We’re just coming to the end of our first three weeks on the sightseeing bus and the popularity of our tours has been, rather like the weather of late, mixed. But there have been some highlights, such as the one pictured below.
This was a couple of days ago when the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines kindly turned up to provide some musical entertainment while I collected the fares. I jest, of course. They were leading a parade of Royal Navy personnel, the crew of HMS Torbay. I’m quite a fan of military band music, especially the Royal Marines, so this was a rather exciting addition to our morning. The relaxed pace of their marching music brought me back to my youth when I was a member of a Boys’ Brigade marching band. For a number of years we had an instructor who was also a member of the Royal Marines band, based at Lympstone on the banks of the River Exe. He insisted that we march at the same pace as the Marines band! Compared to other regimental bands (and indeed most other civilian bands) their marching tempo was marginally slower and hearing the band this week brought back some marching memories!
We went on to include HMS Torbay in our commentary that day. It went a bit like this: “We have HMS Torbay visiting us today, folks. But don’t bother looking across the bay to see her, HMS Torbay is a submarine!”
As I mentioned, the weather has been mixed and this affects the popularity of English Riviera Sightseeing Tours. After all, who wants to sit on a wet seat for an hour and a half? We’ve had a few days like this and sometimes we’ve had to admit defeat and park the bus up. We need eight people on board to make a tour viable and on a few occasions our tour guide, whose job it is to sell each tour to passers by, had to take shelter on the platform and shout from there. Unfortunately there were very few people at the harbourside to shout at!
Having performed faultlessly in Exeter the previous day, Exeter Corporation No 5 gathered up her skirts and headed back to mid Devon, ‘Empty to Depot’.
Only two of us turned up in the morning of Day Three, one to drive the escort car and one to drive the bus. The only other witnesses to our departure from Exeter were some Sunday morning drivers and some bemused pedestrians. Once again I had dressed in my winter uniform. Yes, I know we were not carrying passengers this time but I just can’t bring myself drive a vintage bus in ‘mufti’.
With the Autovac problem still with us we topped up the small reserve tank, did a thorough walkaround check (which included setting the destination blind to ‘Depot’) and set off for the countryside. As you would expect, the city traffic was much lighter than on our outward journey the previous Friday and we made good progress out of the city. As I sat in the cramped cab listening to the wonderful two-tone whine from the gearbox, I silently bade farewell to the city on Maud’s behalf, wondering how long it would be before she returned. Hopefully sooner than 76 years!
Once out of the city we began the gentle climb up the River Exe valley towards Tiverton. The 86-year-old stalwart forged on without missing a beat and soon we pulled over in Stoke Canon where we’d planned to stop and top up the fuel again.
The only real pinch points on our route were the two narrow river bridges at Stoke Canon and Bickleigh. These are particularly tricky to negotiate when the bus has no nearside mirror. I was keenly aware of the stone parapets which, had we scraped them, would have spoiled Maud’s gorgeous paint job somewhat. Not wanting to risk any narrow squeaks, I held back and allowed traffic to pass on the wider parts of each bridge.
Back on the open road, I let the Maudslay gather speed when gradients and visibility allowed. Braking performance is adequate but nowhere near as effective as on a modern vehicle so I needed to plan for greater braking distances than normally, in case we met a hazard on a bend. After a particularly free-running stretch (I was told later that the bus had managed 35mph) we stopped on the side of the road to let a queue of traffic pass by. The engine was quite hot after that burst of speed and the radiator began to boil over with no breeze passing through it. Although my right foot had not yet been on the floor, I made a mental note to ease off the throttle and not push the bus quite so hard!
Another stop was made at the Esso filling station in Tiverton for a final top-up. We also took the opportunity to refill the radiator as there were several stiff climbs ahead of us. Once we had left the town, our progress was more leisurely. Not just because we were travelling along country roads but also because I was keen not to overheat the engine again. Despite my intention, she did boil again briefly but only as a result of climbing one of the aforementioned hills. At one point I had to go down to second gear and the decrease in forward speed turned the radiator into a kettle again.
Saturday May 2nd 2015 will always be a landmark day in the life of Exeter Corporation No 5. However, on the day the bus was due to meet the Lord Mayor of Exeter, the weather refused to play ball.
Mrs Busman John and I arrived at the Exeter City Council depot early in the morning to help prepare the Maudslay ML3 for her big day. Our Chairman had arrived even earlier and we found that everything had already been checked and all I needed to do was to climb into the tiny cab (good job I have short legs…) and start her up.
Soon we were out on the city streets again, making our way into the city centre for our rendezvous with the Lord Mayor. This time there was no escort car so the Maudslay had to fight its own battles in the busy city traffic. Again, I was glad to have had the chance to get to know the bus really well on the journey down to Exeter the previous day as this allowed me to focus on navigating my route to the coach station. I chose the wrong lane once at a busy junction but, in my defence, I’m sure the road markings are misleading!
The weather was atrocious and our arrival at the coach station – surely its most elderly visitor yet – was made in very grey and dismal conditions. We had allowed for all sorts of delays but fortunately there were none so we arrived with plenty of time to spare. I parked the bus near the exit onto Paris Street and we waited in the dry interior while the rain dribbled down the windows from the canvas covered roof. It has not been re-covered so is the original but it has been thoroughly waterproofed.
Exeter Corporation No 5 was given her stiffest test yet last Friday – a 27 mile journey under her own power back to her old home – and she passed with just a couple of ‘advisories’.
The 1929-built single deck bus had been especially requested by the retiring Lord Mayor of Exeter, Councillor ‘Percy’ Prowse, to convey him to Exeter’s historic Guildhall. A journey not to be taken lightly, it was nevertheless the most cost effective way of getting her into position for her appointment. For me as her official driver, it was also the most rewarding way!
Hours of work and plenty of planning had been carried out by the volunteers at WHOTT in order to prepare ‘Maud’ for her momentous return to Exeter. With brakes adjusted, batteries charged and Autovac topped up with petrol, the historic Maudslay ML3 was ready for the journey. I’m not sure that I was, though. Despite having eagerly anticipated the run for ages, it still posed a huge challenge for me as a driver and I was feeling the pressure. The bus is owned by a billionaire businessman and is regarded in heritage transport circles as a national treasure. And today it fell to little old me to get her unscathed from mid Devon to Exeter. Not only that, but I had an audience too. The Chairman of WHOTT, a photographer and a video cameraman were to accompany me in their cars. Scary stuff!
The slow-revving Maudslay petrol engine sprang into life, if a little reluctantly. There are still some ignition timing issues to sort out. With auxilliary lights checked we were off, with one car ahead of me acting as an escort and two others following. I was so glad to have had the opportunity to have some practice runs under my belt as this allowed me to concentrate on driving safely, rather than having to cope with the specific challenges of driving this unique vehicle. As we trundled down the lanes and under fresh, leafy canopies, the only peculiarity that was ever-present was the lack of a nearside rear view mirror. The bus wasn’t built with one and, in the pursuit of authenticity, still doesn’t have one. Frequent glances at the front nearside wing and over my left shoulder were the only way to safely judge my distance from the verge and other hazards.
On the rural route to Tiverton there are several steep hills which demanded confident changes into lower gears, both to climb and descend. Thanks to my earlier practice, these were successful. Good job too, otherwise the bus would have either ground to a halt during the climb or risked running away out of control downhill. We stopped a couple of times to top up the Autovac’s reserve tank until we reached the nearest filling station. Soon we reached the wider streets of Tiverton and the fuelling stop. The Maudslay looked very incongrous among the modern vehicles, especially when a Dartline service bus pulled in at the same time! Now that we had a chance to fill the main fuel tank, we shouldn’t have to worry about fuel levels in the small gravity tank. All that remained was for us to check occasionally to make sure that fuel was being drawn up into the Autovac to replenish that used by the engine.