Friday, 27 February 2009

In aid of a good cause

Box of pipette tips in a laboratory

From the moment I decided that travelling from one end of the country to the other by bus was an exercise on paper that I could actually put into practice, I knew it would be an excellent opportunity to raise some money for charity at the same time – even though I've tended to be sponsor more than "sponsoree" in recent years.

There are many good causes to choose from, but I've decided to support Christie's appeal. For starters, the hospital is local to me, just round the corner in Withington, Manchester. One of the largest cancer treatment centres in Europe, it treats around 40,000 patients every year. Last year, one of those patients was a friend of mine. Like many twenty-somethings who have so far had the benefit of good health, it was a reminder to myself that cancer can strike anyone, anywhere. The work of centres such as The Christie in treating, researching and raising awareness of cancer is invaluable, and well worth supporting.

If you'd like to sponsor me on my longitudinal coast-to-coast trip, please visit Justgiving to make a donation online. In return, I hope this project will give you a little entertainment over the next few months.

Image credit: estherase on Flickr

Monday, 23 February 2009

Modern technology

Girl sitting in cyber cafe

How is my planning coming along? Well, I've sorted out the arrangements for the northern half of the route already, and work continues on the southern section of route. I can split the journey into two sections due to living roughly at the half-way stage, with the added bonus of spending a night in my own bed. All of this I've done from my computer, which is pretty amazing when you consider how much effort would have been required before usage of the internet became widespread.

There would have been a lot of phonecalls and letter writing. I'd have had to send off for paper copies of timetable booklets, instead of simply looking on the Stagecoach website. For accomodation I'd have had to visit the central library to look up the details of guesthouses overnight in the various local phone directories, and then rung round to check on availability and prices – instead of Google and email. And I'd have probably ended up catching a time-consuming train all the way to Thurso, there being no cheap flights to Inverness for £1.56 (plus taxes and charges) available from the FlyBE website. (A website? What's one of those?)

If that weren't enough, there's no way I'd have been able to keep interested parties up to date with my progress. Imagine a frequent newsletter being posted to a list of people in the run up to the trip (blog), or a typewriter being taken with me so that I could keep the newsletters being posted along the route (laptop) – not to mention that steady supply of 10p pieces so that I could transmit progress reports instantaneously from bus station call boxes along the route (Twitter). What amazing tools we have at our disposal these days.

But if all that isn't exciting enough, how does the prospect of using the internet on the bus strike you? Forget those iPhone and BlackBerry devices – for I am a Luddite at heart – I shall get the opportunity to use the wi-fi internet access with my laptop between Dundee–Glenrothes and Milton Keynes–Banbury. Will we one day see free wi-fi access as standard on the local bus route into town?

Image credit: larksflem on Flickr

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Mind the gap

There are a couple of small flaws in my plan: I've got gaps. Two small ones to be precise, but ones that I shall have to overcome in some fashion. I'm sure someone would have pointed it out sooner or later, so a pre-emptive confession is always the best option.

Map of the Peak District

The map above shows the first problem: the Peak District National Park, shaded in green. To the west lies the Stagecoach Manchester company, and to the east is Barnsley, Sheffield and Chesterfield, with 555 square miles of sparsely populated countryside between the two. Manchester buses make it as far east as Glossop and Hayfield, whilst on the other side there are services as far west as Holmfirth, Peniston [sic], Stocksbridge and Matlock. When I was about 16, a friend and I cycled from Hadfield to Holmfirth, over the Woodhead Pass – or as I prefer to think of it, Royston Vasey to Last of the Summer Wine. It's pretty desolate moorland with nary a soul for miles.

Back in 2005 when I was idly musing on the internet, there was actually a way across. Stagecoach East Midlands, as the Chesterfield operations were then known, operated a Saturday only service 373 from Glossop over Snake Pass to Ladybower Reservoir, from where it was possible to change onto service 274 to Sheffield. Both services are today operated by TM Travel, under contract to Derbyshire County Council, so of no use to me now.

Map of the Lincolnshire Fens

This other map shows my second problem: getting from Grantham to Peterborough. Lincolnshire services run as far south as Grantham and Boston, but Cambridgeshire services only reach as far north as Spalding and Market Deeping. Lincolnshire RoadCar, the company that was bought by Stagecoach in 2005, has at times operated into Peterborough, and even had a depot in Grantham – but alas no more. Today, services in this part of Lincolnshire are in the hands of Centrebus, Brylaine, and the wonderfully idiosyncratic Delaine.

Thankfully, I've one solution that will solve both problems: for these small sections of route, I'm going to catch the train. Specifically, the Stagecoach franchise East Midlands Trains which operates both Stockport–Sheffield (44 minutes journey time) and Grantham–Peterborough (34 mins). It's not an ideal solution, but hopefully you'll agree that it's in the spirit of the challenge.

Maps courtesy of Google Maps

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Not the first

Manju and her free ticket to ride

I'm not the first to try my hand on the nation's bus network. I must admit to having had a few pangs of jealousy last April when 60-year-old Manju Ghosh set off on a trip from Berwick to Penzance using her free concessionary bus pass. It seemed that wherever I turned on the internet, she'd already been there as unofficial cheerleader for the free travel scheme in England: on the BBC and in the MEN; in the Metro and The Guardian and the Daily Mirror. I'm not sure how I'd cope with such media attention, especially being bracketed in the "and finally" section more often than not!

As the Manchester Buses blog reported at the time, it would take her twelve days* to travel the length of England only – whereas my own journey will take only six days and I'm starting at the tip of Scotland! Admittedly, I'm making the south coast my final destination rather than Cornwall, as territory demands. I'll be able to start travelling earlier in the morning, along with the commuters, whereas Manju was only able to use her pass after 0930 in the morning. And then there's the issue of holidays – I didn't want to book two weeks off work to do this trip when I could get it done in one!

The BBC Manchester article after Manju's return calculated that the journey would have cost £122.70 if they'd had to pay. Is that calculated at half fare, which is what senior citizens used to pay before free travel? My own journey won't cost that much even though I'll be paying full fare, as by sticking to one operator I can make use of discounted day tickets for most of my journey. National Rail calculates that if I set out from Thurso on a Monday at 0648, I could be in Brighton by 2118 the same day, changing trains at Inverness, Edinburgh and London Kings Cross/St Pancras – and for only £47.50 if I booked in advance, or the more pricey option on the day at £156.30. But where's the fun in that? :)

* In actual fact, she was back home early after only ten days, 700 miles and 37 bus journies.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

A rough plan

Waves and cliffs on the Pentland Firth, Thurso

I've been working on the route I am going to take to get from one end of Britain to the other using only Stagecoach buses*. Here's a rough plan:

Day 1

Thurso to Montrose
via Inverness and Aberdeen

Day 2

Montrose to Carlisle
via Dundee, Glenrothes, Glasgow, Ayr and Dumfries

Day 3

Carlisle to Stockport
via Penrith, Keswick, Lancaster, Preston and Bolton

Day 4

Stockport to Grantham
via Sheffield, Chesterfield, Worksop, Retford, Gainsborough and Lincoln

Day 5

Grantham to Andover
via Peterborough, Milton Keynes, Bicester, Oxford, Swindon and Marlborough

Sunlight on Brighton Pier

Day 6

Andover to Brighton
via Basingstoke, Alton, Petersfield and Havant

This is going to be a real challenge. I don't really have any fear about the prospect of making my way to an unfamiliar area via public transport. I've done it many times – I'm used to it. The list above though includes huge swathes of countryside that I'll be visiting for the first time ever, one mysterious town after the other. I hope I'm not biting off more than I can chew.

* See the guidelines I've set myself, as well as my reasoning

Image credits: PhillipC and -RobW- on Flickr

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Why only Stagecoach?

Why am I limiting myself to Stagecoach buses on this top-to-tail quest? A fair question. Although they're my local bus company here in South Manchester, they are one of the largest transport companies in the country with bus operations stretching from Scotland to the south coast of England. The map below gives a rough impression of the towns in which Stagecoach has a bus depot within the UK. Can you see the beginnings of a route taking shape amongst the dots?

Stagecoach UK Depots Map 2009

The idea came to me in 2005, in a discussion on an online forum. How far could you travel with one of the big privately-owned bus groups in the UK? First and Go-Ahead tend to stick to cities, although the latter is strong on the south coast. Arriva has some extensive coverage in the Home Counties, Midlands, Wales and North West, but largely disconnected from each other. Stagecoach were the obvious winners, as they tend to have a mixture of rural and city operations, with a large geographic spread, that none of the other big bus groups can match. A lot of their territories join up too.

If that notion is a little too geeky for your liking, think of it as a scientific control. When you're experimenting with things, you don't change multiple factors at once. For instance, if you change the gas mark *and* the baking time, then you won't know which change was primarily to blame for burning your cakes. So by keeping the bus company the same, you can better view the geographic and cultural changes. Convincing enough? :)

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

The rules

Standard Stagecoach single deck saloon

So it seems that the project is go – I've told a couple of friends, and whilst they think it's a bit bonkers, they seemed to laugh at the madness rather than look concerned for my state of mind. Therefore I'd better codify a few of my guiding principles for the trip:

  • National coach services are a definite no-no – so no National Express or Megabus. After all, what would stop me catching the overnight coach from Glasgow and arriving in Plymouth the next morning? That would be cheating.
  • Routes with an "X" in the service number should be avoided if possible. They're likely to be fast services, and I'm trying to do this the slow way. Otherwise I may as well catch that midnight coach – and if I do that, perhaps I should have stayed at home in the first place?
  • My aim is to have reached the final destination within six days. In order to achieve this, I shall need to spend around ten hours per day out and about including lunch and connections. There are to be no late evening excursions unless I'm running late.
  • As far as connections are concerned, I shall try to leave at least twenty minutes, with at least one hour break for lunch every day. At peak hours I shall try and leave a little more, but there may be the odd occasion when I can only spare a couple of minutes. In this event, I'm at the mercy of the Four Horsemen of Traffic Congestion: namely Roadworks, Accident, School Run and Lack of Bus Priority Measures.
  • I'll plan my itinerary before I leave. It would be an amazing challenge to try and make things up as I go, but impracticable as far as accomodation goes – unless I pitch a tent every night. I may have considered it ten years ago but these days I prefer a little bit of comfort, and that is likely to require pre-booking in order to stay within budget.
  • I'm not too hot at blogging, let alone live-blogging. I will probably take a laptop with me along with a digital camera, and I'll try to use them. My main form of communication en route however will probably be Twitter.

That seems to cover the main points. Of course rules are made to be broken, but I'll attempt to stick to them as best I can. There's just one last "rule" I should let you in on:

Image credit: didbygraham on Flickr

Thursday, 5 February 2009

One for all

Routemaster bus

The humble omnibus. From the Latin meaning for all or for everyone. Subsequently shortened to bus, it has become the backbone of public transport systems worldwide. In 2007/2008, there were 5.1 billion passenger journies made by bus in the UK according to the Department for Transport's Transport Statistics Great Britain: 2008 edition. By comparison, the national rail system carried a mere 1.2 billion, and London Underground carried just over 1 billion.

Perhaps due to the ubiquitous nature of the bus, it is looked down upon by a large section of the nation. As personal wealth has increased over the past half century, people have become used to owning and using their own motor vehicle. Personal freedom has flourished – but at the same time it seems that community has diminished. People drive around in their own sterile box, an Englishman's castle on wheels. We have become disconnected from our neighbours.

A bus journey can be made for many reasons. The daily commute. A hospital appointment. Shopping in town. A trip to the seaside. The nightbus home. All walks of life can be found. Gossip and giggles. Fascinating sights out of every window. For every bad trip, there are countless uneventful ones. Catching the omnibus is like taking the pulse of the area, discovering the latest trends and reconnecting with the people around us.

And it is for those reasons, and others, that I plan to undertake the slightly bonkers project of travelling from one end of the country to the other by bus.

Image credit: matthewblack on Flickr