Friday, 12 May 2017

Day 50 Carlisle to Barrow-in-Furness

5th May 2017

Today was probably the most scenic day of the whole trip. Starting with views over the Solway Firth  from Silloth to southern Scotland and continuing with seaside views to one side and views of the fells on the other almost all day. Perfect (if you discount Workington and Whitehaven that is).

The downside was the relatively low frequencies of the services I had to use, resulting in an early start from Carlisle that cost me £7.20 for an hour's ride to Silloth.  It was worth it though. Silloth is an interesting place: a former seaside resort that the railways brought people to in droves in Victorian times. Nowadays the buses may bring a handful of day trippers, but its really just a quiet retirement home albeit with a caravan park and a working harbour. All the town centre roads are cobbled, which adds to the Victorian air of the place.

The bus up to Skinburness - and then back and on to Maryport - was a curiosity and, like Silloth,
something left over from another era. Back in the 1980s the newly-privatised and de-regulated bus industry hit on the idea of replacing infrequent, half-empty buses with lots and lots of minibuses to offer more frequent services and attract more passengers.  The model worked well to begin with as labour was plentiful and the smaller buses were easier to teach people how to drive and attracted workers who might not have considered driving a double-decker.  The companies also found they could pay people less for driving smaller buses, whilst charging passengers the same fares.

Gradually, however, this business model became less and less successful. An upturn in the economy
A bus from another era at Silloth
meant more competition for staff and wages had to rise. The first generation of minibuses (derided as "bread vans") wore out very quickly and their replacements were bigger. The industry was also forced to admit that, actually, they weren't very comfortable to ride in and had no space for luggage or pushchairs.  The final nail in the coffin was the Disability Discrimination Act and the regulations that required buses to provide wheelchair-access and larger buses returned.

I was surprised therefore to see that the "60E" to Skinburness and Maryport was a non-wheelchair-accessible minubus - indeed a classic "bread van". The operator was taking advantage of a loophole in the Regulations that exempts buses with 22 seats or fewer from the need to provide access. He had done this by removing four seats from what would otherwise have been a 26-seater. All perfectly legal and no doubt, given Cumbria County Council's refusal to fund any bus services, the only way in which a viable service could be provided on this marginal route.

Maryport is a strange place.  The main shopping street - if you can call it that - runs at right angles to the main road where the buses stop and you could easily miss it alltogether. It then runs up a steep hill on the other side of which is a perfectly preserved working harbour - except that it has handled no shipping since 1927 when it was eclipsed by the expansion of the docks at nearby Workington.

From Maryport I had the choice of a late-running "Gold" standard double-decker on service 300 (which would normally have been my choice) or a bog-standard single-deck on the 30, which I felt obliged to use as it runs closer to the coast for a short stretch of road between Workington and Whitehaven.  This section of the journey is not scenic in the least - you don't even see much of the coast - and is enlivened only by a call into the  country's first purpose-built bus station (1924) in Workington.  The bus continues through to Whitehaven but from there I was forced off the buses and onto the rails.

One of the much-derided "Pacer" trains that
took me from Whitehaven to Barrow.
Cumbria's cuts have left a huge swathe of the south-west of the county bus-less. There are no buses along the coast from Whitehaven all the way to Millom and even then only two a day (the last of which leaves at 0939) on to Barrow.  To reach Barrow by bus would involve a lengthy inland diversion via Keswick and Kendal and would then mean retracing one's steps most of the way back to Kendal.  I therefore opted for the train and for more scenic views, both o
ut to sea (with the Isle of Man clearly visible) and inland to the Cumbrian fells.  The train also passes - and calls at - Sellafield where the nuclear reprocessing plant looks exactly as people in the 1950s (when it was planned)
Sellafield: How the future looked in 1950

would have expected a futuristic nuclear reprocessing plant to look!

I made up for deserting the buses in Barrow by travelling to both the southern and northern ends of Walney Island (a proper island, albeit joined to the mainland by bridge). From the southern terminus at Biggar Bank the view out to sea is dominated by the offshore wind farm that stetches for miles out into the Irish Sea, providing a rather more sustainable - and certainly cleaner - source of energy than Sellafield (although it can't provide the material for nuclear weapons).

Walney: How the future looks today?

From Walney I could clearly see across Morecambe Bay and the hills behind Lancaster, reminding me that this journey is nearly over. I shan;t need to spend another night away from home, although the convoluted coastline and equally convoluted public transport routes mean that it will be a while befofre I am home yet.

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