Britain’s remotest bus terminus

Wednesday 17th July 2019

IMG_3973.jpgIt’s been a bucket list ambition for a few years. Travel to mainland Britain’s most north westerly point at Cape Wrath and visit by far the remotest bus terminus alongside its famous lighthouse.

You can’t get more remote than the end of an isolated eleven mile single track road which has no other road connections. It starts at a jetty slipway served only by a passenger ferry, passes no civilisation for eleven miles, and ends at a lighthouse where just two people live in adjacent accommodation.IMG_3975.jpgArriving at Cape Wrath you’re further north than Moscow and Vladivostok. You’re closer to the Arctic Circle than you are to London. Head due west and you’ll reach Newfoundland.

I’ve long wanted to try the unique bus route which takes you to Cape Wrath. The trek entails a ten minute walk from the main A838 road, a couple of miles south of Durness, to the jetty where the summer only passenger ferry (Britain’s smallest passenger ferry) takes you across the Kyle of Durness from where the minibus begins the spectacular ride along the eleven mile winding and hilly, rough surface narrow track to Cape Wrath itself.

IMG_E4092.jpg‘Track’ is very much the description of this ‘road’. Built in the second half of the nineteenth century to take nothing wider than a horse and cart and service the lighthouse it’s still as narrow and to the same unmade up rough surface as its original state. It’s officially adopted by Highland Regional Council and known as the U70 road – it’s marked on Ordnance Survey maps as an unfenced track. Unsurprisingly Google’s camera car hasn’t driven it.

IMG_3993.jpgThere are passing places but many are now too soft or dangerous to use. It’s said there are only about five effective places along the entire eleven mile track where a minibus could pass. It’s essential therefore for the minibus drivers (there are often two buses in use with a third spare) to keep in touch by radio to make sure they don’t meet away from those passing places. Luckily there’s no other traffic.

It takes just over an hour to travel from the jetty to the lighthouse – that’s an average speed of around 10mph which reflects the track surface conditions and the skill of the drivers. Tyres don’t last more than one summer season.

IMG_4035.jpgThis journey has unique all over it. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere in Great Britain. It’s simply the best public transport experience I’ve ever had; and I’ve had a few. It breaks through the quirkiness scale barrier.

It beats anything I’ve enjoyed travelling through Britain’s most scenic National Parks. It beats the amazing journeys I’ve taken in the Outer Hebrides, Shetlands and Skye. It even beats the most spectacular railway journeys on the West Highland and Kyle of Lochalsh lines.

It’s simply the best.

The journey does need careful planning and an element of good luck to successfully accomplish it. Fortunately James, who runs the bus service, maintains a very helpful website which explains the logistics of the journey (VisitCapeWrath) setting out what to expect and he’s even available on the phone to give reassuring advice as I found a couple of times when I gave him a ring to check finer details.

The luck element includes for the ferry crossing: avoiding severe weather and an extreme low tide and for the minibus ride: the military not closing the road as the area is used for live bombing exercises (thankfully not usually during the summer), and more pertinently there being enough people at the time you want to travel to justify the minibus running – a minimum of six is desired.

It’s probably safest to stay overnight in Durness and take the first ferry across the Kyle of Durness in the morning at about 8.45-9.00am. That way you have more chances to make the journey during the day if the aforementioned criteria aren’t met. But that’s not easy when you’re a BusAndTrainUser on a public transport schedule to such a remote part of Britain with few options.

IMG_3857.jpgI took the 10:41am train from Inverness yesterday morning on the Far North Line (to Wick) as far as Lairg arriving 12:20pm. That departure is an easy connection from the Sleeper’s arrival from Euston although on this occasion I took the easyJet option the previous day from Gatwick (cheaper and quicker although I ended up paying for an expensive overnight stay in tourist filled Inverness on Monday).IMG_3863.jpgDurness based Far North Bus company runs the once a day route 806 providing a great connection from Lairg station at 12:25pm and the bus will wait a decent time in case the train runs late.IMG_3864.jpgRoute 806 is one of my favourite bus routes. The scenery is spectacular with lochs, mountains and forests and no more than two dozen houses spread along the 37 miles single track A838 road heading north westwards out of Lairg towards Durness.

IMG_3871.jpgMy friendly bus driver Danny was a bit concerned to hear my travel plans included Cape Wrath due to the exceptionally low tide that afternoon and I took his advice and rang the ferryman to check things out as we travelled along and Danny even kindly stopped the bus to improve mobile reception.

Previously, James the Cape Wrath minibus owner, had been a bit non committal about timings and when I got through to ferryman Malcolm he advised the next ferry was at 2pm and after that it would be 3.30pm but only if there were enough people travelling but at least he reassured me the tide would be OK. We were due to arrive at about 2.30pm.

In the meantime there was plenty of time to chat with Danny as he drove along this wonderfully scenic road from Lairg which after an hour reaches Scotland’s main south to north road from Ullapool to Durness at Laxford Bridge.

Here the minibus heads temporarily south down the A894 towards Ullapool to serve the village of Scourie. This dog-leg takes ten minutes before turning round and retracing the road back to Laxford Bridge and heading north until it reaches the turning westwards for Kinlochbervie Harbour which adds another ten minute detour before turning round and retracing back to the main road again. That’s forty minutes added to the journey to serve these two locations.

Yesterday I was the only passenger for the entire journey so the added mileage was unnecessary but passengers have boarded and alighted in both places on previous trips, so you never know. Returning to Lairg on the bus this morning five passengers boarded in Scourie.

After another twenty minutes heading north we reached the turning for the Kyle of Durness ferry and Danny very kindly drove along to the jetty itself rather than drop me at the road end as he was still concerned whether the ferry would be running and I might end up stranded.

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It was about 2.35pm and no ferry was in sight and the rather unhelpful information board said the next ferry would depart at 2pm!

IMG_3885.jpgI began to think my luck had run out and the ferry had packed up beaten by a low tide and paucity of passengers. But then a small boat appeared in the distance across the narrow channel of water stretching across the Kyle and I also spotted a minibus coming down the hillside to the jetty on the far side. It turned out Malcolm uses the time in between the infrequent short ferry crossings to do some fishing but he was now back in ferry mode.

He brought back four passengers and a couple of bikes but I’m not sure how much fish! This was about 3pm and Malcolm explained he’d be crossing again at 3.30pm if there were six people by then and promptly drove off in his van.

IMG_3894.jpgI was pleased and relieved to see a young holidaying couple from Northern Ireland and their lovely dog had now arrived so we were halfway to our quorum and when Malcolm returned at 3.30pm miraculously three more passengers had arrived and we set sail.IMG_3899.jpgIMG_3901.jpgIt really was an extreme low tide; halfway across skilfully navigating the very narrow channel of water Malcolm asked us all to sit at the front end of the boat as it had started to ground! Luckily that worked and we arrived at the far side jetty just as another minibus came down the track with a dozen returning passengers.IMG_3904.jpgTwo of our number decided they’d enjoy a walk rather than take the minibus but Stuart, our minibus driver, was happy to take just the four of us and dog on the journey to Cape Wrath. Thank goodness!IMG_3910.jpgBut not before Stuart checked the position of the other minibus which as it happened wasn’t far away returning empty to the jetty so we waited for that driver to arrive and then we were off.IMG_3921.jpgThe area to the Cape has been officially dubbed Europe’s ‘Last Great Wilderness’ and you soon see why. The steep gradient as the narrow track winds its way up from the jetty is just a foretaste of the amazing journey ahead.

IMG_3925.jpgSmall marker posts along the track count down each of the eleven miles to the lighthouse. After a couple of miles you reach the beginning of the Cape Wrath Bombardment Range with its high profile warning signs and barrier arm to prevent any further movement when the military are practising manoeuvres by firing live ammunition and dropping live bombs. It’s the only range in Western Europe where thousand pound bombs are live fired and any NATO member can use it.IMG_3995.jpgStuart pointed out a crater just a few feet from the track as we passed by which appeared after a bombing exercise making you realise how necessary those barriers are.IMG_3941.jpgThe Ministry of Defence own one of the very few properties alongside the track and have refurbished it for use as a base and accommodation during exercises.IMG_4030.jpgIMG_4029.jpgOne other property we passed is used as a summer home, but Stuart observed sometimes only for a couple of weeks a year and one or two other properties have clearly been abandoned.

There are a few bridges to carry the track over small rivers luckily just wide enough to take our minibus. “It showed great foresight by the original track builders” Stuart quipped.IMG_4026.jpgIMG_3997.jpgThe newest bridge was built by the Royal Engineers and Royal Marines as recently as 1981. Before that minibuses had to navigate a ford at this point. It’s said in the early days of the minibus service it was common practice for the driver along with a willing passenger to wade out into the river with a rope strung between them marking the width of the vehicle and if the water stayed below knee level it was safe for the minibus to cross.IMG_4039.jpgAfter about seven miles you get a view of the almost hidden beautiful Kearvaig Bay on the northern coastline.

IMG_3989.jpgThis must be one of the most gorgeous bays that’s rarely used save by a few intrepid walkers including the two women who opted to walk from the ferry and were still heading there when we passed them on our return (you might spot them below) – but it looked as though it would defintely be worth their effort.IMG_4034.jpgContinuing on to Cape Wrath the track enters what is its most exciting and challenging section. With four miles to go we leave the firing range and cross Kearvaig Bridge offering just four inches clearance for our minibus.

The track continues to follow the contours of the landscape but at the tenth mile the track is carved out of the valley side incorporating a sharp drop to the nearside and a soft verge. This section is called the ‘Wall of Death’. Stuart’s driving skills made it look easy but I wouldn’t like to try it!

IMG_3947.jpgThe track finally reaches the Cape Wrath lighthouse and the end of the journey.

IMG_3953.jpgIMG_3956.jpgJames has organised things so you have about 45 minutes to wander around and take in the sheer wonderment of reaching this exposed extreme north western tip of the country …. by bus. There are spectacular views towards the Arctic Circle northwards…

IMG_3969.jpg…. and westwards to the North Atlantic…

IMG_3981.jpgThe lighthouse has only been automated since 1998 and now lies deserted except for John and his daughter who live in the adjacent somewhat ramshakle property.

IMG_3978.jpgIMG_3979.jpgThey provide refreshments and a few souvenirs in the Ozone cafe in their property and you have to marvel at the logistics they surmount of no mains water, gas, electricity or sewage connections, nor mobile phone signal yet running a small commercial business reliant on the small number of tourists who make the journey and then buy something!

IMG_3957.jpgIMG_3976.jpgIMG_3977.jpgThey bring all their supplies, including water, from Durness once a week where their post is also kept. Rainwater is harvested for the toilet and washing – there’s a notice in the bathroom to use sparingly!

We passed John’s daughter about four miles along the track from the jetty where she can just pick up a mobile signal so was spending the afternoon online shopping on the back seat of her car!

IMG_4036.jpgBack at the lighthouse John has an interesting collection of abandoned vehicles and we passed another minibus he used to use, parked up along the track and awaiting the fitting of a part after it broke down some time ago.

IMG_3970.jpgIMG_4010.jpgThere were also a few sheep who apparently now roam wild as they’ve learnt to out manoeuvre the farmer’s sheep dog by escaping to precarious ledges on the cliffs and are now well separated from the flock on the other side of the firing range.IMG_3983.jpgThe lighthouse’s massive foghorn hasn’t sounded for many years but you can just imagine the sound it used to make on a night of thick fog and blowing a force ten gale as often relaid on Radio 4’s Shipping Forecast!

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Our journey back to the jetty was as enjoyable as the outward by seeing all the spectacular views from a different angle including steep inclines up instead of down and Stuart continuing with his fascinating commentary.

IMG_4041.jpgMalcolm was waiting for us at the jetty as we arrived soon after 6.30pm and Stuart left the minibus overnight alongside the other one already parked up and joined us for the trip back over the Kyle of Durness which was now much faster flowing with the tide well in.IMG_4066.jpg

IMG_4061.jpgStuart’s driving day was done having completed three return trips and he kindly gave me a lift into Durness to save the lengthy walk. This is his eighth season of driving one of the Cape Wrath minibuses and he obviously enjoys it and provides a truly great experience for visitors.

IMG_4069.jpgWe chatted on the way back to Durness and he agreed with my thoughts that there’s huge potential to increase business and make the ‘visitor experience’ even better. Publicising a definitive timetable for departures on James’s website and at the jetty would be reassuring as would booking tickets online and taking bank cards. The current cash only return ticket price is £7.50 paid on the ferry and £13 on the minibus.

IMG_4073.jpgI got the impression Malcolm independently guards his revenue stream and suspect he would resist agreeing to a combined ticket and perhaps making things a bit more streamlined.

I’ve thought about it a bit more since yesterday and now think the quirkinesses of the whole arrangement is part of its charm, and who’d want the remoteness of the Cape to become overrun with tourists; in fact I hesitate at writing too effusive praise here about just how fantastic and brilliant an experience it was for fear too many readers will follow in my tracks.

Luck was on my side yesterday – I was out of the military practice season, the weather was stunningly idyllic, that low tide wasn’t too low, the departure time of 3.30pm just fitted my schedule and five fellow passengers turned up just at the right time.

Perfect.

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Absolutely perfect.

IMG_3964.jpgI don’t think I’m going to trounce this travel experience any time soon.

Roger French

PS You might be wondering how James gets the three minibuses over to the Cape with no road access and only a tiny pedestrian ferry. They’re taken over at the beginning of each season and brought back at the end on a special motorised pontoon barge which crosses when the sea conditions are just right – a calm, wind free day. Diesel fuel is brought over as needed in 25-litre drums during the season. The photo below is taken from a splendid guidebook on sale for just £3 by David M Hird and well worth buying if you’re thinking of visiting.IMG_E4104.jpg

Alderney’s Northern Line

Wednesday 8th May 2019

IMG_6600.jpgI spent last weekend’s Bank Holiday break on beautiful Alderney, one of the Channel Islands.

Alderney’s not renowned for its public transport – there are no buses – they’re not really needed on an island that measures just three miles long and 1.5 miles wide with a population of 2,000. It doesn’t take long to walk most places.

IMG_6591.jpgBut there is a railway; Alderney Railway. Except it only runs on certain days during the summer, mostly Wednesdays and weekends between June and September as well as Sundays in April and May.

IMG_6605.jpgTrain departures are at 1430 and 1530 from Braye Road Station which is adjacent to Braye Beach on the north side of the island and about a ten minute walk from the Island’s commercial centre, such as it is, of St Anne.

IMG_6606.jpgThis is no ordinary railway. As you can see it’s run with two former London Underground train carriages powered by a lovely seventy year old diesel engine called Elizabeth.

IMG_6609.jpgThe carriages are former Northern Line stock dating from 1959 and have been preserved to a lovely condition, complete with original internal cove line diagrams.

IMG_6610.jpgThe railway line runs for two miles eastwards from Braye Road to Mannez Quarry where sheds have been erected that accommodates the rolling stock.

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The railway opened on 14th July 1847 to bring sandstone from the quarry to the harbour area at Braye rather than passengers, although Queen Victoria and Prince Albert took a railcar along the line in 1854 on a visit to the island. At one time it extended westward beyond Braye Road to the next bay, but these tracks have now been abandoned although can still be easily seen.

IMG_6590.jpgDuring the Second World War the occupying Germans took up most of the track and sent it to Cherbourg building their own metre gauge railway to other gravel works from the harbour in its place. After the Liberation in 1945 that track was removed and the original standard gauge line to Mannez was relaid. Commercial quarrying never returned however and the line passed through various Governmental/State responsibilities and is now leased to the Alderney Railway Society – a group of dedicated volunteers and enthusiasts who run it as a tourist attraction.

IMG_6632.jpgThe first public train ran in Spring 1980 with Wickham carriages but these were replaced initially by 1938 Underground stock but the salt air damaged their steel bodies so a pair of 1959 aluminium bodied cars were purchased and delivered courtesy of the Royal Logistics Corp using a landing craft to deliver them as a military logistics exercise as well as taking away the old 1938 cars.

IMG_6643.jpgThe Society owns two diesel engines dating from 1949 (called Elizabeth) and 1958 (Molly). Elizabeth is an 0-4-0 diesel mechanical powered by a six cylinder Gardiner engine; the locomotive is a Drewry design and was built at the Vulcan Foundry in Newton Le Willows.

IMG_6629.jpgMolly is a Ruston Hornsby and doesn’t haul the former Underground carriages as she features US style couplings and has a restricted compressed air charging system.

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The ride from Braye Road to Mannez Quarry takes around 15 minutes and where the train lays over for about 15 minutes before returning to Braye Road ready for the next journey at 1530. The volunteers are so friendly and show you around the sheds at Mannez. The fare is £6 return. Some people take a ride and walk back or vice versa.

IMG_6625.jpgIMG_6608.jpgIt’s a fascinating railway and totally bizarre to see a Northern Line Underground train heading along a single line track offering magnificent views of the coastline around a wonderful island as well as a clear view of the French coastline on the south side of the island.

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Roger French

Farewell Norton Bridge

Friday 29th March 2019

IMG_3036.jpgThe rail replacement bus service which has been running between Stafford and Stone to serve the abandoned Norton Bridge station since May 2004 comes to an end tomorrow. I couldn’t resist taking a trip up there to check it out on its penultimate day.

Trains stopped calling at Norton Bridge fifteen years ago to allow for the rebuilding of the railway as part of the West Coast Route Modernisation project. The station platform was inconveniently in the way.

Norton Bridge first opened in 1837 and latterly only enjoyed an irregular frequency local train service between Stafford and Stoke-on-Trent until it ended in May 2004.Screen Shot 2019-03-29 at 19.35.17.pngA rail replacement bus service was introduced between Stafford and Stone via Norton Bridge which was included in the rail timetable system and journey planners with rail tickets continuing to be available and accepted on the buses which also served other bus stops along the route. Funding for this came indirectly from the DfT as the franchise holder, at that time, London Midland, included the cost of the bus in its successful bid.

With the new West Midlands franchise starting in October 2017 the DfT decided to finally bring, what was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, to an end and issued a consultation in late 2016 to formally close Norton Bridge station, even though trains hadn’t called there for twelve years.

It came as no surprise the formal closure was enacted in December 2017 but the bus service was given a further stay of execution with continued part funding through the new franchise until the end of March 2019 enabling Staffordshire County Council time to review other bus service levels in the area.IMG_3037.jpgBrexit Day may not be happening today, but sadly D&G Bus service 13 is ending tomorrow and the 600 residents of Norton Bridge who lost their irregular trains in 2004, saw their station formally close in 2017, will now lose their only bus service.

Here’s how today’s trip went…..

IMG_3024.jpgI arrived in Stafford over an hour before the 1235 departure was due to leave for Norton Bridge and Stone (earlier departures are at 0835 and 1035 with later ones at 1505, 1615 and 1715). I didn’t want to risk missing it. This enabled me to see the bus arriving from Stone from its previous journey at 1133 before it takes just over an hour’s break. It’s not a particularly arduous schedule having just half an hour running time end to end.IMG_3034.jpgI was pleased about that as there was absolutely no information about the route, its times or even its existence anywhere in Stafford station or outside on the bus shelters. It’s always tricky when you’re not sure where a bus route departs from so at least I now knew and wandered off to explore Stafford for an hour.IMG_3139.jpgArriving back I was pleasantly surprised to see three passengers boarding the bus for the trip to Stone.IMG_3035.jpgIt didn’t take long to realise they were regulars who come into Stafford for shopping. As you can imagine talk on the bus was all about being cut off after this weekend. Although one lady got off in Great Bridgeford (a village on the route just north of Stafford) which will continue to be served by another D&G Bus service, route 14, which ironically also serves the communities of Wedgwood and Barlaston on its route which also lost their stations in the West Coast Route Modernisation project but you can still buy tickets to them from any station and use them on the bus (a single from Wedgwood to Barlaston is just £1.90).

One passenger continued on the bus towards Stone and the third alighted with me in the small village of Norton Bridge. I asked him where the entrance to the station was and it turned out the bus had stopped right opposite. He told me all about the station house, the railway cottages and the sad day when the footbridge was taken away which meant access to the station was lost for ever.IMG_3131.jpgHe shrugged his shoulders when I asked him how he’d manage to get into Stafford next week with no bus, before admitting his wife had a car!IMG_3130.jpgThe station house and adjacent cottages (“where the rail workers used to live” he explained – it must have been a real hive of activity at some time) are indeed very pleasant and I made my way on to the ‘station forecourt’ and looking down on the fenced off tracks could easily make out the former platform, now isolated and uncared for, together with an abandoned signal boxIMG_3071.jpgBut the best bit of all was the ‘Helpful information’ poster still in situ at what was the entrance to the forecourt. IMG_3125.jpg

IMG_3045.jpgNorton Bridge station is alive and well; except there’s “no ticket office” and “no ticket machine”, and sadly “no step free access”. Oh, and no access to a crumbling platform and …. no trains either!

Not only that but the new franchisee, London Northwestern Railway from West Midlands Trains has taken the trouble to reprint the poster in their own corporate house style and someone has taken the trouble to go out to Norton Bridge and display it ….. yet the adjacent bus shelter contains no information at all about the bus replacement service. Nothing.

IMG_3134.jpgIf there’s anything that sums up our dysfunctional non-integrated transport system in this country perhaps that is it!IMG_3137.jpgI headed back to Stafford.

Roger French