Friday, 8 August 2014

Riding Around the Lakes by Oliver Foreman

 At the back of my mind I recall that Cumberland Motor Services was once the most profitable part of the National Bus Company (25+ years ago!). That was quite an achievement in view of the rural nature of the area and the torturous roads meandering around lakes and between mountains.

 As I was spending a few days in the Lake District at the end of July 2014, I was keen to see how the current predominant bus operator Stagecoach was getting on, having to cope with the problem these days of holiday season severe traffic congestion in the popular towns and villages surrounding the lakes.

 Fortunately, an excellent Stagecoach produced free booklet was easily available throughout the area (though strangely not at the bus or train stations in Penrith). The booklet contains timetables (including connecting boats, steam trains, Mountain Goat and the special 800 bus with room inside for 12 bicycles), maps, suggestions, fares (including some joint boat and train ‘special offers’) , all in a compact size for your pocket. Thus planning a circular outing by bus was easy . . . except for one thing. Where do we get on?

We were staying at Whitbarrow Village just off the A66 west of Penrith. The X4/X5 Trans Cumbria (Workington – Keswick – Penrith) runs along there but bus stops are few and far between and many give no information. Eventually we drove a couple of miles to Troutbeck Inn (a timing point) where BUS STOP was painted on the main road. Having boarded, we found that the bus pulled onto the ‘old’ road near where we were staying (by The Sportsman’s for those who know the area), though I don’t know if it would have stopped for us on a ‘hail & ride’ basis.

15 year old Miriam had the choice of visiting some gardens with her parents or joining Uncle Oliver on the buses. She came with me, not that buses are a novelty to Miriam as she travels to school in Newcastle on Stagecoach hybrids.

Not being in the best of health, I wanted to keep the day simple. Here are the services we used (all operated by Stagecoach in Kendal and the Lakes):

X5       1038 Troutbeck Hotel on A66 – Penrith bus station          1110

508     1118 Penrith bus station – Windermere railway station   1243

Break for lunch

599     1348  Windermere railway station – Grasmere centre      1425

555     1443  Grasmere centre – Keswick bus station                       1512

X4       1520  Keswick bus station – Troutbeck Hotel on A66         1538

Our first vehicle, a Volvo B7R coach, came up the hill towards us about three minutes late. Miriam bought a child Day Explorer ticket for £7.50 [adult £10.50] and I used my Notts County Council senior citizens pass. Unlike at home, you have to state your destination and a ticket is issued which the driver takes from the machine and gives to you. All these variations on procedure slow things down with us senile old folks! The coach was over half full and we enjoyed a comfortable journey into Penrith where the majority of passengers alighted at the railway station. It was here that I was filled with horror! Our next bus was waiting time and it was an Optare Solo. I detest small buses and wondered how it would cope with the gruelling climb up the Kirkstone Pass. The Solo followed us round to the bus station where we boarded with about five other people.

I was looking forward to this 508 journey (Monday - Friday only in summer school holidays through to Windermere, though Saturday and Sunday throughout the summer season) as the route meanders around the beautiful Ullswater (not as busy as some of the other lakes) and then climbs a mountain pass, with gradients up to 20% (1 in 5), before dropping down into Windermere, with spectacular views to enjoy throughout.

I was not disappointed! On two occasions we had to back when a coach and then a lorry approached on particularly narrow sections. Sometimes the road seems at the very edge of the lake. Then we reached the steep climb. The transmission whined more and more loudly and there was a worrying smell of oil. At one point the driver had to stop on a steep and narrow part and I wondered if we would ever get going. How long would it take to come to rescue us, assuming there was a mobile signal (which there wasn’t)? However, the Solo slowly and with great screeching got going and somehow we crawled to the top. Fortunately, the brakes were in good order as we meandered down the other side and arrived at Windermere station on time. Observation suggests that a Solo is not normally used on this service. It is generally worked by 05 plate Dennis Darts, two from Carlisle depot and one from Kendal.

Miriam was hungry. And so was I. A short walk down the hill brought us to a pub with a welcome sign: ‘Lunches £5’. The food was well cooked and good value.

Back to the railway station (which appears to double as a bus station) for the 599 open topper to Grasmere. Having nearly boarded the bus in the opposite direction, 
we were soon sitting at the back upstairs . . . and the storm clouds were forming. We could have moved to the covered seats at the front but we stayed where we were and got drenched, especially when passing under overhanging branches. In such weather a 20 minute service was excessive but observation on fine days showed good loads. The S registered Dennis Trident soon sped us to the quaint Grasmere village, despite traffic delays in Ambleside.

We had time for a delicious Lakes ice cream before crossing the road to board the 555 (Lancaster – Kendal – Keswick) to Keswick. The well loaded 05 plate Dennis Trident (this time with a roof) positively flew up the steep inclines as we went through yet more spectacular scenery; even Miriam was impressed! I wondered how much longer the Bristol’s of yesteryear would have taken to climb those hills.

In Keswick, we would have travelled on the 78 open topper to Seatoller. I am told this is another very scenic route, at one time (then numbered 79) worked by Bristol MWs. However, very heavy congestion as we entered the town made us miss our three minute connection. The X4 (another Volvo B7R) was loading so we joined the queue and enjoyed a comfortable coach journey back to our starting point.

These Stagecoach Volvo coaches have a chair lift combined with the normal front entrance whereas the only other coaches used on stage carriage I have experience of (trentbarton) have a separate entrance for the chair lift.

I must say I was very impressed with Stagecoach in Kendal and the Lakes. The publicity is excellent, the drivers are helpful and the buses run well. Some were a few minutes late but hardly surprising in view of the traffic congestion. Miriam’s verdict on the day, expressed in a manner exclusive to teenagers, was: “Fantastic”. Mind you, I did promise her a KFC that evening!

Comments from Miriam were that she was surprised how vigilant the Cumbria drivers were in inspecting her ticket; she is used to a cursory glance in Newcastle. Having had it drilled into her (by me) that green Stagecoach double deckers are hybrid powered (as in Newcastle), she asked why the Lakes deckers are green but not hybrids. I did not have an answer but was impressed by the question.

One note of caution; I picked up a bus timetable booklet produced by Cumbria County Council. It contains the following ominous statement: ‘By the end of March 2015 Cumbria County Council will no longer be funding scheduled bus services’. What has happened to the requirement in section 63 of the 1985 Transport Act for local authorities ‘to secure the provision of such public passenger transport services as the council consider it appropriate to secure to meet any public transport requirements within the county which would not in their view be met apart from any action taken by them for that purpose’? Perhaps all the councillors have cars so ‘consider it appropriate’ that many centres of population have no bus services in the evenings and on Sundays (and in some cases none at any time).

Oliver Foreman
August 2014

Below are photographs taken by Miriam and me on our travels. Regretfully, most are taken with a mobile phone.

 1. Our transport into Penrith, here seen backing off the stand as it starts its return journey to Keswick and Workington

2. Driving by Ullswater in the Optare Solo. In the mist on the right you can see the mountain pass we were soon to climb. That circle in the water near the shore. A submerged monster??

 3. Passengers board at Glenridding for the climb over the Kirkstone Pass

4. A Dennis Dart heading for Penrith squeezes past

 5. The bleak mountainside as the Solo struggles up the 20% gradient

6. Heading down towards Windermere

 7. Safely at Windermere Station. The Solo and driver have done well.

 8. The only stepped entrance Stagecoach bus we saw. This Volvo Olympian was parked at Windermere Station.

 9. Our open topper is the next one after this.

10. Oliver and Miriam enjoying the open top deck . . . shortly before the heavens opened!

 11. Wonderful scenery wherever you look.

12. We get off our bus in Grasmere village . . .

 13. . . . and soon board the busy 555 for Keswick

14. Miriam marvels at the spectacular scenery

 15. Our X4 coach awaits us in Keswick

 16. Back at the A66 bus stop where we boarded this morning

 17. This unusual working on the X5 to Penrith brings back the open topper from a day’s work on the 78 out of Keswick

 18. A MAN bus rather than a Volvo coach working the X4 Trans Cumbria service from Penrith to Workington

 19. And finally, like the title picture, a Dennis Dart tackles the Kirkstone Pass with gradients up to 20%

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