Monday 29th April 2019
Today’s been a fascinating day visiting three tiny islands off England’s north west coast alongside Barrow in Furness.
Until a few months ago when planning this adventure I had no idea they even existed!
The Borough of Barrow, including neighbouring Dalton, has a population of around 57,000 and is Cumbria’s second most populated town after Carlisle. It sits in the south western corner of the county close to the Lancashire border over Morecambe Bay.
Interestingly Barrow had its own municipally owned bus company (Barrow Borough Transport) until it went bust thirty years ago since when Stagecoach have run a neat network of local town routes as well as the X6 to Ulverston and Kendal and the less frequent 6 to Windermere – both lovely double deck operated routes to travel on.
Barrow is synonymous with ship building but the town is now dominated by a huge BAE Systems presence who also own the airport on Walney Island and from he recruitment centre I spotted are obviously big in submarines.
I’d never been on Walney Island which is the small piece of land that juts out in the shape of a two-prong tap handle.
It’s connected to the mainland by a lovely looking road bridge so this morning I took an early ride on routes 1 to Biggar Bank in South Walney and route 2 to West Shore, Earnse Bay in North Walney.
Both turned out to be delightful terminal spots right on the coast and it was lovely to see dog walkers and joggers out enjoying the early morning sunshine even before 8am this morning.
Route 1 stops outside an unusually shaped Chinese restaurant while route 2 stops alongside the West Shore holiday-cum-permanent home park complex.
Barrow’s town routes are mainly operated by Optare Solos but my journey on the 2 had an Enviro 300 which I understand had previously operated in Carlisle. Loadings were average for pre 8am travelling in a small-size town and it was noticeable that many passengers were using Stagecoach smartcards including a few topping them up on board for the week ahead.
After that island foray I could have got the X6 from Barrow over to Ulverston for my second island visit but I’d preplanned using the train as I wanted to get off and admire the town’s station which previously I’d only travelled through but got an inkling how gorgeous it is.
I’m really pleased I did as it really is a lovely station with ‘three’ platforms although only Lancaster bound trains use the island platform 3 with platform 2 effectively disused as Barrow bound trains use the main ‘station building’ platform 1.
After a late breakfast break in Ulverston I headed down to the town’s main bus stops intrigued to see what would arrive for my next journey on bus route 11 which I was taking via the coast road back towards Barrow but alighting on Roa Island.
Route 11 is operated by Blueworks – which must be the only bus company to be running a regular timetabled bus service without an O licence. Instead the owner, Phil, is valiantly keeping this route and his other routes (the X12 from Ulverston to Coniston and the Ulverston local X70) going using his taxi licence until 30th May when a Public Inquiry being held by the Traffic Commissioner determines whether his O licence will be reinstated.
I’m not an expert on taxi licensing but was intrigued to see four eight-seater taxis draw up for the 1015 departure to Barrow and Phil and the drivers organising the passengers to board the appropriate vehicles in the most efficient way depending on their alighting bus stop as well as taking the individual ‘bus’ fares or swiping concessionary passes, presumably for reimbursement from Cumbria County Council.
Cumbria are renowned for not providing any funding whatsoever for bus routes across the county and Phil confirmed to me he receives no subsidy for running these routes so I have to admire his perseverance at keeping these three services going on what must be a very costly arrangement. Presumably he’s concerned Stagecoach might step in if he gave up.
It’s obviously much appreciated by all the regular passengers who’ve got used to the new arrangements (which seem to have been in place since January) despite the awkwardness of getting in and out of an eight seater taxi, especially from the back three seats when passengers are occupying the middle set of three seats blocking the exit doors!
It was quite a business but everyone took it in great spirit.
Such is the support for Phil and Blueworks there’s a ‘Friends of the X112X70’ help group. I’m sure some members will be at the Public Inquiry rooting for Phil.
Roa Island is connected to the mainland by a causeway and is a micro community centred around the rather impressive Barrow lifeboat station.
My good friend and renowned expert on all things Cumbria and the Lake District, Roger Davies, had recommended my taking a trip from there to Piel Island last year and I was delighted to have arrived on such a beautiful sunny and calm sea day to take the small ferry from the jetty at the south end of Roa Island over to explore this incredible island.
The Duke of Buccleuch gifted the 50 acre island to the people of Barrow in 1920 and as well as the landlord of the pub/restaurant/cafe on the island (and being designated King of Piel) there reportedly are three other permanent family residents occupying the little row of five terraced houses.
The only other building on the island is the ruins of Piel Castle built in the early 14th Century to protect the harbour from Scottish raids.
John runs the ferry as needed between the jetty on Roa Island and Piel Island. It takes about five minutes to make the crossing and he keeps an eye out across the water to see if anyone is waiting.
Around a dozen people travelled during the two hours I spent on Piel which was enough time to wander all around and sit and have refreshments in the cafe and chat to the locals who are all friendly and welcoming including the regulars who take the crossing to soak up the peaceful and convivial atmosphere.
I headed back to Roa Island in good time for the 1419 (the second and the day’s last) journey on the 11 back to Ulverston from where the same ‘bus’ continues through to Coniston as an X12. It’s a bit of a complicated timetable but the locals seem to understand it!
Despite their lack of interest in funding bus routes Cumbria do a decent job at listing departures at bus stops all over the county but it was a bit disconcerting to find the sparsely served stop at Roa Island timetable-less.
I needn’t have worried as precisely at 1419 my eight seater arrived with two passengers already on board in the rearmost seats heading home with shopping from Barrow having caught one of the flotilla of taxis which had left Ulverston earlier at 1015 for the town.
At Ulverston we had a brief pause along with the second (slightly larger) taxi which was also heading for Coniston and had a few passengers already on board.
I stayed on my taxi and was joined by one passenger heading home for a ride about half way along the route, otherwise we didn’t pick anyone else up.
Arriving in Coniston and time for another break before catching the 1640 Stagecoach route 505 over to Ambleside (from where this particular journey continues south to Kendal).
This is a lovely route along the twisty and hilly B5285 via Hawkshead Hill and Hawkshead rather than the more direct A593.
At Ambleside I switched to the Lake District’s main spine bus route the famous 555 heading north to Keswick to end my day’s travels.
Every time I travel on this route I drool at the amazing and spectacular scenery whether it be the serenity of the water the bus drives alongside …
…. or the magnificence of the mountains which tower up in contrast.
Open top route 599 supplements the 555 as far north as Grasmere (and south to Windermere – and Bowness – from Ambleside) at an impressive 20 minute frequency and the livery of buses used on both routes is simply Best Impressions’ best.
It’s also always great to see timetables available on board buses throughout the Lake District and earlier in the day I spotted a local guide for Barrow buses. Well done Stagecoach in Cumbria.
An excellent day.
I used to run a bus company but in retirement am a full time passenger travelling all over Britain enjoying its splendid scenic delights by bus and train. Currently social distancing at home.