Finally. After many delays, false starts and one failure, I am the proud owner of a PCV Practical Driving Test Pass Certificate.
If you’re on the top of your game in the world of Showjumping, you can do a ‘clear round’ if you and your horse go round the course without picking up any faults. Well, I’m not that good. I passed my practical test but picked up a handful of driving faults on the way round. None of them merited any comment from the examiner afterwards so they were all minor.
The test route included town driving (through Exeter city centre), country lanes and motorway. There was also a 10 minute period of independent driving, when I was told to follow signs for a certain destination and then left to my own devices. It was such a huge relief to arrive back at the Test Centre and be told that I’d passed. It’s been such a long time since I passed my theory modules that my Theory Pass Certificate was due to expire at the end of the week! So here’s a blow by blow account of my training and test, including the one I failed last week:
Training Day 1. My second attempt at gaining my PCV driver’s licence began with a 2-hour session in Exeter on a cold, bright day 2 weeks ago. This time I did a 3-day course with Carmel Coaches, whose Exeter depot just happens to be right across the road from the Test Centre. Very handy!
I was the only one doing the course (last time there were two of us) but I think on balance that I was happier with a smaller audience! The vehicle we used is much easier to handle than the coach I had last May. They hired a 12-metre coach from Tally Ho! Coaches near Plymouth then, which seemed absolutely huge! I did master it eventually, of course, but the Carmel training bus is only 10 metres long and feels much less bulky.
The Dennis Javelin bus (N205OAE) was originally supplied to the Royal Navy in 1994 and for some reason is very low geared. There are 6 forward gears but I’ve never used 1st. Even starting away in 2nd feels like 1st did on the other coach! In 6th gear with my foot to the floor we just about managed to get 62mph out of it.
To begin with Tony (my instructor) drove out to the A30 towards Okehampton and parked in a layby, where I took over. He was understandably wary of me driving out of the depot and all through the Marsh Barton industrial estate without some idea of my driving skills but I was glad to be able to get acquainted with the old Dennis Javelin on a relatively straight and quiet piece of road. I was pleased to go up through the box to 6th gear without any glitches although I was to miss a few downchanges later on!
Bizarrely, this bus seemed to like being driven as if it had a crash box. In other words, the gears went in nice and smoothly when a suitable pause had been taken to allow the engine revs to drop when changing up. After I’d been advised to slow right down on the brakes before changing down I decided to vary that technique by doing a proper double de-clutch change (revving the engine between gears) and found it even easier.
We trundled out as far as Tedburn St Mary on the west side of Exeter and out the other side as far as Rockbeare to the east, before returning to Marsh Barton via the bypass. This session served the dual purpose of allowing me to become familiar with driving the vehicle and also allowed Tony to assess my skills so that he could focus on certain areas which needed improvement in the following sessions. I was reasonably happy with my progress but I think I realised that the pace would quicken the next day!
Training Day 2 was dull and wet, in contrast to the weather on my first session. We began at 10am in the yard at Carmel Coaches. I drove out of the trading estate and on to the M5, via the A30. For the next 4 hours, with an hour’s break for lunch, we tightened up on approaches to junctions and roundabouts, practised hill starts, stopping and starting away from bus stops, negotiated speed humps and traffic calming chicanes before arriving back at the garage soon after 3pm. I found I was still having trouble with shaping up for junctions and roundabouts. I’m supposed to keep the back wheels within the lane markings but I’m not always successful! More practice required, I think.
Some of my down-changes went pearshaped today, sometimes because I pointed the porridge-stirrer in the wrong place and at other times because I hadn’t slowed down enough first. More practice required here, too.
I was glad to note that Tony wasn’t commenting too much (if at all) on my mirror technique or use of indicators. That’s a legacy of last year’s sessions where my instructor was very hot on these areas. Observance of speed restrictions was good too, although I did miss one 30mph sign early in the session on the approach to a roundabout. I assumed I was still in a 40mph zone (I’m sure it WAS 40mph years ago…) and Tony pulled me up for speeding! On another occasion, however, he was pleased to see me wait until I had passed a 40mph sign before accelerating from the 30mph zone we’d just left.
I was asked at one point what I thought an amber traffic light meant. I immediately said “stop”, which pleased Tony because apparently several of his pupils (like many car drivers) assume that amber means ‘get ready to stop’.
Annoyingly, the Test Centre in Exeter doesn’t allow candidates to practice the reversing manoever at the Centre. The Plymouth Test Centre allowed one practice session per test, which I found very useful last year. After a weekend’s rest I was to come back for another day’s training, during which the Carmel storage compound would be marked out for my practice session.
Training Day 3 started with chaotic scenes in the Carmel storage compound. Tony had left instructions with the other drivers to leave a certain part of the yard clear over the weekend but evidently his request had gone unheeded and quite a few buses, coaches and minibuses needed to be moved around. Tony then marked out the areas for the reversing manoever with cones and other markers while I started up the training bus and read through the ‘show and tell’ questions I was likely to be asked at the beginning of the test.
To begin with I had trouble lining the bus up correctly in the starting box in the reversing manoever. After several abortive attempts, I managed to get the bus lined up parallel with the edge of the box and far enough to the left to allow me room to make a sharp turn of the front wheels at the start of the manoever. Most of the morning sessions (what was left of it, anyway) was taken up by brushing up my reversing skills. The actual positioning of the bus in the reversing box wasn’t a problem, I just needed to improve my observation skills and the starting position.
To finish the morning session, we took the bus out around the trading estate so that Tony could go and buy a hot pasty for his lunch!
The afternoon session took us out on the A38 up Telegraph Hill, across the top to the A380 and down the other side. I used the exhaust retarder in addition to 5th gear and occasional brake applications to control our descent. Back in Exeter, we went down Cowick Street, under the GWR main line by St Thomas Station, across Exe Bridges and along the Inner Bypass. I had to pay special attention to my position within the marked lanes, shaping up the bus so that my rear wheels didn’t stray over the white lines. I was successful most of the time!
Continuing through Pinhoe and Whipton, we ended up in the country lanes where I had to negotiate some narrow bits very carefully. This really tested my awareness of warning signs and visual clues, such as looking out for approaching vehicles over the tops of hedges. We re-joined the old Honiton road and came back towards Exeter, bouncing off the outskirts and heading out towards Exmouth on the A376 – a very familiar road! I grew up in Exmouth so the road down to Clyst St George and back through Topsham was familiar territory. I nearly came unstuck in Topsham, where there were roadworks on the sharp bend before the level crossing. I think I approached with too much speed and came very close to some of the road cones!
After discussing the merits of dealing with narrow streets, looking for reflections in windows and the paintwork of parked cars for instance, we returned to the storage compound for a final chat and pep talk.
Test Day 1. I arrived early so that I could have an hour to warm up and go round the block.
The training bus looked relatively smart, having had a wash before I arrived. Feeling rather nervous, we pulled into the Test Centre yard and walked over to the office. I had to wear a hi-vis jacket while walking round the yard. I was introduced to my examiner, a well-spoken, precise sort of fellow. After checking my licence documents (both photo card and paper counterpart) we walked over to the bus, where the compulsory questions began. The very first question caught me on the back foot. “After starting the engine, what would you check before moving off?” I answered “I’d check that the air pressure came up correctly.” “And what else would you look for?” the examiner continued. Umm, that had me stumped. My mind went blank. Only afterwards did I remember oil pressure and other warning lights.
The reversing exercise went without a hitch and we headed out for a “tootle round Exeter”. I followed the examiner’s directions. To his credit, they were very clear. As we negotiated the first roundabout I knew I’d made my first mistake. I failed to spot a car entering the roundabout and signalling to pass from my right. I saw the car but it’s indicator didn’t register with me and I pulled out regardless. Apparently the driver braked and gave me “the evils”, as the examiner told me later.
Near the end of the test I shaped up to drive round a Stagecoach bus that was stopped at a bus stop. What I didn’t see in time was that, as I checked my mirrors to pass beside a set of bollards, the bus had started indicating to pull away. I aborted my move sharply as the other bus pulled away. I should have seen it coming, as service buses rarely stop for long.
Apparently I’d also approached another roundabout in the wrong lane earlier in the test and these three faults cost me a pass. Very dejected, I met my wife for lunch. It was, after all, Valentines Day but it was quite a while before I stopped being annoyed with myself and enjoyed a romantic lunch.
Test Day 2. I was persuaded by several people that I should book a re-test as soon as possible. So I managed to book a test before my Theory Pass Certificate expired at the end of the week. I passed the theory part of the test two years ago when the folks at Quantock Motor Services offered to train me and put me in for my practical test. But when it came to delivering on that promise, their driving instructor was always busy. When it became obvious that, despite lots of pestering, they weren’t going to train me I booked a training course in Exeter last year. Then, due to illness, the course was switched at the last moment to Plymouth and the rest is history. You can read about it here. I had used up all my holiday allowance at my day job so I had to wait until 2012 before booking more time off to do the training and test.
I turned up 1 hour before the test, as before, to have a bit of a drive first. My instructor from last week was on holiday so Martin, the instructor I had last May, took me out. Arriving at the Test Centre a few minutes before 2pm, we met with the examiner, a pleasant chap with a Northern accent. He hummed to himself as we walked to the bus. Obviously far more relaxed than I was! We did the safety questions first, all of which I could answer. Engine cut-off, emergency door, fire extinguisher are the compulsory 3, followed by several optional ones which for me were engine coolant filler location, demister, full beam and fog light switches, and a question about checking the condition of front and rear lights.
The reversing exercise went perfectly so we headed out of town. I was particularly careful at roundabouts, knowing that these had been my ‘Achilles heel’ in the past. Passing under the A30 dual carriageway, we headed out on the road to Ide, a route I’d never done in my training. After a stop and start by the roadside, this brought us back into Exeter at the top of a steep hill, which allowed me to use the exhaust retarder in addition to the brakes. Using 100% concentration and constant observations, we carried on across the Exe Bridges roundabout and along the Inner Bypass. Several times I was asked to stop at a bus stop as if to set down and pick up passengers. This involved bringing the bus to rest gently beside the raised part of the pavement. Close enough to allow passengers to step aboard comfortably but without touching the kerb. I opened the door for the examiner to check. No faults here, I’m glad to say.
Then there was a 10 minute section of independent driving, when I was told to follow signs to the M5. This tested my ability to follow road signs without any direction from the examiner. Again, no problems here. Familiarity with Exeter helped a lot, I’m sure. This was one of the things that unsettled me when training in Plymouth.
Out on the motorway, I had the opportunity to pass a few lorries. I had to plan this well in advance though. With a top speed of 62mph I only had about 6mph advantage over the lorries! Turning round at Kennford on the A38, we returned to the Test Centre. I knew I’d done a better job this time but was anxious not to let my concentration lapse on the last leg!
So, at long last, I’ve passed. To those who’ve read this far, congratulations! I admire your stamina. I’ve deliberately written a detailed account for the benefit of the many people who come to this site through Google, searching for advice on taking the PCV driving test and the CPC modules. In the next few weeks I will take the last of the initial CPC modules, the CPC Practical Demonstration Test. Then I’ll be all set to drive professionally, ideally in a heritage bus with a full load!
Little did he know, when my Dad lifted me up into the cab of a Bristol Lodekka when I was 3 years old, that he had started my life-long ambition to become a bus driver!