Newest Review: ... for the first half, growing more mundane as we approached London. The coach was clean and comfortable, and the staff efficient and fr... more
A Berry Good Coach Service
Member Name: Nibelung
Advantages: Excellent service between West Country and London. Cheaper (and quicker) than National Express
Disadvantages: Still gets stuck in traffic.
Just recently some close friends of ours have rented out their Ealing flat and moved to their main house in a village called Nether Stowey, near Bridgwater in Somerset.
No don't worry, this isn't going to be one on my 'when will he get to the point?' diatribes - I'm just positioning why I now have a yen to go there.
For some months before they made the move and before my friend Ian could officially retire, he'd been making a weekend round trip to 'Stowey' as he called it, mostly by coach directly after work from London to Bridgwater.
I think most people who'd never made a long-distance coach trip before, and I'm not talking coach tours here, would immediately assume that National Express is the one to beat and probably look no further on the assumption that there'd be no point in doing so.
It helps that my pal Ian is a 'bit of a bus expert', the 'bit' bit being a slight understatement, 'nerd' being more accurate.
What I'm about to write is partly a recommendation for a specific company, and partly a recommendation to you not to assume that National Express are the only ones in the game.
FOR BERRY'S KUMZ UP FROM ZUMMERZET
It stands to reason that many provincial 'small operators' have a return service to London, if only to serve the 'treat yourself to a weekend in the bright lights' market, especially if Take That have reformed.
It therefore follows that they have buses leaving London, possibly largely empty on a Friday night, and this is where Berry's Coaches of Taunton come into my particular equation.
Berry's offer two routes linking London with the West Country; one via the M4 corridor with a first stop of Bridgwater, and the other, a slightly more circuitous one using the M3/A303 via such places as Ilminster and Yeovil before regrouping at Taunton. The former then goes onto Tiverton in Devon.
Equally importantly for me, they start at Bay D in Hammersmith Bus Station which saves me either the longer haul into Victoria just to come back out of London again, or the suffering of the doubtful 'delights' of Heathrow Bus station in the rush-hour, as N-EX do.
At first, I had to re-read their schedule. Hammersmith to Bridgwater non-stop in 2 hours 40 minutes? This is a far cry from N-Ex's Westward Ho! via Bridgwater Service which not only dawdles off the M4 to pick up in Reading but also waits 30 minutes for a crew change and 'comfort break' at the M4's Membury services*. It's easy to see why N-EX take at least 90 minutes longer to reach Bridgwater on their way to the only place in the British Isles to have an exclamation mark in its name. - and all for more money!
(*It's about time that coach companies ferried people into town centres on a shuttle, leaving express coaches to pull into motorway services solely, just as you might get a bus to and from the local train station - all this diverting into town centres can only devalue the use of the word 'express'.)
FARES STRUCTURE - AND YOU CAN'T SAY 'FARER' THAN THAT
Anyone used to the walk-on fare at train stations will take a deep intake of breath when they see coach fares in general.
I took a particularly deep intake when I looked at Berry's prices - of course I have now reached a 'certain age' which makes all kinds of travel cheaper for me, from completely free in London, and thanks to various cards, cheaper elsewhere too.
Berry's also have senior concession rates (although I like to take them to task over the labelling of my ticket 'OAP'. You're a bit 'previous' guys!)
Adult fares are £16 single, £17 for a day return and £22 for a period return. Under 16s get charged half of these rates. Seniors get a concession rate for these 3 categories of £14, £15 and £18 respectively, although further discounts apply - *see below.
Generally speaking, the senior's discount reduces the standard adult return fare from £22 (already a steal compared to rail) down to £18. *Canny oldies, i.e. most of us, also avoid travelling on a Friday or Bank Holidays and then we get to travel for half fare, as do children under 16. The 16-25s are also taken care of if they purchase a Student Card for £5 p.a. as this then qualifies them for the 'ordinary' senior discounts.
The first time I used them about 6 weeks ago, I travelled on a Friday down to Bridgwater and so was charged £18, whereas on this last occasion I left on a Wednesday, and bingo, down went the fare to £11 return. To be honest, I don't suppose I could get to Swindon and back from west London in my car for that money these days - and someone else gets to do the driving.
Just about the only surcharge is for the use of a 'premium seat'. In the case of their double-deckers, these tend to be those seats situated around a table downstairs, or the front row seats upstairs. Even then, the so-called premium is hardly likely to break the bank at £1 per person per direction.
On my first trip, I looked around the coach the second it closed its doors at Hammersmith (and on the stroke of 3.00 exactly I might add), and moved to the front seat. No-one batted an eyelid, let alone charged me anything. I think all the upstairs passengers had a similar idea, it being so 'slack'. This allowed for everyone to bag a 'windy seat' and make sure that no-one was behind them so that the full recline of the seat could be taken advantage of. Mind you, this was only 3 p.m. on a Friday. I don't suppose later departures are so relaxed. They certainly aren't on a Sunday evening on the way back, the Tiverton and Taunton passengers having already taken up any 'plum seats' which weren't booked by the time the bus pulls into Bridgwater.
Exceptionally, on my most recent journey down, there were only a few spare seats, on account of a Take That concert the previous night, and so I found myself surrounded by 30-something females all nursing iPads and headaches of various origins! I did however move right up front again but had the pay the £1 this time!
Yes, the buses have an on-board lavatory compartment, hence the lack of need to pull into Membury services for a 'pit stop' - pit I said, watch my lips.
The on-board courier also purveys snacks and hot and cold drinks to your seat at reasonable prices.
All seats now have a lap belt to comply with the law, and front row seats have the full 'lap and diagonal' versions, which I found a bit constricting and even hard to pull out far enough in the first place. However, this is a small price to pay for being able to watch Berkshire, Wiltshire and West Country scenery glide past at what seems a graceful rate from 12 feet off the ground. Use of my mobile's sat-nav confirmed to me that the driver did in fact have his 'pedal to the metal' most of the time, obviously going by his own speedometer set to 65 mph, whereas the sat-nav told of speeds about 2 mph lower. Since they are permitted to go faster than trucks, they get to do a lot of overtaking. These drivers are so skilled at this manoeuvre that they rarely slow down at all, starting their pull-out from about a quarter of a mile back. On my first trip I was aware of braking on the motorway about once.
Of course, this is how they maintain their 2 hours 40 minute timing to Bridgwater, but of course, it all falls apart when good old 'sheer weight of traffic' rears its ugly head. There again, you'd be fuming in the same jam in your car!
By the way, if you're very tall, not just 6'1" like me, you might want to give the front seats a miss, as there's nowhere under which to slide your feet.
The coach is declared a 'quiet area' from the get-go, and in my experience most people honour this, sticking to texting rather than phone conversations. What a pleasant change from trains where even 'quiet carriages' are violated by just about anyone who wants to.
Being mostly on a motorway, mobile reception s 100% from what I could see, and keeping friends appraised of my ETA was not a problem.
There are overhead luggage racks, but you need 'flexible' bags such as rucksacks to use it. An airplane overhead locker it isn't! Luckily, there's a generous boot in these busses accessed over both of the rear axles. Drivers put it there and retrieve it for you, so just stand back and let them get on with it.
Quite apart from the courier recognising you from last time, which after only two trips makes you more likely to never book N-EX again, but they look after their passengers.
Having spotted that they only had one lady passenger travelling all the way to Tiverton, they booked her a taxi from Taunton to their door. Thereby everyone's happy.
Berry's save a shed load of diesel, their staff get an early night and a happy customer gets all the way home without the hassle of getting from the bus station to their house
You can contact Berry's on 01823 331356, or use their on-line booking service at www.berryscoaches.co.uk. This uses a standard secure server for your payments and shows you the seat layout of their double-deckers. All you then do is turn up at the bus station with your confirmation e-mail which counts as your ticket. If available, you can also turn up on the day and buy your ticket on the bus.
PROS AND CONS
Say what you like about trains, they don't tend to get caught in traffic jams, so even if you have had to stand all the way from Bristol to Paddington in a 5-car train that should have been 8, it tends to get there.
Not so with coaches. These get stuck in the same jams as do car drivers. For example, on my last Sunday return it took 45 minutes longer than scheduled to get home, merely because the stretch from Slough to Hammersmith took over an hour to complete, despite only being about 18 miles.
Obviously, National Express spread their net somewhat wider, but with a 'bargain fare' of £26.50, they'd have to do a lot to persuade me not to use Berry's for this particular journey unless I really wanted to make the journey last as long as possible!
Clearly, a small operator can't offer much of a frequency, and Berry's are no exception. Two departures each way per route, per day is all they can manage normally, with more services of Fridays.
I would however urge users of coaches, not to assume that National Express are the only players. I think now, as a rule, I'd look for operators in the area of my destination not just in my own locality. It certainly pays dividends in my case.
Summary: Taunton-based coach compony offering Express Coaches to and from London