Crossing the Pennines

Saturday 31st August 2019

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Route 888 between Newcastle and Keswick is the lesser known bus service across the Pennines.

Whereas the more famous route 685 takes a direct westerly trajectory along the A69 to Carlisle via Hexham and Haltwhistle, the 888 also serves Hexham but then follows a south westerly route via Alston and Langwathby on the spectacular A686 to Penrith and then across to Keswick.

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This ranks as one of England’s most stunning bus rides crossing moors and mountains and passing through forests and incredible hairpin bends along the way – just take a look at those contour lines and bends on the map extract below to get a feel of the ride.

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It should definitely feature in any ‘must do’ scenic bus routes bucket list but the only snag is whereas the 685 runs hourly, the 888 is a once-a-day-in-each-direction affair and only then during the summer months (July to September). Still, at least it runs daily as shown in the leaflet helpfully produced by Cumbria County Council despite most, of not all, passengers originating in Tyne & Wear and Northumberland. Indeed I picked up the leaflet on my visit to Hexham last week.

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It’s actually more of a coach day-trip excursion than a bus route, being operated by a (15 year old) coach and even includes a 35 minute refreshment and toilet stop at Alston by a Spar shop and Texaco garage just 1 hour and 25 minutes into the journey from Newcastle – the rest of the journey to Keswick taking only an hour and ten minutes more.

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Interestingly the 35 minute stop reduces to 20 minutes on Sundays and is all that’s allocated on the return journey each day of the week.

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The 888 is operated by Wright Bros Coaches based in Alston and accepts concessionary passes, which is a bit of a surprise with the increasing tendency for ‘leisure’ type routes of this kind to be excluded from Schemes these days. On my trip today I reckon 25 of the 27 passengers on board were passholders.

Perhaps that explains why the single fare from Newcastle to Keswick is as high as £20 – to maximise reimbursement (ironically the responsibility of Tyne & Wear and Northumberland westbound and Cumbria on the eastbound return). Concessionary passes were being swiped on some kind of portable electronic ticket machine by the driver.

The driver was a bit vague on return fares when I asked after buying my single ticket but I gathered a period return is £30 and I was unclear how much cheaper a day return would have been. I asked pointedly if you receive a ticket if buying a period return as I hadn’t been issued a ticket for my single fare; and that’s when he got a bit vague. I think I’ll pass this feedback on to Wright Bros in case it’s of interest.

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The Volvo B10M coach was not the most comfortable I’ve travelled on and it was showing it’s fifteen years age. Cramming 57 seats inside meant minimal leg room – which might work for short legged school kids on a contract run but is not ideal for a leisure day trip across spectacular countryside.

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The ‘ash trays’ still in situ could usefully have been emptied too.

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More positively the coach arrived in Newcastle’s Coach Station in good time at 09:00 for the 09:20 departure but the driver parked up in the far corner for about ten minutes …

IMG_9184.jpg…before pulling on to one of the five stands in front of the small building run by National Express – a bit of a luxury these days for coach travellers but has toilets available (for 30p a visit).

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Sixteen passengers boarded and we were away spot on time picking the rest of our passengers up as we left Newcastle (1) as well as Throckley (3), Corrbridge (6) and Hexham (1).

It must be a long day for what I assume is an Alston based driver and coach as it’s over an hour’s drive to and from Newcastle (especially on morning peak traffic congested weekdays) meaning at least an 08:00 start and a 20:30 finish back at the garage at the end of the day.

It would make more sense for this to be a Newcastle based operation and furthermore I reckon it’s an ideal route for a double deck bus with some nice comfortable seats (maybe even a table or two) to enhance those spectacular views – except a reader has just pointed out the 13ft 6ins low bridge in Langwathby which rather scuppers that idea! However it certainly needs to be operated by modern accessible vehicles. An opportunity for an enlightened operator looking for market growth in 2020 perhaps?

I covered some of the same route yesterday between Alston and Hexham as I made my way back from visiting the wonderful South Tynedale Railway on the Go North East route X81.

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The X81 is effectively a positioning service to get the Tynedale Links branded bus from Go North East’s Hexham garage to Alston to operate the two return shopping journeys a day on route 681 to and from Haltwhistle.

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The 681 is another great route, presumably funded by Northumberland County Council even though Alston is just over the border in Cumbria. Journey time to Alston is 48 minutes and every minute is a delight.

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It’s a real rural gem including looping around narrow unclassified roads (to serve Yont the Cleugh mobile home/caravan site) and generally following the picturesque South Tyne valley on the A689 through Lambley and Slaggyford. It looks to me as though the route is a direct replacement for the railway from Haltwhistle to Alston which closed in 1976, so a bit of a shame it’s down to just two return journeys a day.

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I caught the 12:40 from Haltwhistle to Alston yesterday lunchtime and sadly we only carried two passengers back home with their shopping, one travelling the short distance to Park Village and the other got off on the double run we made to serve Halton-Lea Gate about half way along the journey – the rest of the way it was just me, as it was on the return X81 later in the afternoon.

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The bonus of visiting Alston is taking a ride on the South Tynedale Railway which runs north from Alston up the valley to Scallyford.

IMG_9093.jpgThe standard gauge tracks were lifted soon after closure in 1976 but the dedicated members of the Preservation Society replaced them with a narrow gauge line with operations commencing in 1983 to a temporary halt about a mile north of Alston pending repairs to a viaduct over the South Tyne River.

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Further extensions followed and the line now continues for five miles as far north as Slaggyford with two halts at Kirkhaugh and Lintley.

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The Railway has a variety of locomotives including three steam, four diesel and three battery electrics. Yesterday it was No 18 Old Rusty doing the honours – an 0-6-0 diesel mechanical locomotive for those who are interested.

IMG_9105.jpgA Lottery Award in 2016 has enabled the Society to improve both Alston and Slaggyford stations which now offer excellent facilities for visitors.

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At Alston there are two adjacent small museums one with an educational slant aimed at youngsters (a condition of the Lottery funding, no doubt) and the other a shed with a variety of transport vehicles and artefacts.

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The 2019 timetable of three return journeys a day runs until the end of October reverting from daily to four/five days a week operation now the school holidays are over.

Journey time is 35 minutes with 25 minutes layover at Slaggyford. The volunteer staff are exceptionally friendly – even inviting me to pay a visit inside the Slaggyford signal box to watch Old Rusty change ends.

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A great visit and two lovely bus rides to and from Alston too.

Roger French

6 thoughts on “Crossing the Pennines

  1. It looks like fairly typical Alston weather as well!!

    I recall that Wright’s had a base in Newcastle many years ago . . . . the route used to run as now in the summer, using a Newcastle-based coach, and there was also an Alston Newcastle daily return trip as well.

    I can’t confirm the Newcastle base now, though; so that certainly would make it a long day unless a new driver takes over at Alston on the return trip?

    It’s another one for the bucket list . . . . !

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is quite something that a small, independent operator is still operating this route. My Winter 1951 ABC shows them operating a daily roundtrip from Newcastle to Keswick (April to October) and Newcastle to Penrith (November to April). They appear to be fed (Nsu) by an early journey from Alston to Newcastle and a corresponding journey back again in the evening, with an additional round trip during the day. However, this is a simplification as the ABC does not show a balanced service in each direction so it is difficult to know what actually happened For example, how does the coach get to Newcastle on Sunday mornings? Happy to provide greater detail if required.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Another fascinating story, Roger, thanks! In your feedback to Wrights you might also like to point out that whilst putting the destination board in the windscreen is helpful to passengers, it would attract an immediate PG9 if spotted by DVSA as it is within the swept area of the windscreen wipers. I won’t even mention the incorrect use of a school bus sign . . .

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I would certainly take up with Wrights the lack of ticket issue. If period returns can be issued there MUST be ticketing of some description, and I am sure I saw tickets being issued in Keswick when I last used the service.

    Liked by 1 person

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