Weston-super-Mare Land Train

In all my adventures as a bus driver I never thought I would find myself driving a train. A few days ago I did, but it’s not the kind of train you would expect.

Although Crosville owns two full sized steam locomotives, my duty was to drive the diminutive Land Train up and down the promenade at Weston-super-Mare.

It was the first time I’d driven such a thing so one of the Crosville managers gave me a brief introduction to the weird machine before I took it for a spin around the estate to get the hang of it. Underneath the glassfibre outline lies a small tractor, of the kind you would expect to find on a fruit farm. It’s powered by a three cylinder diesel engine and has three forward gears. Only one of these is ever used and, flat out, it can probably manage 8mph! To be fair, I wouldn’t want to go any faster for fear of the three trailers tipping over. Unladen, they are prone to wobbling about as my conductor James discovered when I powered through a few unexpected bumpy bits on the road down to the seafront!

The whole assembly is remarkably neat when it comes to turning around, being able to turn on the proverbial sixpence. I practiced on the estate roads and found that, if I turned the tractor unit sharply to do a 180° turn, the cleverly engineered trailers all followed my path looking for all the world like a line of ducklings following their mother!

After checking that all the lights were working properly, it was time to set off on what was probably the most hazardous part of the journey – the empty trip through the town to the promenade. I realised that I had to make all sorts of allowances for both the length and speed of the outfit I was driving. Particularly so when it came to emerging from junctions or entering roundabouts. I had to make sure that there was a BIG gap in the traffic!

Passengers were few in the first part of the morning and my conductor James had an easy time. But soon the sun came out and so did the holidaymakers. We were soon carrying full loads as we trundled up and down the prom. The Land Train doesn’t run to a timetable as such and just goes to and fro on demand. The train uses the wide promenade pavement, which it has to share with pedestrians. As you can see from the photo above, the ‘loco’ carries a bell and I tended to use it frequently to alert other pavement-users to our presence.

There are two of these trains, each of which carrying the identity of its mainline counterpart. The one I drove was linked to GWR ‘Hall’ class 4-6-0 locomotive No 4936 ‘Kinlet Hall’ which is currently undergoing a heavy general overhaul at Tyseley Locomotive Works.

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Hiding from the heatwave at Coombe Lodge

If there’s anything worse than driving a Bristol Lodekka in the middle of a heatwave, it’s driving a Lodekka with CBC cooling in the middle of a heatwave.

On one of the hottest June days since the infamous summer of 1976, I had to endure the searing heat of not only the weather but also of the plumbing for the Cave-Brown-Cave cooling apparatus which passes through the driver’s cab.

This came the day after an equally hot and energetic duty with Bristol FSF6G 891VFM on the 100 service to Sand Bay and, while I usually enjoy sunny days, I began to wish it wasn’t quite so hot. Together with my conductor Kevin, I prepared ex-BOC LC8515 (Bristol LD6B 972EHW) at the Crosville depot. The bus hadn’t been used for a week or so and was very reluctant to start. It needed a lot of persuasion and, as I sat in the cab teasing the Bristol AVW engine into life, I began to wonder if it would ever develop enough power to drag the bus out of the garage! Eventually the AVW settled down into its familiar burble so I left it running while we attached ribbons and bows which had been sent in by the customer. With all the checks completed we set off through Banwell, Churchill and Lower Langford.

We arrived at Coombe Lodge with time to spare so we parked the bus in the turning circle and sought out some shade. Coombe Lodge is an attractive mansion built with local Bath stone, topped off with Cotwold tiles. It was originally the opulent country residence of the Wills family (founders of the W.D. & H.O. Wills Tobacco Company, based in nearby Bristol) and I was pleased to see that it retains a lot of wooden panelling. It’s not particularly ancient, being completed in 1932, but the pseudo-Jacobean style is well suited to its current use as a conference and wedding venue.

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Lodekka battles with low branches in Lullington Lane

Yesterday’s private hire duty was notable for taking me to some places with very limited clearance. It was a good test of my spacial awareness skills.

The allocated bus was open top Lodekka DGF81 (FSF6G 891VFM), a genuine Crosville bus dating from 1961. I had spent most of the previous day in the office at Crosville and had time to check and fuel the bus so that I didn’t have to spend too much time early the next day in preparation. The pickup time was 10:30 at Orchardleigh House, near Frome so I allowed myself a generous 2 hours to make the empty journey. The most direct route was nevertheless a tortuous, rural one and my speed would rarely get above 30mph.

In fact ‘limited clearance’ could apply to the outward journey quite easily as I trundled through the villages of Banwell, Sandford and Blagdon. There was plenty of hedge-hugging, double-declutching and wheel-heaving! Reaching West Harptree, I set off along the B3114 to eventually join up with the A39 at Chewton Mendip towards Bath. Briefly reaching 45mph, I soon went back down the box for the turning to Farrington Gurney, Midsomer Norton and Radstock. Somerset seems to have more than its fair share of double-barrelled place names and today I seemed to be visiting most of them!

Finally, after passing through Buckland Dinham, I reached the imposing entrance to Orchardleigh House. I’ve been here before with a heritage bus and I recognised the twin stone-built lodges which stand guard over the gated entrance to the vast estate. The drive up to the house is almost a mile long and passes through a golf course on the way.

I parked the bus near the Walled Garden and the complex of cottages in which most of the wedding guests had spent the previous night. I caught up with some of them on the lawn and learned that the celebrations had started the previous evening!

Our buses are not decorated with ribbons as standard (although I plan to change that eventually) so some family members set to work with cream ribbons, bows and streamers of their own.

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BBC Antiques Roadshow Park and Ride

I spent a very long day assisting with the making of an episode of the BBC Antiques Roadshow last week, by driving a Bristol Lodekka on a Park & Ride service.

As well as having a glimpse behind the scenes as the programme was being filmed, I also had the pleasure of conveying most of the Roadshow experts on the bus. But my abiding memory of the day was that it left me completely exhausted!

I left home at 06:00 in order to pick up the bus and be in position by 08:15. As this was to be a very long duty, I had arranged for the bus (ex-BOC Bristol Lodekka LC8515) to be driven to an outstation just a couple of miles outside Minehead, which is where the programme was due to be filmed the next day. As I drove up the M5 in the pouring rain my heart sank as I knew that the cab of this bus is not watertight in any way. Walking around doing my checks left me soggy and even the Bristol AVW engine seemed reluctant to start.

My first task was to ferry the Antiques Roadshow experts from their hotel, where I also met my conductor Richard, to the West Somerset Railway station at Minehead. It was strange to see them up close and to exchange a bit of banter about the wet weather. One of them, clearly not a bus expert, asked “Is this a Routemaster?”

My instructions were to spend the rest of the day shuttling to and fro between the station and the Monday Market field, which was being used as a Park & Ride car park. I had looked it up on Google Maps previously and, while there did appear to be a tarmac track it didn’t seem to offer anywhere to turn the bus so, to avoid the risk of getting bogged down on account of the weather, I reversed the bus off the main road and down the track to the field. I was pleased to see in my mirrors as I slowly backed around a corner that a large part of the field had been recently covered with hardcore and stone chippings so, for the rest of the day, there were no problems getting in and out.

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Bournemouth Corporation PS2 joins English Riviera Sightseeing Tours fleet

A new addition to the English Riviera Sightseeing Tours fleet is Bournemouth Corporation Transport No 44, JLJ401.

This adds a much needed wet weather option to the existing open top Leyland PD2/3, which has suffered quite a lot in the last few years by being out and about in the rain. Thankfully, some of the upper deck floor has recently been replaced but the Bournemouth Leyland PS2/2, acquired recently from previous operator Quantock Heritage, has already proven its worth by operating successfully during the early part of the 2017 season when the weather can be damp and chilly up top on the PD2!

JLJ401, a 1949 Leyland PS2/2, was one of a batch of three with luxurious and shapely Burlingham bodywork supplied to Bournemouth for local tours. I’m delighted to be driving it in Torbay, where it again operates on tours and we can legitimately display the original destination ‘Circular Tour’!

The distinctive yellow Bournemouth livery has been refreshed but the wheels and side flash have been repainted maroon to match that carried by the existing sightseeing fleet. The sumptuous interior has proved to be a great hit with local passengers, offering probably the most comfortable seats to be found on any bus operating in Torbay. This can be verified by our Tour Guide ‘Champers’ and Singing Kettle Tea Rooms owner Marlene!

Thankfully all three of the JLJ single decks have survived and the rear view of JLJ401 shows off the very stylish Burlingham bodywork beautifully.

Since these photos were taken the coach has had Sightseeing Tours lettering applied to the sides and rear. Although I prefer it without, I think the balance is good.

The Leyland O.600 engine and 4-speed manual gearbox are theoretically identical to those fitted to the Tours’ open top bus, FFY403. But I prefer the PS2 because it has a lower ratio rear axle with makes pootling around the bay and climbing its hills much more suitable. Although both ‘boxes have synchromesh on all except 1st gear, the ‘box on JLJ401 takes much less effort when changing gear. If you compare trying to stir a cup of tea and a then tin of treacle you’ll get a good idea!

A some point in its history, Bournemouth Corporation converted the coach for One Man Operation (as it was then known) and the base plate for the Setright ticket machine that the driver would use is still present. In typical fashion, I couldn’t resist fitting my Setright machine to it and dispensing tickets to my passengers as souvenirs!

In other news, I’ve done quite a few private hire jobs for Crosville. Some of them have been quite unusual and merit their own blog post, when time allows. Speaking of which, my new responsibilities as Heritage Operation Manager are taking up most of my time when I’m not driving sightseeing tours and trying to sell my house in Paignton.

Heritage bus driver vacancies at Crosville

If you have read one of my blog posts that describes a private hire duty at Crosville and thought to yourself “I could do that”, now’s your chance.

WSR-Thomas-3-heritage-buses

Since taking on the job of allocating drivers for upcoming driving duties I’ve realised that a bigger team of part time drivers is needed so I’m looking for suitable drivers to join the team.

When I say ‘suitable’, I mean that you’ll need to already hold a full Category D (PCV) driving licence and hold a current DCPC card. Although I can offer familiarisation sessions with our buses, you will need to be already competent with a crash gearbox vehicle. Sadly we don’t have the resources to teach double de-clutch technique from scratch.

We’re based in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset so you will need to live within reasonably easy reach of our depot. We don’t send our buses on long distances as this is quite tedious for the drivers and adds to the wear and tear of the vehicles unnecessarily.

As you will know if you’ve read my posts, driving for Crosville is very rewarding. Taking passengers to a wedding or on a special outing is great fun and I get a lot of pleasure in helping them to have a good day.

One of the best bits of course is that you get to drive some wonderful old buses, particularly if you like Bristols. Although they can be challenging at times, the feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day is immense. The standard of our heritage fleet is high and is improving all the time. For example, one of our ‘workhorse’ Lodekkas is away at the moment having a thorough refurbishment. Southern Vectis 573 (Bristol FS6G YDL318) has already had its Gardner engine rebuilt and it will come back into service looking just like new. That includes new window rubbers and period adverts.

So, if you (or someone you know) would like to join the team, please leave a comment and I’ll reply to you privately.

Crosville has a new Heritage Operations Manager

If it all seems to have gone rather quiet recently for Busman John, that’s because the opposite is true. Life has been extremely busy with bus movements, private hire duties and new responsibilities.

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One of the more unusual private hire duties is pictured above – a day spent with a film crew from BBC Bristol ‘Points West’. This was another ‘get up at silly o’clock’ day, when I had to travel up from Paignton, prepare my rostered bus and get myself in position at BBC Bristol in Whiteladies Road by 08:30.

The people from Points West, the local BBC News programme, were interviewing the six candidates for Mayor and I spent the day with the Bristol VRT open top bus taking the film crew to six locations in the Bristol area to meet and interview the candidates.

Our first stop was the duck pond in Winterbourne, just to the north of the city, then on to Kingswood where we drove along the busy shopping streets while the filming took place on the top deck.

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From there we went south to Chew Valley Lake for another interview and a lunch break. Getting there however was a bit fraught because I had only been rostered for the job the day before and hadn’t had a chance to do my normal route research. Planning our route was a bit of a team effort – not ideal. The inevitable happened, we chose a route that included a narrow, weight restricted bridge! I had to turn the bus around in a very small space and go back the way we’d come. How embarrassing!

The other stops included the very elegant Royal Avenue in Bath (pictured at the top of this post), just below the famous Royal Crescent. The footage was aired during the local news programme a few days later and was also published on the BBC Points West Facebook page in six short segments.

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