At 36 feet long, the Bristol RELL is not exactly tailor made for narrow, country lanes. In a perverse sort of way, I quite enjoyed having my bus driving skills put to the test in the lanes around Uffculme recently.
The last weekend in May 2016 was blessed with warm, summery weather. A modest collection of heritage buses sparkled in the sun as they loaded passengers in the car park of Coldharbour Mill Museum (hereinafter referred to as ‘The Mill’) in deepest Devon.
The Westcountry Historic Omnibus & Transport Trust (WHOTT) had chosen May 29th to put on a heritage bus running day as it coincided with one of the regular Steam Days held at the Mill. I had been invited to take part, but only if I brought a bus with me. I do actually own a few buses but they are 1:76 scale and sit on a shelf in my lounge! So, thanks to the generous boss of Crosville Motor Services, I brought a full sized bus.
Southern National 2700 (HDV626E) has featured quite often on this blog recently and it was my pleasure to be its custodian for the day on Crosville’s behalf. However, I was keenly aware that 2700 had only recently returned from Reliance Bus Works after having repairs done to some nearside panels. I needed to be sure that I didn’t put another dink in them! Full marks to the folks at Crosville – in the few days between me bringing 2700 back from Stoke-on-Trent and the WHOTT event, they had found the time to re-apply the nearside fleetname which meant that the RE was fully dressed for the occasion!
The first surprise of the day, as I arrived from Weston-super-Mare, was to be met by my own sister-in-law at the gates of the Langlands Industrial Estate (this is where buses were stabled until they were required for service). She is one of the Trustees at the Mill and was keen to check that things were being run efficiently and safely. Being the first bus-related event at the Mill, much feedback was gathered during the day which will be used to decide if another event should be held in the future.
Mrs Busman John and I had decided to make it a family day out so we were joined by several other members of our family, including our son Peter who has featured on these pages before as a conductor. He arrived in his 1967 Morris Minor (formerly mine) and was promptly invited to park alongside 2 Austin 7 vans in the vintage vehicle display area. He was rather chuffed!
Apart from the addition of heritage bus services, the Mill itself is a fascinating place to visit. Promoted as a ‘working wool museum’, Coldharbour Mill Museum is run by volunteers and features a vast collection of machinery associated with the spinning and weaving industry. The Mill has, at various times in its history, been powered by a water wheel, a Beam Engine and a Horizontal Engine – all of which are still present and in working order.
My first duty of the day was Service 2, Halberton Circular. Access to (as well as exit from) the Mill car park was strictly controlled by WHOTT marshals who were in radio contact with each other. This was due to the narrow access road and it was easy to imagine the chaos that would have ensued if visitors’ and residents’ cars tried to mingle with inbound and outbound buses! The photo at the top of this post shows me arriving at the Mill after a later trip. The 36′ length of the RE played a part in this trip in that we came to an acutely angled junction in Halberton which was just too tight to manage. Even the driver of a shorter Bristol L6A, which operated the same route later in the day, struggled with the limited clearance. In our case, we had to continue through the village to turn at another junction before returning to rejoin our route.
Only a handful of other buses attended, mostly due to the limited space available. Apart from the Bristol RE, the other participants were: Bere Regis & District coach (1983 Bristol LHS6L CLJ 413Y), Western National 3307 (1979 Bristol LH6L AFJ727T) and the pioneer Exeter minibus (1983 Ford Transit D160 A927 MDV). These three vehicles belong to the WHOTT collection and were supplemented by five others: Wigan Corporation 81 (1932 Leyland Tiger TS4 EK8867), Devon General DL640 (1951 Leyland PD2 MTT640), London Transport RTL1163 (1951 Leyland Titan LYF104) and Crosville KB73/Thames Valley S302 (1946 Bristol L6A GFM882). The Devon General PD2 has only just returned to working condition, having received a donor O.600 engine from the remains of a vehicle that had lain untouched at Winkleigh for 35 years!
My next trip was less of a challenge than the first one. The Cullompton Circular used wider roads and included a section through Cullompton town centre. The trademark throaty roar from the RE reverberated quite satisfyingly as we climbed the gradient through the narrowest part of the High Street.
After lunch and a chance to catch up with several old friends, I returned to the Mill to run Service 4 to Hemyock. There was a large crowd already waiting and, by the time we left, we had virtually a full load. The route description provided by WHOTT (and my own map research) showed that there were many narrow, twisty sections and these really tested my judgement and spatial awareness skills. We had to squeeze into passing places several times or wait on a wider part of the road until oncoming traffic had passed. I had originally planned to bring Crosville KG118 (1950 Bristol L5G KFM893) but this was undergoing repairs. Progress would have been a bit easier with a shorter, narrower bus! As you can imagine, I breathed a huge sigh of relief when we arrived back at the Mill unscathed.
Visitors were beginning to drift away by then, as were some of the buses so I bade my farewells and took the RE on its 40-mile return journey to Weston. I certainly enjoyed the day but the jury is still out on whether the joint venture will be repeated in the future.
WHOTT has another running day which promises to be a much larger affair. This takes place on Sunday August 14th and will be based at the Top ‘O Town car park in Dorchester. The format will be similar to the event held there for the first time last year.
Bristol RE arriving at Coldharbour Mill – Paul Carpenter