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.
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.
Not long after that we arrived at the entrance to Hestercombe and its long driveway. I let the passengers know when to be back at the bus and they disappeared into the grounds. Meanwhile I parked the bus, took a deep breath and had a cup of coffee.
The sun was bathing everything in its warmth and I was looking forward to spending three and a half hours exploring Hestercombe. As I approached the reception desk a lady started writing on a slip of paper. “You’ll be wanting one of these, I expect,” she said to me. I looked down and saw the heading ‘Coach Driver’s Lunch Voucher’ on the paper. I was tempted to say “Well yes, but how did you know?” but thought better of it as I was dressed in full busman’s uniform! She also handed me a map and a visitor’s sticker and let me in for free. Nice!
First on the agenda was to redeem that lunch voucher so I partook of a very nice bowl of Tomato and Tarragon Soup with Crusty Rolls. I spent the rest of the afternoon roaming around the extensive grounds. I found a restored water mill but, although all the machinery was in place, nobody was there to operate it so I just had to imagine the dust and din. Later, while admiring the formal gardens, I spent a while sitting on a ‘Lutyens Bench’. Apparently the gardens at Hestercombe were the sole ‘gardens only’ project that Edwin Lutyens undertook. I didn’t explore the house, preferring to follow the mill stream up the valley to the furthest point of the estate. I can thoroughly recommend Hestercombe – it’s a wonderful place to spend a day and I intend to return in the summer with Mrs Busman John in tow.
At the agreed time my passengers returned, sharing the highlights of their visit, and we set off for the station. I had allowed plenty of time in case of late afternoon traffic delays but there were none and my passengers were duly delivered to the station at Bishops Lydeard with 20 minutes in hand. All were very appreciative of the ride and some were kind enough to compliment me on my driving. All that remained was for me to bring the empty bus back to the Crosville depot, finish up my paperwork and drive back down the M5 (which I’m getting to know VERY well) towards home and dinner. And of course, Mrs Busman John.
So tomorrow begins another adventure. Accompanied for part of the way by Mike the Camerman, I will be driving Exeter Corporation No 5 down to Exeter ahead of its appointment with the Lord Mayor of that fair city. Our progress will be even more leisurely than the one described above, mostly because the bus doesn’t do much more than 20mph. When the weekend is over and I’ve recovered from the trauma, I intend to write a 3-part blog post to share this particular adventure with you. Wish me luck!