Village on Wheels: the Country Bus
This piece first appeared in the Western Daily Press in Bristol in the U.K. on August 1, 2000.
I needed milk . . . and an escape from the sawing, drilling and hammering in my house.
A small army worked on changing the heating system from an open fire to a solid-fuel range heating the piped water and radiators.
The furniture huddled for shelter under and behind dust sheets. The only demilitarised zones were the kitchen, the main bedroom and the garden.
Three weeks of dust and soot choked the house and spurred the drinking of many cups of tea and coffee. Consequently, I ran out of milk and found an excuse to leave home.
The hedgerows, heavy and unruly, hid a herd of Herefords lowing in a field along my walk to the post office a mile away. I stopped and savoured a few wild strawberries in a patch I’ve picked the past few years. Then I moved on, past the cricket field, past the memorial garden and down the hill into the village.
At the post office, I chatted with the postmaster, Jack. As I left with my three pints of milk, I held the door for June, with whom I exchanged pleasantries before she asked: “Are you coming on the bus Friday?”
“If I can get away, I will,” I said. “How is everyone?”
“Fine,” she replied.
The country bus runs once a week to the nearest market town 12 miles away. It passes my house at 10:40 in the morning and returns at 2:10 in the afternoon, which gives passengers two hours in town and one and a half hours in transit.
The dozen of us who ride the bus on market day are aware of its precarious existence. We try to protect it by using it.
Yes, we know that our only convenient public transport could discontinue at any time, as the Western Daily Press recently reported will happen to several rural services in the Mendips.
Two miles from home, there is a bus stop for a daily hourly service to another town.
Out of necessity, I have walked there many times to catch a bus, taking the entire morning to get to the city.
The other people who take the country bus could not walk those two miles. Most are older women who have done their share of walking and working in their lives.
For them, the country bus is more than a means of transport. It provides the setting of a social affair.
When boarding, people have a “Good Morning” for the driver, one of a few whom we all know and, after paying, a “Good Morning” for the other passengers who return the greeting.
I had not seen June since the last time I took the bus. A vivacious woman, she always sits in the back seat chatting with one or two others.
At each stop on the return journey from town, she bolts forward to carry the bags of the slower passengers off the bus.
I sit on the left side behind Ellen who sits in the very first seat. Ellen told me about the death of her long time dog the day after it happened.
She lives a few miles away from me, but we’ve only seen each other in our community on wheels.
When we reach the outskirts of town, Ellen always relinquishes her seat for the wraith-like Mrs. Harris, who refuses offers of help on boarding but whose skin seems too thin and fragile not to bruise at the slightest pressure. After shopping for food, Mrs. Harris goes to the library to read the newspapers.
On occasion, birthday bouquets are bought at the florist and presented to surprised passengers. Pictures of grandchildren, which were picked up at the camera shop, are passed around. And chips, whose smell makes my mouth water, are shared out.
Sometimes, on the way out of town, we gain another member of our party, an older gentleman wearing a dressing gown over swollen legs. He lives in a home in town and rides into the countryside for the pleasure of it.
He and the rest of us take notice of the changes in nature. We point out the first snowdrops, the first primroses, the first bluebells.
As we cross the bridge a mile from my home, we all comment on the rise and fall of the river marked by the exposure or concealment of an island. The country bus travels past fields and gardens which we would not see otherwise.
The week I met June, I saw no new fields or gardens. I saw the insides of both chimneys newly lined with concrete, the placement of the return pipes under the bathroom floorboards and the stone in the chimney breast.
I heard the bus roll by on Friday, but I was trapped in my house. If the country bus service were to be cut, I would be trapped every day.
And our mobile community, unique in the countryside whose remoteness limits social contact to chance, would disappear.
Whatever the outcome of today’s petrol pump boycott, any transport network worth having must provide for those living outside our towns and cities who can’t or don’t drive.
The solution to rural isolation doesn’t involve metro systems, complicated transport policies or even just cheaper petrol.
It means keeping – and bringing back where it has been lost – the good cold country bus.