Travel: Simon Calder Column

The Thomas Cook timetable suggests it is easier to travel to Poland than Scrabster
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The Independent Culture
"IT WOULD APPEAR THAT the only reliable method of transport will be to go by car. Mr Prescott, please note." That is the conclusion of Stanley Pawson of Norwich, who has just returned from a trip to the north of Scotland. Scrabster, to be precise, although from the reception he got when he asked bus companies about it, the destination could just as easily have been Szczecin.

"The local bus advisory service was initially very helpful, but when I went to make a firm booking with National Express they didn't want to know and referred me to Going Places." The travel agency could offer only a Jetlink bus from Norwich to one of London's airports, which would involve travelling in the wrong direction.

Next, Mr Pawson called in at a local bus firm that acts as agents for National Express, but the company couldn't give any information on services outside England. "I then rang Eastern Counties, another agent for National Express, who said the same thing and gave me the National Express phone number. Amazingly they, too, were unable to give me details of routes outside England, and referred me to their Glasgow office.

"Is the Scottish Tourist Board aware of the totally uncoordinated muddle that exists here, and how it must frustrate their potential tourist trade?"

While Mr Pawson was away, I did some more research on his original plan to travel by bus, and concluded that he was asking the right questions in the wrong place. Five minutes before closing time, I walked into the new Britain Travel Centre at 1, Regent Street in central London, and said I had a friend coming over from Australia who was determined to travel Norwich to Scrabster. The two staff on the front desk immediately swung into action, checking schedules and photocopying the relevant pages. Short of going out and chartering a special coach for the journey, they could not have been more helpful.

Because Mr Pawson was asking the questions in Norwich, though, he abandoned his line of bus enquiries and settled for the train. The outbound journey was excellent, covering the 700 miles in a respectable 14 hours.

Coming home, it took nearly twice as long - not, as you might have thought, because of operational difficulties in the Railtrack area, but because there were some rather well-padded connections. The most generous connecting time of all was a little over five hours at Newcastle. In the middle of the night.

Mr Pawson and his companion were prepared for the wait, however, and were happy to doze for a few hours in the station waiting-room before the pre-dawn train. But as soon as their train drew in from Scotland, they were ushered out of the station into a cold Tyneside night. Newcastle station, one of the busiest in Britain, shuts down at night.

This week The Independent launched a quest to find Britain's worst station; Mr Pawson wishes to nominate Newcastle. "There is a waiting-room , but only for first-class ticket holders and anyway its opening hours are restricted. We weren't even given the chance to leave our luggage in the station," says Mr Pawson. Not being inclined to trail around the city with their bags looking for somewhere to stay, they instead found an all-night cafe where they were treated to hot tea, warm company and Turkish satellite television.

The Thomas Cook European Timetable suggests that it is actually quicker to travel by train from Szczecin, in western Poland, to Norwich than it is to get from Scrabster to Norfolk's fine city.

THE BIG, BRIGHT, BRITISH Travel Centre is, on first encounter, a huge improvement on the dowdy old place across the road. But the British Tourist Authority will have to do something about the exterior of the handsome Portland stone building.

It was built by the government of Canada's western most province as its presence in the heart of the Empire, and still bears the legend "British Columbia House".

MY COLLEAGUE Rhiannon Batten, who writes this week on Varanasi, confirms that Copenhagen has the finest bus drivers in the world. On her way out to India, she took advantage of a mandatory stopover in the Danish capital to see something of the city.

"When I got off the bus from the airport, I asked if there was much of a rush-hour in Copenhagen, because I didn't want to miss the flight to Delhi. The driver said I shouldn't worry about traffic, and added that if I were to turn up at 6.15pm he would be driving the bus and would be delighted to give me a ride back to the airport."