No way I was doing that again. When my wife and I traveled around Great Britain four years earlier, we’d rented a car. I was the one who’d driven, and I’d disliked it—big time! Steering wheel on the right, driving on the left, cars and trucks barreling at us along skinny two-way roads hemmed in by rock walls, I never got used to it. The only times I relaxed were on the multilane freeways. The rest of the time I was so fixated on the asphalt that I barely caught a glimpse of the country’s beautiful landscapes.
Away from the roads, though, we’d loved the place. Taking advantage of British right of way—the public’s right to walk across private lands–we tramped over glorious green and gold fields and farms, past scenic lakes, moody old churchyards, and ancient stone circles. What a contrast with the United States where private property was pretty much inviolable.
Recently, with the pandemic apparently on the wane, we started thinking about traveling again. England seemed like a good place to start: We could speak the language, the health care system was strong, and England didn’t seem, at least, all that far away.
This time, though, we’d use buses and trains—exclusively. That meant lots of preparation. I spent countless hours on the internet researching and reserving tickets for long-distance bus and train travel and more time checking out local bus connections, where reservations weren’t possible. I wanted to make sure we’d spend as little of our three weeks as possible cooped up in buses and trains.
We were still wary of Covid. My weak immune system made me especially vulnerable. All we could do was vaccinate to the hilt, wear masks, and hope for the best.
Mostly, we’d be using buses. The reviews were mixed. Rick Steves’ guidebook on Great Britain said that bus service could be spotty: buses sometimes showed up late or not at all. I knew that on Sundays, bus service was extremely limited, in some places nonexistent. On the other hand, an American woman we’d met in England the last time said she’d used buses everywhere, and they’d been fast and reliable.
We’d used buses ourselves a couple of times back then, and I’d loved it. I was finally able to relax and enjoy the scenery. I marveled—no exaggeration–at the skill of bus drivers who’d rip along at 50 mph skimming the rock walls that crowded the narrow, winding roads. I was thankful I didn’t have to do it.
This time, inevitably, we ran into glitches despite our planning. I’d made our long-distance reservations three months before we left home; sometimes, by the time we got there, departure times and departure points had changed. That wasn’t exclusive to Britain, of course. No matter where we’d traveled we’d had to be ready to readjust as we went along.
Before we left home, I’d printed Google maps to identify the best walking routes from bus and train stations to the rooms I’d reserved. Sometimes Mardena’s smart phone helped, but sometimes it didn’t. In Penzance, on England’s southwest coast, the phone sent us on a pointlessly roundabout route to our room. Other times its directions were so unstable that they were more confusing than clarifying. We could have resorted to taxis, but in tiny villages it seemed ridiculous to hire a taxi for a puny three-block ride.
We knew that busing might constrain us some. After busing one day from our temporary base in the city of Bath to the nearby towns of Wells and Glastonbury, we ended up rushing our visit in order to catch the last bus back to Bath. With a car we could have taken our time. But that was the only time we felt limited by public transportation.
Sometimes, obstacles popped up that we wouldn’t have encountered with a car. A five-hour train trip I’d reserved was canceled when railway workers struck the day before we were to leave. We had to scramble to find a bus that would get us to our destination on time.
The inconveniences of public transportation, though, were offset by pleasant surprises. Before we left home, I wondered if we’d ever have the right change we’d need for local buses, which seldom made change. As it turned out, everywhere we went were able to pay with the tap of a credit card.
Sometimes local bus connections turned out to be easier than travel websites made them seem. Rome to Rio and other travel sites showed we’d have to take two buses and a train to get from the Cotswolds town of Stow on the Wold to Bath, with long waits between connections. Instead, once in Stow, we made the trip with one change of buses and only a short wait between.
Local buses brought us much closer than driving had to English daily life. Back when we’d driven, I’d taken routes that promised to be the most stress-free. Usually, that meant sticking to monotonous freeways as much as possible. Buses took us along rural roads, picking up and dropping off passengers in picturesque villages and towns. One time, our driver stopped outside his home while his wife hustled out to give him a sack lunch. Another time, a middle-aged local man seated across from us spent half an hour trying, unsuccessfully, to persuade two women from India to take a tour of the city of Cheltenham with him.
It reminded me of riding the subways and urban trains in New York and Naples and the city waterways in Bangkok: we experienced what the local people experienced, we were doing what they did to get around.
Sometimes, the bus stops were like social centers. Waiting at the central bus stop in the Devon village of Chagford, we talked to an older man cleaning windows at the little bus station. He mentioned that his wife had died three years earlier. “I can’t get used to it,” he said, his head bowed. I had a feeling he’d picked up the window-washing job just to keep busy. Once we were on the bus, I saw him sitting, forlorn, on a window ledge across the street, squeegee dangling from his hand, waiting for the bus stop to clear so he could start on the windows again.
A middle-aged woman we met at a bus stop in Glastonbury chatted with us about her visit to Berkeley, California, a few years earlier. I asked her if she’d gone anywhere else in the US. No, just Berkeley, she said. “I love the United States,” she added, wistfully I thought. I was tempted to tell her that Berkeley wasn’t exactly a microcosm of the US, but I managed to keep quiet. When we got off at the same stop she did in Wells, she insisted on shepherding us to the imposing Wells Cathedral before she peeled off to her house.
Later that day, a garrulous octogenarian at the Wells bus station barraged Mardena and me with stories about his nephew and his nephew’s mistress (“Can you blame him? His wife was depressed; she just sat around”). When the double decker picked us up, Mardena and I sat upstairs. We could hear the old guy going on nonstop to a passenger below.
Public transportation in England isn’t exactly a holiday. It involves planning beforehand and monitoring once you’re there. But that’s not peculiar to England or to public transportation. Independent travel requires plenty of preparation regardless of how you’re getting around. In England, back when we’d rented a car, I’d spent tons of time researching car rental agencies, studying British rules of the road, and watching videos about navigating British roundabouts.
For people with lots of luggage, buses probably wouldn’t make sense. On long-distance buses, luggage is conveniently stowed in a compartment under the bus. On local buses, the choices are pretty much the aisle or your lap. Two women we met, though, had found a handy solution: they’d hired a service that moved their luggage between their destinations. It left them free to ride the buses with only daypacks.
Mixing and matching might be an option, too, driving some and taking buses and trains some. We’d done that a little on our previous visit; for me, though, that bit of busing was enough to convince me never to drive again.
Driving has undeniable advantages in speed and flexibility, so for people with a healthy tolerance for stress, driving might work fine. An American acquaintance of mine who’s driven a lot in England seems to handle it well. When I asked him about it, though, he did feel compelled to add, “I’m fearless.”
I’m not. And I’m not alone. On our previous trip, the manager of our guesthouse in England’s Lake District told us that when he offered to park an American woman’s rental car for her, she burst out, “Would you?” and hugged him. A hotel clerk in Scotland who asked us how the driving was going laughed when I said, “About like it’s gone for every other American.” An American woman we talked to in Stow told us that when her family had rented a car years earlier, the experience was so unnerving that she “jumped into back seat the first day and stayed there the whole trip.” An American man commenting online about driving in England called it “a regrettable mistake.”
I wouldn’t go that far, but I’ve done it both ways now, and for me it’s no contest: if we go again, it’s buses and trains, hands down.