Hidden in a very small part of Derbyshire is a transport hub which is a hive of activity. This is not your average bus depot/ cafe stop but a place where volunteers try hard to sell their homemade wares to raise a little more cash towards the services they provide. The hub arranges rural community transport for all ages from school kids to the older folks who need to access services. These services are partly funded by the local council but are heavily reliant on donations, contributions and voluntary support.
I spent a morning with one of their volunteer drivers last week. The buses are medium sized with wheelchair access and about 12 seats. Whilst they are modern they are not designed to easily maneuver along the single track roads or the narrow driveways. So hats off to the immense driving skills and humour of Beth the driver. Along with a member of the day centre we were off to collect 4 residents who wished to attend. We were on a run from the day centre to the more remote parts of Derbyshire where rural idyll and access issues coexist in equal measure.
A briefing about the route commenced early and my assumptions that this trip would be anything but a circular shortest journey from A back to A with a few quick hellos and hop on were rapidly dismissed. A lot of consideration takes place to decided who goes where on the bus and the subsequent order of pick up and subsequent afternoon drop off. Factors such as likelihood of leaving the bus during the few minutes of attending to another, being up and ready to go, time from arrival to leaving a home and general logistics of approach to different hamlets were all taken into account. Local knowledge of the geography including road works and parking difficulties were essential. Likewise a taken for granted knowledge of their customers and the drivers themselves were also important. In the space of several minutes I realized that this was an endeavour worthy of a place in some strategic masterclass. And I hadn’t even got onto the bus!
Martha the day centre staff member wrapped up warm and donned her yellow vest as we marched off to the waiting bus. Martha and Beth were very approachable pragmatic women who were expert in their respective roles. We enjoyed a somewhat bumpy ride out into the cold sunny morning. The bus was lovely and warm. First stop one of the oldest residents in the area. A long single track led to a beautiful bungalow with a somewhat challenging driveway entry. Beth recalled her first time “on the run” as one of absolute terror as she tried to avoid hitting a post and wall to turn the bus to the applaud of local workmen. I am pleased to report that Beth is now the most skilled driver and cannot be faulted for her patience and acceptance of all the challenges of the run. The lady lives at the back of the property and needs assistance to walk to the back door. Slippy wet paths did not help with the task in hand. Martha gently taps on the glass and indicates to the lady that she needs to bring the key to open the back door. This takes a while during which Beth brings a folded up chair and we have a chat about the beautiful garden. Martha is let in and gently prompts the lady to put her coat, scarf and gloves on. The lady is physically very frail but has bright eyes and is looking forward to going out so much so that she forgets to use her stick. Martha and Beth help her into the wheelchair with clear guidance and a warmth which is heartening to experience. We trundle off across gravel to the bus on the driveway. This is no easy task and I’d suggest that gravel and wheelchairs are not compatible.
About 10 minutes later and we are off. The banter is friendly and a discussion ensues about place of birth, the prices of local housing for young people and the weather. Next stop a famous tourist village. Even at 9.15 am the narrow main road is cluttered with parked cars. Beth takes the bus to the end of the main road, turns and come back down. She parks in the road and a house door promptly opens by the wife. “they have to wait whilst we do this” states Beth in her very pragmatic way as she leaps from the drivers side and opens the bus door. “Hello, here we are again!” she exclaims and the gentleman gets on the bus. A dance of the seat belt ensues with some stray hands around Martha as she secures the belt. This is disregarded by Martha and we are soon on our way with a patient tail back ensuing. We all greet each other. The sun shines fiercely obscuring visibility at times.
We kind of double back in a zig zag to go and pick up another gentleman. He lives in a cul-de-sac and although the roads are wider the bus is hampered by a parked car which has not moved for the past few weeks as the owner has gone abroad. Beth again impresses us all with her reversing skills. The gentleman is helped to lock up and down the path by Martha and Beth. His legs do not seem to wish to comply with his desire to walk smoothly and it is apparent that the two people support is essential. This is the quickest pick up so far.
Martha needs to phone the next person but has no reception on her mobile. This is an everyday issue in the area. Beth drives on a little and stops in a passing place so that she can lend her phone to Martha. Martha talks to the son of a new customer and it is confirmed that they will be waiting outside the village post-office. The plan works and the bus swings onto the post-office forecourt. We introduce ourselves to the lady who is sprite and seems keen to travel on the bus. Martha sits with her for the remainder of the journey and introduces us all again. The bus takes a while to reach the small town. This is a chance to enjoy the journey, catch up on local gossip between hamlets and villages and see the landscape changes. Comments are made about the sheep, lambing season, fallen dry-stone walls, traffic and the various homes we pass. Some chattered more than others as others sat and enjoyed the journey. Soon we arrive at the day centre and again the impressive reversing process and helping off the bus ensued. Martha came into the centre for her breakfast and a natter with the day centre customers and staff.
I ask Martha what she will do with the rest of her day and she replies that the bus needs to be washed and checked over before the afternoon runs. Martha volunteers every week and is an impressive part of the team who manage to ensure that older people can get to their day centres and hospital appointments. On reflection the sheer complexity of the role was so much more than a driver…skills such as empathy, tolerance and an enormous dose of humour are essential. Supporting some of the most physically frail in the community is undertaken every day by these staff and providers need to know that the job they do not only reduces loneliness but offers reassurance to carers who can be confident that their loved one is secure. Public transport cannot bridge this gap as they are not equipped to manage the complexities of reaching A to B. Being taken for a ride has new meaning for older people as a positive opportunity for connections to their familiar places and faces.