Linda Grout has been organising bus trips from the village of Castleton for almost as long as she can remember, but after a survey showed the need for better transport links, Linda was instrumental in creating a community bus service.
“Many years ago, Esk Moor Action for the Elderly conducted a survey to see what was needed in the village,” said Linda. “The answers that came back were a home for the elderly and better transport links.
“We knew it would take ages to build the home, but the bus was something we could get going with straight away.”
The Heather Hopper bus was born and has been running for 12 years. Outings include anything from swimming and shopping to theatre trips and meals out.
One woman once said to Linda: “I wouldn’t be able to stay living where I’m living now if it hadn’t been for the Heather Hopper.”
When lockdown started, the bus stopped running straight away, but Linda couldn’t let her regulars down.
Between herself and her daughter, Liz Cotterill, the Heather Hopper’s only paid employee, they put plans in place to make sure everyone was coping.
Linda said: “We set up a ring round group to keep in touch with everyone and one of Castleton School mums sent us pictures and letters from the children, which we gave out to our single people. I understand some have formed pen pal friends.
“The reaction has been lovely. It’s good, it’s worked really well.
“From ringing round, I soon realised that some people weren’t coping, we had been taking them out for meals, or they had gone to the local cafe.
“The new owner of the Eskdale Pub in Castleton, Marcus Boxall-Smith, told me how he would love to help do meals if he only had a kitchen. His building was being refurbished at the time.
“We found him a kitchen in Westerdale Village Hall, very remote, very clean and modern and easy to pick up food from.
“And that is how it started, we went from running a bus to running ‘meals on the bus go round and round’.
“We sent out 60 afternoon teas with a letter asking if they would like a hot meal once a week. We sent them to our single, isolated members and any other people in the same position that we knew of in our villages.
“We got 30 replies saying yes and 10 who thanked us but said they were OK.
“One recipient, John Randalls, who was born in 1937, said the meals are really appreciated. “I’ve been on my own for six and a half years, my wife was a fantastic cook. It saves me having to cook something and they’re very good.”
Local County Councillor Clive Pearson helped Linda to find funding to keep the bus on the road and to start the meals. The Co-op also gave a donation.
Linda said: “We had support from so many people to get us going, including Lillie’s catering, Danby Castle and Botton village to name a few.”
The Eskdale did its last meal in June, when it need to begin to prepare to reopen.
Linda said: “We want to say a heartfelt thanks to them for getting us going and wish them every success at the Eskdale.
“We have taken on the cooking of the meals ourselves with a volunteer chef and others. We also have the local fish and chip van cooking for us once a month.
“We have had huge support from CaVCA and Two Ridings and smaller donations from others.
“Recently, we received a letter from the Lord Lieutenant of North Yorkshire thanking us for what we are doing.
“We continue to look for funding to get the bus back on the road. As soon as we know how we can run safely we will get going again, but I think we will be doing our ‘meals on the bus’ for some time to come.”
Linda, who describes herself as “a bit retired” was keen to stress that she could not do this alone. She said: “I can’t do this by myself, I don’t mind being bossy and organising things but our volunteers are the ones who put in real effort and work.”
Jean Madden, 82, lives in Danby. She said she has really missed the Heather Hopper: “It’ll very soon be going again. It was just get up and get ready and know you’re going out to lunch or shopping.
“Social isolation can happen very easily in rural areas. It’s good for you both mentally and physically.
“Since I haven't been able to go out Linda and Liz ring up and have a ‘check in’ with me. They have wonderful drivers and wonderful assistants.”
Jean said the weekly meals are much appreciated: “It’s a wonderful idea, we’re very lucky that it’s happening. Very lucky that we’ve got people who will do that.”