Into the Dragon’s Den with a Bristol Lodekka

On Saturday my conductor and I were given the honour of conveying a bus load of Dragons and other well-heeled celebrities to the Axentis Michael Memorial Ball. Yes, dear reader, the Dragons from the TV show.

But first, let me tell you about another outing earlier in the day. This was a wedding which required the use of a heritage single decker due to a low bridge en-route to the church. I was given a 1950 Bristol L5G, ex-Crosville. This is very similar to the Crosville Bristol L that I drove to Shepton Mallet earlier in the year.

The one I had last weekend is in immaculate condition, having undergone a very thorough and costly from-the-wheels-up restoration in recent years. It has been lovingly cared for ever since and looks as good as the day it was delivered to Chester depot when new.

Several months have passed since I drove the other Bristol L so I needed the empty journey to Cadbury House Hotel to familiarise myself with the vehicle. It was broadly similar to driving a Lodekka except that the gearbox layout is slightly different. The positions of the 4 forward gears are subtly different – 2nd and 4th being slightly closer to neutral than 1st and 3rd. Or is it the other way around? Well, I did say it was subtle…

The other difference to note is that the 5-cylinder Gardner diesel engine, once warmed up, takes a LONG time to spool down when changing up a gear. The gear ratios seem to be more spaced out than on a Lodekka as well, meaning that I had to use most of the rev range to achieve a satisfactory up-change otherwise I found that the engine was almost at stalling speed when the next gear was engaged. But my biggest impression was that everything was beautifully adjusted and tight. There were virtually no rattles in the cab, unlike a certain Bristol FLF I could mention.

I arrived at the hotel, owned and run by the Hilton Group, in plenty of time. Departure time came and so too did the passengers, thankfully. We made leisurely progress along the A370, turning off to pass under the railway bridge at Nailsea and Backwell station. The Parish Church at Wraxall isn’t far beyond the town of Nailsea so it wasn’t long before I pulled into a convenient bus layby just past the church. While waiting for the ceremony to finish I chatted with the owner/driver of a superb Austin Six which had conveyed the bride to the church. The driver and I had met before at a Wedding Fayre last year.

I enjoyed the run back to the hotel afterwards, feeling comfortable enough with the bus to allow myself an occasional glance sideways at the long bonnet and highly polished front wings beside me. These familiar contours take me right back to my childhood when I would sometimes ride on Bristol KSWs in the Wilts & Dorset fleet.

With my grateful passengers safely delivered back to the hotel, I drove empty back to the depot where I jumped down from the cab and prepared another bus for my next duty.

Enter the Dragons. I was to take an ex-Southern Vectis Bristol FS6G back to the same hotel I’d just returned from, so that I could pick up a bus-load of celebrities from the TV show, “Dragon’s Den”. They and their entourage were taking part in a charity ball at the Grand Pier, Weston-super-Mare. This time I had a conductor with me, a charming lady who also drives service buses for Crosville. All but one of my private hire duties this year have been solo jobs so it was very reassuring to know that I had Jo on the back, looking after my famous passengers. Among them was the fearsome¬†Theo Paphitis. I didn’t recognise any of the others because I don’t watch the TV show, but my conductor did. Apparently we were to be joined by Chris Eubank and John Cleese but they must have gone to the venue by car.

In the all excitement I forgot to take any photos so you will have to imagine this bus…

…in the dark, full to capacity with elegant, smartly dressed, very rich party-goers! Bang on time, we departed from the hotel, stopping on the outskirts of Weston to pick up The Boss and his fiancee, who had also been invited to the ball. The pressure on me to drive smoothly was almost unbearable! I was very glad to emerge onto the brightly lit seafront, having not got lost on the very unfamiliar route through the town. As we drew up to the bus stop by the Grand Pier I was very careful to position the rear platform as close as I could to the pavement to make it easier for our illustrious passengers to alight. Especially the ones wearing impossibly high heels. As I stood by the platform I marvelled that none of them fell as they clattered gingerly down the steep stairs.

Luxurious cars and limousines were arriving all the time, disgorging more guests. And then it was all over. A few people had their photos taken at the front of the bus before disappearing into the Great Hall at the Pier. I gazed up at the misty windows of our brightly lit Lodekka with a huge sigh of relief. I felt that we three had done a good job so Jo and I climbed aboard to take the empty bus back to the garage, happy but tired. I imagined that Jo would be even more tired later as she and her hubby were due to come back in the early hours with a modern coach to take the guests back to the hotel!

I hope to be able to bring you news of the dust jackets project soon, so keep checking back!

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