Book review: Riding Route 94, by David McKie

Edinburgh Bus Station PIC: Phil Wilkinson
Edinburgh Bus Station PIC: Phil Wilkinson
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I love the idea of random journeys. Many of our daily trips are commutes made monotonous by their over-familiarity, while longer forays, such as to visit family or reach a favourite holiday destination, also often involve habitual routes. To break the mould, you could search a map for an intriguing-looking road to follow or change your route on the spur of the moment. However, David McKie has taken random travel to an entirely different level, deciding to tour Britain by going only where he can hop on a 94 bus.

He chose that number so there were neither too many nor too few routes to follow, and because of its “minor allure” in occurring regularly in Private Eye. But despite detailed planning, including incorporating buses with local prefixes like 794 to ensure a geographical spread, McKie found himself forced to change his plans because of service cutbacks, even after embarking on his odyssey – a vivid illustration of the parlous state of the industry.

What we get are 23 trips, some of them taking in familiar places like Birmingham, Leicester and Bath, while others will have you reaching for an atlas, like the Brigg-Hibaldstow-Gainsthorpe trip, which turns out to be in Lincolnshire.

Despite its intriguing premise, I started to wonder about the purpose of the book. McKie declared at the outset that it was not about buses, but where they took you. He also explained that it was neither a “state of the nation” book nor a travelogue, but featured places “that would never have found a place in a carefully chosen itinerary”.

However, the lack of any photographs of the many less familiar locations is a pity, and the description of each journey is disappointingly brief – despite their novelty – and just a few pages in places. Space given to first-hand descriptions of what the author saw and experienced is often overshadowed by the inclusion of background information gleaned from other sources, such as the Guardian, of which McKie was a former deputy editor. In a chapter about the 94 from Maryhill to Knightswood in Glasgow, for example, there is rather too much about the city’s housing policy.

McKie also travels on another Scottish 94, from St Andrews to Newburgh, with a detour on the 94A on the trail of Dr Finlay to Auchtermuchty, and then, in his third and most northerly foray, reaches Mull. Here, the author establishes a rapport with the driver of the 494 from Tobermory to Calgary, which helps convey much more of a vivid sense of place – the tortuous single track roads, rural depopulation and the idiosyncrasies of tourists.

*Riding Route 94 – An Accidental Journey Through The Story Of Britain, by David McKie, Pimpernel Press, £9.99