2 APRIL 2005, Page 27

One for the road

Neil Clark

For Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the trek to the South Pole was ‘the worst journey in the world’. If Captain Scott’s associate had ever travelled on a Eurolines coach from London to Budapest, he might well have had second thoughts. Attracted by the £96 return fare at a time when money was tight and budget air travel to Hungary was still four years into the future, my Hungarian wife and I decided to give the 60-hour round trip a go. The first five hours — A2, M2 and cross-channel ferry from Dover to Calais — weren’t too bad, especially as I was able to pick up the BBC’s coverage of Ascot on my pocket television until the first service station in Artois. But it wasn’t too long after that that ennui began to set in. Ghent is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities in Flanders, but when you pass it at 8.30 at night on an empty stomach, feeling stiff, jaded and nauseous, its attractions are somewhat muted. Attempts to sleep as the coach sped through the German night proved fruitless. Kraftwerk may have sung of the ‘fun, fun, fun on the autobahn’, but the pioneers of electronic pop didn’t have to sit for nine hours behind a pair of goons who were strangers to the concepts of silence and personal hygiene.

It wouldn’t have been so bad had the journey ended first thing the following morning: but on awakening after approximately 40 minutes of truncated sleep at a service station near Linz, we had the depressing realisation that we still had most of Austria and the whole of western Hungary to cover. Tired, irritable and thoroughly dishevelled, we finally arrived at Budapest’s central coach station at 4 o’clock on Sunday afternoon. ‘Szarul neztek ki!’ was the verdict of the Hungarian friend who met us — roughly translated: ‘you look like shit’. (The Magyars are nothing if not frank.) At least we survived to tell our tale. Some are not so lucky. Despite our earnest exhortations our friend Csaba insisted on taking the coach back home to Hungary for Christmas and returning by the same method in the New Year. A few days after his arrival back in England he was found dead in his bed — cause of death: coronary thrombosis. Being a 30-a-day man and chronically overweight wouldn’t have aided his cause but neither, in the assistant coroner’s view, did 30 hours sitting down on a long-distance coach.

After our Eurolines experience it took my wife and me a further four years before we dared to contemplate long-distance coach travel again. But last March, effectively grounded with our passports unavailable because of my wife’s application for British citizenship, a friend suggested we go on a coach tour to Scotland. Seven days, half board, to the Victorian Highland resort of Strathpeffer, all for £169 per person. We had our doubts, but with the sort of rush of blood to the head one gets every three or four years, we rang up the Shearings booking hotline. The holiday proved to be one of the most enjoyable of our lives. A Shearings half-board coach holiday with regular ‘comfort’ stops en route and overnight stays in three-star hotels has, I’m pleased to report, as much in common with a Eurolines trek across Europe as Isambard Kingdom Brunel has with Bob the Builder. For a start, there’s the average age of the passengers. My wife and I were one of only two couples under 40 on our coach. The advantage of holidaying with predominantly elderly people is the leisurely pace.

Unlike Eurolines, there is no shortage of stops for caffeine and oxygen replenishment, and proper hour-long lunch breaks too. The old Irish adage ‘when God made time, he made plenty of it’ seems to have been forgotten in our madcap money-chasing world — but not on a Shearings’ coach holiday. Our first overnight stay was at a hotel near Leeds, and early next morning, after a fill-your-boots breakfast and nine hours of uninterrupted sleep, we were ready for the delights of the Great North Road. Our coach driver, Danny, was a mine of useful information. He was particularly clued up on the Angel of the North, the Metro Shopping Centre and the tribulations of the Young Pretender but, unlike the tour guide named ‘Lucky’ we once had on a trip to Sri Lanka, Danny did not feel obliged to tell us his entire life story.

After a delicious lunch of steak and kidney pie, boiled potatoes and cabbage at Perth, we arrived at the Highland Hotel in Strathpeffer at around 5 p.m. So fresh did we feel after our eight hours or so on the road, we even felt up to a walk round the village after supper.

The next two days were spent exploring the Highlands on our coach. Included in the price was a full-day excursion through Easter Ross, around Dornoch Firth, past Shin Falls and on to Ullapool, plus a halfday trip to Inverness. We also paid £11 to go on the optional trip along ‘The Road to the Isles’, which took in the Kyle of Lochalsh, the ruins of Eilean Donan Castle, Loch Ness and some of the most spectacular mountain scenery we’d seen in our lives. The week was so well organised that even after going on all available excur sions, there was still time for a free afternoon, which we spent walking in the hills and forests around Strathpeffer, before returning home to our neeps and tatties.

In their brochures Shearings make much of the evening entertainment they provide on their holidays. Some of it (in particular the Scottish dancing) might have been an acquired taste but with comedians, singers, and a ventriloquist, not to mention the bingo and quizzes, you’d have to be a real sourpuss not to have found at least one part of the nightly programme to your liking.

Coach holidays are good for building esprit de corps, but with no fixed time for meal sittings, you’ve always got the option of avoiding your allotted table partners if you’ve been saddled with Mr and Mrs Borefor-England. Fortunately we weren’t, and enjoyed our nightly putting-the-world-torights session with Tony and Joan. Luckily, the sole member of our party who had never been introduced to Lifebuoy and water was more than three tables away.

On Good Friday, it was time to begin our long journey back home. But Shearings like to bring you down to earth gently. Quite the best hotel we stayed in was on our final night — the Shap Wells in the Lake District, the former home of the Earl of Lonsdale. A stay in this luxurious and beautifully situated pleasure dome cushioned the blow that our holiday was nearing its end. The following day, at Exhall Interchange, it was time to say our goodbyes. A very sweet couple from Kent, with whom we had breakfasted on our first morning and got on well with throughout the week, slipped us a little package exhorting us not to open it until we got home.

It was a small Bible, lovingly inscribed and thanking us for our company on the trip. The grey-haired Mrs Bridges lookalike and the sprightly octogenarian from Norwich who had been inseparable for much of the holiday, bid their tearful goodbyes. It may have been a Coventry coach station in 2004, and not Carnforth in 1945, but it was a scene that would have done Celia and Trevor proud.

Since taking our holiday, it really does seem that the coach tour — the mainstay of millions of Britons until General Franco decided he could do with a bit of extra foreign currency — is undergoing something of a renaissance. Channel 4’s The Coach Trip — a sort of Big Brother on wheels in which holidaymakers travel around Europe by coach until they are ‘red-carded’ by their fellow passengers, is gaining in popularity by the week. More and more people are beginning to realise that if value for money is the criterion, there really is no holiday that compares with a charabancing one.