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On the buses

What will be the lasting memories of my most recent walking holiday? The grandeur of the Cornish coast? The beauty of the flowers alongside the path? Perhaps the glorious blue skies and friendly (or not-so-friendly) birdlife along the way?

Hedge-hugging Cornish bus

Hmm – it might instead be the Cornish buses.

After a time-perfect train journey from Paddington to Bodmin Parkway (which, by the way, is nowhere near Bodmin town – unless our route was even more circuitous than it seemed, encompassing as it did that most important landmark Castle Asda), I was pleased to note that there was a ten-minute ‘window’ in which to avail myself of the Ladies’ facilities adjacent to the station platform before joining a couple of other taxi-deniers at the clearly marked and easily reached bus stop. The imminent arrival of the Number 10 was forecast on the overhead display and all was seemingly well with my public transport world.

The Number 10 single decker red bus hove into view – and hove off again down to the end of the station car-park at some considerable speed in order to turn itself around. When it finally came to rest alongside the bus-shelter and opened its door, I gathered up my rucksack and delved in my pocket for a credit card to wave at the clever onboard ticket machine. I am an old hand at this, having used Cornwall buses many times previously.

But – rather than welcoming new passengers aboard, the driver emerged at speed from his cab, slammed the access panel closed with an angry flourish and hopped past the expectant queue with a brusque greeting, “Well, you’re welcome to get on, but it’s not going anywhere. I’ve done my shift and the new driver’s not here.” Now, I imagine that if this had happened in London, the retiring driver would have disappeared sharpish to a safe space, but instead he stood alongside the bus with a (presumably non-PSV-licence-holding) colleague and vigorously smoked a cigarette and bemoaned the new bus company management’s lack of organisation (and other) skills. I thought for a while that I would stand outside and await developments, but eventually it seemed more practical to take a seat especially as the bus afforded us a little – although perhaps not enough – sound-proofing from the energetic critique in progress outside.

The more observant of my fellow would-be passengers spotted that the bus shelter’s overhead display now revealed that this service had been cancelled. We elected to stay on the bus anyway, there being insufficient seats in the bus shelter, and I passed the time with my book and my phone in a continuation of the hours already spent on the train. In a frivolous WhatsApp exchange with Mr J, I mused whether I might in fact drive the vehicle myself, having practised on several occasions on enormous camper vans overseas. “How hard can it be?”

Suddenly, and to my slight relief to be let off the hook as a potential substitute driver, a new official-looking chap appeared and leapt aboard – straight into the cockpit (if that’s the correct term) and brashly began adjusting the seat/mirrors/external signage in readiness for departure. The occupants of the bus gallantly formed a nice honest British queue in the aisle to buy tickets. The ticket machine seemed to have got the cancellation memo which the driver was apparently ignoring, and it refused to work properly at first. After repeated jabbing (and a little low-level cursing) the new driver succeeded in tricking it into providing each of us with a ticket which we were prepared to accept – even though some of the fare amounts appeared to be a surprise to the recipients. I was, of course, none the wiser and £3.50 seemed eminently reasonable to me.

It is not in the interests of passengers to point out the apparent cancellation of their bus. We therefore merrily acquiesced in being whisked up the station slip road and off on our way to Wadebridge … probably.

We sped up and around a large roundabout at the aforementioned Castle Asda and popped briefly into the local hospital to do a whistle-stop tour of the grounds in case any patients needed transportation. No takers, and we scarpered ever more precipitously towards what I expected to be the metropolis that is Wadebridge. Before we could get there though, the bus was halted by a meeting with a refuse lorry coming the other way on one of the many roads which were designed for neither normal sized buses nor bin lorries. Normally, I have found, the bus reigns supreme in country lane vehicular face-offs and it is usually the poor tourist in their inevitably oversized SUV that has to back off. (I should know, we have one, although in our defence it is one of the least ‘cool’ or ‘Chelsea’ variety and if left unwashed for a few weeks/months before our holiday, we can get away with being mistaken for a local farmer in it, as long as Mr J’s confident driving doesn’t falter). On this occasion, the pecking order seemed to require the bus to do the manoeuvring. We gaily reversed at a rate of knots and it was mildly amusing to see the hedgerows zipping past in the ‘wrong’ direction for a change. Until there was an enormous blaring of horns behind us and we came to a rapid halt. What fun!

Unperturbed, the bin lorry man waved cheerily as he squeezed his fragrant vehicle past us, and we were once again accelerating onwards. Eventually, we reached the outskirts of Wadebridge and a couple of passengers requested a stop. Just as the doors were closing, a youngish chap charged up on the left as though to board. “Wait, wait – you reversed into me!” he cried. Oh lord, so much for our unexpectedly speedy trip – now there would be fisticuffs. But no, ‘There doesn’t seem to be any damage,” he continued. He just wanted to make a point, and having done so (fortunately to no further ill effect) he made his way back to his car and we all carried on.

In fact, I was amused to notice that Wadebridge bus station was no more than a single stop in a small car park doubling as a turning space for the buses. My connecting bus should be due in just 30 minutes – time enough to nip into the handy Co-op nearby, where miraculously they were selling small bags of Maltesers at Buy 2, Get 1 Half Price – they must have known I was coming.

Essential chocolate purchases made, I returned to the bus station in good time for my next ride, but noticed that it did not appear on the scrolling list of scheduled buses. I Googled the website from which I had devised my detailed itinerary – sure enough, there should be a bus. On the tiny print timetable attached to the bus-stop post, the service I had planned to use was shown in a different colour – clearly subject to some mystifying condition or other, unknown to me. I half-heartedly continued to wait a while, unsure what else I could realistically do in this town which appeared to be far from the metropolis I had expected.

I was just wondering whether an extra hour of waiting might justify the use of a mini-cab, when once more I was greeted by the hoving-to (now, I’m not sure that actually exists as an expression, but I like it so it’s staying) of a double-decker sporting the number 96 and the destination Port Isaac. It was still not showing on the scrolling departures list, but the driver showed no signs of flouncing off anywhere and every indication was that this was the mysterious ‘secret’ bus I had planned to catch.

Apart from the magic of being on an apparently non-existent bus for the second time in rapid succession, this journey was far less exciting than the last, and I was swiftly delivered to Port Isaac, where the bus turned round at the top of the hill – leaving me to walk the last little bit down to Port Gaverne where I was staying. This proved less onerous than I had feared (although the uphill return on my departure in searing heat three days later was perhaps a little more challenging, but I’d rediscovered my walking legs by then) and I was swiftly in my hotel being shown to a beautiful (if somewhat overpriced imho) room comically named the Doc Martin room. I choose to walk in my old faithful Meindl boots rather than DMs, so felt it was a little inappropriate. But then, of course, I remembered that since my childhood visit to Port Isaac the area has risen to great fame as the filming location for the ITV series of that very name, starring Martin Clunes as the eponymous medic. I have never watched a whole episode, so the naming of my room was a little wasted on me and had no doubt allowed a couple of extra quid to be added to the nightly rate which might have been better in the gin fund, but I got into the spirit by tuning in for the last ten minutes of a repeat episode on TV on my arrival day, just to gawp at some of the places I’d just been driven past. I had not the slightest inclination to imagine the esteemed Mr Clunes in my hotel bedroom – a missed opportunity perhaps, but probably just as well as I needed all my energy for walking.

In fact, this visit was a big success on the walking front and I achieved my aim of completing the next two sections which took me from Rock to Port Gaverne on the first day and then onward to Tintagel on the second. My tediously planned itinerary worked perfectly: the buses arrived approximately when expected (no more phantom trips for me); my legs held up fine; my heart/lung health was sorely tested on the endless climbs on day one, but recovery on the even steeper and more frequent ascents was already much improved on day two. 

The path from Rock to Port Isaac is popular and there are several places along the route which can be accessed easily from car parks. The walk was therefore quite busy, at least when close to these spots, and there was a fair amount of cheery ‘halloo-ing’ to be done. The second day’s walk is graded Severe by the South West Coast Path Association and does not form part of any casual rambling plan. So I met fewer people, but several of them were keen to stop and chat, which was a good excuse to catch my breath from time to time. I was warned by one of these fellow walkers about the enormous cost of sampling the new bridge across to the island at Tintagel, so I was happy to do no more than take a couple of photos whilst muttering ‘bah humbug mythical nonsense’ before trundling up to the touristy centre that is Tintagel itself. 

I will admit to some hefty edible gift shopping in the 45 minutes I had to wait before the bus. And also to eating one of the gifts before I reached my hotel – in fairness to me, it was only a small bag of fudge and the journey involved two buses and more than an hour. Somehow, although I am always keen to get back to base after a hard day’s walking, there is a certain satisfaction in a long journey home because it highlights just how far I have travelled under my own steam. I also made friends at the midway bus stop in Camelford with a couple who were walking the SWC Path in the same direction as me and using buses as much as possible. We exchanged stories and recommendations and wished each other happy walking. I think they will finish this epic hike before me, but only just.

I was incredibly lucky with the weather. If anything it was a little too warm and sunny, but there is always something of a breeze up on the clifftops, so I was fine. I had forgotten to bring any heavy-duty suncream, but plastered some of my SPF15 face cream on my shoulders and neck just in case and all was well. (Although, I later realised that my wearing of a headscarf to keep my hair from blowing into my face had resulted in an untreated strip of skin above my eyebrows catching rather too many rays. Not alarmingly so and easily hidden under my fringe, but as I write this now I will admit that there is a slight shedding of skin going on today!)

My last bus trip was from Port Isaac – where I struck up yet another conversation with a very nice walking lady – back to Bodmin Parkway. The revelation on this trip was that the number 96 I was boarding would miraculously morph into the number 10 at Wadebridge, so I would not need to disembark at all – hurrah! I calculated that I would therefore be able to catch a slightly earlier train than originally planned – double hurrah!

We arrived on time and I merrily trundled onto the platform…

…to find that the train was cancelled.

Ah well, can’t have everything. 






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