Published in The Observer, April 2008
On March 31, I paid my last ever fare on a local bus: £4 to go from Penzance to Land’s End. The subsequent journey of 600 or so miles to Lowestoft cost nothing. This was not a see-how-fast-you-can-do-it trip, nor were Janice and I aiming to spend as little as possible. What the buses offered was the opportunity to see the English countryside and its hidden villages at a slow pace. We wanted to look. We carried only small rucksacks so we could hop off and enjoy some walking in the prettiest counties, and we built in some special treats along our route from England’s most westerly point to its most easterly.
The true most westerly point is Dr Syntax’s Head. Nice name. We walked there from Weavers B&B in the evening before Day 1, and watched a pair of choughs probing the grassy cliff top for their dinner. Something special already and we hadn’t even boarded our first free bus. This was the number 507, which left Land’s End at 10.15 on April 1 and pottered along the northern coast of Cornwall, allowing us glimpses of the sea and the tall chimneys of abandoned tin mines. An hour and a change of bus later we were in St Ives, the warm sun lighting the white houses and deepening the blue of the sea. The helpful staff at the tourist office suggested our first walk: the South West Coast Path to Lelant. My memory is all of yellows: pale primroses, butter-coloured gorse, and the expanse of sand at Carbis Bay and Porthminster Beach. And our choughs reappeared in the stained-glass window of the little church of St Uny in Lelant.
We missed our bus because of this church. We quite often missed buses because of churches. How could we walk past one without looking inside? They are as much a part of the English countryside as beech trees and bluebells. Indeed, there’s something almost organic about a country church; maybe it’s the perpendicular lines echoing the trees, or the way they sit snugly in the valleys or proudly on hilltops.
That was the day we passed Go and ended up in Jail. We’d booked a table at Bodmin’s most unusual restaurant to complement our accommodation treat. Bedknobs B&B is seriously special, a stately Victorian house set in a wooded garden with secret paths disappearing into the rhododendrons. Gill Jenkins treats her guests as friends, as do her cats, and the pampering included an airbath which blew bubbles at our aching legs. Fortunately we’d missed lunch so had room for the enormous meal at Bodmin Jail. The part owner, Simon Wheten, came to chat to us during dessert and showed us the cells where tableaux illustrate the grim penal system of yesteryear. Children imprisoned for taking apples from an orchard, and Ann Stacey, put away for six months in 1832 for stealing a piece of printed cotton.
Our first lesson next day was that buses may run late but there’s no such thing as a missed connection, just an opportunity to explore a new town. We discovered Liskeard’s bookshop, a popular meeting place for the town’s booklovers, and bought an Ordnance Survey map to plan our next walk. Mind you, I’d enjoyed the number 574 bus so much I was reluctant to get off. On the way to Pensilva our driver had to reverse to let cars pass on the narrow lanes, we rattled over cattlegrids, brushed past high banks drenched in primroses, and passed signposts to villages with names like Siblyback, Minions, Dobwall, and Crowsnest. “You turn over a stone and there’s history” said our fellow passenger as we passed through St Cleer, once a copper-mining centre. Cleer was a spiteful saint; we saw the standing stones known as The Hurlers, men he had changed to stone because they were hurling on Sunday instead of going to church. Just as well we were there on a Wednesday.
From Pensilva we took the lane to Charaton, and then found a bridleway down a steep, rocky path to a stream. No bridge. After wading across we walked through the woods to Penwarden and across a field where two grey horses trotted up to investigate our rucksacks. At the far end we met a couple of fellow walkers. “Are the horses all right?” one of the men asked. “Our friend told us they’re Arabs so very dangerous”. Hmm. Did that conversation take place yesterday, April 1?
The hills of north Cornwall are steep and our legs were tired. Damn, we weren’t going to get to Callington in time to catch our next bus. Time for some hitchhiking. A shiny black 4X4 approached, driven by a smiling, grey-haired granny. Surely she’d stop for smiling, grey-haired us? She didn’t, and we missed the bus despite the efforts of our next driver. This time it mattered. Our planned route hugged the northern boundary of Dartmoor to Okehampton. As it was we had to skulk off to Plymouth and spend an hour in the bus station where a sign in the ladies’ loo said “For disposal of syringes see the attendant.”
People chat at bus stops. You start on the weather, and speculate on whether the bus will be on time, and then move on to more substantial things. Sometimes it gets a bit out of hand. Our next missed bus was the result of a woman being intent on finishing her story despite the arrival of our bus (“No, it’s not that one…”). It wasn’t a serious problem. Glastonbury was only a few hours away and we still had the afternoon for exploring. This is arguably the spiritual centre of England, the site of the earliest church in the country and nearly two millennia of pilgrimages. They say that Joseph of Arimathea settled here after the crucifixion and some even claim that he brought the young Jesus to Glastonbury. Then there’s King Arthur and Camelot. Wandering around the ruined abbey, once the largest religious building in England but surely even more impressive in ruin, I was ready to believe anything. We stayed at the pleasant, 18th-century Who’d a Thought It inn. “It used to be a real spit and sawdust place called The Lamb,” said our landlady, “But ‘Who’d a Thought It’ when you see it now.”
“It won’t take you direct, mind. These buses go to all sorts of silly places” said the man at the bus stop when we asked about getting to Trowbridge. Ah, but that’s the whole point. Somerset had some of the best “silly places” of all, like Nunney which we passed through on our way to Frome. Such a pretty village, crowned by a castle surrounded by a moat. Avebury was encircled by stones, not water, and has an ancient stone avenue leading walkers towards man-made Silbury Hill. Another perfect day for strolling, and an unplanned B&B that the tourist office, tucked away in the back of a church, recommended.
Teal Cottage B&B in Manton proved one of the delights of our trip. We left the bus on the main road to Marlborough, and walked into a typical Wiltshire village with a heron-watched stream, a pub, and a few houses. A memorable breakfast set us up to stroll the back-lanes into Marlborough, getting our last view of hills before the contrast of flat East Anglia.
We were deprived of Silly Places for nearly two days: Swindon, Oxford, Aylesbury, Leighton Buzzard, and Luton. The biggest excitement was passing “Britain’s first roundabout” in Lechlade. We took a horrified look at Stevenage New Town and its bus station, and retreated to Hitchin which had caught our approving eye when we’d passed through earlier. The bells of St Mary’s were ringing as we walked to a nearby hotel. Next morning we popped into the church to visit the battered effigies of knights and their ladies laid to rest on the windowsills, gazing out for eternity at the beech trees beyond the clear glass windows.
The buses at Hitchin seemed reluctant to take us further east, so I phoned Traveline to ask how to get to Bury St Edmunds. “You can’t. You’ll have to go into London first.” No way. Time for some serious hitchhiking. Over breakfast we prepared our sign: “Saffron Walden please” for the bus-less stretch beyond Buntingford. We got a lift within five minutes, and the affable driver took us the long route into town in order to show us the splendid Jacobean mansion Audley End.
The journey from Saffron Walden to Haverhill was one of my favourites in the eastern section. We passed signposts with names like Puddlewart and Steeple Bumpstead, and villages of pink, mauve, green and blue cottages, timbered and thatched, with aubretia pouring over the garden walls. But Haverhill bus station was awful. The shelters had been vandalised, our planned bus to Bury St Edmunds only ran in term time — or was it school holidays – and we had to backtrack to Cambridge to find another.
In Bury we’d booked the best hotel of our trip, the Angel. It has stood opposite the abbey, whose fragments of ruined walls rising from green lawns echo those of Glastonbury, since the 15th Century, strategically placed to “catch all the pilgrims when they arrived with dusty feet and dry tongues.” Our own pilgrimage almost over, we were equally ready for the splendid food and rest it offered.
Then it was our last day, with some final churches to visit and footpaths to walk. We’d selected Beyton, Hessett and Woolpit, linked by lanes and paths. All were special: Beyton for its round tower and carved pew-ends, Hessett for its wonderful 14th-century murals showing the seven deadly sins and tradesmen’s tools (a warning not to work on Sundays) and Woolpit – wonderful Woolpit – which was so crammed with angels you felt the whole church might take to the wing. We sat on a bench at the village pump and waited for the bus for Stowmarket. The sun was warm, there were no cars, few people and even the pub was sleeping. At that moment I would have been happy to travel this way for ever, just catching the next bus to wherever I fancied. The feeling didn’t last, however. By the time we reached Diss, having stopped to explore Eye, we’d seen the last bus of the day leave for Beccles without us.
Traveline told us we’d have to take a bus to Norwich and then on to Lowestoft at 10.20 that night. While we were discussing our options, the only other occupant of the bus shelter leant forward and asked “Are you lost”? A few minutes later we were in her warm car being driven to Harleston. From there the only choice was to hitchhike, and, although I can’t pretend that standing by the busy A143 at supper time with our thumbs out trying to look friendly was the highpoint of the trip, it worked. Three lifts later we arrived in Lowestoft and our final treat, the Baytree guesthouse.
Next morning we walked to Lowestoft Ness, England’s most easterly point, and photographed each other on the geographical plaque, before taking a taxi to the railway station, our first paid transport for eight days.
So will I use my bus pass regularly now? You bet. Not if I’m in a hurry, but for a holiday, preferably with no specific plan. Buses complement rail travel. While trains often offer the best views of passing countryside, sit in the front seat on top of a doubledecker and England itself unfolds in front of you. Slowly, with time to look.
© Hilary Bradt