The secret rural bus route that’s free to ride

Sunday 17th July 2022

Here’s another entry for Britain’s Top 10 Quirkiest Bus Routes.

  • It links many villages and hamlets in north Somerset which otherwise have no bus service.
  • The timetable comprises just three return journeys a day which requires three buses to operate it.
  • It takes one hour and 47 minutes to travel from end to end over 32 miles linking Bridgwater and Minehead.
  • You’ll struggle to find out about it as timetables aren’t included in publicly available databases used by bustimes.org, Traveline or Google.
  • There’s nothing on Somerset County Council’s website about it, nor the bus company that runs it.
  • Bus stops on the line of route don’t carry any timetables referring to the service.
  • It’s completely free to use with no fares charged.
  • And if that’s not quirky enough, buses used on the route are in a plain white livery with no clue as to which company operates it.
  • Yet when I travelled on it on Tuesday it carried 22 passengers which was very impressive to see.

The explanation for all this can be found in the massive twenty year project by EDF to build the Hinckley Point C nuclear power station situated on the north Somerset coast in Bridgwater Bay.

EDF have a significant £20 million Community Fund to spend during the construction phase which has paid for various protects including a brand new village hall (Cheddar Community Pavilion) and activities and events for youngsters at the Minehead Eye community centre and I’m assuming it also includes funding for this free community bus running on Mondays to Fridays.

The service is operated by Somerset Passenger Solutions – the bus company originally set up jointly by First Bus and Weston Super Mare based Crosville to provide the extensive transport requirements for employees travelling to the construction site from across a wide area including shuttle buses from employee accommodation parks and Park and Ride sites. Over 6,000 employees are currently working at the site so the transport arrangements to take them there each day across this rural area are naturally extensive and complex.

First Bus are now the sole owners of Somerset Passenger Solutions after buying out Crosville’s share last October.

Looking at the timetable for the free community bus it’s almost certainly been compiled to fit in with the employee transport requirements – hence the second and third journeys of the three from Minehead being relatively close to each other departing at 13:45 and 14:35 and the second journey from the Bridgwater end starts an hour after the first one and from Cannington rather than Bridgwater.

There aren’t many bus routes around this part of north Somerset so the EDF free service has been much welcomed by the Parish Councils and communities it serves.

The online information when you can find it implies the bus and route is still operating in Covid capacity restriction mode. It isn’t. It’s always ironic the ease of updating online information seems completely lost on so many information providers who maintain historic advice – often under “latest news” too.

However, it is good to see every Parish Council along the route has been promoting the route’s existence which is just as well as there’s scant coverage in the official outlets.

For example, there’s a lovely colourful map showing the Buses of Somerset network, such as it is, on the wall of Bridgwater’s bus station. But sadly it doesn’t show the free community bus route.

It shows route 14 which runs hourly between Bridgwater and Cannington with a peak journey extended to Nether Stowey which on college days is extended further back to Minehead via Holford and Kilve (which also isn’t shown).

You’ll not be any the wiser if you use Traveline or other journey planners (eg Google) for a trip from Bridgwater to Minehead at 13:40. Instead of this free to use direct rural bus journey, it sends you on the train to Taunton to catch a route 28 over to Minehead arriving an hour later and having had to pay two fares.

There’s no clue to the existence of the bus at the bus stop it uses in Bridgwater bus station either on the bus stop flag ….

….. or in the timetable case which gives details of other services, but not this one. Sshhh. It’s a secret bus.

The timetable on the Parish Council websites states passengers won’t be carried between Cannington and Bridgwater but on the journey I travelled on last Tuesday – the 13:40 from Bridgwater – we left with 16 on board and one got off in Cannington.

Three more got off in the next village we passed close by, Combwich, and one more at the next village Stogursey.

We then saw seven alight as we made a tour of the rather delightful village of Nether Stowey (with one bungalow having the best floral displays I’ve seen this summer), leaving four on board.

It was then onward along the A39 via Holford (where we passed a Bridgwater bound bus with about half a dozen on board) then through the villages of Kilve and West Quantoxhead where we headed off towards the coast via an unclassified road through Doniford and Watchet where two of the four passengers still on board alighted.

We picked a passenger up in Doniford and another in Watchet where the route does a full circuit of the village which takes almost ten minutes but brings a bus very close to where potential passengers live.

First’s Buses of Somerset route 28 brands itself as The Quantock Line running between Taunton and Minehead via Watchet which is no doubt why the community bus timetable also states passengers won’t be carried between Watchet and stops between Carhampton and Minehead.

Interestingly we arrived at Watchet station (for the heritage West Somerset Railway) just as a Minehead bound route 28 was also arriving and I noticed three passengers stay back for that but we picked up four passengers.

Two of those alighted at the holiday parks in Blue Anchor on the coast road which the community bus takes whereas route 28 runs via Washford on the A39 but the other two went to Dunster (one) and Minehead (one) thus abstracting from route 28.

One of the two passengers who’d boarded in Bridgwater got off in Carhampton and the other travelled all the way to Minehead.

We passed the third and final Bridgwater bound bus as we headed west of Watchet towards Minehead which had around eight on board.

It was notable that about half the passengers on the journey I made were returning from Bridgwater laden with shopping bags including the two who travelled for 75 minutes to Watchet which surprised me as Minehead is much closer at only about half an hour away.

A quarter of the passengers were young people of college age including two who alighted in Combwich (where there doesn’t seem to be other bus options) and the one who travelled all the way through to Minehead.

It’s a lovely route with some great views of the Quantock Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty…

…. as well as glimpses of the north Somerset coast.

It was evident this EDF funded community bus is performing a very useful facility and is well used. Through the efforts of the Parish Councils word seems to have spread around the communities it serves. But what a missed opportunity that it otherwise seems to be so secret in all the usual public databases and in timetable cases and bus stops.

Villages otherwise cut off from the bus network are certainly benefiting from this initiative but sadly it will remain a rather unique way of providing a solution to the rural bus problem. I can’t see many rural areas volunteering to host a nuclear power plant just to get a three journey a day rural bus service.

Roger French

My thanks to Ray Wilkes who alerted me to this service after he’d stumbled across it on one of his many walks all over the country, not least the England Coast Path. Ray is a great proponent of promoting buses as a very sensible and attractive way to enjoy walking in this country without the shackles of using a car and having to retrace steps to the starting point. Here’s a great example of a bus route that fits that bill, especially as it’s free, but if only it wasn’t so secret.

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThSSu

17 thoughts on “The secret rural bus route that’s free to ride

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  1. Looking at the timetable, the service presumably runs in-between the workers journeys, using drivers that are already paid for, so the only marginal “cost” is fuel. It’s an excellent idea, and good to see that the locals are using it significantly.
    Maybe part of the conditions of use is that it is restricted to “locals”?? There do seem to be efforts to prevent unfair competition with other routes. Advertising the route widely would breach such conditions.

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  2. Wow! That solves a mystery as I recently spotted one such in Minehead and no amount of digging came up with an answer. I suppose, in fairness, the desire to keep it “low profile” is sensible, as the service is intended for the villages it passes through and not really to be considered as part of a national network and attracting, particularly in the high summer, hoards of extra passengers. Very attractive to those wishing a free ride, and perhaps at some point in the future having established a need, it may become part of the First network.

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  3. I lived in Combwich between 1981 and 1990 so funny to see it mentioned here. The only time I’ve been back was in 2007 and it did have a 2 hourly bus from Bridgwater then. One thing that always amazed me even as a child was how on earth the coach company managed to get our coach to take us to Taunton for school swimming lessons up to the school and turn it. When we came back the coach dropped off outside the village post office which will have been a lot less hassle. The school is up a hill at the far end of the village from the main road and the streets are very narrow.

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  4. Very interesting report Roger. I did wonder in a previous tweet why you were at Bridgewater seemingly en route to Minehead! All becomes clear. We have just had a week in Minehead & noticed the ‘dealer white’ E200s about. We would have sampled the mystery service had we been aware. Very quirky indeed! As an aside, the Minehead to Porlock Weir route 10 is also something of an oddity, the 7/8 return trips being operated by three different companies. We were unsure if ticket interavailability was in place making a return tricky. In the event we waited for the 15.38 BOS service from the station. It runs on college days. In the event it didn’t show up. Checking on Tracker it cut round the back of town direct. Not good for intending passengers! Interestingly the route 10 is not shown on the BOS map but is shown on their timetable section on line. All a bit confusing! The timetable posted at Minehead Station is dated November 2018. I think its correct but again does cause doubt! Carry on with your interesting reports. How you find the time & stamina is amazing.
    Nigel Tippen.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “It’s always ironic the ease of updating online information seems completely lost on so many information providers who maintain historic advice – often under “latest news” too.”

    To me this is the digital equivalent of flyposting an upcoming event but never removing the posters plastered everywhere after the event. I used to design and run intranet sites in my civil service job. Once a site is created it requires continuous updating and maintenance in a structured process (making sure links to external sites still work etc). It also needs regular promotion via social media which is how you attract people to your site.

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  6. We have just returned from Anglesey. During our stay we wanted to catch the 57/58 bus into Beaumaris. I took the timetable off the normally reliable Gwynedd bus times website (Anglesey simply prefers one to Traveline). The bus didn’t come so used the car; the times posted in the stops seemed quite at odds with the timetable I’d downloaded.

    Later we discovered that Arriva had updated the table in June; the posted times were correct but Gwynedd hadn’t caught up with that, sadly. It’s an interesting service as it covers some very tiny rural roads in a sort of “lassoo” pattern, seemed quite well patronised. Strangely enough our local Cardiff Bus service is also 57/58.

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  7. Fascinating, thank you Roger. Strange that this route is harder to find out about than the one you took through high-security onto Foulness Island a few blogs back!

    A very long time ago (up to 2016?) a bus service like this ran all the way from Bridgwater to at least Watchet and possibly Minehead, I think ending up numbered 16 to distinguish it from First’s 14 to/from Cannington which it duplicated – I recall that back then it served the various less accessible bits of Watchet too. It was part of the ill-fated WebberBus network, a classic case of overreach that eventually stopped trading overnight. First took on a few of the WebberBus remnants but the 16 [integrated into the 14] was cut back to Bridgwater – Nether Stowey while several other routes were just cancelled altogether, for example the twice-weekly 18 (Bridgwater to Spaxton and Bincombe) which is in David McKie’s wonderful ‘Great British Bus Journeys’.

    I believe that Hinkley Point is planned for commissioning in 2027, though presumably the construction workforce will be reduced significantly a year or two before then and with it the requirement for a sizeable bus fleet. So maybe three more years for this bus under current arrangements? Given that the old route wasn’t sustainable 6 years ago it will be ‘interesting’ to see whether the current PR-led service can survive in some form. Best of luck to it, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it appear on your DRT list!

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  8. I expect that EDF probably agreed to fund it to reduce their workers car use, which it won’t since people who own cars will always choose the car first,but have no actual interest in it beyond that like actually putting up timetables,etc..I suppose on bits of it’s route it might abstract passengers away from the number 28 and to a much lesser extent the WSR since they generally don’t use the WSR as a main method of A to B travel although I have done.

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    1. It is irrelevant to that as it does not serve the power station site, even vaguely. There are very many workers buses, mostly double deckers for capacity, that do though.

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    2. It was a planning condition on Hinckley Point C that no workers would be allowed to drive to or from the construction plant by car. The extensive bus network and Park & Ride arrangements were the result. So, unlike many other ‘works buses’, this network is not an ‘add-on’, but a strict requirement. Car drivers do not have any choice here.

      Roger’s new found community bus is a helpful part of the employees’ transport plan.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. As a hiker I found this service very useful. The right thing to do would be to give residents free passes and charge everyone else. The bus could be good for the local economy by encouraging walkers to stay in the area and doo bus based walks for a week.

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  10. When this free
    service first started, a much smaller bus was used, and capacity issues meant that through Bridgwater to Minehead or vice versa journeys were discouraged. Now larger buses are used, with more trips, guess that is no longer a problem.

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  11. If, as I assume is the case, the toute is not Registered, wonder why they still show Watchet for Minehead on the destination ?

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    1. It’s to get around tacho rules, anything over 50km / 31 miles should be run on a tacho, but by ‘splitting’ the journey they can get around this

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  12. I sent this to my sister, who lives in Minehead. She found it most interesting, but wishes me to note that this route is wholly within West Somerset, despite the Welsh coastline being clearly visible in an entirely different compass direction.

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