Sunday 22nd August 2021
Britain has three* bus networks using the prefix W. They’re a very diverse threesome.
One comprises frequent routes in Wood Green and Walthamstow in north London (as well as Wanstead and Woodford). Another can be found running through the most remote spectacular scenery you’ll ever find in Britain, in the Outer Hebrides in the Western Isles, and the third comprises once a week and once a month deep rural routes in Central Bedfordshire.
All three networks have a route W13 in their portfolio and over recent weeks I’ve ridden the trio to compare and contrast for my travelling, and your reading, pleasure.
*Update … thanks to Philip in the Comments …. there’s also a W network of bus routes in Watford and North Tyneside but sadly they don’t have a W13 to make for a quintet.
First up is TfL’s route W13 running between Leytonstone Underground Station and Woodford Wells in the outer reaches of north east London. No surprises this is the most frequent W13 of the trio.
Introduced in March 1989 and now operated by HCT Group, London’s W13 provides a daytime 15-minute frequency on Mondays to Fridays reducing to every 20 minutes on Saturdays and half hourly on Sundays. A half hourly evening service is complimented by an all night service as part of a much longer route N55.
This W13 is the home of six Enviro200 buses based at HCT Group’s bus garage in Walthamstow Avenue, sited alongside the North Circular Road close to Walthamstow’s famous Crooked Billet roundabout. An additional double decker bus from the company’s Ash Grove base operates extra journeys for school children at peak times.
Update – see comments below – all buses on route W13 come from Ash Grove not Walthamstow Avenue.
It’s five miles from Leytonstone to Woodford Wells with the bus passing through the desirable shopping area of Wanstead before the even more upmarket shopping area of South Woodford.
As the bus turns into Woodford High Road it passes over the always busy North Circular Road …
…. to head north towards the green acres of Woodford Green …
… before reaching the terminus alongside the rather imposing St Thomas of Canterbury Church at Woodford Wells.
End to end journeys on this W13 in the morning peak are timed to take 36 minutes reducing to 31 minutes during the off-peak and 19 minutes on a Sunday evening. During the daytime 17 minutes stand time is given at Leystonstone Underground Station (where there’s a handy free standing toilet facility for staff in a pavement cubicle) with 12 minutes layover at Woodford Wells making for an overall 29 minutes in an off peak 90 minute cycle, which makes for a one-third dead time … so about average for TfL style scheduling.
The 17 minutes stand time at Leytonstone inevitably means one bus arrives while the other one is still on the stand, but fortunately there’s plenty of room to accommodate both buses. The downside is it encourages drivers to use the time for a bit of a social catch up with each other, which on the day of my sample journey got extended into a five minute chinwag leading to my departure leaving 3 minutes late according to a web based timetable, and five minutes late according to the timetable posted on the bus stop.
We didn’t make up that lost time on route, in fact the reverse, arriving at Woodford Wells seven minutes behind schedule.
This route W13 is used for lots of short hop journeys, with trips from Leytonstone to Wanstead; from Wanstead to South Woodford and from South Woodford to Woodford Green and Woodford Wells. My late morning journey in early July peaked with eight passengers on board at any one time and carried fifteen in total. Mothers with buggies, older shoppers returning home, a couple of students going to school late – the usual mix for that time of day.
Aside from myself, the only other passenger making a lengthy trip was a lady with two bags of shopping who boarded at the first stop after Leytonstone Station and travelled through to the Churchill Memorial on Woodford Green (not the high profile one in Parliament Square). She was on the bus for 32 minutes. The average time spent on the bus for the other 14 passengers was just seven minutes. There’s a flat £1.55 fare for any journey.
The Enviro200 single decks buses date from 2017 and sport the moquette akin to that used on the New Routemasters with a nod to the familiar patterns of old.
TfL’s W13 is pretty typical of many similar suburban routes right across the Capital, particularly in the more leafy outer Boroughs.
Britain’s next most frequent route W13 couldn’t be more different. It’s found on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides 575 miles away from Leytonstone and Woodford. I’d received a strong recommendation to give it a ride and I wasn’t disappointed.
Operated by South Harris Coaches this W13 runs between Tarbert Pier in the middle of Harris (where the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry arrives from Uig on Skye) and Leverburgh Pier at the southern tip of Harris where the ferry leaves for Berneray and North Uist.
Unlike route W10 which takes the more direct route between Tarbert and Leverburgh, route W13 enjoys a more meandering route hugging the eastern side of the island and offering the most spectacular scenery you’ll find on a British bus route.
Delightful thoughWoodford Green is, this W13 route beats its London’s namesake hands down for scenery.
Every twist and turn along the route (and there are many) brings either a wonderful view of a small fishing jetty to your left or amazing inland rugged landscape to your right, and often both.
The Isle of Harris W13 timetable includes four journeys on Mondays to Saturdays southbound from Tarbert – 08:10, 11:30, 15:45 and 18:35 and four journeys back north from Leverburgh at 09:30, 12:45 (Summer only although does run on Fridays in the winter), 15:10 and 16:35 with these afternoon journeys schooldays only. Lochs Motors also run an extra schoolday journey along part of the route.
In fact the whole service is contracted to Lochs Motors following a complete retendering exercise of all bus routes on the Western Isles a couple of years ago, but Lochs Motors decided to sub contract the route to South Harris Coaches who had run it prior to the retender.
Journey length is a twisting and winding 24 miles around this very special coastline, although a crow flying a direct route would do the journey in 11 miles. Journey time is 65 minutes from Tarbert to Leverburgh.
An end-to-end return fare is £5.40.
The 16 seat Ford minibuses used on the route aren’t accessible, which marks it out as rather anomalous although as “P” points out in the Comments below PSVAR doesn’t apply to minibuses of this size. The side door is manually operated by passengers boarding and alighting.
The seats aren’t the most comfortable, but are practical for the job in hand.
It’s a bit of a squeeze to get in and out but you have to compromise on a small vehicle for capacity and practicalities on the very narrow roads it passes along. It wouldn’t pass muster with TfL’s accessibility requirements.
I took a ride on this W13 four weeks ago during my trip to the Outer Hebrides and it certainly lived up to the reputation it’s been given of being a very special bus route. My plan was to catch the summer only 11:30 departure but I wondered if that would prove possible when no South Harris Coaches vehicle was to be seen in Tarbert’s car park come bus terminus at that time.
I spotted three passengers who looked like they were waiting so wasn’t unduly concerned and after a few minutes the bus appeared and we all got on board. My fellow passengers were all local residents who’d used their Scottish concessionary passes to pop down to Tarbert for some provisions, which made me wonder what they do in the winter when this journey doesn’t run.
Inevitably there was much chatter on the bus but we were also entertained by the driver playing a CD of a popular Scottish folk group called The Corries for the journey.
From time to time we sped past a bus shelter along the route which even though there was no obvious croft or house nearby, some local residents still make use of ….
The first passenger who’d boarded in Tarbert alighted as we reached the hamlet of Procloprol after a fifteen minute ride. This W13 is a true door to door service and I just about spotted where the door probably was in the distance as she alighted.
I’d noticed when we boarded in Tarbert that the driver was presented with a couple of packs of bread rolls by a local shopkeeper and after another few miles we stopped at a small shed like structure and the driver popped out of the minibus to drop the bread rolls off for collection by an elderly resident who lived up a track from here. You don’t get that type of delivery service on the W13 in Leytonstone.
Our next passenger alighted a bit further on in Grosebay …
… with the third getting off at Stockinish at midday leaving just me on board for the remaining 35 minutes of the journey. We arrived at the terminus at Leverburgh Pier a few minutes after the 12:35 schedule. The road just ends here at the jetty where the ferry from Berneray to the south arrives, but it was very quiet as the next ferry doesn’t arrive until 14:30 and leaves at 14:45.
We left for the return journey at 12:45 and it gave me an opportunity to have a chat with DJ who’d been such a magnificent driver. I told him how impressive his driving around the route had been. He’s lived on Harris all his life and has been driving buses for thirteen years and obviously enjoys the work.
It’s not easy. As well as keeping an eye out for sheep DJ was also expert in watching out for oncoming traffic on the single track road with passing places. But it was very quiet. On the southbound journey we passed just six cars and two larger vehicles, which ironically passed together – a motor caravan followed by a commercial truck (pictured above). DJ said there’d been a noticeable increase in motor caravans following Covid and a distinct drop in passengers. At this time of year he’d usually carry half a bus full of tourists, but there were none travelling at the moment. Even local people, especially oldies, weren’t going out to socialise.
All bus routes on the Western Isles were suspended during the first lockdown from March 2020 through to September, and DJ felt many locals were still fearful even though everyone has been double vaccinated and there’s been no confirmed cases of Covid on Harris.
This route W13 provides a vital function for a small number of isolated residents, school children and a great scenic delight for tourists who seek it out. It’s well worth taking a ride.
The third and final route W13 runs just one return journey on the third Thursday of the month from seven Central Bedfordshire villages to Milton Keynes. But what it lacks in frequency it makes up for in mileage, being the longest route of the three at nearly 30 miles.
It’s operated by Wanderbus – hence the W in the W13 – a community run organisation based in the village of Meppershall near Shefford. There are two sixteen-seat minibuses used to provide weekly and monthly shopping trips for residents of villages in this part of Central Bedfordshire as well as a limited excursion programme and available for private hire.
Wanderbus is a not for profit organisation set up in 1989 and run entirely by volunteers with any surpluses reinvested in the buses. They have no offices or paid employees and receive no Government or Central Bedfordshire Council support relying on fare income, concessionary pass reimbursement and grants from charitable trusts and Town and Parish Councils. A second bus was purchased with a DfT Rural Bus Fund grant in 2015.
Mondays sees a W3 run to Biggleswade, on Tuesdays it’s a W12 to Hitchin, a weekly run to Bedford on a Wednesday (routes W1 and W2), with Letchworth on a Friday (W7). But on a Thursday, each week sees a different destination a little further afield including Welwyn Garden City (W4 on the first Thursday); St Neots (W9 on the second Thursday) and Milton Keynes on the third Thursday by two different routes, the W11 and the W13. The fourth Thursday is set aside for more interesting excursions (eg Castle Ashby Gardens near Northampton this coming Thursday and Wimpole Hall near Royston in September).
The bus for route W13 comes from the base in Meppershall and begins its journey opposite the Green Man on the edge of the small hamlet of Stanford at 08:58. The route then encompasses an eight and a half mile circle covering six further villages: Southill, Broom, Langford, Henlow and Clifton before arriving in Shefford from where it runs non-stop for twenty-one miles to Milton Keynes with a scheduled 10:17 arrival.
As Thursday last week was the third Thursday of the month I took the opportunity to take a ride to complete my triplet of W13 travel experiences, so headed up to the isolated hamlet of Stanford for 08:58.
It felt a bit strange waiting for a bus that runs once a month on a grass verge opposite an isolated pub with no road markings, bus stop pole, flag or timetable on display. The thought inevitably occurs that it’s a long wait for the next journey (Thursday 16th September) if it doesn’t show.
But right on time at 08:58 Alasdair came round the corner with the six year old Fiat 16-seater minibus in Wanderbus livery all screened up for the trip to Milton Keynes and we were away on our thirty minute circuit of neighbouring villages.
This is the original of the two buses in the fleet and had a basic but comfortable interior with snazzy moquette, including a matching roof …
… and an impressive selection of cleaning mops.
Alasdair has been a volunteer driver with Wanderbus for three years and drives three or four times a month. There are a dozen other volunteer drivers sharing out the work with an excellent coordinator called Steph.
Alasdair explained that prior to Covid the W13 would often have a full load – presumably why there’s also a W11 serving other villages on the same day – but since restarting after lockdown restrictions eased numbers have much reduced. Like DJ on the Isle of Harris he felt older people weren’t going out so much and he also felt Milton Keynes has lost some of its lure as a regional shopping centre.
It’s a nice rural ride around the villages, and we picked up eight passengers, all concessionary passholders – mostly in Langford – which meant of the trio of W13s this journey had the most on board at any one time. One of the passengers boarded at Clifton Park (retirement type homes) which we reached by doing a slight dogleg detour that proved worthwhile.
After reaching Shefford we headed west on the A507 passing south of Ampthill and north of Flitwick and joined the M1 at junction 13 for one junction as the quickest way to Milton Keynes. It’s the only one of the W13 triumvirate to use a motorway on its route.
Forty minutes after leaving Shefford we pulled up by the entrance to Milton Keynes shopping centre and seven of the passengers alighted.
There was a bit of a discussion whether to return at the scheduled time of 13:15 or, as has happened in recent months of low numbers travelling, an hour earlier but everyone seemed to favour 13:15 and Alasdair continued a little further to the last stop by John Lewis where the eighth passenger and I got off and Alasdair went to park up for three hours.
Three very different W13s and each one full of character and interest. Which is the delight of travelling on Britain’s diverse bus routes.