Get your kicks... on the M25
Coach tour firms are battling it out to turn London's orbital motorway into the British version of Route 66. But with highlights like the queue for the Dartford tunnel and Clacket Lane Services, are they round the bend?
Simon Calder is Travel Editor at Large for The Independent, writing a weekly column, various articles and features as well as filming a weekly video diary. Every Sunday afternoon, Simon presents the UK's only radio travel phone-in programme called The LBC Travel Show with Simon Calder (97.3 FM). He is a regular guest on national TV, often seen on BBC Breakfast, Daybreak, ITV News and Sky News. He is often interviewed on BBC Radio, particularly for BBC Radio 4’s You & Yours programme and BBC Five Live.
Friday 23 December 2011
Britain's least-loved road has become the unlikely battlefield for a coach-trip war, as rival bus companies vie to run the first sightseeing trips around the M25. Premium Tours, a London firm that runs upmarket day trips for overseas visitors, has been planning a pilot circumnavigation of London's orbital motorway for some months in a bid to turn it into "Britain's Route 66". But it has been upstaged by Brighton & Hove Buses, which has just launched a tour described as a "flight of fancy" around a ring road more usually associated with gridlock and misery.
Brighton & Hove Buses' maiden voyage, price £15, is scheduled for 11 October. It departs from Worthing and picks up at Hove and Brighton before heading north on the A23 and M23 to join the M25 at the Merstham Interchange.
The operator is being cagey about the details of the trip, beyond promising a commentary "covering interesting facts about the motorway's evolution" and at stopping at least once at a service station. The climax of the trip involves passengers being invited to guess the distance the bus will travel around the M25. (Perhaps anticipating that some may go with Wikipedia estimation of 117 miles, the bus company warns "In the event of a tie the winner will be drawn from a hat".) Yesterday, Premium Tours responded robustly, saying it would bring forward its plans in order to upstage the municipal rival. Managing director, Neil Wootton, warned Brighton & Hove Buses it was "on the road to Hell". He is rushing out a series of circuits to coincide with the Olympics – when normal tours of London are suspended because of fears of disruption and low demand.
"We welcome competition from our friends in Brighton – it's the Olympics, after all. But don't be surprised if some of our coaches are creating traffic problems ahead of their buses, or blockading the M23. They won't be able to match our standards of comfort, nor our plan for an 'Alternative Marathon'." This is understood to involve taking a vintage Routemaster bus around the M25 on 5 August, the day of the Olympic women's marathon.
Premium Tours' slogan is "Forget Route 66, join us on a Premium Tour of the world's greatest road: the M25", which may raise an eyebrow among road-trip aficionados. The company is planning to include highlights just off the motorway, such as Waltham Abbey, Wisley Gardens and Terminal 5 at Heathrow airport.
In contrast, Brighton & Hove Buses is concentrating on the scenery. Roger French, the company's boss, praised the M25's "iconic" status, and said: "As you go around past Clacket Lane Services, you get some lovely views from our coach that you just don't see from a car."
Mr French said the trip is already proving so popular that he expects to bring forward the launch date, potentially thwarting Mr Wootton's hurriedly revised plans. "It's selling well to our main market, women in their 60s, but we're also seeing a lot of interest from 'geeky' males," he said.
Motorists accustomed to severe congestion on the M25 will be horrified at the prospect of frivolous traffic, particularly if the coaches slow down to afford everyone a good view of, say, the Lakeside Shopping Centre in Essex. Professor Edmund King, president of the AA, spent 90 minutes on the M25 on his way to Basingstoke yesterday, and later said: "I'm not sure regular M25ers will welcome the addition of coach loads of tourists gawping at their misfortune."
And he sought to dampen demand by playing down the attractions, saying: "The highlight is waiting in queues at the Dartford Crossing, or perhaps having a Welcome Break at South Mimms."
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