Route: 351, Glossop to Holmfirth
Operator: South Pennine Community Transport
Timetable: 2 each way on Fridays & Saturdays only
Date of Trip: 31/5/19
Rolling Downhill in a Bathtub: Ian & Eleanor
The 351 is as quirky a bus as you’ll find in the UK. Firstly, it’s a 15-seat minibus with the route number propped up on a piece of card in the window. Secondly, it sometimes has a conductor taking up one of those limited edition seats. Thirdly, it’s the only bus service I’ve ever known which one had its frequency halved thanks to it becoming too popular.
The good people at South Pennine Community Transport (which celebrated its fourth birthday yesterday) must be willing to run the risk of sightseers hogging all the chairs again, as last week saw the reintroduction of the Saturday service. It’s a hugely welcome return of a weekend shortcut into Yorkshire.
We are here on the Friday, though, making it to the bus stop just as the 351 pulls in. There’s no danger of over-crowding today, with just four other passengers scattered around the stand – one old man, a couple of walkers, and a guy throwing extreme caution to the benign elements in his padded winter coat. Shackleton would be impressed.
‘I won’t be getting on next Friday, Reg,’ he says to a gent who is ducking to get out of the minibus. ‘I’m at a funeral.’
Reg nods solemnly and heads towards the High Street. With the others in the queue now safely sat down, it’s our turn.
‘Can we get a WY Metro ticket on here?’ I ask, thinking about the rest of the afternoon which will take us to Wakefield, Huddersfield and eventually back to Manchester. The WY Metro is a ticket which gives a full day’s bus travel around West Yorkshire, with Holmfirth being just inside its south-western boundary.
‘Oooh, I don’t know about that,’ the driver replies, sucking in sharply through pursed lips. He’s doubling up as the conductor today. ‘I can do you a Derbyshire Wayfarer?’
‘No, we’re cracking on around Yorkshire afterwards.’
‘You’re not coming back? Hmmm, let me just ring the office…no, she’s not answering. Tell you what, can I print you a couple of singles instead?’
‘That’ll do it. Do you take contactless?’
‘Cards?’ he chuckles, rummaging around underneath his dashboard for a payment machine, ‘I’ve never done those before. Right then, let me figure this out.’
While this exchange is going on, we pick up a stowaway in the shape of a bumble bee. He gamely headbutts the window beside the hiking couple before settling down on the wall beside the bus’s library. Oh yeah, the 351 has a mobile library on board as well, where a well-thumbed copy of Eric Clapton’s autobiography takes pride of place among the twenty or so volumes. I told you it was a bit different.
We set off, heading north and uphill out of Glossop. The road is so egregiously bumpy that we are catapulted from our seats on a couple of occasions, leaving clear space between our backsides and the upholstery from our berths above the rear axle. The landscape along Woodhead Road is scarred and gouged, with boulders as big as our bus embedded deep into the hillsides. Modest waterfalls pour into streams which feed the quintet of reservoirs which hog the centre of the Longdendale valley, while scraggly sheep suckle their lambs on the perilous slopes. The lower reaches are riven with dense tree cover, with a barren scraping of rocks and scree daring scramblers to do their worst higher up.
Although we’ve had plenty of rain this past few weeks, Torside Reservoir still hasn’t fully regenerated after last year’s merciless heatwave. We skim close to its banks and see temporary beaches which have been uncovered, magnolia sand leading down to the inviting but treacherous waters.
‘Oh, they’re really nice,’ Eleanor says as we approach a wall of pink bushes by a farm. ‘Hang on, they’re rhododendrons.’
‘I thought you said that they were horrible,’ I protest.
‘They are normally, but these ones are beautiful.’
The bumble bee thinks so, too, and without dinging the bell, he takes off out of the side window to get covered in pollen. I assume he’ll have to wait for the return journey in a couple of hours to get back to his hive, although I’m not sure how he’ll hail it to stop. The crocodilian escarpment of Hey Edge looms over Crowden – Derbyshire’s most northerly settlement, although there’s only a youth hostel here – which we approach by tiptoeing across the barrier between Torside and Woodhead Reservoirs. The chain of waterways was built in the mid-1800s to provide the rapidly expanding Manchester conurbation with millions of gallons of water per day, a job it still does to this day, although it’s only part of a much larger puzzle now, with the lion’s share making a journey of more than 100 miles from the Lake District.
This scrawny isthmus takes us onto the main Woodhead Pass. It’s a brief stay, though, as we swing left up a narrow road which a blue warning sign tell us is unsuitable for HGVs or coaches. You’d have thought it’d be obvious from the tiny slip of tarmac which heads northwards, and there’s no way I’d put any money on a lorry negotiating the climb to Holme Moss, never mind the descent. The conical green mass of Pikenaze Hill accompanies us for the first few hundred yards on the opposite side of an inlet, before we steadily ascend. Large wooden poles by the roadside with reflective red tops guide us forward and upward, with my ears doing their customary pop halfway to the summit. Despite the bouncy nature of the route, this is one of the few buses where you should battle your way to the back row of seats, as the views downhill are astounding if you swivel your head in the opposite direction. The moors fall away into a deep crevice where Heyden Brook awaits hundreds of feet below, hemmed in by hulking treeless ridges on all sides. It’s amazing they managed to build a road here at all.
We reach a peak of 1,719 feet above sea level, and enter West Yorkshire. The Holme Moss radio mast is just to the left. The highest transmitting station in England, its tendrils points another 750 feet into in sky, and with nothing stood in its way, its TV output could be picked up as far away as Dublin before that service was switched off in 1985. Way off into the distance is the elegant Emley Moor transmitter, a more down to earth version of Toronto’s CN Tower, which would do a roaring trade with tourists if it was also kitted out with an observation deck. The boxy expanse of Yateholme Reservoir is in the foreground to the right, its clunky angles making it look like a minimalist sketch of Britain.
‘The last time I was here,’ Eleanor says, ‘I was with my mum and dad. We couldn’t even see this mast with all the fog, never mind the Emley one, but my dad thought that it’d be a good time to try and put his coat on.’
‘While he was driving?’
‘Yeah. He was wrestling with it while we were going down here. I nearly shat myself.’
It’s a steep, sustained plunge at around a one-in-ten gradient, with bends as frequent and as tight as a small intestine, and it’s a hairy experience even with a professional driver who isn’t adjusting his clothing. It’s a stretch of road treasured by those masochistic cyclists who enjoy riding uphill, and it even featured as a Category 2 climb in the Tour de France when it passed through in 2014.
We snake downwards past the foundations of an abandoned farmhouse and into Holme, our first sign of civilisation since leaving Glossop. The walls of the front yards mostly have old pots or ornaments arranged onto them, while a little further on in Holmbridge, a tiny cricket pitch no doubt makes for some exceptionally high scoring games and more broken windows than the Huddersfield League average. Directly facing it is the village’s church, whose bells ring out eleven chimes so quickly that they’re probably running late to pick up the kids. The drop into Holmfirth continues past rows of stone cottages and, quite unexpectedly, a vineyard.
This is Last of the Summer Wine country, of course, and while we don’t see any pensioners zooming down a hill in a bathtub, there is an ancient tour bus which takes punters out on a ten-mile trek around the area to see its most famous filming locations. With the best part of 300 episodes of inspiration to draw upon, each written by Roy Clarke (who also created Open All Hours and Keeping Up Appearances among others), they’re unlikely to run out of anecdotes any time soon. Incidentally, Bill Owen and Peter Saliss, who played Compo and Clegg respectively, are buried next to each other a couple of miles away in Netherthong.
We reach Holmfirth’s bus station, right by the gurgling River Holme, without picking anyone up or dropping anyone off (apart from the bumble bee) for the entire trip.
‘Right then,’ the driver calls as we pull in. ‘Thanks very much everybody. Just give me a minute and I’ll give you a hand getting off.’
With that, he hops out to open the sliding side door, and does indeed lend each passenger a literal shoulder to lean on as they bridge the long gap between minibus and pavement.
‘I won’t be here next week, driver,’ mentions the man in the big coat as he gets down. ‘I’m at a funeral. I don’t want you worrying, you see.’
This is real community transport, where the drivers know most of the passengers by name and really will worry about them if they don’t get a heads-up like this. The 351 is a wonderful route, and you never know, it might even run three days a week one of these days.