On the buses

On 10 December 2023, Newbury Town Councillor Steve Masters wrote to us to say that he was planning to ride every bus out of Newbury on Saturday 16 December. You can see a promotional video here. You can also click here to see WBC’s article about the initiative. The services will also be free on Saturday 23 December 2023.

“The reason I’m doing this.” he explained, “is to highlight the free bus days here in West Berkshire while highlighting the gaps in the current timetable, gaps that if addressed would reduce social isolation, improve economic mobility and reduce the dependency on cars across the district.”

He was as good as his word. We know because we were there too (well, admittedly only for the legs of the journey between East Garston and Lambourn and back again). Here’s his account of the day.

From Newbury to here, there and back again: A bus odyssey across rural West Berkshire

The first rays of dawn yet to break over a sleepy Newbury, the darkness still embraces myself and the five or six fellow travellers. I bound, full of enthusiasm onto the 6:50am 3X to Hungerford, a cup of tea, delivered by Paul, a wonderful Newbury based postal worker in hand, phone screen aglow in the other.

But for me, this Saturday morning is anything but ordinary. Today is #FreeBusSaturday, a self-imposed marathon to ride every bus route radiating from Newbury in a single day. It’s a quest not just for miles, but for the soul of this community, woven into the fabric of its public transport system.

Back in Newbury, I hop on the X34, getting off at the last stop in West Berkshire – the Vodafone campus, an underwhelmingly short distance from the bus station. There’s quite a bit of West Berkshire to the north of this but that doesn’t seem to have interested those who made the timetables. Given our MPs fanfare at its creation and the fact the council has contributed £85k to fund this service, this seems like a missed opportunity to directly connect the rural villages in the north of the district to Oxfordshire, via a short diversion in and out of East Ilsley. 

However, for this challenge, this shortcoming allows me a convenient opportunity to make a timely connection. A brisk walk through the new development across the A339 from Vodafone leads me to the Castle pub in Donnington, where the 6a whisks me north towards the Ridgeway. The rolling hills become my companions, each bend revealing a new vista, a new story.

After departing West Ilsley on the re-designated number 6, I meet Councillor Carolyne Culver, her concerns about maintaining rural services echoing my own anxieties and those of the residents in the rural villages. But amidst the challenges and the lack of connection to the X34 there’s a glimmer of hope – a shared vision for a seamless transport network that binds West Berkshire together.

At Newbury station, the 4 to Lambourn beckons. Ginnette and Penny, regular riders, and Brian greet me with warm smiles. Their reliance on the bus for shopping and social visits is a stark reminder of its vital role in combating rural isolation. Back in Newbury, I welcome first-time riders Tom and Catalina onto the 8. Their wide-eyed wonder as they discover the convenience and camaraderie of bus travel is infectious, a testament to the transformative power of public transport.

A quick dash to Thatcham on the 1, then onto the 2 towards Greenham. Driver Alan, a 20-year veteran, regales me with stories of bustling villages and packed buses, a glimpse into a bygone era when public transport was the lifeblood of the community. Councillor David Marsh from Wash Common joins the journey, his concerns about service cuts a stark reminder of the fragility of this vital network.

Back in Newbury, I tackle the Basingstoke link, a bustling artery connecting communities for business and leisure. Next, the 7 towards Andover, getting off at the final stop in West Berkshire. With little time to spare, I race back to catch the Reading-bound Jet Black, where I meet up for a conversation with Robert Williams, the CEO of Reading Buses.

Our discussion delves into the low-carbon future of public transport, the challenges facing bus services and the immense potential for collaboration. His dedication to keeping people connected inspires me, and I know that through collective effort, we can build a stronger, more accessible transport system for everyone. I was at times taken back to another age, my younger days in West Yorkshire where bus travel was commonplace and part of the transport landscape. 

Alighting at Calcot, I return to Newbury before making my final journey of the day back to Thatcham on the 1E. Arriving at a deserted Newbury bus station at 10:10pm, I’m met by my partner, Carolyne, with a warm embrace and a well-deserved cup of tea.

Exhaustion mingles with exhilaration. Today, I haven’t just traversed miles, I’ve embarked on a journey through the urban heart and rural hinterlands of West Berkshire. I’ve met people with interesting stories, witnessed the dedication of staff, talked to residents and community leaders – all with one thing in common, the hope and vision that we can build on the power of public transport to build a spirit of connection, community, and hope for improvements in the future.

Drifting off to sleep, the rhythmic rumble of buses echoes in my dreams. It’s a lullaby of community, a testament to the vital role they play in binding us together. This #FreeBusSaturday wasn’t just a personal challenge, it bore witness to the diversity of the communities I serve, a reminder that even in the face of distance and isolation, we are all connected by the threads of shared experiences, common goals, and the simple joy of human connection. 

I’m optimistic that as long as the buses keep rolling, weaving their way through our towns and villages that West Berkshire can improve and expand this much needed public service, encouraging the district to continue to grow, stronger, more vibrant, and more interconnected with each passing day.

Please take advantage of this coming Saturday’s #FreeBusSaturday #useitorloseit

Steve Masters

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