A social event required my presence in Derby on Saturday night. This gave me the opportunity to sample the buses in the Peak District, something I have long meant to do but never found the right occasion.
To be honest it wasn't really on the agenda for this weekend either. My plan had been to return south on the train as soon as I woke up on Sunday morning and spend the afternoon doing domestic chores back in Southampton. But a conversation with a couple of friends on Saturday night stirred my sense of discovery and I decided to have an adventure!
My plan was not to have a plan, but insofar as I needed to end up somewhere where I could get a train south to be back in Southampton by 7ish on Sunday evening, I had the notion of setting off on trent barton's transpeak service to Matlock at 09:50 on Sunday morning, before perhaps catching TM Travel's 215 service to Sheffield. Needless to say, what actually happened was nothing like that!
Arriving at Derby Bus Station at around 09:40, the transpeak was already on the stand loading. Moreover, it had almost a full seated load with ten minutes to go to departure. It is highly creditable that it was already available for boarding, and most useful to me because it allowed me to decide not to go on it! I like my personal space, especially when I'm feeling slightly delicate after a heavy night, and really didn't fancy nearly an hour on a full bus so I aborted the plan.
In fact I almost aborted the entire plan and headed for the railway station, but just as I was about to leave the bus station my eye was drawn to a service at 10:00 to Ashbourne and Leek. The weekday equivalent between Derby and Ashbourne is trent barton's swift, which has recently been rebranded to very impressive effect, but you can always rely on a tendered Sunday equivalent to a weekday commercial service to be confusingly different, so the Sunday bus is a 108 operated by TM Travel.
This seemed more likely to offer plenty of personal space and so it proved, with a very jolly driver and three passengers on our smartly presented Solo when we left Derby. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do when I got to Ashbourne but it seemed likely to offer a nice ride, and if I had thought of nothing else I figured I could always carry on to Leek and try to get a connection to Stoke from there.
Two things quickly became apparent as we headed west into the countryside. Firstly, the scenery is almost certainly magnificent. Secondly, I couldn't see any of it due to the thick fog that was enveloping everything apart from a few hundred metres of the road ahead! This afforded me plenty of time to play with my phone, and I stumbled across the website for Public Transport in Derbyshire, a real mecca for a timetable geek like me!
From this I was able to deduce that I had two much more interesting options when I arrived at Ashbourne, with a choice of departures at 10:35 on either a TM Travel bus on route 110 to Matlock, or a Bowers bus on a 42A to Buxton.
The first of these options was more appealing, as it would allow me to return to Derby in a triangle and still get back to Southampton in good time. It was also a slightly shorter journey - the Buxton bus would take nearly an hour and a half to get there and that length of journey tries my patience!
So I resolved I would catch the bus to Matlock, and almost inevitably that isn't what happened!
On arrival at what grandly calls itself Ashbourne Bus Station - a layby comprising three bus shelters - both the above mentioned buses were waiting, and as expected both were Solos. However, it quickly became apparent that there was to be some swapping of buses, and in fact the bus that was supposedly en route from Derby to Leek was actually going to transfer on to the Matlock route, and the bus that was already waiting in Ashbourne - which I assumed would be the 110 - was in fact going forward to Leek.
Presumably this is to cycle buses for maintenance etc - the 108 seems a long way from TM Travel's Sheffield heartland - but since this now meant that I would be staying on the same bus I decided that would be too boring, hence I decided to go to Buxton instead.
For my first trip on a Bowers bus I was delighted to be presented with a choice of three moquettes, all entirely clashing, but the driver was friendly and cheerful. Once again, three passengers were aboard as we pulled out.
There followed one of the most surreal and enchanting bus rides I can remember. Shortly after leaving Ashbourne, we plunged off down a narrow lane and for the next hour weaved our way around woodland and dales, through picturesque villages, up steep hills to magnificent summits and down again into precipitous valleys. At least I assume we did all these things, but the dense wall of fog kept it all secret from us. Occasionally the mist would clear enough to tease us with the merest glimpse of scenic wonder, only to close in again at the next bend.
Through it all the driver made careful but steady progress, guiding us through the gloom and picking our way past cars and horse boxes when they loomed suddenly out of the murky greyness. He displayed the skill of one who knew every inch of the roads, an assuredness honed from years of experience. And yet, suddenly, as we were nearing the end of the trip he stopped and checked with us that he had to take a particular right turn. Then he revealed that he had only ever driven the route once before! Nobody could begrudge him that moment of uncertainty - all of us who drive professionally have found ourselves in that situation - but it made all the more astounding the manner with which he had guided us through the dense fog up to that point!
Shortly before our arrival in Buxton we burst out of the mist into a clear sunny day, and for the last couple of miles we called at every stop, filling up with locals for the short ride into town who would have had no idea of our adventure in the fog.
Despite the frustration of being unable to see anything this was one of the most magical bus rides I can ever recall. I loved the sense of being a long way from anywhere, in our own little cocoon remote from the outside world. And of course I have the added joy of knowing that I will have to go back to experience the route again in clear conditions, when I can properly appreciate the surroundings!
Arrival in Buxton was just before 12:00 and our bus was allowed a brief rest before disappearing out of service - here it is (the one at the front) having just been joined by one of its sisters:
It was clear that having crossed so much of the Peak District, it made much more sense to pop out the other side than to hack back across to Derby, so my thoughts turned to onward transport. The train now became an option, but my preference was for one more bus ride - you see and experience so much more of local life riding on a bus.
Stockport seemed the obvious destination, with an hourly direct train link back to Southampton. transpeak has an annoying three hour gap heading north from Buxton, so skyline 199 - also from the trent barton stable as you can tell from the absence of capital letters - was the obvious choice. 12:15 from Buxton would get me to Stockport Bus Station at 13:25, just in time for a mad scramble up the hill to the railway station for a 13.36 train. Perfect. So of course it didn't happen!
By about 12:30, with no sign of skyline anywhere to be seen, I was bored. I also knew I had missed my connection and would therefore be on the 14:36 from Stockport. Had this been the plan all along I wouldn't have minded at all, but having set my heart on the 13:36 it was something of a let down to know that I had missed it.
I figured that, to be sure of at least getting the 14:36, I could give skyline until around 13:00 and then I would have to walk to the railway station. And then, while I was idly pondering the maps and departure boards at the bus stop, Macclesfield emerged!
Listed on the bus stop timetable was a 12:40 service 58 to Macclesfield. The map suggested it went through somewhere called the Cat & Fiddle, which stirred a distant memory from radio traffic reports in times of bad weather. Consulting the Derbyshire website, I could scarcely believe that compared to the seventy minute slog to Stockport, this option would have me on the West Coast Main Line in barely half an hour! And still in time to catch the 13:36 train one stop up the line!
I consider myself to have a good grasp of the geography of Britain, so I am ashamed that I had no real idea of just how close Buxton is to Macclesfield, and the outside world in general. I had not appreciated how much I would be cutting the corner by heading to Macclesfield rather than Stockport, and until this option bopped me on the nose Macclesfield had never entered my head as somewhere on the shortlist of places to visit! It certainly was not on the list of places I had expected to see when I walked out of my Derby hotel just three hours previously! And yet Macclesfield was the answer!
But Buxton wouldn't let me go without a fight. skyline eventually turned up twenty five minutes late, but I sneered at it with disdain as I waited for the now imminent service 58. Only the 58 didn't come! 12:40 came and went, 12:45, 12:50, 12:55 and still no sign. I was now resigned to a walk to the station to catch the train, and then the 14:36 from Stockport. Such a let down after such anticipation!
And then finally, just as I was about to give up and start walking, along it came! Another Bowers Solo, I boarded along with the two other waiting passengers, and then we sat there for five minutes while the driver had a phone conversation with his controller. He rang to alert him to the delay, but this turned into a lengthy debate about how it had happened and what could be done about it. None of which was getting us any closer to Macclesfield. But eventually we set off.
It was now 13:10, and I knew that my favoured train would be in Macclesfield at 13:49. I knew also that the bus journey would take half an hour and therefore I didn't have much time and I had no idea how to find Macclesfield station once I got there. So the scene was set for a nail-biting finale, but before any of that my breath was taken from me by the stunning scenery that lay around us as we climbed out of Buxton!
Normally I know when I'm going to be in for a scenic ride, and I set my anticipation levels accordingly. By contrast, I saw nothing to look forward to in the trip to Macclesfield. It felt like a cop out, shuffling sheepishly out of the side door of the High Peak. I was not prepared for the Cat and Fiddle!
What an amazing road, what a panorama, and all condensed into less than thirty minutes! What a surprising end to my bus travels for the day, and what a climax!
Before we got to the best bit, I was able to take this photo looking back over Buxton, from which you can see the northern extremity of the fog bank that I had endured for so much of the morning:
After the unexpected excitement of the Cat and Fiddle, our descent into Macclesfield took us right past the railway station (although in the best traditions of bus-rail integration in this country, it was kept as low profile as possible). So my connection was easy, I had had a great adventure and it was barely lunchtime!
The £15 upgrade to First Class was a no brainer and I enjoyed four hours of relaxed snobbery, cruising south in spacious, luxurious accommodation, reading my book and listening to the occasional despairing announcements from the Train Manager to the sardines in Standard Class, not to block the aisles or pile their luggage in the vestibules.
The Peak District fascinates me. It has some of the most dramatic scenery you will encounter in this country, but all in close proximity to real life. Distances are short, it is easy to cover a lot of ground in a short space of time, and especially for a Sunday the frequency of bus services is astonishingly good, with some really useful connections.
Although passenger numbers were modest on the buses I used, there were walkers and sightseers as well as locals. All the drivers I encountered were friendly and helpful.
All the ingredients are there for an amazing tourist product, yet the whole thing seems so much less than the sum of its parts. It seems to me to be crying out for a decently branded network, indeed the network is virtually already there, but if I wasn't a persistent transport geek I would never have worked out that stringing the 108, 42A and 58 together would get me from east to west in a morning, or that everything comes together in Ashbourne at 10:30. I still have no idea if there was a ticket that I could have bought that would have saved me buying three separate singles and given me the flexibility to go where I wanted. There certainly should be.
In my humble opinion the network cries out for some simplification, decent branding, ticketing and promotion, and surely the passenger numbers would go through the roof as they have done on Coasthopper in Norfolk or Jurassic CoastlinX53 in Dorset and Devon.
But despite that, I loved my morning bus adventure in the Peak District and I can't wait to be back!