Sometimes it’s just nice to roam around where the next bus takes you. An appreciation of public transport, its place in day-to-day life, and just seeing new areas. You can’t appreciate any of that behind the wheel of a car!
My friend Mark Fitchew introduced me to the “freewheeling” term. Like me, he likes to ride around the highways and byways of Britain – even more perhaps surprising, as he drives buses for a living! My excuse relates to wanting to see a change of scenery after endless runs up and down the Stourbridge branch line in my “day job”!
I’ve known Mark for a while on Facebook, so it is perhaps inevitable that we should end up “freewheeling” together. His is an encyclopaedic brain full of bus information and the history of operations all over the place – a fascinating listen when he gets going!
We both had a day off, so decided to go roaming around Cheshire and Greater Manchester. Meeting at Wolverhampton rail station, we got the most important thing sorted out first – a bacon roll! Then we hopped on a train to get us to our first bus stop – outside Crewe station. My railway staff pass gets me there for free, but Crewe is somewhere I don’t normally visit.
On the odd occasion I’ve been here, Crewe station always strikes me as being bigger than I imagine it to be. It’s a real “railway” town, of course, but you get a real sense of history just by standing in it. I spot a Royal Mail carriage – surprising, as I was under the impression we didn’t do mail by rail any more. A quick poser on Twitter seems to result in the knowledge that we still do – but we don’t sort it on the move any more. I wonder if it’s still bringing “the cheque and the postal order” (can you still get “postal orders”?) as idolized in WH Auden’s legendary poem (here).
We’re after the Arriva 38 to Macclesfield. Mark reckons it’s been upgraded to Sapphire status, but once we’ve ascertained which direction the bus is heading from the (just about acceptable) council bus information outside the station and located the stop, a standard Arriva double deck Volvo/Wright appears. The bus shelter itself contained information on departures (and assumed you already knew the route of the bus you wanted) but the digital screen looked like it had long-since scrolled its last departure. I guess Cheshire has as little cash as any of its financially-challenged sister councils these days for such frivolities.
A lady boards and we follow, buying an Arriva North-West Day ticket for £5.20. This covers quite a large area, so it’s decently priced if you want to go riding like us!
The trip to Macclesfield is pleasant, if uneventful. The hourly service is actually a “Sapphire” service, as posher buses than ours pass by in the opposite direction. Through Haslington and Sandbach, then plenty of green fields and quaint rows of houses, we await time for a few minutes at Congleton bus station – nothing more than a large lay-by today, but it seems to do it’s job. Mark mentally records the location of a passing chip shop – he’s quite an expert on such locations, as I suggest he pens a book about it. “Chippy By Bus”, we agree, is it’s provisional title.
Macclesfield’s bus station
And soon we’re in Macclesfield. I haven’t stopped here for years, merely passing through as a train passenger from Manchester to Wolverhampton. The location of the bus station appears to have changed from Mark’s memories too. We go up a hill, then swing left into the “new” facility, which is quite small, but contains a plaque stating that it opened in 2004.
Macclesfield bus station is small and functional, but it seems a tad down-at-heel. It’s a bit dull inside. Passengers mill around the departure stands. A notice (half-ripped) warns intending passengers that Greater Manchester’s ticket range isn’t valid this far out.
Macclesfield bus station feels a bit, well, “dull”…
We don’t have long to wait for our next leg – an Arriva 130 service to Manchester itself. In stark contrast to our dim-lit surroundings, the bus is light and welcoming. This route too has been “Sapphired”, but with single decks on a basic 30 minute frequency for the roughly hour-and-half trip into the northern powerhouse. Our driver is very friendly and welcoming – maybe he’s been one chosen “from our most trusted drivers” as the screen tells us on board – part of the Sapphire blurb, but one that I’m not sure I particularly like – if Sapphire drivers are the “most trusted”, what does that say about the rest of them?
Arriva’s 130 Macclesfield-Manchester “Sapphire” service feels welcoming, with it’s “cool blue” feel…
There are funky USB chargers between the seats, next stop announcements and the screen tells us similar information (in between the trust level of their staff). These vehicles are actually refurbished buses, but the job has been superb, and you’d never guess they weren’t new. They’re comfortable and attractive.
“Posh” these buses need to be, if they are to attract new users. The route threads it’s way through tree-lined commuter-belt towns and villages. If Cheshire is the Manchester “overspill” for those with a few quid to spend on mini mansions and 2x 4x4s on the gated driveways, only the highest spec bus service will do.
The service is far from empty though. As Mark produces chicken sandwiches for us and waxes-lyrical about the history of the route, it is filling up quite nicely. Through Alderley Edge and Wilmslow, we eventually arrive into Greater Manchester-land and East Didsbury. The Metrolink trams terminate here and we see buses from First and Stagecoach resting in between battle. The Wilmslow Road in Manchester is, of course, scene of some of the most incredible bus battles of recent times. The student population here is served by Stagecoach’s Magic Bus low-cost service (amongst others, but not by the plethora of independents in days gone by). We take the route parallel to the Wilmslow Road, but there are still plenty of students at bus stops heading into City. What is notable is that hardly any flag us down – the cheap deals on student travelcards – no doubt led by Stagecoach – is a triumph of competition. The hybrid buses on Stagecoach’s 50 route surround us from all directions – it’s clear who wears the bus trousers on this section of road.
Near the City, the Police have cordoned off a road, and we’re on a slight diversion. Now we’re up close and personal with Stagecoach’s Magic Buses. Myself and Mark muse the history of the “bargain basement”-type service. We agree that you don’t really see the “no frills” type of bus operation much any more around the rest of the country. The industry has instead looked at more upmarket offerings, such as Stagecoach Gold, Arriva’s Sapphire and National Express West Midlands’ Platinum to name but three. Indeed, with some Manchester Magic Buses now Enviro 400 double deckers, it doesn’t even look like a no-frills offering these days. There’s more yellow on the dark blue livery, and I think it looks rather attractive.
Arriva’s “Sapphire” 130 in Manchester Piccadilly
We arrive into the throng of Piccadilly bus station and mix it with the Metrolink. The diversion has left our 130 slightly behind schedule and he’s quickly loaded up and back out towards the leafy Cheshire overspill. We instead head straight for the travel information office and fill our bags with maps and timetables – the equivalent of some kind of bank raid, as the staff watch partially open-mouthed as we rob the shelves and make off with our goodies.
First up in the big City is a ride on Metrolink. Manchester feels every bit a “European” City these days. The big yellow trams snake in from all corners, their jolly-sounding horns pipping away at errant pedestrians. Mark knows what he’s doing. We scurry through the Arndale Centre and emerge out of another exit at a new tram stop.
The new “Exchange Square” Metrolink stop in Manchester
Exchange Square has only recently opened. Mark tells me there’s a bit of tram history here, as it opened the same day as the Midland Metro extension to Bull Street in Birmingham. You’d have to go way back in history to find a similar happening. We decide on a Bus/Tram off-peak day ticket for £6.70. Mark shovels a £20 into the machine, and it spits loads of coins out in return. I decide to use my debit card, but the new machine isn’t having any of it. I have to queue up at the other machine and we manage to miss the waiting tram. The other machine gladly takes my card and provides me a bright yellow ticket. We don’t have to wait long, as a few minutes later another yellow monster arrives.
Exchange Square is currently a terminus, but will eventually be linked onto the rest of the system as a through station. We watch and whip our cameras out to record the quick shunting movement to get the tram onto the other track for our outbound journey.
Manchester’s Metrolink trams are bright, airy and welcoming. They have a wide array of tickets, including a weekend version for one or two people. It feels like a real asset to the good people of Manchester, and plenty of them are using it. Mums with buggies, pensioners, guys clutching cans of beer. It soon fills up. The seats also feel marginally more comfortable than their new sisters on the Midland Metro – there’s a tad more padding.
Manchester’s Metrolink trams are bright and welcoming…
Also evident is the lack of conductor. Mark tells me that, unlike their West Midlands counterparts, there aren’t any. But apparently a roving squad of Revenue Officers are riding the network and provide little mercy for ticketless travellers. Indeed, one stop along at Victoria, I spot a lot of uniformed Metrolink staff on an adjacent platform.
We whizz along, through Oldham and the Mancunian suburbs, with many grand old mill buildings evident, some used, some derelict. The skyline in parts is much like it might have been over 100 years ago. Metrolink has several Park & Ride sites along its routes, and we terminate at one such – Shaw & Crompton. The line, however, continues on to Rochdale, and we hot foot it to an adjacent platform for the rapidly arriving ongoing service. The route becomes slightly more rural and we can see green hills in the distance as we arrive into Rochdale, first at the Railway station, then a rapid descent into the town terminus.
Metrolink terminates in Rochdale – home of Lisa Stansfield….
Here the route terminates, right next to a recently opened bus station, which is very attractive to users. Me and Mark grab pictures of our trusty stead, just before it’s driver emerges for a quick fag. We cross over into the bus station where we spot a First 471 loading to Bolton via Bury. Mark knows an excellent chippy in Bolton, and that seals the deal.
We soon depart.It’s a Wright bodied Volvo. Nothing overly special, a bit of litter rolls around the upper deck. Buses on this route are pushing the First day ticket – £4.20 since you ask – on their upper deck windows.
We pass through Heywood, prompting a hopeless comment from me about Nick Heywood from 80s band Haircut 100. Mark reminds me of Lisa Stansfield, the girl with the stupendous soul voice, who I once had a crush on (and, if I’m honest, I still do). Furthermore, Mark reminds me that Cannon & Ball met in Oldham, just down the road. He’s seen them twice, but prefers the Grumbleweeds.
Soon we’re in Bury, with it’s Interchange. First have several Mercedes Citaro single deckers operating here, amongst the brightly coloured vehicles from municipal “Rosso” (Rossendale). We both lament the shortening of the name to “Rosso”, although I guess “Rossendale Transport” is a bit of a mouthful for those who can’t be bothered with their syllables. It’s a bit like when we used to watch “Coronation Street” as kids. Now people watch “Corrie”.
The 471 takes just over an hour to go from Rochdale to Bolton. As we hit the town centre, Mark jumps up and bashes the bell. The stop is near the Olympus fish & chip shop, where we avail ourselves of the establishment’s primary offering. Mark knows where the bus station is, so we take shelter here from the ever-increasing winds.
It’s my first time in Bolton bus station. It’s rather large, but it is sorely in need of an upgrade. Stagecoach are here with their Gold service to Chorley and Preston. First has plenty of routes, and I also spot “Diamond”, where Rotala has instigated the name for it’s purchase last year of South Lancs Travel.
It’s getting dark and we think about heading back to central Manchester. The toilet facility here amounts to one of those “pods” where you insert 10p, then worry about the door sliding open once you’re inside. But Mark can’t even get inside. 2 lots of 10p attempts don’t work and we’re forced to go in search of alternatives in the town centre.
We decide on route 8 back to Manchester. It’s First again, with a similar Wrights bodied Volvo. Our driver must be feeling particularly stressed, as no sooner he arrives on the inbound journey, he barely lets his passengers off to quickly vacate the cab himself for a cigarette. Our gaggle passengers make our way on board, and we’re off.
The 8 has a a 10 minutes-or-less daytime frequency and takes just over an hour end-to-end. It also boasts a night service at weekends. Through Farnworth and Pendlebury, we arrive into Salford and Mark points out the Salford/Manchester border. Then we’re into Shudehill Interchange, where we hop on a Metrolink back to Piccadilly railway station. An “act of vandalism” is disrupting some part of the Metrolink network, but we instead hop on an Arriva Trains Wales service down to Crewe, then a London Midland offering back to Wolverhampton. Mark makes his way to the Midland Metro for some local tram riding, whereas I am in Wolverhampton’s rather smart (and never appreciated enough, to my mind) bus station for a National Express West Midlands run on the 256 back to my home village.
It’s been an excellent day “freewheeling” around the North West!
You can follow Mark Fitchew’s travels on his “Buses for Fun” blog here