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.

A little something for the summer in Northern Ireland

When doing a refresh of the Rural Services: NI page, it came to my attention that Ulsterbus have a number of seasonal services on offer in addition to their Rambler ones for visitors to and residents of Northern Ireland. The first of these is Goldline Express 221 which operates one journey each way between Belfast and Giant’s Causeway, giving you a next to next to 3 hour stay at the World Heritage Site (with a reduction on entry fees to the National Trust Visitor Centre too if the weather isn’t being kind) if you opt for a return day trip. Along the way, there are stops in Ballymena and Bushmills but it otherwise appears to be very much an express service and it continues until the start of September.

For those who fancy a longer stay at the Giant’s Causeway than three hours, there’s a later evening departure offered by Goldline 252, also known as the Antrim Coaster since it calls at so many places along the said county’s coastline between Belfast and Coleraine. There is one return journey over the whole route each way and another one between Coleraine and Larne to compliment it. The latter meets with service 256 for those wishing to travel onward to Belfast or go the other way. The 252 continues until the end of September and operates Monday to Saturday until the end of this month when Sunday services start for it and the 256 connecting journeys.

Since it was those rambler services that were the cause alerting me to the above, I suppose that I’d better mention these too. There are four in total that I have found with two being seasonal and others being year round. The first of the latter is Monday to Friday (no bank holidays) service 407 from Kilkeel to Attcal and Cranfield and second is Monday to Saturday service 403 (three journeys each way) from Magherafelt to Omagh. The 407 is known also as the Kilkeel Rambler and the 403 gets the Sperrin Rambler name. The Mourne Rambler is a seasonal offering that starts out from Newcastle and embarks on a good circuit through the Mourne Mountains. It gets the service number of 405 and operates five journeys from Tuesday to Sunday and bank holiday Mondays until the start of September. There also is a Causeway Rambler for those spending longer along the north Antrim coast and it runs daily with an hourly frequency until the end of September as service 402.

Usefully, there is a Bus Rambler ticket for travelling across Northern Ireland on Ulsterbus services that is available during the main summer school holidays after 09:15. It costs £9 for adults and £4.50 for children. Also, there’s a Family and Friends ticket for £20 that is available during weekends all year round and every day during the summer holiday months of July and August. The latter allows two adults and four children to go together as a group (and it’s an extra £4 per extra child) so it looks a tempting offer for families in times when money is a scarer commodity.

With all the above, there should be more scope for looking around Northern Island’s more scenic spots without needing to use a car. It would be better is more of these services were year round and not seasonal but there always is the matter of demand to be considered. As it happens, an Easter or May to September span of the year isn’t so bad anyway. Maybe I might be tempted to pop over there myself.

Additional Services for the Summer in Scotland

During the Jubilee bank holiday weekend, I popped up to Scotland for a few days and, in so doing, learned more about some extra train and coach services that are laid on for the summer up there. Of course, that wasn’t my real reason for going. The chance of getting some dry weather while sampling more of the country’s scenery was the actual motivation.

A copy of ScotRail‘s Insight on-train magazine alerted me to the return of a direct Sunday return train service between Edinburgh and Oban. It leaves the former at 08:10 and arrives at 12:06 having called at Haymarket, Linlithgow, Polmont and Falkirk along the way. It then leaves Oban at 17:11 and arrives back in Edinburgh at 21:09. It hasn’t started yet though and you’ll need to wait until the 24th of this month for the first running. It then continues until August 26th and the return fare is a not that unreasonable £36.

Scottish Citylink offer extra services for the summer season and, unlike ScotRail’s Edinburgh-Oban service, most of these are available now. Ones that stand out for me are service 913 from Edinburgh to Fort William, service 978 from Edinburgh to Oban and service 973 from Dundee to Oban. The 913 and 973 add useful travel connections around Loch Tay as well as adding to the service level west of Crianlarich.

While on the subject of Scottish Citylink, year round services also see their service level increased. For instance, there is a 978 service via Tyndrum between Glasgow and Oban and a 975 shuttle between the latter and Tyndrum where coaches between Glasgow and Fort William are met. Speaking of the the latter, they are expanded for the summer too as are their continuations to the Isle of Skye. While speaking about West Highland coach services, it is worth mentioning that the Glasgow-Campbeltown 926 service is operating as five services each way daily; three was all we got not so long ago.

Though these are the summertime service increases that stand out for me. For instance, there are extra ones running between the Scotland’s Central Belt and Inverness as I discovered on Monday morning. Also, Edinburgh’s festival season in August sees extra late night services between Glasgow and Edinburgh and there are events like T in the Park too. Well, it’s worth spending some time on Citylink’s website to see what’s available because I only may be scratching the surface here.

Apart from the above, there may be other summer only services on offer of which I have no knowledge and Caber Coaches’ service 93 around Loch Tay on Saturdays is one such find. If any come my way, I’ll get them noted because summer passes so quickly. With some of the ones that we have seen, there are those who may see that as a good thing but I’ll reserve my judgement.