Only a few days after passing my Driver CPC qualification, I was given my first driving duty in a heritage bus. I was already due to be on duty for a private hire job yesterday but, when the Work Ticket arrived, it showed that I was the driver! With a curious mix of excitement and anxiety building towards the weekend, I spent several hours studying the route I was to take.
Drivers on regular routes sometimes have the luxury of learning a route with another driver but a private hire job is more like coach driving I suppose, in that every job is different and it’s largely up to the driver to make sure he knows the best and safest route. How did they manage before Google Maps? I found Google Street View incredibly helpful as I worked out the best routes between the various pickup points. It lets you do a ‘virtual’ dry run! So when it came to actually driving yesterday it all seemed so familiar – “I’ve been this way before”!
I arrived at the Crosville Motor Services garage in plenty of time so that I could take the bus out briefly before setting off for the first pickup point. Although I’ve qualified as a PCV driver and I have driven heritage buses before, I don’t have many hours of experience so a little familiarisation seemed like a good idea.
My conductor was a keen young man called Ian, who has a commendably high interest in the heritage side of the Crosville operation. He greeted me as I arrived, already kitted out in an immaculate summer uniform, brand new cash bag and sparklingly clean Setright ticket machine.
Our ‘chariot’ for the job was Hants & Dorset 1220 (DEL893C), a 1965 Bristol FLF fitted with a Gardner 6LW engine and crash gearbox with overdrive, sometimes known as 5th gear or supertop. The steering is notoriously heavy at slow speeds and I discovered this straight away. Pulling out of the yard I manoevered the 30-foot bus around a neighbouring coach and, while still hauling the steering wheel around, found my path blocked by another parked bus. Reversing and pulling forward again at slow speed was hard work. One of the side effects of driving a computer during the week, I suppose!
Satisfied that I had the measure of the beast, we set off for Clevedon, our first pickup point. Outbound traffic was heavy to begin with and I began to fear that we might be late but it soon cleared and we made good progress. In the event we were early and parked up for a while in the main street, awaiting our passengers. We were taking them to a wedding evening event and we set off at the allotted time with about 12 people on board.
The journey up to Bristol was uneventful, if rather noisy. I had forgotten what a racket the engine makes at full throttle when you’re sitting right beside it! We turned off the M5 and drove into the city via the A4 Portway, alongside the Avon Gorge. This is when I appreciated having done a ‘dry run’ on my computer as it meant I wasn’t panicking about using the correct lane or finding the right turning.
As we approached the Hen & Chicken pub in Bedminster a group of smartly dressed people waved enthusiastically at us. I knew that we had located our next load! The stop was just beyond the pub and we were there for a couple of minutes, waiting for stragglers.
This particular FLF has a Gardner 6LW fitted, whereas some had the uprated 6LX. I began to notice the weight of passengers as we drove through the city streets and particularly after picking more up in the city centre. Although we were by no means full, I could tell the bus wasn’t empty!
Leaving the centre behind, we mixed with the busy city traffic as we headed for the M32. After going up and down the ‘box in the city, it was good to wind the old girl up to a breathtaking 50mph! Turning off the M32 near Filton, we left the built-up areas and headed along the Old Gloucester Road which by now was in darkness. This brought with it a new problem: reflections. The warm light of the lower saloon behind me was reflected in my windscreen, making it rather difficult to see ahead. Fortunately there was a blind behind me, to block off the light so I used it and suddenly my vision improved.
A short while later we came to the hotel entrance. In fact it came up quicker than I had imagined it would and I hastily changed down the gears. The trouble is, you can’t change down hastily with a crash box and, for the only time in the journey (I hope) I made a nasty noise. There were some large trees lining the long driveway and their lower branches loomed out of the darkness menacingly. I had previously asked Ian, my conductor, to look out for these as I had seen them on Google Maps but had no idea if there was enough clearance underneath for a double deck bus. Ian jumped down and walked in front of the bus, watching as I drove slowly under the trees. Thankfully no damage was done.
We pulled up outside The Grange Hotel, Winterbourne, where more wedding guests were already assembled, enjoying drinks. With cameras flashing, they cheered the new arrivals as they alighted. Our duty done, we had a refreshing drink and a quick bite to eat before looking for somewhere to turn the bus. The only suitable place was through an archway and into a gravel car park. With Ian’s help we negotiated the arch and turned the bus. The car park was just about adequate but my arm muscles were like jelly after doing a 5-point turn! All that remained was to return the bus to its depot so we headed back via the M32, M4 and M5. At times (downhill) we even reached 52mph!
The FLF had one final attempt to wreck my arms. I’d stopped off at the railway station so that Ian could catch a train home. There’s a fairly large station forecourt which takes the form of a wide roundabout but there was a pair of double-parked taxis right outside the station. As I drove around them I had no idea that I was way out of line for the narrow exit from the forecourt. More reversing and more lock-to-lock hauling on the wheel!
Finally back at the garage, I parked next to a long line of modern coaches, dealt with my tacho disc and turned everything off. Now, at 9pm, only an 80-mile car journey separated me from my bed! I was quite pleased at how the day had gone. I had delivered my first load of paying passengers (well OK, the bride and groom paid for them!) safely to their destination, we didn’t hit anything and I didn’t get lost.
Sometimes people show their appreciation of the bus or the work of the crew. Today’s nicest compliments didn’t come from a passenger, they came from a passer-by. As we waited at Clevedon for our passengers to board, an old gent walked up, gazing up and down at the bus as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. He told us that we’d made his day, seeing our smart FLF standing at the bus stop for all the world as if it and its crew had been teleported straight from the 1960s. He was delightful!
It will be 2 weeks before my next duty. I think I’ll do some fitness training before then…