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October 24 2014 Latest news:
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Hilary Bradt enjoys travelling slowly across the county on more than four wheels
Hilary Bradt enjoys travelling slowly across the county on more than four wheels.
A couple of years ago, a cat named Caspar made the news by regularly catching the No 3 bus from Plymouth. The drivers knew where to let him off and he enjoyed his free trips for months, before his owner found out. At 12, Caspar probably qualified for a Concessionary Bus Pass in cat years, but theres nothing stopping youngsters preferably human taking a bus just for the pleasure of it. With Day Rover tickets to be had and bargains galore, why leave this particular delight to us pensioners?
Since the concessionary passes were introduced in April 2008, riding Devons rural buses has become something of an obsession of mine. I enjoy the feeling of relaxation, the scenery, and the overheard conversations, but above all I love the way that buses take you through the heart of towns and villages places that I would otherwise bypass in a car or train.
My favourite bus routes can be divided roughly into three types: tourist buses, designed to show off the best of Devon to visitors; regular scheduled services which happen to go through exceptional scenery and so attract a fair number of pleasure riders; and those that exist to give non-driving villagers access to the nearest market town.
Though introduced specifically to serve visitors and local sightseers, and operating only in the summer, tourist buses still accept the concessionary pass, providing the over-60s with an exceptional day out. Not surprisingly, Devons two national parks come out tops here, with Exmoor outdoing Dartmoor with its open-topped Exmoor Coastal bus (no 300), which plies the A39 between Minehead and Lynmouth. Its a perfect walkers bus, with feeder paths to the coast path, though most people stay aboard for the sheer pleasure of the ride.
Dartmoors Haytor Hoppa (No 271) is less well known and just about perfect apart from the fact that it runs only on Saturdays, and only in the summer. Operating on a two-hourly schedule, it takes an hour to make the circuit from Bovey Tracey, giving a great overview of the moor for those who stay on for the full journey. In fact, you can start and finish in Newton Abbot if thats more convenient.
The sightseeing starts a couple of miles after leaving Bovey Tracey, with a close-up view of Haytor, Dartmoors best-known landmark. See. It changes shape depending on the angle you see it, said my seat-neighbour and self-appointed guide. I think it looks like a snail from here. I moved to Dartmoor from the Midlands a few years ago and just love it.
From the high moor, with ponies grazing amongst the gorse and sheep dozing by the roadside, theres a stunning view down into the cultivated valley ahead. Then its down to Widecombe-in-the-Moor, and up to the high moor again for Swallerton Gate, giving walkers access not only to Hound Tor but also Bowermans Nose, both examples of what can happen if you disturb a coven of witches when out hunting: the hunter, Bowerman, and his hounds were turned to stone.
Half a mile later you can spot the fresh flowers laid on Jays Grave. Who puts them there no one knows, but the grave belongs to Kitty Jay, a girl who took her own life after being seduced by a local lad in the early 19th century. As a suicide she was buried outside the parish boundary, but exhumed in 1860 and reburied in a proper grave.
Then its down to the Bovey river valley and the trees and greenery of Manaton and Becky Falls, a place of water and mossy quietness. This is the last official stop before the Haytor Hoppa meanders along the tree-lined lanes back to Bovey Tracey. However, the bus will usually stop for anyone who hails it, whether at a bus stop or not, and it guarantees not to leave you stranded on the moor. If the last bus back is full, they will send a replacement.
Dartmoor also opens itself to bus exploration for all the family on Sundays, when the Sunday Rover ticket provides joined-up bus and rail travel for only 6.50 (adults). There are numerous buses to choose from. All you need are the relevant bus timetables: Teignbridge and West Devon. The route I chose took me anticlockwise round the perimeter of Dartmoor National Park from Exeter, via Lydford Gorge to Tavistock, then to Merrivale from where I walked to Princetown in time to catch the last Transmoor bus (No 82) back to Exeter.
My first stop was Okehamptons heritage station, where youre transported straight back to the days of chatty ticket officers, wooden luggage trolleys piled high with trunks and leather suitcases, old railway posters and baskets of flowers. Then I boarded the 187 to Lydford, where there was just enough time to walk the length of the spectacular gorge before catching the next bus to Tavistock. The 272, heading towards Ashburton, dropped me at Merrivale to visit one of Dartmoors prehistoric treasures, two double rows of stones which may be around 4,000 years old. Some cross-country walking took me to a more recent bit of history, the old Plymouth and Dartmoor railway, which provided an easy stroll to Princetown.
The line was built in the 1820s to transport granite from the quarries, and in the disused Swell Tor Quarry, adjacent to the line, you can still find stone corbels that were cut in 1903 for the widening of London Bridge but were never used.
The last Transmoor bus (No 82) to Exeter left Princetown in the early evening, crossing one of the bleakest parts of the moor, past Postbridge, to Moretonhampstead and in lush contrast, through the oaks of Bridford Wood, which cling to an almost vertical hillside abutting the River Teign.
Most of these buses run on a regular schedule, summer and winter, as does the hugely popular Jurassic Coast Bus (No X53), which goes from Exeter to Poole. Whereas I am sometimes the only passenger on weekday buses, this big, bumptious double-decker is always packed, and its rare to find the two front seats unoccupied. From here the views are marvellous. From your lofty vantage point you can gaze over the East Devon countryside, smile at the piglets cavorting in the fields, and smugly watch while nervous car drivers are squeezed onto the pavement at Beer.
Some bus trips are pure serendipity. Even with an Ordnance Survey map at hand, theres no way of knowing how good the scenery is going to be, or whether there is anything special about the route, or its driver and passengers. One of my favourite South Devon trips was on the No 162 from Kingsbridge, via Malborough, to the irresistibly named village of Inner Hope. The afternoon bus takes its time getting to Malborough, ambling through the villages of Thurlestone and South Milton. What I loved about this route was the drivers relationship with his passengers. There was always someone breaking the regulations by standing at the front, chatting, and the driver paid scant regard to bus stops. Home or pub, Bill? he asked. The pub will be fine, thank you, Jim. Others were dropped off with bags of shopping outside their door.
Shoppers buses provide outsiders with a snapshot of rural life as well as an insight into their importance to carless or elderly people. They go beyond transport, providing a sort of mobile community centre. One such bus is the once-a-week service (No 672) from the villages of Dartmoor to Newton Abbot. Wednesday is market day in Newton Abbot and this bus allows a few hours for shopping before bringing the villagers home again. Its strictly for locals in that a visitor hoping to use it to access some of Dartmoors prettiest villages Holne, Widecombe and Buckland-in-the-Moor would have to wait a week before they could return. This bus carries so few paying passengers that its existence is threatened in these cost-cutting times, so the regular passengers choose to pay rather than use their bus pass.
Yes, concessionary bus passes are generous and give access to hidden parts of the county like no other form of transport, but we shouldnt take them for granted.
Hilary Bradt is a contributor to Bus Pass Britain to be published by Bradt Travel Guides in October (www.bradtguides.com).