May 26th, 2009
|10:31 pm - Take the National Express when your life's in a mess|
Meg's sister latemodelchild came to stay for two weeks early in May, which was a lot of fun. It also meant that I've not been at this PC, being (as it is) in the room that was Sarah's bedroom. Consequently I'm way behind on everything, as usual. (And over a week later still than when I started writing this, as you can guess.)
One amusing incident came in the packing stage, when latemodelchild (hereafter Sarah, for that is her name) had her white Apple power cord fall out of her suitcase and be tangled up on her white bedsheets. We did not discover this until we had waved her off on her train down to London, the first stage of her journey home. (Incidentally, this was not as easy as it could have been; upon reaching the station, train operator Grand Central still had a poster up suggesting that the morning's service would have partially been replaced by a coach, which we had missed. Their web site did not confirm this, and presumably the web site was more up-to-date, but it would have been nice to see some sort of retraction of the incorrect poster rather than just leaving the matter dangling.)
Accordingly, we discovered Sarah was on her way to London - and, from there, the US - with only the power that was left in her computer to tide her through until she could next plug in. To make matters worse, she had some seriously long airport layovers planned, with movies to watch to pass the time. The times of her train down and of her 'plane the next day meant that buying a new adapter would be extremely unlikely, and also would require the international connection kit as well. Furthermore, surely no courier would pick up on a Sunday for delivery early on Monday morning. Given that Sarah is still new to travelling in the UK, it seemed unreasonable to make her come back for it; we would have to get the cord to her.
We briefly considered a twice-250-mile road trip, which would have been fun, in a £60-plus-of-petrol environmentally-unfriendly sort of way, but Meg had to work the next day. Taking a train without booking in advance would be catastrophic, though we might have got away with a £65 return on Grand Central. The only affordable vaguely-reliable timely option available was the National Express coach service: down in the afternoon, then the overnight coach back. I've taken the coach to London or back plenty of times - enough to know it's a far from first choice option. This may seem unimaginable to US readers, but National Express is not a patch on the long Greyhound journeys I've taken; Greyhound buses have loads of width to them, comfortable suspension and a combination of engine noise plus road tone that proves far more calm and soothing than ever can be the case on the National Express. "It's the National Express, not the Orient Express", as a driver once said.
At first I was looking at taking the direct service down (leaving 3:20pm, arriving 9:45pm) and taking the overnight coach back (leaving 11:30pm, arriving 5:35am) for £32 but sadly the last ticket on the journey down had gone. An even crazier Sunday-only route presented itself: Middlesbrough to Leeds (leaving 4:10pm, arriving 6:20pm), Leeds to London (leaving 7:10pm, arriving 11:20pm), then the overnight coach back (leaving 11:30pm, arriving 5:35am). This was still possible - and, actually, £3 cheaper - but it meant that I would be travelling to London for ten minutes. As layovers go, that doesn't leave much room for safety - but National Express are generally pretty conservative with their timings and traffic can be expected to be benign on a Sunday night.
You may have heard of people who participate in mileage runs; under some circumstances, flying 50,000 miles in a year on a particular airline is rewarded so much more than flying 49,999 miles that if you're even vaguely close to the 50k mark it can make sense to engage in needless flying, typically on the last few days of the relevant (non-calendar) year, to cross the barrier and gain the extra rewards. This would be my first National Express mileage run - though, sadly, without a Frequent Coach Traveller Mile in sight. (To be fair, Meg did something similar once when she left her MacBook in a London hotel, but at least she had a routing which gave her a night in London. You may also recall the saga of leaving an iPod in a safe in Spain... damn Apple equipment.)
The Middlesbrough-to-Leeds coach was operated on a National Express bus (as you'll see, many aren't) with number GN19. Upon arrival at Middlesbrough it was possibly 15% full, and upon departure it was maybe 35% full - lots of double seats left vacant. I sat on the right in the second back row, opposite the back-left toilet and next to an emergency exit window; it's a surprise to write this, but the leg room was excellent - by far the best I can remember having on a National Express coach, and I'd estimate the seat pitch at around 38"-40". On the downside, I couldn't make the seat recline, and wasn't sure if that was just due to being in an exit row seat. Sitting opposite the toilet presented no problems at all; I'm not sure it was used at all on the leg. The journey was fine but slow, passing through Thirsk and York on the way - both places we had, frustratingly, recently been! I ate one of the three sandwiches I had prepared for the journey and couldn't help but nap.
There was a 50 minute layover at Leeds coach station. It's probably the least worst coach station I've used in this country - but beats scant opposition, with London Victoria habitually overcrowded and Birmingham Digbeth a pit of despair. (Currently closed for refurbishment; let's hope the new version, debuting late this year, is much happier.) Leeds coach station adjoins the bus depot; both are light, bright and airy, and a sit-in branch of Greggs the baker (*angelic noise*) was in late stages of construction. Boarding for the 19:10 to London started about 15-20 minutes early. I was using the m-ticket option with ticket details sent (precariously, I thought) through SMS to a mobile phone with no paper trail; this worked well, though I didn't trust it completely as I'm forever jiggling the phone, resetting it and losing saved texts.
The Leeds-to-London non-stop service was operated by a Haywards Travel coach. This had adequate legroom (seat pitch 32"-ish?) and the seats did recline; the toilet was situated middle right and again I sat opposite it. The coach had a TV front and centrally, betraying its holiday origins, but (unsurprisingly) this wasn't used on the journey. Occupancy was about 60%; only a few people who wanted double seats to themselves had to share. The non-stop journey was easy, though the toilet had an extremely weak flush and started to smell by the end. I may have napped very slightly, but listened to three old Fighting Talk podcasts. We arrived (as predicted!) ahead of schedule, shortly after 11 o'clock, and by 11:10pm I had caught up with Sarah (who was, indeed, effusively grateful!) and her host Ellen on a traffic island in the middle of Buckingham Palace Road, opposite Victoria Coach Station. The handover was successful and they safely saw me onto the overnight coach.
The London-to-Middlesbrough service was much less fun. It was operated by a National Express coach, number VE20, but legroom was barely adequate (seat pitch 29"-ish?), occupancy was about 60% and so - as one of the last to board - I ended up with an aisle seat next to an occupied window seat, in front of someone with no chance to recline. It wasn't at all pleasant. The journey back called at Golders Green and Milton Keynes, with the usual Milton Keynes coachway also closed for reconstruction - demolition with extreme prejudiced use of dynamite, hopefully - and the temporary replacement apparently on the other side of the maze. I eventually dropped off after a couple of hours, having discovered that I had to sit up pretty straight to fall asleep, and maybe caught two or two and a half hours of naps in fits and starts before dawn. As usual, the service stopped at Woodall services for 40 minutes, during which time every light in the coach was illuminated hatefully brightly.
We arrived in Middlesbrough a few minutes early; I was able to catch the first bus of the day back to Thornaby and had only a very short walk home before snuggling up to Meg and enjoying my extended break between shifts. All told: a successful trip, if not particularly pleasant.
Changing at Leeds and having a non-stop service from Leeds was the slow way to do it, but is possibly even preferable to the direct route with a pause at Woodall. It was only really the last leg which is making me say, if not quite "never again", "not by choice, please, for a while". And everybody sings ba ba ba da...
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