Saturday 1st August 2020
It’s a shorter summer season this year for obvious reasons, so this past week I’ve been out and about giving three bus companies running seafront open top bus routes in the south-east a bit of much needed custom and support.
First up on a lovely sunshine filled day last Sunday was route 68 running between Southend Pier and Leigh-on-Sea. For the last three years Go-Ahead London ran this resurrected route from their distant Northumberland Park bus garage in east London, but with a shortage of drivers this summer, Ensignbus have taken the opportunity to take on the route and bring their varied fleet of open-tops to the Essex iconic seafront.
The number 68 has historic connections with open-top buses in the town. Southend Corporation used the number for many years for their seafront route while Eastern National used number 67 for their open-top route which I particularly remember as a child on our family summer holidays in Shoeburyness taking a ride all along the seafront to Westcliff – and even before Health & Safety became a thing, being firmly warned by the conductor as we approached the low bridge at Southend Pier to remain in our seats.
Today’s route 68 picks up alongside Southend Pier and heads west along Western Esplanade, Westcliffe-on-Sea and Chalkwell Station continuing to Leigh-on-Sea Station. At the eastern end of the route, the bus continues to turn in Southchurch Avenue alongside the iconic Kursal now sadly well past its sell-by date before returning to wait alongside the Pier bus stop.
The timetable comprises a daily 30-minute frequency from 09:18 to 18:48. Last Sunday the timetable was enhanced to every 15 minutes with guest appearances from an open-top Routemaster and guest drivers too.
An all day ticket is a very reasonable £5 with single and return fares also available. Concessionary passes are not valid but seniors can buy child rate fares.
As you’d expect from the ‘ever enterprising Ensignbus’ there’s no shortage of enthusiasm to drum up custom. It’s the ultimate professionally organised open-top operation. With the extra buses last Sunday it was certainly running with panache including always ensuring a bus was present at the Pier terminus overseen by Mickey – a stalwart of the Ensignbus ‘family’ for many years who is a master at encouraging passers by to jump on board and give the service their custom.
Mr Ensignbus himself, Peter Newman, was taking a ride as well as son Ross driving and riding along with their families joining in the sales pitch.
All this enthusiasm is infectious and you can’t help but wish the service well and hope they have a good summer.
Route 68 runs daily for five more weeks until its last day on Sunday 6th September.
Next up was a ride closer to home on Monday; Seaford & District’s Eastbourne Sightseeing tour.
This delightful round trip starts from Eastbourne Pier and has sixteen stops on what is a truly spectacularly scenic ride taking in Eastbourne’s elegant seafront, the slow climb up towards Beachy Head and after a stop at alongside Beachy Head itself, continuing along the coastal Birling Gap Road via the iconic Belle Tout lighthouse and Birling Gap.
The route continues to the A259 but returns via Warren Hill and the well-heeled Meads area of Eastbourne reaching the town centre to serve the station and then back to the Pier. It’s a fifty minute highly recommended round trip ride.
This summer’s timetable is operated with two buses on a 45 minute frequency between 10:00 and 17:50 with the last two journeys half-an-hour apart. The daytime operation means the all important bus at the Pier stop terminus is parked up to attract punters for all but five minutes in every 45 minutes.
A day ticket is priced at £10 and half price for children with concessionary pass holders paying £7.50.
This is one of Britain’s most spectacular bus rides and if you haven’t taken it yet, come down to Eastbourne for a ride. It’s operating right through until Sunday 27th September.
Monday was a fairly breezy day so it was good to see a reasonable number of passengers on board. I took the opportunity to combine a bus ride with a walk along the cliff tops and stumbled across a rather unusual event.
I’d noticed a large articulated truck parked alongside the still Covid closed Beachy Head visitor centre with other large vehicles offering refreshments and temporary toilets but it became evident as I wandered closer this wasn’t meant for the public. I was told filming was underway for a car commercial for Ford.
Sure enough further along the road high-vis wearing employees from a highway management company were supervising road cones, stop-go boards and using walkie-talkies to halt normal traffic every so often while two Ford cars followed by a camera car were driven along the road between Beachy Head and Belle Tout.
It didn’t mean much to me, until after my walk along the cliff top, I wandered back to the road near Belle Tout and as I reached the side of the road, up popped a young man who’d been lying out of sight in the verge telling me to be careful and not walk in the road as cars were driving on the wrong side of the road.
Even more intrusive on arriving at the Belle Tout bus stop to wait for the bus which was due I was approached by a young woman and asked to move right back from the bus stop as filming was taking place and if spoil the shot. I explained I was waiting for a bus and wasn’t much fussed about cars and as far as I was concerned this was a public road . Her walkie-talkie came to life as she backed away and I heard her tell the person on the other end “he’s waiting for a bus and says he won’t move”.
As it became evident the bus wouldn’t come through until the next ‘take’ had been filmed, I decided to compromise and step back where I could still see the road but out of sight of the camera car.
Sure enough after this was reported back over the radio, along came the two cars which Twitter has subsequently identified the car as a new Ford Puma ST which caused much excitement on AUTOCAR’s website where photos from my tweet were reposted stating it was the first time the new car had been seen on the road.
Sorry Ford, here’s an exclusive spoiler prior to your launch….
Twitter also got excited about whether the camera car was legally allowed on a public road which clearly hadn’t been formally closed with its non conforming rear registration plate…
…. but I was just grateful the bus soon came along and I was back on my tour …
Cars also dominated my third open-top day out this week, when yesterday I ventured over to Bournemouth to take a ride on the group of services branded as Purbeck Breezer and run by the Go-Ahead bus company now called ‘more’ (formerly Wilts & Dorset).
There are five Purbeck Breezer routes. The 40, 50 and 60 run all year round while the 30 and 70 are summer only. They’re not all operated by open-top buses, and it’s not made clear what your chances are of catching an open-topper.
The all-year-round Route 50 running every half-an-hour has been a long standing open-top route and indeed gained a fleet of smart new buses four years ago sporting a great attractive livery. It’s rightly regarded as one of Britain’s best bus routes not only offering great views as it travels from Bournemouth via Westbourne, Branksome Chine and Canford Cliffs to Sandbanks for the ferry, but is also one of two bus routes in England that includes a ferry before continuing along Studland down to the delightful seaside resort of Swanage.
It wasn’t surprising to see a good load boarding a Swanage bound bus as I arrived at Bournemouth Station/Transport Interchange yesterday morning. I decided to take the hourly seasonal route 70 across to Poole instead – this takes a lovely leisurely route via Alum Chine, Branksome Dene Chine, Branksome Chine, Canford Cliffs Parade and Compton Acres.
The only disappointment though is it’s operated by closed top buses. Nevertheless the views are gorgeous and it was a shame so few people travelled.
The route was dominated by parked cars from beach bound tourists – one car park was clearly full up yet cars were forlornly queueing to get into it, with no chance of a space, and annoyingly blocking the road for those of us who had chosen a more sustainable and friendly way of travel – on board the bus.
From Poole I switched to the all-year-round route 60 which operates every half an hour from Poole down to Sandbanks via Lilliput. One journey each hour continues to Rockley Park on the western side of Poole. This is another closed top route.
The journey time from Poole to the Sandbanks ferry is timetabled at 20 minutes but on a fine summer’s day can take much much longer as the queue for the ferry tails back right along the seafront road. Indeed this was the problem yesterday lunch time as we began crawling along soon after passing the junction with the road to Canford Cliffs.
‘More’ schedule a fairly generous 15 minutes layover at the Ferry to counteract any delays and this seemed to be adequate enough yesterday.
What wasn’t adequate was the traffic conditions south of the Ferry on Studland where inconsiderate parking by selfish motorists had meant the road had become completely blocked throwing the operation of route 50 into complete turmoil.
Two buses headed south towards the ferry from Bournemouth having slowly made their way through queueing traffic only to head back northbound again to continue non-stop on a long detour inland via Poole and Wareham to reach Swanage and avoid the blockage on Studland.
Consulting ‘more’s’ bus tracking facility on its website showed three northbound buses stuck on Studland, with one north of the Ferry about to take the detour via Poole.
I decided to forgo the opportunity to return to Poole either on the rerouted Swanage bound bus or a 60 and instead wait it out for the stuck buses to arrive.
The handy bus tracker told me the first of the three buses stuck on Studland was “busy”, the second bus was “moderate” and the third bus was “quiet” so I reckoned my chances were fairly good at getting a ride on one of them.
It was reassuring to watch the progress of these three buses slowly inch their way towards the ferry and me waiting along with other passengers on the north side of the Ferry in Sandbanks at the Shore Road bus stop.
But, and this is a rather big BUT, it’s all very well excited bus bosses and techy people congratulating themselves on inventing such useful web and app based information to keep passengers informed at times of disruption ….. BUT …. its worth is no better than useless if, as for probably sound operational reasons, someone decides to run those buses we’ve put our faith in fly by out of service back to Bournemouth in a vain attempt to get them back on time and restore some semblance of order to a disrupted timetable.
Those of us waiting for the first bus to arrive, having seen no bus for well over an hour were greeted by it driving by displaying “Staff Bus” on the front blind and the driver completely ignoring any attempt to hail it. It didn’t fool us either – as around half a dozen passengers on board were definitely not staff, and were obviously passengers heading back to Bournemouth. “Busy” it wasn’t.
The second “moderate” filled bus had been approaching the ferry with the third “quiet” filled bus and after another half-an-hour were finally back on the north side, and we eagerly waited for them to arrive. Even more frustrating, along comes this long awaited second bus showing “Not In Service” – with no-one on board – certainly not “moderate” – it was obvious passengers had been transferred to the third bus – which, sure enough was now showing “busy” on the tacker – leaving those of us who’d been waiting now for over an hour and a half with some concern as to whether we’d get on – especially as no other northbound buses were showing on the tracker.
In the event, despite being ‘busy’, the driver stopped and picked us up and notwithstanding all the delays, he showed remarkable good humour and patience even when we got stuck turning a corner in Westbourne by yet another selfish and ignorant van driver.
Luckily he heard our bus driver’s hooting and after a few minutes came out of a nearby shop to move his van and allow us to get moving again.
Despite aborting my planned trip down to Swanage, and experiencing an unplanned sojourn alongside Sandbanks seafront for well over an hour and a half waiting for a bus, and the frustration of watching bus trackers which proved useless, I enjoyed my visit to Bournemouth and as I headed home, reflected how at the start of lockdown that glimpse of a pollution free world when car traffic suddenly ceased dominating our lives and roads became much emptier and enjoyably pleasant was just that – a glimpse – and sadly we’re now back to a world where cars not only dominate our lives but disrupt them too.
Indeed as I write this, Google is showing the much of the southbound M3 and westbound M27 and A31 as a thick red line, indicating more queueing traffic en-route to Bournemouth for another busy sunny summer’s day. It rather makes a mockery of Ford’s great efforts to create an open road to show off its new Puma in a commercial – with not even a pedestrian in sight.
I hope the 50 is running better today. Next time I plan a ride, I’ll remember to allow plenty of time for inevitable delays and disruption. Which is a shame as it really is a great bus route.