Tuesday, 5 November 2013

From Wrekin to Oatcakes - Crossing Shires....

Phil goes for a ride on Arriva's cross-county service from Shrewsbury to the Potteries, samples Hanley's new iconic bus station and plays a missing word game....

The mighty Wrekin dominates the November landscape as my London Midland train rumbles from the darkest Black Country through the green Shropshire fields.
I'm on my way to Shrewsbury, the County's jewel in the crown. Complete with Gothic-style railway station and wonderfully antiquated signals. And a signal box to die for, should such buildings be your thing.
Arriva's corporate aqua-marine wasn't probably in the mind of Thomas Mainwaring Penson - architect of the mock Tudor splendour - but the German owned transport monolith is big in this town. Many of the buses bear the same Arriva brand.
But in this fine county town, I'm not staying. I'm here to catch the 164/64 route to the eminently more gritty potteries town of Hanley, to view it's new bus station.
Before I depart, I pay homage to the extraordinary bus station information centre. This establishment, lurking up a few steps in the rear of the newsagents is a living embodiment of the 1970s. It ought to be preserved by the National Trust. Paper timetables adorn the walls, some with yellow post-it notes attached to them. Coach holiday brochures are also on display, but that one reassuring thing is still very much present - a human being. If you think I'm somehow mocking this blast-from-the-past, think again! We need more humans and more paper bus timetables. Your smartphone is only as good as your 3G signal - and in Shrewsbury, it ain't always great!
Having obtained my 164/64 timetable, it's off out on stand to wait for my chariot. The service departs from the far corner of the bus station, near to the parking area. For bus spotters, there is a bit of relief from the aqua-marine. Bryn Melyn creeps into the Town from across the Welsh frontier, and Minsterley Motors are also here - although this company is infamous in enthusiast circles for drivers who don't like having photos taken of their bus - some rude gestures made the pages of that esteemed news organ The Sun recently.
I decide against whipping out my phone and pointing it at Mr. Minsterley, and within a few minutes my hourly 164 has arrived.
The journey begins as a 64 to Market Drayton, then becomes a 164 to Hanley - no doubt a victim of some more daft legislation. Why can't it just be a 64 with Hanley via Market Drayton on the front?
There are just 2 of us intending passengers for this trip. A bearded driver hands over to a younger gentleman who proceeds to punch his details into the ticket machine, whilst the aforementioned beardie rants-lyrical about some problem with the GPS and how the bus hadn't ought to be in service. New driver appears to take no notice apart from a semi-sympathetic "hmmm". Beardie walks away, pulling a hi-viz over his aqua-marine-lined jacket and we join the single decker for a nigh on 2 hour romp across to the potteries.
£3.50 single all the way to Hanley is a decent price, but such a bargain appears not in great demand as only the 2 of us leave Shrewsbury with our sunglasses-wearing driver (for reasons I cannot fathom - maybe he wants to look cool, or something).
It's not until we reach Hodnet that more souls join the party. And of the 4 that do, all of them have concessionary passes. Our journey takes us into the NAAFI at Tern Hill, where a quick reversing procedure at a dead-end adds a bit of excitement. Road signs advise "TROOPS AND CHILDREN CROSSING".
Ten minutes later, we're at Market Drayton - "home of gingerbread" - and a tiny bus station. A 64 is already here, heading in the opposite direction. A cursory wave and flick of the button to change our 64 to a 164 is the highlight of our stop, apart from the boarding of 3 local ladies, who then decide to open the windows next to their seats. No doubt minimal benefit to them, but a healthy November breeze for us less fortunate further back. The ladies manage to talk amongst themselves non-stop for the next 45 minutes - maybe they need to have the windows open to extinguish the hot air. Either way, I'm sure I can feel frost forming on my face....
The 164 section of the route from Market Drayton to Hanley is the prettier when it comes to views from the bus windows. The service diverts to serve several villages such as Ashley - an archetypal middle-England scene - and Loggerheads, complete with teeth-whitening outlet. There are well-manicured bushes to be seen around many a twist and turn... The bus operators though have to compete with large 4x4s on the drive as well as the teeth-whitening generation who may not see the 164 as a viable alternative to their personal registration plate.
Nevertheless, our bus swaps green fields for more built-up areas and we gain a few more travellers as we head towards the home of the Oatcake.
First we arrive into Newcastle-under-Lyme, where the barbie pink of First is the dominant scene, although increasingly it is being replaced by the more subtle new purple-based corporate image. First's new image actually looks a lot nicer in the flesh than on photos and it is growing on me all the time. But what I'm not so keen on is the huge "fat font" that emblazons itself mid-vehicle as an attempt at localism. In this case, it says POTTERIES with a clever montage of the local skyline incorporated into the name. But actually, it is almost "too clever" as you have to look closely at the name to appreciate what is actually going on. My own view is that the large font spoils what is actually a much nicer, classier livery than the 90s pink it is replacing. Wardles are also here, but the long-established name may be in danger of disappearing - the now Arriva-owned operation appears to have several of its journeys being operated by standard Arriva-liveried vehicles.
We plod on, finally arriving at Hanley's new bus station.
The £15m bus station actually opened back in March, but I've never got around to actually seeing it until today. Like Newcastle, there is much reversing going on, and a hi-vizzed gentleman is greeting all new bus arrivals before they go to their stand. He waves us through and our bus docks up, disgorging its throng of happy shoppers into the town.
Across the road, the former bus station is now a construction site. When I worked for Bus Users UK, I visited Stoke regularly as we had an office in the City. I well recall many years ago visiting the old bus station and branding it as one of the worst in the country I had visited (the other being Plymouth!). This new offering is a fine addition to Hanley and there is plenty of information for users. The toilets are free (for now - although barriers are fitted but as yet unused) and a small cafe / convenience shop is joined by an information centre. The only thing that catches my eye is that numerous services have 2 departure bays - one for daytime and one for after 7pm - does half of the bus station close in the evening? The information is clear enough, but why do this? It seems an unnecessary complication on the face of it.
After a short while wandering around, I'm going to complete a trio of "firsts" today, by trying out the 101 to Stafford.
A few years ago, when First bought some shiny new Scanias for the route, I attended a launch event at Trentham Gardens (on the route) as part of my Bus Users UK duties, but I have never ridden the route in normal service end-to-end. Bakerbus also used to do a Stoke-Stafford service (X1) but this appears to have been reduced and curtailed, so unless you want to ride the train, the 101 is the only bus route linking the two.
The Scanias still work the route, but the vehicle I am about to catch has had part of its branding removed - it now says "a special one every......" leaving you thinking you're part of some Radio 4-style word game. The bus still sports its old First livery - heavy on the pink - but I pass one of its sisters en route in the new classier purple, so hopefully the word-association game will soon be no more. (By the way, if you're dying to know the answer, the missing phrase is "20 minutes"...)
The bus should depart from stand Q, but leaves from the one next door. But this doesn't appear to affect the natives, who don't appear to understand the ethics of queuing. My Black Country manners count for nothing here as they barge aboard, leaving me to enquire the price of a single to Stafford Railway Station. (£3.50).
The 101 is another jolly romp across the countryside, made even more interesting by the First timetable, which, on its flipside, is like a mini-guide to some of the areas it passes through. It resembles a modern-day Midland Red guide and is a lovely thought to non-regulars like me!
End-to-end takes just over an hour, and soon enough we're at Stafford Railway Station. I contemplate more aqua-marine bus action back to Wolverhampton, but, having appeared indifferent to the joys of the smartphone earlier, my gadget tells me that a London Midland train is due in 10 minutes, so my staff pass will get me a free ride back to the Black Country!
Arrival at Wolverhampton is followed by what must have seemed to be a comedy image of a 6'7" unfit fat bloke sprinting to the bus station in order to catch the National Express West Midlands 256 home. But having arrived on stand puffing for England, I needn't have bothered. The driver was casually pushing buttons on his ticket machine and coolly departed. 2 minutes late.

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