Coach Travel seen through the eyes of Anthony Peregrine

Travel journalist Anthony Peregrine writes regularly for the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Times. He’s been on a number of coach tours and also acted as a guide on a Bibbys tour to Provence.

Strangers rarely stare at me with envy. If you knew what I looked like, you’d understand why. In fact, the only time it happens with any frequency is when I’m on a coach tour. I noticed it most recently in Provence.

We had spent the day in the Camargue watching French cowboys on white horses working the marshland’s black bulls. Now we were back at the hotel. Dinner eaten, eight or nine of us were outside on the bar-terrace, mulling over the day but also considering the misfortunes of Preston North End, golfing opportunities in Scotland and the perils of sheep-farming in the Dales. (Coach tour conversations range far and wide.)

There was a satisfactory amount of drink, and a lot of laughter. Going to refill a few glasses, I spotted other holidaying hotel guests – lone couples, mainly – eyeing me and more especially our group, with undisguised longing. They were wondering how on earth to fill in the evening; we were having a jolly time. They were clearly as jealous as hell.

I’ve seen this happen time and time again. People – notably of the “we-don’t-do-coaches” variety – simply don’t grasp the wonderfulness of the companionship built into coach travel. It is a key contribution to the merriment of mankind, quite unmatchable by other modes of touring.

Cars, for instance, confine you to the very few people you’ve packed in along with the luggage. Meanwhile, the only folk who speak on trains are those who you’d happily chuck yourself out of the carriage to avoid. By contrast coach tours provide 30 or more potential short-term friends, most of whom will be of a similar mind-set or they wouldn’t be on the tour in the first place.

Of course, they’re not all great. I have particularly grim memories of a cantankerous old bird who when I was acting as a guide, drove me bonkers by contesting every single detail. (For journalistic purposes, I’ve done coach trips from both sides of the mike.) I was finally moved to ask John the driver to run him over. Being a consummate professional, John refused. So I had to ensure that all my guide-talk was 120% correct and silence the old devil by being consistently right. It worked … eventually.

But this is rare. Generally, coach travellers are utterly rewarding to be with, not least because they’re mainly of mature years. Put simply, older people take themselves less seriously, have less to prove and vastly more interesting lives to recount.

Not long ago in Greece, I was on a tour which contained several senior single ladies. From them I learned among many other things of the traumas of war-time evacuation to Canada, of top-class flat-green bowling in Sussex and of lost love in 1950s Kenya. (“I gave up everything – home, job, friends – and then learned he was already married.”) Only an organised coach tour could offer (a) such ladies the security they need for happy travelling and (b) the inestimable pleasure of being in their company for someone like me.

Had I been in Greece by myself, I’d certainly have seen the sites but would have missed the human warmth of sharing them – and so much else. The experience would have been infinitely diminished.

The lone couples mentioned above were though depriving themselves not only of good fellowship. There’s also the unique sense of not having any tiresome responsibilities. No car to drive of course, find your way, argue with your spouse when you get lost, winkle out a parking space, lug your cases to the hotel and then hope the car doesn’t attract the attention of the criminal classes. By rail, there’s all the malarkey of getting to the right platform at the right, ridiculous time (13h27, 07h43), finding your seat, storing the luggage, worrying that your ticket will not please the ticket inspector.  And let’s not even start on the soul-sapping trials of air travel and its obsession, for heaven’s sake, with your toothpaste.

Coach touring, on the other hand, is a perfect breeze. All you have to do is show up on time, settle back in a pretty comfortable seat – and that’s it. Apart from the odd, crucial decision (“Gin-and-tonic, glass of white or beer?”), the entire weight is on someone else’s shoulders.

It’s so liberating that, on my first coach trip, I kept worrying that there was nothing to worry about. Didn’t last long, mind. Pretty sharpish I acquired the knack of leaving all the tiresome stuff to the drivers and reps – and of revelling in the trip, the company and the visits … which incidentally usually have more-than-useful guides.

Having done an amateur stint as resident know-all myself, I realise just how tricky it is not only to master the material but also to pitch it right. It needs to be meaty enough for initiated but also accessible for newcomers. Ever since my shift, I’ve tipped competent guides with lavish goodwill.

And ever since I came (very late) to coach travel, I have bored friends and relatives with tales of its pleasures. Without the slightest doubt, it has afforded me some of the richest moments in a professional travelling life. I have been moved occasionally to tears (a tour member reciting a Pythian ode in the theatre at Epidaurus) and so often to laughter that I wouldn’t know where to begin. Perhaps with a lovely lady, nearer 80 than 70, admonished by her travelling companion for turning up at breakfast with a T-shirt bearing a picture of an egg. The legend read: “I’ve just been laid.”

I have in short met the best of Britain – civilised and funny, tolerant, erudite and well-mannered. That is coach travel.

Courtesy of Anthony Peregrine a travel writer with the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Times