Alfriston: On The Endangered Rural Buses

Having always lived in British cities I’ve never needed to drive, and consequently never learned. I shudder at the thought of those American towns whose layout was planned by the car industry and makes pedestrianism an impossibility. The only times I miss it are on holidays, when you must limit yourself to one destination a day instead of being able to flit between independent champagne producers or Italian hilltop villages. I forget that there are places beyond the reach of any public transport, where the car is an absolute necessity of life. When I try to negotiate them I feel like an outback aborigine from before the Botany Bay landings, teleported without warning into the heart of the Moscow Underground.

During a weekend on the South Coast, it was proposed to make an excursion somewhere pretty and we decided upon Alfriston, which had caught our eye during a drive with relatives. Its prettiness is no secret to East Sussex residents; ‘Morning Has Broken’ was written here and it was the location for a couple of seldom-remembered films in the 60s (Deborah Kerr & Peter Sellers).

The service to this area is run by “Cuckmere Community Buses”. The word “community” brings me out in hives, as it typically serves as a fig leaf for all manner of venality. Last time I went through Surrey, every library we passed was a “community library”; the librarians have all been turned to glue and running the place is now an unpaid job. Not to mention Brighton & Hove Albion’s “American Express Community Stadium”, where the experience of matchday football has been sanitised beyond recognition and one feels like an anachronism amongst 20,000 Stepford replica shirts.

As one investigates the routes offered, it is apparent that many run one or two days a week; in most cases, on Sundays & Bank Holidays. Are they merely for day-tripping visitors and tourists, or is it about giving residents a rare chance to go into town and sample a few pints without shelling out for a taxi back? Although the Battersea octogenarian we get chatting to at the stop tells us it is soon for the chop, happily the weekday 126 is still running and Alfriston is achievable.

The Polish driver convinces us to buy £6.50 all-day tickets, which cost 10p more than a return journey. On both journeys, the bus is well-used and the overwhelming majority of passengers, who all seem to know each other by name, are pensioners travelling on a freedom pass, which has me wondering how it all works. Occasional paying punters will help subsidise it, but are unlikely to make up a driver’s wages. Is it one of those instances where where a charitable company offers to run the service a is costing the public sector £500,000 for a £350,000 fee, then sets about stripping away the services which are always going to run at a loss?

Another look at the website and I learn that everyone working for the service is a volunteer. Part of me thinks “good for them”; when a council can’t put on a service -and although there isn’t enough demand for the private sector to think it worth their while, for the people using the bus there is clearly a need for it- this is better than nothing. Part of me also thinks “Who are all these people that can afford to work for free?”. It’s the happy few that are immune to rent, mortgages, bills and more bills. There are probably more of them in a belt of towns popular with retirees, and as Alfriston’s cheapest home on Rightmove is currently £450,000, clearly someone’s got money. However, when the guy who drives the bus is expected to live off his portfolio of property investments it feels like the top of a slippery slope, and one wonders what’s at the foot of the slope. Houellebecq’s last book predicted that government welfare would be done away with as it became unaffordable and Europe would end up dependent on Chinese tourism.

I have been talking a lot on a subject I know absolutely nothing about. The Sussex village, alas, is another. We hear that villages are in dire straits, amenities dying off and all the property being snapped up by rich Londoners for weekends (I heard some statistic that the average house price in Cornwall is the average salary x30). This place seems in fairly rude health; its olde England look probably marks it out as a tourist attraction, and hence an atypical village.

The church, clergy house and the pubs are baby-Bruges C14th, everything is on the narrow high street (through which a lot of traffic zooms, mostly aging men in open-top cars and cravats) or along its backs, where a village green separates the church from the high street. Needless to say, Americans would eat this stuff up as much as we do in Sicily. As we’re here and it’s open, we might as well go into the church.

I wondered, given its vintage, if many treasures were chipped off and destroyed during the Reformation.

I enjoyed it as it is, though; a symmetrical cross with plenty of unusual stained glass and memorials running through the centuries, some very poignant.

One wonders what the World Wars did to the population of villages like this. On the Shankill, where I come from, scores of families were wiped out altogether by WWI and it must have shaken anywhere home to only a few hundred souls.

There’s an old graveyard out front; at the rear, the more space-effective method of cremation is catching on.

At one end of the high street, a great peacocking house shows up the medievalist twee of its neighbours with a porch that’s pure Louisiana plantation chic. It’s now a fairly posh restaurant.

The high street has a few tea rooms, three old pubs, two sweet shops and a post office/village shop. Spot the incongruous name.

At its opposite end is Waterloo Square. The name feels ten sizes too big for the modest widening of the street, with a clock face marking the 1977 Jubilee (one wonders if Alfriston experienced punk, and if so, how it manifested itself), a curiously psilocybin-shaped totem pole in the middle and a couple of benches by the bus stop.

Considering its size, this place isn’t too badly off for services, and is managing to keep alive a few things that the most densely-populated of cities seem unable to hold onto. The record shop perhaps answers my question about whether punk reached Alfriston.

There’s a rather good book shop run by an American chap and playing the David vs Goliath role with aplomb. £100 lifetime membership grants such perks as access to a reading lounge with nice armchairs & wi-fi, and a consultation leading to a bespoke reading list. Although we are in every circumstance loath to acquire more books and add to out-of-control collections, the second-hand stock is so inviting that we walk away with £11 of stuff; everything from Svevo’s Senilita to The Young Visiters by an eight-year-old protegé of J.M. Barrie (very different times).

Having arrived at 10:30, by 11:30 we’ve surveyed everything and gravitate to the pubs. One is welcoming, cheerful, passionate about ale and keen to make suggestions; the other gives good service and is impeccably polite, but gives the impression that anyone not ordering a meal from the kitchen is a timewasting pest.

I’m sure the locals enjoy being surrounded by these pleasant things (less so, perhaps, when the tour buses turn up) but there aren’t that many locals, they’ll all be drivers by necessity and have Brighton and Eastbourne close by, and it must be tourists who sustain a lot of it. Do the pubs all stay open until 11 on dark, miserable, midwinter Tuesday nights? I do hope so. This is England at its most seductive, but I don’t know what else there would be to do around here.

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