Friday 9th July 2021
I thought it was about time I wrote another blog about open-top bus routes – well, it’s been just over a week since the last one – so here’s a report on my recent travel experiences on First Kernow’s two prime routes in Cornwall – the Atlantic Coaster and Lands End Coaster.
As part of First Kernow’s high profile Adventures By Bus portfolio of new brands to develop the leisure market for 2021 these already well established routes have been given a brand makeover and in one case significantly expanded compared to previous years.
In recent years the Atlantic Coaster branding has been used for both the Penzance-Lands End-St Ives-Penzance circular open-top route as well as the Padstow to Newquay route together with route numbers beginning with the letter A, but for 2021 the former has been rebranded more logically Lands End Coaster to raise its profile of serving the iconic spot on the western edge of England, while the Padstow to Newquay route has retained Atlantic Coaster branding but been extended on to St Ives on a more frequent basis than this route has ever experienced before, even in the Western Greyhound heyday.
At 3 hours 45 minutes the Padstow to St Ives route is not for the faint hearted taking the entire end-to-end route, especially on a windy day on the exposed top deck. After giving it a lot of thought, I decided it might just be a bit too much for my 67 year old bladder to withstand too, so opted to split my journey in Newquay as I headed from Padstow to St Ives on Thursday afternoon of last week.
There are six departures from Padstow running hourly between 11:20 and 17:20 (except not at 14:20). The 11:20, 13:20 and 16:20 go all the way through to St Ives, each having a scheduled fifteen minute pause in Newquay. An earlier journey begins at 10:00 from Mawgan Porth half an hour north of Newquay which also continues to St Ives making four journeys a day between Newquay and St Ives as the last journey of the day, 17:20 from Padstow, only runs as far as Perranporth, 45 minutes south of Newquay.
In the north bound direction buses leave St Ives every two hours between 09:25 and 17:25 with the first three continuing all the way through to Padstow. There are six journeys running hourly between Newquay and Padstow between 09:55 and 15:55. two later journeys at 16:55 and 17:55 run as far north as Mawgan Porth.
So it’s a pretty good timetable offering many journey possibilities for holidaymakers and tourists attracted to Cornwall’s gorgeous bays located all along its Atlantic facing coast or staying in the many holiday parks located along this popular stretch of coastline.
The Atlantic Coaster is unashamedly pitched at the tourist leisure market. There’s also Transport for Cornwall’s tendered bus route 56 which runs hourly between Padstow and Newquay between approximately 09:00 and 17:30 with early journeys leaving Newquay at 06:40 and 07:00 from Padstow. The 56 pretty much follows the same route as the Atlantic Coaster with a few journeys diverting off to serve inland villages at St Mawgan and St Eval.
The coastal road between Padstow and Newquay has never had such a good service with a combined sixteen journeys a day.
I opted to catch the 15:20 Atlantic Coaster departure from Padstow which goes as far as Newquay arriving there at 16:30 then switching back to the next departure from Newquay to St Ives at 17:45. I had a tight connection at Padstow with the 15:20 arrival on Transport for Cornwall’s route 11A from Bodmin Parkway. I’m always wary of a spot connection like that, but as I knew route 11A enters Padstow on the same road as the Atlantic Coaster departs, it would be easy to jump off a late running bus on route 11A a couple of stops short of the terminus and cross over for the Atlantic Coaster.
In the event, that contingency was needed as the 11A was about three minutes behind schedule as we reached Padstow, so I got off at the stop opposite Tesco on the edge of the town, crossed over the road and waited.
Luckily there was a real time departure screen at the stop – as there is at many stops in Cornwall, which is always reassuring and very good to see – telling me the Atlantic Coaster was due in 2 minutes. Except the two minutes didn’t change for at least two minutes if not longer.
Eventually the open top came into view and I was immediately struck by how busy it was. The top deck was completely full as was the lower deck save for a couple of seats. It turned out there’d been a bad collision between a cyclist and car necessitating the closure of the B3276 outside Padstow along the coastal road for some hours and a consequent long diversion via Highlands and St Merryn Airfield.
Commendably the driver had picked up all the waiting passengers for TfC’s route 56 as well as his own leading to a busy bus. Not only that but on boarding the bus the driver and I did a double take trying to work out why we seemed to recognise each other until it dawned on Steve Ponting, the driver, when he saw my West Sussex issued concessionary pass that it was a Brighton & Hove connection.
Steve had worked for B&H some years ago and now worked for First Bus as a controller at its Slough garage but was on a summer secondment to help out First Kernow.
Steve’s an absolute legend and was in his element with the diversion reassuring passengers he’d get them to their destination as well as giving the latest advice to Transport for Cornwall’s drivers we passed about the road closure.
Amazingly we were only a couple of minutes behind schedule as we pulled into Newquay bus station at 16:30 having made up time from the earlier diversion and coped admirably with oncoming holiday traffic along the twisting B3276 as it hugs Cornwall’s delightful Atlantic facing coastline. Steve’s a true professional busman.
It really is a spectacular ride and made all the better for being on an open topper.
The bays along the route are well served by the bus, which almost touches the sea in places.
The 70 minutes passed very quickly as Newquay appeared on the horizon…
… where after a chat over old times with Steve, I grabbed a bite to eat before continuing on the next departure from Newquay to St Ives at 17:45. This section of route takes a lot longer at 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Steve was also driving this journey as the final bit of his long duty, although due to drivers’ hours regulations he was relieved at Hayle with another driver taking over for the final half an hour of the journey to St Ives.
This section of the route also serves a number of delightful tourist hotspots along the coast as well as diverting into the popular Perran Sands Holiday Park.
Perranporth, St Agnes and Portreath are all wonderful bays …
… especially passing as the sun is going down in the west after a lovely summer’s day as Thursday was last week.
The Atlantic Coaster really is a great ride, but I’m glad I opted out of the end-to-end possibility. That would have felt more like an endurance than a pleasure.
One thing you can’t fail to notice about First Kernow’s various initiatives is just how well they’re promoted and publicised. Colourful attractive brochures and leaflets with times, fares, maps and information are available at a large number of outlets and it’s instructive just how many people pick them up and use them.
Buses are almost all branded in a very attractive livery, although I saw one or two still awaiting treatment with vinyls…
… and were generally on the right route, although there were two or three wandering off on to the wrong one such as this Atlantic Coaster in Lands End…
After Thursday’s arrival at 20:05 into St Ives, last Friday morning saw me back at the town’s Malakoff bus station ready to catch the first bus on the Lands End Coaster around to Penzance via Lands End leaving at 09:10.
It’s a 2 hour 40 minute ride around to Penzance via the coast, but the full circuit from Penzance via Marazion and Carbis Bay to St Ives, then round the coast via Lands End and back to Penzance takes a whopping 3 hours and 50 minutes. Definitely another one best not done in one go.
My bus had started at St Ives Holiday Village at 08:40 and would reach Penzance at 11:50. The driver was David but better known as Greengrass. Like Steve, he was superb and his driving was something to see along the narrow twisting coastal road, not least between Lands End and Newlyn just outside Penzance.
The hill and hairpin bend just beyond Treen (towards Penzance) is always a tricky road to negotiate especially in summer when it gets very busy with holidaymakers who sometimes aren’t very good at reversing back up the hill to allow the bus to pass.It certainly sorts out the drivers from the, well, not very good drivers.
Luckily we only lost a couple of minutes here this time, unlike my previous journey when undertaking the iconic Lands End to John O’Groats trip back in 2019 and time was all important.
We arrived into Penzance just five minutes down at 11:55 making for a handy connection with the 12:15 GWR departure to London.
The Lands End Coaster runs every day of the week in both directions around the circuit every hour between around 09:00 and 18:00 with the first bus appearing at 08:40 and ending at 20:38 at St Ives Holiday Village.
There must be about nine open-tops committed to the route, so it’s quite a commercial venture by First Kernow, but is very popular with tourists and has a very high profile.
The journey I travelled on got up to about twenty passengers on at one point.
Many got off at Lands End …
… and there were just around half a dozen on board as we headed on the final section of route to Penzance, but buses we passed heading towards Lands End had a respectable number on board.
It’s another spectacular journey with varied views across to the coast including the rather barren landscape south of St Ives …
… and the best bit almost certainly the road down into Sennen Cove (just north of Lands End) …
… where the bus turns around and climbs back out again.
Unsurprisingly it’s another popular spot for passengers to get on and off along the route.
The section of route from Penzance to St Ives via the lovely coastal village of Marazion popular for its access to St Michael’s Mount is also a great ride to complete the circuit.
I travelled on this a couple of years ago and gave it a miss this time, but it’s well worth including in any itinerary.
First Kernow offer a range of tickets aimed at the leisure market including an all day ticket on all bus routes for £15 from bus drivers or £13 on the app. Cheaper tickets are available for more than one person travelling together or over more than one day. For example a three day ticket from the driver is just £25 for one person and £12.50 for the second person travelling with the first which works out at £6.25 each per day which is excellent value for what’s on offer – some of the greatest bus rides in Britain.