Saturday, 30 June 2012

Languishing in Largs [Day 8]

the 2215 (pre-book Friday only)
ferry leaves for the Cumbrae.
Farewell Largs!
Stunning Scotrail : Superb Service
There is something impressive about the way the Scottish Government is handling its railway system. The simple idea that any company that wins the franchise must use the official livery and not its own ensures at a stroke that the railway will retain its identity despite the vagaries of privatisation. The policy of station improvement can be seen in all its magnificence at Wemyss Bay [pronounced Weemz].
Here a long sloping walkway between train and ferry has been beautifully restored rather than demolished, and the spectacular circular booking hall is likewise returned to its opulent glory.
Whereas until recently in England and Wales, cutbacks were standard railway policy, expansion and improvement has been the watchword north of Hadrians Wall for many years. In the Glasgow area, fbb has observed and experienced the following:-

1979 Argyll Line via Glasgow Central re-opened
           electrification to Motherwell, Hamilton and Lanark
1986 Ayr Coast line electrification begins
1990 Paisley Canal line re-opened
1993 Whifflet and Maryhill branches re-opened
???? Cumbernauld to Motherwell service introduced
2005 Larkhall branch re-opened
2011 Glasgow to Edinburgh via Airdrie and Bathgate re-opened

And there's more to come in the form of electrification of the fast Glasgow to Edinburgh (via Falkirk) group of routes. In the Edinburgh area there has been the re-opening of the line to Bathgate, the developent of the Fife Circle services, the start of Edinburgh Crossrail and, under construction, services to the borders towns via the long-closed "Waverley" route.

When it is finished, the re-vamped Edinburgh Waverley will return to something of its original splendour. In the meantime the agony of the 5 million rain-soaked steps up to Princes Street is replaced by ...
... escalators with a roof!

The dismal 1960s (?) facade which effectively hides Glasgow's Queen Street station ...
... is to be replaced with something more befitting an efficient railway of the twentyfirst century.
By no means is everything is lovely in the State of Scotrail with, for example, delays and dithering over a link to Glasgow Airport; but the signs are universally positive and the fares offer astoundingly good value.

Take, for example fbb's off peak day return from Largs to Edinburgh ...
... a trip taken on the Monday of his holiday. Note the fare, including fbb's old fogey discount,  £14.20  for a round trip of over 170 miles. The cheapest equivalent discount fare from Portsmouth Harbour to Waterloo is  £19.85  for a round trip of only 149 miles.

And then there's the refreshment trolleys on the 15 minute frequency "fast" route between Glasgow and Edinburgh, well stocked and politely staffed.
And, by today's standards, not exorbitantly priced; the above "lunch" was about £4.50 and the honey roast ham sandwich was "made in Scotland with passion"(?). fbb had eaten half the sandwich before taking the picture. Yummy! Although, to be brutally honest,  fbb couldn't taste the "passion".

Perhaps fbb should whisk Mrs fbb back to her homeland for a happy (and cheaper) retirement?

One final whimsy of the line from Largs to Glasgow. In planning their trip fbb noted that the cheapest fares are available after 0900. [fares quoted are with Senior Railward.]
So fbb and Mrs arrived to pay their £8.40 fares for the 0828 to Glasgow and were surprised to be issued with two tickets at £5.90 each. Honest Joe (alias fbb) confessed his intention of travelling pre 0900 but the nice lady in the ticket offices assured him that £5.90 was correct. "It''s a special concession for people from Largs on the 0828 because the next train isn't until 0953," she advised.

What a sensible offer from Scotrail! Maybe someone should tell the National Rail web site?

Sadly, the Club 55 offer end today.
Those aged 55 and over can travel anywhere in Scotland (including from Carlisle or Berwick) for £19 return, £17 with a senior railcard or equivalent.

 Next Blog : Sunday 1st July 

Friday, 29 June 2012

Languishing in Largs [Day 7]

Magnificent Millport?
Miserable Millport?

And so to Wednesday. Chums David and Jean joined the fbbs on the short (10 mins) trip from Largs across to the Island of Cumbrae. The car ferry service started in 1972 with a couple of "landing craft" style vessels providing a frequent service.
In 2012, boats leave Largs slip every 15 minutes (daily) during the peak season with a 30 minute frequency outside of these dates. As the business has grown, so have the vessels. For those who may wish to follow up this development via Google (etc.) here is a list of all the vessels in regular use since 1972. Other "outsiders" can be used to release the normal ships for maintenance.
1972 - 1976: Coruisk & Largs
1977: Coruisk & Largs / Isle of Cumbrae
1978 - 1985: Isle of Cumbrae
1986: Isle of Cumbrae / Loch Striven & Loch Linnhe 
1987 - 1996: Loch Linnhe & Loch Striven
1997: Loch Riddon & Loch Linnhe
1998 - 2006: Loch Alainn & Loch Riddon
2007 - Present: Loch Shira & Loch Riddon
Today's mis-matched pair are pictured below with their elderly foreunner.
To provide clearance for the larger of the two, Loch Striven, Largs pier was completely rebuilt, although the vessels use a simple concrete slip.

fbb, Mrs fbb with chums David and Jean set off from Largs as passengers, paying £4.60 per head for the return crossing. Looking surprised when "the man" at Largs retained their tickets, they were told, "ye dinnie need tickets to come back." So why not buy a single, thought fbb, mischievously.

But CalMac are wise to that ploy because there simply aren't any singles! The only way to get a free ride would be to swim from Largs to Cumbrae or, possibly, arrange to land your microlight somewhere.

At Cumbrae slip the facilities are rather basic ...
... and it is here that the connecting bus meets the ferry and conveys the crowds of foot passengers to Millport. The lights of the small commuters' car park can be seen just beyond the bus.
The fbb party's vehicle was operated by Millport Motors ...
... carrying its happy passengers to Millport for £3 return. the fbb sailing (and thus the bus) was not overcrowded ...
... with passengers, or for that matter, ...
... vehicles; which may explain why the ferry service needs some subsidy!

Millport, the only settlement on the Island, looked as if economic prosperity had taken a ferry back to Largs and stayed there.
It was early closing day but many businesses were closed permanently. Highlights of the Millport shopping experience were a splendid portion of freshly cooked fish and chips; after which sale the shop closed, much to the chagrin of later visitors who drooled expectantly at fbb's rapidly diminishing portion.

There was an excellent (closed Wednesday pm) joke shop ...
... with "Glo Snot Nose" being a particular highlight. Chortle chortle

Things to see included the narrowest house in the world (?) ...
... called "The Wedge".

And lots of people riding bikes ...
... including a real quad bike! Cycling is a good way to see the whole island as there is no public transport (except taxi) other than the bus to the ferry. Chum Jean was particularly excited about seeing the ...
... Croodile Rock, a highlight (the highlight) of Millport beach which she remembered from childhood visits. Jean is the one with the pink scarf; the dog is called Bramble and is a Labradoodle.

One other treat that the fbb party eschewed was a drink in the beer garden of the pub (The Royal George) at the town's bus terminus.
Interesting use of the word "garden"? And yes, the concrete "grass" is painted red; it's not a camera fault.

Like so many of our UK resorts, Millport is past its best. The fbb visit was on a dull and cloudy day which is not ideal. When the sun comes out, the Island of Cumbrae is picturesque and quaint but, without a doubt, the town is in need of several licks of paint.

The bus back to the ferry was operated by Cumbrae Coaches ...
... and the vehicle and passenger numbers on the boat were, erm, not excessive.
The bus service is, once you arrive on the Island, simple to understand and use. BUT finding out about it is not so easy; thus fbb will be publishing a extra blog on the subject in a few days.
Technology Troubles Tamper with Tomorrows Transmission!
It will not be possible to provide a blog in real time for the fbb's
return journey. Any excitements will be reported later next week.
A final Largs based blog will be posted before departure
tomorrow morning.
 Next Blog : Saturday June 30th 

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Languishing in Largs [Day 6]

Yesterday fbb's laptop started behaving erratically for no
obvious reason. Blogs may fail or suffer from delay until
the problem can be resolved. Please return to check. Ta!

STOP PRESS Thursday 0730 : The landlord's telly is connected to a Freesat digibox via an HDMI interface. By plugging the HDMI cable into the laptop, the non-working VDU is replaced by the TV screen and blogging (uncomfortably on the floor) becomes possible. But Mrs fbb enjoys watching Wimbledon ... [No, I don't really understand it - but it works - fbb]
Today's Cruise News

Saved from Scrap by a £2 Donation!!
Any trip on the Waverley is memorable for Mrs fbb; as her father, a ferry enthusiast, took her on trips when she was very young, probably about 5 or nearly 63 years ago. This was when the vessel was just three years old. Dad made a significant contribution to the restoration fund (£2!). A visit to see the engines is as big a thrill today as it was then.
Tuesday's cruise was form Largs via Loch Long to Carrick Castle on Loch Goil, calling at Dunoon and Blairmore. Blairmore is on the western bank at the southern end of Loch Long.
The weather forecast was grim and, indeed, heavy rain set in just before the vessel turned for its return run at the Castle (at the little "pimple" sticking out from the south west bank of the loch). Much has been written about the Waverley, and fbb can add little to the millions of words already penned.

The call at Blairmore was significant, however. 
Before motoring became the norm and before roads became universally navigable, the various steamer services were the only public transport to the dozens of small lochside villages. Most of these "mini" piers have long since fallen into disuse and disrepair; the majority have simply disappeared for ever. This would have been the inevitable fate of Blairmore had it not been for the vision and generosity of a certain Mrs Agnes Harvey.
She bought the pier and established Blairmore Heritage Ltd in 2004. Subsequently the Friends of Blairmore Pier Trust was created. The Trust accessed grants which allowed for the restoration of the Pier. The Friends of Blairmore Pier Trust is a “not-for-profit” organisation generating income from berthing fees, merchandise and organised events and the Pier is now leased to the Trust for community use.
The former ticket office (red paint) is now a holiday cottage which retains the ticket window underneath the walkway on the left of the building.
Half close the eyes, ignore the hard hats, the life jackets and the high-viz vests of the pier team and you can almost think yourself back in the early 1900s.

The spookiest part of the cruise was passing the nuclear submarine floating dry dock...
... part of the massive Coulport base. According to our captain, 400 military police have the task of protecting the  site, which includes a perrmanently manned police launch and eight (or so) tall wathtowers up on the hills.
fbb may be incarcerated for publishing these pictures!

The cruise turned at Carrick Castle, pictured here in better weather ...
... at which point overcast and drizzly conditions became a West Coast of Scotland Monsoon. The return run was "enjoyed" in one of the cabins, drinking tea and peering through the downpour. Occasional and brief forays into the open deck were all that was sensible; hence the blotchy shot of "Arygll Flyer" through the cabin window.
"Argyll Flyer" docked evocatively in front of the
linkspan of the withdrawn Dunoon to Gourock car ferry

A typically Scottish "High Tea" back at Largs ended a splendid afternoon as the rain pelted down and the Cumbrae and its ferries disappeared into the murk.
And so to bed ...

Meanwhile, a comment from "Man of Kent" on yesterday's blog reminded fbb that M V Keppel, the last passenger boat to the Island of Cumbrae, started life as a British Railways ferry plying its trade as "Rose" between Tilbury and Gravesend. Note the early "right handed" BR logo used intitially for Sealink vessels.
See "Languishing at Largs [Day 5]" (read again).

After departing from Scottish waters, Keppel worked (maybe still works?) in Malta. This picture is dated 2010.
"Hornblower", by the way, is the name of the cruise company. The vessel is still called "Keppel".

Today fbb and Mrs are travelling to Glasgow by train (again!) and hiring a car (shame) to visit an elderly lady, a former member of Mrs fbb's Women's Fellowship, who emigrated at the age of 91 from the Isle of Wight to join her daughter in Fintry, north of Glasgow. Public Transport is impossible! Yesterday's trip to the Isle of Cumbrae by ferry and bus produced more of interest than expected, so, technology permitting, tomorrow's blog will be a more substantial report than orignially intended.

 Next Blog : Friday 29th June 

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Languishing in Largs [Day 5]

Meeting up with an Old Friend
fbb first visited Largs (on the Ayrshire coast of the Firth of Clyde, almost west of Glasgow and down a bit as the flow cries) over 40 years ago when he was "courting" the future Mrs fbb.
One fascination of a stay c/o the future Mrs' family home, in Bearsden, Glasgow, were the services of ferries operated by Caledonian Macbrayne [Cal-Mac]. The map above is from the present network; but back in the early 1970s the routes were similar. Over the 40 or so years of his blissfully happy marriage (really, honest!), fbb has kept a passing eye on service developments and made occasional trips "overseas".

The history of Cal-Mac is too complex for this blog but, in very simple terms, private steamer operators were taken over by the private railway companies and, after various mergers and groupings, became state owned when the railways were nationalised in 1947.  The present structure was put in place in 1973 when the remaining two (nationalised) companies, merged to form Cal-Mac. 
Caledonian had operated in the Firth of Clyde whist MacBrayne plied the more northerly waters. So, since 1947, all these ferry services have been state owned and heavily subsidised. In 1956 the first Clyde car ferry service started between Gourock and Dunoon and, over the intervening years, the business has become totally dominated by motor traffic. Remaining passenger-only services from Fairlie (between Largs and Ardrossan) ended before fbb came on the scene, followed soon by the passenger-only boat (M V Keppel, illustrated above) between Largs and Millport on the Isle of Cumbrae.

But changes were afoot (or, perhaps, afloat!)

In a huge shock to the status quo, it was in June 1973 that a brand new commercial ferry service started from McInroys Point west of Gourock to Hunters Quay north of Dunoon in direct competition with Cal-Mac.
It uses "basic" RO-RO [roll on roll off] double ended vessels and was aimed unashamedly at car and commercial vehicle traffic.
The business has grown over the years and a 20 minute frequency now operates, enhanced to every 15 minutes on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings.
Although local buses were initially extended for foot passenger use, most non-car business remained with Cal-Mac. The "local" bus service on the "mainland"** side is now the long distance 900 series operated by McGill between Glasgow and Largs or Dunoon.

Cal-Mac have been coy about the effect of competition on its big boat service, but when, under (silly?) EEC law the whole job lot was opened up to competitive tender, the Gourock to Dunoon big boat service was excluded. Presumably Brussels bureaucrats balk at boosting a subsidised route when there is a commercial alternative. Needless to say, Cal-Mac won the initial six-year block tender from 2006 (who else could possibly tender for it?) and continued to run from Gourock on a temporary basis.

After a period of trauma, when it looked as if the passenger facility from town to town would disappear completely, a new company, Argyll Ferries, started a passenger-only route in 2011. It offers about 60 sailings daily Monday to Saturday and 30 on Sundays, considerably more frequent that the old "big boats".
Argyll Ferries operates two vessels, the "Argyll Flyer" (seen here docking at Dunoon yesterday at 1600) ...
... and the oddly named "Ali Cat".
Service reliability is not as good as that provided by the older "real" ships with trips cancelled when the weather is rough. "Disgusted of Dunoon" is a regular correspondent spitting venom via the local press.
recent local press report

"Ali Cat" is a concatenation of the title "Alison's Catamaran" and she (Alison) is the grown-up daughter of Mark and Jenny Rayment whose "Solent and Wight Line Cruises" has plied the waters of the Solent, offering a variety of boat trips to Island visitors and those to Portsmouth as seen here:-
Ali Cat (then owned by the Rayments)
on a Portsmouth Harbour cruise.

Over the years fbb has been a very satisfied customer of the Rayments, both as an indiviual and an organiser of excursions for dozens and hundreds. The "Ali Cat" was first leased to Cal-Mac to cover for non availability of big boats during pier reconstruction and later sold to Argyll Ferries.

So, very much a meeting up with an old friend for fbb!
** "Mainland". OK, fbb knows that Dunoon is also on the "mainland", it is not on an island. It is situated towards the southernmost tip of the Cowal Peninsula (in black, above), one of the bits of western Scotland that point southwards with a long way round road link to Strathclyde.

And in case you didn't know, Argyll Ferries is a wholly owned subsidiary of ...

Such is the silliness of the EEC enforced tendering system.
Today, the fbb's are travelling with Dumfriesshire chums Jean and David by ferry and bus [or in their car?] from Largs to Millport on the Island of Cumbrae, weather permitting. At 0730 this morning the Cumbrae was shrouded in low mist and barely visible from the flat window!
Snippets from this and yesterdays trip on "Waverley" will be reported tomorrow.
 Next Blog : Thursday 28th June