Reaching parts other buses cannot reach

Living in the countryside is great . . . if you've got your own wheels or a bus passes close to home.

Steven Russell

Living in the countryside is great . . . if you've got your own wheels or a bus passes close to home. If you haven't got a car, can't walk very far or dwell off the beaten track, life can be isolating. Luckily, there are folk doing their darndest to keep East Anglia moving. Steven Russell reports

PAM Lockwood, a spirited octogenarian, doesn't need to think twice. “That CATS has given me a new lease of life, darling,” she says. CATS is one of 20-plus community transport schemes in Suffolk that help people get about when they can't easily catch buses or trains - either because of mobility problems or because they simply live in a rural outpost. For Pam, an 81-year-old who's had her hip done, is nursing a dicky knee and has a wheeled walking frame and a couple of sticks for support, a door-to-door service has proved a godsend. It's made possible a buoyant social life.

The former home-help - with 30-odd years of service under her belt - was one of the first folk to use her local transport scheme when it began at the end of 1997/start of 1998. A friend told her about it. She can remember the phone call, as she was vacuuming on a “horrible, rainy November day” about 18 months after she'd lost her husband.

Nowadays, she uses it four or five times a week, on average. “It gives me something to get up for in the morning: wash, dress, get my glad-rags on, and I think 'Lovely, CATS are coming at half-past one today!'”

That's to take Pam to a Leiston social club for pensioners. Tomorrow brings a hop to Somerfield in Saxmundham. Yesterday was her regular lunch club. Fridays generally means Leiston market. Sundays can be particularly busy. First there's a trip to chapel; then she and a friend are often picked up and enjoy an afternoon at Snape or Minsmere. Pam's also got her eye on a forthcoming day-trip to Morrisons in Lowestoft.

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“It's given us all a new lease of life,” she says of folk who use CATS. “Snape, Aldeburgh, Minsmere . . . they're only little places where, when my husband was alive, we wouldn't think to go - we'd go to Norwich, Canada [where one of her two sons lives], Austria for our holidays - but these ARE lovely places to go.” The daffodils are in bloom; she's watched Muntjac deer and squirrels. “I've never been so happy in all my life.

“And the drivers are absolutely wonderful - a breed of people all on their own. They understand us. They help us in and out. They bring the shopping in. They talk to us on the bus.”

By Christmas we'd got halfway to the moon, grins Sammy Betson. Well, an equivalent distance on the highways and byways of East Anglia, rather than in the stratosphere. Sammy manages CATS - Coastal Accessible Transport Service. By the end of February, CATS was even closer to the lunar surface, having covered 167,131 miles and made 23,846 passenger journeys in the first 11 months of its accounting year. That's a lot of trips to medical appointments and dental surgeries, shopping expeditions, visits to friends, journeys to day centres, and more besides.

Leiston-based CATS would love to be even busier - given more volunteer drivers (there are currently 65 giving whatever time they can spare) and sufficient vehicles. “We're covering a big area,” Sammy recognises. “Unfortunately, we're not Harry Potter's Knight Bus and can't be here and then there immediately.” The purple triple-decker for wizards and witches travels at breakneck speed and narrows itself to squeeze through gaps. “I sit and watch that film and I think 'I wish!'

“But we do have to work in a linear fashion; and while we would like to go in a straight line, the roads do go round the fields and down some narrow lanes!”

CATS is there “to provide transport for those who can't access public transport, either because of rurality or mobility. Mobility might be something influenced by older age, but it might affect younger people as well”.

Even if you're living in a town with a regular bus service, you can still be in a fix. “Even if you live 500 yards from the stop, you cannot get to the bus if you cannot actually walk that distance. If you're in a wheelchair, then you can't get that on the bus.”

It can be tricky, too, for a parent. “If you've got two or three kids, and a pushchair, and shopping, it isn't easy to get on and off public transport.

“We will pick up people from their door - even if their door is a mile and a half up a filthy, muddy track!”

Today, there are several different services under the CATS umbrella. “We're like Topsy - we growed,” says Sammy, in reference to a phrase in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Many people have heard of Dial-A-Ride: help for people who can't use public transport - because of mobility issues or because it simply isn't there. That's essentially how CATS started.

The organisation now has four county council minibuses operating on that basis. The drivers are mainly volunteers, though there are some contracts with social care services that see the drivers paid to take folk to day-centres and the like. That's because the department needs an absolute guarantee that transport will be available at particular times.

Coastlink, meanwhile, started about three years old. Run under contract for the county council, it's a cost-effective way of reaching the places public transport doesn't really reach. It is, too, primarily a feeder service for public transport: handy for someone from Walberswick, say, catching the train at Darsham.

The on-demand service covers an area north of Leiston to Blythburgh, bounded by the A12 on one side and the North Sea on the other. Three paid drivers keep it going 362 days a year from early in the morning until the evening. The only times it doesn't run are Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day. Passengers pay a bus fare-style rate.

A vehicle is supplied by the county council. It's got a ramp for wheelchairs, but Coastlink's not just for people of limited mobility. Other trips involve taking passengers to and from work, to the hairdresser, to meet the kids from school - any need, really.

It's used by many visitors and tourists, with Easter and the August bank holiday particularly busy, and a journey from Darsham station to the RSPB nature reserve at Minsmere is popular.

Coastlink is a remarkably cost-effective way of taxpayers helping to combat rural isolation, feels Sammy, particularly if one considers the cost of running a scheduled service “which much of the time just takes air around in a bus, for a ride in the countryside, at vast cost, with hardly anyone using it - because it doesn't go at the times people need, it doesn't go to the places people need it to go to; and, however you try to design it, you cannot run a scheduled service that runs to meet everybody's needs”.

It also helps the economic health of the area, by allowing people to get to work from far-flung communities. “Rural employment and rural poverty is still quite an issue. Although this is an affluent part of the county, and the country, that masks pockets of quite severe rural deprivation.”

The third main strand is the community care service, offered through CATS by volunteer drivers using their own vehicles. Drivers get 40p a mile to cover expenses: 30p paid by the passenger and 10p by the county council.

PAWS, a scheme in the Woodbridge area - Peninsula and Woodbridge Services - is also part of the CATS operation.

There are some variations on the theme. CATS runs day trips to places such as shopping centres, at �6 a time. Many passengers are elderly and/or with mobility difficulties. Handily, seats can be taken out to make plenty of room for walking frames, wheelchairs and pavement scooters - and purchases!

The organisation can also rent out the three vehicles it owns to residential homes, local clubs and other applicants. Two are minibuses and one a VW Sharan “known to us somewhat informally as The Baroness . . . which seems a little unfair at times!” says Sammy.

The multi-purpose vehicle was provided by Baroness Fowke of Piel Island, a lady now in a local care home and a long-time supporter of CATS.

The registered charity's roots go back more than a decade, when a group called The East Suffolk Coalition of Disabled People in Action did a survey to discover what was worrying people.

“Transport was by far the most important for them,” says Allen Hoffman, current CATS chairman and there in the early days. He tells a story about a bus operator proudly introducing wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Trouble is, passengers had no guarantee the buses would be on their route on any particular day. “Or you might be able to get on it, but you couldn't guarantee you'd be able to get on a bus for the journey home.”

A sub group was formed in Leiston and won grants of about �15,000 each from Suffolk County Council and the Countryside Agency. A minibus was ordered in September, 1997, with delivery the following February. CATS was on its way.

It's clear that helping people get out and about is dear to the hearts of all at CATS.

Sammy remembers how she accompanied a day-centre outing to Wyevale, at Woodbridge, where it was having its Christmas lunch. “They were talking about the Christmas break and when we were next going to be taking them, because the day-centre wasn't open. A lady said 'I'll see you next Tuesday' - or whatever the day was. 'You'll be the first people I'll see after today.' She was going to be on her own for the whole of Christmas.”

Sammy has been with CATS since last October. Before that, she spent a long time working in the field of Government-funded training for adults.

It was a job “where people were running to stand still and you were lucky to get a smile out of someone”. Instead of travelling 17,000 miles a year “just to get to wherever I was to be doing the work”, she can now walk to the office. “But the best thing of all is that everybody here wants to be here.”

DOUG Stewart has a ready answer when asked what he likes about his voluntary work with CATS: “The fact you make a difference - and you can see you make a difference.”

He cites the example of a man he started driving to a day-centre once a week. This gentleman, in his late 70s or early 80s, had suffered a stroke and couldn't talk. He was looked after by his elderly wife and lived in the front parlour of their two-up, two-down cottage. His room - his world - was big enough only for a single bed, chair and TV.

“It was July when I first took him. He hadn't been out of the house since the previous November . . . Sadly, he passed away just before the Christmas, but he had about five months of going one day a week.”

Doug got involved with CATS after reading a newspaper advert in 2000. He'd recently retired, having worked for BT for 30-odd years. Today he spends about three or four days a week working for the organisation and specialises in the training of drivers - something he in fact does right across Suffolk.

CATS is always on the lookout for new recruits, whose basic training under the national Minibus Drivers Awareness Scheme takes a day. It covers aspects such as the law, defensive driving, wheelchair handling, first aid, emergency evacuation, and protecting vulnerable people.

“I say to people it isn't about driving; it's about meeting people and dealing with people,” says Doug, who lives in Wickham Market.

Dave Barker also became a volunteer, five years ago, after early retirement. He's on the management committee, too. Dave, who lives near Saxmundham, likes the variety of work and the banter with regular passengers. “If you can make them laugh, they can forget that for the next six days - in some cases - they're going to be stuck within their four walls.”

He's driven people of virtually all ages: from primary school pupils to someone of 105.

“There is nothing better from my point of view than when you've taken a group out for the day and they get off the bus and say 'Thank you', because they've enjoyed themselves.”