I do get some weird and wonderful jobs offered to me but I think yesterday’s duty with Southern Vectis 573 was definitely one of the latter. BBC Radio Bristol required a vintage bus in which to convey Children in Need’s Pudsey Bear around the region on November 14th to make a surprise visit to some primary school children. Crosville Motor Services apparently had the ideal bus and they kindly gave me the chance to do the honours at the wheel.
But what they neglected to tell me, when asking if I was free on that date, was that it required an early start. A VERY early start.
I kid you not dear reader, I had to set my alarm for 2.30am in order to meet the BBC Radio Bristol crew in Keynsham at 6.30am. It took me 1.5 hours to drive to the bus depot from deepest Devon and then, having checked the bus, had a further hour or so on the road at 30mph max before I reached the rendezvous point.
And so it was that I found myself all alone in a car park in Keynsham, which is between Bristol and Bath. It was raining and still very dark. Not long afterwards the crew arrived in a support van covered in BBC Local Radio branding. Led by their charming producer Lucy they set to work decorating the bus, applying Children in Need stickers to the windows and hanging banners and balloons everywhere. Before we left for our first pickup point we had to wait until just after 7am when they were due to do a live piece on the radio to introduce the listeners to the day-long journey. This included me starting up the engine, at which point I became rather nervous. My last outing with this bus was rather spoiled by a failing battery but the bus was now fitted with two brand new ones. Thankfully she started, if a little reluctantly. Oh dear – an omen, perhaps?
“I’ll meet you back at base,” called one of the radio chaps as he hopped into the van. Our first stop was to be Broadcasting House in Whiteladies Road. I expect he thought he’d beat us by several minutes as our bus, built in 1962, is rather slow and cumbersome. But, despite the increasing commuter traffic, we got there first because I was able to use the bus lanes!
Pudsey stood with me on the platform in the early morning light before disappearing inside to do a brief tour of the studios. A camera crew arrived and recorded Pudsey boarding the bus, receiving a welcome from your humble scribe as he heaved himself up onto the platform. Then disaster struck, followed shortly by a large measure of hilarity. With a camera focussed on the cab, I hit the starter button. A click and a brief groan, then nothing. Oh dear, a flat battery again. Although the bus had new batteries, they weren’t fully charged and my pre-dawn journey from Weston with the lights on had been their undoing. Within a few moments though, several BBC shoulders leaned into the back of the bus and I let it roll forward a few yards before letting out the clutch. She roared into life, accompanied by cheers and a round of applause.
Our next stop was on Clifton Downs, at the viewing point overlooking the Avon Gorge. The rain clouds were beginning to move away and bright skies in the distance heralded a sunny day ahead. Stopping once more at the studios to pick up Steve, another radio presenter, we set off for our first surprise visit. By now the sun was out, the cab was getting warmer and I was enjoying myself although I was a bit apprehensive about the route, not having been to any of the schools the radio team had chosen to visit. Fortunately, Lucy had emailed a set of links to Google Maps and I had spent a few hours the prevous day studying these, as per my normal routine. I’m blessed with a reasonably good memory for routes so I’m glad to say that the day progressed without any wrong turns!
As we approached Perry Court Primary School in Hengrove the bell dinged in the cab. I stopped and Lucy came up to the cab and told me that the children hadn’t been told about our visit and that she would just set everything up for the camera crew which accompanied us for our first visit. They wanted to film the bus arriving so I jumped into the support van which took me up to the school gate. This was narrow but I judged it do-able although I was more worried about the tight turn in from the road. I nodded to Lucy and we returned to the bus. As we waited down the road, the children were told to line up outside the school building as someone important was coming to visit. I do love a bit of theatre! Ding-ding went the bell and, with the camera set up facing the road, we drove through the gates. It was tight but I did it in one go and we rolled to a standstill just feet from hordes of excited children! It was a golden moment as I watched in my nearside mirror as Pudsey waved to the children from the platform. They went wild as he stepped carefully down from the bus and plodded over to greet them. There was much screaming and jumping. In fact it went on for a full 20 minutes. How the presenters managed to get their interviews in the can without getting drowned out I don’t know! I would love to know what crazy stuff the children got up to as part of their fundraising. Sadly, I didn’t get to hear the resulting broadcasts during the day (I was a bit busy) and I didn’t watch the Children in Need programme that evening (I was too tired!).
Reluctantly Pudsey was allowed to wave goodbye and get back on the bus. With no room to turn, one of the BBC’s technical chaps held the traffic while I reversed back through the gates and into the road. We trundled off to our next stop, an appointment with Papa Smurf no less, at a nearby leisure centre. With a white fake beard, blue face and a very suitable stature, Bristol’s version of Papa Smurf stood and chatted to our Pudsey although I rather think it was a one way conversation! Pudsey’s ‘brand guidelines’ are very strict and he never speaks. Papa Smurf, who is actually a coach driver who had just brought some children to the leisure centre for a swimming session, was interviewed for the radio show.
Our next stop was not far away – New Fosseway School on the Bridge Learning Campus. Children with various learning needs and disabilities were being lined up as we arrived. They were delightful and were just as excited to see Pudsey as the children at the previous school. As the action continued beside the bus I wandered off to suss out the route around the car park for later. On my return I was mobbed by children who were interested in my uniform. “Are you a policeman?” asked one. “No, I’m Pudsey’s bus driver!” I replied and then spent several minutes chatting to them. I don’t know whether they had raised money or whether their school was a recipient of Children in Need funds, but I do know that it was a real privilege to be a part of this special visit.
After a break for lunch we set off down the A38 to Weston-super-Mare for another two visits. During the journey, another of the BBC production team donned the Pudsey costume. You do know that Pudsey isn’t a real bear, don’t you? Just thought I’d ask.
An hour or so later the big green Bristol bus rolled up at Castle Batch Primary School, Worle. This time the children had assembled in the school hall and, as the bus rolled to a stop right outside, I fancy I could hear a chorus of screams from inside. When I jumped down from the cab, I certainly could! Pudsey went in, to be engulfed by children desperate to give Pudsey a high five or a hug. Steve and Laura, the brave but endlessly enthusiastic radio presenters, wandered round with their iPad (that’s how they do it these days) and did more interviews. Standing outside the hall, I fielded more questions from pupils who stood nearby.
With Pudsey safely on board again we trundled through unfamiliar streets to central Weston and our final school, Christ Church Primary School in Baker Street. I stopped the bus out of sight so that Lucy and I could check out the prospects of parking the bus in the entrance. This one proved to be too narrow so we elected to park the bus on the road outside. The children were already in the playground as it was break time and as Pudsey walked through the gate he was mobbed and could get no further. A blast on the head teacher’s whistle and a sharp command was all it took to allow Pudsey and the radio team to make their way inside. I stayed with the bus. Incidentally, I had no further trouble with starting the bus for the rest of the day. But that was mostly because I left the engine running! I’m sure it would have been fine but I didn’t want to risk it on such a momentous day!
Our final stop was on Weston’s prom. Parking just ahead of a couple of Crosville’s modern service buses, I joined the team for a group photo and then was interviewed for a later insert into BBC Radio Bristol’s Children in Need coverage. From there it was a short hop to the Crosville depot where the decorations were removed. The radio team said their goodbyes and went back to base in their support vehicle.
Despite having to get up at stupid o’clock, I thoroughly enjoyed the day and want to pay tribute to the professional way in which the production team dealt with the demands of a sometimes unpredictable day. It was fascinating for me to see what goes on behind the scenes on a day like this and, like Crosville, was happy to do my bit free of charge for Children in Need.