The applause from the back of the bus was deafening. As I looked out of the window at the Three Wheat Heads in Thropton I half waited for cheers and dancing to join the applause, but then again this is the Coquet Valley in Northumberland. They do it differently here. They do it well.
I've followed the fortunes of Spirit Buses since they began last year by local Rothbury lad Steve Hurst. I've never met Steve before, but from people I know living here I realised he was someone who is admired and they want to see succeed. Rothbury has a long tradition of doing things their own way and from what I'd read and heard he had a passion to provide a bus service to this area and do it one better. A simple aim - to provide a real modern view of what a bus service should do in a rural area by providing the people with what they need, not what other bus companies see as a minimum service. And I have to say, from my first ever encounter with Steve he has achieved this without question.
I'll put my cards on the table and admit that I know the Coquet Valley well. For 20 years my parents had a static caravan up on the Coquetdale Caravan Park 'just up the hill', every spare moment was spent here allowing me to wander the Coquet landscape unhindered from the age of 6. Later I volunteered for many years as a warden at the Cragside Estate just outside Rothbury which completed my education of this Northumbrian jewel. I may have never actually lived in Rothbury, (now living 400 miles away in Somerset) but the Coquet Valley means a lot to me, in many ways provides my roots, my soul and my spirit.
Apt then that Steve Hurst should name his company Spirit Buses.
This weekend I was up with my partner Julie for the Rothbury Traditional Music Festival, but I have long wanted to support Steve and go up the Valley on his bus. The hour of departure arrived. Taking a break from the pipes and fiddles, at 14.45hrs the bus arrived in the centre of the village. A newly purchased (and as yet unliveried) Spirit bus.
We were going on the 'Coquetdale Circular'
This Coquetdale Circular route follows somewhat in the footsteps of the Royal Mail Post Bus Service which ran until January 2009 up the Coquet Valley to the last village of Alwinton. While the National Royal Mail service provided a lifeline to the many hamlets and farms up this remote valley by ferrying passengers while delivering the post, it received thousands of pounds in subsidies from Northumberland Council to keep it running. When the subsidies stopped the service stopped and for anyone living west of Thropton, the terminus to a national provider, public transport ended.
The similarity stops there. What Steve Hurst is doing is running a service without any financial subsidy, using his own money and driven enthusiasm. Not only up the valley, but to Alnwick (Rothbury and Alnwick have never been connected by public transport), Morpeth and other areas. How he has done this can be read below in an article in the Guardian.
For me last Saturday I solely wanted to experience this bus journey for what it is, which is now also becoming tourist service in its own right.
The bus was nearly full when we set off. Half the passengers were local. Steve greeting each one by name, a smile and a few words. The rest were, like me, tourists excited at being driven on this 20 odd mile round trip for little more than the cost of a skinny latte in a city centre bistro. As I got on the bus I asked Steve if it would be okay to take photos on the way.
"No problem, I'll stop at Alwinton too and you can get out and take one there"
And we were off. Up the valley. Thropton 2 miles away, then Snitter a mile or so further on. As a car driver I have to concentrate on the road, but released from the rules of the highway my eye was caught by myriad views of the passing landscape newly seen from the height of a bus. Ohh that's what's over that hedge then? Just fabulous.
Onward the bus went, after Snitter, Netherton. The scenery is getting wild now. Behind me tourists 'ohh-ing and ahh-ing' at this huge, vast skied breath-taking scenery. Camera's clicked, people pointed. One lady, obviously local, had brought two guests with her and began pointing out places of interest or where she went to school. Quietly in front of me a local couple sat with their shopping, another man read a book to his little girl and an elderly lady sat next to me. More on her later.
Biddlestone next and it's red quarry scar, before the long drive into the remote valley near Alwinton, where the bus turned round to head back on a different route.
Alwinton: population 71:
This is the last village in the Valley. It has the last pub in the valley and is a centre for walkers and cyclists heading up Clennel Street in search of fresh air and freedom on the Cheviot Hill. Had the spirit bus continued, after about 6 miles it would have passed the last tea shop in Northumberland, at Barrowburn. Possibly the most remote café in England which is well worth a visit. Sit in the garden of this café and take the view. Nothing but hills and the odd passing sheep oh and absolute silence (providing the NATO Ranges are not firing at Otterburn). 6 miles or so beyond Barrowburn the road slowly ends close by the Scottish Border. It's a remote landscape loved by me and historically frequented by the Reivers.
Alwinton is home to another last, the Alwinton Border Shepherds Show which as the last country show in the calendar takes place this year on October 10th. Sometimes I sit daydreaming about the Alwinton Show while working in Bristol or at home in Somerset, its what keeps me going.
However my daydream was broken on Saturday by Steve. Having picked up half a dozen walkers they now filled the bus. Steve's head popped round the side of where he was sitting.
"Do you still want a photo here?"
I'd not forgotten (honestly) I just didn't want to get in the way. I got off and photographed his bus by the stop hard by the Rose and Crown
"Can I take a photo of you Steve as I want to write about this"
"No problem, I get a lot of these now from tourists, happy to do it"
Photographs done, I rushed back on passing the tourist information Steve has on his bus. Aside from the regular scheduled services, I'd been reading how Steve operates special events and also ties in with people like Shepherd Walks who have developed walks based on where his bus goes to and from and his timetable.
This is what makes this such a special service. It's a bus service run to a very professional standard, on time and in clean friendly buses. Yet it is also a community hub, a link to other areas and people, provides tourist transport and as I was about to witness, a rural delivery service.
We were off, through the wonderfully named Harbottle then on into Holystone, chance for a photo of the long gone Salmon Inn in the far distance (where I spent much too much of my early years). An about turn and retrace our steps into Sharperton and a halt.
Out Steve got and walked over the bus stop where various items were. He was dropping off a delivery. Out here the community look out for each other and the additional services this bus provides is apparently well used by locals. The delivery made we left Sharperton back into the lower Valley and heading to Thropton, leaving me with plenty of time to take an artistic image of the ever smiling Steve at the wheel of his office while waiting at some traffic lights.
Roadwork's in Thropton distracted everyone including Steve who accidentally drove by the regular stop where the elderly lady next to me hoped to get off. Apologetic he pulled up as soon as he safely could, switched off the bus and walked the lady the few yards back to her home, returning to his seat accompanied by a huge round of applause from the locals (and tourists) for his act of generosity. Then we were off, Steve waving at a chap by the roadside who I later discovered was Henry, someone I'd not seen in 30 years, not since those days when the Cross Keys in Thropton and the Salmon in Holystone swapped clientele. Moving on ....
All too soon we were driving into Rothbury, time for a few last images of the Simonside Hills and the Festival from the bus.
Matching reality to words often fails but during this short 1 hour journey I'd seen more community spirit, heard more laughter, witnessed more good will towards people, more waving at passing motorists, than I've seen for a long time. I don't know Steve but a conversation with one of the locals after we arrived back in Rothbury summed it up beautifully.
I was taking the photograph below and she stopped me.
"Did you enjoy your ride on the bus?"
I recognised her as one of the locals who'd been on there. Explaining how it was fantastic and more people should come to Rothbury and experience this she said (and I'm paraphrasing)
"Steve has brought this valley to life again. Without him we'd not be able to get anywhere. I don't drive so relied on friends for lifts. Now I can get on here and go to friends, go to Alnwick, or Morpeth and know I'm with someone who I can rely on. He's such a good man, I only hope he can keep this service going"
I hope that too and why I've written this. As I've stated, I don't know Steve (who I hope doesn't mind my writing this), I have no connection to him other than by word of mouth, but I feel what he has achieved against mounting opposition in some areas is quite simply phenomenal. To run a bus service unaided, unsubsidised and on his own takes guts. He has guts, but he also has a charm and a sense of I am here to help the community, all with a sense of humour. Financially it must be a struggle. This is not a well populated area and running buses I should imagine isn't cheap. I hope then that more people come to the Valley and use his service. It is liberating to get out of the car and be part of a community on the move. I loved it and will do it again.
That lady I chatted to for over 5 minutes spoke of Steve in such warm tones, about a man who loves his village and its surrounding area and is actually doing something positive on his own for the good of others. Steve Hurst, is in many ways the real Spirit of Coquetdale.
Spirit Busses website - http://www.spiritbuses.co.uk/
Alwinton Show - http://www.alwintonshow.co.uk/
Shepherds Walks blog - http://shepherdswalks.co.uk/blog/netherton_to_alwinton