After about 14 months of restoration work on Crosville KG131, it fell to me to have the honour of taking it out on its first revenue-earning job. The 1950-built bus was waiting for me in the sunshine when I arrived and looked as if it had just emerged from the Finishing Shop at Eastern Coach Works. A five-figure sum has been apparently spent on the very thorough restoration, with lots of wooden framing and most of the aluminium panels being replaced.
In some ways it was a shame that more than half of the wedding duty would take place in darkness but, as it turned out, that gave me the chance to indulge in some night-time photography.
I had arrived with plenty of time in hand, just in case of unforseen delays due to the vehicle being fresh from the restoration workshop but the only thing missing was the little key to open up the tachometer head. The Workshop Manager soon found one for me and I was able to complete my walkaround checks. On starting the 5-cylinder Gardner 5LW diesel engine, there were clouds of blue smoke – typical behaviour while these engines are cold – but this soon cleared by the time I had left Weston.
KFM893 was numbered KG131 in the original Crosville fleet, but was later changed to SLG131 which is borne out by a small metal plaque which is still carried above the rear entrance door. It is fitted with slightly more plush seating than a standard bus and carries a Tilling dual-purpose livery. This being KG131’s first duty since restoration, I was feeling quite apprehensive as I drove out of the depot. It would be terrible if I dented or scratched it on its first trip!
My main task on the outward empty journey was to re-acquaint myself with the 4-speed overdrive gearbox fitted to this L5G. It’s 18 months since I last drove it and I was annoyed to find that I was still having trouble changing down into 3rd gear. The ratios between the gears and the engine revs required to downchange successfully are quite different to a Lodekka, although the basic technique is the same. I have to admit that there were a couple of occasions when the ‘crash’ gearbox lived up to its name and I had to abandon 3rd gear and go for 2nd!
Although I’d researched my route beforehand, the Castle Coombe Racing Circuit was well signposted as soon as I had left the M4. By this time I was feeling quite at home in the cab and imagined myself trundling along the lanes of North Wales in the 1950s! With a bit of time to spare before the designated pickup time, I parked in the tourist car park (for free, thankfully) just outside the village of Castle Coombe where there was a bay for coaches.
Just before the allotted time I drove down the lane and reversed the bus into a spot near the ancient market cross in the centre of the village. As soon as I arrived, cameras were pointing in my direction. I was pleased to see that KG131 was getting so much attention and I was even asked by one lady to pose beside the bus. Perhaps she is attracted to men in uniform…
Time went by and although there were plenty of people milling about, none of them looked like wedding guests. I checked my Work Ticket and sent a text to the contact number I’d been given. No response. I tried calling the number. It rang but nobody answered. By now it was after the departure time and, as the Manor House Hotel was up a long driveway protected by automatic gates, I looked up the phone number and was just about to call it when two smartly dressed chaps and two boys could be seen strolling leisurely down the drive. One of them looked rather familiar. It was Noel Edmonds, the host of TV’s ‘Deal or No Deal‘. The other chap assured me that the rest of the guests were on their way.
As the winter light faded, the guests boarded the bus. I was pleased to see that a wooden boarding step, nicely painted in Tilling Green and carrying Crosville Motor Services lettering, had been provided. Just as well, because the ‘pavement’ just outside the nearby pub was almost non-existent. I jumped into the cab, started the engine and turned on all the lights. That’s better!
While waiting earlier, I had done a recce on the turn I would have to make around the market cross, to get to the road out of the village. I would need to make a wide sweep out of my parking spot in order to make it in one go and I was glad when the last of several parked cars drove off, making the turn much easier.
Almost immediately after passing the market cross the road starts to climb so I remained in 2nd gear and plodded on up the hill. Annoyingly I then had to drop into 1st gear due to oncoming traffic and parked cars. Not wanting to risk a snatch change into 2nd so early in the journey and without practice, I bided my time until the gradient eased. Even then it took a painfully long time for the engine revs to die down and I was afraid I’d have to start all over again. Fortunately there was just enough forward speed to engage 2nd. The Gardner growled away at almost idling revs before slowly picking up speed.
We hadn’t gone very far when a voice shouted into my right ear through the little sliding window behind my head. “We want you to turn left here,” the voice shouted. “We’ve picked up news that a very large load has just left the motorway heading for the A46, which is where we’re going. If we go up this lane we’ll probably end up ahead of it!” I was a bit doubtful about taking an unplanned, unresearched diversion so I shouted back “Is it suitable for a bus?” Apparently it was and I had to take their word for it as they were locals and I was not. Thankfully the lane was relatively straight and not as narrow as some I’ve been down. Glancing over the hedgerows as we approached the junction with the A46 I could see a huge convoy of vehicles, all with orange flashing lights. In the middle was an enormous red transporter carrying a heavy transformer, on its way from Didcot Power Station after being decommissioned. Applause broke out behind me as the passengers realised that we had just avoided a very long delay!
The rest of the journey into Bath was trouble-free and I parked outside the city’s Guildhall, where the wedding ceremony was to take place. I had planned to take the bus and park in a nearby coach park but the bride’s father told me that they had arranged for the bus to wait outside in the drop-off zone. I’m so glad I stayed put because I learned the next day, from a coach driver friend who had also been in Bath that day, that the Council was charging vehicles £1 for every seat (£32 in my case) to use the coach park. That explained why there were coaches parked up in every layby on the A46.
The city streets were absolutely heaving with shoppers and visitors, it being a Christmas Market day. There was also a big football match being played in the stadium just across the river, to add to the traffic mayhem. As I waited, lots of people wanted to take photos and talk about the bus. One older guy had just got off the phone to a friend who used to be a Crosville driver in north Wales. “I just had to call him up and say ‘guess what I’ve just seen…'” he told me.
Before I knew it, the guests were back. Well, most of them anyway. Three had disappeared into a shop! I stood and chatted to a video cameraman while I waited. I managed a nearside shot of the bus which shows our celebrity passenger by the window, second seat back.
The return journey was painfully slow. To start with the main route out of the city along the A4 was full of nose-to-tail traffic. Then we had to tackle the long climb up the Gloucester road past Swainswick, mostly in 2nd gear. Again, I had to pick my moment very carefully before attempting to change up. Finally reaching level ground at the top of the hill I breathed a sign of relief and briefly engaged overdrive, only to be confronted by a string of brakelights ahead. We joined a very long traffic queue with red lights as far as the eye could see. Even after the A420 junction the traffic was slow moving. “Turn right ahead down that lane again,” another mystery voice shouted from behind me. It seemed daft to be making better progress down a tiny lane than we did along the A-road but it made sense and before long we pulled up in the middle of Castle Coombe. Another round of applause resounded in the saloon behind me. I turned and politely doffed my cap before climbing down to help the guests alight. They were very kind with their comments. Mr Edmonds, as he stepped down, said “I’m sorry, it’s not as clean as it was when you set out!”
I can’t tell you how relieved I was to see the last passenger walk away. Not because I was fed up with them but because I had managed to take them to Bath and back without incident! The first trip out with such a venerable old bus AND a celebrity aboard made it rather tense at times!
I needed a rest so I drove back up to the car park and retired to the saloon for a bite to eat and some coffee. It was very warm – the saloon heater is very efficient! In contrast, the temperature outside was falling and I pulled on my Tilling overcoat and a pair of gloves before setting off for the depot. Knowing that a slow moving vehicle can be vulnerable on a motorway, especially at night, I left all the interior lights on for the return journey to give other drivers a better chance of seeing me. Back at the depot there was another long queue – Crosville service buses awaiting their turn to be fuelled and washed! Thankfully I was able to leapfrog the queue and park up in the garage as cleaners are not allowed to drive, or even shunt, heritage buses.
I’ve got one more heritage duty just before Christmas and then that’s it for 2013.