How a volunteer bus service is providing a lifeline in the Dales

The Little White Bus service can be seen on the rural roads in the Dales. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.
The Little White Bus service can be seen on the rural roads in the Dales. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.
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“Oh Mr Porter what shall I do, I want to go to Garsdale Head but they’re taking me to Askrigg too.”

This corruption of the song from the classic Will Hay film of the 1930s heralded scenes featuring rural transport in between the great wars when villages and sparsely populated country communities may not have had the world’s best bus and rail services, but at least they were in operation.

Walter Head helps to run the group.

Walter Head helps to run the group.

Cuts in local government spending particularly in the past two decades and most notably during the UK’s recent austerity years plus the axe-wielding in response to the Dr Beeching report over 50 years ago have signalled the death knell to many rural bus networks and some time ago saw off most local countryside branch lines.

The Campaign for Better Transport is currently politicking to inspire resurgent funding and bring back much needed services, but up in our northern county dales of Wensleydale and Swaledale there is a heart-warming tale of The Little White Bus that is succeeding where other communities have lost services and is providing today’s rural population with a reliable, efficient and cost effective way of getting to work, school, shop and in some cases giving even more of a lifeline.

The Little White Bus is far more than its title suggests. It is now a community-run business that has ten buses and a Land Rover running daily routes in Wensleydale and Swaledale connecting market towns and villages from Reeth to Askrigg, Leyburn and Richmond; Keld to Reeth and on to the vastly expanded retail and leisure facilities in Catterick; and Richmond to Middleton Tyas.

The success of The Little White Bus, the brainchild of John Blackie, district county councillor and chairman of Upper Wensleydale Community Partnership, led to the business receiving this year’s Yorkshire Post Rural Award for Community Group of the Year.

Walter Head with one of the drivers for The Little White Bus, Dave Greenwood, in Hawes.

Walter Head with one of the drivers for The Little White Bus, Dave Greenwood, in Hawes.

“There’s only one reason we can win the contracts through North Yorkshire County Council’s passenger transport department to provide services six days a week,” says Walter Head, whose career has included working for an independent travel company called Global Travel before settling for a much more localised version.

“‘And that’s down to our dedicated team of volunteer drivers. We have 51 of them as well as 13 paid drivers who work on a part-time basis. We’re not here to take away commercial operators’ business, we’re providing a service that the commercial concerns cannot provide.

“It’s all about the community and giving our fellow villagers and those who live in outlying areas a proper service they can depend on.

“We have to bid for contracts like anyone else and we’re very fortunate that North Yorkshire County Council has maintained its funding of bus services. There are many counties that have either lost them completely or have had to drop them back markedly.

“Due to our reliance on volunteer drivers we are substantially cheaper than a commercial operator. This all started four years ago when we really did have just one little white bus. We took over from an independently owned company that had run The Little Red Bus and has grown from there.

“We now have two buses operating daily through Wensleydale, one for Swaledale, a contract to run from Hawes to Garsdale railway station and another between Richmond to Middleton Tyas.

“We have runs for market days in Leyburn and Hawes and a once a week service to Ripon, Northallerton and Teesside Park.

“We also have three 16-seater buses ferrying students from Hawes to Settlebeck School in Sedbergh and the Land Rover provides a service of picking up three students from more isolated areas to bring them into Hawes to catch the bus.

“Because of the geographic nature of where we are up here in North Yorkshire with a population that is spread thinly through the hills and dales it is never going to be easy for a commercial operator to make it work and that’s why community involvement is probably the only way forward.

“This is deeply rural and it is easy for people to feel cut off from others even given today’s age of social media and mobile phones. Our service is often the only way some have of meeting people, especially if they can’t drive and getting on a bus provides that vital social interaction that can make all the difference to someone’s day.

“This year we are on course to having carried 60,000 passengers on all our services including special trips run each year to such as Kendal, Barnard Castle, Penrith, Harrogate Flower Show, Skipton and Muker Show. We also provide buses for the local youth club to get to the cinema in Catterick, for the Women’s Institute, scout groups and recently for a school football team to get to a competition. It’s all about services for local people.

“My responsibility is to make sure all legislation is adhered to, that the buses are up to specification and that they are all serviced every ten weeks.

“I also ensure all drivers whether volunteers or part-time are qualified and are what used to be known as CRB checked. Our buses are 4.25 tonnes so that means you cannot drive them on a normal licence unless you passed your driving test prior to 1987. You need a D1 licence.

“We provide a minibus driver awareness course followed by a test and then a written test.

“All driver’s licences are checked every six months and it is also the driver’s responsibility to ensure the bus they are driving is clean, inspected and that oil pressure, tyres and screenwash levels are all correct.”

The Little White Bus has rightly won acclaim from the people who use it and who nominated Walter, John and all of the drivers, but they’re not resting on any laurels and are keen to ensure what they provide is maintained and to look at areas they could serve even better.

“We’re getting excellent feedback and have regular meetings but once again without our volunteers none of this would be possible.”