January 5th 2014 dawned with a sharp frost and bright sunshine, which later turned to cloud and persistent drizzle. Perhaps this summed up the mood of those who attended a special event to mark the closure of Salisbury Bus Station.
Wiltshire’s capital city has had a central bus station for 75 years but now, due to the ageing buildings and the changing nature of the company which has inherited them, the city has decided that it can do without the familiar starting point for most of its bus services.
Thanks to a remarkably timed contact with the owners of a surviving Wilts & Dorset Bristol Lodekka, I had the privilege of driving this bus during the running day. The photo below, taken by Dave Mant, shows me leaving the bus station with the first departure of the day to Nunton and Bodenham.
Note the similarity between this and my shot of the same location which I took in 1973. Fleet no 628, an LD6G which was new in December 1956, has been owned since it was taken out of service as a driver trainer, by two delightful brothers. They also own a Hants & Dorset FS6G. I met up with them at the bus station and before I knew it, was climbing into the cab just before departure time. Allan and Kevin were happy for me to take the bus out on the first trip because I knew my way round the route, thanks to my customary homework (and a dry run in the car the night before!)
The bus station was rapidly filling with heritage buses, most of which had a local connection. Also adding to the general busyness was a good number of enthusiasts, local residents and bus industry management. As soon as I drove the Lodekka onto the departure stand, people flocked to board our bus. I had a few moments to compose myself. It was both emotional and nerve-wracking, sitting behind the wheel of a bus I had seen and ridden on as a boy while also focussing on the task of driving as faultlessly as possible.
On leaving the bus station my first impression was that the steering was very heavy. Compared to other fully laden Lodekkas I have driven, this was quite hard work. The familiar combination of Gardner 6LW engine and 4-speed Bristol gearbox didn’t give me any problems as I headed through the city streets and out towards Odstock. On the way we passed Bishop Wordsworth’s School, where my Dad was a pupil during the war years.
We came to a hill leading up to the junction with the Odstock road. Part way up was a set of traffic lights and, as if to throw a spanner in the works, they changed to red just as I was taking a run up at the hill. A first gear hill start was inevitable. A little way ahead the gradient eased and I took a calculated risk and went for a change up to second. Bad move. The bus had rolled almost to a halt before the engine revs had died down enough for me to engage 2nd gear. Handbrake on, select first again and move off. Oh dear, how embarrassing. Some time later (I was being cautious this time) we reached the top of the hill and higher gears were within reach.
We met another hill and I had to go down to first again. Mindful of events on the previous hill I decided to attempt a snatch change up to second gear. It went in sweetly (speed is the key here) and I breathed a sigh of relief as we gathered pace. Soon we turned left into Salisbury General Hospital, once known as Odstock Hospital. I had been looking forward to this part, as I was born here and hadn’t been back since!
After a brief photostop we were on our way again and trundled down the hill towards the villages of Odstock and Nunton. The running sheet called for a stop for more photos outside the Radnor Arms. This is where Allan changed the blinds for the return journey to Salisbury.
We joined the A338 and chugged, at a stately 30mph, back to the bus station. Another thrill for me was driving a Wilts & Dorset Lodekka along the New Canal and the Blue Boar Row, places where my family and I used to see and board buses in the 1960s and 70s.
I stopped in Endless Street for our passengers to alight then went round the block into the Bus Station to park up and await our next departure. Among the visiting buses were Bath Services KSW OHY938 and LD6G 969EHW, both of which would have visited Salisbury on Service 50. Two immaculate AEC Routemasters attended, one (5CLT) being owned by Sir Peter Hendy, the current Commissioner of Transport for London. He had also arranged for the newest example of the Bus For London, sometimes known as the ‘Borismaster’, to attend and run in service.
Apparently it really struggled on the hills, needing all of its power for propulsion. This meant that the forced air ventilation ran cold for the duration of the climb! I must admit that when I saw and heard it depart from the bus station its feeble four-cylinder diesel engine sounded rather pathetic!
Allan took the LD on the next trip, which was to Whaddon and Alderbury. I sat on the bench seat at the back and chatted to his brother Kevin who told me more about the bus. He was keen to know my opinion of driving his bus so we chatted about engines, gears, injectors and governors. Progress was, to me, more leisurely than I would have expected. Perhaps my experience of driving a Lodekka on private hire jobs, when timekeeping is essential, leads me to drive more vigorously! When I drove the same route later, I certainly went through the gearbox more rapidly in an effort to get the LD to make as much progress as possible. It certainly made cornering easier in town. Going too slowly round a corner makes the steering very heavy!
After a break for lunch in a nearby cafe I spent some time wandering up and down the Bus Station concourse, watching all the action. A young chap wearing a high-vis jacket came up to me and said “Hello, I’m Andrew Sherrington. Are you the chap with the website?” As he introduced himself I learned that he is the Operations Manager for Salisbury Reds, the division of the present day Wilts & Dorset that runs the buses in Salisbury. He and his team had been doing a fine job running the show and I was happy to tell him so. Much of the planning for the event had been done by Dave Andrew and his team, who usually run the Warminster Vintage Bus Running Day. He too came up to me, saying “Are you Busman John?” It was Dave who had put me in touch with Allan and Kevin so it was good to put a face to a name. He later rode with me on the last trip of the day.
I went to find Allan and Kevin, who had taken refuge in the old crew room. I had a good look round, imagining drivers and conductors in the old days gulping down mugs of hot sweet tea before venturing out on their next duty.
You can see a full set of photos on my Flickr Photostream, which also shows what I found upstairs.
Soon it was time for the last trip, for which 628’s owners kindly let me drive. The 15:45 departure was to be the last ever passenger carrying service to leave Salisbury Bus Station and it was augmented by three other Wilts & Dorset buses. I can tell you that there was a tear in my eye as I brought the Lodekka up to the front stand to load up for that last trip. Being the oldest of the four, our bus was the leading vehicle in the Wilts & Dorset cavalcade, a fitting tribute to 75 years of bus services from this station. People streamed past the cab and the bus rocked on its springs as they boarded and filled all the seats. I believe the other three buses, two Bristol REs and a Bristol VRT, were also well loaded.
I was given two bells so I parped the horn and reversed off the stand. I paused at the Bus Station entrance to compose myself and to wait for the other buses to form up behind me. With a crowd of photographers lining the street opposite the entrance, I edged out into Endless Street and led the cavalcade along the darkening streets and out of the city towards Whaddon. I felt hugely honoured to be behind the wheel right then.
We stopped opposite the Post Office in Whaddon for a final photoshoot and for the passengers to travel back on different buses. In the drizzly conditions it was impossible to keep my lens clear of raindrops, as you can see!
With a brief pause two stops further on to let some passengers off, the cavalcade splashed its way back to the city. All too soon the event was over, the last passengers had alighted and they, along with the valiant bus crews, were looking forward to the journey home.
I want to pay tribute to Andrew Sherrington and his team for putting so much of his company’s resources into this remarkable event (the grand sum of £5,000 was also raised on the day for the local hospital’s ‘Stars’ appeal); to Dave Andrew and friends for sorting out the routes, the buses and their duties (and for helping me contact 628’s owners); to the many volunteers (some Salisbury Reds staff, some enthusiasts) who acted as marshals and despatchers; to the owners, drivers and conductors for bringing their historic vehicles many miles to attend the event; those who came to watch, ride, photograph and commemorate the end of an era, despite the unkind weather and of course to Allan and Kevin for allowing me to drive their wonderful Wilts & Dorset LD. Thanks for reading to the end of this mammoth post!