Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Home With The Heather - Book Review

Back in November, in a rare bout of internet shopping I bought a number of transport-related books, including this one:

"Home With the Heather" was published in 1986, as a collaboration between John Parke, then editor of "Buses" magazine (in which extracts from the story had appeared several years earlier) and Gertrude Leather, who described herself as a "housewife" living in London suburbia.

With no obvious connection to the bus industry or any history of travel writing, she apparently took it upon herself to travel from home to John O' Groats using only ordinary "service" buses as a sort of holiday. She was very particular about them being ordinary buses, eschewing any service on which seats had to be booked and deeply suspicious of any long-distance bus routes at all, even when, as in Scotland, they were the only way of making progress along her route.

I'd been aware of the book for many years, having read the extracts in Buses Magazine and in some ways it was an inspiration for my own marathon bus ride "around the edge of England"

However, the two expeditions were very different.  Mrs. Leather had planned her route by writing to bus companies which, as far as she knew, would operate the buses she would need to use and to ask them to send her timetables, but she hadn't been able to obtain any for the rather large portion of her journey that was in Scotland, which she had to make up as she went along. I, of course, had the full resources of the internet to plan my ride, although it has to be said that the quality of information on there varies enormously around the country and all important connections need to be checked from more than one source.

Mrs. Leather in 1955 did have one great advantage over me travelling 60 years later. In those days interurban and rural buses ran  much later into the evenings and more frequently on Sundays than they do nowadays.  She took full advantage of this and usually continued her journeys until well into the evening.  On her first day she started from Twickenham and, as a 1950s "housewife" naturally couldn't set off until she had completed her "chores" including shopping and making lunch!  Nevertheless, she felt one hundred miles would be a reasonable target for the (half) day and set her sights on Birmingham!  This she achieved, albeit not until nearly ten o' clock at night. 

The great disadvantage she had over me was the lack of any easy way of booking overnight accommodation in advance. Naturally I do this easily over the internet: Mrs Leather in Birmingham had to ask a "passing policeman" for advice, a move she repeated more than once during her trip, although here she did have the advantage that policemen on the beat were rather more visible in 1955 than they are now.

So with lengthy days and some very tight connections she made it to John O' Groats in about a week.  In 2014 a sixteen year old schoolday made it to John O' Goats all the way from Land's End by bus in an amazing four days  (story here)  but he had the advantage of youth on his side!  In 1955, having reached her goal, Mrs. Leather returned to Twickenham - by bus of course.

"Home With The Heather"  isn't really a book for bus enthusiasts (the title comes from her desire to bring back a bunch of Scottish heather, which was sourced for her by a friendly bus inspector on the way up and left in a bus station office for her to collect on the way home!).  It's really a cross between a travelogue and a piece of social history.  Mrs. Leather doesn't record any details of the buses on which she rode, apart from the occasional reference to the comfort - or lack of it - although the volume is illustrated with contemporary photographs of buses similar to those on which she would have  travelled. As with many travel writers she went out of her way to talk to her fellow passengers as well as the bus crews, who she got to sign her record sheet as proof of her journeying.

Nowadays of course, she would have written a blog as she went along, but that would have deprived us of a lasting fascinating insight into the world of ordinary bus travel (or should that be "out of the ordinary" bus travel) sixty years ago.

Meanwhile I have been planning the next stage of my Around the Edge of England Trip which starts next week.  A very short stage this one, merely from King's Lynn to Skegness which I'll do in a couple of days but with a night beforehand in Wisbech and a stopover in Boston, Lincolnshire - two of my favourite English towns, despite the latter's recently gained reputation as a hotbed of "Brexit-ism"!

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