with complete strangers without alarming them or they immediately assuming that I am a dangerous sociopath. I think I'm basically fairly affable and approachable, and as a journalist I'm used to asking questions, so perhaps I'm making more of this than is strictly necessary. But its all ever-so-slightly outside of my comfort zone. I just hope I never have to ask a stranger where I can buy a sharp knife, or weed killer...

Will I tire of my own company? Well, possibly. Generally, I consider myself to be sufficiently eccentric to keep myself amused most of the time, so I can only hope that other people will find me equally amusing and I therefore don't have too much of my own company to tire of.

Or I could just listen to my iPod, of course.