Bus cutbacks in England take their toll on village life

The stops along bus route 86 read like a roll call of rural British charm: Ansty, Cuckfield, Partridge Green — sleepy villages spread out on a lazy green quilt of trapezoidal fields and huddles of trees.

But there’s nothing quaint about what Robert Ellis says he’ll do if the bus line gets axed because of government cutbacks.

“Starve,” he declares with a poker face, before cracking a crooked grin.

Ellis lives in Bolney, a one-horse town without the horse. Or a store. Which is why the retired farmhand climbs aboard the 86 several times a week for the four-mile trip to Cowfold, a bigger village where he can buy his daily bread. He knows the driver and indulges in a pleasant chin-wag, or chat, with one of the sprinkling of other passengers.


“It might not have a lot of people on it, but we do rely on it,” says Ellis, 67. “I like to go out a little while every day.”

Riding the 86 is a modest luxury that may not last much longer: The bus line is one of many threading the West Sussex landscape here in southern England that local officials are weighing whether to keep or kill.

Britain’s harshest public spending cuts in at least a generation are beginning to take their toll out in its picture-book countryside. Police layoffs, college tuition hikes, library closures and the like have already hit cities such as London and Liverpool, but the age of austerity is now rippling out to touch rural residents and the wide-open spaces between them.

The bus system that helps conquer those distances is one of the biggest items under threat, to the dismay of those who depend on it. Trains may whiz through the landscape, allowing harried urbanites and tourists to sigh nostalgically as they gaze out at sunlit tableaux of hills and dales. But buses connect the dots on the map, allowing a web of human activity and interaction that saves villages and their inhabitants from a stultifying isolation.

Across England, more than 1,000 bus services outside metropolitan areas have been pared back or eliminated. Many more are on the chopping block, as 3 out of 4 local authorities are slashing their transport budgets because of sharp reductions in funding from the central government.

“It’s rural areas that are being hit the hardest,” says Sophie Allain, a spokeswoman for the Campaign for Better Transport. “In many of these areas, we’re looking at a skeletal service to start with. If you’re cutting back, you’re going to have an unviable network, and the bus service will be tipped into a spiral of decline.”

Along with it, residents say, will go traditional English village life, which has already undergone drastic change over the last few decades. Many of the institutions that acted as a social glue have vanished: pubs, post offices, pharmacies, the butcher’s and other shops driven out by supermarkets and big-box stores.

Take away the bus services, critics warn, and about the only people who will be able to live out in the country are those with cars.

The elderly who can’t drive will be stranded, unable to visit a doctor, access government services or socialize with anyone but their immediate neighbors. Ditto the young, who won’t have a way to get to after-school jobs, friends’ homes or entertainment venues.

No more hopping on the local bus for a quick browse at the church rummage sale in the next parish over, or to attend the village fete a few miles away — the “little things you don’t think about,” says Steve Mailen of Elwick, in County Durham in northern England.

Mailen, as befits his name, serves as the village postmaster. Until May, Elwick and the nearby community of Dalton Piercy could count on an hourly bus to shuttle passengers to the seaside town of Hartlepool about five miles away, where some of them work.

But with public coffers severely depleted, local officials canceled the route.

“We’re totally cut off,” Mailen, 40, fumes. “Our nearest bus stop is now a mile away, but obviously elderly people can’t walk it, and it’s down country lanes as well. There’s no footpath.”

A round-trip taxi to Hartlepool costs 11 pounds (about $18), which “mightn’t sound a lot, but by the time you add that on to your shopping each week, it’s like 10 pounds on top of whatever you buy for groceries,” says Sonia Dobbie, 79, who has lived in Elwick for 58 years.

“They seem to think that because we live in a village, we’re wealthy, but I’m afraid they’re mistaken. A lot of us live on pensions,” the retired factory worker says. “I can appreciate that maybe it isn’t a profitable service, but I do feel that even if they only ran a bus two days a week … that would do.”

Here in West Sussex, Caroline Collins and others who live in Cowfold have rallied to save the 86 bus, which a number of neighborhood children ride to school.

Their campaign has stirred up an otherwise tranquil village whose main intersection consists of a community hall, post office, grocery store, the Coach House pub, a postcard-perfect Norman church with a crenelated tower, and an Indian restaurant that improbably claims to date back to the 13th century, presumably on the strength of its half-timbered building (which is actually 15th century).

Despite the village’s name, there’s not a cow in sight, though some sheep munch placidly on the thinning grass in fields behind the church. The 86 putters through Cowfold just three times a day.

“It’s not just about taking the bus away. It’s what the bus means to people and what that means to their lives,” says Collins, 43, who works as a nurse. “Why isn’t the bus service considered as important as education and health?”

She and her fellow activists have waved placards on the streets and lobbied members of the West Sussex County Council, which initially decided to jettison the 86 as part of an attempt to gouge about $3.2 million — more than 40% — from its transport budget. The Cowfold group’s efforts have won the 86 a stay of execution.

“The people in this area are quite feisty, quite articulate,” says Andrew Dunlop, who represents the area on a district council and is working with residents to try to find a solution.

He warns that hard decisions are unavoidable.

“Given the global financial situation … we’re faced with a range of choices which are all unpalatable,” Dunlop says. “I don’t think anyone in their right mind would want to withdraw subsidies from a bus that would involve closure unless the other options open to you are potentially even worse.”

Now the good people of Cowfold — and neighbors in Bolney, Ansty and surrounding villages — apprehensively await a final decision this month on whether their road less traveled is about to become a road not traveled at all.

Without the bus, supporters say, the area will have a tough time attracting new residents and current ones may move away. Social organizations such as the Cowfold bowling club and horticultural society could suffer, and ramblers who enjoy strolling the beautiful South Downs, a nearby sweep of chalk hills bearded with ancient woodlands and wildflower meadows, will find it harder to stop by.

“There are villages round about that have lost their soul,” Collins says. “We don’t want that to happen here.”