A mid morning gap in Argyll

Last weekend saw me stretch it to head up to Oban. It was August 2008 when I last went there so it was high time for a return to the place. Walks took me along the shore of Loch Etive and along the eastern coastline of Mull so I did spread out from my base and the weather was more obliging than weather forecasts were leading me to believe.

Because it is a long way from Macclesfield, going by train probably is best though an off-peak return is costly at £115.30. The way up saw changes in Manchester, Preston and Glasgow instead of suggested route options that oddly took in Stafford and Crewe. Though railway engineering was ongoing between Bolton and Preston, Transpennine Express continued to operate trains between Manchester Airport, Preston and the likes of Blackpool with a diversion via Wigan which involved tantalisingly slow movement through Wigan North Western station. That train was both busy and late so I was lucky to get any sort of seat on the thing with many standing. Apart from that, the other sections of the journey were fairly pleasant so I cannot issue too many complaints. The return journey involved the same changing points and was a little more enjoyable.

The changeover from Glasgow Central to Glasgow Queen Street is made to loom large on railway journey planners but in reality is something like a fifteen minute walk that I once did in around ten minutes. Doing the same between Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Victoria takes around twenty minutes so Glasgow’s main train stations are closer together and Buchanan Bus Station is of the same duration from the principal train stations so walking is viable there too.

Getting to and from Oban has improved from the three or four return journeys that I would have expected and I counted something like eight on summer weekdays. Many of these would involve piggybacking off the train to Mallaig and Fort William with train division at Crianlarich and there also are trains travelling solo to Oban and the 16:37 departure that took me there was one of those and that train left at 20:36 to return to Glasgow offering anyone living in Scotland’s Central Belt the chance of a longer day trip to the Isle of Mull while later ferries are running.

Speaking of ferries, it can feel as if Oban is better connected to nearby islands than other parts of the mainland. For instance, the ferry to Mull travels at a decent pace and offers up to seven each way sailings a day while Kerrera enjoys a very frequent largely passenger service only a mile or two down the road from Oban. Other islands like Lismore, Coll, Tiree, Barra, South Uist and Colonsay also see sailings from Oban.

Maybe it is a reality of the mountainous hinterland of Oban as much as the outcome of the Clearances but it can feel as if frequent bus services stick to the coastline. The 405 and 005 serve Connel and Benderloch from Monday to Saturday and there is the 410 on Sundays. All of these have an hourly frequency with extra schoolday journeys extending as far as Appin though the Monday to Saturday service 918 to Fort William could be a better bet for those parts so long as the timings of the three return journeys suit what you want to do. There also is an interesting if less frequent service 408 that goes all the way to Bonawe on the shore of Loch Etive and service 418 to Easdale and North Cuan with latter offering a ferry crossing to Luing.

Aside from the foregoing, Oban gets a smattering of Monday to Saturday town services going to the town’s more outlying fringes like Soroba, Ganavan and Gallanchmore but what hits me is how limit local bus connections to the likes of Dalavich, Taynuilt and Dalmally. If it were not for train and long distance coach services, the latter pair would be stranded altogether and that brings me to the title of this piece. To get to either of those places for commencing a walk, you either need to start from Oban around 08:00 or 09:00 or wait until just after 12:00. Whatever express service used to run around 11:00 is no more and I find myself challenging the idea of the 976 timetable (Oban to Glasgow) shadowing that of the trains, albeit with only three return journeys a day too. Even the summertime Citylink Oban to Dundee service only offers one journey each way when there once was two and that offered a gap filler. To be fair, Citylink did try to offer more connections in 2008 when it was embroiled in a bus war with West Coast Motors. Whatever innovation was shown at the time appears to have been lost since then and both parties did have the good sense to patch up their differences.

As it happened, the 12:11 from Oban to Glasgow was mobbed on the Saturday of my weekend away. It was if everyone was leaving at the end of the high season when Sunday’s weather showed what they were leaving after them if only they could see past the rain on the day of their departure. the inadequacy of the two carriage train was emphasised by Scotrail’s hiring of a coach to assist them in moving folk about. There also was a bother with luggage being in a wheelchair space and I could have done without one gentleman talking about the effects that lifting heavy luggage on him after a relatively recent operation. While sparing you all the details, I was glad to have a seat and to leave them on their way at Taynuilt. On this basis, having a train departure at around 10:30 would have seemed sensible and would have got me an earlier start to my walk too. However, the same train departure on Monday was much quieter and all the more enjoyable apart maybe from moments when someone started to watch something on his phone without headphones but that irritation has faded now. the weekend had been good to me anyway and I quite fancy a return sometime soon so that’s a good thing to be able to say after any trip away.

Getting to and about Pembrokeshire without a car

Though it’s at the southwestern corner of Wales, Pembrokeshire is worth the extra effort taken to make a visit there and you can manage one without using a car too. There are regular train services and the county council expends some effort on its bus network too. Thus far, I only have made two visits to these parts with the most recent one updating and refreshing my knowledge of the available travel options.

Trains

The county has no less than three railway lines serving it with Arriva Trains Wales running the trains: one each to the terminii of Pembroke Dock, Milford Haven and Fishguard. Each of these is largely single track in nature so service frequencies are not hourly. Those three railways start out as a twin line from Carmarthen before the Pembroke line splits off after Whitland and the Fishguard one after the request-only train stop of Clarbeston Road.

The Milford Haven line seems to see the more traffic than others with many services travelling all of the way to Manchester using two carriage trains, something that Arriva Trains Wales may need to revisit in light of a recent Saturday journey on a busy Summer Bank Holiday weekend though another on the following Monday worked out less busy.

Though the port only sees two daily ferry departures to Rosslare in Ireland, Fishguard too gets a reasonable service even if the frequency is less than the two hourly one enjoyed by Milford Haven and Haverfordwest (Pembrokeshire’s county town). Last May, it also gained a new station called Fishguard & Goodwick so that’s something for the locals in both places.

The Pembroke Dock line also gets a largely two-hourly service (less than that on Sundays though) so it’s an option for getting to attractive spots like Tenby and Manorbier. Pembroke too is a ferry port with departures for Rosslare though it is Fishguard that enjoys a service meeting its early morning arrival from across the Irish Sea.

Ferries

The mention of ferry services brings to mind a curiosity about services to Wales from Rosslare in Ireland’s county of Wexford. The Stena Line ones go to Fishguard while those operated by Irish Ferries go to Pembroke instead. While I might have thought that history might explain this situation, it seems to be a recent phenomenon and one for which I have yet to find an explanation part from running different routes for the sake of personal success. Maybe it’s down to competition on the Irish Sea? After all, there was a time when both forbears of Irish Ferries and Stena Line used Fishguard for a time. Then again, there was opposition mounted by Sealink (Stena these days) to the commencement of a Dublin-Holyhead operation by the B+I Line (now part of Irish Ferries) when that replaced the previous long standing Dublin-Liverpool service when that became unsustainable after 159 years.

Buses

Returning the world of land transport, Pembrokeshire does have a reasonable bus network and inspection of bus timetables reveals that council financial support is needed for most if not all services. Richards Brothers of Cardigan seem to operate most of the services in Pembrokeshire along their workings in Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire. First Cymru do operate a Haverfordwest-Tenby service but otherwise Pembrokeshire seems to be a bastion for local independent operators and it’s no bad thing to see.

There’s multi-operator ticketting too with West Wales Rover Tickets valid here as they are in Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire. An adult day ticket will cost you £7 and it’s £28 for an adult weekly one. There are equivalent child tickets costing half the prices of the adult ones.

Richards do their own day and weekly tickets too and these cost less than their multi-operator counterparts and only apply to their own services. An adult day Explorer will set you back £5.50 and it’s £18 for a weekly Explorer. The child equivalents of these cost £3.50 and £12, respectively. Interestingly, there’s also a family day Explorer ticket for either two adults and two children or one adult and three children. With my seeing quite a number of families around on my last visit, I reckon that this is a great idea that should be adopted in more places.

In terms of the type of bus services being operating, there’s a mix of trunk routes and other more visitor friendly coastal services that aim to give folk an alternative to clogging up narrow country roads with car traffic; some only are a single car’s width with hedges on either side so it’s best to be warned. Given the wonders of Pembrokeshire’s coastline, it is easy to see why so many visitors come here and there’s a National Park protecting it all along with the Preseli Hills too. Traffic jams and conservation don’t go hand in hand so something had to be done.

The trunk services do their bit for curtailing car usage too with services like Haverfordwest-Fishguard-Cardigan (412), Haverfordwest to St. Davids (411), St. Davids to Fishguard (413) and Haverfordwest to Tenby (349) offering decent service frequencies from Monday to Saturday. On Sundays though, there is a markedly reduced frequency on some of these with the 413 not running at all.

In fact, my last visit saw me make use of the Sunday 412, operated by W. H. Collins of Haverfordwest with a Duple-bodied Dennis Javelin coach that was more than twenty years old so low operation only seems to be a Monday to Saturday affair on this route. The vehicle’s age became more apparent when the windscreen wipers needed to be put going because of a rain shower though the coach ran well otherwise. There was ticket machine on board either so the validity of my return fare of £5.75 (the single is £3.40) depended on my being remembered by the driver! With three to four services on Sunday, no staff changeover was needed and I got back to Haverfordwest from Fishguard without any bother.

The coastal services especially come into their own during the summer months when seven day operation is available with three services each way a day being common. Away from the May to September period, the days of operation need checking since a number are Monday/Thursday/Saturday only and routes alter too. However, Saturday visitors should be fine all year around and there is something to be said for exploring somewhere when it is quieter too though a coastline of around 180 miles in length should have plenty of unoccupied nooks and crannies.

The northern and western coasts are well served and the southern coast isn’t neglected either. The Strumble Shuttle (404) runs from Fishguard to St. Davids and calls at Strumble Head, hence the name. Buses take a while to cover their route on this service so it could be a good one for those wanting to let someone else do the driving and look at what they pass along the way. Mind you, it can get cosy on the small buses used during the school summer holidays but that’s such a not a big price to pay. Also running from Fishguard is the Poppit Rocket (405) that calls at Poppit Sand and other places by the coast on the way to Cardigan; in the off season, it starts eastbound journeys from Newport instead though.

In the west, there’s the Celtic Coaster (403) and the Puffin Shuttle. The former of these is a summer only shuttle service for St. Davids peninsula. Given that Britain’s smallest city has its share of attractions and is not far from alluring coastline, it is not surprising to learn that it is something of a visitor magnet so this bus service is an attempt to curtail traffic in the area to keep it appealing to those coming from elsewhere. The latter route is in two parts though: St. Davids to Marloes and Martin’s Haven (400), and Haverfordwest/Milford Haven to Marloes and Martin’s Haven (315). On my first visit to Pembrokeshire, I made use of the latter though it doesn’t seem to be what it was back then with afternoon journeys to Haverfordwest seemingly unavailable; a journey by train looks to be in order.

Services 387 and 388 (the latter is summer only and both get the branding of Coastal Cruiser) get you from Pembroke to delights such as Bosherston, a recommendation from a local on my first visit that I have yet to follow up, Freshfield East, Angle and Freshfield West. On my latest visit, I played with the idea of catching the 349 to Manorbier and then the 387 or 388 from Bosherston after a walk before sticking with trotting between Strumble Head and Fishguard instead. The unused idea could be handy yet.

Summary

All in all, Pembrokeshire is well supplied with train, bus and even ferry services. A little upfront work might save a lot of driving and not a little congestion. So far, it has done just that for me and there is more of Pembrokeshire for me to savour yet.

A Double-edged Sword?

One thing that we’re never told about those magical white Christmases that we’re often sold is that there’s a darker side to them too. Just ask anyone trying to fly before Christmas this year and they may have a thing to say about the weather that we saw.

What visited Heathrow and Gatwick on the last Saturday before Christmas Day caused enough disruption but it was the repeated showerings of snow that caused havoc at Dublin’s airport. All that was needed was a single hefty shower and runaways were shut for several hours. The result was many panicky travellers with some booking ferry crossings as a backup plan.

Rail travel became tricky as points suffered in the cold weather with many needing defrosting. It didn’t matter whether it was Euston station or Heuston station in Dublin because delays and cancellations were made more likely; London saw more cancellations than Dublin, it has to be said. Then, London Midland train passengers were to discover how it felt to be crammed into a smaller than usual train because two couldn’t be joined together due to frozen couplers. Special timetables with lower service frequencies saw introduction in Wales, Merseyside and Scotland because of the conditions.

Buses in the south of England saw enough disruption to set Twitter alight with a multitude of status updates. That wasn’t all because the same comments applied to Lancashire, Yorkshire, Northumberland and Wales. Seeing the flurries of updates was enough to remind me of the action of snow blizzards.

All of the above information provision was heartening to see but not everyone was as good at keeping passengers up to date. For instance, I spent several hours in a plane, diverted from Dublin, sat on the tarmac in Shannon and the lack of speed in making anything happen was enough to try your patience. Decisiveness and responsiveness weren’t characteristics of the experience and it didn’t help that the I had to return to a snowy Dublin when my final destination wouldn’t have been far from Shannon anyway; it was nearer than Dublin anyway. If buses and trains did this type of thing, you could foresee uproar…

All in all, the whole experience makes me appreciate the service offered by bus and train operators all the more and neither Dublin Bus or Irish Rail left me down on the day in question anyway. My observations and experiences of what the snow did this year have me wondered why I have been pondering outings to savour the snowy hills of Scotland and Wales during a spell of cold weather. It’s no wonder that I have been sticking to enjoying what’s close at hand when snow visits.

This is our second really cold winter in a row and my only hope is that lessons are being learnt. One climate scientist has suggested we are in a run of a few of these so we all needed to be doing some learning, myself included. With regards to dreams of white Christmases, we need to live in the real world and that’s even when somewhat surreal weather comes our way like it has done this year. Let’s hope that everyone stays safe and that the stranded get to their intended destinations as soon as possible.