Amid all the Covid-19 coverage, it’s hardly surprising that the collapse of a coach-tour operator last week didn’t make too many headlines. But the end of Shearings, the largest such operator in Europe, could mean the end of coach holidays in the UK, and if that happens, something very special will have been lost.
Coach holidays are unique. They engender a sense of camaraderie which is so hard to find nowadays in our very atomised world. You begin the week as strangers, waiting for the departure bay number of your coach to be called out, and end it exchanging addresses. There’s great anticipation as you take your seats on the main coach and the driver introduces himself and tells you the week’s itinerary, and a sadness when the holiday ends and you have to say your goodbyes at a service station in the south Midlands.
On our first Shearings holiday, a very sweet couple from Kent, with whom we had breakfasted on our first morning and got on well with throughout, slipped my wife and me a little package, exhorting us not to open it until we got back home. It was a small Bible, lovingly inscribed and thanking us for our company on the trip. On the same holiday a grey-haired Mrs Bridges-from-Upstairs-Downstairs look-a-like and a sprightly octogenarian from Norwich, who had been inseparable for much of the time, bid each other tearful farewells.
Coach holidays bring people together like no others do. If you book a package holiday, say to Corfu,you might exchange small talk on the plane and around the hotel bar, but you never really get to know anyone. On a Shearings coach tour, an esprit de corps soon develops.
Three of the best New Year’s Eves my wife and I have ever spent were with Shearings. We saw in the 2010s in Ghent, partying away in our hotel with friendly Flemish locals before heading, as a group, to the bars in the town. A year later, we were in Noordwijk in the Netherlands. After we had all sung ‘Auld Lang Syne’, a man from London cried: ‘Come on everyone, let’s do the conga.’ Even the shyest members of our party joined in.
Shearings owned almost 50 hotels, many grand and historic ones in Victorian seaside resorts such as Weston-super-Mare, Great Yarmouth and Ilfracombe, where regular influxes of coach parties kept the local economy going. Think, too, of our senior citizens, who have surely suffered enough already this year. Perhaps Boris Johnson and his Tourism Minister, Nigel Huddleston, should ride to the rescue? Pre-Covid, Shearings was a viable business, with 64,000 bookings in the pipeline. But the length of the lockdown and the talk of social distancing being ‘here to stay’ meant that no one was booking up for future trips. If the idea of a state-owned coach-holiday operator, even for a temporary period, sounds a bit doolally, then it’s worth remembering that National Holidays, part of the same group as Shearings, was originally set up as a subsidiary of the publicly owned National Bus Company.
It was quite ironic that the day after Shearings went into administration a headline in the Daily Express read: ‘Let’s all go on a British summer holiday.’ What a great idea, but without those familiar big blue coaches, the British summer holiday simply won’t be the same.