Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Into The Hills... Again!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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