A rant about Rail Rovers

A Rail Rover is a great idea - in theory - you get 4 out of 8 days unlimited travel by train and some of them even include ferries and buses, especially important in Scotland and Wales where English bus passes are not recognised. So, for my latest trip around South Wales I wanted to buy a Freedom of South Wales Flexi Rover. That's £54 (or £35 with senior railcard) for four days train and eight days bus travel. So far, so good. However I then discovered that you can't buy one online, the man at the end of the Arriva phone line had never heard of them ('Did I want a season ticket?', he asked) and Brighton ticket office said I could only buy one 3 days in advance. So on my day of travel, I popped into the Travel Centre at Brighton station and bought one (I'd already bought my tickets to Bristol and back from the Great Western website). Trouble was, when I first tried to use it, I was informed by the guard that I'd been given in fact a 3 in 7 Rover! Not good at all... I'd neglected to print off the list of buses I could use and a map of the rail lines covered, so at Swansea I popped into their Travel Centre and got my 'pack', with map, vouchers and the all-important list of bus companies participating. This was to become very useful. The assistant was bemused by the 3 in 7 bit, as these don't really exist, but couldn't exchange my ticket for a proper one - I would have had to buy another Rover and try to get my money back at Brighton. But as I'd already used a day's worth (the guard had kindly filled in the first box - of four! - for me!) I decided to risk it and maybe forget to cross off one or two of the days. My first encounter with a bus was my trip to the Gower. The driver scratched his chin insisted they didn't take them and I had to stump up £4 for a Gower Explorer day ticket! That bus company was on the list, and after that experience I underlined the bus companies I was attempting to get journeys out of in the pack brochure and stuck it under their noses! Granted, it got easier the further west I travelled, but it was embarrassing to be viewed with suspicion every time I wanted to make a bus journey. I put it down to the design of the pass. First, it's flimsy for something that will be in constant use for 8 days, plus it says Rail Rover in big letters at the top - nothing about buses! On my travels I spotted loads of posters on stations for the 'Freedom' pass, but nobody had informed the bus drivers about it! Why not a more substantial pas, with Rail and Bus Rover in big letters and a list of the bus companies covered on the back. But maybe that's what they should look like and Brighton sold me a dud! Next time, I'll wait to buy my Rover in the area I'll be needing it in - or online if they'll let me - like last year's Scottish Rover. PS. And why can't they print the Rovers on card that you can actually write on without it smudging?


Top 5 Isle of Wight attractions

Shanklin cliff lift
Originally uploaded by fred pipes
The Isle of Wight is a bus pass paradise. Almost all the bus routes radiate out from Newport, in the middle of the island, and all buses go to the seaside. Get yourself a Southern Vectis timetable and the isle is your oyster! It also includes useful town centre maps. There are one or two complications however: some routes, such as the 7 to Alum Bay, go three different ways (why not call them 7a, 7b and 7c I wonder?) so check the small print. Another swizz is that some destinations, such as the Needles Batteries and Shanklin Esplanade, are only accessible by Breezer buses, and they cost a tenner for a day ticket (but you do get an open-top ride and an informative running commentary). We were staying in a lovely thatched cottage in Carisbrooke (on all the 7 route variants), close to Newport, so were ideally placed to explore the island. Here are my top five attractions.

1 Isle of Wight steam railway
The steam railway is a fragment of what was once an extensive rail network, now mostly cycle paths. It goes from nowhere (Smallbrook Junction, where it meets the Island Line, the official railway from Ryde Pier to Shanklin which uses old London tube trains, but no other way off the platform) to the middle of nowhere (near Wootton, but thankfully near a 9 bus stop). The main station, Havenstreet, is where the shop, shed, cafe and museum is. The locos are mainly industrial Hunslet saddle tanks, thought they have a couple of Terriers and there's a strange 'O2' Class 0-4-4T No W24 Calbourne being restored and almost ready for action. There's also a workshop where some amazing carpentry is going on.

2 Needles Old Battery
Every visitor to the Isle wants to see the Needles, and the best place is from the Old Battery, right at the western tip of the island. The bus only goes to Alum Bay, so it's either a long walk along the cliff top or a hair-raising ride on the Breezer. Cars can only go as far as the £4 Alum Bay car park. It costs to go in, but the view from the searchlight tunnel is well worth it. And there are explanatory cartoons everywhere by Eagle and Lion artist Geoff Campion. The New Battery (closed on Mondays) is further up the hill and is where secret rocket tests were held.

3 Cowes chain ferry
I love ferries, and this one is similar to the chain one at Poole Harbour. It also reminded me of the ferry between North Shields and South Shields. I went from East Cowes to Cowes (there is no West Cowes!) and it's free for pedestrians and cyclists. Unfortunately, unlike Poole, you can't get the bus over it! There is nothing to see at East Cowes (except Osborne House) and Cowes reminded me a bit of Falmouth or Hastings old town, with its pedestrianised high street, running parallel to the sea. Couldn't find a pub with a sea view!

4 Carisbrooke Castle
This is one big castle, bang in the middle of the island. Our cottage was at the bottom of the hill, by a ford, and used to be a tea rooms catering to the tourists who arrived by train. There is no station now, so most people arrive by coach (no bus goes up the hill!). It houses a museum, with cases on local legends Robert Hooke (born in Freshwater), Tennyson and the pioneer seismologist John Milne. The biggest claim to fame is that it was prison to Charles I and his two youngest kids. It also has a donkey-powered treadmill well.

5 Shanklin cliff lift
This took some finding. When I first went to Shanklin I had no idea where to find the sea! So I headed for tourist information and got some directions to the Lift. It's not signposted or easy to find, though it's visible from Sandown! The Victorian lift, build 1891, must have been a great thrill to travel in, with its windows and huge drop, but the 1960s version is just a concrete tower with a bog-standard office block lift built in. The original cost 1d down; 2d up - the modern one was a pound return. The esplanade down below - and pubs such as the Steamer inn - isn't accessible by regular bus, but a Breezer does go there. Another way down is via Shanklin Chine, lit up at night.

Steephill Cove

Other attractions include:
Steephill Cove, and crab sandwiches
Brading Roman Villa, with its mosaic of a chicken-headed man
Osborne House, home of Victoria and Albert
Model village at Godshill
Alum Bay chair lift
Boat trip around the Needles from Yarmouth

Other visits to the Isle of Wight:
April 2009
April 2008

Other blogs:
Roundhill Rob was another holidaymaker staying at our cottage
The Lost Promenade visited Shanklin and Sandown

More photos on Flickr.