Thursday, 10 June 2010

Shake, Rattle and Splash


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I’ll be doing that on Monday.

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