Just a handful of us are hovering around stand M in Worcester’s Crowngate bus station on a overcast Wednesday mid-morning. The object of our fancy is parked further up the bus station. It is a pretty nondescript First Trident, predominantly white, with the 90s-style bits of purple that has yet to receive the more modern-day version of the livery.
But this vehicle is doing something a bit special for around one week only. It’s the literary jamboree in the small Welsh village of Hay-on-Wye called “The Hay Festival of Literature & Arts”. Since 1988, book fans from all over the world have descended on this tiny venue – famous for its many bookshops – and First has, for a number of years, operated a bus service from Hereford to the venue.
Last year, the operator pulled out of it’s small operation in Hereford and left it to the local independents, but this year, it’s still operating the shuttle service. The bonus is that, since Worcester garage now operates it, some journeys are extending from/to Worcester.
It may be one week only, and it might be a nigh-on 2-hour jaunt, but the fare is eye-watering. £15 return. No First passes. No OAP passes. (although kids and concessionary pass holders get discounts). The flyer, attached to the departure pole, cheekily adds the strap-line “Great Fare Deals from First” without any hint of irony. Maybe the kind of people who love their books and will spend their bodyweight buying them in Hay can more readily afford the price – which would actually buy me a week’s worth of Black Country bus travel for 30p more!
Our driver I recognise. He did the rail replacement service for the Stourbridge Shuttle a few months ago, and he too recognises me back, handing me a simple bus ticket for my outlay.
Then it’s out of the darkness of Crowngate, across the River Severn and Worcester’s famous cricket ground out into the rolling hills of the glorious Shire County, crossing into Cider Country, the area that First abandoned less than 12 months ago, vaguely startling a Yeomans bus driver who is graciously let out in front of some roadworks, who must have thought the big boys were back to haunt him.
Our man at the helm hasn’t hung around, and it’s a good job. We’re still slightly late into Hereford Railway Station as the traffic in this small City is horrendous. Around 7 or 8 people join us here for the just-under-an-hour run out to Powys.
Having bypassed the beautiful Malvern Hills, we’re now seeing the gorgeous Black Mountains, sprawling across Monmouthshire and Powys, and into England. Somewhere, we’ve crossed the border into the Principality as the road signs start to show names I daren’t even try to pronounce. We take a left and descend down into Hay, with instructions for motorists on where to park. The huge show ground is on the right, just outside of the town centre, but our service weaves it’s way through tiny streets, thronged with book lovers, to arrive at a rather large car park, only around 8 minutes late.
arrival at Hay
Our small gaggle of passengers hop off, with our man roaring off to have his break.
The bus stop at the car park is also the base for the shuttle bus operation around the town, with a motley line up of Optare Solo midibuses, some of which are instantly familiar, as they are still in the liveries of National Express West Midlands and Coventry. In contrast to the huge fare I have just shelled out, this operation has a £1.50 all-day ticket! (although, to be fair, you can’t go very far in this town!)
The Town Shuttle Bus operation had a familiar feel!
I have just under 2 hours here (or 5 and three-quarters, but I don’t think I’d last that long!) so I find a fish & chip shop (as I haven’t eaten since early morning, as I had to do a few hours at work) then attack a couple of the myriad bookshops around the town. It’s a joy. All sorts of weird and wonderful titles! I end up with a diverse array of books ranging from The Burton & Ashby Light Railways to Margaret Thatcher to 7/7.
It’s ten-to-three. I wander back up to the car park for the 3pm departure and a treat is in store!
In the car park, awaiting our journey back to Worcester, is the First “Midland Red heritage bus”. This is the vehicle painted in a 1930s version of the famous old company livery to mark the centenary of the 144 Worcester-Birmingham route last year. I’ve already got pictures of this vehicle, but you can never have enough (!) so I wander down, clutching camera. I am greeted by another familiar face – another one of the drivers who worked on the Stourbridge Shuttle rail replacement! “I heard you were around”, she says. My notoriety must precede me. I snap away, then join the bus for the run back to Worcester.
In Hereford, I can’t resist the chance to snap a picture of a “Midland Red bus at Hereford Railway Station in 2016”! “You’ve got 1 minute”, our pilot warns, sternly, as I bolt out like some 6’7″ giraffe at zoo feeding time. Then it’s more jolly jaunting across the glorious green fields, into Worcester, where several locals try to flag us down at incoming bus stops. Our lady pilot is having none of it, this being a strictly limited-stop affair.
“Midland Red” at Hereford Railway Station – in 2016!
Back in Worcester, I head for Foregate Street railway station for the trip back to Stourbridge, sharing a bench with a waiting commuter who tucks into a bizarre array of sushi. I stick my nose into Margaret Thatcher speeches.
arrival back in Worcester
For details of the Hay Festival shuttle buses, click here