Paul Mingard writes in with a lyrical essay on the joys of the rural bus route:
“For some people riding the 688 bus is so mundane they hardly think about it. For others who never travel by bus, the trials and joys of the 688 are a mystery. This piece is for both sets of people; with the hope that they may come to appreciate what we have, who knows for how much longer.
Those who use our regular, if not entirely comprehensive, shuttle bus service, often do so to get to work or school, to shop in Hexham and Allendale, or visit friends. Personally, I’ve ridden it: starting a journey by public transport from Allendale to Marrakesh; to avoid paying parking fees in Newcastle; as a rumbling, swaying lullaby for sleepy grandchildren; and as respite for weary feet returning from Allenheads, in training for the Allendale Challenge.
Those who never use the bus are probably unaware that it runs just six days a week, less with bank holidays around and doesn’t allow for trips to town for evenings out, and only just for Saturday afternoons at football. [The timetable is offered in the diary’s 7th January entry, when there were worries about a regional bus strike.] They may not realise that the entire service is one bus and that the time it takes to travel between Hexham Aldi and Allenheads Inn and back, is pretty much the interval between buses fully accounted for. If one bus breaks down, the service fails.
Many would say that the best thing about the 688 is seeing friends or other regular bus travellers, catching up on gossip, but there are other joys. Sometimes, as John Batey says in his book ‘Flag Up On The Right’, it is the sight of the wildlife you pass from a vantage point you don’t normally have when walking or sitting in a car. As the bus passes, a flock of lapwings take to the air, an owl perched on a dead tree branch ignores the noisy intruder, while a hare leaps across a dry-stone wall to get away.
For me the best sights are those between Allendale and Allenheads, the dips and turns in the road; the rush down to Sinderhope and Sparty Lea; the views across to the far side of the valley where Isaac’s Tea Trail winds its way up through the heather, as it leaves us for Carshield Moor and Nenthead. It’s a journey through the history of the valley; the gouging of glaciers millennia past; the meander of the East Allen, slowly cutting through the valley floor; limestone workings from Romans onwards; the ruins of recent industrial endeavour in the dereliction of lead mining and the reclaiming by nature of unnatural disturbances of the landscape, caused by man. The tide of industrialisation came and went, leaving behind humps as mysterious as ancient barrows, rusting iron and disordered heaps of cut stone, like flotsam deposited on the foreshore by retreating waves.
In winter, the landscape seems leached of colour, as if bright light had faded it. Snow lingers here, when further down the valleys it has been driven away. Falls in March can still be seen in April, caught in the folds of the hills upper slopes, giving a greater contrast with the browns and greys of the equinox. The inside of the bus streams with moisture from wet coats and breath on the windows. One or two people seem to prefer to ride in this fug than to sit alone in a cold house.
In summer, there are waves of nodding cow parsley as the bus rattles by. Leaf covered branches hanging lower crash against the bus side and break over the road behind. Later on there will be purple heather on the tops and tall white clouds chasing us home along the valley.
Travelling to get to work in Allendale and Hexham, the bus does you no favours. The timetable is not set to get to any of these places when you might want to arrive for the start of your 9-5. Only if you travel onto Newcastle does the schedule make proper sense. Getting on the bus in the early winter gloom feels like taking part in some joint enterprise that others are excluded from. It’s a band of us going to do ‘really important things, far away’.
On the other hand the journey home from Hexham at a little after 3.40 pm is like being part of a different group, one that has been set free from labour. True, the sensible adults have made sure to get on at the bus station in order to grab a seat, but it is the flock of school students clambering on, stepping over bags, swinging on the poles, switching on mobiles, sharing sweets, chatting about anything and everything, that gives the bus a real energy and life force. Of course it is loud and some prefer to turn away to avoid being overwhelmed, but it is generally good natured and communal, not tribal, despite differences in age, schools and gender.
The buses I frequently travel on are populated by those whom Liverpool bus drivers call the ‘twirlies’; who travel after rush hour and whose hair, like mine, is grey, whether disguised or absent. Often, I’m accompanied by a grandchild. I’ve been here with three now. Our trips to Hexham, to the park or shops, to Allenheads for the park or Hemmel, have been fewer lately as they graduated to pre-school and school. Many’s the time I have returned with one of them falling asleep by Lowgate and have had to decide whether to wake them up at Allendale, or continue our journey to Allenheads and back without disturbing the head resting on my arm.
Those who retain the belief that buses are rattling, smelly, slow and unreliable things, may be surprised to find that these days they mostly come equipped with wifi, some with plugs for chargers and the seats are relatively comfortable, almost an office on wheels. They certainly pick up speed, especially on the long straights after the Langley crossroads. Somehow this seems to spur other drivers to want to overtake, as if to justify to themselves their decision to travel alone in their car, instead of relaxing alongside us passengers.
When the bright yellow buses do fail to arrive, there is always the possibility of a double-decker replacement. This is an experience not to be missed. Sitting on top deck is, as Spike Milligan observed, the nearest thing to flying, if at a level even the RAF would baulk at. If as a result of breakdown, the service is late, all the better, for the driver will be hurrying to catch up with the timetable. The adrenalin rush as you hurtle downhill to Sinderhope or Ropehaugh a full 3 metres above the tarmac, straddling the middle of the road near Studdon to avoid collision with a curtain of tree branches either side, swaying side to side like a ship in a storm, or barrelling down to Langley with the reservoir filling the front window and a growing concern that the brakes are not up to the task of stopping before you get there, is as good as any ride at Alton Towers.
Recently, I went to London and it was a good chance to compare rural services with a city trying to encourage public transport. The 688 is not fully integrated with the train, it has no Sunday service, nor night bus as it would in London. It costs far more to travel on and there are no alternatives. But it doesn’t have to put up with a police raid as on my bus, with a woman being hauled off for stealing the bag from someone on the bus in front and then hiding on mine. I doubt the grandchildren would have slept through that.”