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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 September, 2004, 00:40 GMT 01:40 UK
In the country without a car
By Jenny Matthews
BBC News Online in Devon

We hear a lot about rural transport and how poor it is - with government reports saying it is letting rural Britain down, environment groups complaining about heavy car use, MPs complaining their constituents can't get about in the evening without a car and so on.

I decided to see how it was for myself with a journey through the Devon countryside using only public transport.

Completely unscientific, of course - but possibly illuminating. And certainly a pleasant day out of the office.


From a map, I chose five attractive-sounding spots to reach, forming a rough loop around Devon's county town of Exeter - Cheriton Cross, Bovey Tracey, Cockwood, Newton St Cyres, and Bickleigh.

This journey, by car, would cover about 65 miles and Bovey Tracey resident Ian Kemp estimated it would take between two and two and a half hours.

To be fair, I decided to allow twice that, five hours. Here's how I got on:

EXETER ST DAVID'S-EXETER BUS STATION (1; 08min)

I start my journey at Exeter St David's, one of several railway stations serving Exeter. It is some distance from the bus station, so I hop on a shuttle bus which takes me near and walk the rest.

Buses are of course the country workhorses of public transport. Except outside towns they often don't run at night, or Sundays
The BBC's Tom Symonds

I muse on something that Neil Mitchell of the Devon and Cornwall Business Council told me - that a staggering 96% of journeys in Devon are made by car.

This, according to the South West Observatory, is causing congestion in urban areas and raising fears about the environment.

And, says Janet Kipling of Devon County Council, it means a vicious circle in rural bus service provision and, therefore, a "worsening predicament" for the small number of people without a car who depend on public transport.

EXETER - CHERITON CROSS - MORETONHAMPSTEAD (2.40; 1hr 42)

I'm in luck. There is a bus to Cheriton Cross, the 173, and one of its four or so services a day leaves in 20 minutes' time.

Anchor pub in Cockwood, Devon
Places like Cockwood are almost impossible to get to without a car
There are about 10 of us on board and we rattle along the pretty, quiet Devon roads at a steady pace.

When we reach Cheriton Cross itself, I realise that if I get off, I will have to wait nearly four hours for the next bus.

Instead I cheat, staying on until it terminates in the nearby small town of Moretonhampstead.

MORETONHAMPSTEAD-BOVEY TRACEY (1.90; 20 min)

One of the two minibuses in the Moretonhampstead car and bus park has its engine revved. It is a 178, which goes to Bovey twice a day. One leaves in one minute, which seems very lucky indeed. I hop on.

If you haven't got a car round here you're at a real loss
Dan Levey, 34, Bovey Tracey
I share the 24-seat bus with just one other passenger, a teenage girl. In fact, all the buses I have taken so far have had only a smattering of passengers.

This, says the business council's Neil Mitchell, is the paradox of rural transport - although bus provision is getting better and better, people are simply not using it.

"[The bus companies] are doing the best they can but they are not being patronised enough.

"It is a chicken and egg situation. If they only go every Tuesday on a leap year and return the following year, you can't really expect people to use them."

BOVEY TRACEY-NEWTON ABBOT (2.70; 20 min)

Cockwood is only about 10 miles from Bovey but, by public transport, seems to involve at least three changes.

Bovey resident Dan Levey, 34, tells me this is the reason he makes all his journeys by car.

"If you haven't got a car round here you're at a real loss.

On the more "deep rural" services, the patronage is literally dying off... we are left with a small number of individuals without private transport whose predicament worsens as this trend continues
Janet Kipling, Devon County Council
"I'd like to use public transport but you just can't. If I wanted to go the cinema in Newton Abbot in the evening, I just couldn't do it. Going to visit friends... it would take too long. It would take all day."

Devon County Council is trying some imaginative alternative solutions for those who can't drive.

Carsharedevon.com is a car-sharing service for people who don't have a car or don't want to use one. It is currently used by almost 2,000 people and rising.

There are also three moped hire schemes for young people living in rural areas not served by buses.

But many Devon children still struggle to get to school - the council provides transport for about a fifth of pupils, at a cost of about 19m a year, which is just over 6% of the total education budget.

Within a few minutes a number 39 comes along to Newton Abbot, which will take me part of the way to Cockwood.

NEWTON ABBOT-TEIGNMOUTH (2.05; 1hr5min)

In Newton Abbot, Kara Mace, 19, is returning home to nearby Ashburton. She has a three-year-old daughter and doesn't drive, so is dependent on the buses.

You're trapped after six if you haven't got a car - you have to use taxis
Kara Mace, 19, Ashburton
"They're OK but they stop at about six o'clock so you're trapped after six if you haven't got a car - you have to use taxis," she says.

"Also, they don't really cater for people with kids - there's only a tiny space for buggies."

There is a train from Newton Abbot which goes direct to Starcross, very near Cockwood. But it is a bit of a walk to the train station, and I am told I am better off getting a bus.

A 184 to Teignmouth comes after about 15 minutes. From Teignmouth, I can get a train or bus direct to Starcross.

TEIGNMOUTH-STARCROSS (2.60; 25min)

It is a short stroll from the bus stop to Teignmouth's slightly scruffy train station, where a delightful two-carriage Wessex Train whisks me along the "Riviera line", parallel to the coast, to Starcross.

The train is packed with young families returning from the seaside, and the view is delightful.

But, says Neil Mitchell, this line - which also forms the direct line to London - is only single, and therefore problems like flooding are more likely to shut down services for hours at a time.

"It doesn't really matter how good the operator is, we've got a very fragile rail system down here," he says.

STARCROSS-COCKWOOD-STARCROSS (0; 45min)

There is a regular-looking bus running from Starcross to Cockwood, the 185, but none appears, so I walk instead. It is 15 minutes there, where I have a 15 min cola break in the picturesque Anchor pub, and 15 back.

STARCROSS-EXETER ST DAVID'S (2.80; 25min)

The next leg of my journey is meant to be to either Newton St Cyres or Bickleigh. Either involves going back through Exeter St David's. From Starcross, this means the 85 bus or the two-carriage train.

It's a chicken and egg situation - if [the buses] only go every Tuesday on a leap year and return the following year, you can't really expect people to use them
Neil Mitchell, Devon and Cornwall Business Council
The train comes along first, so I take it. It gets me to Exeter in a mere 13 minutes, but by then I realise I will be unable to complete the next part of my journey.

My five hours is up - in fact the total journey time so far is 5hr 10min, including the 15-minute break at the Anchor but minus the four or so hours my cheating saved me at Cheriton Cross.

The beautiful villages of Newton St Cyres and Bickleigh will have to wait for another time.

And next time, I'll bring my car.


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