My latest duty for Crosville Motor Services involved another trip to Minehead in support of the West Somerset Railway. It was an action-packed day which included a surprise appearance by a bus I have been itching to sample for ages.
Rising at silly-o’clock-in-the-morning for an early drive up from Torbay, I booked on at 08:00 at the Crosville depot in Weston-super-Mare. The previous weekend I had done the same duty so the early start was slightly easier to cope with. On the first occasion I led a convoy of three heritage vehicles, a closed top Bristol Lodekka, an open top Lodekka and an open top Bristol VRT. The reason being that, by common concensus, I knew the route to Minehead better having done it twice before already. One of these, ex-Bristol Omnibus 1959 LD6B LC8518 (972EHW), was left in the First bus depot in Minehead as it was required on both weekends. The duty, as previously, involved providing free bus rides for those attending the special event at the West Somerset Railway (WSR) which, on these two weekends, was a ‘Days Out with Thomas’ event.
Owing to the fact that my rostered bus was already in Minehead, I travelled as a passenger on ex-Crosville KG131, a 1950 Bristol L5G (KFM893), with my friend Dave Moore at the wheel. It was unusual for me to be riding in the passenger saloon and I was surprised at how quiet it was, compared to the racket that I’m used to hearing in the cab! Admittedly it’s a very agreeable racket.
The action kicked off at about 10:20 but, until the first train arrived from Bishops Lydeard with more passengers, takers for the free bus rides were few. Conductor Kemble and I were in charge of the closed top Lodekka and we clocked up a grand total of 3 trips in the morning. As predicted, the open top Lodekka, 1961 ex-Crosville DFG81 (FSF6G 891VFM) was the most popular with people eventually queueing up to board before it had even arrived back from its previous trip.
Our 15-minute route was the same as before – a short jaunt up the main street and then along the seafront to Butlins and back – just long enough to give people a few good views and of course a decent ride on a vintage bus!
On one trip my progress towards the seafront was halted as a Really Useful Engine passed by, none other than Thomas the Tank Engine himself.
All through the day there were various ‘Thomas’-related activities going on around the station. Not only the usual magician and face-painting, but also some more elaborate staged entertainment on the railway itself. Proceedings were being loudly coordinated by the Fat Controller (sorry, no political correctness on Busman’s Holiday), Sir Topham Hatt. All sorts of mayhem was being created on the far side of the station by a small saddle tank steam loco and a rake of Troublesome Trucks.
Right beside our pickup/drop off point is Minehead’s turntable across which Mrs Kindley had unwisely strung her washing line, complete with a colourful collection of clothes. As a diesel shunter approached much shouting ensued as the Fat Controller and a platform full of children tried to prevent the shunter from running through the washing. All to no avail of course and Mrs Kindley and the loco crew had to retrieve the aforementioned washing from among various buffers and drawgear.
It became a standing joke among the bus crews during the day as we repeatedly heard the booming voice of Sir Topham Hatt coming over the station tannoy. “Oh no, boys and girls, Mrs Kindley has left her washing on the turntable!” to which a reply was shouted back from the bus stand “Not again! That’s the fourth time today – will she ever learn?!” This was normally followed by a piece of carefully crafted pantomime involving the turntable, the diesel shunter and a lot of pushing and shoving. Again, much shouting was heard from the tannoy. “Push harder! No, the other way! Slow down! Stop, you’ve gone too far!” Great entertainment for the kiddies but at times a bit repetitive for the bus crews!
Lunchtime came and my conductor and I were the first to take a break. As we sat in the nearby Bramble Tea Rooms a red London bus turned up unexpectedly. We peered out of the window and I recognised the numberplate on the London Transport RTW, KGK529. This belongs to the Crosville MD and is his pride and joy, being kept in immaculate condition and only appearing on high days and holidays.
After lunch we took over the running of the open top Lodekka, which was still as popular as ever, while its crew took their lunch break. On returning from one of these trips our MD stepped up to the cab window and said “I’ve brought the RTW down for you to have a play”. I was gobsmacked. “Really? Can I drive her?” Apparently he had planned this as a surprise for some time and, knowing that I hadn’t yet driven a pre-select bus, had arranged for Dave Moore (himself a London man and familiar with RT types) to show me the ropes. We left the open topper with its regular crew and consigned the closed top Lodekka to a corner of the car park. Dave gave me a whistle-stop guided tour of the RTW’s cab, along with a brief introduction to the pre-select controls. This transmission system is new to me, although I did once shunt a pre-select bus in the Quantock yard years ago. I did of course know the theory and have purposely read various descriptions of the technique in the hope that one day I would have the chance to drive one for real.
With Dave in the cab and me watching from behind in the lower saloon, we took a short trip along the seafront and back to the station so that I could observe and make mental notes. As we parked up behind the other buses, I was amused to see the faces of the waiting passengers. “Ooh look, a London bus – let’s have a ride!” So of course folk were piling on within seconds. And then it was my turn to drive, with no opportunity for a dry run.
All too soon the conductor gave me two bells and we were off. With my powers of concentration at 100% I pulled the pre-select lever into 2nd and pressed the gearchange pedal. There was a soft jerk and the already slow-idling engine seemed to almost stop as drive was engaged. But this is a bus in fine fettle and there was no hint of hesitation or hunting from the Leyland O.600 engine. Brakes off and a hint of throttle and we edged away from the stop, ambling through the station car park and the suburbs of Minehead beyond. To my relief I didn’t make any mistakes as I took my momentous first drive in a pre-select London RTW bus. I sincerely hope that none of the passengers realised that their driver was a rookie!
All went smoothly and I was beginning to enjoy the experience of driving a genuine London bus, a treat that has taken many years to come my way! I spent the rest of the afternoon with RTW29 and even carried some of the WSR staff, who were very interested to see the bus in action. Conductor Kemble took a break from the platform (which was of course occupied by one of several conductors riding on the bus) and captured this image of me looking reasonably relaxed on one of my first trips. If I get the chance to drive it again I may write a more detailed post about what it’s like to drive.
By about 4 o’clock the crowds had begun to wander away and we began to plan our homeward journeys. The driver of the open top FSF was suffering with a bad back so, after parking the closed top LD in the First bus depot again in readiness for the next day, I walked back to the station to prepare for the journey back to W-S-M. Busman banter never stops and I was greeted by “Hello John, haven’t you forgotten something? It’s big and green with four wheels!” I came back with a surprisingly (for me) witty reply: “Oh yes, I was wondering why it was taking me so long to get back to the station!”
Driver Moore had the pleasure of bringing the RTW home so, with Conductor Grant on board I set off with the cream open top Lodekka, quickly getting into manual gearbox mode. As I’ve described in a previous post, this FSF is in very good order and it was a pleasure to take it along the A39 over the Quantock Hills to Bridgwater and back to its home depot.
It had been a very enjoyable day. There’s something very special about sharing it with like-minded bus crews. Their company, along with that of former colleagues from my Quantock days, brought an element of cameraderie that’s sadly missing from wedding bus duties which are often carried out solo. Of course the highlight was the surprise appearance of the RTW and the chance to get behind its wheel. I’m grateful to its owner for entrusting it to me for the afternoon!
Sir Topham Hatt and Mrs Kindley – Richard Kemble
Busman John and RTW29 – Richard Kemble