South Wales Bus Challenge

Is it possible to get from Cardiff to Bethlehem by bus?

Wales’s rural bus services are under threat. Government cuts have already seen the frequency of some services reduced, and other routes have already been scrapped. The Welsh Government has cut the Local Transport Services Grant by 3% — in some rural areas the LTSG funds half of the services. In addition, there are fears that the continuing free bus pass scheme, which allows elderly and disabled people to travel free of charge, could lead to more services having to be scrapped.

How important are local bus services to communities? Are they well used? Are they efficient?

To find out, I’ve decided to make a lengthy journey purely by local bus, starting from outside my flat in Richmond Road, Cardiff. The destination – with Christmas just around the corner – is the tiny village of Bethlehem, Carmarthenshire.

Bethlehem: a few houses, a post office and a school (photo by Chris and Alison Walley via Flickr)

A tiny farming community, Bethlehem has gained attention over the years for its annual Christmas custom: people visit in order to post a Christmas card from the village, thus having it stamped with the “Bethlehem” postmark. The Post Office is, according to the village website, open daily in the run up to Christmas, with various festive activities laid on for visitors at the village hall until 4pm each day.

I’ve downloaded an itinerary from Traveline Cymru, which, if followed correctly, will get me to Bethlehem at 3:36pm. Would I arrive to the strains of a children’s choir at a candle-lit Bethlehem village hall, where sherry and mince pies await? Or would delays and missed connections force me into a humiliating premature train ride back to Cardiff?

Here’s a map of the 90.9 mile route:

I leave my flat at 8:20am, in order to catch the 8:37 from Lowther Road to Kingsway, and then another bus on to Pontypridd. Despite two slight delays I’m still, barely, on schedule, and at 9:34 I arrive at Pontypridd, gateway to the Rhondda Valley. This is where my journey really begins.

Off to Tylorstown: Stagecoach 132, £3.40. Tylorstown is a former mining village at the heart of the Rhondda Valley, with a population of just under 5,000. The village is dominated by a huge slag heap, and a faint smell of sulphur still permeates the air. Being a fairly isolated community, it’s the sort of place where reliable local bus services are extremely important. I meet 84 year-old Eileen Jones, who has lived in the area all her life; she was born in Stanleytown, just across the valley, and moved to Tylorstown when she was 14. She uses the bus daily, for shopping and visiting friends. “You couldn’t live, could you?” she says, when I ask her what she would do without the bus.

At the bus stop across the road is Arthur Gibbs. He uses his free bus pass every day. “The Welsh Assembly have given us a marvellous incentive to travel on the buses,” he says. “It’s a bloody marvellous service.”

Hear Tylorstown residents talk about their local bus services below:

The Stagecoach 172 bus arrives on time, and it’s almost full. A ticket to Aberdare costs £4.20. After a 27-minute drive through some astonishing scenery, I arrive at industrial town Aberdare, where I get lost trying to find the right bus stop, and miss my connection. After about half an hour, another arrives, the Stagecoach number six. A £3.80 ticket is bought to take me to Heolgerrig.

17 minutes later I’ve arrived at my destination — an out-of-town retail park. It’s bleak, sterile, ugly and hugely depressing. It’s also extremely cold. The festive cheer of Bethlehem feels a long way off. Over an hour later, the Stagecoach T4 bus arrives. After the missed connection my bus itinerary is now useless, and I throw it away.

I get on the bus and pay £2.80. The only other passengers are four elderly gents, all sitting separately. This has been a theme so far during the journey — do no young people use the bus anymore?

I arrive at historic Brecon’s small bus station, and make my way into town. It turns out there is no bus from outside the library, as stated by Traveline, and no-one I ask seems aware of any bus service to LLandovery, and several people tell me that there isn’t one. It’s gone two o’clock. I reluctantly begin to accept that reaching Bethlehem by four is an impossibility. Rain is falling steadily from the rapidly darkening sky. An hour of wandering later I return to the bus station, in desperation. There’s a solitary lady waiting there. I ask her if she knows if there’s a bus to LLandovery. She says there is, and she’s waiting for it. The bus arrives, an ancient, flaking, white and red painted vehicle with a crudely hand drawn sign: Brecon-Sennybridge-Llandovery. It’ll do. We’re the only people on the bus, even after the stop at Sennybridge. So there is a service, but are people are aware of it?

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I arrive in Llandovery. It’s dark and raining, and I decide to wait at the bus stop. The Llandeilo bus pulls up soon after, at ten to six. I’m the only person on it. Morris Travel, £2.65. One more change after this. Nearly there.

6:12pm. Disaster. Apparently, there is no bus to Bethlehem today. Less than five miles to go and it looks like my mission has failed. In desperation I begin calling local taxi firms: the cheapest is £20 return. It’s dark, cold and raining and I’m so tired I can barely stand. My heart isn’t in this anymore. Nine hours 35 minutes, 91 miles and £24.65 later, my odyssey is at an end.

Is it possible to get to Bethlehem by bus? Yes it is. But only on Tuesdays.

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One response to “South Wales Bus Challenge

  • Jim Jenkins

    Great blog. I have relatives in that part of the world. This brought back some happy memories of playing on sulphur infused slag heaps under slate grey skies. If I ever go back to visit I think I’ll go by car…!

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