FOR more than 800 years the picturesque surroundings of Winchester's Hospital of St Cross have provided a refuge where men in need can live independently.

Many of the current residents of England's oldest continuing almshouse say their independence would be challenged if they, along with thousands of Hampshire pensioners, lost the right to free county-wide travel.

The Brothers of St Cross's Almshouse of Noble Poverty are the latest to back the Daily Echo's campaign to safeguard the scheme which provides a lifeline to them and many other over-60s.

Senior brother Ron Stacey said free travel is vital to the way of life of many residents, who range in age from 60 to 97.

He said: "Certainly for most of us here, particularly the elderly and more disabled, it does make all the difference between feeling free and feeling confined."

"Life gets difficult as you get older and you try to keep your independence - you value it. One of the joys of living in a place like this is we are able to stay independent.

"The bus pass makes life that bit more simple."

The county-wide travel scheme is in jeopardy because bus operators have lodged an appeal with the government, saying they aren't paid enough to transport pass-holding pensioners.

If the costs of providing the travel are increased, many councils could be forced to scrap it altogether.

More than 6,000 angry pensioners and concerned readers have signed the Daily Echo's petition, urging the government to protect the scheme.

Mr Stacey, 89, a resident of St Cross for 22 years, said many brothers live on modest pensions and the free passes have improved their quality of life.

"When you're on a pension it does help just to be able to get out," he said.

"When Solent Blue Line set up the Southampton to Winchester route, four times an hour, we were doing pretty well, and with the free passes our cups were overflowing.

"It really is a lifeline to get any shopping at all, just to go to the station or the hospital, or going down to Southampton.

"If you did fancy going out for the day in the summer you rely entirely on the buses. Taxi fares are so prohibitive, you couldn't possibly do it regularly."

l You can download the petition from our website at

Completed copies should be sent to Jon Reeve, Southern Daily Echo, Newspaper House, Test Lane, Redbridge, Southampton SO16 9JX.