Two Rambles in the South Downs

Sunday 4th September 2022

The South Downs National Park is blessed with some excellent frequent bus routes criss crossing its extensive area as well as Southern and SWR run railway lines. They make for helpful connections at the start and finish of walks, including the popular South Downs Way.

Routes that come immediately to mind are Brighton & Hove’s Coaster route 12, Stagecoach South’s routes 1, 60 and 67 and Compass Bus route 100. But there are two routes which run on Sundays and Bank Holidays which fill in the gaps and are ideal for those who enjoy a nice weekend ramble.

I’ve taken a ride on both recently and thought I’d share the great service they provide.

The first is Cuckmere Buses route 47 branded as Cuckmere Valley Ramblerbus which I mentioned in a recent blog about the community transport organisation’s excellent publicity which is readily available, including on board its buses.

The route runs on Saturdays as well as Sundays and Public Holidays between the end of March and October (during British Summer time). One bus provides an hourly frequency between 10:00 and 18:00 on a one way anti-clockwise circuit based on Berwick rail station taking in Alfriston, Seaford, Exceat, Litlington and Wilmington.

Connections are made at Berwick station with trains to/from Lewes, Brighton and to Eastbourne and the route also serves Seaford station.

The route provides a valuable local service around part of Seaford supplementing Brighton & Hove’s route 12A on some roads and passes by the entrance to the popular Seven Sisters Country Park Centre and the start of a walk which can take you along the wonderful Seven Sisters coastline including Beachy Head.

I caught the 14:00 from Berwick rail station. It goes without saying how friendly the volunteer drivers are – there was a driver changeover on this journey – and Rachael who was sitting in her car waiting for the bus to arrive even kindly offered to move her car so I could take a better photograph of one of the company’s smart looking buses which was standing out of service there.

We left exactly on 14:00 and after a short pause in the delightful and popular village of Alfriston …..

…….headed down the west side of the Cuckmere Valley to do our circuit of north eastern Seaford where we picked two passengers up heading into the town centre.

They both remarked how the service is a charity and Rachel confirmed that all drivers are volunteers which reinforced the passengers’ thoughts they’d made the right decision to give the route their custom.

After a tour of Seaford we headed back east again on the A259 to Exceat offering excellent views of the coastline before turning north to travel up the eastern side of the Cuckmere Valley.

I alighted in Litlington for a wonderful hour’s walk along the Valley alongside the river and was back at Litlington at 15:33 ready for Rachel to return on the next journey and take me back to Berwick.

I eyed up two people sitting on a seat by the bus stop in Litlington (albeit on the other side of the road from where the bus approaches) and sure enough as the bus appeared they crossed over to board and we were all given a lovely warm welcome by Rachael.

As we continued north to Wilmington Rachel kindly offered to stop to let me take a photograph of the famous Long Man of Wilmington which was very kind of her.

I left the bus at the station leaving Rachel to continue on the next journey at 16:00 with the two passengers still on board who were returning to Alfriston.

It’s a lovely route and all the better for knowing it’s a community bus and run by volunteers. Well done to Cuckmere Buses for keeping this route running, and aside from the pandemic period, bringing it back every summer.

Ready for the off at Winchester station

The second route I tried is another that has run in previous years – the South Downs Rambler – but not since 2019 so it’s good to see it back on the road.

Operated by Bluestar and funded by East Hampshire Community Rail Partnership and Cross Country trains it provides three return journeys between Winchester and Petersfield on the ten Sundays between 10th July and 11th September as well as last weekend’s Public Holiday on Monday which is when I took a ride.

Whereas Stagecoach’s six-journeys-a-day (Monday to Saturday) route 67 takes a more direct route between Winchester and Petersfield albeit serving Alresford, West Meon and East Meon and taking just under an hour, the South Downs Rambler follows a more scenic route taking 85 minutes.

Old WInchester Hill

It passes some particularly lovely spots including Cheesefoot Head (offering stunning views), Hinton Ampner, Bramden, Exton and the particularly significant Old Winchester Hill with its Iron Age fort.

As the promotional leaflet extols:

I travelled on the first journey from Winchester which leaves at 09:15 from outside the railway station.

Arriving not long after 09:00 the bus was already on the stand with two passengers on board and a third boarding as regular driver Andy was chatting to Nigel from the Partnership and who is rightly very proud of the bus route’s success – he told me 69 journeys had been made on Sunday, which was good to hear.

On board were a range of leaflets and brochures including one about the South Downs Rambler as well as another giving details of the attractions and great places to visit covered by the East Hampshire Community Rail Partnership and in the South Downs.

We headed off to Winchester’s city centre Broadway bus stop where we picked up six more passengers, four of whom were in a group and knew the two already on board; they were clearly on an organised group outing to enjoy the scenery and have some time in Petersfield. Indeed, one more joined us at the Science Park bus stop to the east of the city.

It was good to see them chatting away throughout the journey and taking in the lovely scenery.

The route heads south beyond West Meon, served by route 67, to reach Exton for the South Downs Way where one passenger left us ready for his walk and two joined us.

Doubling back the route then heads east at Warnford along the Ridge which offers fantastic views down to the coast.

At Old Winchester Hill, where two passengers alighted, Andy got out of the cab to point out the sights to us all and explain what to look out for on the journey ahead including a sighting of the Isle of Wight in the far distance.

Andy drove along this narrow road at a very sedate pace enabling us all to really take in the spectacular scenery before heading north to pass through the delightful village of East Meon by when we were some ten minutes behind schedule.

But Andy knew what he was doing as once back on the A272 and heading into Petersfield it was clear there was slack time at the end of the journey and we pulled on to the stand at Petersfield station spot on time at 10:40 and the group headed off to explore this lovely market town.

Andy had a ten minute break before heading back to Winchester and no doubt taking more ramblers as well as those just enjoying the scenery from the bus.

Here’s hoping the South Downs Rambler returns again for 2023 after it’s final outing for this year next Sunday.

Two delightful rural routes thanks to volunteers in one case and a rail company owned by Arriva and a Community Rail Partnership in the other.

Roger French

Blogging timetable 06:00 TThSSu – except watch out for the next blog publishing 12 hours earlier than usual, tomorrow evening.

6 thoughts on “Two Rambles in the South Downs

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  1. An interesting blog as always. A shame the Southern Transit route 3 was lost as that was another similar route through the South Downs. Although it does say mothballed on their website a return does seem unlikely.

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  2. A lovely blog – a pleasure to read. The 47 is a great service: my favourite spot on the route is High and Over, where you get great views over the Downs on one side, and over the winding Cuckmere on the other. It is also the scene of one adventure in Eleanor Farjeon’s ‘Martin Pippin’ books – these seem to have been forgotten these days, but many lovely places in Sussex feature in the stories, and maybe could be be used in tourist publicity?

    If three return journeys on the South Downs Rambler can generate ridership of over 60, maybe a more frequent service could do even better.

    Checking the trains from Hassocks to Winchester, I realise that it is quite practicable to arrive at 9.15 am, travelling via Clapham Junction. Of course, in another universe, some enterprising bus company runs an express service along the A272, connecting with the Brighton main line at Haywards Heath. One can dream…

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  3. Nice to see they’ve gone for a simple hourly loop and not tried to complicate things by running both directions. As a walker, if the service is less than hourly I forget about it since even a minor miscalculation means you can be stuck somewhere for hours. Makes a good contrast with the hopeless tourist service round Rutland you mentioned previously.

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    1. Also a walker and completely agree. Even hourly can be unattractive without a pub or cafe to shelter in at the end! I’ll sometimes risk an infrequent service for the outward leg but generally with a plan b in mind. Also I’ll tend to walk towards the more frequent service if it’s a linear one.

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  4. I really enjoyed this post, and love the Cuckmere Buses livery and logo. It goes to show what a difference when people who care run things. What a contrast with Flintshire and Rutland. All the more so when you consider that this is run with volunteers.

    I would imagine that a Sprinter based bus would also be more appropriate on the Cornwall rural routes than an e200, probably twice as many miles per gallon of diesel thus helping with operating costs.

    The Bluestar route also impressed me, the fact that it carried 69 passengers on Sunday shows what cab be done.

    Notice how both routes connected with trains. How else do bus companies expect visitors to get to them? If they have to drive there’s no need to use the bus!

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  5. A few observations about the Community Bus system.

    The drivers are not usually holders of PCV licenses as there’s a loophole that allows drivers who passed their car driving test before 1997 to also drive minibuses with 16 or fewer passenger seats (some operations deliberately remove seats to get down to 16). Unless the law changes, the pool of available volunteer drivers will dry up as currently anyone currently under 42 isn’t allowed to drive without a PCV license. So the drivers only receive a few hours of familiarisation training instead of a few weeks that a professional driver takes. I understand the accident rate is higher with the volunteer ‘gentlemen’ drivers. The drivers might be ‘extremely nice’ and act like celebrities but that’s not what I want from a bus driver. Safety, driving competence, correct ticket issuance and passenger discipline are much more important. The drivers need to be concentrating on driving the bus, not talking to the passengers.

    Alan notes that two passengers were picked up in Seaford and two in Litlington. He didn’t mention if there were any others. If that was all on a sunny August weekend afternoon, it’s not very good is it? The two passengers in Seaford would have been ‘snatched’ from Brighton and Hove Buses as the 12A and 12 also serve that part of the route, where passengers can sit upstairs. The two passengers in Litlington might have been OAP card holders so the government (taxpayer) pays their fares. A lot of these community bus routes have hardly any passengers making them ‘Government funded minibus driving clubs’. Although the drivers are volunteers and don’t go on strike, there are lots of costs with buying the vehicles, maintenance, fuel, insurance, ticket machines, etc. I think they get their income from council grants, concessionary fare income, government grants, donations and other fund raising, but not so much from the fare box. They also do Private Hire, which upsets the local coach companies.

    When there is a surge of passengers the buses can’t cope as the capacity is only 16 and standing is strictly not permitted. Many of the routes use narrow country lanes which are dangerous and not really suitable.

    So although these community bus operations are a nice idea I’m sure the government will look again at how much this is all costing and if there is a genuine need encourage professional commercial operations with larger buses and proper drivers that can make a profit without needing subsidies all the time.

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