From time to time in hidden europe, we have celebrated the delights of local bus services. You may recall our edgy orbit on a doubledecker through the suburbs of Birmingham in hidden europe 33. Britain in particular benefits from an unusually dense network of both rural and urban local bus routes. So we return to the theme of local buses in this issue, firstly with a reflection on how life on the top deck has changed, and then with a report on a rural bus journey through mid-Wales. The latter article appears in slightly amended form in a new book from Bradt Travel Guides called ‘Bus-Pass Britain’. You can read more about that book in the box on page 29.
I. Life on the top deck
George Orwell had an ambiguous relationship with bus conductors, applauding some for the even-tempered manner in which they presided over the affairs of the bus and reviling others for their insolent demeanour. Bus conductors have of course long since disappeared from Britain’s buses. Young readers encountering Stan Shunpike, the Cockney lad who works as bus conductor on the triple-decker Knight Bus in the Harry Potter books, probably don’t appreciate that Stan is a professional throwback from another age. And with the demise of the bus conductor, life on the top deck irrevocably changed. True, the territory has been tamed a little by the advent of closed-circuit television and, for all we know, perhaps the bus now even listens in on our conversations. It certainly talks to us, sometimes impertinently intruding on our deepest daydreams or the most intimate of conversations: “This is the number sixteen to Cricklewood. Next stop: Marble Arch.”
There is something quintessentially British about the double-decker bus. Outside the UK, you’ll only come across them in two other European capitals: Dublin and Berlin. True, many heritage Routemasters have escaped their natural habitat and are used for bus tours in cities from Riga to Rome, but by and large the chance to survey the landscape from the top deck of a regular bus service is a curiously British privilege. Double-decker buses ply some of Britain’s most spectacular rural bus routes, such as the X53 Jurassic Coast route from Poole to Exeter and the 555 from Lancaster to Keswick which cuts through the heart of the Lake District.
And yes, the view from the top deck is different. We’ve ridden on misty autumn mornings through a luminous whitescape in foggy Yorkshire and cruised in heavy rain through Birmingham’s gritty suburbs. We’ve peered over roadside hedges in deeply rural Wales and seen the sun on distant hills that would be quite invisible to those travelling on the lower deck. And we’ve pottered through Metroland — tea and buttered toast country — which takes on a wilder demeanour when seen from the top of a double-decker bus.
Downstairs, the lower deck is for those anxious to get from A to B with little interest in the actual journey. “Next stop: Maida Vale” intones a nicely husky pre-recorded voice over the intercom. The shopping bags shuffle for space as they prepare to alight. The upper deck attracts a different class of passenger: those who are here for the long haul.