MORE than 200 protesters gathered to voice their anger at proposed changes to a village’s ‘vital’ bus service.

Bus operator First Dorset has announced plans to change the popular 31 bus service, which will be renamed the X31 from Sunday and will call at Martinstown only twice daily instead of hourly.

Upset villagers say they would have to walk two miles to the nearest bus stop on the A35, or travel by car or taxi if the service is cut.

They gathered on Saturday to protest the changes, with many holding banners and placards and chanting at one of the buses as it went past.

They said it was ‘not an aggressive statement’ but an opportunity for the village to ‘speak with one voice’ about the importance of the service.

They were joined by West Dorset MP Oliver Letwin who has spoken out about the loss of rural bus services.

Mr Letwin said: “Martins-town is quite a long way from the A35, it’s a long walk.

“There are quite a lot of people in the village that need to use the service throughout the day, and once in the morning and once in the evening is not enough.

“I am hoping that for the next six months we can get the three extra buses that First offered and that the county council will pay for it, but all three parties need to work together to find a better solution for the villagers.

“The bus company has to operate as a commercial operator so I can understand where they are coming from but we need to find a solution for residents.”

Keith Howat, pictured inset above, who helped organise the protest and petition, said: “The point is we are not just saving a bus but a way of life for the villagers.

“My daughter uses the bus to get to college and if the service stops, we will have to pay for a taxi to Dorchester, which will cost us about £10 per day.

“We have a nursing home in the village and the staff would have to walk two miles to get to and from work, which is simply not good enough.

“We live in a world where the government and media are talking about global warming and concerns for the environment and how we should catch the bus, but how can we when there is no bus?”

A spokesman for First has said the main reason for the change is to improve the reliability of the service and match the resources in use against demand.

Villager Kath Wilson, pictured inset left, said: “I use the bus for everything, whether it’s shopping or socialising. I suffer from depression and anxiety and I use the bus to get out and meet my friends as well as do chores. It is vital for me, I am absolutely devastated about the plans.”

Michaela Howat, pictured inset above right, who organised the protest, said: “This is not an aggressive statement to First. We just wanted to show them we need the service and we need to work together to find a solution.”

Resident Deborah Daw said: “My two sons, aged 21 and 23, are taking their final exams at university and are planning to come back to live and work here and they will rely on the bus. The bus would enable them to stay in the village and work elsewhere.

“Without the bus service I am not sure they will stay, it has totally changed their plans and they are looking to move away.”