My final private hire duty of 2015 for Crosville Motor Services turned out to be a very unusual one; a 60th birthday mystery tour. Even the driver didn’t know the destination!
All I knew was that Southern Vectis 573 (Bristol FS6G YDL318) had been booked for an all-day mystery tour. From the brief details I had been given it looked like a loosely-planned pub crawl. And that is how it turned out. I usually like to know precisely where I am going with a heritage bus so that I can check out the route, parking facilities and turning spaces. This time, even after a phone call the previous week and a conversation with the organiser at the depot on the day, we decided to more or less make it up as we went along. Fortunately, I knew that all the places we discussed as potential stopping points were accessible.
The occasion was the 60th birthday of a lady who lived in Weston-super-Mare. Her husband had booked the bus and had arranged for a group of family and friends to turn up but he hadn’t told his wife! With the interior of the bus decorated with balloons and banners (and of course with ’60’ on the destination blinds) I drove the short distance from the depot to a pub just up the road from the couple’s house. I used a circuitous route so that I didn’t drive past the house on the way! A group of about 40 people plus a very nervous husband boarded the bus and we stopped outside the birthday girl’s front door. The look on her face as she opened the door was priceless! I was reminded of the time when I had done something very similar for my Mum’s 80th birthday. Neither she nor my Dad knew we were all turning up in a Hants & Dorset bus!
Back to the birthday bash. Our first stop was to be in the village of Axbridge, near Cheddar. Sadly, shortly after leaving Weston, a medical drama threatened to scupper the entire day. An 87-year-old gentleman was taken seriously ill. He had become unresponsive and sat slumped against his wife in the lower saloon. The bell dinged several times and someone hammered on the glass behind me. I stopped the bus in a layby and jumped down from the cab. No sooner had I stepped up onto the platform, the man who’d booked the bus (it was his father who had fallen ill) had dialled 999 and a group of concerned relatives had gathered around the poor old chap. It would normally be the bus driver who takes charge and administers first aid but, after checking that they were doing fine, I opened the rear emergency exit so that the ambulance crew could extract the patient more easily.
I half expected the day’s excursion to be cut short but no, everyone decided to go ahead as planned. The village square in Axbridge was buzzing with activity as we crept along between the overhanging Tudor buildings. The local farmer’s market was in town and the stall-holders looked up with glee when they saw 40 people getting off the bus. I spoke to a man at the nearest stall who looked crestfallen when I told him that my passengers were visiting the pub and not the market! Every village has a busybody and Axbridge is no exception. A smartly dressed lady marched up to me and said “You can’t park your bus there!” Evidently the fact that the engine was still running, the lights were still on and I was stood near the cab looking at a map on my phone seemed to escape her. We had a short conversation and she told me that she was one of the Parish Councillors and proved to be the opposite of a busybody, helpfully showing me where I could easily park for as long as I wanted. Having an hour to spare I decided to have my lunch.
The next stop was Cheddar, spiritual home of Cheddar Cheese. The group was unsure which pub(s) they wanted to visit for lunch so I stopped the bus on the main street and let them alight there. While I waited for them all to leave, an on-street parking space became available behind the bus so I reversed into it. It could have been tricky finding somewhere to park, having not had the chance to research the route as I normally would. That, together with the earlier medical drama, was the most unsettling part of the day. I could almost hear my PCV driving instructor whispering in my ear “always have a Plan B”. Today, dear instructor, I barely have a Plan A!
It was unseasonably mild that day so I sat on a bench on the grass verge, watching the passers-by watching me (or, more likely, the bus). An hour and a half later my passengers returned, some more merry than others. I have to say that they gave me no trouble at all, despite all the pub stops. Most were of ‘a certain age’ and were probably not binge drinkers! As the organiser climbed aboard to do a head count, he said “OK Drive, Wells please!” Anyone with a broad Somerset or Bristolian accent is obliged to call a bus driver ‘Drive’. Apparently.
Again, not getting anything more specific than “Wells please” I offered to drop the party at the bus station, which is pretty much in the centre of the city anyway. This met with approval so we left Cheddar and did battle with the narrowest part of the route which took us along the A371 through the villages of Draycott, Rodney Stoke and Westbury-sub-Mendip. I had driven this route several times with Lodekkas so was not unduly worried. Besides which, this particular FS is a delight to drive, having a very cooperative gearbox.
I drove into one of several coach parking bays at the bus station and the birthday party continued in several more nearby hostelries. As I waited, darkness fell. Despite knowing the route back to Weston very well, I still didn’t relish doing it in the dark. The photo at the top of this page was taken as I waited for the last few people to board. The quality isn’t great, I admit. My phone’s camera doesn’t cope with low light conditions very well.
There was to be one more pub stop on the way back, the Woodborough Inn at Winscombe. I had looked it up on my phone’s map app while at Wells and was pleased to see that I didn’t have to take the bus under the railway bridge in the village. Especially as there’s a height restriction of only 13′ 3″! A Lodekka needs at least 13′ 8″ to pass through unscathed, for your information.
In a last minute change of plan, we decided not to stop in Winscombe after all but to stop at the Thatchers Cider pub in Sandford instead. This is located next to the Thatchers Cider factory alongside the main road. You can’t miss it, even with your eyes closed. The yeasty smell of fermenting apples always pervades the air whenever I pass through! At this point I want to reassure potential customers that I always keep my eyes open when driving. My earlier comment was rhetorical! Again, I wasn’t sure whether there would be room to park the bus so I stopped on the main road opposite the pub and followed the passengers as they weaved their merry way towards the newly refurbished pub. There was a large – mostly empty – car park alongside the building so that’s where I parked the bus. As I sat in the darkness a little while later, a lone figure approached purposefully. It was the group organiser, the birthday girl’s husband. “Don’t sit there on your own, Drive, come and join us for a drink!” By now it was about 18:30 and I was getting keen to be back at the depot but I couldn’t refuse such a kind offer. It was just as I stood chatting, Diet Coke* in hand, that my driver’s cap was spirited away into the crowd. A voice shouted “I’ll let you have it back later!” so I decided it was probably in safe hands for now.
At 19:00 I called ‘time’ and went out to bring the bus nearer to the pub entrance. Birthday girl’s husband was standing by the platform wearing my cap as he ushered everyone aboard. He dinged the bell and we set off for Weston. I stopped the bus outside the pub where everyone had met up earlier, climbed down from the cab and went to say cheerio to everyone as they departed. My cap was thrust into my hand with a cheery “Here you are Drive, this is for you. We’ve had a whip-round!” The cap was full of loose change, even some notes too. I was very grateful and there was much slapping of backs and handshakes all round. They may have been a bit tipsy but it seemed they were very grateful for the way I had patiently driven them around Somerset on their mystery pub crawl!
*Other brands of Cola drink are available!