Vintage bus link to Hestercombe Gardens

Yesterday I had my second duty with a vintage bus at the West Somerset Railway (WSR), when I provided a link between the railway’s southern terminus at Bishops Lydeard and Hestercombe Gardens.

KFM893-at-Bishops-Lydeard

Crosville Motor Services has a new contract with the WSR to provide vintage bus services in support of various special events. However, this duty was the first in a series of weekly excursions which run throughout the season. I arrived at the depot to find my allocated bus, Crosville KG131 (Bristol L5G KFM893), ready and fully fuelled just inside the garage. So it wasn’t long before I was on my way, via the southbound M5, to Taunton and thence to Bishops Lydeard. Despite its age, this bus bowls along at about 40mph as it benefits from having a Bristol overdrive gearbox.

This is really one of my favourite buses to drive at the moment. Not only is it immaculately presented inside and out, it’s very rewarding to drive. It took me several outings to properly get used to it but these days I can jump into the cab, settle into ‘L’ mode and produce a relatively crunch-free ride. Only once yesterday did I miss a gear and that’s because I let my concentration lapse. I fear I may have been thinking ahead to tomorrow’s marathon drive with a 1929 Maudslay!

As I arrived at the station I had a definite feeling of déjà vu. I have been there many times in a heritage bus because that’s where Quantock Motor Services had its bus depot. And there to film my déjà vu moment was my friend Mike with his camcorder!

I had about 10 minutes before the train from Minehead arrived so I had a chat with a chap in the ticket office, just to let him know where the bus was parked. The first train of the day was also labeled the ‘Hestercombe Gardens Express‘ online and passengers booked on this excursion have a vintage bus journey and entrance to the gardens included in the price. The train arrived, hauled by GWR Large Prairie Tank no 4160. As the passengers left the platform I stood near the bus shouting, in my best bus conductor’s voice, “Anyone for Hestercombe Gardens? Bus leaving shortly!”

Only 7 people boarded the bus and, after conferring with the Stationmaster, I prepared to leave. I had a quick word with the passengers after checking that they all had tickets. I also explained that the journey would be ‘leisurely’ as this elderly bus doesn’t go very fast. In fact, it didn’t go very fast when it was new either. They all seemed happy and sat back to enjoy the ride.

My first hazard was a modern ‘Tally Ho’ coach parked just ahead of me beside some parked cars. I edged through, watching the front nearside wing and my mirrors intently. Our route included a quick blast down the A358 past Cotford St Luke and then through the suburbs of Taunton before turning onto Cheddon Road. Soon we were out into the countryside again and the road became a lane. I’d seen ‘Pitchers Hill’ marked on the map and had wondered how steep it would turn out to be. Third gear? Second? First even? With the hill now in sight ahead of me and knowing I had a light load I decided to give it a go in third, changing down well before the hill to enable the Gardner 5LW to wind itself up to full revs. The gradient was short and sharp and our speed soon fell away. The passengers, especially the gentlemen I suspect, must have been thinking “change down man, change down!” But I have a knack of knowing if my bus will make it to the top or not and I stayed resolutely in third gear. It’s a little game I play with my passengers, especially if I have a Gardner lump beside me. These engines develop plenty of torque way down into the rev range. Sure enough, just when you could begin to count ‘1-2-3-4-5’ out loud (OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration), our speed began to pick up and I allowed myself a little grin.

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Exeter Corporation No 5 shakedown run #2

My second test run with the Exeter Corporation Maudslay bus took me much further afield than the first one and provided some very useful experiences.

FJ6154-interior

We’re currently only using the autovac’s gravity tank for fuel. This holds a couple of gallons of petrol which is sufficient for a short run such as this. We’re not planning to use the main tank until the weekend due to the tendency of modern petrol to go stale if not used. So, with the autovac (whose real purpose is to suck petrol up from the main tank using vacuum created in the engine’s intake manifold) topped up, we prepared to move the bus out of the shed. Unfortunately the removable trailer board, which contains auxilliary signalling lights and is fixed to the back of the bus for road runs, refused to work properly. This should have been rectified by the WHOTT electrician by Friday.

Climbing the steep track away from the farm, I tried a snatch change up to 2nd gear. It didn’t go well. The 4-cylinder Maudslay engine, even when cold, takes even longer to spool down than a Gardner 6LW so I need to adapt my technique some more.

Out in the quiet lanes I went up and down the gearbox, refining my changes. As in most things, practice makes perfect but this bus is so unique that perfection will take some time to achieve! I drove the bus on a big circular route which included some stiff gradients, which meant changing down to lower gears both to climb and descend. Unusually for the era, the Maudslay ML3 has drum brakes on all four wheels (rather than just the rear wheels) but even so, braking on downhill gradients still has to be assisted by engine braking. Additional braking assistance is also available via the parking brake which on this bus takes the form of a transmission brake, rather than operating the rear drum brakes as is usually the case. It’s really useful sometimes to supplement the footbrake with a partial application of the parking brake which is effectively a mechanical retarder.

Once or twice we started off with a bit of a lurch and some of my gearchanges were rather jerky. I’m still trying to improve my clutch technique! There were no mishaps and, apart from the troublesome auxilliary signalling lights I mentioned earlier, the bus performed as expected.

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Number 831 to Roughmoor Farm

They say that ‘Two’s company, three’s a crowd’ but I beg to differ. Sharing a wedding duty with two other colleagues brings with it much cameraderie and banter, not to mention practical assistance in tight spots.

YDL318-&-972EHW-at-Roughmoor-Farm

Last weekend’s duty called for two Lodekkas to transport a large group of wedding guests from a church near Taunton to a reception venue on the other side of town. It gave me the chance to meet up again with one of my former colleagues from ‘Exmoor Explorer’ days, Conductress Cherry Selby. Our pickup point was All Saints Church in the strangely named village of Trull, just outside Taunton and we arrived at the nearby Community Hall car park to find that there was a large section coned off for the wedding buses. How very organised!

White-wedding-car-SV9795-Trull

Two white vintage cars awaited the bridal party while the rest of the guests were grouped together beside the churchyard for photographs before boarding the buses. With Driver Wilkins leading in Bristol Omnibus LD6B LC8518 (972EHW), we drove in convoy across Taunton to Roughmoor Farm which is near the new Park & Ride site on Silk Mills Road. Both buses were almost full and the steering on Southern Vectis FS6G 573 (YDL318) was noticably heavy. Or maybe I’m still shaking off my winter lethargy…

972EHW-&-YDL318-at-Sainsburys

After our passengers had departed for the reception, we drove across town and parked up near a big Sainsburys store for 5 hours before returning to the farm. In the bright sunlight both buses looked splendid, having enjoyed the attentions of the cleaners back at the depot. 573 is still very presentable, despite being due for a repaint this year. The Bristol Omnibus Lodekka rarely gets an outing these days so we swapped buses and I drove it for the return journey.

While we waited, Driver Wilkins regaled us with scary tales of coach tours to Alpine ski resorts while Cherry and I reminisced about our adventures on the Service 400 ‘Exmoor Explorer’.

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Exeter Corporation No 5 shakedown run #1

Exeter Corporation No 5 (FJ6154) was already obsolete when Conductor Wooldridge climbed into its cab to take a driving lesson. The year was 1938 and within 12 months the bus would be withdrawn from service and sold to a local scrap merchant.

Conductor-Wooldridge-1938,-Driver-Dawkins-2015

We can only wonder what Conductor Wooldridge thought of the primitive controls in the cab. Fortunately I can tell you what they’re like because the bus survived its visit to the scrapyard and is still with us today, thanks to the efforts of Mr Arden (a local farmer), the late Colin Shears, York’s Coaches (Northampton) and the Westcountry Historic Omnibus & Transport Trust (WHOTT).

I mentioned in my last post that this 1929-built Maudslay ML3 bus is due to convey the Lord Mayor of Exeter to one of his final public engagements on Saturday May 2nd and, in preparation for this, we took the bus out for the first of two shakedown runs. She had not moved from the spot where I had parked her last September at the conclusion of her debut appearance at the WHOTT Rally at Westpoint. By the time I arrived on Tuesday last week the Maudslay’s battery had been charged. WHOTT’s chairman Robert Crawley prepared to start the engine by turning on the fuel supply tap beneath the autovac and setting the choke. This is done by pulling a rod which is sited underneath the radiator. After ‘tickling’ the carburretor to make sure the float chamber was full, he climbed into the tiny cab and turned the electric starter switch. Amazingly, the original 4-cylinder Maudslay petrol engine sprang into life after only a couple of revolutions. Nick, a WHOTT member who was to share the driving with me, closed the choke once the engine was running normally.

FJ6154-seized-clutch

The bus was gently eased out into the April sunshine and driven around the side of the storage shed. There was a pause in proceedings at this point because a van and two Devon General AEC Regents were partly blocking our exit. It was while we waited that the Maudslay’s clutch decided to seize. Although our exit was now clear the octogenarian No 5 couldn’t be moved because none of the gears could be engaged. There followed some strenuous efforts involving blocks of wood, a crowbar and a hydraulic jack.

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Vintage Bus Running Days in 2015

2015 looks like being a vintage year for bus running days, which seems to be the preferred format for what used to be the traditional ‘bus rally’. The chance to ride on buses that we remember from our youth is of course far more appealing than walking around them at a largely static display as in former years.

Looking through the pages of my Bus & Coach Preservation magazine (others are available from your local newsagent) I can see that there are events up and down the country virtually all through the year. Naturally I can attend only a handful of these because they are mostly on Sundays, when I’m normally busy in church. So, for your interest, here is a list of the few events (not just running days) that I plan to be at. Plus one or two in my local area which I’d love to attend, but can’t.

FJ6154-Westpoint-rally-1

Lord Mayor of Exeter ~ May 2
On Saturday May 2nd Councillor ‘Percy’ Prowse is due to attend the final public engagement of his year as Lord Mayor of Exeter. He has asked the Westcountry Historic Omnibus & Transport Trust (WHOTT) to provide a suitable vehicle for the occasion, specifically Exeter Corporation No 5 (FJ6154). This 1929 Maudslay ML3 was one of the first motor buses ordered by the Corporation to replace the trams which operated the city’s public transport. It was officially launched after restoration at last year’s WHOTT rally, with yours truly behind the wheel. I’m due to take the bus out for a proving run this week, prior to driving it from its base in mid-Devon down to Exeter under its own power.

Taunton-Running-Day

Taunton Bus Running Day ~ May 10
This is one event that I’m not able to attend, but am happy to list it here for westcountry folk who don’t yet know about it. Normally run under the auspices of Quantock Motor Services, the Taunton Bus Running Day will feature most of the Quantock Heritage fleet plus a good number of visiting vehicles (photo © Ken Jones). More details on this poster.

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Seeing double at Minehead, WSR

Yesterday saw me on duty with Southern Vectis 573 (Bristol FS6G YDL318) on a rare Crosville job that wasn’t a wedding. I joined forces with Driver Carpenter to provide free bus rides for passengers who had travelled on the West Somerset Railway (WSR).

2-Lodekkas-at-Minehead-WSR

Due to time constraints we drove our buses (the other was BOC LC8518, a 1959 LD6B) down to Minehead separately. I had no idea how long it would take to drive the 43-mile cross country route so I arrived early to prepare my bus. Being a Saturday, the Crosville depot was still quite full of green buses, some of them local service vehicles and some of them coaches.

YDL318-Elmore-Church

My rostered Lodekka was in a line-up of heritage buses and hadn’t moved since I parked it there the previous week after a long haul up a very wet M5 to Gloucester. This photo shows the bus at Elmore Church on that occasion.

Fortunately the journey down the A38 to Bridgwater and thence via the A39 to Minehead was trouble free and, after 1.5 hours, I arrived at the WSR’s northern terminus with 15 minutes to spare. Despite a fair bit of hill climbing to pass over The Quantocks, the Gardner 6LW-powered bus breezed along in 4th gear. It was very strange to be driving the very familiar section from Williton to Minehead. I had travelled that route many times on a Lodekka but always as a conductor! This goes back to my days working on the Service 400 ‘Exmoor Explorer’ for the erstwhile Quantock Motor Services.

The photo at the top of this post shows Driver Carpenter, ably assisted by Conductor Grant on the platform, passing my parked-up FS on one of the afternoon journeys. Not only can you see two green Bristol Lodekkas, you can also see two green ‘Hall’ class steam locomotives! Stabled on one of the Minehead shed roads are GWR 4-6-0s no 4936 ‘Kinlet Hall’ and no 6960 ‘Raveningham Hall’.

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