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Oxbridge too far - shadows of echoes of memories of songs
Oxbridge too far
Getting from Oxford to Cambridge by public transport is always awkward: the Varsity Line hasn't existed for 40 years and isn't likely to be reinstated in the next 20; airship sadly doesn't exist yet; which leaves you with a choice of either a) getting the train in and out of London, or b) taking the Bus of Death. Every time I make this choice I go through the same process of swithering between train and bus: the train's more comfortable, but the bus is cheaper, but the train's more frequent, but the bus is probably more predictable, but the train will be a bus on Sunday anyway, and oh for heaven's sake.

I'm not sure quite why the X5 is so depressing. Okay, so it's a bus, which is a sorry start; it goes via Bedford and Milton Keynes, which is a miserable middle; and it takes about four hours, which is an excruciating eon [enough alliteration - ed.] to endure [no, really - ed.] before journey's end. But a four-hour journey by train seems quite reasonable, and a four-hour bus journey would probably be fine on a bus like the Oxford Tube (comfortable, double-decker, air-conditioned ... though now I come to think of it, air-conditioning probably undoes all the environmental benefit of not driving). Instead, though, we get a single-decker coach, cramped enough that I feel as though I'm lacking in leg-room; it's rattly, stuffy, and generally uncomfortable. It's also always full of idiots, but that's the problem with public transport in general (the hint's in the word 'public').

Then there's the journey itself, a meandering tour of some of the most uninspiring spots in Britain. Marvel at Milton Keynes coachway, the roadside caff at the end of the world; be amazed by Bedford. You've got half an hour to explore Bedford; the public toilets, particularly, are worth a detour, a classic of 20th century 'smells of wee' design, unspoilt by soap, and staffed by a surly woman who stares accusingly at everybody who comes in as if they were intending to do something to worsen the condition of the place (though I'm at a loss as to how they'd go about it). It's saying something when the high point of the journey is Milton Keynes railway station, which actually is quite cool in a kind of steely way, but not the sort of thing you'd undertake a 2-hour bus journey to see. It's saying even more when you start to realise that the A14 is a more exciting route.

This weekend, the journey was further enhanced by two crazy bus-drivers. One insisted that the bus was full at every stop, trying to dissuade people from getting on, only relenting once the passengers had shouted "there's a seat here!" and "there's at least three seats back here!" a couple of dozen times. (One of the people he tried to turn down protested that she was 5 months pregnant. "You can't be, you're about 50" replied the bus driver. I assume that it was only out of concern for her unborn child that she didn't deck the bastard.) He also drove like an idiot, beeping at anybody and anything (on the road or off), and taking every amber light as an acceleration challenge (usually failing, and screeching to a halt at the inevitable red). I've never been so relieved to see Bedford, where they change drivers. Then the new driver got on. "Sorry we're running late," he began. (Good start, I thought.) "There's some sort of festival in Bedford" (we laugh slightly, probably imagining what a festival in Bedford would be like... BEDSTOCK, that kind of thing...) "one of the various, ah, 'cultural' groups in the city is having some sort of parade. Put it this way, if we did it, it'd be a BNP march." (Jawdrop; uneasy silence.) He drove slightly better, mind you. Probably would have made the trains run on time, too.

The journey back would have been almost comfortable if a) the toilet hadn't been BOLTED SHUT (with a big sign saying 'not in use', which looked like a fairly permanent fixture), and b) I hadn't had the hangover from hell. Fighting down waves of nausea on a bus is a bit of a non-starter at the best of times, and when the journey includes approximately four million roundabouts, it's doomed. I can't normally sleep on buses, but after only about 5 hours' sleep I probably could have done, except that every time I fell asleep my body seemed to feel this as a 'fall' which made me feel seasick all over again and thus wake myself up. For four hours. Okay, I can't actually blame the bus for my hangover, but the constant pitch and yaw certainly didn't help. I'm not sure how many units of X5 are recommended for women, but I think I'd better stay off the buses for a while.

HOWEVER, all the travelling and related doom was entirely worthwhile because we got to see lots of lovely people in Cambridge. We had tea and cake with 1ngi and sion_a, and then on to ceb and iwj-winolj's housewarming. (If I was writing this on LiveJournal I'd probably summarise the party by saying that we went "oooh" at shiny house, and "yay!" at shiny people, and "mmm" at tasty boozes... oh, wait, I am writing this on LiveJournal, so that'll do nicely. As for going "mmm" at tasty people too, I couldn't possibly comment. ;-)

It is a shame we had to leave so ridiculously early the next morning that we couldn't even stay for breakfast with rmc28 and fanf who had very kindly given us their spare bed for the night, but I wouldn't have been much company in the morning, to be honest. :-/ Should be back in Cambridge again soon so hopefully next time I'll be able to catch up with some of the folks I was forced to neglect this time. I do miss the place (a bit) and the people (a lot). Sigh.

Rambling now. Time for bed. Ow, me head.
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From: fluffymormegil Date: November 25th, 2007 10:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
Toilet? On an X5? I didn't know that such existed anyway.
gnimmel From: gnimmel Date: November 25th, 2007 11:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
The X5 has telepathic toilets which are only functional when I don't need to use them (and are a relatively recent innovation; I think they started running buses with toilets at about the same time they started adding on an extra half-hour to the journey by inexplicably becoming a St. Neots local bus). In fact, I think they respond to any desperate need by becoming non-functional; this applies particularly to beer-drinkers on the last bus home.

Fun incidents I've experienced on the X5 include a driver who took an unscheduled stop at St. Neots Tesco to do his shopping; a passenger who spent most of the journey trying to convert the assembled passengers by telling them that the woman who had the bad luck to be sitting next to him was probably Satan; and various delightful happenings to do with the aforementioned toilet situation.
From: mooism Date: November 25th, 2007 11:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've been on London buses where the driver has got out to use a cashpoint. Or where the driver has detoured to a petrol station in the middle of the night, ascertained that the petrol station's toilet was out of order, and emptied his bladder against a wall, out of sight of the passengers HE THOUGHT.
barnacle From: barnacle Date: November 26th, 2007 10:30 am (UTC) (Link)
On the worst X5 journey I've ever had, the whole bus seemed to have been used as a toilet. It wasn't just Bedford on the horizon that was knocking me sick.

Monbiot cites the X5 specifically as his example of why coach travel is so morale-crushingly souldestroying in this country. I wish I could see his proposal - of putting coach stations outside each city with shuttle buses or even TRAMS, so that e.g. the X5 can skirt round Buckingham, Bicester and the like - actually happening at some point in the future.

(I imagine St Neots is a nice little earner in subsidies, like Lewknor Turn. Even more so if they quietly miss it out.)
the_elyan From: the_elyan Date: November 25th, 2007 10:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've almost entirely given up on the X5, mainly for the reasons you mention. One enters a strange "fugue state" on long bus trips, which I don't find on trains. My other reasons are:
i) the price differential isn't vast providing you have a network card - £31 return on the train against £18 on the bus, with a time saving of an hour plus each way for me, given I need the train on to home anyway.
ii) I can usually find useful and/otr entertaining things to do in London, which is more than I can say for Milton Keynes or Bedford (since gnimmel and purplepiano left anyway). There's Bletchley Park, of course...

Glad you had fun in cam, though - I had a decent enough time in Oxf, but largely parental, so not terribly wild. Did go to the TRout at Wolvercote, though, which was most pleasant.
lnr From: lnr Date: November 26th, 2007 02:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
Last time we used the X5 it was less than a fiver, return, for 2 of us. The megabus deals really make a difference.
j4 From: j4 Date: November 26th, 2007 02:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
Does that involve very restricted times/dates? At the moment I am richer in money than in time and the X5 seems pretty cheap as it is, but even if they paid me to take it it'd still be pretty miserable. I'd be happy to pay more if it meant more comfortable buses, or an 'express' route that didn't spend half an hour being the St Neots shopping bus, or drivers who knew how to drive, or transport by flying pig.
lnr From: lnr Date: November 26th, 2007 03:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think it just depends what's available.

I put in 2 passengers doing your journey but next weekend instead, and the cheapest available was 12 quid total (6 each way) and worst was 28 (12 one way, 16 the other). They were a bit random about which were the cheap ones and which more expensive. - Oh, and the following weekend they've got 2 quid and 4 quid options, for a possible 6 quid return for 2 people.

But you do have to pick a specific bus, rather than being able to choose your own return time.

I definitely agree I'd happily pay more if they could put on better buses on a route that was back down to 3 hours, the way it was when I were a lad, erm lass.

Edited at 2007-11-26 03:28 pm (UTC)
covertmusic From: covertmusic Date: November 25th, 2007 11:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
I was sorry not to make it out to see you this weekend; haven't left my flat, I'm afraid.

katstevens From: katstevens Date: November 25th, 2007 11:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
I only ever took it as far as Oxford -> Milton Keynes (to change for a train up to my sister's house in Northampton). It wasn't too bad, but I didn't get as travel sick then as I do these days. My stomach really doesn't deal well with repeated, *unpredictable* acceleration/deceleration. That's why I always do the driving.
hairyears From: hairyears Date: November 26th, 2007 01:17 am (UTC) (Link)
I used to take the 310 from Leicester to Oxford, all those years ago: single decker, cramped seats, no loo, no aircon, smokers at the back, bogless and noisy, thundering down the motorway to Coventry and rattling down the A-Roads past Leamington to Banbury.

That journey, with The Unforgettable Fire on the walkman, is one of the landmarks of my life.

A world away from the Oxford Tube to London, and the smooth luxury of the double-decker night coach from Newcastle to London that marked half the weekends of my life for the following two years.

Now that I come to think about it, my youth is measured in scheduled coach journeys: National Express and Birmingham Dogbreath coach station are all too familiar.
fanf From: fanf Date: November 26th, 2007 09:08 am (UTC) (Link)
Glad the bed was comfy!
thegreenman From: thegreenman Date: November 26th, 2007 12:18 pm (UTC) (Link)


It's funny how Airships are the kind of technology that is always "just around the corner thanks to new technology"

They've been saying it since the sixties: mega cargo carriers able to land vertically, cruise liners in the sky, stratospheric tv/radio/phone stations, blah blah blah.

Yet, apart from the odd advertising blimp, there are still no Airships.
rysmiel From: rysmiel Date: November 26th, 2007 07:02 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Airship

The thing is, airships aren't actually real, they are the unstable decay products brought of a split in the timeline, which is why alternate histories almost always have airships in.

This means, of course, that in the real history of the world there are no airships at all ever, and we branched off from the One True Timeline sometime in the early twentieth century.

This is formally known as Hindenberg's Uncertainty Principle.
lnr From: lnr Date: November 26th, 2007 02:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
I hope we'll be around to catch you next time you're in town! Miss you too!
ewx From: ewx Date: November 26th, 2007 06:40 pm (UTC) (Link)

Somewhere around half my journeys on the X5 had LNR at the other end, which dulled the pain somewhat. Last time I was in Oxford I arrived by train...

It was nice to see you and Owen.

rysmiel From: rysmiel Date: November 26th, 2007 06:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think what this means is that should I be in Britain next summer I'll take the damned train, which was pretty much a foregone conclusion as I can't read on coaches. Cambridge and Oxford are both on the plan in that event, though depending on a whole pile of independent variables, the family-in-Ireland chunk of the trip might come between. What are the sensible ways of getting from Stansted to Cambridge or Oxford these days ?
j4 From: j4 Date: November 26th, 2007 08:08 pm (UTC) (Link)

Planes, trains and automobiles

Stansted to Cambridge is very easy, it's about a 25-minute direct train journey. They do, however, sometimes cancel trains at short notice (because obviously the trains to an airport, for fuck's sake are not likely to be important or time-critical to anybody... eeesh) so I would be tempted to get the train before the one I need, IYSWIM. Last time we intended to get the train to Stansted for a flight they did this & I had to drive there & pay $$$ for airport parking. Grrr.

Stansted to Oxford, I think you'd have to get the train and go via London. The old Oxford-to-Cambridge coach used to go via Luton and Stansted, but that was crazy. The train from Oxford to Cambridge isn't bad, it's just a faff with the in-over-and-out at London (and I have long since given up on making the connection that the railtrack site advertises, as it involves all trains being on time, the tube not stopping for 10 minutes at Edgware Road, and then running the entire length of Paddington Station).

I'm starting to think that while the train isn't faster than the X5 it's a better use of time, because while I always think "oh but I can read on coaches too" in fact I rarely get as much reading done on a coach because of higher chance of feeling icky, more/louder idiots (and no way to move carriages if they prove unbearable), and crap lighting after dark.

I am moved to wonder whether the world would be a generally better place if things like public transport etc were designed to be more-conducive-to-people-reading-in-them, both because things would be generally nicer and because more people would be reading.
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