We come to a stop outside a pub, of course. When you sign up for a “slow television” bus ride, you don’t expect to achieve dizzying speeds, but now we’re not moving at all.
The small bus is scheduled to travel 38 miles westward from Richmond in North Yorkshire, up Swaledale, past Muker, to Ribblehead, beneath the looming hulks of Ingleborough and Whernside, and then 38 miles back again. But here we are, barely halfway up, outside the Punch Bowl Inn at Feetham, with its unparalleled views of Swaledale’s middle reaches, where the thick woodland of the lower valley gives way to a patchwork of dry-stone walls.
I look warily at our driver, 44-year-old John Matthews, who has so far masterfully handled his vehicle, an Arriva North East Optare Solo, more obviously suited to a trip to the shops than England’s rooftop. John’s face colours at the implied slight to its spotless record. “It’s not the bus,” he says, pointing at the roof of his vehicle, where a man is prodding a large television camera with a pencil. “It’s the film crew.”
There are no mad rushes to the pub in slow television – and we couldn’t get past the crew if we tried. Although there are 15 or so invited local passengers on board for today’s journey (I’m the only journalist, but at least I’m from these parts), John’s bus is essentially a moving platform for an array of TV cameras attempting to capture the essence of one of Europe’s most delightful bus routes.
It’s also one of Europe’s blowiest bus routes and even now, in high summer, the wind that whips off the fells is sharp enough to trigger the safety shutdown mechanism of the “absolutely state-of-the-art” roof-mounted camera and bring filming, and our journey, to a temporary halt. “It works on the tundra,” a puzzled member of the production crew tells me as another technician clambers up top with a roll of gaffer tape and a screwdriver.
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The bus ride is an attempt to replicate the success of All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride, BBC4’s runaway – sorry, walkaway – slow TV hit from last Christmas. The two-hour journey through the snow by a Sami herder leading a reindeer sleigh, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, reignited our national passion for watching very little happen in a scenic setting.
All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride
In Britain this television tradition goes back as far as the 1950s and the BBC Interlude films. The most famous of these were Potters Wheel and Windmill, shorts in which things went round and round, and then round again, and were guaranteed to lower the viewer’s pulse rate (unless you were a potter). But the BBC Interludeswere a mere blip of boredom compared with the epic saga of slowness that was Bergensbanen, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation’s seven-hour, minute-by-minute 2009 film of the train journey from Bergen to Oslo, a work widely credited as the starting point of the contemporary slow TV movement. Though it took a while.
As that movement is largely Nordic, it feels appropriate to be in Yorkshire, the millennium-old offspring of the Viking kingdom of Jorvik, an independent north country state that reached its apogee under the tenth-century Norwegian ruler Eric Bloodaxe.
Eric’s memory lives on in the language as we come up the dale. Dale itself comes from dalr, Old Norse for valley, and fell is the Old Norse for mountain. The Nordic influences continue; our starting point, the town of Richmond, is as oddly bleak as any contemporary Scandi noir. A hearse crawls up the steep incline of Frenchgate, mourners in black ties and oversized dark suits struggling behind on foot. In what must be Britain’s oddest cobbled town square (and certainly the county’s largest), there is a Georgian building erected purely to celebrate victory over Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden and a remarkably large stone obelisk. Here two elderly Yorkshire ladies make an unsuccessful attempt to board the bus for Reeth. They are unimpressed by its state-of-the-art cameras. “Is it not a proper service? Why not?’’
After Richmond, the road forks and we bear right along the B6270, past stone barns, chapels and ancient defensive towers, before the dale starts to rise again. Above us appear escarpments, screes and limestone edges. We travel over humped-back bridges, past bubbling waterfalls and through grassy Reeth in its bowl of hills. Beyond Reeth the valley goes on, steeper and steeper, shale tumbling down the slopes until, unwillingly, we are driven up and out of Swaledale and into Buttertubs Pass.
Here the roadside drops away precipitously to the charmingly named but fearsome Buttertubs, 20 metre-deep gullies that regularly claim the lives of sheep when cloud descends from the hills above (though happily the 198 riders of the Tour de France got through unscathed in 2014).
Above the pass, the road emerges into a genuine moorland wilderness, framed by Ingleborough, Whernside and their sister peak Pen-y-Ghent. All that moves up here are curlews, motorbikers and the occasional train on the Settle to Carlisle line, passing over the long brick arches of the Victorian Ribblehead viaduct – the building of which provided much of the murder and mayhem in ITV drama Jericho.
There is no sign of that sort of thing at the Station Inn at the viaduct’s southern end. Two ladies from the bus are taking tea as the thwarted technician once more climbs onto the vehicle’s roof.
Below the pub a ruminant Yorkshireman stands on the edge of the bog where the River Ribble is formed by the confluence of two becks before flowing west towards the Irish Sea, then side-stepping Cumbria and tumbling south to Preston. “Pee in this,” he points out, as we survey the sphagnum moss and marsh grass below, “and it’ll end up in Lancashire eventually.” Well, the cameras are off.
All Aboard! The Country Bus is on BBC4 on Sunday night at 8pm
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