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Life without a car

Mike Stead looks at the issues surrounding living in rural Dorset without a car

After 50 years of using largely public transport, getting from one place to another without using a car is not something that had particularly worried me, not least as the huge majority of that time was spent within reach of tube stations and Routemasters in London.
After leaving London and heading west a few years ago, I’ve used train, bus, cycle and foot as my main means of transport until, what I can only assume was a modern artist from Weston-Super-Mare, stripped my bike of all cables, wheels and assorted accoutrements as a “statement” during Banksy’s Dismaland exhibition in the town and left me with just bus, train and foot.
In the 25 years since I first came to Dorset, I’ve exclusively used public transport when travelling under my own steam, getting here by train and then, staying in a hamlet mid-way along an unnumbered road two miles between two A-roads near Blandford in North Dorset, using buses to get around the county.
This is not only because I don’t own a car, but probably more importantly because I do not possess a full licence and cannot borrow anyone else’s vehicle either.
In spring and summer, this is certainly no hardship; starting any journey with a nice walk on a sunny day is a joy and you get to meet the most interesting people on buses.
Fellow travellers here in Dorset are a lot friendlier than you get on a night bus in North London; you can have a chat, read a book, or on some of the older double-decker routes, simply look out of the window as you go along. On the other hand, out here in the country, there are no night buses. Fancy a night out in Poole from my place? Well that’s fine as long as you leave for home at ten to seven in the evening; so that’s the cinema out, no evening meals, no concerts…, or at least not without getting a taxi home, which puts an entirely different financial complexion on the evening.
Whether during the week or at weekends, you also get used to having to be a bit more organised about where you go and when. Leaving enough walking time to get to the bus stop, but not too much so you end up waiting there in the wind. One of the two nearest stops to me is not a bus stop as one would recognise it. There’s no shelter, no timetable and no list of which buses service the stop, because there isn’t actually a stop. It’s just a vague description of a bit of banking on an A-road opposite a short road. When the bus stops, everything behind it stops too. In fact, I’ve encountered relatively few bus shelters in North Dorset compared to equivalent roads in Somerset and North Somerset, although that’s probably as the bus stops tend to have lay-bys there, although lay-bys in Dorset are still no guarantee of even a post and bus number board.

The author at journey's end at Portland Bill in his great North-South bus journey

The author at journey’s end at Portland Bill in his great North-South bus journey

As a general rule, buses are never early – as that would imply they had left a previous bus stop early, which would be of no use to anyone – and they’re occasionally a bit late, but I’ve only once had a bus not show up at all owing to its cancellation. Ironically, that was while researching the Motcombe to Portland feature. Admittedly, when your home is 15 minutes away from the bus stop and the buses are hourly, there’s little incentive to start a half-hour return journey home for the sake of 15 minutes indoors, rather than to persevere and wait, but it depends on the weather.
My experience of drivers is almost universally good, although I would say that the more rural the service, the more committed, patient and beloved by the passengers a driver is. There’s no doubt that a good bus driver can almost single-handedly revitalise a community by knowing where to stop and when, who to wait for and who to help on and off. This selflessness can sometimes be infectious and you see other passengers getting into the helping out spirit, too.
There’s no doubt that the fact that the provision of free bus passes for those of state pension age and the disabled, combined with the school-run buses, make the demographic split of passengers a bit unrepresentative, but there are plenty of reasons for those between the ages of 16 and 60/65 to pop their arm out as a bus arrives.
If you want to do a huge shop, move house, go to a tip or have a non-drinking night out, there’s no doubt a car is a useful thing to have in rural Dorset, but for all other things, two legs and a hailing arm are all you need. ◗

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