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Bluebottle drinks a Ticket to RydeBluebottle downs a Watercress or two over a weekend while riding on classic buses old and new. Will he be able to enjoy a piss-up in a brewery? Gather round and I'll tell you a Tale of Two Tickets. It was the best of times, it was the wettest of times while watching the bus times at this year's Isle of Wight Classic Buses, Beers and Walks Weekend.
Bluebottle drinks a Ticket to Ry-hy-Ryde
But it isn't the same Ticket to Ryde
But Bluebottle Don't Care
- Not 'Ticket to Ride' by The Beatles
Every October for two days the whole of the Isle of Wight is effectively transformed into a giant pub crawl with a fleet of classic buses showcasing 70 years of bus development transporting participants from pub to pub and town to town for free. The event is organised by the Isle of Wight branch of CAMRA, the CAMpaign for Real Ale, and the Isle of Wight Bus Museum. Three years ago there were 11 different bus routes, now there are 19 routes taking you to a choice of over 120 participating pubs and licensed premises across the Island, with 107 buses listed in the vehicle programme as participating plus an additional nine on static display in Newport and free access to the Ryde Bus Museum.
Having an Ale of a Time
As the event is run by CAMRA all the pubs involved serve Real Ale1, and I must admit I go to spend time with my friends, who are far more interested in beer, whereas I like being able to jump on and off classic buses and driving around the Island's spectacular countryside admiring the view from the top of a double-decker bus. October's often the perfect time of year to do this; later in the year in winter it is too cold, dark and wet to enjoy it while earlier in the year in summer the buses, which with their large glass windows are in many ways mobile greenhouses, are too hot. Sadly this year the weather all weekend was wet and windy, which proved too much of a challenge for some of the participating buses.
While I would like to go to different routes and pubs every year and use the event as an opportunity to go to unfamiliar places, my friends are a bit more set in their ways and like to go to their favourites. So what normally happens is that on the Saturday we try and head in a different direction each year but every Sunday for the last four years we've gone to the same places at the same time. But I don't often get a chance to catch up with my old friends, which only seems to happen once or twice a year.
Running for the Bus?
For me the weekend began, as it usually does, with a parkrun on Saturday morning. Medina IOW's parkrun moves to Ryde in the summer, but in winter it is held at Seaclose Park and in the Medina Arboretum, which is next to where the bus hub is located at Newport Quay. This was my 251st parkrun and I was wearing my 250 shirt for the first time. Sadly because it had rained ever since Wednesday and the route is virtually all on grass (with some short sections on gravel paths) I was soon completely muddy and my running shoes were soaked. Running shoes are designed to be lightweight rather than waterproof, and they were the only shoes I had brought with me for the weekend.
After a quick shower and change into normal clothes at the Medina Swimming Pool that is next to Seaclose Park, I enjoyed a nice, hot cup of tea across the park at the Riverside Centre located at Newport Quay. My Dad and I watched the buses come and go as I bought the traditional T-shirt and this year, to keep the rain out of my eyes, an Isle of Wight Classic Buses, Beer & Walks Weekend hat. With ever more of my clothing coming from that event I'll have to enquire in future years whether they do socks and pants. Before he left my father said he had a simple rule when it came to buses,
If I can see the radiator cap, I like it. If I can't see a radiator cap then it's modern and I don't.
Bundling into the Buddle
I was beginning to wonder where my two friends were, even though neither of whom look overly like SashaQ despite Facebook's facial recognition software believing otherwise. Their bus, an elderly Southern Vectis coach, turned up about 15 minutes late, largely because one of its windscreen wipers had fallen off outside Shanklin and the driver had to stop the bus, go out into the rain to look for it and reattach it. After we met up we agreed that we'd head south and see which bus arrived first to determine where we went, so if a Route K arrived first we would head to Chillerton and the new Gallybagger Inn2 at the Chillerton Reading Room or if a J arrived we'd go to St Catherine's and the Buddle Inn. A latter pulled up – a 1972 coach – so it was to the Buddle that we went. The Buddle Inn at Niton is the southernmost pub on the Island and where I spent the latter stages of my stag night. Originally a 16th Century farmhouse, it became a smuggler's inn in the 18th Century, with the sign outside proudly boasting 'Pub – Dining – Smugglers'. It is now part of the Character Inns group and was voted the Isle of Wight's Best Pub in the first three years of the Beer and Bus event; 2014, 2015 and 2016.
There we went to the Smuggler's Barn building and caught up with chatting about the issues of the day. This naturally included the incredible journey of Culver the white-tailed eagle, Red Funnel losing one of the anchors off one of their car ferries, taking the expression 'anchors away' too literally and the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust's urgent appeal to raise almost £250,000 which they want to use to buy some land along the Eastern Yar and reintroduce beavers to the Island, before the land is sold off. Obviously we speculated over how, were we millionaires, we would donate all the money and ask for the right to name various things. So, for example, you could ask them to name a building the, say, Bluebottle Education Centre or name things after relatives. Daniel said he would have something substantial named after his father while the first beavers should be called Curly and Moe. Personally I thought that one of the hides should be named the Dr Jekyll Hide. I also thought the very first breeding beaver pair should be called Dawn and Ray, named after Dawn French and Ray Winstone who voiced Mr and Mrs Beaver in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005). That way you could try and get them to pop along for some sort of naming ceremony and hopefully generate a bit of publicity.
At the Buddle we ate a bit of pulled pork for nammet and I looked at the beers on offer. They had 14 real ales, but there was only one that caught my eye. Local brewery Goddards, which boasts its beers are 'Isle of Wight born and brewed', had created a guest porter named 'Ticket to Ryde' especially for this event. The accompanying picture also consisted of a Magical Mystery Tour bus with blue and yellow stars driven by Beatle-esque walruses.
Volunteering for a Ventnor Adventure
After the Buddle we caught a bus into Ventnor, the nearest town, with the coach we were on managing to just about squeeze around the narrow stonewalled twisty-turny lanes. I must admit I was disappointed to see the vehicle we were catching as it looked modern, but apparently the 1997 DAF Ikarus is one of only two DAF single-deckers to have a Hungarian-built Ikarus body and is wearing Budapest bus livery. I still prefer the radiator-capped buses, though.
In Ventnor we headed to the Volunteer Inn, recognisable for the sign of Princess Beatrice's Isle of Wight Rifles. Built in 1866, this is one of the smallest pubs on the Island but nevertheless has a treasure-trove of an Aladdin's cave decorating every available inch. It was cram-packed with people as well as knickknacks. After the Volunteer we headed to the Blenheim, a pub with the advantage of being next to the bus stop. There we enjoyed a pint of Cornish beer St Austell's 'Proper Job' in proper pint glasses with handles.
Nothing Ventnored, Nothing Gained
It was then time to head to Sandown, but the trouble was we were in Ventnor. Many words have been used to describe the roads in Ventnor, however 'smooth', 'flat', 'straight' and 'wide' have never been among them. The word most often used might well, in fact, be . When it comes to twisty, bumpy, narrow, zig-zagging steep roads with sharp drops inches away, Ventnor has more than its fair share. It was in the paper that a car had gone over one just recently. Earlier this year it was announced that classic buses would no longer be driving between Ventnor and Shanklin as it was unfair to expect elderly buses to tackle the hill. In my dad's day the buses would stop at the bottom of the hill, all the passengers would walk to the bus stop at the top while the bus would slowly struggle up, and then when it (assuming it did) made it to the top all the passengers would board the bus again.
Instead the organisers had negotiated a discounted price with Southern Vectis, the Island's bus company, which meant that a standard bus journey between the two towns with a Buses Beer & Walks programme would cost £1:75, the child rate. I can't remember the last time I paid child fare to use a bus.
We got off the bus at Shanklin Station and waited for the next bus to Sandown. While we were waiting I perused Big Al's badge market stall and bought a 2019 commemorative event badge. When the bus, dating from 1976, turned up it was sadly already full. Faced with waiting another half hour we decided to enjoy the two and a half mile walk to Sandown as it was only drizzling.
On our journey we passed the pier, but sadly only the amusement arcade was open with the wet end closed for winter, which meant that we couldn't go to the doughnut café. We also went by the remains of the Carlton Hotel which is still a building site to turn it into a featureless and generic Premier Inn3. It is sadly because of work like this that Sandown was placed on Historic England's Heritage at Risk Register as a result of neglect, decay and inappropriate development to what should be a conservation area.
The Hunting of the Boojum: Will There Be A Piss-Up In the Brewery?
In Sandown we headed to the Boojum Brewery. This is the Island's newest micro-brewery and, indeed, the newest licensed venue. In fact only days before the event the former café on the High Street near the library was still a building site and we had doubts whether it would be able to open on time. Yet somehow the doors were open, the walls and floor were clean if bare, painted a basic white with no decoration. The place was functional, with hand-written lists of what was available selotaped to the bar. And again the place was packed – the place had no frills but also no standing room; we ended up sheltering in the doorway. There I enjoyed a pint of Watercress Warrior, a bottled beer made from watercress, which I often have in my sandwich for me nammet. Having just, and barely, opened I don't think they are up and running with the brewing yet, although their website does say that they are contributing to the brewing of a beer named Stouty McStoutface, with a note saying not to mention the floating bridge!
The brewery's name is of course a note to Lewis Carroll, also known as Reverend Charles Dodgson, author of Alice in Wonderland. He wrote many poems including The Hunting Of The Snark at Sandown in 1876. This poem was set on a magical island (sound familiar?) with one of the characters a beaver. After the crew look for the Snark it is finally revealed that the Snark being hunted was in fact a Boojum.
Anyway, we then headed uphill and inland towards the next pub, the Castle Inn. This, the pub voted 2018's Isle of Wight Classic Buses, Beer and Walks Pub of the Year was once more celebrating a Halloween Ale Festival, with 18 real ales and incredible decorations. 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.
Anyway, after a little while we walked along the cliff top to Lake, where I stayed the night with one friend, the other went back to his home in Shanklin. My shoes were still soaking wet from the parkrun in the morning, so I asked if I could borrow some newspaper to help dry them out. It helped but they weren't completely dry the following day.
Sunday: Day Tripper
The next morning held a break from tradition. Each Sunday morning for the last three years we've caught the train from Lake to Shanklin as Lake has never had any participating pubs in the event, so none of the classic buses stop there. However the Island Line trains were made in 1938 and they were considered life-expired stock back when they were sent to the Island as a five-year stop-gap 'temporary' measure 30 years ago, and the supply of spares has now officially run out. This means that they are now only running one train an hour, and so it was easier to catch the regular bus. There is a glimmer of hope in that the current Minister of Transport has promised the Isle of Wight the long-awaited track improvements as well as brand new D-78 1978 underground stock4 that London doesn't want any more, however of course a political promise only counts for as long as the current post holder is in that position, if it even lasts that long. So I'll believe it when I see it; after all it was only a year or two ago we were told the Island Line was about to be replaced with a light tram system.
After getting to Shanklin and meeting up with my other mate the day itself followed the same routine as previous years, catching a 1982 classic single-decker bus to Newport. From Newport's bus hub we met up with another friend and headed to Porchfield, travelling on a 1951 classic single-decker. At Porchfield we got off at the 19th Century Sportsman's Rest where I saw on the beer list that they had 'Ticket to Ryde'. Having enjoyed that drink the day before I ordered another, only to be surprised to be handed a blonde beer rather than a porter…?
The answer to this mystery was surprising. The Island's established breweries brew beers especially for this event; namely Island Ales' 'Hop Aboard', Yates' 'On The Buses' and this year as we have seen Goddards have created 'Ticket to Ryde'. However Ringwood Brewery, based on the Mainland in Hampshire near the New Forest, also wanted to participate and had created their own beer for the event, which they also named 'Ticket to Ryde'.
After the one drink – which we drank under a marquee in the pub's beer garden while sheltering from the rain - we travelled to Gurnard. This journey was on another modern single decker, in this case a 2002 Dennis Dart that was Southern Vectis' first low floor bus and was donated to the Isle of Wight Bus Museum only in September 2019. There we stopped at the Woodvale to enjoy one of their splendid meals; I particularly enjoyed their Sunday roast.
From Gurnard after dinner we again walked along the front back to Cowes promenade, passing Egypt Point. Cowes at this time of year is quiet once more as it recovers from its annual summer infestation by grotty yachties and the red trousered. The important thing to remember about Cowes is that the town is officially called 'Cowes'. Between 1833 and 1894 the area was called 'West Cowes', however in 1894 an Act of Parliament officially recognised that Cowes was its own parish and now to be known as 'Cowes'. Although the Red Funnel ferry company refer to the town as 'West Cowes' to prevent mainlanders getting confused with the town of East Cowes on the other side of the Medina, the town is correctly called Cowes. In Cowes we saw out the end of the event in the Ale House.
Enterprises of great pitch and moment... turn awry and lose the name of action
Last year I reported that five Ei tied pubs on the Island had closed in quick succession. A tied house is owned or run by a brewery company. These usually rent the pub to the landlord on the condition that they sell the brewery's drinks and buy other drinks such as soft drinks through the brewery. Enterprise Inns, now trading as Ei Group, is the UK's largest pub company. A typical Ei pub is owned by Ei but run by a publican who rents the pub as a tenancy. The tenant is required to buy all its drinks from Ei, who charge over two and a half times the price as the industry standard in order to maximise their profit, as well as charging extortionate costs to the landlords to rent the premises. Last year saw the closure of the Pier View in Cowes, the award-winning New Inn in Shalfleet, the King's Head in Yarmouth, Castle Inn in Newport and the King Lud on Ryde seafront in quick succession. These closures were caused by the economic impossibility of running a pub under the conditions imposed by Ei.
Since then I am delighted to report that they have reopened. In the pub programme different pages advertise who owns which pubs and on the page sponsored by Ei it mentions that the King Lud in Ryde and Pier View in Cowes are still owned by Ei and have been refurbished, with the latter now aimed at the red-trousered yachtie market. Yet only three pubs on the Island are mentioned in their advert. The King's Head is now run by Character Inns who boast of owning the freehold of the eight pubs they run, the New Inn is now part of the Inns of Distinction group.
Ei's dodgy practices are still very much in the media, with their being investigated by a Treasury select committee over allegations of corruption at time of writing. There is also intense speculation over the proposed company take-over by the firm behind Slug and Lettuce which is being scrutinised by the Monopolies Commission.
While once again the event has grown, with new routes offering journeys to never-before-reached places, there was a sense that perhaps the event has reached the limits of its popularity. One noticeable difference was that there did not seem to be any relief buses running. In previous years buses travelled in twos, so that when the front bus filled up there was still lots of room on the bus behind. I did not see this happening this year. This may be because of problems with the elderly fleet; I heard that at least eight buses were forced to pull out due to technical difficulties, with the constant wind, rain and storm not helping. There was also apparently an incident at Ventnor Rugby Club, which had been advertising a special offer of five pints for £15 per person during a match held there. Afterwards it was said that more people wanted to get on the next bus than there was room for, and when the driver apologised at least one prospective passenger turned abusive. This purportedly and understandably led to the bus owner deciding to pull out of the event and go home, showing how sadly the inconsiderate actions of one person can spoil things for many5.
Please ride buses responsibly