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28 August 2013updated 07 Sep 2021 11:32am

Carry on up the M21

By Holly Baxter

It’s no understatement that coach travel has been the bane of my otherwise plain-sailing twentysomething life. Hailing from Newcastle and living in London, I find that it’s both an alluringly cheap and experientially horrific way of travelling from Hoxton hipsters to Geordies in a “mere” eight and a half hours. I’ve been drawn in so often by the National Express website’s promises of £5 rides from London Pride to Newcastle Brown Ale that I even went to Belgium on a coach a couple of months ago. In case you’re wondering, that trip had its horrific moments, too – but I’d do it again in an instant.
Nothing makes you question the nature of your inner life more than eight hours on a glorified bus with seat belts. The terror sets in the day before: am I interesting enough to sustain myself intellectually for almost an entire waking day, squeezed (in all likelihood) between a screaming child and an impossibly fat man, with only my iPod to separate myself from them socially? Will they attempt to speak to me? Will I feel compelled by British politeness to reply and so end up in a long conversation about the nuances of my upbringing somewhere along the M21? Will I cry?
The coach is an increasingly niche form of transport: the most recent reports by the Office for National Statistics found that many passengers are – for want of a better cliché – jumping ship. Trains are becoming the preferred method of public transport for those who previously hopped on the coach, although most of those who work choose to drive. If you’re travelling by coach these days, you’re most likely to be either very young or very old – between 17 and 20 or well into your retirement. This may be because these demographics have the least money (or, indeed, sense) at their disposal; but I prefer to see it as symptomatic of the undying optimism of kindly grandmothers and “the youth”.
Trains are and have always been segregated by class: Geordie legend has it that when Queen Victoria passed by Newcastle on the rail network, she requested that all the firstclass blinds be closed lest she catch a glimpse of the filthy waters of the Tyne and its filthier residents dwelling above. There is no class system on a National Express coach. Hurtling along the motorway, everyone has to follow the same treacherous choreography to visit the toilet.
If that’s not enough to tempt you into a slippery pleather seat, then consider that coaches are six times less polluting than an aircraft, four times cleaner than a car and twice as environmentally friendly as a train. They are also seven times safer than driving your own car and if you get through the journey from the south to the north of England in one piece and in the company of one other person, the trauma (and the subsequent “funny story”) will cement your relationship for life.
That’s without even factoring in what can happen if you carry on to Scotland.

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