Saturday, 28 February 2009

The Route Less Ridden

It's just before ten in the morning and I'm standing outside Luton train station, waiting for a bus to the town of Hitchin, about ten miles away. There is one due, run by a small local firm, which will take nearly an hour to cover the distance.

I know there are other services, probably faster, but I haven't been here for a while, and where I thought the bus station was located there is only a fenced-off expanse of rubble. Rather than investigate further I've decided to cut my losses and wait here.

The bus arrives on time, but the driver is coming off his shift and the new guy does not turn up for another five minutes. The bus company's dress code is clearly not as exacting as that of the bigger firms. Over his shirt he wears a black leather waistcoat with three words painted in artistic italics on the back. The last of these words is 'freedom', but I cannot decipher the first two. He is middle-aged and stocky with short, light coloured hair and a neat goatee. He gives no sign that he is aware of his scheduled departure time, and ambles around the bus, pulling and prodding at the cracked and dented corners of the bumpers, presumably making sure nothing is going to fall off. This procedure would seem more annoying if he gave the impression of being some slow, plodding jobsworth rather than an unusual advocate of (some kind of) freedom.

He finishes all the checks and then glances at me, waiting with feigned patience near his doors.

'You waitin' for this one?' he asks in a surprised Scottish accent.


He doesn't seem convinced.

'Where you goin'?'


'Aye,' he nods, happy now.

I get on, the only passenger, and take a seat at the back. We set off for Hitchin at a speed which suggests that he is aware of his tardiness after all, and regards it as something of a challenge. He cares not for speed bumps and we bounce out of the town centre and then hurry through the outskirts of Luton and out into a countryside of empty green fields, bare winter hedges, and affluent old villages with odd names like Tea Green and St Ippollitts.

We are soon negotiating narrow, winding lanes that were never intended for a full-sized bus. Any encounter with an oncoming car leads to a brief exercise in precision maneouvering as we inch past each other with wing mirrors scraping the hedges.

After about half an hour we finally acquire another passenger - a young woman with a pushchair - which dissappoints me slightly as I was starting to think I might be the only person on board during the entire journey, which would have added to the heartwarming unfeasability of the service.

A few minutes later we go around one tight corner too many and trigger some kind of on-board alarm - a loud, high-pitched, continuous tone of the kind that seems to come from everywhere and to vary in volume with any slight movement of your head, making it all the harder to ignore. The driver pulls over and stops and starts the engine, but this makes no difference. He then gets out and looks at something at the back of the bus, but this doesn't solve the problem either. He gets back on board and addresses the young woman and myself -

'Do youse mind that noise?'

'No, no,' I reply, guessing that an affirmative answer would lead to us coming to rest here until it can be remedied.

'If youse can put up with it for ten minutes we'll be in Hitchin... otherwise we'll have to wait to get it fixed,' he continues.

'No, no... it's fine,' I say again emphatically.

The young woman nods in agreement and then turns and smiles at me, which dispels any lingering regret I had about her being here.

We persevere, and in the last village before Hitchin we pick up our third and final passenger, a very elderly woman with a shopping trolley and a fold-up cane of the kind that partially sighted people sometimes use. As the driver pulls over for her the engine cuts out and we roll to a halt about six feet after the bus shelter. He starts up the engine again and waits, but there is a postbox between the woman and the bus doors and she is unable to even begin to negotiate this obstacle. She starts to fold her cane up, then stops to look at the unexpected distance to the bus, then looks at her trolley, then realises that her cane is coming unfolded again, and then begins to repeat the whole unhappy cycle again. Eventually the driver reverses back to her, the young woman gets up to help her on board and I feel guilty for my impatient thoughts.

'You ok with the noise love?' asks the driver.

'Beg pardon?' she replies, inadvertantly giving the right answer.

We make it into Hitchin without further incident, and I thank the driver and set off in search of my collection address, no longer troubled by the thought that I might have got here quicker by another, more routine route, on a probably more crowded bus, with a driver who would presumably believe in some variety of freedom but who, even if they wanted to, would not have had the freedom to show it.


  1. I love reading tales of your travels. This is one of my favourites. Almost like a real life version of John Shuttleworth's 5oo Bus Stops.

  2. Thanks Simon, glad you like the writing. Thanks for the link from your site as well.