Thursday, 22 March 2012
The Son of Happy Dragon!
Back in the 80s, when bus deregulation set the shackles free on bus livery and branding, Crosville (remember them?) not only had a lighter shade of green to what I remember as a small child, but also a big brash cartoon creature adoring part of their double deckers on the “Cymru Coastliner” – a “happy dragon”, no less.
Fast forward to 2012, and the dragon has breathed his last bit of fire a long time ago (happily retired, on at least one preserved Olympian), but the name of “Cymru Coastliner” is back – adorning some very smart Arriva double deckers on the long Chester-Rhyl service. Carol Kirkwood predicted fine weather, I had a couple of days off, so out came the travel bag!
First, I had to get to Chester.
A smooth 30 minutes aboard a London Midland Liverpool-bound train to Crewe was followed by a much improved class 158 of Arriva Trains Wales – showing off it’s newly refurbished interior. I was never a fan of 158s, but this at least looks and feels a lot better, even though the legroom for your own “Happy 6’7” Dragon” still leaves a lot to be desired. In many ways, Crewe to Chester reminds me of a big version of Stourbridge Town – Stourbridge Junction, with 1 train shuttling up and down with no stations in between. I bet I still complete more round trips then them though, when I’m at work!
Avoiding the temptation of the bacon roll offer at Chester station (difficult!) I was confronted with Helms of Eastham outside the front of the station. Last time I was here, there was a free shuttle bus to the City Centre. Now it’s £1. And I wonder if, in the long term, it is actually costing the Council more in concessionary pass payments than it ever did before…..
There’s plenty of takers. One full bus moves away and the next bus rapidly fills up, with the friendly driver reminding several takers that it isn’t actually a free bus. Several more pound coin transactions take place and within minutes we’re in the heart of the shopping area of Chester. Everyone piles off and more pile back on. The bus pulls away with a notice on its rear end proclaiming “I’m not as ugly as the other bus”. What on earth is that all about?!
The less-ugly shuttle bus doesn’t serve the bus station though (or “bus exchange”, as I discover), and for those not au fait with this historic City, it’s a bit awkward to locate, hidden (as many bus stations are) in a strange corner.
The bus station is as I remember it from the last time – fairly uninspiring, but seemingly functional. First and Arriva (as direct descendants of Chester City Transport and Crosville respectively) are the main players here , and route 1 “The Blacon Pointer” (the raison d’etre of my last visit) is still very much in evidence here – and still strange to see First and Arriva’s logo’s on each others vehicles, such is the spirit of “partnership” in this City (on this route, in any case).
There is still a small hut complete with man in dayglo tabard to advise us passengers, but I locate the “where to board your bus” board to see where my trusty stead will depart from.
“BX6” is the answer. Seemingly “Bus Exchange 6”. I’ve not come across a “bus exchange” anywhere else. Interchange, maybe, but “exchange”?
“BX6” is found by means of deduction. The remote shelter at the bottom of the exchange is anonymous, save for a route 11 timetable. The huge number 6, which should adorn said stand appears to have been picked away by Chester’s naer-do-wells.
A small gaggle of half a dozen passengers has gathered for the 1130 departure. A taxi driver manages to park right in the stand. You can hear the bus driver sigh from 200 metres. He unloads the incoming healthy load then pulls up to the stand and slams the door shut, walking off with his money bag. 5 minutes and a couple of photos later, he’s back and the few of us board the impressive looking bus, declaring its “free wi-fi”.
Most have concessionary passes, but I ask him for a day ticket. “Which one?” he asks. “Arriva please” I respond. “£6.50” he says, then asks where I’m going to. “Rhyl”, I offer. A quick nod of the head and I am relieved of coinage.
I make my way to the upper deck, where I greeted by luxurious seats and plenty of legroom. It isn’t THE most luxurious bus I’ve ever been on, but it feels nice, bright and clean.
And we’re soon on our way, speeding along unusually dead straight roads, past the huge Airbus factory and plunging into small villages. The bus appears to feel the wind quite easily as anything above 20 mph is greeted by the noise of a draught, even if we can’t feel it.
We pass beneath a low bridge at Shotton – the reason for the slightly lower than usual height double deckers?
The bus’s destination is actually Holywell (connect to Rhyl). Another effect of European legislation that sees the same bus and driver complete the full length of the journey, but has to be shown technically as two separate ones.
At Holywell we are greeted by a tiny bus station. I’ve never been here before. We are scheduled to have a 5 minute break here (presumably whilst the driver presses a button to show “Rhyl” or runs to a phone box to get changed, or something….) he even comes upstairs to inform us all that we’ll be here for a few minutes, actually “blaming the council” for changing the times! I replace my headphone in right ear-hole to the strains of Aretha Franklin, bemused.
I spot the “hole in the wall” café from my upper deck window, but before I can consider running downstairs and grabbing something with bacon in it, we’re off again, waving at another 11 running in the opposite direction.
On this leg of the journey, the service takes on a very “local bus” feel, traversing several housing estates and a barriered caravan park on its way to Rhyl. The service appears to be reasonably well used, although I’m the only one making an end to end journey by the look of it. Maybe the summer will see more tourists using the service.
There aren’t that many “spectacular views” of the sea. Although we’ve been hugging the coastline, the” breathtaking” view doesn’t materialise and after 2 hours we’re soon into Rhyl and its relatively new bus station.
We’re only 2 minutes late on arrival, which isn’t bad for such a long trip. Last year I commented that £6 for a Rhyl – Llandudno return was maybe a bit steep. Although the day ticket price has risen to £6.50 now, Arriva’s day ticket area is huge, and this feels much better value. I can even use it on the next leg of my journey to my destination of Llandudno.
Rhyl’s bus information centre remains closed (as it was in the height of summer last year), but the on-stand departure display for service 12 to Llandudno has been tidied up. I literally have 5 minutes before a 12 starts to load – another double decker, although this time older than the Cymru Coastliner and, due to my geeky knowledge, was originally pounding the streets of London .
The 12 to Llandudno has also been branded as “Cymru Coastliner” (on the single deckers on this route in any case) but there seems more double deckers on the route since I was here last summer.
And double deckers are better on this route. You CAN see the sea on the 12, and it’s better from upstairs!
The trip to Llandudno takes just over an hour and I’m now at journeys end. Time to find my hotel, but not before a quick visit to the bargain book shop en route where I pick up a copy of Buses yearbook 2010 for £4.99!
A night of bus nostalgia and real ale beckons!