Bristol L tackles a stiff climb out of Bath

It’s not often I get a wedding duty in the depths of winter but yesterday was one such day. The job included a very steep climb which really tested the pulling power of the bus.


The destination was in Bath, which meant a 30-mile empty journey from Weston-super-Mare. I knew it was going to be a cold day so I set out wearing lots of layers! Even so, I was beginning to feel chilly by the time I had finished my walkaround checks. I was pleased to see that my rostered bus, ex-Crosville KG131 (1950 Bristol L5G KFM893), had been well prepared the day before. She stood in the garage gleaming, wearing white wedding ribbons inside and out. A quick peep into the fuel tank with a torch revealed that she had been topped up to the brim with go-juice as well.

Winter is the time when most of the heritage fleet is serviced, repaired or refurbished so the Bristol L was the only member of the fleet which was active. However, the job involved transporting more than 60 people to the reception venue so a modern coach was to join me. Needless to say, we didn’t travel together as my single decker needed a head start due to its slower performance.

As I drove out of the garage there was sleet in the air so I pulled on a pair of gloves and braced myself for a wintery blast through the cab. I couldn’t help thinking of the poor bus drivers of days gone by who had to endure icy conditions day after day and still get the job done. Busmen of the past were obviously made of sterner stuff – I’m really a fair-weather driver!

Several months have passed since my last duty with a heritage bus and even longer since my last stint in a Bristol L. So maybe I could be forgiven for a few graunchy gearchanges. Fortunately, by the time I picked up my passengers, I was back in crashbox mode.

With the South Bristol Link Road now complete, I was able to cut off a significant corner as I headed towards Bath. Just like a lightning strike, I’m always looking for the path of least resistance!

I arrived at The Guildhall, Bath a few minutes before time but, as is often the case with weddings, it was another 30 minutes before the guests spilled out in a flurry of confetti onto the pavement. While I waited I wandered across the road and took the photo you see above, with Bath Abbey as a backdrop. Picking a moment when there weren’t any buses, taxis or cars in the way was tricky though.

A few days beforehand I had checked out the route, which involved about 2 miles of almost continuous climbing. The reception venue was at the top of Lansdown Road, which climbs up out of the city towards the racecourse. I’ve heard busmen mention this hill with a shudder as it’s such a stiff climb but, as I’ve never had any overheating trouble with this Bristol L, I wasn’t unduly worried. Even so, I planned my climbing technique with care.

With all 31 seats filled I prepared to leave. The other coach had not yet arrived so I assured the waiting guests that it would not be long and that I would return to the Guildhall just in case. Bath is quite a rabbit warren of one-way streets and the route to Lansdown Road from the Guildhall for the normal motorist is a bit convoluted. Fortunately for me, I was able to use a bus-only segment which allowed me to proceed almost in a straight line.

While waiting for the lights to change at the foot of the long hill, I knew I wanted to be in second gear by the time the climb began in earnest. My eyes were focussed on a short level section in the middle of the junction so, after doing a hill start in 1st gear away from the lights, I managed a snatch change into 2nd as I passed through the yellow box markings. After briefly reaching full revs the gradient increased and speed dropped away. My passengers must have wondered if the poor old bus was going to make it as the engine revs fell further. Knowing the capabilities of the Gardner 5LW quite well, I was pretty sure that we would be OK until the gradient eased a little further on. I was right and breathed a sigh of relief as little by little and revs began to rise again.

It wasn’t long before we met the steepest part of the climb, with a gradient of 11%. Am I the only one to think that changing road signs from ratios to percentages was a daft idea? We all understood that 1:25 meant that the road would rise 1 foot with every 25 feet travelled forwards, didn’t we? Now that it’s expressed as a percentage the numbers are all backwards and much harder to understand. Anyway, I’ve since worked out that 11% is the equivalent of 1:9 in old money. That’s pretty steep for a fully loaded Bristol L and I eventually needed to do a smart downchange into 1st gear to cope with it.

By now I was glancing down at the radiator cap quite often, looking for signs of bubbling or steam, but there were none. Keen not to overstress the engine at slow forward speed and risk overheating I avoided going for full revs. I was also aware of a queue of traffic building behind us as we plodded along at barely more than walking pace. At the head of the queue was a service bus and its driver, eager not to loose time on a tight schedule no doubt, put his foot down and stormed past us as soon as we met a reasonably straight piece of road. Later on we met an easier stretch so I managed to change up to 2nd gear for a while.

With the destination in sight at the top of the hill, Lansdown Road had one final attempt at bringing us to a halt. Another steep section demanded another change down to 1st gear but, knowing that the bus would cope, I decided to have a bit of fun with the passengers especially as the queue of traffic behind us had disappeared. I eased off the throttle a bit so that the speed dropped as we approached the summit, just to raise the sense of jeopardy in the saloon behind me. Finally, the top of the hill was reached, the engine revs began to rise again and the climbing was over. Predictably, cheers and applause rang out from behind me and I joined in by punching the air with one hand! Many of the guests thanked me as they stepped down amid a flurry of snow and it was obvious that they had enjoyed the short but eventful journey. Or perhaps it was just that they were glad to reach terra firma again. I’m not sure…

The descent, albeit with an empty bus, had different challenges. At the back of my mind throughout the day was the knowledge that, on nearby Lansdown Lane, there had recently been four fatalities when a poorly maintained lorry had run away down the hill. I’m well aware of the dangers of brake fade, especially when driving a vehicle like a heritage bus with drum brakes, and I’m determined to keep good control of any bus I’m driving. So, even at the expense of causing frustration for following drivers, I will always use engine braking primarily. As I drew close to the steepest part of the hill I changed down from 3rd to 2nd gear and continued like that all the way down, using occasional dabs on the footbrake to assist the braking effort of the engine. If the bus had been loaded I would have had no hestitation in dropping down to 1st gear. I have been a passenger before on a Lodekka as it descended a steep hill when, through heavy use, the brake shoes got so hot that they started smoking. The smell was horrible and unmistakeable!

Safely at the bottom, I made my way back to the Guildhall to find the other coach was loaded up and ready to leave. The driver and I exchanged a few words before I left and pointed my bus westwards for the return journey. After parking the bus back at the garage I wanted to take a closer look at a new addition to the heritage fleet, an open top Bristol KSW5G. But that will have to wait until another time as I had to dash away to an 80th birthday celebration. No, not mine!

7 comments on “Bristol L tackles a stiff climb out of Bath

  1. When I was just a nipper, our family travelled regularly at weekends from north Bristol to Poole via Bath to visit relatives. I well remember Lansdowne Hill from those journeys! Even in a relatively modern 1950’s car, it presented quite a challenge on the way home!

    Well driven, John!

  2. Alan Bond says:

    Keep up the good work John – always nice to read your posts.

  3. Helen Danby says:

    Admirable work John. Having lived in Bath for 13 years, half on Lansdown Lane (the accident you mentioned was just outside my old house), and driving a Morris Minor all that time, I have an inkling of what those hills are like.

  4. Charlie says:

    Really enjoyed reading that. I could almost feel the experience myself! Thanks!

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