On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

For one day only, a full bus service replete with 10 London Routemasters is laid on to an abandoned village in the middle of the Salisbury Plain

Sir Peter Hendy is wrestling with the wheel of a London bus as it chugs along remote winding lanes more than 100 miles west of the capital, a flash of red against grey and green. The Commissioner of Transport for London is used to running buses that carry more than six million passengers a day, but today he’s the driver. His destination: a church with no congregation in a village without villagers.

“It’s a proper busman’s holiday,” he shouts in the cab of his own 1962 Routemaster as it splutters slightly on its way up a hill, on a road to pretty much nowhere. On a dismal bank holiday Monday on the Salisbury Plain, his spindly windscreen wipers cannot swish quickly enough. 

We are on the 23A, a strange route that operates for one day each year. It starts in Warminster in Wiltshire, and ends in Imber, an isolated ghost village that has been under military occupation for more than 70 years. Other stops on the route include an old farm called Brazen Bottom.

Like many of the maddest ideas, Hendy’s emerged from a pub. “I was having a drink with some mates, all bus industry people, and we were saying to ourselves, ‘where’s the most unlikely place you could run a bus service to?’” he recalls. They settled on nearby Imber, not far from Hendy’s family home in Bath, and, as the pints flowed, they began planning.

Now in its sixth year, the route is registered and licensed by the Bath Bus Company. What began as a plan hatched by boys with bus-shaped toys has become, to Hendy’s delight, a charitable service that provides a link to a lost world.

A large gathering of mostly bus enthusiasts jumps aboard the Routemasters that leave Warminster every half an hour between 0950 and 1820. The average age is high, but there are families, too. “My Mum came last year and I got jealous so I decided to come along this time,” says Kieran Coburn, 11, from Reading.

Hail fellow: a man waits at one of the specially made official London bus stop signs to catch the 23A to Imber Hail fellow: a man waits at one of the specially made official London bus stop signs to catch the 23A to Imber  

Before long, Hendy takes a sharp turn on to a one-track lane between unploughed fields. Hills roll into the cloudy distance as the rain keeps falling. Signs warn against entry. A few miles later, past a checkpoint and a rusting tank, a specially made official London bus stop sign tells us we have reached Imber. Beyond a fence, soldiers in camouflage can be seen storming a house without doors or windows.

Imber once had almost 500 residents. But in 1943, the War Office, which owned the surrounding land, evicted them all so that the village could be used to train US troops for D-Day. They were never allowed back. The road to Imber, which remains part of the Army’s vast Salisbury Plain training estate, is now closed for all but a few days each year.

Hidden up a path behind trees and barbed wire fencing, the 13th-century St Giles Church is the only building in the village to have survived intact. It is now marooned with its graveyard on a mound. When the Imber bus service disgorged the first of its curious passengers here in 2009, Hendy assumed that the church had also been abandoned. But then a man called Neil Skelton came running down the path.

“I asked them who was in charge,” Skelton recalls. “I think they thought that they were in trouble but I said, ‘no, this is fantastic. Are you aware that this church is open?’” His passion for St Giles and Hendy’s for public transport were about to coincide to create an unlikely bus-borne pilgrimage.

Skelton, who is from Salisbury, had first come across the church as a wandering teenage cyclist, and was immediately struck by its sorry isolation. The Ministry of Defence was bound only to keep the building watertight but the agreement ended in 2002. Without a congregation, the already damaged church was on the road to ruin.

Thanks for the ride: almost 1,000 people made the unlikely pilgrimage to a church with no congregation in a village with no villagers Thanks for the ride: almost 1,000 people made the unlikely pilgrimage to a church with no congregation in a village with no villagers  

After a career with the Churches Conservation Trust, Skelton, 66, returned to Imber with a dream of restoring St Giles as its custodian. He helped secure a Grade-I listing, and appealed to the trust for funds. “I had to convince them that restricted access would actually work in its favour,” Skelton recalls. He eventually won the argument and the money. When Hendy rolled up, the bulk of the work had been finished.

“It’s very satisfying because we weren’t sure how many visitors we’d get on a wet bank holiday, but thanks to the buses we’re packed,” Skelton says. He has just refuelled the generator that is keeping lights and tea urns running – the church has no electricity supply. By the end of the day, almost 1,000 people will have deposited their umbrellas in the porch.

Alongside Easter and a popular Christmas carols concert, the Imber Bus service is now a key entry in the church’s very limited calendar. Hendy, whose scheme uses no public funds, also donates half of the £4,000 in fares he takes each year (the British Legion gets the rest). Work has just been completed on a paved path, built for free by a contractor involved in the £1bn project to rebuild Tottenham Court Road station in London after Hendy pulled some strings. 

The transport commissioner’s obsession with buses began as a child. He went to school in west London where his classmates included Ed  Condry. Condry, by coincidence, is now Bishop of Ramsbury, whose Salisbury diocese includes Imber. After realising his link with Hendy only two years ago, he now attends the annual open day by bus from Warminster, where he lives. “I suppose in a funny kind of way this place represents a modern image of God – elusive and only accessible twice a year,” the bishop says. “If you could drive past every day, probably nobody would bother coming in. But because you can’t there is something magical about it.”

The day is also a showcase for the power of public transport. A big report from the IPPR think-tank warns the following day that  millions of people outside of London are failed by declining bus services. Martin Cuff, a retired market trader from Dorset, is riding on Hendy’s bus. “For a lot of older people, buses are our only contact with the outside world,” he says. “But now in my village we can’t even get to the next town by bus. We can get to Poole but only once on Tuesday and Friday.”

Hendy, who is now 61, joined London Transport in 1975 as a graduate trainee. He worked as a driver and conductor before ascending the ranks. By 2005, he was in charge of London Buses, and won praise for his response to the 7/7 bombings. A year later, he took charge of TfL and was knighted last year after the Olympics.

But more than anything, he looks forward all year to his annual journey to Imber. “We have a lot of fun and give people a lot of pleasure,” he says. “I love this place.”

Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp
voicesThokozile Masipa simply had no choice but to jail the athlete
Arts and Entertainment
Sister Cristina Scuccia sings 'Like a Virgin' in Venice

Like Madonna, Sister Cristina Scuccia's video is also set in Venice

Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Life and Style
The Tinder app has around 10 million users worldwide

techThe original free dating app will remain the same, developers say

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    IT Project Manager

    Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

    Maths Intervention / Learning Mentor

    £60 - £80 per day + Mileage and Expenses: Randstad Education Leeds: We are loo...

    KS2 Teacher

    £100 - £150 per day + Flexible with benefits: Randstad Education Group: Key St...

    Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

    £39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

    Day In a Page

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album