The Endless Bus

I took a long, long ride on a bus recently, in County Durham. It was a very nice bus; it had free wi-fi (totally free, not just “free for fifteen minutes”) and powerpoints on the walls. The most interesting thing though, was the electronic readout at the front.

I don’t know if there’s a specific word for them, but you know what I mean – the one-line display you get on trains, spelling out the name of the next stop in blocky letters and reminding you to “please mind the gap between the platform and the train”. This bus had one of them.

I’d never seen one of them on a bus before. I don’t think they’re that common, although I possibly am coming across here as rather sheltered. However common they are though, I found myself fascinated, watching the different stops scroll by.

There were lots of them. A huge number of stops, very few of which had appeared on the timetable online. And they had the most wonderful names – occasionally there would be one just called “Ilverton Tesco” or something equally prosaic, but mostly they were wonderfully evocative:. Scranthorpe Memorial, Ulfistop Woods, Ebdean Mere. The list went on and on and on, gloriously long names for tiny villages.

It was hypnotic. All these places, all with history behind their names, flowing by without pause. It seemed as though every hill and pond had its own name, some history leading to the name “Alpscow High Top” or “West Drabpool”. Most of the stops were just a pole by the side of a deserted road, but the names hinted at so much more – a lost depth and life to the countryside. Flanders and Swann’s “Slow Train” captures the experience rather well.

Inspired by this experience, I made something. It’s a twitter bot that posts updates from an imaginary bus in an imaginary England. All the villages are randomly generated, and probably don’t exist. On the other hand, the idea is that they sound like they could exist, and some of them probably accidentally do.

 

Like many programming things, I found it difficult. Partly because I lack the necessary background knowledge, but also because a lot of programming conventions and techniques are gnostic and arcane. Eventually though, I got it all working. This tutorial was extremely helpful for the basics of how to make things interact with Twitter.

The easiest bit was the village name generator, which I made in Python. It takes different possible bits of village names – split into root words, suffixes, etc. – and sticks them together in a way that hopefully sounds realistic. At the moment, the bits of names are all from villages in Bedfordshire, because it takes ages to make the lists and I couldn’t make myself do the other 47 counties. I hope to add more word-bits (apparently the correct term for them is “morpheme“) in the future.

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

G. K. Chesterton, “The Rolling English Road”

Hopefully, my Endless Bus manages to capture something of that sense of little winding roads to nowhere that go through everywhere, a patchwork quilt dotted with strange and storied names. Hopefully it also continues to work, and doesn’t start squawking errors all over Twitter.

Let me know what you think.

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