Exmoor Explorer – first trip of the season

Today I found myself both conducting and driving. Not at the same time, of course.

The Service 400 ‘Exmoor Explorer’ season started today and I was rostered to conduct on the first trip. I made sure I arrived early at the depot because much had changed since we last ran this service. We’re operating from a new depot and certain key staff have changed. I needn’t have worried, as it turned out. Although I arrived before anyone else,  I found our rostered vehicle at the front of the garage, clean, fully fueled and stocked with new leaflets. All I needed to do was fill out my waybill!

My driver today happened to be The Boss and he delivered the first surprise of the day. “Would you like to drive us up to Porlock?” I didn’t need to be asked twice and promptly headed towards the cab. Now, it’s 25 years since I last drove a Bristol Lodekka out on the road although I’ve driven occasionally around the industrial estate where our old garage was located. With a good deal of apprehension and my concentration in overdrive, I pointed our lumbering 1957-built 70 seater towards the north coast of Somerset. A crash gearbox, especially when mated to a heavy Gardner 6LW engine, is not like driving your average modern car but I’m pleased to say that I didn’t crunch any gears or clip any kerbs.

We duly arrived at Doverhay car park in Porlock and headed off for a decent breakfast at the Lorna Doone Hotel in the main street. Highly recommended.

The weather was forecast to be scorching hot, and so it turned out. We set out from Porlock with 4 people on board but arrived at Minehead seafront to find about 30 more people waiting at the bus stop. While going round collecting fares, I had to be on top of my game because the fares had gone up from last year but I don’t think I shortchanged either the passengers or the Council. It’s still a bargain at £7 for an adult for a 2 hour round trip with stunning scenery viewed from the top of a vintage bus. For those with a bus pass, it’s even better – free!

As journeys go, it was uneventful apart from the time when we met a flock of sheep on the road just before Wheddon Cross. Coming to a halt after a long, hard climb caused the old bus to boil and we left a trail of water along the road as we pulled away.

We made good time after that and had to lay over at Exford to await our departure time. It’s OK to run late occasionally but to run early is unforgiveable! It allowed time for a couple of passengers to nip into the shop beside the village green and for me to take the picture at the top of this post.

The open moorland was bathed in bright sunshine and we were treated to the sight of a soaring buzzard and some red deer. The deer were hard to spot as they were mostly brown, like the vegetation. Their coats only turn russet red in the summer. We can usually see right across the Bristol Channel and see many miles of South Wales coastline but today the air was hazy and the distant coast was very indistinct.

All too soon we were back in Minehead and it was time for lunch. Then we were off at 2.15 to do the same trip again with a new set of passengers. Except for the ones who had got off at Exford and re-joined us there to complete their journey.

By the time we had returned to Minehead my driver was shattered. Even with the front windscreen and both side windows open, it was very hot in the cab. The proximity of the exhaust manifold to the driver’s left leg probably has something to do with it! He was happy for me to take on the role of relief driver at that point so, after checking upstairs for lost property and sleeping passengers, I discarded my Setright ticket machine and cash bag and headed up to the noisy end.

The journey back to the garage was less frightening. I had become accustomed to the 8ft wide vehicle and the only surprise came while ascending the steep hill out of Williton. We were suddenly stopped by a queue of traffic on the hill, carefully passing the site of an accident. Fire engines, ambulances, the lot. I didn’t see what had caused the accident, I was too engrossed in executing a hill start, closely followed by a snatch change into 2nd gear. It didn’t go too well and produced a nasty crunch! I should have been patient and waited until I was further up the hill so I could change up properly.

Hot, dusty but happy to be safely home. That was how the bus felt, but I was pretty glad to be back as well. As I completed my waybill and cashed up, there was talk of progressing with my practical instruction so maybe I’ll be taking my PCV test before long.

2 comments on “Exmoor Explorer – first trip of the season

  1. Mike Dan says:

    Congratulations on your first drive! That was interesting to read about.I always imagined the lodekka to be a heavy drive compared to some others like for example the Leyland PD2. I wonder if that is true?

    • busmanjohn says:

      Thank you for your comment, Mike. I guess most buses of that era were ‘heavy’ compared to modern ones. I haven’t driven a Leyland PD2 out on the road yet so I can’t really make a comparison. I used the word to describe the Gardner 6LW, which is heavily engineered and has a heavy flywheel. The effect that has on changing up is that, together with having to double-declutch, you have to wait for the engine revs to die away before you can engage the next gear. It’s been said that a Gardner diesel can go from full revs to idle in just under a fortnight. It certainly feels like that when you’re on a rising gradient and both the engine revs and the road speed are dying away!

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