Sunday, October 04, 2015

When Edward Davey came to Mid Suffolk

One of the joys about living in deepest rural Suffolk is that we're a bit out of the way. The downside of that is that getting speakers to come to your Annual Dinner is more of a challenge. And so, we were rather pleased when Ros managed to lure a former Cabinet Minister to do the Mid Suffolk Liberal Democrats Annual Dinner this year, in the shape of Ed Davey.

Our Annual Dinners are usually pretty good, especially as our Social Secretary, Sheila Norris, has an incredible ability to find interesting venues with high quality food, and this year was no exception.

And so, Ros and I set off on Friday evening across country to pick up our guest speaker from a mystery location (at least, we know where it is, but we aren't telling), before heading to the Fynn Valley Golf Club, our venue for the revelry to follow. You can tell that Ed has done a lot of these, as he hit the ground running, introducing himself to local members, making small talk and engaging with our newly expanded membership.

The meal itself was spot on, good food, generous portions, before slightly later than originally scheduled, Ros got up to introduce Ed. Luckily, they're old friends, having worked together on similar portfolios - they both shadowed John Prescott when he was the Deputy Prime Minister and had local government under his wing, so there wasn't that slightly awkward 'used Wikipedia to find out more about someone I don't actually know' moment, when the person being introduced is as surprised as anyone else to discover what they've done.

Ed was superb. He gave us a 'tour de horizon' of energy and climate change policy, what had been achieved, what was at risk, reminding us as to why the Coalition, whilst unpalatable, was necessary. Working with Europe, the rise of India, the sheer ideological-driven idiocy of some Conservatives, all described with passion and energy.

It all made giving the vote of thanks rather easy - there was no shortage of material to cover - and it was clear that he had rather impressed his audience (and we aren't easily impressed here in Mid Suffolk) from the warm applause that he received.

All in all, an excellent event, well worth the surprisingly reasonable ticket price. We may have to go some next year to top it, but with Sheila's organisational talent, and some judicious contacts, we'll give it a go. And, if you're a Liberal Democrat within a reasonable drive, you might want to come yourself.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Eston Kohver is free at last

Free at last...
Radio Free Europe has announced that, according to Russia's Federal Security Service, a deal has been cut between the Estonian and Russian governments to exchange the kidnapped and imprisoned Estonian security officer, Eston Kohver, for convicted Russian spy Aleksei Dressen.

If this is true, and it seems credible, then this is very good news for Eston Kohver and his family, and, whilst one assumes that a Russian spy gets away with his crimes as a result, it does offer an opportunity to slightly ratchet down tensions in the Baltics.

Of course, that does rather depend on whether or not the Russian government is sincere in any way. I wonder what Cicero thinks?...

UPDATE: According to the Estonian Embassy in London, Eston is back in Estonia.

Corbynistas: preparing for a bit of a disappointment, or the inevitability of electoral politics?

The news that John McDonnell, Labour's new Shadow Chancellor, has said that his party will support George Osborne's so-called "fiscal charter" is, perhaps, the first sign that things have not changed as much as those flocking to Jeremy Corbyn's scarlet banner might have hoped.

Yes, he does go on to say that, if in charge, he would tackle the deficit by very different means, ensuring that low and middle income earnings would have their burden eased, but, as they say, the proof is in the pudding, and the evidence of the actual policies is a bit thin still.

And, there are some apparent contradictions. Labour would run an overall surplus, as the fiscal charter implies, yet would borrow to invest in infrastructure structure projects. And, if one is intending to protect the poor and middle income households, where does the money come from to balance the books otherwise, if economic growth, married to below real terms growth in public spending, doesn't fill that gap?

Increased tax rates on the corporate sector, linking capital gains tax to personal tax rates, new higher rates of income tax for the wealthy, a freeze (or even cut) in inheritance tax thresholds, all would, one presumes, be popular with those who backed the new Labour leadership. Do they make good economics? I'm not entirely convinced.

You could reduce corporate welfare, some of which would probably reduce the social security bill - is it right that my taxes go towards subsidizing low-wage workers rather than having them paid a proper living wage, for example?

But, whatever the flesh that is put on the current skeleton of Labour's economic policy, the desire to establish credibility by agreeing with George Osborne, and not John Maynard Keynes, is a sign that British politics may not be changing as radically as we might have thought.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

@ALDEParty Bureau Election 2015 - time to declare our candidate, methinks...

It is occasionally easy to forget that seven years ago, Ros and I were in the midst of the incredible campaign that culminated in Ros's glorious victory in the contest for the Party Presidency. And so, it seems appropriate to come to Bournemouth to announce the start of a new campaign.

In November, the Congress of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe takes place in Budapest, and culminates in the election of a new President and five, possibly six, Vice Presidents. And, with Graham Watson standing down from the Presidency, the Party have decided to nominate a candidate for a Vice Presidential position.

It is with some pleasure that I can reveal that, subject to the endorsement of Tim Farron (and I'm not expecting him to let me down here...), the Party will be proposing Ros to be our candidate. I've already dug out an 'I'm 4 Ros' badge, and changed my avatar - you may have noticed that and wondered why - and we'll be producing badges and campaign material over the coming weeks in anticipation.

So, if you saw us in the Marriott Highcliff and wondered where we've been, now you know. And, if you kept your badge from seven years ago, and are planning to be in Budapest, you might want to have a rummage when you get home...

The whole point is to eat pork, not to play with it...

I am in 'that London' again, although I'm only really passing through. Luckily, there was an opportunity to stop in at 'Zeitgeist', a German bar near Vauxhall, for dinner. It offers an excellent range of proper German and Czech beer but, of particular salience, a spectacular array of pork-based meals - schnitzel, wurst of many kinds, frikadelle - all of which are properly excellent and to the correctly heroic Germanic scale.

We were meeting up with friends and family, which is always nice, even if it is someone else's family. And catching up over beers and the sausage platter (comes with sauerkraut) makes it even more fun whilst Twitter is exercising its wit over a politician's pig-based foolishness.

But Ros and I are onward bound tomorrow for an unexpected meeting in a hotel on the South Coast. All will be revealed tomorrow...

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Jeremy Corbyn: it can be pretty tedious being reasonable and cautious sometimes...

So, congratulations to Jeremy Corbyn on being elected as leader of the Labour Party. Let's be honest, nobody saw this coming four months ago, and I won't be claiming some kind of prescience now. I did ask a question two months ago which seems even more credible now, but I wasn't in a position to offer a credible opinion as to which of the candidates might win.

The rush amongst certain elements of the Parliamentary Labour Party to distance themselves from the new leadership is informative, but not indicative yet. The decisions that Messrs Corbyn and Watson make over the coming days and weeks in terms of a leadership team and of style/approach, will provide more useful evidence of the direction of travel, but will that be a pointer towards the outcome in 2020? I'm not sure. There are too many big events on, or possibly on, the horizon for that to be divined.

There are some amongst my fellow Liberal Democrats who see the result as an opportunity for our party, although the nature of that opportunity is contested. For my part, I sense that the centre of British politics has shifted to the left, although that doesn't mean that we should shift to the left ourselves in such of some newly-defined centre ground. It does mean that, in England at least, there are four distinctive political philosophies in play (I fear that the Green anti-austerity pitch will be lost as once despairing socialists revert to a newly-invigorated socialist Labour Party). That can only be good for the people of this country, and means that we have a space to talk about liberalism, not centrism.

But, let's look at the events on the horizon.

First, a referendum on Europe. What position will a Corbyn-led Labour Party take on this, and how enthusiastic will they be either way? His stance is still unclear, and the campaign in favour of retaining our membership will benefit from the ability of the unions in particular to rally opinion amongst their members. If the referendum is won, the schisms in the Conservative Party will emerge, and a greater fragmentation of their vote is possible. If lost, the next event would be...

Ah yes, another independence referendum in Scotland. And, this time, pro-unionist forces would lose, and why not? The fact that it makes a Labour majority administration in the rump United Kingdom even less attainable is hardly a problem for the Scots. Is a Corbyn-led Labour Party capable of winning in the kind of seats that would be necessary to overcome such a Conservative advantage - places like Nuneaton and Ipswich, to name but two?

These two elephants in the room will define much of the agenda in the years that follow, yet we have no idea how the first, and the consequential second, will play out.

So, this bureaucrat will wait and see. I may be one of the very few that does...

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Mild Irritation Against the Machine - a bureaucrat rebels (a little)

As a bureaucrat, I come with an innate flaw - a nagging scepticism of mechanistic process as a means of governance. Don't get me wrong, process matters, as I've often noted here, but process designed seemingly for the purposes of measuring outputs of dubious value does trouble me.

An awful lot of modern governance is about attempting to set targets, monitoring them and then wondering why things aren't getting any better. Sometimes, it's about setting targets and denying that you've done so. And, because you've set targets, you do have to put in place the means by which they might be measured. That means bureaucracy - the sort that leadens the heart and depresses the spirit.

Often, targets are set by people who have little experience of what it really means to deliver a particular service, in response to others who have even less, but feel the need to demonstrate that they are doing something (the "something must be done, this is something, ergo it must be done" school of thought, if you will). Seldom are the people delivering the service consulted on whether or not the target has value, let alone the tools supplied to measure achievement against it.

Indeed, it often isn't made clear why a target has been set, assuming that the people setting it are clear on the matter. On one occasion, a team I was working in was told that a particular target was core to our work. The catch was that they hadn't actually crystallised what the target was, nor had they concluded how they would determine it. Unfortunate, to say the least, when performance related pay was at stake...

An effective targeting strategy has context, and is most successful when you explain that concept to the people trying to deliver it. Perhaps, one day, someone in the upper echelons of my organisation will try it...

#busride - so, what was the point of all of those journeys?

At the outset of my odyssey across four counties, I noted that I had spent much of my childhood travelling across London. One of the things that made that possible was integrated ticketing, the idea that, by buying a single ticket, you can access an entire transport network for one, reasonably low, price. The other key factor was that there were lots of buses, going virtually everywhere, frequent, reliable.

In London, a one day bus and tram pass costs £5.00. If you have an Oyster card, that falls to £4.40. In Suffolk, there is no integrated ticketing and, with no dominant player in the market, it requires a hotchpotch of different bus companies to cover any great distance. Therefore, higher fares for far fewer services. That £4.40 wouldn't get you from Bury St Edmunds to Diss, or from Haverhill to Bury St Edmunds, for that matter. And, with salaries lower in rural districts, that means that a far greater proportion of one's income is taken up simply getting to where you need to be, assuming of course, that there is a bus that goes the right way, at the right time.

Now, you may think, the answer is to run more buses, encourage higher usage and reduce fares. The catch is that people don't really use buses any more. As the frequencies drop, people revert to their cars, passenger numbers fall, fares increase to make the routes pay, and a cycle of decline and withdrawal takes hold.

Another option is subsidy, but with the crisis in local government funding, that isn't a credible option. Indeed, many rural authorities have been cutting subsidies in recent years, merely accelerating the decline in local bus provision. And, would you rather have a bus that you don't use, or have your granny taken care of? Sadly, that question is all too easy to answer.

The problem is that not all rural dwellers can drive, and not all of those who can can afford a car. Rural services are often some miles distant - schools, shops, libraries - and not always easily accessible by public transport, assuming that there is any. That leads to rural isolation, and to the sort of 'invisible' poverty that goes untreated. Providing support to the one or two families living in genuine poverty in a village is quite difficult, and relatively expensive.

One solution was highlighted at the beginning of my journey, demand responsive transport. As regular bus services have been withdrawn, Suffolk County Council has started to fund services that can be booked up to a week in advance and cover the area around a key town, in my case, Stowmarket. The fares are relatively reasonable (I pay £2.60 for my three mile journey and back), although you can't guarantee that a bus will be available exactly when you want it - you need to be a bit more flexible.

It also ensures that elderly villagers can get into town to meet their friends, do a bit of shopping and generally avoid isolation. The bus drivers know their regulars, and might notice if someone is missing. And, for parents with children, it means that if the other parent needs the car for work, the other one isn't trapped at home.

Public transport is not a right. Nor should it be a privilege. But, it is a valuable tool in helping people out of poverty, in combating rural isolation and, simply, to allow people to get about. Perhaps, instead of worrying about integrated transport across conurbations, which is likely to happen anyway with devolution to city regions, government might think about similar programmes for rural counties such as Suffolk, giving county councils the ability to act to make it easier to use what public transport there is.

Just a thought...

Monday, September 07, 2015

#busride - "take the last bus to Cambridge and I'll meet you at the station..."

The Monkees might not have sung that, although given the number of Clarksvilles in the United States, it might have been easier had they done so. And, one must admit, buses have never been as glamorous as trains. The Orient Express rail replacement bus, as an example, doesn't really cut it. So, fair enough, "Last Train to Clarksville" it must be.

The last direct bus to Cambridge leaves Market Street, Ely at 6.15 p.m. on a Saturday evening. Forget a late night out if you don't live near the station. Admittedly, late night excitement is a bit thin on the ground in rural England, but we still have young people who enjoy that sort of thing. And so, I wanted to be on it. I didn't have a lot of company.

The only sizeable community between Ely and Cambridge is Waterbeach, and the bus rather by-passes that, so it didn't take long to get to Cambridge. A short connecting ride later, and I was at the railway station for the last leg of my journey, a slightly anticlimactic train ride to Stowmarket.

So, a day exploring the bus network of East Anglia, and what have I learned?...

#busride - a detour to the 'Ship of the Fens'

I admit it, I'm rather fond of Ely Cathedral. It dominates the town and can be seen from miles, thanks to the fact that it's on the only piece of (relatively) high ground between Cambridge and The Wash. It appears to pin the town to the ground like a captured moth in someone's collection.

And so, with about twenty-five minutes to kill, it was time to head to cut across High Street, through an archway and into the cathedral grounds. Sadly, there wasn't time to get inside, but it seemed appropriate to take a photo or two for the blog.

I had forgotten that the cathedral isn't actually complete, as the Southeast transept collapsed in the eighteenth century and was never replaced. Curious, really, but I guess that there weren't the funds to do so.

But it was time to leave, I had one last ride before sunset...

#busride - Cambridge to Ely, the indirect way...

Final score from the Abbey Stadium,
Cambridge United 1, Luton Town 3!
So, my scheduled connection lost, what was I to do? There was another number 9 to Ely an hour away, but I wanted to keep moving. Luckily, Stagecoach offer another means of getting to Ely, albeit somewhat counterintuitively via Newmarket (for the geographically challenged, Ely is north of Cambridge, and Newmarket is east of it. But, it was due in twenty minutes, so I settled down with my good book, a history of the Peninsular War (we won, the French didn't) and waited.

And, sure enough, another shiny double decker arrived, ready to whisk me off. An on-time departure, and we were on the road, past the Abbey Stadium where, coincidentally, my beloved Luton Town (come on you Hatters!) were locked in mortal conflict with the locals on the football field (we seem to play Cambridge United quite a lot). I was reassured that it was 2-1 to us, that Cambridge were down to ten men, and that we might win a game.

The Rowley Mile is further back...
The route to Newmarket is, once you've escaped the Cambridge suburbs, a fairly quick one, with little in the way of population to serve. Unlike Mid Suffolk, West Suffolk is predominantly heathland, and doesn't support quite such so many people. It is, however, famous for horse racing, and the route took us past the end of the July Course, with excellent views from the top deck.

I've never been wild on Newmarket itself, as like too many Suffolk towns, the planners and developers have conspired to obliterate much of its charms. The bus has no time for architecture though, as we're off to the north-west.

The only significant stop en route to Ely is Soham, which is reliant on buses despite having an active railway pass through the town. The line from Ely to Bury St Edmunds, with its two-hourly service between Ipswich and Peterborough, hasn't stopped here for years, although it was the scene of one of the most famous instances of railway heroism.

On 2 June 1944, the leading wagon of a train carrying high explosive bombs caught fire, and the driver and fireman managed to detach the burning wagon (itself loaded with ten tons of general purpose bombs) and hauled it about 140 yards before it exploded in the station itself, killing the fireman and a signalman as well as badly injuring the driver.

It has to be said, Soham isn't that exciting now, and it was soon behind us.

Finally, the approach to Ely. The thing about Ely is, it has an incredible cathedral which dominates the skyline. Pictures were required, I thought...

Sunday, September 06, 2015

#busride - Saffron Walden to Cambridge, a bureaucrat sleeps in the face of calamity...

The rather late Stagecoach bus 7
to Cambridge...
Saffron Walden. Very nice, but I've got places to be, things to do. And where is my bus? Not here, on the High Street in Saffron Walden, and that's the problem. I've got a seven minute connect in Cambridge, and time's a wasting.

It arrives, six minutes late, heading in the wrong direction, which means more delay and the possibility of a missed connection, and when it does finally arrive, prospects of making the bus to Ely have receded further. Ah well, nothing to do but get on the bus and keep my fingers crossed.

Stagecoach in Cambridgeshire offer a Dayrider Plus ticket, allowing unlimited rides in and around Cambridgeshire, which costs just £6.40, and, given that I have three rides on their buses planned, it offers better value than anything else today. I've spent £25.60 on fares already, but my bus expenditure is at least at an end.

This bus is rather fuller than the others I've ridden on, and has an upper deck, so I can pick a seat at the front and admire the view. Our route takes us through the two Chesterfords and Duxford, before heading for Sawston and Trumpington, as we weave through the Cambridge suburbs.

As is typical when you're running late, fate takes an unhelpful hand, as we're caught at a level crossing on the line from Liverpool Street to Cambridge, whilst a man on a mobile phone complains about the behaviour of his ex-wife. He does, at least, give me reason to guess why she's his ex-wife...

The new car park at Addenbrooke's.
Not a car park as we know them...
Sadly, this useful bus service inexplicably avoids the outpost of the Imperial War Museum at Duxford and then, I fall asleep. It's warm, the scenery is uninspiring, and the pint I sank in Saffron Walden has its usual soporific effect. I awake at Sawston and look at the time. We're aren't making up any, and I'm going to miss the next bus.

The bus weaves through the southern end of Cambridge before heading to the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, with its particularly funky new car park. And, as usual, the traffic is less than wonderful, so my connection is doomed. I slump in my seat. What next for the travelling bureaucrat?

To add insult to injury, as I step off of the bus on Emmanuel Street, my planned connection pulls out of the Drummer Street bus station. It's late too...

#busride - isn't Saffron Walden pretty?

As I've already noted, I've never been to Saffron Walden before yesterday. And, as it turns out, that's something of a misfortune, as the town centre is very pretty indeed.

There's a market, which has a Giggly Pig stall for those in search of rather good sausages (hmmm... pork...), and other fine things, the shopping is quite good (I picked up a couple of bottles of Mr Fitzpatrick's cordials from the Adnams shop) and the architecture is thoroughly charming.

Sadly, I did have a bus to catch. As it turned out, that wasn't going so well...

#busride - across the border to Essex, garlic in hand...

The view down the bus...
It's all going swimmingly so far. All of the buses have turned up on time, have all arrived on time and, whilst I'm in Haverhill, I'm not here for long. Handing over another £3.90 (my driver asks if I'd prefer 10p or two bob in change - that's proper Suffolk banter, that is) for a scheduled thirty-three minute journey, I settle down for the cross-border journey to Saffron Walden.

Funnily enough, I've never been to Saffron Walden, which surprises even Ros. And, I've got thirty-seven minutes there, so I might even get to see a little of it. Not much mind, but enough to decide whether or not to go back.

Essex countryside. Looks suspiciously
like Suffolk countryside...
It's lucky that I made the connection, because there are only four buses per day, and the next (and last) one is four hours away, but that doesn't matter today, as we're off to the evocatively named Steeple Bumpstead (and I'm sure that Jennie could have hours of fun with that one...) and Radwinter, which has more of a Somerset feel to it, namewise. This is a rather more lonely journey though, with only three other passengers. One wonders whether or not Essex County Council are getting real value for their subsidy.

Much though it pains me to say it, the North Essex countryside has much to commend it (Suffolk could always annex it, I guess). And the villages are perfectly charming, though more expensive due to their relative proximity to 'that London'. But Saffron Walden beckoned, with its promise of charm...

That makes £18.20 spent thus far... this is not turning out to be a cheap day out, is it?

#busride - Bury St Edmunds to Haverhill (and a highways officer with a classical education)

The 12.15 route 15 bus to Haverhill
Provisioned with some Diet Coke and a packet of Fruit Gums (healthy, eh?), it was time to continue my westwards odyssey, with the next stage, as far as Haverhill, in the south-west corner of Suffolk.

Haverhill has a somewhat harsh reputation as a London overspill community (some of my Suffolk work colleagues call it 'Haverhole') but, on a recent visit, I noticed that the main street isn't as black as it's painted and that what hurts it is the plethora of 1950's and 1960s architecture which, to be frank, never did much for me, or for most other people, for that matter. But it is another hub town for buses, and that's what the purpose of my day was.

There was a catch though, in that my bus was due to arrive in Haverhill as my next bus was scheduled to leave. The driver was vaguely reassuring though, advising that he's usually early, and that the next bus left Haverhill from bay 5 of the bus station.

So, I handed over another £5.10, made myself comfortable, and settled back to see what West Suffolk has to offer in terms of vistas. Admittedly, the route is pretty enough, although it sticks to the main road apart from a detour to serve Chevington, as the deceptively rolling countryside offers up some pleasant scenery. But, again, the bus doesn't pick up, or drop off, that many people, and most of those that it does are elderly, non-fare paying ones. Presumably, the journeys are self-financing, as the service isn't subsidised and still runs, but you wonder whether or not it would be viable without effective cross-subsidy.

Bus travel through villages is a challenge, in that roads are narrow, sight lines for drivers are poor, and people park in such a way as to make it difficult for a bus to get past. At one point, our driver stopped the bus, got out and moved some obstruction before continuing on his way. Villagers forget about infrequent buses, you see.

I have already criticised Haverhill's 'architectural legacy', but was somewhat surprised to turn into a housing estate on the edge of Haverhill entirely named after famous Romans. Janus Close, Tiberius Close, Marcus Close (leading to Antonia Close), Claudian Close, even a Flavian Close. Somebody had fun with that one, I can tell.

Sadly, the sun had stopped shining by the time we reached Haverhill (slightly ahead of schedule, as promised) but my connecting bus was still parked up. It was time to leave the safety of Suffolk...

So, £14.30 spent, two bus rides negotiated...

#busride - Diss to Bury St Edmunds (a bus driver is a person in your neighbourhood...)

The 10.30 bus 304 from Diss to
Bury St Edmunds - the pretty way...
I hand over my £4.50 to the driver and find myself a seat with a view. Luckily, it being a bus, they all do. There are quite a few people on board, about a dozen or so, for the Suffolk County Council sponsored service, a number of whom appear to be regulars, judging by the conversations going on around me.

And, on time, the bus pulls off, heading in a counter-intuitive westerly direction. It is then that I realise that the route passes by the station and that I could have saved myself the walk (lesson to be learnt for next time). Ah well, the exercise is good for me...

The 304 runs but seven times on a Saturday, serving the various villages on, or just off of, the A143 trunk road, and the first half of the route, in particular, takes you down a series of single track roads connecting smallish villages which otherwise are fairly cut off for non-drivers. The passengers are mostly retired - their fare is free, covered by their 'age related free travel bus pass' - which comes as no great surprise given how much the regular fare is.

The road to Magpie Green...
Palgrave (the course of the initial westerly route), Wortham, Magpie Green and Redgrave pass by as the bus makes its erratic way in a broadly south-westerly direction until we reach Botesdale, where Simonds, the bus company which operates the route, has its headquarters. It's a pretty place, Botesdale, but we're not there for long, heading for the splendidly named Rickinghall Inferior (there is a Rickinghall Superior but they don't have a regular bus service - probably don't need one).

North to Hinderclay, south-west again to Wattisfield (not to be confused with Wattisham further south!) before the route begins to hug the A143 more closely and the speed increases. Hepworth and Stanton are reached and I begin to notice that, how can I put this, very few people are getting on. Occasionally, someone gets off, but they exceed the number getting on. This reminds you that the service is subsidised, and that, if it were left to market forces, I'd still be in Diss. I'm not alone though, which is a relief, and I'm heading for Bury St Edmunds, a jewel in the crown of Suffolk, apparently.

Ixworth is a pretty little place, where the roads from Diss to Bury St Edmunds and from Stowmarket to Thetford intersect, but after that, the bus follows the A143 for the most part, with a slight detour to serve outlying parts of Bury St Edmunds, before heading to the bus station, where we arrive on time. The bus, and its driver, will head back to Diss in about ten minutes, but I have other plans....

So, two journeys down, £9.20 spent, and the schedule is holding up...

#busride - Creeting St Peter to Diss via Stowmarket, courtesy of Suffolk Links and @greateranglia

So, my Suffolk Links service was there for me, at the end of The Lane, and I was soon deposited at Stowmarket Station, where I purchased my £4.70 single ticket (with Annual Gold Card discount!) for the twelve minute journey to Diss.

The 09:55 to Norwich, calling at
Diss, is on time!
Good news to start with, in that the train is on time. Admittedly, this is not always the case - the 07.55 service to Norwich on a weekday always seems to be late if my experience at the level crossing by the station is any guide - so you learn not to be too presumptuous, especially when your connection from the train is a tight one. But, nonetheless, time to buy a newspaper and wait.

Sure enough, in comes the train, I get on and am whisked to Diss, from where I have twenty-two minutes to get to the bus station. According to Google Maps, it's a nineteen minute walk, and I'm not as quick across the ground as I used to be.

But, slightly breathless, I make my way up Victoria Road, noting the heavy traffic as it crawls along ("People want to come here?", he asks, with dis(s)tain) but find the bus station, with a friendly bus waiting for me. Time to ride the bus...

#busride - the morning dawned. I'll skip the bright bit, and the early bit too, now I think of it...

I was prepared for my big adventure. I had my planned itinerary in my iPhone, a bag of £1 and £2 coins in my pocket, a good book for the dull bits and my iPad in case I was tempted to blog. All was good. I had booked the Suffolk Links bus to collect me at 9.30 a.m. to take me to Stowmarket station in good time to buy a ticket to Diss on the 9.55 a.m. Norwich train.

A hearty breakfast was eaten (cheese was involved) and, at 9.25, I locked the house up and walked down The Lane (a happy refrain may have been involved), to find Paul, the regular Saturday driver, waiting for me. The adventure had begun...

#busride - every adventure begins with a little planning...

In London, planning a bus journey that involves connections is, for the most part, very easy. Buses run very frequently, and there are lots of them, heading in every direction. so, all you do is go out to the nearest bus stop and wait. You might plan your route, but you probably wouldn't think too much about timings. And, even if you are aiming to be at a certain place at a certain time, the Transport for London website is very good at that.

When planning trips, I am known to struggle with choice. So many options, so hard to choose. Luckily, or not, as the case may be, there aren't many choices as to where one might go from Creeting St Peter on a Saturday morning. In fact, in terms of scheduled bus services, there aren't any. Ever. Which makes the whole choice thing rather easier, I guess. I can get to Stowmarket, using the Suffolk Links Demand Responsive Transport service, however - I use it to get to the station every day as part of my commute.

So, where can you go from Stowmarket by bus?

So, it's Diss, Bury St Edmunds, Hadleigh or Ipswich (note the lack of buses in an eastwards direction). Unfortunately, the Hadleigh services amount to one bus a day, on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays only. There is a bus to Diss, except that it leaves Stowmarket at 7.55 a.m. And, it's the only one.

That leaves Ipswich, where I work, and Bury St Edmunds, which is a good jumping off point for West Suffolk. The service to Ipswich, via Needham Market, is half-hourly - it's a main artery and serves some decently-sized communities. Alternatively, there is a roughly hourly service to Bury St Edmunds, but I rode the route via Woolpit earlier in the summer.

There is no alternative, I'll have to take a train to Diss and connect with a bus from there to Bury St Edmunds. Route 304, sponsored by the County Council, leaves Diss at 10.30 a.m., arriving at the bus station in Bury St Edmunds at 11.48 a.m., and travels through a part of Mid Suffolk that I don't know well - Botesdale and Rickinghall, to name but two villages.

So, where from Bury St Edmunds? Sudbury is pretty, but from there, your only real options are Colchester and Ipswich, and Thetford is a bit grim. That leaves Cambridge, Haverhill, Mildenhall and Newmarket. It's a long connect (forty-two minutes) for Mildenhall, which rules that out. The Cambridge bus passes through Newmarket, but Haverhill sounds interesting. The connection isn't perfect (twenty-seven minutes) but that gives me the time to pick up a snack and something to drink, so Haverhill it is.

At Haverhill, there is a bus to Saffron Walden, which is, apparently, pretty (I've never been there). The connection is apparently immediate, which doesn't leave a lot of room for error but, if all else fails, there are regular buses to Cambridge. Cambridgeshire is relatively easy, as Stagecoach dominate the cross-country services that radiate from Cambridge. So, Saffron Walden to Cambridge, Cambridge to Ely it is.

By the time I get to Ely (she'll be waiting), it will be getting late, so time to turn for home. There is a train, but there is also a bus from Ely to Newmarket, from where I can catch the hourly train service back to Stowmarket, as buses tend to stop running after 6 p.m. So, why not?

So, two trains, six buses and a Suffolk Links service in a lop-sided figure of eight taking in four counties in less than ten . What could possibly go wrong?

#busride - a little context before the serious work begins...

As a child, I bemused my parents, particularly my mother, by my almost obsessive fascination with buses. Not in a trainspotter-ish way, you understand, but as a user. Over a long monsoon in Mumbai as a five year old, I spent hours looking out of the bedroom window, counting buses and wondering where they went. And, as soon as I was allowed out on my own or, in Mumbai, with a doting grand uncle, I was riding buses further and further afield, visiting family or just exploring.

Growing up into a non-driver - I still haven't gone as far as even taking a driving lesson - buses, and public transport in general - became a part of my life, albeit generally in an urban setting. Luckily, as a Londoner, there was no shortage of buses and, no matter how far you went, you could always get home. And one should thank Ken Livingstone for that, to some extent. I even managed to get a holiday job as a result, admittedly for my father, locating poster sites and marking them against a scale of his devising. It was an enjoyable, and mildly lucrative, way of spending my summer.

It was only upon moving to Mid Suffolk that I began to realise that buses were not something to be taken for granted. Upon asking Ros when the buses to Creeting St Peter ran, her answer (Thursday) came as something of a surprise. And, since then, my bus rides have been restricted to an occasional treat. until yesterday, that was...