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Travel and retreats: Ding, ding! All aboard

26 January 2024

Dixe Wills circuits Britain by bus, and suggests a holiday that can be had at a bargain price

Dixe Wills

On an open top bus in the clouds, in north Cornwall

On an open top bus in the clouds, in north Cornwall

I CANNOT remember, now, exactly what gave me the idea. All I know is that, about six weeks after I had it, I was stepping out of the door with a heavy rucksack on my back and ambling down the road to catch what would be the first of — I didn’t know how many buses.

I had no real idea of how long I’d be gone, or if what I was trying to achieve was even possible. But it did feel like an adventure.

If I succeeded, it was likely that I would become one of the first people to do a complete circuit of mainland Britain using nothing but local buses (no National Express for me). Well, you’ve got to do something with your life.

I’m aware that most people don’t have the time, or the eccentricity, to take on such a challenge. With single bus journeys capped in England at £2 until the end of this year, however, and plenty of bargain Rover tickets on offer as well, you could easily spend a very happy week’s holiday exploring some corner of Britain by bus without breaking the bank.

Take, for example, the area close to where I began my odyssey that sunny spring morning. The South Downs Discovery ticket covers almost every bus in Surrey, East Sussex, West Sussex, Kent, and East Hampshire for a whole day, and costs £10 for an adult, or £20 for a family of five. You could go to the beach and a stately home one day, do a tour of country churches the next — whatever takes your fancy.

One lesson that I soon learnt, as I headed up the Essex coast towards Suffolk, was that the travelling was at least as important as the destination. Naturally introspective, I enjoyed sitting by myself and gazing out at the passing scenery, the hours flying by in a blur of greens and greys. But, as the days passed, I found myself increasingly drawn into conversations. My thesis — as yet unpeer-reviewed — is: “the more rural the area, the more loquacious the passenger.”

Dixe WillsDixe (and his rucksack) wait at a bus stop in Scotland

And so I got chatting with a former beauty queen; a bona fide Yorkshire lord commuting from town with his over-sixties bus pass; and a young man with learning difficulties who laughingly declared that he was about to marry a woman from whom he’d not long been divorced. “Doing a Richard Burton,” he said, with a gleam in his eye.

In a bid to allow for serendipity to work its magic, my logistical preparation was deliberately scant: I’d packed some camping gear and a charity-shop map of Britain. Every time I got off a bus, I was reliant on there being a timetable at the stop, because I didn’t own a phone. This certainly tested and, eventually, strengthened the flame of hope within me. I can recommend it.

I realise that it is not everyone’s cup of tea, and those planning a more moderate bus-hopping summer holiday can revel in evenings of wintry fireside fun hatching their plans. For instance, you could pick up the Stagecoach seven-day MegaRider ticket for East Scotland, and have a fine old time. You could take in Perth, the justly named “Fair City”; Scone Castle; Dundee, with its amazing free observatory; the River Tay; the glorious Fife Coastal Path; St Andrews; Stirling Castle; and Aberdeen — a city I once traduced, but which now I love (do visit their astonishing municipal art gallery, itself a work of art).

Dixe WillsThe bus on its way, near Southend at the bottom of the Mull of Kintrye

There were, of course, times when things went awry. The back of one bus I was travelling on simply fell off, which was exciting once we’d discovered that no one had been injured. Twice, in Scotland, I had to wait ten hours or more at road junctions in the middle of nowhere. I was obliged to spend two nights near Egremont, Cumbria, awaiting the next bus south (a kind farmer let me camp in his fields); and three nights just outside Spalding, in Lincolnshire, over a bus-free Bank Holiday weekend. But I learned to view such events as opportunities ripe for redemption. Speed was, after all, not everything, and coming to a complete standstill helped me to appreciate my surroundings.

I wish, for example, that I had spent more time in south-west Wales. Happily, this could be easily redressed today with a West Wales Rover Ticket, valid on most buses in Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, and Pembrokeshire, for one or seven days. The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park is stunning, and a week spent roaming around it on buses would be a revivifying experience.

Aside from the character-forming lessons that I had learnt in patience and fortitude, the trip left with me with a raft of pleasant memories:

• Trundling along across the top of Scotland, the only passenger in the post bus (sadly discontinued now), and waiting while Susan, the driver/postwoman, delivered consignments of mail, a newspaper, and some turnips.

• An open-top ride along the North Cornish coast enveloped in a rolling sea mist that turned to rain but finally gave way to brilliant joy-bringing sunshine.

• Hours whiled away between buses in a tiny nature reserve, tracking the progress of a stoat (or was it a weasel?) by dint of a mother blackbird sounding her alarm call while flitting from tree to tree above it.

• Random wild-camping spots: an ancient manmade mound thick with bluebells, lost in the depths of a wood; a groundsheet-sized hummock by the beach at Lymington that I wasn’t sure would be higher than that night’s incoming tide (I was too tired to care, but got away with it).

And, then, one day, with the warmth of early summer on my back, I found myself catching the D6 bus to the end of my road. I had completed my circuit of Britain, and it had taken me only 47 days and 196 buses. And never once had two come along at the same time.

Travel details

THE £2 bus-fare-cap runs in England only until 31 December 2024, but cross-border journeys into Scotland and Wales are valid under the scheme for journeys starting in England.

Handy sources of information, including a small selection of the Rover tickets on offer:

Bus Rover tickets:

South East England (1 day): bit.ly/DiscTicket

East Yorkshire (1/5/7 day tickets): eastyorkshirebuses.co.uk/mobile-tickets

Cornwall/Somerset/Dorset/Hampshire (1-7 days): firstbus.co.uk/adventures-bus

West Wales (1/7 day tickets): traws.cymru/fares/west-wales-rover-ticket

Scotland (3/5/8 day tickets): bit.ly/CLExplorer

Available in multiple regions:

Stagecoach DayRider and 7-day MegaRider: stagecoachbus.com/tickets/megarider

Arriva 1/7 days saver: arrivabus.co.uk/ticket-info/day-weekly-and-annual-tickets

Bus timetables: bustimes.org

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