Tuesday 6th September 2022
The island of Barra at the southern end of the Outer Hebrides is famous for its unique beach airport runway where planes are dependent on coastal tides to land and take off but those who like their transport trivia also know the island is famed for hosting Britain’s western most bus stop.
During a couple of days bus riding in Shetland back in July 2018 I found myself visiting Britain’s northern most bus stop in the hamlet of Vasgarth on Unst which whetted my appetite for a follow on quest to visit the country’s southern most bus stop at The Lizard in August 2019; before the rather easier journey to the eastern most bus stop in Lowestoft in September 2021. Last Wednesday it was high time I made it over to Barra to finally tick off a visit to Britain’s westernmost bus stop and finally complete what had become an obsessive compass point challenge.
Once started, these things just have to be completed.
Blog readers may recall my failed attempt a year ago last September on this mission when low mist meant the LoganAir flight from Glasgow to Barra became significantly delayed and ultimately cancelled leading to an aborted bus stop visit.
This time I was more prepared by including an overnight stay into the schedule rather than risk trying to visit Barra and back the same day from Sussex as I’d done last September.
Knowing my friend and railway YouTube creator Geoff Marshall had a Barra visit on his bucket list we teamed up once again on this jaunt as we’d done on the aborted mission a year ago. You can see his absolutely fabulous video about the trip by clicking on this link. It’s well worth a viewing, bringing these words here to life.
When I say Barra, I should perhaps be more precise as this famous western most British bus stop (as opposed to the UK one – that’s in Northern Ireland) is located in Barra’s neighbouring southern island, attached by a causeway, called Vatersay. This remote area enjoys three weekday off-peak journeys on route W33 from Castlebay (Barra’s main town located on the southern coast) operated by Aurora Trans Co.
The route only runs if requested by passengers at the Castlebay terminus or by telephoning two hours in advance if on Vatersay – no need for apps here. The good old telephone works well if you have a landline (or a mobile with a signal).
Route W33 is inter-mingled with its more substantial brother, route W32, which comprises a circular around Barra’s one principal road – the A888 – connecting Castlebay with the airport in the north as well as Ardmhor, where the ferry to Eriskay departs giving access via causeways and a ferry to the northern Western Isles and eventually Stornaway on Lewis.
The timetable looks somewhat daunting but there are three round trips a day on the W32 (one morning clockwise and two anti-clockwise in late morning and late afternoon). There’s also a pre-bookable early morning journey to the Ardmhor ferry and one back in the evening via either the western or eastern side as requested and a scheduled early afternoon journey to the airport and back on the western or eastern arc as required
The westernmost bus stop can be found on route W33 – not at the southern terminus as the route roams slightly to the east but at an isolated road junction just west of a micro settlement of three or four houses called Caolis Village.
Our LoganAir flight landed on the beach (aka as Barra airport) at 13:45 so we had plenty of time to watch the airport activity (including the plane take off again on its return flight to Glasgow)….
….. before the bus arrived at 14:11 ready for a departure to Castlebay at 14:20.
The beach based airport can best be described as having basic facilities including a bus shelter with a timetable case impressively displaying a full route W32 timetable as well as doubling up as the baggage reclaim hall.
We met Graham who was driving Aurora’s Mellor bodied Mercedes minibus on the W32/W33 on Wednesday and Thursday last week. What a lovely friendly driver he is too having only started with Aurora Trans Co earlier this year in March as a back up driver. Graham is from Bromley and still has connections there and his wife is from Barra and oversees the harbour for Caledonian MacBrayne where it’s daily ferry to and from Oban docks, so the family now live on the island playing significant roles in the island’s public transport.
We headed off to Castlebay with one other passenger who’d arrived on the plane and like us was staying the night in Castlebay before returning on Thursday.
It’s a lovely ride down the western side of the island with beautiful scenery to take in and enjoy.
The weather was absolutely splendid even the island’s cattle were encouraged by it to take a paddle.
At 14:45 in Castlebay we seamlessly turned into a W33 and picked up nine school children from the town’s junior school towards Vatersay. After dropping off three as we left Castlebay we were soon crossing the causeway …
…. and with excitement building to fever pitch Britain’s westernmost bus stop came into view.
Graham kindly posed the bus for my commemorative photographs and filming for Geoff’s YouTube video….
….. much to the puzzlement of six curious school children, and we bid a fond farewell while he continued to the terminus at the southern end of Vatersay leaving us to take in the splendour of this famous bus stop.
It certainly beats Valsgarth, Lizzard and Lowestoft for isolation. But I doubt it sees many, if any passengers.
It’s undoubtedly the “least used compass point bus stop” of the four.
It also wouldn’t win any prizes for care and maintenance with one end panel completely missing ….
…. and an empty timetable case. But there is a bench inside it.
And a postbox right next to it, which gives it a lovely setting.
Interestingly last September when I blogged about the aborted visit I posted views taken from when Goggle’s camera car passed by …. and that end panel was still in place ….
…. and the postbox was sited further away.
Which just shows how infrastructure changes over time. For what I’m sure is a good reason, but I’ve no idea what that might be.
The weather was so gorgeous for our visit last Wednesday and Thursday we didn’t trouble Graham for a lift back to Castlebay on his way back from the terminus having dropped the children off at their Vatersay homes and instead enjoyed a leisurely two and a half mile walk to our hotel for the evening and overnight stay.
Having completed our bus stop mission and not leaving Barra until the second flight of the day on Thursday at 14:55 (LoganAir fly two departures within an hour of each other in the summer season during low tide) we decided to join Graham again on Thursday morning for a full tour of the island on the anti-clockwise second W32 trip of the day at 10:30 …
…. as did another passenger on holiday, three heading to the airport, two to where they were staying on the west side and one local returning home to the east side having done her shopping at Castlebay’s large Co-op.
Barra’s east side is more populated enjoying a more sheltered climate than the Atlantic facing west side and it’s an enjoyable ride taking in the magnificent scenery it offers as the bus travels around. Even the sheep enjoy taking a walk along the road.
Geoff engaged the local resident in a discussion whether Barra beats Harris for Western Isles’ scenic delights as well as the big question of the journey which was whether Barra’s postcode (and all the Western Isles’ postcodes) being HS stands for Harris or Hebrides. No conclusion was reached and Wikipedia was no help. (Twitter has since confirmed it stands for Hebrides.)
Just before 11:00 we arrived at Airdmhor slipway for the ferry to Eriskay and there was a brief time to have a look as the ferry was arriving – it’s due in at 10:55 and leaves again at 11:10 making for an ideal connection but Graham explained he had to leave at 11:00 as that was the scheduled time so we couldn’t wait for the ferry to dock even though it was yards away and instead we headed on to the airport and beyond to the hamlet of Eoligarry in the extreme north of the island and where, as Graham explained, there’s never anyone to pick up even though there’s a fair few homes.
Then it was back on the road to the airport where we saw the runway literally underwater with the tide not yet out far enough for planes to land ….
…. but by the time we reached the ‘terminal building’ having had our forlorn visit to Eoligarry it was amazing to see how quickly the tide was going out ready for the first of the two daily flights to land at 13:40.
The bus then has about 10 minutes stand time built into the schedule before we left the airport at 11:35 which made me wonder why that 10, or even five minutes isn’t transferred to let the bus wait at the slipway to provide a guaranteed connection to the incoming ferry.
And while I’m in suggestion mode I wonder whether the local authority overseeing the Western Isles’ bus routes – Comhairle nan Eilean Siar – would consider some decent marketing of its bus routes to attract tourists? At the moment the bus map less, ticket issuing less, contactless acceptance less, day ticket less, cash only, with complex timetable presentation is very off putting for visitors. Our journeys showed there’s a market to be tapped – the highly subsidised network across the Outer Hebrides is certainly not reaching its potential.
As our island tour neared completion we picked up a visitor heading into Castlebay for some shopping arriving just before midday and as there was no one for the next W33 journey to Vatersay Graham headed off to lunch and we enjoyed the peace, calm and beautiful scenery of Castlebay harbour including some fantastic birds eye views thanks to Geoff’s trusty drone.
It really is a stunning spot to spend some time – just take a look at this photograph taken as dusk approached on Wednesday, as late as half past eight.
Our flight back to Glasgow was at 14:55 and Graham took us (and the shopping passenger to her home) to the airport on the 13:50 W32 from Castlebay which arrived at 14:11. As we arrived LoganAir’s first departure at 14:00 was just taking off having off loaded six passengers from Glasgow who came over eager to board the bus back to Castlebay just as we’d done 24 hours earlier.
And what a fantastic 24 hours it had been.
Thank you Barra.
The compass point bus stop challenge is complete.
Don’t forget to give Geoff’s video a watch. And a like of course, because I’m sure you will (like it).
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