With another 80th birthday to celebrate this year (my mother’s), we decided to take my side of the family for a day out at Bicton Park, East Devon. We had booked H&D Bristol FLF DEL893C for the day and my son Peter and I arrived at the Crosville depot early on Saturday to collect the bus. One of my colleagues had just very helpfully brought the bus out of the garage for us. Or perhaps he just wanted it out of the way in order to get to another one!
I also found that, although it was my responsibility to check fluid levels myself, I found that the garage staff had already done it for me. Oh well, it doesn’t hurt to check again! I used the Displacement method to check how much fuel was in the tank… a wooden pole and a Mark One Eyeball! We had one brake light go u/s so we waited while the chief mechanic brought it back to life. We took our fully fit Lodekka out to the motorway via the filling station to top up the tank and then set off southwards to collect members of my family from various places near the M5.
We left the M5 at Exeter and took the A376 to Exmouth, a road I know very well, having grown up there. My parents had no idea we were bringing a bus, we’d all kept it a secret. My Dad was speechless when he saw us – he is the one from whom I’ve inherited my interest in buses and all things heritage! Not only was the bus a Bristol, a manufacturer he is very familiar with, but also Hants & Dorset. H&D operated near to (and sometimes into) Salisbury, where he grew up.
Now with all the family aboard, Peter gave me 2 bells and we set off along Exmouth’s seafront and up the hill towards Budleigh Salterton. I was slightly anxious at this point. Partly because I had the responsibility of carrying so many members of my family safely but also because my Dad hadn’t seen me driving a bus since I passed my test. I took great care to brake gently and change gear smoothly. Nothing unusual about that, I always try to give my passengers a good experience but this time I felt I was under particular scrutiny!
Although the bus was only about half full, all the passengers were travelling on the top deck so it felt a bit top heavy going round the corners! We descended the steep hill into Budleigh in 3rd gear until it levelled out and I drove down to the seafront and past the pebble beach. During the previous week I had contacted East Devon District Council to enquire about parking a bus in the car park at the River Otter end of the beach. Not only were they happy to accommodate a bus, the man on the phone (who happens to own 2 buses himself!) arranged to have road cones put out to reserve a Lodekka-shaped space for us!
Our bus disgorged its load of passengers, laden with boxes, bags, tables and chairs for a picnic on the beach. The early morning fog had burned away and now the sun shone, glinting on the calm sea where a few boats bobbed on their moorings and a few hardy souls were swimming.
Before we could embark on the final few miles to Bicton, we had to negotiate our way up the single-track hill out of the car park. While I carried out a carefully planned turning manoever in the busy car park, Mrs Busman John positioned herself at the top of the hill to hold the traffic while I gingerly steered 30ft of green Lodekka around the remains of the brick Lime Kilns from which the car park gets its name.
A final challenge lay at the entrance to Bicton Park. Access to the Park is via a pair of cast iron gates which are only just wide enough to let an 8ft wide bus pass through. Very slowly we inched through. Apparently the passengers, looking down on the gateway from the top deck, were holding their breath as it looked impossibly narrow! Safely through without a scratch, we parked and spent the afternoon in the beautifully landscaped gardens. We also took a ride on the narrow gauge railway which winds its way through the Pinetum and out beside the lake. When I was a boy, these trains were hauled by an Avonside steam locomotive ‘Woolwich’ and a Hunslet diesel loco ‘Carnegie’.
Sadly, motive power is now provided by a steam-outline loco with a diesel engine lurking beneath its fake boiler! On the other hand, the two older locomotives, originally from the Royal Arsenal Railway in Woolwich, London, have returned to Crossness Pumping Station, within a stone’s throw of their old haunts, to be restored. Follow the story here.
All too soon, it was time to depart but not before we had sat down in The Orangery to partake of a delicious Devon Cream Tea! The obligatory group photo was posed in front of the bus so that the destination blind ‘Grandma’s Grand Day Out’ could be included.
Squeezing once more through the narrow gateway, we were heading for home via Exmouth, Cullompton and Taunton. During the climb up out of Budleigh Salterton, which I knew was going to be slow, my Dad came down and positioned himself behind me with a camera. As the speed fell, the pressure rose as I anticipated doing two down-changes smoothly! I needn’t have worried. Plenty of private hire duties with this and similar buses since I gained my licence in May have given me lots of experience, even if I am still a beginner compared to some of my colleagues at Crosville.
The monotony of the journey up the M5 was punctuated by brief stops to allow various relatives to get off. Our progress was also lit up by a beautifully red sunset which must have been even more stunning when viewed from the top deck. By the time we had reached Weston-super-Mare it was dark and as we parked the bus outside the garage a Bristol MW coach, in the livery of Bristol Greyhound, also arrived.
My next private hire duty will be a double dose with the same bus, followed the next day by a turn on the open top Service 152 from Weston to Uphill.