A visit to Eastern Coach Works, Lowestoft

I’ve done a couple of delivery jobs for Crosville Motor Services recently and one of them took me to the Far East (of England). To Lowestoft, in fact.

Regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of any vehicle built by Bristol Commercial Vehicles. Due mostly to Government ownership, the majority of these were bodied by Eastern Coach Works and it was to the coastal town of Lowestoft, where the ECW factory was located, that each newly-built chassis had to be taken years ago.

site-of-eastern-coach-works

Crosville has sold a Volvo B10M coach to a new owner who lives near Lowestoft and I was asked to drive the coach there from Weston-super-Mare. I knew that the 280-mile journey would take most of the day so I arranged to stay the night in Lowestoft and return the next day by train.

VanHool-bodied K7CJT has carried the number CRZ9825 while in service with Crosville but, by the time I arrived to take it to its new home, it had regained its original mark. The workshop staff had given it a once over the previous day and, not having driven this vehicle before, I spent some time checking it over before venturing out onto the road. Locating the side and headlight switch seemed to take me the longest time and I tried a good number of the rocking switches on the dash before finding the correct (rotary) switch near the steering column. That’s what happens when all the switch labels have worn off after years of use! A colleague at the depot, who is keen on the heritage side of the business, came over to see where I was going and asked me if I was going anywhere near the site of the ECW factory. I said I didn’t know where it was, not having time to research it the day before when planning my route. Lowestoft is quite a big town and I thought it would be unlikely that I’d be passing the site, even if I knew where it had been.

k7cjt-at-south-mimms

My route would take me up to the M4 then around London on the M25 before heading through Essex on the dreaded A12. I used that route often when Mrs Busman John and I visited our eldest son when he was at Colchester University and it has a reputation for traffic jams! The first part of the journey was marred by the coach giving me a very harsh ride. For some reason the front of the vehicle seemed to bounce around a lot more than I was expecting. Passing over bumps or bits of rough roadway sent vibrations right through the driver’s seat and made everything rattle. It eventually occurred to me that the air suspension must have been set wrong. I scanned the dash momentarily, searching for anything that looked like the ride height controls but none of the switches in front of me seemed likely. Realising that this couldn’t be resolved while driving, I pulled into the next service area. Peering at the worn markings on the rocking switches I found one with faintly visible up and down arrows. Aha! I then realised that I had caused this situation myself by flicking switches back at the depot while trying to find the headlight switch. I had inadvertently pressed the ride height switch and left it there, allowing the air suspension to pump itself up to maximum and there it stayed! Reducing the ride height, there was an audible hiss as the poor old coach breathed a sigh of relief and the suspension regained its normal position. From there on the ride was as smooth as silk in comparison!

After taking a lunch break at South Mimms, I contacted the new owner to let him know my progress. By now I had got to grips with the manual gearbox. The coach has a six-speed ‘box but, as per usual with vehicles of this age, using the stick is a bit like stirring porridge! Leaving the M25 and joining the A12 dual carriageway all seemed well until a few miles south of Chelmsford. I groaned audibly as miles and miles of tail-lights stretched out ahead of me. We made painfully slow progress and it wasn’t until we’d passed Colchester that speeds rose to normal levels. By this time it was obvious that I wasn’t going to make it to Lowestoft at the time I’d arranged. I was due to leave the coach at a garage so that it could be given an MOT test the next morning but, fearing that the garage might close before I got there, I texted the new owner and he gave me a new destination – his own business address.

By the time I got to Lowestoft it was dark. And it was raining. And I was tired. Any thoughts of ECW were put out of my mind as I followed my satnav for the last few miles to the new destination. Yes, dear reader, modern technology has its benefits and I’m not afraid to use a satnav if I really have to!

Finally, about an hour later than planned, I drew up beside a modern office block on a business estate near the railway line. Inside, we took care of the paperwork over a very welcome cup of tea. I learned that the Volvo coach is joining its new owner James for a new life in preservation. We started talking about the Crosville heritage fleet and my role as a driver. Then he told me something that nearly bowled me over. Pointing out of the window at a Costa Coffe shop across the road, he said “That’s where the old Eastern Coach Works factory used to be.” After I had scooped my jaw off the floor I said “Really? Are you sure?” He went on to tell me how the railway line which served the factory used to curve around where the estate road is now. Apparently the whole ECW site was razed to the ground before the new retail park was built. Nothing remains of the old plant which used to be such a huge employer in the town, second only to the fishing industry probably. Even though it was dark, I just had to take a photo (see main image) of the site.

The next day I had a better view of the retail park as I passed by on the train home but it was hard to imagine what it would have looked like when the ECW factory stood there. I will have to be content with looking at historical photos! But it was quite a thrill to have been standing right where all of the buses in the Crosville heritage fleet were bodied.

leyland-olympian-at-portsmouth

In other – not so momentous – news, I’ve also delivered one of the Crosville open top Leyland Olympians to Portsmouth. Due to the new DDA regulations coming into force in January, the older step-entrance buses are being retired and sold off. E314MSG (re-registered CRZ9320 while in the Crosville fleet) has been sold abroad and was due to cross the Channel to Caen.

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