Tuesday, 17 March 2009

My favourite bus journey

Deer and hall at Dunham Massey

Given the way in which the north west doesn't feature a great deal in Great British Bus Journies, it seems only fair I address the balance by writing about my own favourite journey. Although there is strong competition from the roller-coaster ride up (or down, depending on the direction of travel) Hala hill in Lancaster, service 5 in Warrington will forever be one of those journies inextricably linked to happy childhood trips to visit nan and feed the ducks.

Heading out from Warrington town centre, the bus travels south over the Mersey crossing at Bridge Foot, over the steep incline of the railway bridge that replaced the notorious level crossing in the sixties, and past the bus depot on the left. Down Wilderspool Causeway, a glimpse of the old rugby stadium can be seen down the terraced side streets. Further on along this wide tree-lined road and we come to the heart of the old Greenall Whitley Land, now no more. The distillery on the left "vere dey made ze Vladivar vodka" was burnt down in a fire several years ago, and whilst the fine brewery buildings on the right still stand, they are now converted to flats and offices. Even the flagship pub opposite the brewery, The Saracen's Head, is now run by J.W. Lees.

The busy crossroads in Stockton Heath

And so we cross the Manchester Ship Canal by one of the town's notorious swing bridges (which even today cause traffic mayhem whenever a ship passes through) and into Stockton Heath village centre. This is the first of the north Cheshire villages we pass through on our journey. Stockton Heath isn't much of a village these days – it's the "local centre" for the affluent southern suburbs of Warrington, and the combination of ships and Chelsea tractors makes the area prone to congestion. The bus turns left at Victoria Square, with its bars and restaurants, and heads into leafy suburbs.

Passing under the old Warrington–Timperley railway (which is now an off-road section of the Trans Pennine Trail) the bus comes out on Thelwall New Lane, next to Latchford Locks on the Ship Canal. Where Stockton Heath bustled, Thelwall is an altogether more sleepy village, the type of place where Morris dancers still ply their trade outside the village hall. Another little quirk is the Thelwall Ferry, a little rowing boat across the Ship Canal that operates as required in the "rush hour" and at lunchtimes – though it's hard to imagine that it's ever particularly busy.

Horses' heads peek out of stables just before the route runs under the M6, almost under Thelwall Viaduct, but only services on the "bottom road" via Statham get that honour for real. Instead we pass through a seperate underbridge, alongside the Transpennine Trail, which subsequently dives off to the right and then back under our feet. This is very much a route of bridges, canals and old railways, as the Bridgewater Canal is crossed shortly after via a greater-crested bridge – also known as the humpback variety.

Narrow boats on the Bridgewater Canal in Lymm

Picturesque Lymm is the next destination. The village centre is nestled in a little sandstone ravine, which we cross on the "top road" across the manmade Lymm Dam – the flooding of the valley resulting in a lake that is popular with anglers, with the steeple of St Mary's Church looming above. Turning left down narrow Rectory Lane, we arrive in the village centre next to the Cross. There is a choice of duck-feeding locations to be found, with the Lower Dam and the Bridgewater Canal being popular destinations!

This was where my childhood journies would end. We alighted here whilst the blue and cream double-decker would heave out of the village centre over another Bridgewater Canal humpback bridge in order to turn round at Warburton. This village is perhaps best known for its toll bridge (originally over the Mersey, but these days supplemented by a high-level bridge over the Ship Canal) although gained a certain notoriety in recent years playing host to that episode of Time Team where they didn't find very much at all. Today the route continues past this terminus, replacing the old Altrincham bus service withdrawn in 2006 at double the old frequency.

Winding through country lanes past small clumps of housing, the route passes over the Transpennine Trail one last time, and then under the Bridgewater Canal. The underbridge at Dunham once forced bus companies to buy buses with a specially contoured roof such was the tight fit. No such problems these days as the bridge was rebuilt many years ago, but you couldn't fit a double decker under it without losing the top deck, so the route is firmly in the hands of standard single deckers. Dunham Massey Hall is a beautiful old house, with grand tree-lined avenues, a working sawmill and deer wandering around within the outer brick wall. There's also a brewery and a scout camp on other parts of the estate, both of which I am happy to recommend. This is nice, easy walking country, with views out to Winter Hill over the old Carrington refinery where grandad worked.

Affluent Altrincham is our final destination, home of the Manchester Phoenix ice hockey team, located at the new ice rink. Rackhams department store used to be a popular shopping destination for people in Lymm, although perhaps these days shoppers are tempted to hop on the tram to Manchester.

What's your favourite bus journey and why? Leave us a comment or a link to your blog.

Image credits: Christopher Elison, Guy Hatton and Sony200boy on Flickr

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