43 years later in Cornwall

Sunday 6th October 2019

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I picked up an old Western National timetable book for Cornwall when visiting the Isle of Wight Bus Museum last weekend. It’s always fascinating to see how bus routes have changed over the decades so as I was heading down to Cornwall over this weekend I took it with me to compare and contrast May 1976 with October 2019. Would things have improved or deteriorated?

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I arrived at Bodmin Parkway station bang on time on GWR’s grandly named Cornish Riviera train at 13:50 thanks to the generous time allowance still pertaining on the Great Western for a few more weeks until the faster acceleration of the new bi-mode Hitachi trains is built into a tighter schedule on the Penzance timetable in December.

IMG_0449.jpgThere’s a good connection with Plymouth Citybus route 11/11A which runs from Plymouth to Padstow via Bodmin and Wadebridge.

IMG_0419.jpgThe bus also arrived on time (at 14:05) for the 14:07 departure and it was good to see a busy bus with a fair few already on board and thirteen passengers in addition to myself making the connection from train to bus.

IMG_0448.jpgRoute 11/11A operates hourly (two-hourly on Sundays) but back in 1976, I’d have had a long wait to get to Padstow arriving on a train at 13:50 as Western National’s route 575 left Bodmin Road station (before it got renamed to a Parkway in 1983) at 11:30 then nothing until 16:00.

IMG_0608.jpgThere were also departures at 07:50, 09:55, 1650, 18:20 and 20:20 with a summer only extra at 13:30 on Saturdays. So not particularly convenient bearing in mind there was once a railway plying its way along the route to Wadebridge/Padstow many years ago. Today’s hourly bus is definitely an improvement.

IMG_0532.jpgIn Padstow I switched to First Kernow’s picturesque route A5 for Newquay branded as part of their Atlantic Coaster network for bus routes around the coast to Lands End and Penzance.

IMG_0476.jpgI caught the 15:35 departure from Padstow, one of nine daytime journeys (ten in the summer) giving a roughly hourly service.

It wasn’t the cleanest of buses; in fact it was filthy with plastic drink bottles rolling around the floor and no end of crisp packets and other detritus ….

IMG_0550.jpg…. but the views from the top deck are amazing……

IMG_0551.jpgWe left Padstow with about fifteen on board and picked up another half dozen or so during the eighty minute journey which is quite spectacular taking in a number of Cornwall’s north coastal beaches accessed by precarious narrow lanes and some steep twisty inclines.

The route also serves Newquay Airport offering an hourly bus service for passengers flying in or out on the few flights there but no takers today.

IMG_0574.jpgBack in 1976 I’d have only been able to get as far as Constantine Bay about twenty minutes after Padstow on the four journey a day route Western National route 574 – and indeed would have had to catch the last journey of the day at 15:25 too.

IMG_E0795.jpgNo chance of getting as far as Newquay with Western National. Constantine Post Office would have been it. However it may be the neighbouring Southern National bus company also ran between Padstow and Newquay but sadly I don’t have their 1976 timetable to check. I doubt the service was better than today’s A5.

(Update note: thanks to reader comments since publishing this post it seems there were indeed significant unserved gaps including between Padstow and Newquay – Southern National having been absorbed into Western National well before 1976.)

From Newquay I took advantage of the St Columb Major bus interchange – established in Western Greyhound’s time in this market town where buses taking various routes between Newquay and Truro provide handy connections for journeys across this part of Cornwall.

IMG_0602.jpgMy early evening connection on Friday wasn’t particularly well timed catching the 17:35 route 93 from Newquay (it continues to Truro) arriving St Columb Major at 18:00 then having a 38 minute wait for route 95 on to Wadebridge.

IMG_0636.jpgThis would have been another journey served by Southern National as the Western National map inside the timetable book unhelpfully indicates there are no bus routes – you’d think NBC good practice would have insisted a coordinated map and timetable book for Cornwall in those so called halcyon nationalised regulated days!

(See update note above – it would seem there was no link from Newquay/Columb St Major to Wadebridge in 1976.)

IMG_E0606.jpgAfter an overnight stop off I headed north from a bus busy Wadebridge on Saturday morning along the coast via Polzeath and Port Isaac on the four journey a day scenic route 96.

IMG_0643.jpgTwo journeys a day on this route seamlessly continue to or from route 55 at Delabole back round to Bodmin via Camelford and Wenfordbridge including the first journey I caught which left Wadebridge at 08:35. This finally arrives in Bodmin at 11:21 giving an almost three hour round trip with some short breaks in Delabole and Camelford.

IMG_0645.jpgWe took only four passengers on the 96 including a surfer who got off in Polzeath where we also paused to wait time, the driver explaining during busy summer months he can often be seriously delayed meeting traffic on the very narrow roads.

IMG_0655.jpgFive passengers travelled on the 55 which included a diversion along the route due to a road closure in St Breward.

IMG_0658.jpgThis time we weren’t so lucky on the narrow roads meeting a tractor and trailer necessitating our driver having to skilfully reverse for about a mile.

IMG_0669.jpgI can’t make a comparison with 1976 as this was still Southern National territory but my guess is the small villages served on the 55 probably had about the same level of service.

(See update note above: my optimism was ill founded – no services existed of the 96 and 55 kind in 1976.)

IMG_0671.jpgFrom Bodmin I took route 27 through to Truro. This double deck hourly service doesn’t take the most direct route clocking up a journey time just under two hours and taking in Roche, Stenalees, Bugle, Penwithick and St Austell.

IMG_0783.jpgIt even takes in a trip around the Cornwall Services on the A30.

IMG_0678.jpgComparisons with 1976 are tricky as the 27 is an amalgam of two separate former routes (527 and 529) which ran on this corridor serving the aforementioned via points in a more logical order. But the combined routes only ran as far as St Austell at the same hourly frequency as today and with no Sunday service whereas today’s 27 has five journeys every two hours on Sundays.

IMG_0780.jpgWestern National route 532 ran hourly between St Austell and Truro every hour with three journeys on Sundays so a slightly better effort in 1976 almost matching today’s service.

From Truro I headed down to Falmouth on the busy route U1 which forms part of the network serving Exeter University’s outpost at Penryn.

IMG_0706.jpgThis provides a half hourly service from Truro as far as Penryn then every fifteen minutes into Falmouth ….

IMG_0784.jpg…. comparing very favourably with Western National’s route 590 which only ran hourly back in 1976 demonstrating very effectively the important part students play in today’s contemporary bus networks.

IMG_E0785.jpgI then took a lovely rural route, the 35, from Falmouth down to Helford Passage and back.

IMG_0735.jpgThis is another route serving small communities along very narrow roads (after its done a an annoying detour of some narrow residential roads in Falmouth where no one got on or off – as well as getting stuck behind a parked ambulance necessitating a long reverse and diversion) and impressively running to an approximate hourly frequency ….

IMG_0782.jpg…. whereas it’s predecessor route 563 in 1976 only ran two-hourly with three extra journeys on a variant 564 in the high summer.

IMG_E0779.jpgOnly three passengers travelled south from Falmouth on the outward journey but the return did better with seven on board. I saw a later departure from Falmouth at the end of the afternoon which had a much better load on board. It’s a lovely route.

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My surprising conclusion from taking these few random journeys is today’s bus frequencies compare extremely well with 1976 either being the same or much better than applied forty-three years ago. Certainly the quality of bus provided is now quite outstanding. Who said buses, including rural buses, have got worse?!

IMG_E0786.jpgEven better the latest First Kernow timetable book is a masterpiece in presentation, far better than the 1976 offering, with full colour maps and all routes operated by First included from Penzance to Bude making it more useful than in NBC days.

IMG_E0787.jpgOne small criticism: I’d like to see town maps of places like St Austell and Falmouth where route patterns are quite complex and virtually impossible to work out – something the 1976 book did do well. Although I appreciate these can be found in the separate comprehensive timetable book produced by Cornwall Council but this is not so widely available.

IMG_0781.jpgI know First Kernow have a nice map of Falmouth, for example, as I picked up a leaflet aimed at students on the U1 which contained one.

IMG_0788.jpgIt would be good to include this in the main book too.

IMG_E0790.jpgIMG_E0789.jpgAside from that, 43 years on, Cornwall Council working with First Kernow are providing a bus network that’s never looked so good. Well done to all concerned.

Roger French

20 thoughts on “43 years later in Cornwall

  1. I recall a family holiday at Newquay c 1970 just after Southern/Western National had withdrawn much of its network in North Cornwall/West Devon leaving large areas with nothing. At Wadebridge Council offices there was still a state of shock. An officer explained that they had been paying a block subsidy but now being under NBC control a much larger sum had been demanded. They refused to pay as they did not agree with the sum including overheads from the bus company’s central works etc. The stand off had seen services end. Don’t remember the full details but depots at Bude and Delabole had closed. At that point there was a limited service to Port Isaac which Prouts had put on and at Bodmin I found Willis and another company had also filled some of the gaps. Jennings were covering some services in the Bude area and a similar situation at Liskeard.

    I think it took a few years for some of the network to return.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wadebridge-Polzeath was served by Hawkeys for many years before and after Western/Southern National were in the area.
      I remember as a small boy joining the down Cornishman in Plymouth at 15.10 changing at Bodmin Road on to the baranch to Wadebridge and then catching the 17.15 bus to Polzeath arrive 18.00. Still not possible to be done in that time today.

      Love all your travels keep them going.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great blog as usual Roger – it’s good to see that Cornwall’s bus network is thriving. 1976 was a low point for NBC services in North Cornwall after cutbacks in the early 1970s. The route map did indeed show all there was; Southern National had been absorbed into Western National back in 1969.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. No, you wouldn’t have been able to look into a Southern National timetable book for 1976, as that company had been fully absorbed into Western National (to whom it had close links previously anyhow) in the early days of NBC around 1970!

    The new Southern National came about with the split of Western National in 1983.

    Most of the Cornish bus frequencies were increased during the era of the Rural Bus Grant and it’s good to see that this stimulated demand for at least some of the network to survive in these days of less subsidy.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My perception from afar was that Western Greyhound did much to innovate and improve bus services through western Cornwall. Presumably they helped overcome some of the reductions mentioned by Clive Cheeseman, although they only started in 1998, some 20 – 30 years later. Was Cornwall poorly served during all this period?

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  5. Credit is due to Western Greyhound in developing improved services and connections between services to promote choice of destinations. But, and there is often a But, this was achived with mainly smaller buses and some very tight running times, which could put connections at remote crossroads in jeopardy.
    Since then, both Plymouth Citybus (tradinfg rather half heartedly as Go Cornwall Bus) and First have improved thing greatly, as you report, with decent frequencies, big buses and generally realistic running times – subject, always to the problems of meeting tractors or Emmets in Cornwall’s narrow roads.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I think it’s fair to say that the early to mid-1970s was an extremely bad time for rural buses all around the UK, not only in Cornwall. Just over the water from Cornwall, the area which from 1974 was called Dyfed had seen massive retrenchment by both Crosville and Western Welsh, leaving great gaps in “company” coverage in that part of Wales despite attempts to shuffle work around between them (and later to offload those WW routes and depots which were covering their costs onto South Wales Transport).

    To take perhaps the best known example of an NBC company in serious trouble in the seventies, Midland Red by 1976 was in such desperate financial straits that over the next year or two they came up with the Viable Network Project to try to identify ways of cutting operations right down to a barebones core network that would enable the company to remain at least barely solvent.
    VNP was taken up nationwide by the NBC and is probably better known as MAP, the Market Analysis Project, perhaps an early example of using words to make something sound less drastic (and perhaps a little cuddlier) than it really was.

    There’s a real tendency towards rose-tinted glasses when people talk about today’s bus services and what they think used to exist in the past, but I find they often assume lines on a 1950s map to mean a regular service of the hourly or two-hourly frequencies we’re used to today, rather than the market-day or school-and-works services that they quite often were. By the mid-70s, those services had either been withdrawn or were living on borrowed time, and some of the main road services were also struggling.

    Incidentally, St Columb Major wasn’t as totally cut off as you may think from the map. The National Express routes in Cornwall (and across the Tamar to Plymouth) were for a long time operated as stage-carriage routes (until well after deregulation, in fact), with local fares at “ordinary” prices rather than the higher express fares, and the drivers would have carried Setright ticket machines. They were perhaps local express services for local people, as I doubt many visitors would have been aware that they could use them for local journeys, although I suspect that by the mid-70s most tourists would in any case have been in their own cars and adding to the infamous congestion on Cornwall’s notorious A roads.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi. As an ex Western National driver {previously Southern National in North Devon} I would like to point out that the Southern National name was dropped from all areas in 1970. I assume with that book what you se is what you got. In Devon the timetable book also had private operators and railway timetables too. Do enjoy your ramblings.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Again viewing from afar, yes I think Western Greyhound did a brilliant job. One thing that didn’t survive beyond their demise though was the late evening journeys on some routes (eg Bodmin-Padstow) which were withdrawn (temporarily?) when WG were in trouble and seem never to have returned. It’s a pity as I think the presence of an all-day service encourages greater use of the daytime service.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I too thought Western Greyhound moved things on a bit shaking up a moribund First. I used them on quite a few visits to Cornwall between 2008 and 2010. I really liked their use of connections which wasn’t as nerve racking as it could have been as they always radioed ahead to tell the connecting driver to expect passengers.
    I might be wrong but I think Cornwall is going to a full franchise operation very soon and hopefully this will give some stability as well as integration. The buses in the photos look like quality and maybe First have been gearing up to win business from the county. I hope so. Finally although overall service might be better today I note that the last bus from Bodmin to Padstow was 20.20 in 1976 about two hours later than today.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree; I had some great journey experiences with Western Greyhound including connections.
      Cornwall will be one of the recently announced ‘Superbus’ trials with funding from Government. It’s going to be interesting to see how that pans out.

      Like

  10. Heartily agree with all comments about the dire state of the 1970s services in that region and Western Greyhound is probably entitled to more credit than First for bringing the bus out of the dark ages in Cornwall. I recall how it was virtually impossible to travel from one region of the County to another, a network simply not existing. I think Bude was among the places virtually cut off from the outside world, “enjoying” just a few sparse local services. And adding to “Traindrivers” comments, at times National Express services west of Plymouth carried Conductors, sometimes dealing with several coaches with similar departure/arrival times with one Conductor, a system widely practised by Wye Valley Motors on shared roads out of Hereford..One thing still missing though! A bus over Bodmin Moor which disappeared a decade ago.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. From what I can work out the bus fare would be £6 and the train fare £7.20 so not that much more. But as a young student she must be able to access discounts and so on so the fare isn’t the full picture. Bad journalism from that aspect. Because it is an important issue and if Cornwall could properly integrate their very useful bus and train networks they would be on to a game changer.

        Liked by 1 person

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