Crossing the Pennines

Saturday 31st August 2019


Route 888 between Newcastle and Keswick is the lesser known bus service across the Pennines.

Whereas the more famous route 685 takes a direct westerly trajectory along the A69 to Carlisle via Hexham and Haltwhistle, the 888 also serves Hexham but then follows a south westerly route via Alston and Langwathby on the spectacular A686 to Penrith and then across to Keswick.


This ranks as one of England’s most stunning bus rides crossing moors and mountains and passing through forests and incredible hairpin bends along the way – just take a look at those contour lines and bends on the map extract below to get a feel of the ride.

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It should definitely feature in any ‘must do’ scenic bus routes bucket list but the only snag is whereas the 685 runs hourly, the 888 is a once-a-day-in-each-direction affair and only then during the summer months (July to September). Still, at least it runs daily as shown in the leaflet helpfully produced by Cumbria County Council despite most, of not all, passengers originating in Tyne & Wear and Northumberland. Indeed I picked up the leaflet on my visit to Hexham last week.


It’s actually more of a coach day-trip excursion than a bus route, being operated by a (15 year old) coach and even includes a 35 minute refreshment and toilet stop at Alston by a Spar shop and Texaco garage just 1 hour and 25 minutes into the journey from Newcastle – the rest of the journey to Keswick taking only an hour and ten minutes more.


Interestingly the 35 minute stop reduces to 20 minutes on Sundays and is all that’s allocated on the return journey each day of the week.


The 888 is operated by Wright Bros Coaches based in Alston and accepts concessionary passes, which is a bit of a surprise with the increasing tendency for ‘leisure’ type routes of this kind to be excluded from Schemes these days. On my trip today I reckon 25 of the 27 passengers on board were passholders.

Perhaps that explains why the single fare from Newcastle to Keswick is as high as £20 – to maximise reimbursement (ironically the responsibility of Tyne & Wear and Northumberland westbound and Cumbria on the eastbound return). Concessionary passes were being swiped on some kind of portable electronic ticket machine by the driver.

The driver was a bit vague on return fares when I asked after buying my single ticket but I gathered a period return is £30 and I was unclear how much cheaper a day return would have been. I asked pointedly if you receive a ticket if buying a period return as I hadn’t been issued a ticket for my single fare; and that’s when he got a bit vague. I think I’ll pass this feedback on to Wright Bros in case it’s of interest.


The Volvo B10M coach was not the most comfortable I’ve travelled on and it was showing it’s fifteen years age. Cramming 57 seats inside meant minimal leg room – which might work for short legged school kids on a contract run but is not ideal for a leisure day trip across spectacular countryside.


The ‘ash trays’ still in situ could usefully have been emptied too.


More positively the coach arrived in Newcastle’s Coach Station in good time at 09:00 for the 09:20 departure but the driver parked up in the far corner for about ten minutes …

IMG_9184.jpg…before pulling on to one of the five stands in front of the small building run by National Express – a bit of a luxury these days for coach travellers but has toilets available (for 30p a visit).



Sixteen passengers boarded and we were away spot on time picking the rest of our passengers up as we left Newcastle (1) as well as Throckley (3), Corrbridge (6) and Hexham (1).

It must be a long day for what I assume is an Alston based driver and coach as it’s over an hour’s drive to and from Newcastle (especially on morning peak traffic congested weekdays) meaning at least an 08:00 start and a 20:30 finish back at the garage at the end of the day.

It would make more sense for this to be a Newcastle based operation and furthermore I reckon it’s an ideal route for a double deck bus with some nice comfortable seats (maybe even a table or two) to enhance those spectacular views – except a reader has just pointed out the 13ft 6ins low bridge in Langwathby which rather scuppers that idea! However it certainly needs to be operated by modern accessible vehicles. An opportunity for an enlightened operator looking for market growth in 2020 perhaps?

I covered some of the same route yesterday between Alston and Hexham as I made my way back from visiting the wonderful South Tynedale Railway on the Go North East route X81.


The X81 is effectively a positioning service to get the Tynedale Links branded bus from Go North East’s Hexham garage to Alston to operate the two return shopping journeys a day on route 681 to and from Haltwhistle.


The 681 is another great route, presumably funded by Northumberland County Council even though Alston is just over the border in Cumbria. Journey time to Alston is 48 minutes and every minute is a delight.


It’s a real rural gem including looping around narrow unclassified roads (to serve Yont the Cleugh mobile home/caravan site) and generally following the picturesque South Tyne valley on the A689 through Lambley and Slaggyford. It looks to me as though the route is a direct replacement for the railway from Haltwhistle to Alston which closed in 1976, so a bit of a shame it’s down to just two return journeys a day.


I caught the 12:40 from Haltwhistle to Alston yesterday lunchtime and sadly we only carried two passengers back home with their shopping, one travelling the short distance to Park Village and the other got off on the double run we made to serve Halton-Lea Gate about half way along the journey – the rest of the way it was just me, as it was on the return X81 later in the afternoon.


The bonus of visiting Alston is taking a ride on the South Tynedale Railway which runs north from Alston up the valley to Scallyford.

IMG_9093.jpgThe standard gauge tracks were lifted soon after closure in 1976 but the dedicated members of the Preservation Society replaced them with a narrow gauge line with operations commencing in 1983 to a temporary halt about a mile north of Alston pending repairs to a viaduct over the South Tyne River.


Further extensions followed and the line now continues for five miles as far north as Slaggyford with two halts at Kirkhaugh and Lintley.


The Railway has a variety of locomotives including three steam, four diesel and three battery electrics. Yesterday it was No 18 Old Rusty doing the honours – an 0-6-0 diesel mechanical locomotive for those who are interested.

IMG_9105.jpgA Lottery Award in 2016 has enabled the Society to improve both Alston and Slaggyford stations which now offer excellent facilities for visitors.


At Alston there are two adjacent small museums one with an educational slant aimed at youngsters (a condition of the Lottery funding, no doubt) and the other a shed with a variety of transport vehicles and artefacts.


The 2019 timetable of three return journeys a day runs until the end of October reverting from daily to four/five days a week operation now the school holidays are over.

Journey time is 35 minutes with 25 minutes layover at Slaggyford. The volunteer staff are exceptionally friendly – even inviting me to pay a visit inside the Slaggyford signal box to watch Old Rusty change ends.



A great visit and two lovely bus rides to and from Alston too.

Roger French

Railway rides in Aviemore and Launceston

Friday 5th July 2019

There are over 150 standard and narrow gauge ‘heritage’ railways operating in Great Britain. Most are run by enthusiastic volunteers who put in many hours of dedicated service. I try and visit one or two every few weeks on my travels and have managed to tick off a long list, but there are still more to do.

Over the last couple of weeks I paid a visit to two more on my ‘to do’ list at extreme ends of Britain: The Strathspey Railway at Aviemore on 22nd June and Launceston Steam Railway in Cornwall on 30th June. They’re quite different in character but both offer a great visit.

The Strathspey Railway

IMG_1733.jpgThis operates from Aviemore Station on an adjacent platform alongside the main line used by ScotRail, LNER and Caledonian Sleeper trains between Inverness and Perth.

The route taken by Strathspey Railway trains is in fact the original main line north to Inverness which opened in 1863 taking a more easterly route via Boat of Garten and Broomhill – the two stations now restored on the line. The original line continued via Grantown-on-Spey to join the Inverness and Aberdeen railway at Forres.

IMG_1764.jpgThe line’s fortunes changed dramatically in 1892 when a new more direct line from Aviemore to Inverness was built via Carrbridge, which are the tracks used by the main Highland Line today. The Strathspey line consequently lost it’s reason for being but it hung on well into the 20th century before closing completely by 1968 with tracks lifted and abandoned.

The Strathspey Railway Company was formed in 1971 to restore the southern part of the abandoned line and now regularly runs trains from Aviemore via a lovingly preserved station at Boat of Garten and on to Broomhill, a more basic but still interesting station (photographed below).

IMG_1749.jpgMore recently tracks have been extended beyond Broomhill for about another mile where the train comes to a stop and the engine transfers to the other end via a parallel track before returning to Broomhill.

The aim is to continue extending the track as far as Grantown-on-Spey which will be a fantastic achievement when realised.

IMG_1732.jpgThe running season operates between April and October (as well as Santa Specials and some extra days in February) with continious daily operation from mid June to early September. There’s the usual special events, dining experiences and occasional vintage diesel railcar days. Three return journeys operate on the Standard Service with an additional Sunday lunch return.

It takes about an hour and a half to do a round trip back to Aviemore with breaks at both Boat of Garten (for water replenishment) and Broomhill stations. The railway covers just under ten miles of track.

IMG_1742.jpgA standard adult return is £15.75 with cheaper fares for seniors and children. The day I visited saw coach parties taking a one-way ride as part of their tour of Scotland and I guess this is a popular source of income for the railway.

IMG_1741.jpgIMG_1740.jpgIt’s very easy to visit the Strathspey Railway by public transport with the main Highland line serving Aviemore station but there are also regular bus and coach services passing by between Inverness and points south including the impressive ‘citylink gold’ route.


Launceston Steam Railway

IMG_2243.jpgThis enchanting railway in Launceston is a narrow gauge steam railway covering around two and a half miles along the Kensey Valley westwards to the hamlet of New Mills. It covers the trackbed of the old North Cornwall Railway which at one time linked Padstow with Waterloo. Originally opened in 1892 it closed in 1966.

As well as the London & South Western Railway to Padstow, the Great Western Railway also had a station in Launceston, right alongside but with separate tracks and buildings, which linked the town to Tavistock and Plymouth.

IMG_2244.jpgThe gauge is 1ft 11.5inches with open and closed carriages hauled by one of three steam engines including Lilian who started it all off when the line was established in 1983.

IMG_2239.jpgThis was thanks to Nigel Bowman, a keen enthusiast who, when aged 19, found Lilian in Penrhyn Slate Quarry in North Wales and bought her for £60 at the same time the railway through Launceston was closing in the 1960s. Nigel rebuilt Lilian in a foundry by his parent’s home in Surrey while he was undertaking a teacher training course.

By the end of the 1960s Nigel had decided to abandon a career in teaching and instead looked for a suitable spot to run a steam railway with his beloved Lilian. This brought him to Launceston and with full support from the local Council and help from friends Nigel established the narrow gauge railway on the recently lifted trackbed of the North Cornwall railway.

IMG_2245.jpgThe first train ran on Boxing Day 1983 after a lot of hard work and thanks to the Royal Navy Armaments Depot in Plymouth coincidentally wanting to dispose of its narrow gauge railway in the Docks.

The railway has gradually been extended westwards and in 1995 reached New Mills where there’s an adjacent Farm Park offering “fun for all the family especially for toddlers and younger children”.

IMG_2258.jpgTrains run on Sundays to Fridays from mid May to the end of August and on Monday to Fridays around Easter, September and the Autumn half term. There’s an hourly service with a round trip taking about 35 minutes.

A standard adult return is £11.25 with discounts for seniors, children and families.

IMG_2254.jpgThere’s a lovely cafe and gift shop at Launceston station including a fantastic book shop on the first floor with an amazing collection of transport books – I came away with two books but could easily have bought many more. Over the road from the cafe is a fascinating Transport and Engineering Museum with a range of items to interest the engineering fanatic.

There’s also accommodation available alongside the station in a cottage which sleeps four and includes free rides on the railway during your visit including a ride on the steam engine.

IMG_2240.jpgLaunceston can be reached by both Stagecoach route 6A (from Exeter) and GoCornwall (Plymouth Citybus) route 12/12B (Plymouth to Bude).

Both these railways are well worth a visit if you’re in the area; I’m glad I did. (I took a few video clips while on the Launceston Steam Railway which you can view here.)

Roger French








All steamed up in Ongar

Sunday 9th June 2019

IMG_0065.jpgThe Epping Ongar Railway is having one of its popular steam weekends this weekend and I took a ride to the end of the Central Line to have a look.

IMG_E0098.jpgThanks to Roger Wright’s ownership interests, you can always count on decent bus connections from right outside Epping Station to North Weald using Roger’s extensive London Bus Company fleet of heritage London buses.

IMG_0096.jpgRTs and an RMA were among the vehicles out today providing a half hourly service between Epping and North Weald with some journeys continuing to Ongar and even Shenfield and they were all as busy as usual.

IMG_0056.jpgOn the railway EOR had three steam engines providing an hourly service from North Weald east to Ongar as well as west to Coopersale where the line currently terminates in the middle of a forest but with no alighting or boarding facilities. It takes fifteen minutes to travel from North Weald to Ongar and around half that time to Coopersale along the single track line.

IMG_0066.jpgThe three steam engines on parade yesterday included Met 1 (photographed above) famous for the honour of working the last steam-hauled London Transport passenger train in 1961 and now a regular attender at steam events in the London area from its base at the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre ; 4270 (photographed below) a GWR 2-8-OT which spent its entire career hauling heavy coal trains in South Wales and now resides at the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway; and 5197 (phoptographed further down the page) USA S160 a 2-8-0 locomotive designed for heavy freight work across Europe but spent much of its career in China before a life of preservation normally based on the Churnet Valley Railway.

IMG_0060.jpgOngar is the original ‘start-of-the-line’ of the Central Line; the shuttle ‘Tube’ service between Epping and Ongar closed twenty-five years ago in 1994. It’s a nice Underground quirk that despite this all distances on the system are still measured from the zero mileage post situated literally at the end of the line at Ongar station.


IMG_0080.jpgBlake Hall station (between North Weald and Ongar), renowned for only having six passengers a day, closed back in 1981 when it was converted into a private residence and very nice it looks too as you steam by on the train.


IMG_0067.jpgThere’s a great surprise inside the station building at Ongar this weekend as the brilliant railway painter Malcolm Root has a small exhibition displaying some of his original paintings in the ‘Penny Salon’, and how lovely it was to meet Malcolm there too.

IMG_0077.jpgHis paintings are renowned for capturing an amazing level of detail not only of the locomotive and train itself but the whole atmosphere of the wider setting including people and other vehicles all in the period style.



IMG_0075.jpgThe whole atmosphere on the Epping Ongar Railway yesterday was also brilliant helped by the dedicated staff and volunteers who take their roles impressively seriously as well as a great mixture of fine engines and old carriages reminding of a time when seats really felt grand to sit in and always lined up with windows.

IMG_0069.jpgThere are aspirations to extend the EOR beyond Coopersale to terminate just before the current Epping Underground station at a new platform and station called Epping Glade. This would be a great addition and be a tremendous boost for the railway but it will be sad to see route 339 lose its raisin d’être.



Well done to Roger Wright and everyone involved at Epping Ongar Railway and London Bus Company for putting on a great event once again.

The three day steam weekend continues today, so depending on when you read this and where you live, why not pop along, or make a note of the next ‘1940s Steam Weekend’ on 22/23 June.

Roger French