I like a big bus and I cannot lieHaving enjoyed last year's Isle of Wight Classic Buses, Beer and Walk Weekend, Bluebottle once again spent a whole weekend travelling across the Isle of Wight in what has to be one of the world's greatest ever pub crawls, this time even bigger and better than ever.
On a double-decker I climb up high
When a bus pulls in with a tiny single deck
I refuse to get on, I'd rather ride a wreck.
- Not 'Baby Got Back (I Like Big Butts)' by Sir Mix a Lot1
The Isle of Wight Beer and Bus Weekend
Top: 1951 Eastbourne Corporation AEC Regent III, Bluebottle and 1937 AEC Regent I
Bottom: 1958 AEC Routemaster prototype, 1940 Southern Vectis Bristol K5G 'The Old Girl'
Organised by the Isle of Wight Bus Museum and the Isle of Wight branch of CAMRA, the CAMpaign for Real Ale, for two days a year the whole of the Isle of Wight is effectively transformed into a giant pub crawl. Only instead of having to walk, a fleet of classic 20th Century buses transport you from pub to pub for free along fourteen different routes across the Isle of Wight.
In 2016 over 70 buses took part in the event, transporting people to 63 participating pubs along eleven different bus routes across the Island. This year almost 90 buses dating from the 1930s to 2002 took part, as well as 87 pubs. Most of the buses are privately owned and brought down at the owners' expense, some from considerable distance on the Mainland, to what is becoming one of the largest preserved bus events in the UK. Due to bus licensing laws these privately owned buses are unable to charge anyone for travel and standing is not permitted, even when the buses were designed to allow standing passengers.
All the pubs involved were independents serving real ale, rather than national chains. A real or cask ale is one with live yeast that gets from the cask to the glass either by tap or by hand-pump. Any ale that comes in a keg, has had carbon dioxide added and uses gas to travel to the glass is not a real ale, but a fake. Most of the pubs involved in the weekend had special offer prices printed in the Event Programme for those taking part in the beer and bus weekend. As the bus routes were based on where there were participating real ale pubs, the bus services went to out-of-the-way places such as Culver Haven, but did not go to the town of East Cowes or the large village of Freshwater.
The Isle of Wight Ramblers were also involved, providing a selection of often country walks between pubs and circular walks from and to pubs that could be downloaded from the event's website. Many of these walks, shown with the use of an 'A' symbol, were designed to be accessible and suitable for wheelchairs and pushchairs etc.
On the Omnibus
I was spending the weekend with old school friends who delight in real ale. I'm not an ale drinker and just enjoy being able to jump on and off classic buses from the 1930s onwards as they drive around the Island's spectacular countryside. Aside from walking, cycling and running through the landscape, there's no better way to get out and admire the view than from the top of a double-decker. So if it had been just me, I would have happily spent my time taking photographs of every participating bus and jumping on and off buses all day. After all, riding on a bus can change the world - just ask Rosa Parks. My friends, though, were far more interested in the alcoholic side. The beauty of this event was that it catered for all interests.
The event had two hubs; Riverside Centre at Newport Quay and the Isle of Wight Bus Museum in Ryde. Although the road leading to Riverside Centre was closed shortly before the event took place due to bridge maintenance, the event was still able to take place there as it used the usually blocked back route via the council offices, which had the unfortunate side effect of involving numerous speedbumps.
Harbouring Bus Enthusiasts
For me, the weekend started in Cowes, where I got the first bus leaving from outside Cowes Library to Newport, the 9:53am on Route A. This was a standard-looking 1979 Wilts & Dorset double-decker bus, registration BFX 666T. A Bristol VRT, this was a common sort of bus nationwide until around 2010 and in fact was one of 11 Bristol VRTs involved in the weekend in different liveries. Just as the bus entered Newport Harbour we passed a Merseybus leaving the quayside. I must confess that at first I was disappointed as I had always pictured Liverpool's buses being Bedford VAL Panoramas, exactly like the bus seen in Beatles-film Magical Mystery Tour2. Liverpool has a bit of a reputation for high crime levels, especially shoplifting, which is perpetuated in the media, for example in Red Dwarf Lister explains how, when he grew up in Liverpool he'd go scrumping, but scrumping for cars, not apples. Even so I was not prepared to learn that this particular double-decker bus had once been stolen from Garston Garage.
On the journey to Newport I passed the time trying to decide what the best bus film musicals of all time were. Sadly My Neighbour Totoro (1988) isn't a musical, though who doesn't love Catbus? Similarly despite 'Getta Bloomin' Move On (Self-Preservation Society)' The Italian Job (1969) doesn't count as a musical even though its opening song was sung by singing busman himself, Matt Monro. The Muppet film also feature Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, a band that own a bus, but the bus isn't a large enough focus of the films. I was also unsure of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), a film which has inspired a stage musical but, including only four pop songs, is quite borderline as to whether it counts as a musical or not. I decided in the end to allow it, but despite this it didn't make the final three. So without further ado, my list of the best bus film musicals of all time are:
- Fifth: Bus Stop, starring Marilyn Monroe as a talentless entertainer (1956)
- Fourth: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
- Third: Spice World3 (1997)
- Second: Summer Holiday (1963)
- First: Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
On arrival in Newport I went to the merchandise stand to ensure I had the full range of event publications and programmes. I already had the 84-page Event Programme but now picked up the 48-page Vehicle Supplement, which provided more information as to the vehicles taking part and when they'd be operating which routes, as well as the 12-page beer guide, listing exactly what ale was sold at each participating pub. I also bought the 2017 Beer & Bus Weekend Official T-Shirt, as the 2016 one had been the best-fitting and most comfortable t-shirt I'd purchased in recent years.
I continued to take photographs of the buses coming and going until my friends arrived. It was better organised this year, with separate queues for the different destinations held beneath a marquee4. There was also the mixed blessing of live entertainment; I believe it was Jane Austen who said,
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man who is a real ale drinking classic bus enthusiast, must be in want of Morris Dancers.
Or possibly not.
Still, while I was waiting, a beautiful Routemaster bus came along, proudly emblazoned with the words 'Routemaster – London's Bus of the Future'. This was one of the Routemaster prototypes and one of the buses owned by the London Bus Museum to have come down to participate in the weekend.
Ticket to Ryde
A little while later – 10:45am according to the timetable – my friends arrived on the first bus from Shanklin. Knowing from last year that the event was incredibly popular and most participants seemed to be heading out West Wight or south to Ventnor, it made sense for us to go in the opposite direction and see East Wight this year. There were two areas of the Island out East Wight that we particularly wanted to take advantage of. Second was the challenge of travelling up to the Culver Haven, on the steepest road the buses would travel complete with cattle grid, which is where the buses broke down the year before, and the first was from Wootton.
So we queued up for the next route X bus (Newport – Wootton – Binstead – Ryde Bus Museum, the location of the other bus hub). This route too was proving popular, and so they were also offering an X Express, taking riders to Ryde non-stop straight to the bus museum. Obviously we wanted to stop at Wootton and so boarded the 11am X, a nice 1960s Routemaster in London Country green. We soon arrived in Wootton, but instead of heading to the Woodman's Arms5, which was hosting Morris dancers, we got off at stop after; opposite the Isle of Wight Steam Railway.
Letting off Steam with a Bird Display
Top: Royal Engineer (1953), Southern Vectis buses (1939-1940). Insert: Harris Hawk
Bottom: Kynges Well in Brading, Culver Haven Inn and Yarborough Monument
The Isle of Wight Steam Railway was also participating in the weekend, and running free trains between Wootton and their main station at Havenstreet. After a Railway official had checked that everyone had purchased a programme, we were allowed onto the station's platform just as the train arrived. The train was pulled by Austerity tank engine WD198 Royal Engineer. Austerity's were designed during the Second World War as cheap, basic, powerful engines for war duties, and their perfect design resulted in the perfect engine to win you a war and be able to handle anything that peace can bring too. Comparatively common engines, they might not be considered glamorous, but they're the solid backbone of the steam railway heritage movement. WD198 Royal Engineer is an ex War Department engine built in 1953, which makes her the youngest engine on the Isle of Wight6. As she arrived at the station a 1st Class compartment stopped right in front of us, but it was locked. So we got into the next compartment7. Uniquely, the Isle of Wight Steam Railway is the only steam railway to operate compartment carriages rather than corridor carriages8. After a short journey we arrived at Havenstreet, where we left the train and headed to the marquee in the event field where a range of real ales were being served. At £3:50 each this was by far the priciest pint of the weekend, but with a free steam train ride you can't begrudge them charging what is still a rather reasonable rather than London price. Although there were tables inside the marquee, we had spotted they had tables outside and decided to enjoy the fine day and sit in the open.
Give me a falcon and I shall move the world.
As we arrived, people from Haven Falconry10 started doing a bird display, initially with an owl. There were three handlers who would sneak up behind everyone's tables and then raise their arms so that the owl would swoop unexpectedly over the watchers, to ensure that everyone had remarkably close encounters with the owl. Following the owl came a Harris Hawk; we were warned that it liked playing a game called 'how low can I go' and they weren't kidding, it swooped over my head with barely an inch to spare.
Soon after a family of five birds came out, and just as we were thinking 'those red kites look a funny colour' we were told that they were black kites. Black Kites, we asked ourselves, puzzled, only to be told that they are by far the most common bird of prey species all around the world – except of course in the UK, where we have the Red Kite. These birds stayed airborne throughout the display rather than fly to and from handlers and didn't swoop as close as the hawk or owl, but with five there was always one nearby. After this free show had ended they came round with a collection bucket, and so we took the opportunity to lighten ourselves of shrapnel.
So by the time we had finished our first pint, our first stop had given us a free steam train ride and a bird display. We knew the rest of the weekend would all be an anticlimax from now on in.
We walked to the station when Royal Engineer returned11, travelled back to Wootton where there was a strategically placed collection bucket. I donated some heritage £1 coins, including a particularly shiny old obsolete one dating from 2015. We crossed the road to the bus stop and then caught the next X classic bus to Ryde. This was the newest bus taking part in the weekend, a 2002 Dennis Dart. Is it just me, or do buses equipped with CCTV not really feel heritage? That said, some people seem to think anything not equipped with Wi-Fi must be prehistoric… It had a powerful radio, though, and we enjoyed listening to some 80s classics on our journey to Ryde.
Ryde Bus Stop
Arriving in Ryde the bus pulled in to the second biggest transport hub of the event, located outside the Isle of Wight Bus Museum. The bus depot was built in 1938 and is a surprisingly art deco building that boasts of having the same Crittall windows as the Houses of Parliament and Tower of London. It contains many exhibits, including the bus that ran over Adam Faith, whose father was a bus driver, with dressing up areas, a bus converted into a café as well as buses from the 1930s onwards, as well as a stagecoach. I had been given instructions by my wife that she'd let me go to the Beer and Bus Weekend if I brought her back a beer and a bus, so I bought a nice scale model of a Southern Vectis Bristol Lowdecker double-decker bus12.
As we waited for our bus to arrive, we watched the attempts to get a 1949 Bedford OB up and running. We were about to fulfil a promise made in 2016 – to travel a Route F to the top of Culver Down.
Up Culver Down
Last year one double-decker had driven all the way from the Midlands only to break down when trying to make the ascent up Culver Down. It hadn't even made it as far as the first cattle-grid. I must admit I found the idea of sitting on an old bus with very little suspension and uncomfortable seating as it drives over a cattle-grid appealing and had made my friends promise that in 2017 we'd head up to the top of Culver and visit one of the Island's most isolated pubs, the Culver Haven.
This year they had learnt from their mistakes and so the buses selected to travel up Culver were two 1993 open top Leyland Olympians in Island Breezer livery. Still attractive buses, mind. So for the journey there, as it was a bright and sunny day we climbed to the top deck to make the most of the open top as the bus left Ryde for its journey to Elmfield, Brading, Yarbridge and Culver Haven. At Elmfield outside the High Park Tavern we sped by a third group of Morris Dancers, dressed all in veiled black with a hint of blood red. These were from my aunt's group, Bloodstone Border Morris, with my aunt on accordion. They are named after Bloodstone Copse, the site of a legendary battle between Vikings and Saxons which was so fierce that not only did the river run red with blood, but the very stones in the stream were turned to blood ever after13. The Goth version of Morris Dancing, they dress in black, wear veils and never wave frilly lace around.
The bus made it to the top of the down and stopped next to the invasion beacon; it wasn't lit, so the French and Spanish weren't attacking at the moment, which is always a good sign; the Spanish presumably being preoccupied preparing to invade themselves over the whole Catalonia independence issue. We got off, looking forward to a lovely nammet, but a bus load of passengers had disembarked in front of us as we'd been up top, so tragically by the time we made it to the bar, they'd stopped serving food. So we had a drink for half an hour (£3 a pint with the programme), a pint of Goddard's Brewery's Duck's Folly. The story goes that Goddard's approached their bank to ask for help developing their business in the 1980s, only for the bank to lose a lot of Goddard's money in the process, who became successful regardless. As a lasting memorial to this bunch of bankers, Goddard's named one of their beers 'Duck's Folly' in their honour, which is an anagram14.
We caught the next bus back. It was another Leyland Olympian and this time we sat downstairs, and I chose deliberately to sit above the rear wheels to get the full benefit of the cattle grids, one at the top and one at the bottom of the down. We got off the bus in the Kynges Town of Brading, Brading being the second-smallest town on the Island15. There we popped into the Kynges Well, which had been the Black Horse last time I'd been in and run by the same people who ran the White Horse in Whitwell. It too was really busy with real ale enthusiasts and we would have faced a wait of well over an hour. We came to the conclusion over a pint that, due to the incredible popularity of the event, the best way forward would be to go off the grid and go somewhere not participating in the Bus and Beer weekend. The other pubs in Brading, the Wheatsheaf and Bugle Inn, were also participating, so we decided to head home to Sandown.
We headed up to the bus stop by the Bull Ring to catch a Route G (Ryde, Elmfield, Brading, Yarbridge, Sandown, Shanklin) and were dismayed by the number of people queuing. In almost no time we were delighted to see the Old Girl herself come round the corner, labelled G. The Old Girl is a 1939 Bristol K5G that is still owned by Southern Vectis 78 years after they first bought her, and the oldest bus in their fleet. Unfortunately she was already full and just as we were preparing to walk back to Sandown we were delighted to see she was tailed by a Relief bus, a 1977 Leyland single-decker following to help cope with demand. We then enjoyed the ride to Sandown and walked down Pier Street to Flanagan's Restaurant and Bar, which was by far the quietest licenced premises we'd seen all day, but they really did a delightful meal. From there we went around the corner to the seafront where the old Carlton Hotel was being demolished, in order to make way for a Premier Inn. It really was quite sad to watch bulldozers and JCBs demolish a unique building that has been a part of my hometown since long before I was born, in order to make way for a new hotel that will be identical to all other Premier Inns nationwide. Once my hometown was proud of its Victorian and Edwardian seafront and the large villas on the Broadway, but in the last 20 years, one-by-one they have been knocked down, losing some of the town's unique character every time. Premier Inn don't even care about the Island as their advertising campaign had proved.
Anyway, with heavy hearts we headed uphill and inland towards the next pub, the Castle Inn. This was celebrating a Halloween Ale Festival, with 16 real ales and an incredibly spookily-decorated atmosphere. Everywhere you looked there were life-sized skeletons, coffins, people being sawn in two, skulls, witches, monsters etc, with the stone building looking quite the mediæval torture chamber as many of the exhibits had come from the former Brading Waxworks. There were real ales named 'Bldy Doors Off' and 'Zombie Suicide' available, although we were happy drinking a few rounds of Dragon's Breath, which according to the blurb is a unique winter warmer beer flavoured with black treacle and an aftertaste of morello cherries. Anyway, after a little while we enjoyed the scenic walk along the cliff top as far as Lake Station, where we parted - as I stayed the night with one friend, the other went back to his home in Shanklin.
The next morning my mate and I caught the train16 from Lake to Shanklin. Sadly, Lake didn't have any pubs participating in the weekend so Lake didn't have its own stop. As the rail franchise had just changed from South West Trains to South Western Railways, we wondered whether they would soon have a change of livery as the trains really needed a fresh coat of paint. Apparently South Western Railways have announced Wi-Fi for all stations, although I'm not sure that they were referring to Lake. As beneficial as Wi-Fi would be, I would have other priorities first. A bench would be nice, or road access. Or best of all, a toilet. I can't imagine anyone arriving at a station and being in as desperate, urgent need for Wi-Fi as I can clearly imagine someone being in desperate, urgent need of a toilet.
In Shanklin, after popping along the road to the Co-op to buy a local beer for my wife as I'd promised, we walked back to the train station. Shanklin train station was on routes G (Ryde to Shanklin), L (Shanklin to Newport) as well as V (Shanklin to Ventnor). The same coach that my friends had travelled on the day before was there as a Relief vehicle, but this journey we went on a 1971 Bristol VRT.
As we arrived in Newport Harbour a 1987 Leyland Olympian in Southampton CityBus livery, owned by the Southampton & District Transport Heritage Trust, left. That was a jolt back in time; I went to University in Southampton and have worked in Southampton for the last 15 years. In 1997 Southampton CityBus was taken over by First, so for twenty years all buses have been in the standard First livery. My inlaws live in Leeds and in fact the buses there look identical to the buses in Southampton. It dawned on me; part of the joy of this event is seeing the buses in their different colours from all across the country; whether Southern Vectis cream or green, Ulsterbus, Brighton & Hove, Wilts & Dorset, London or Merseybus. Each bus had its own local identity and a home it belonged to. Yet now local bus companies are being swallowed by the conglomerates; Arriva, First, Go Ahead and Stagecoach. Local identity is being sacrificed by nameless businesses interested only in their corporate identity, and in the process we lose a little of who we are. Every time part of what makes a town or area unique is lost and replaced with an exact copy of what exists in every other town in the land, the whole country loses something special.
Anyway, on the Sunday we met up with another friend so there were now four of us, and we had a simple plan. Today we planned to head north to Cowes via route P (Newport, Porchfield, Northwood, Gurnard, Cowes). This was a new, longer route to Cowes via the recently re-opened 19th Century Sportsman's Rest in Porchfield, not far from the licensed Porchfield Cricket Club. The Sportsman's had been closed for some time and only recently reopened, so we were delighted to visit it once again. I must admit that as we were queuing for a bus I needed to use the toilet, only to see a bus labelled 'P Relief' pull up. Typical. It was the same relief single-decker that we'd travelled on between Brading and Sandown. We arrived at the Sportsman's, enjoyed a drink and then when the next bus pulled up outside, a 1966 Bristol MW6G single-decker in Enterprise livery. An attractive bus to look at, it nevertheless had quite steep steps that seemed designed to ensure anyone disembarking would hit their heads on the wing-mirror on the way out. We travelled to Gurnard17 where we stopped at the Woodvale to enjoy one of their splendid meals; I particularly enjoyed their Sunday roast.
After dinner as it was such a bright, sunny day we decided to enjoy a walk along the front back to Cowes promenade, passing Egypt Point, the starting point of the Great NorthSouth R#n I'd completed just three works earlier.
We arrived at Cowes Promenade and the site of the Route A bus stop there, where we spotted the very 1979 double-decker bus registration BFX 666T that had been the first I'd ridden on the day earlier. Yet the bus was 666 by registration number and nature; it had broken down. Fortunately another replacement bus came along soon, a 1950 AEC Regent III double-decker. This was to prove the final bus ride of the weekend, as I'd promised to spend time with my mum and sister in Newport at 4pm. So when we arrived back at Newport Quay, while my friends went off to another pub, I spent some time photographing buses in the bright sunshine. Sadly it was the day before Hurricane Ophelia struck Ireland, bringing with it Saharan dust that caused spectacular atmospheric discolouration; if only the hurricane had hit just 24 hours earlier I would have been able to photograph the heritage buses beneath a post-apocalyptic blood-red sun and bright orange sky, which would have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Still, I did get some good photographs of a wide variety of buses, including the oldest one of the weekend, a 1937 AEC Regent I, which carried a label advertising Branston Pickle. I don't know to what extent advertising works, but I do know that when I got home later that day I did indeed have a cheese and Branston pickle sandwich. Then again, there's a good chance I'd've had brencheese and pickle anyway as the reason we own Branston pickle is because I like it and eat it often.
Please ride buses responsibly