Sunday August 16th was the date of the Westcountry Historic Omnibus & Transport Trust (WHOTT) Running Day. Set in the ancient market town of Dorchester, this new format proved to be much more successful than the traditional static bus rallies of previous years.
Although I’d had the date in my diary for some time, no particular task had been assigned to me so I was pretty much free to help out on the day whenever the need arose. As it turned out, I ended up with a couple of very interesting driving turns.
The venue was the Top o’ Town car park in Dorchester, chosen because the erstwhile Dorset bus and coach operator Bere Regis Motor Services once had its offices on the site. The day also saw the launch of a new book by Stuart Shelton, a comprehensive fleet history documenting every vehicle that Bere Regis ever owned. The book runs to 96 pages and I had the privilege of preparing the artwork for this WHOTT publication. This complements a similar book on the history of the company by Andrew Waller.
My first task was to help move some vehicles which had been stabled overnight in the Damory yard just round the corner from the event venue. I elected to drive Bristol LHS coach CLJ413Y, which is the sole surviving ex-Bere Regis coach still wearing its original livery. It also happens to be the very last LH chassis built by Bristol Commercial Vehicles. As some of you might know, the Bristol LH is not my favourite vehicle of all time but I was happy to drive this particularly historic coach the short distance to the static display area.
I pottered about after that, watching other vehicles arriving and society stalls being laid out. Of particular interest was a scale model of a Harrington-bodied Commer Avenger coach. This had for many years been on display above the doorway of the old Bere Regis offices that used to stand just a few yards away. In the static display area was an immaculate pair of Bedford OBs in the livery of Lewis Coaches, as seen in the photo at the top of this post.
At one point I was inside the WHOTT control vehicle, an ex-City of Exeter 1969 Leyland Panther bus. My friend, fellow Crosville driver and blog reader Paul Carpenter had turned up and we were deep in conversation about his days as a driver for Bere Regis. Suddenly someone shouted “Can anyone here drive a Bristol VR?”. When nobody answered I piped up and replied “Yes, I can. Who wants to know?”
So I found myself in charge of WHOTT’s own Bristol VRT for the rest of the morning, Western National 937 (VDV137S). This is one of several survivors of a batch of convertible VRTs that originally ran under Devon General fleetnames. I ran a couple of circuits around Poundbury, the suburb of Dorchester that has recently been developed in conjunction with the Duchy of Cornwall. But before I could set off the organisers had to find me a conductor and a pilotman as I didn’t know my way around the town sufficiently well. The bus was well loaded on both trips and the suspension groaned beneath me as we negotiated the many speed bumps around Poundbury.
My final trip with 937 was a journey out to Cerne Abbas, to view the famously well endowed Giant. This kept me on my toes as much of the route was quite narrow. For all of these trips my conductor was Robert Hawken, one of my blog readers and a staunch supporter of many westcountry bus events.
Our journey to Cerne Abbas was one of several free services being operated that day from the Top ‘o’ Town car park, most of which ran to villages with delightfully double-barrelled names. These included Compton Valence, Litton Cheney, Maiden Newton, Winterbourne Whitechurch, Milton Abbas and Bere Regis, plus other singularly named places such as Piddletrenthide, Puddletown, Charminster, Martinstown, Bovington and Poundbury.
After lunch I decided to take a couple of rides as I was no longer required to drive. My first was on board a coach that I’ve seen several times on private hire duties in Torbay, Albion FT39/Duple, LOD495 in the livery of Carmel Coaches. Expertly driven by its owner Tony Hazell, we trundled around the Poundbury circuit.
Also present was Southern Vectis 570, a 1962 Bristol FS6G (YDL315). Owned since withdrawal by SV by Derek Priddle, it was being driven by Nigel Harris who is an active member of the Isle of Wight Bus Museum. I was curious to see how this bus compared with the FS which I often drive for Crosville, sister vehicle 573 (YDL318). As you would expect, they are very similar but 570 is probably in slightly better condition visually. It has retained its cream window rubbers and correct numberplate layout, which Crosville’s 573 is lacking.
Loading up as we arrived back was a very familiar bus, Devon General AEC Regent V CTT518C. This was the very bus that I had watched as a small boy in Salisbury as it passed by on its delivery journey to Exmouth depot in April 1965. There was no debate about it in my mind, I just had to have a ride on it!
These days it is owned by Terry Bennett and we journeyed out to the Parish church at Frampton. I, of course, sat downstairs to enjoy the melodious sounds of the AEC engine and gearbox. There was about 5 minutes layover time allowed at journey’s end so most of the occupants, including the driver, alighted to take photos. I got talking to Terry and mentioned that I’d seen his bus being delivered and remembered riding on it when it was in service in Exmouth. I also happened to mention that I drive heritage buses (oops, how did that slip out…?) and he invited me to drive the bus when we got back to Dorchester. Happy me!
It so happened that Terry was due to run the Poundbury circuit next, but didn’t know the route. So I offered to drive round as I had done two circuits already. I was momentarily all of a tremble as I edged out of the car park, sitting behind the wheel of the Regent. I almost couldn’t believe that about 50 years ago I had been sitting on one of the seats behind me in the saloon! Terry had warned me before I climbed into the cab that the synchromesh was virtually non-existent. “So you have to drive it like a crash box, then?” I replied. Terry confirmed this, which of course was no problem for me as I was right at home with a crash box!
I thoroughly enjoyed my short journey in the Regent and was pleased to be able to drive it reasonably well. One thing I noted was that the AV470 engine seemed much more sprightly than the Leyland O.600 in my usual Sightseeing Tours bus. I would love to drive it around our route in Torquay and Paignton! CTT518C did of course do exactly that in service, as it was allocated to Torquay and Newton Abbot several times when it was with Devon General.
I offered profuse thanks to Terry for allowing me to drive his bus. By now many of the visiting buses were beginning to drift away and the day’s activities were drawing to a close.
A final, very pleasing sight was to see my friend Paul Carpenter at the wheel of the Bere Regis LHS coach. He had introduced himself to the WHOTT trustees and they had pressed him into service straight away, giving him the chance to renew his acquaintance with the LHS on a Poundbury circuit. I just had to join him for that as a passenger!
For the journey back to Exeter I joined a few other WHOTT members aboard ‘Little Willie’, the Ford Transit 16-seater which began the minibus revolution in Exeter under Harry Blundred. However historic it might be, I still prefer a ‘proper’ bus!
I want to apologise to regular readers for the late arrival of this post. Summertime with Busman John has been extremely busy, almost frantic. Now that the Sightseeing Tours season is coming to a close, I plan to write several shorter posts to bring you up to date.
Bristol VRT leaving car park – Paul Carpenter
Bristol VRT at Cerne Abbas – Robert Hawken