Three things softened the blow of turning sixty: the winter fuel payment, the bus pass and the free swimming. The free swimming soon went and surely the bus pass is next. This added urgency to my plan to hit the road with the bus pass and see how far I could get. The idea, as the sun came out in June, was to take a day as an experiment and see if there was any hope of it working as a full-on holiday.
The prospect was scary. The only bus I take with any regularity is the E1 to and from Eastleigh and if that’s anything to go by, the risks are manifold. For a start, there’s also an E2, which has the same starting and ending points but takes a completely different route in between. Apart from that, it tends to arrive very late, very early or not at all. Any of these would threaten the route obligingly provided by a website called Traveline, which plans bus journeys. I decided to try and reach Gloucester, where I grew up.
The start could hardly have been worse. The E1 took me to Winchester bus station, where I was due to wait half an hour and then take the X24 (what is it with these letters?) to Andover. “You’ll have to get yourself up to Peter Symonds,” said the lugubrious lady in Winchester’s uniquely sordid bus garage. This would have meant absolutely nothing to anyone not local, but I knew what it meant and the news was not good.
Peter Symonds is the local sixth form college and it lies a good mile (uphill) from the bus station. I knew there were road works in the area but not that the buses made no attempt to divert round them but simply ground to a halt there. The humiliation of not even getting past the first hurdle would have been too much to bear, so I set off to jog, on the hottest day of the year, in search of the X24. As I was suffering from plantar fasciitis (don’t ask, it’s an extremely painful foot), this was inadvisable but what other option was there? A taxi would certainly have been cheating.
As the Peter Symonds complex has three different entrances fronting on to three streets, I positioned myself where I could see all of them. Like a mirage, the X24 appeared and drew up at a stop labelled 77. Of course, I should have known. I ran the hundred yards to the bus and breathlessly explained to the driver, “I have walked all the way from the bus station”.
“Why?” he asked. “We go to the train station anyway.” As this would have been a much shorter walk, I was not pleased.
“They didn’t tell me that.”
“I know, we keep telling them. Hopeless, aren’t they?”
At this stage, therefore, I was actually going backwards, heading back into town the way I had just walked. But at least I was on the road, positioned in the spot I love: upstairs front seat on an unsurprisingly otherwise empty double decker.
In Andover, there was a stand for bus 80, as designated on Traveline, but it ominously said it went only to Marlborough, “with connection via route 70 to Swindon”. Hmm, connection. With things being so haphazard, “connection” was actually quite a loose concept. But no fear, a large sign (albeit with several letters missing) pointed to a “Bus Information Kiosk”. This turned out to be a Shopmobility depot, where a kind lady told me, “There hasn’t been a Bus Info Kiosk here for years. You could try asking one of the drivers, but I wouldn’t count on anything they say.”
One thing that had not crossed my mind for a second was the matter of toilets, and the fact that buses don’t have them. For a middle-aged gentleman with incipient prostate issues, this was going to be a problem. Andover bus station Gents was inevitably “closed for refurbishment”, so I followed an instruction to seek out “alternative facilities in the shopping centre next to Argos”. This at least was open but the hand dryer wasn’t working. Of course you never discover this until your hands are wet, leaving you the option of trying porous loo paper which gets stuck to your hands, or walking around flapping like a seal. I opted for the latter, but otherwise felt quite at home in the shopping centre, as it was identical to Eastleigh’s, right down to all the same shops in the same order.
The number 80 arrived in plenty of time, but the driver locked up and disappeared, only returning some ten minutes after it was due to depart. How so? Of course, he, too, had had to walk all the way to Argos for a pee and had had to flap his way round the shopping mall. He was a really nice chap.
“Are you going to Swindon?” I asked. “It says something about changing in Marlborough to the number 70.”
“Oh no,” he explained. “It’s the same bus, I just change the number.” This one had double legroom in the front upstairs seat; it felt like an airline upgrade.
The route took us round the periphery of ugly and desperate army barracks, along a road called, ghoulishly, “Somme Road”. A couple of army wives with pushchairs got on and off. The nightmarish vision of Tidworth gave way to Salisbury Plain, a beautiful landscape cruelly scarred by tank tracks.
The 80 / 70 delighted by disappearing down single-track country lanes to picture postcard villages where no one got on or off. My crow’s nest afforded me a bird’s eye view of Savernake Forest, thatched roofs, perfect cottage gardens, idyllic pubs and tiny shops. This only got better as an increase in horse boxes signalled the proximity of Marlborough, so it was an unpleasant shock when we suddenly crossed the frantically noisy M4 and headed into the awful reality of Swindon.
Full marks, though, to the bus station, where the number 51 to Cirencester was purring in the adjacent bay, ready to leave. This was almost Swiss efficiency. It was only a single decker but it had the novelty of actually having passengers. I was relieved to have a couple of seconds to stretch my legs, as another unthought-of matter had arisen: that of discomfort. The trip from Andover had lasted one hour and fifty-one minutes, pretty much the maximum you could take in one go.
The naughty 51 departed a full three minutes ahead of schedule, so it was a good thing the 80 / 70 had been punctual in arriving. The 51 soon made amends by diverting into glorious places like South Cerney and the frankly bizarre up-market holiday camp that is the Cotswold Water Park.
There wasn’t much chance to explore the Roman city of Cirencester because the next bus arrived immediately. Rather excitingly, it was a “Cotswold Green” (all the others, apart from the E1, had been prosaic Stagecoaches). This bus (the 54A, fact fans) was the ultimate proof that you can use your bus pass as a tourist and get your touring holiday for free. Far from hugging the A419 as expected, it diverted via the narrowest of lanes into the sweetest Cotswold villages with names like Sapperton and Frampton Mansell. Excitement was caused every time we rounded a bend to confront terrified car drivers coming the other way, all of whom dutifully reversed when faced by a vehicle far too huge for such roads. A minibus – or even a Smart car, actually – would have sufficed for me (surely the randomest passenger they’d ever had) and my sole fellow traveller, a nice African lady who’d been visiting friends in Cirencester. We tumbled down the Alpine hairpins and into the Stroudwater Valley, where the old woollen mills are now scruffy factories manufacturing all manner of odd items.
Stroud, very near to where I grew up, is now an “alternative” town in the manner of Glastonbury, ideal for a spot of people watching. I managed to get the final bus of the day, the 93 to Gloucester, which had a hard time puffing up the 1 in 6 gradient to Whiteshill. Arriving in a filthy bus station in a classically misjudged 70s city centre destruction zone was a major comedown, but it fitted with the obvious conclusion of the day. Service buses aren’t designed to get you from source to destination, like trains are. Imagine if you had to do some business and had to take a whole day to get there and another to get back? What the buses do, however, achieve is to offer a transport lifeline to all the little places between A and B, which was very convenient for a tourist like me, enjoying the landscape and smelling the culture, all for the price of … zilch. To prove the point, and with renewed confidence, I took the opportunity, on the return journey the next day, to stop off and explore beautiful places like Painswick, Cirencester and Stockbridge. As luck would have it, several of the return buses took completely different routes. Cotswold Green number 28 wound its way through the most perfect limestone Cotswold villages, Rodborough, Minchinhampton and Box. Then, the 79 from Andover to Stockbridge (incidentally the only bus of a sensible size for the type of road and number of passengers it was carrying) took in the most glorious villages of Hampshire, the Clatfords, Wherwell and Chilbolton. Even the bus from Stock-bridge couldn’t resist a detour through King’s Sombourne. From there, it was back to the E1 (not the E2, remember?) for the home leg.
So it worked. Of course, I then had to make it a habit. I even vaguely had an idea of trying to have a fortnight’s free holiday on the buses and, sorry about this, attempt to write a book about it. But now, I’ve got a bit of a phobia about it, and I’ll tell you why. Trips to Guildford and Chichester proved uneventful. On the latter, the route goes through West Wittering (where you pass the end of Keith Richards’ drive) and the Paulsgrove estate in Portsmouth, enough to make any analyst of the UK’s social make-up salivate. But then I became over-ambitious.
Some friends were playing in the Sidmouth “Fringe” folk festival in Devon, so I consulted Traveline and it revealed that I could get there one day and back the next. The route went: Eastleigh, Romsey, Salisbury, Blandford, Weymouth, Exeter. The Salisbury to Blandford bit was surreal, because the bus does a massive detour through the enormous and sick-makingly bleak Blandford army camp, where a soldier joins the bus to check you haven’t got any bombs in your rucksack, but otherwise, there is no sign of anybody getting on or off. Shortly afterwards, the bus bombs off down a tiny lane into the charming village of Sixpenny Handley, where it dwarfs the tiny cottages it scrapes past.
The last leg was on the UK’s most famous bus route, namely the X53, an incredible five-hour journey along the Jurassic Coast, dipping into idyllic places like Abbotsbury, Beer and Lyme Regis. While challenging on the bladder, the satisfaction of getting all that for free was overwhelming. I did indeed manage to attend the festival (just as well, as I was virtually the only person there) and get back the next day.
The mistake I made, the following summer, was to try to go one bigger and better. The idea was to visit some friends in Ilfracombe, in North Devon. Traveline said it wasn’t possible, but some astute clicking showed that it was. It involved the same route as before, plus subsequent legs from Exeter to Barnstaple and from Barnstaple to Ilfracombe, where, amazingly, evening buses still exist. But doing the X53 for a second time, on those hard, upright and austere seats, sandwiched among malororous, endlessly gossiping old dears (they’re not daft, they can see the attraction of a free trip to the seaside as well) became unbearably boring. The whole journey took twelve and a half hours (the return was even worse, but I’ll spare you the details of that). It just took for-bloody-ever, lurching down almost farm tracks to places like the picturesque but hardly double-decker-worthy coastal village of Beer.
By the time I got on the Barnstaple bus, it was mid-evening and chilly, but at least, by now, I was alone on the double-decker, top and front as usual. I was just beginning to drop off when we stopped in South Molton, and suddenly, I had a companion. Plonking himself loudly onto the seat next to me was a frightening vision: A huge man, about mid-thirties. He was gasping, had a red face and was wearing those voluminous long, baggy combat shorts that heavy metal fans favour. His legs were completely covered in scratches and bruises, many still bleeding, and despite the fact that it was pitch dark outside, he was wearing sunglasses.
He jutted out a massive, horny hand and grasped mine. “I’m Gavin,” he grunted. “What’s your name?”
After the introduction, there was silence for a brief few moments. I wished I’d had a newspaper or some other way of avoiding having to look at him, but reading on transport makes me sick. The peace didn’t last long.
“OCD, mania, psychosis, depression, I’ve got the lot,” he barked, by way of a conversation-opener.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” was my feeble response.
Inevitably, the life story followed. He’d been in and out of prison six times for acts of extreme violence. He’d been put on all sorts of medication, none of which had worked and had been used, instead, for suicide attempts. Now, he was on his way home from the doctor, who had prescribed him something new. Rather in the manner of Mr Barraclough from “Porridge”, I chose to patronise him.
“Well, I sincerely hope it’s a success and helps you get your life back on track,” I offered.
“I just took a couple, had a couple of pints and a bit of blow,” replied Gavin.
“Really? Well, you seem very nice and calm now.”
“Yeah, but I could turn at any moment. Last night I punched out three pakis because they were looking at me funny.” He was staring at me.
That was it. Not only psychotic but a racist too. I had to be outta there. I truly felt like a sitting duck, waiting to put a word wrong. Luckily, Barnstaple wasn’t far and I encouraged him to talk about Ilfracombe, where he came from. As we drew into Barnstaple’s dingy bus station, he looked at his watch.
“Ilfracombe bus is in five minutes. We’ll catch it together.”
No bloody way. According to my piece of paper, there was one in half an hour. I lied to him and claimed I’d had a text from my friends, saying they’d pick me up in Barnstaple. He seemed satisfied by this (I was dreading he’d ask for a lift), so I escaped with my life and scuttled round a corner in search of sanctuary. The pub I found didn’t help. There was a couple having a loud and acrimonious bust-up in the corner. There was another fracas going on in the street as I emerged and yet another in the bus station. Gavin was there, but luckily there was a queue. He was at the front, shouting into a mobile phone, so I joined the back. He went upstairs, so I stayed down and then got off two stops before the terminus, to avoid having to meet him again. I felt truly sorry for him in a way, but I was shit scared as well.
On the way back, each bus was progressively later and I kept missing connections. UK bus stations are the most dismal places in the world to spend time. The X53 was thirty-five minutes late getting to Poole.
On second thoughts, then: Buses? Nein danke.