2012 was a momentous year. I managed to pass my PCV bus driving test by the skin of my teeth and followed that with 25 vintage bus driving duties!
But one of my first jobs of 2012 was to promote the Crosville heritage bus fleet at a couple of Wedding Fairs. These were worth doing and many of the bookings I drove for later in the year started out as enquiries at these fairs. For one of these fairs I was invited to drive a Bristol Lodekka. This was before I’d taken my test but, as the bus was empty and not in service, my car licence sufficed. However, slightly soft front tyres and my general unfitness saw to it that I really struggled with the heavy steering, even with no load! I’ve since discovered that, even with properly inflated tyres, that bus is heavier to steer at low speed than some others.
With the fairs out of the way my focus turned to passing my practical test. For various reasons, much time had passed since I’d passed the Theory, Hazard Perception and Case Studies components of my PCV driving test. I had used up my allotted holiday allowance in my day job so I had to wait until new year 2012 to book a week off in February for training and the test. The test date happened to be Valentines Day but, as you will remember if you were following my progress back then, the lunch I had with my wife that day turned into a very sombre affair because I failed the test.
I very nearly gave up altogether, so crushing was the feeling of defeat. However, due to encouragement from several blog readers and family members, I booked more training sessions and a new test with just a few days of entitlement left. I had two years after passing my Theory Test in which to pass my Practical Test and most of that time had been spent waiting in vain for training with Quantock. I eventually passed my Practical Test within a few days of the end of February, which is when my time would run out.
My feelings of elation and relief knew no bounds when I eventually found myself holding that coveted blue certificate! I went on to pass the PCV Practical Demonstration test and soon received my Driver CPC card in the post which entitled me to drive professionally at last.
I wondered how soon it would be before I would find an opportunity to drive a heritage bus in service. I passed the news of my test pass to the folks at Crosville Motor Services and awaited developments. I already had a conducting date in my diary for the week after my test so I was both pleased and daunted to see that, when my Job Ticket arrived, it showed that I was the driver! The management were kind enough to provide me with a conductor for this, my first driving turn with them. It wasn’t strictly necessary as the bus had driver-operated doors and the customer hadn’t paid for a conductor. I was very glad of the support and, even though the conductor was younger than my youngest son, he knew his job very well and everything went like clockwork.
Many more driving turns followed. 25 of them, to be exact! I often had to pinch myself to check that I wasn’t dreaming. I had pursued this ambition to drive a vintage bus since I was a young boy but never in a million years thought that I would have the opportunity to learn to drive a bus, let alone drive Bristol Lodekkas (and other Bristol marques) in service. I spent many hours as a youngster standing (and then kneeling, as I grew taller) on the bench seat watching the drivers of Wilts & Dorset Lodekkas at work in the cab. I was fascinated by the skills and techniques involved in handling a crash gearbox. I’m convinced that those childhood experiences helped me enormously when I eventually came to occupy that cab seat myself and take charge of a Bristol Lodekka. The fact that so many of them survive is remarkable in itself but the fact that I’m able to drive them in the 21st century is truly amazing.
Most of my driving turns have been for weddings. Some have been two-bus turns and the cameradery of sharing the duty with another driver has brought added pleasure. I have picked up numerous driving tips from other drivers and they have passed on their route knowledge and experiences with private hire jobs, all of which has been helpful. All except that first wedding turn have been solo duties. From a safety point of view, the only time I would have officially needed a conductor would have been if I had been rostered with an open platform bus but, as every bus I’ve driven this year has had doors, I have done the job alone. This hasn’t caused any problems and in fact it has often been the case that an usher has been nominated to take charge of the wedding guests while on board so they have often been delighted to be asked to give me two bells before we set off!
I have had the priviledge of driving several different variants of the ubiquitous Bristol Lodekka: LD6B, FS6G, FLF6G and FSF6G. A particular pleasure was being rostered with two different Bristol L5Gs during the year. The first occasion, being the first time I had driven anything older than a Lodekka and only my third duty since passing my test, was rather tense at times as I hadn’t yet fully mastered the clutch technique and some of my downchanges were rather noisy, I’m sad to say! It turned out that I wasn’t lifting my left foot high enough but I only discovered that on my way back to the garage! My second outing with a Bristol L was much better as I had gained much valuable experience with a crash box and the bus had only recently been thoroughly restored and was a dream to drive.
Many of my wedding duties have taken me to places I hadn’t been to before and took me through parts of Somerset, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire that were new to me. Corsham, Tickenham, Priston, Cameley, Cheltenham… these are just a few of my destinations.
I have relied heavily on Google Maps as I have prepared for these duties. Private Hire jobs are different from driving a regular, timetabled route in that you don’t have the benefit of being able to learn the route from someone else. Using online maps and in particular, Google Street View, has helped me plan my route well and I’m sure I’ve avoided some awkward situations that way. Street View lets you drive the route from the comfort of your own PC before doing it for real. I find it particularly useful to look at junctions and roadsigns, committing them to memory so that I can then drive confidently without having to make snap decisions which may lead to dead ends!
Of course there have been highlights during the year and one of them has to be a trip down to my home town with a Bristol FLF. I was given permission to enter it into the Torbay Vintage Bus Running Day and, after completing a wedding duty in Bristol, I drove down to Torquay’s Stagecoach depot to stable the bus overnight. The next day was very satisfying. I was able to drive two routes with the FLF, carrying locals and visiting enthusiasts on free trips to Paignton and to Meadfoot, Torquay. My youngest son, complete with a Tilling summer uniform to match my own, conducted for most of the day. I must say it was a joy to be driving a vintage bus along streets that I know so well. It was a relief too not to have to worry about taking a wrong turn! Many people – some of them drivers themselves – were good enough to compliment me on my driving. I think there was only one other bus present with a crash box so that was very gratifying!
Another big day that didn’t involve a wedding, was Crosville’s first Open Day. This attracted quite a lot of visiting buses and plenty of visitors to see them and ride on them. I spent most of the day driving the Service 152 from Weston-super-Mare to Uphill with an open top Bristol FSF, ex-Crosville. That gave me my first taste of driving a regular town route, my only other experience being the scenic Exmoor Explorer route, on which I was one of the conductors. The icing on that particular cake came at the end of the day when a convoy of 12 vintage buses was assembled at the depot and drove down to the seafront. I was part of the convoy, driving the open top FSF – such fun! The amazing sight of 11 green and cream Bristol buses (and one Bedford OB) was caught on video and you can follow this link to watch it: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=216508605143975
I was fortunate enough to have the use of one of the heritage buses for two 80th birthday celebrations in my family. We took a bus-load of my wife’s family on a Southern Vectis FS6G from Bristol to Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire. The weather was kind and we had a wonderful day. The picture shows us on our return to Bristol, eating a fish and chip supper.
Not long after that, we took a Hants & Dorset Bristol FLF6G down to Exmouth, picking up a number of my relatives on the way down the M5. It was a long and tiring day but once again, the wet weather relented and gave us a superb day. We were able to have a picnic on the beach at Budleigh Salterton and a lovely afternoon at Bicton Park. It was a special pleasure to be able to drive my family around that day to celebrate my Mum’s 80th birthday. All of them have known about my attempt to become a bus driver (with varying degrees of interest…) so it was good to be able to show them what it was all about. I’m very grateful to Crosville Motor Services for letting me use their vehicles for Grandma’s Grand Day Out!
The only other occasion that was out of the ordinary was a charity function in Weston-super-Mare when I carried a load of celebrities from a nearby country hotel into town. That was a bit scary, particularly as the boss was on board as well! Fortunately everything went smoothly (including my gearchanges).
So that was 2012, my first year up at the noisy end. In summary, a very successful and satisfying year. It may be beginner’s luck, but I only took a wrong turn once and that was nothing more than a brief detour, thankfully. I haven’t broken anything, hit anything, lost any passengers or contravened any traffic regulations. I have sometimes crunched the gears but I’m sure that my technique has improved during the year and driving these heavy vehicles has now become almost second nature. The only time I came close to breaking down was on a wedding duty to Frenchay, Bristol when the clutch began to disintegrate. By the time I’d nursed the FLF back to the garage nobody could get it into gear again!
I’m immensely grateful to the folks at Crosville for giving me the chance to indulge my passion and ‘live the dream’. It’s hard work, this driving lark. Especially for someone who drives a desk all week in his day job! But I’ve loved every minute of it and look forward to doing some more in 2013.
Do I have any more ambitions left? Well actually I do. There’s a bus enjoying a well-earned retirement in the Crosville garage that my Dad would have seen passing his front door in Salisbury before he was married. I’d love to take him for a ride in it – a Bath Services Bristol KSW. Whether it will happen or not is not clear, especially as my Dad has cancer and will not be with us for much longer.
Thanks for reading!