Travelling on the Midnight (National) Express

After my plans to cycle from Lands End to John O’Groats were abruptly halted by a vicious dog, I felt the need to fill the aching achievement void of the last few months.

Still unable to cycle long distances due to my injury, and with time running out before starting Uni in October, I looked towards another challenge. Why not combine a physical challenge with a chance to see one of the places I would have passed on my originally planned cycle route? There was only one place and one challenge to fit the bill….. to travel to the Highlands of Scotland and climb to the UK’s highest point, the top of Ben Nevis.

With student life around the corner, I wanted to be as economical as possible, which put trains and planes out of my budget. I decided to try National Express. You may be as surprised as I was to discover that I could travel from London to Glasgow for £8……….. That’s not a typo. Not £80 or even £18…… EIGHT POUNDS!!! You wouldn’t get much change from that buying a coffee and a cake in Starbucks!

And I already knew I would stay in the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel. After it’s rebuild last year, it had received rave reviews by everyone staying there. So this would be a pretty cheap break and a great way of clearing the sticky cobwebs of a difficult few months. I packed my rucksack and set off to Victoria coach station to catch the night bus to Glasgow. I’d reserved a seat for an extra £2 (or tall Americano in Starbucks money) and boy was I relieved that I did.

I had no idea there was an entire community of National Express night travellers moving around the country every night while I’m tucked up in bed. The place was heaving. The demographic of the passengers was diverse, from tourists to families with children, all age groups and ethnicities.

I found my stand and waited with the throng. Once my bag was stowed and I was on board, I got comfortable. The bus was half full and I had two seats to myself so I was happy. We pulled away from the stand at bang on 23:00 and should arrive in Glasgow at around 7.30am. We stopped at Golders Green and Milton Keynes and there a young muslim family boarded and sat in the seats opposite, with a sweet baby, who was as good as gold.

Unfortunately, the child’s mum was not quite as happy a passenger as her daughter and had severe travel sickness for the entire trip. We stopped a couple of times at service stations for ‘comfort breaks’ which were very welcome opportunities to stretch my legs and refill my flask with hot coffee. There is something rather magical about travelling at night which I’ve always loved. Exactly 30 years ago, I was doing precisely the same thing, travelling around the USA and Canada by Greyhound Bus. I mainly travelled overnight due to the long distances, most journeys being around 12 hours.

I like the hush, the calm, and the stillness that comes from knowing that the demands of the day are absent and loved ones are safe in their beds. Unlike some of my crazy journeys in eighties North America, it was a largely uneventful night. To relieve the boredom, there was onboard wifi and a movie service which you can access via your own device should you choose to do so. I preferred to read my kindle and write my journal instead, and eventually slipped into a light, head-nodding doze.

The initial excited chatter of passengers was silent now and between dozes I occasionally gazed out onto the M6, as we passed one HGV after the next, night time truckers hauling their goods to awaiting distribution depots. I was awake with the first signs of light and just as I opened my eyes, we crossed the border into Scotland.

The landscape had opened out to rolling hills dotted with wind turbines and just after passing Lockerbie on the M74 we stopped again. It was a beautiful crisp, cold morning, the like of which I had missed while in Qatar. Another hot black coffee top-up did the trick and livened me up for the remaining couple of hours to Glasgow. I had booked an onward Citylink bus to take me to Fort William and had one hour in Glasgow to make the connection.

As we entered Glasgow, the rush hour traffic slowed us to a standstill and my eye was on the clock as the minutes ticked by. 7.30am came and went with us still in a traffic queue heading towards the city centre. Once through the worst, the bus stopped occasionally to let off passengers before the final destination came in sight. We rolled into Buchanan Street Bus Station at 8am and I had 30 minutes to retrieve my bag, locate my onward bus and dash to the loo, only to find that I then had to find 30p in change to access the station toilets. Oh I’ve always thought that an archaic and ridiculous thing to ask people to do, especially when they have a bus to catch and little time to spare looking for loose change!

Suitably relieved, I found the information board, which had been strategically located above and in front of the glass facade facing the bus stands. This meant that at that particular time of the morning, the sun was directly behind the board and it was impossible to read.

Alot of exasperated passengers were queuing at the information desk with the same complaint. I soon found my onward bus to Fort William and prepared for my next 3 hour leg. And what a journey it was. Passing the most breathtaking of scenery, firstly all the way along beside Loch Lomond, which holds very fond memories for me of a family caravan holiday when I was young. We stopped for a while beside Loch Lomond and my brother and I went for a swim in its dark icy waters.

We soon got out of our depth as the bottom suddenly and unexpectedly disappeared and the water got colder and colder. There was something thrilling but terrifying about it all at once. Suffice to say we didn’t stay in long, but at least we could say we did it!

Having plotted my cycle route all the way along from Lands End to John O’Groats earlier in the year, taking to google earth to check out the road conditions, I took particular note of this stretch and the lack of space for cyclists. The bus driver hooted his horn around each corner and at times two way traffic wasn’t possible. I may have to rethink this route for a future attempt on the bike.

We passed several places along the way including Crianlarich, which would have been another stop for me on my bike and headed up through the bleak wetlands of Loch Tulla and Loch Ba, towards Glen Coe. The temperature dropped and the winds picked up as we reached the Glen Coe Mountain Resort where a few people got off the bus and a couple got on. We passed Jimmy Saville’s old cottage which remains boarded up despite having been sold years ago and on past Loch Leven.

Fort William is located along the shore of Loch Lhinne, and as we approached the town, I could see an enormous cruise ship anchored in the middle of the loch. It was quite a surreal sight, seeing a floating hotel in the middle of such pristine surroundings. Little shuttle boats were ferrying cruise passengers to and from the shore.

Eventually, the bus dropped me at the Bus station just over 12 hours since leaving Victoria Coach Station the night before. I was happy to use my legs and breath in deep to feel the fresh, crisp mountain air in my lungs.

Next step was to head into town to find a way to get to the Youth Hostel in Glen Nevis, a few miles away at the foot of Ben Nevis……..

(to be continued)

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