Two bus services operate between Chepstow and Monmouth in South Wales. Both run through the Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Of the two, the number 65 bus service, run by Monmouthshire County Council, takes the high road from Chepstow serving Itton, Devauden Green, Cobblers Plain, Llanishen, Trellech, The Narth, Penallt, and Lydart.
The higher seating positions on the bus enable frequently spectacular views over hedgerows towards the Sugar Loaf, the Black Mountains, and Bannau Brycheiniog. (Yes, Bannau Brycheiniog). The low road (number 69) bus route alongside the Wye through Tintern is quite pretty, but not quite comparable. The number 65 must surely be one of the prettiest and friendliest regular bus routes in Wales, if not the world. It even has its own group of friends.
A community (on the) bus
During his preschool years, my son and I travelled regularly, equipped with pushchair, backpack, spare clothes, nappies, and snacks, on the number 65 bus from our home near Trellech into Monmouth. The UK’s first Bee Town, at that time Monmouth was well-served by mother-and-toddler groups that also welcomed dads. There were groups at St. Thomas’s Church, the Bridges Centre, The Priory, and Monmouth Leisure Centre. We used the bus most days. (There was also the more local Busy Bodies playgroup in Trellech itself).
We shared the number 65 bus with people traveling to work, or going to town for shopping. Many of them were regulars. As people alighted in Monmouth they would often stop and let the driver, Rob, know which return bus they were planning to catch, secure in the knowledge that he would keep an eye out for them.
All over Wales you’ll hear people say, “Diolch, Drive,” or, “Thanks, Drive,” or, “Cheers, Drive,” as they leave a bus. Nearly every bus driver in Wales, man or woman, is nicknamed “Drive”, and thanked. But Rob is so synonymous with the route that he’s always called Rob: another number 65 exception.
From time to time, groups of walkers would use the service including, at one stage, a couple from the USA. Both had done some volunteering on the long-distance Appalachian Trail (see Bill Bryson’s book and film A Walk in the Woods), and had come to walk in Wye Valley’s own woods. Our American visitors became, for a short time, regular users and adopted members of the number 65 bus and its community.
Number 65 under threat
In 2018, under budgetary pressure, Monmouth County Council announced it was planning to axe the number 65 service. The reaction was immediate and powerful. People in the sleepy towns and villages served by the route became instant activists. I signed a petition to retain the service in the Trellech village shop.
Following many community actions including 1400 signatories to the petition, the service was saved and has since improved. There was investment in a brand new bus, and the timetable was expanded. In 2021, the Council announced it would repair and clean every stop and shelter along the route, including cutting back greenery and renewing timetable holders.
After the threat receded, the aforementioned Friends of the 65 Bus group was set up to promote and develop the service for residents and tourists. It has a thriving Twitter account and a Facebook group advising on timetables, delays, road traffic accidents, planned and unplanned (i.e. tree down) road closures, lost and found notices, and other matters. Its organisation and work is quite remarkable.
So the number 65 is truly a community bus in the best sense of the word. The service has regularly been visited by local and national politicians. It was also, I believe, the subject of a short television documentary, though I can find no record of that now.
For much of our journey into town, the number 65 travelled narrow country lanes, meeting vehicles coming the other way, requiring and receiving driving skill, patience, courtesy, and consideration. As a cyclist, I often used the same lanes, sharing the road with Rob’s bus. If I heard it approaching from behind, I would pull over at the nearest convenient field entrance. There was never any engine revving or horn sounding to disturb my peace.
Fighting for what’s best
The County Council recently provided an electric bus. As a cyclist, I wonder how silent it is? Though I’ve moved away, I plan to visit sometime. I hope to experience a public service electric vehicle operating on rural roads for myself.
Our pre-school experiences on the number 65 left a lasting impression on my son Tomás. This became apparent when he started primary school. Picking him up one afternoon, I saw buses and minibuses in the car park waiting to collect students. A then five-year-old Tomás pointed at the buses and declared, “Lots of Robs!”
The 65 bus service has my nomination for the prettiest and best regular service in Wales. It’s a model for what a rural bus service (and its drivers) should aspire to.
Recently, however, the number 65 is yet again under threat. Potential withdrawal of Welsh Government support with the end of Covid-era funding in June 2023 may reduce it to a skeleton service. This is at clear odds with the Government’s own declarations as to rural transport policies and net zero ambitions. The Friends of the 65 Bus group has responded, “We cannot understand how the Welsh Government can be proposing to dismantle the bus network in Wales, leaving passengers isolated and removing the opportunity for people to move away from private motor vehicle use.”
The number 65 represents a great many things which we perhaps take too much for granted, including community, utility, and small but perfect pleasures. Nowadays, we must fight for such things more than ever.
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