On the bus to nowhere
You know how it is, you wait at the bus stop for ages and then 3 come at once. It doesn’t happen by chance of course, there are mathematical reasons for it, indeed I once knew a Professor who had researched the maths of it all, but just occasionally “banana scheduling” (where the buses come in bunches) reaches extremes. How about 4 buses running together and them being the first buses to serve a particular village for 66 years?
The village in question was Imber, high up on Salisbury Plain, where the villagers had been forcibly moved out to allow the Army to use the area as a training ground. Only a few original buildings now remain, including the church. On certain days each year the village is open to the public and the usually closed Military Roads can be traversed by anyone. After extensive negotiations with the Ministry of Defence it was agreed that “anyone” could include a registered Local Bus Service.
So it was that I found myself at (OK, opposite) the “Cemetery Gates” (1970s sitcom fans take note) waiting not for a number 11, but a 33 to Devizes. The bus arrived with exceptional timekeeping precision and conveyed me effortlessly to Devizes on a sunny late summer morning. There is a special atmosphere to Saturday mornings, a weekday at the same time would be full of stress and traffic, but a Saturday is much more relaxed. Give it a couple more hours and the difference between the days will be indistinguishable, but for a few special hours Saturdays are wonderful.
Arrival at Devizes was punctual, and the deserted streets were receiving a wash and brush-up in preparation for the day ahead. Opposite, in the Market Place, the funfair was silent awaiting the crowds who visit the carnival procession. Spot on time the 49 “Trans-Wilts Express” drew efficiently onto the stop, bound for Trowbridge. En-route a First bus displaying an intriguing destination “bus terminates at next stop” message (a mile or so, and 5 stops, before the terminus) was passed. Arrival in Trowbridge was again punctual, after an enjoyable cross country journey. But, to be honest, a top deck bus ride through the countryside on a sunny morning is always going to be one of life’s joys!
The connection at Trowbridge should have been about half an hour, but with nothing else to do, and the shops still closed, I made my way to the Town Hall to wait for the 265. Rounding the corner from Fore Street I could see a 264 on the stop. I expected it to be Bath bound. The driver was on the pavement enjoying the morning, and as I walked past I noticed the side destination display “Boreham Fields”, which indicated it was the preceding southbound journey. “Warminster” I said, waving my Wiltshire Day Rover, partly as a question, partly as a statement. The driver nodded, so I boarded and selected a seat.
Feeling rather pleased with myself at catching the bus ahead of the one I had found using the Traveline web-site journey planner, it was some time before realisation dawned that this merely meant I’d have 30 minutes extra to kill in Warminster. Swings and roundabouts, I guess.
The time at Warminster soon passed, a mix of looking at the railway station, helping my boss post the special timetable display which I had created in the week, and general waiting around. Before long the familiar red shape of a Routemaster bus appeared out of a side turning and headed to the railway station. This was the connecting service from Bath, driven by none other than Peter Hendy, top man at Transport for London, and more than capable of handling a full shift bus driving. After unloading, the bus was turned round and drew on to the departure stand. Before long it was joined by 3 others which had travelled empty from depots in Bath.
Why four buses? Well, how do you predict demand for a bus service to an abandoned village, in the middle of nowhere, which hasn’t been served for over half a century? Publicity had been deliberately kept low key, with just the local press being informed, but of course word would have spread around the enthusiast network. It was decided that all four buses would make the first return trip, partly to allow for photographs and partly because the good load from Warminster could have been joined by a number of people connecting from Wilts & Dorset’s service 2 journeys at Tilshead.
Of the four buses I opted to travel on RML2375, a bus which I had previous experience of in Wiltshire when I had conducted on it from Bath to Chippenham and return several years ago, indeed the destination blinds I fitted for that occasion are still carried. It is still a working London bus however, and although it’s now a superbly looked after “garage pet” it does apparently get out on the Heritage Routes from time to time and earn it’s keep.
I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of Routemaster buses, no particular reason; I just don’t see the attraction of them. I suppose it’s like sugar in tea, some people take it, others not. Most people love Routemasters, I don’t. But with no alternative traction available to make such an unusual journey any preference for a vehicle built in Brislington over one built in Southall had to be laid aside.
The first journey had a good number of people spread between the four buses, although most people had opted to ride up stairs so loadings were rather deceptive. The bus I was on was in the lead, and had a good number of local people on, some curious to ride on something unusual, some wanting to visit Imber and some just enjoying a day out. Several people had Ordnance Survey maps open and were going to be following our progress across unusual territory. All in all there was quite a carnival atmosphere on board as we proceeded in convoy along Warminster High Street.
Pedestrians looked on in amused curiosity, and that was just at the sight of four red London buses in their town! I doubt many had read the destination blinds, and probably fewer still knew where Imber was, or the significance of what they were witnessing. The convoy threaded its way out of town and was soon climbing Imber Road, past Service family houses on the right and flanked by barbed wire fences of the base on the left. We were climbing all the time, up on to the Plain. Clear of the houses and barracks the route offered great views to the north, across a deep valley. Rounding a bend a huge tank was facing us at the top of the hill. All rather startling to see from the top of a bus! The tank turned out to be the “Gate Guard” for the military vehicle repair depot at Sack Hill. Beyond the fenced depot the road opened up and ahead lay the gate house which usually prevents public entry onto the Salisbury Plain Training Area.
Having climbed Sack Hill on full power, and now, seeing the open road ahead, Driver Hendy kept his foot hard down. We passed the gate house at about 30 mph, and we certainly felt the speed hump at that velocity! “I thought it rode it rather well” was Peter’s later comment on the speed hump, whilst up stairs the comment “I think Peter’s just broken your bus, Leon” was shouted from the back seat to one of the top people in First Group who was also travelling upstairs.
The panorama soon opened up in all directions and the top seat of a bus was certainly the place to be, as the sun illuminated the Plains. The road led away into the distance, a concrete strip through the green. It was now that it began to dawn on me that the Routemaster was in fact the perfect bus for the trip. We were in countryside which is rarely open to the public, a road which hadn’t seen a bus for 66 years, so the iconic red London bus was so out of place, in a strange way it suited the environment. The organisers’ intention was to run all four buses on the first round trip to allow passengers to take photos of the buses en-route, but as there were connections to be made at Tilshead with service 2 the outward trip would only be used for spotting photographic locations. That was until the convoy came upon a rusting hulk of a tank quite close to the roadside. With the sun shining and four red buses in convoy, the opportunity couldn’t be missed!
Leaving the remote, open, part of the Plain we dropped down to Imber, passing the gaunt shells of houses built especially for training soldiers in close urban combat, and drew to a halt at the end of the path to the church. The temporary bus stop was rapidly unloaded from the platform of one of the buses and installed (complete with comprehensive timetable information) ready for the return trip. Despite the need to keep to time and meet the connections at Tilshead, everyone piled off the buses to take photos, after all, it had been 66 years since the last bus.
From Imber the road climbs again, and various military points could be seen along the way, including an area which appeared to be set up for practising Bailey bridge construction. Once up on the heights again, Imber church could be see in the distance, and the view was noted for a possible later photograph. All too soon we were at the gate house guarding the eastern side of the training area, and back on the public road. Descending down to Gore Cross and the main road we met a tractor coming in the opposite direction. Fortunately it seems that Routemasters are more than capable of a minor amount of off-roading, so we took to the verge and managed to squeeze past.
Just before the main road we passed a group of houses, and a child was playing in the garden of one of them. As we approached she ran to the back door and could be heard through the open bus window exclaiming “mummy, there’s a London bus!” One can imagine the mother’s reply, something along the lines of “don’t be so silly dear” as buses two, three and four passed the house! At Gore Cross we rejoined the main road network, and a sense of normality – like it’s everyday the roads hereabouts see Routemaster buses, running in convoy!
We arrived at Tilshead in good time, and stopped right outside the Rose and Crown public house as the timetable suggested. However in bus terms the Rose and Crown bus stop is a little further along the road, and offers a triangle to turn around at. After a good number of photos had been taken, the buses moved off to the triangle. This had been my intended means of joining the shenanigans, but I was glad I had chosen to do the first trip across the Plain. With the time of the northbound service 2 approaching the buses regrouped on the appropriate bus stop.
Both service 2 journeys produced connecting passengers for the 23A. Imber was truly connected to the outside world by bus again!
UPDATE 28th August 2011 – Photos from the 1st ImberBUS event are now available here.