The delights of a slow coach
One of my favourite things to do in England on days not defined by visits to great houses and galleries is to sit on the top deck of a local bus. The vehicle trundles gently down lanes bordered by hedgerows or dry-stone walls and sidles through small sleepy villages with names that seem drawn from a whimsical fairytale almanac. Sometimes the pace almost slows to a stop behind beetling hire cars or on narrow lanes where cows mooch across the road, ruminating gently.
One does not generally think of the sedate retired British middle class as being particularly competitive, except perhaps when it comes to gardening. But that front row upstairs above the driver is prized real estate.
As the time for departure from the depot nears there is a determined shuffling in the queue, a jostling for pole position, and a stretching of aged legs in readiness to dart upstairs. Such passengers come prepared with bottles of water and lunch and often a partner who dares not complain. Many are just there for the ride, pleased to see the countryside from a different angle and in relative comfort. Some know exactly to the second what time the bus will stop at the market cross or, say, The Red Lion pub or outside the parish church. Some greet the driver and exchange pleasantries.
From my vantage point, the land is a patchwork quilt spread out upon a gentle undulation of hills and downs. A placid sky with a small furrow of clouds only adds to the charm of this moving picture. I love the small delights of seeing weather vanes, and cats in windows, and secret gardens and views beyond the trees and steeples.
My daughter and I get to Poole early to make sure we are at the front of the queue for the Jurassic Coast Explorer. She is afraid I will do the embarrassing mum thing and tries to organise me into silence. She is happy to sit downstairs as I claim the upstairs front-window seat.
A couple of kilometres out of Weymouth I see a prancing white horse and rider chalked into the hillside above the village of Osmington. It is of King George III, carved in 1808 and refreshed in 2012 for the London Olympics so sailing events broadcast from Weymouth could use this arresting natural backdrop. This is a top-deck view only; those on the lower level have no idea of the topographical delights engraved into the Dorset hinterland.
I can see the long sweep of Chesil Beach and the 14th century barrel-vaulted chapel of St Catherine on top of the hill outside Abbotsbury, a village famed for its swannery, and a scene that could have come straight out of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels.
The bus wends gently through Burton Bradstock, a pretty village of thatched roofs, tearooms and a self-sufficient compactness.
I delight in the names of these quaint hamlets and larger towns as I take these more leisurely trips across the southern counties. Who wouldn’t want to live in the village of Newton Poppleford or Temple Cloud or (hopefully murder-free) Midsomer Norton where Roald Dahl spent some of his childhood?
I am disappointed when we pass Downton, which has no abbey, just a large storage centre with the bus stopping outside the garage on the main street. My heart lifts when I spy the spire of Salisbury Cathedral in the distance.
As the day mellows into evening I see the sun striking the hills in a moment of incandescence. Unlike so many, I am not looking at a phone but gazing up, over and beyond to the horizon. I bask in the simple joys of the slow coach.