A Woolworths Wedding: branches everywhere!*

In the photo below you can see two double deck buses sitting serenely outside a country house but the tortuous journey they had to make to get there tells a different story.

The job in question called for a pair of red double deck buses to convey wedding guests from Huntsham Court in Devon to a church in Taunton for the marriage ceremony and back again afterwards. But what you need to realise, dear reader (and which also filled me with fear and a sense of foreboding), is that Huntsham Court lies in the middle of the Devonshire countryside.

The venue can be reached by several routes, all of which are narrow and twisty. But for drivers of highbridge double deck buses such as my colleague and me, it is the trees and their overhanging branches that present the greatest worry. As I researched the various routes on Google Maps I realised that I’d been to this venue before with a modern coach and that the road I had used then seemed to be the most suitable, although far from ideal.

The looming presence of overhanging branches near a farm and another on the driveway of the house itself was sufficiently worrying that I decided to drive the route in my car the day before so that I could get out and assess the clearance for myself. Having also driven one or two of the other potential routes, I reckoned that this one was do-able but only with the assistance of a conductor walking in front.

My conductor was Mrs Busman John, who has joined the team quoting the old adage ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’. Together we prepared London Transport AEC Routemaster RM1001 (1CLT) and collected my old friend Cherry on the way. She was conductress for the other bus, which we met at Tiverton Parkway where driver Andrew was waiting for us.

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Dunster shuttles with a 1934 Devon General AEC Regent

An ambition of mine, held for many years, has been to drive a Devon General AEC Regent I have known about for ages. My chance came recently when I was due to drive a rail replacement service for the West Somerset Railway.

Devon General was an independent bus and coach operator in south Devon, serving places such as Exeter, Torquay and Sidmouth. Its attractive maroon and ivory livery remained unchanged for decades until NBC Poppy Red replaced it in the early 1970s. Although the company took vehicles from builders such as Leyland and Guy, AEC products seem to have dominated and my rail replacement bus is an early example supplied new in 1934 as part of a batch to replace trams in Torquay. It was converted to open top form by Longwell Green, Bristol, in 1955.

The West Somerset Railway (WSR), with which Crosville Vintage has links, normally runs for 20 miles from Bishops Lydeard to Minehead but, due to ongoing engineering works on a level crossing just outside Minehead station, trains have to terminate at Dunster. On train operating days, three buses provide a link between the two stations, two of which are from the Crosville fleet and the third is a low floor decker from First, the local service bus operator.

On this day, the first of several I have lined up this season, I started the day by bringing a 1967 Leyland PD2/40 (ex-Stockport Corporation) from Weston-super-Mare to Dunster. This was a replacement bus for the usual open top Bristol VRT (see ‘In other news’ below). As I sat on the PD2 sorting out timetables and other paperwork I was joined by a WSR volunteer TTI (Travelling Ticket Inspector) who was to drive one of the vintage buses. He told me that he was more than happy to let me take the Regent as he had struggled previously with the gears. He was delighted then, when I told him about my long-held ambition to drive the Regent!

As soon as I had completed my checks, I took the opportunity to get to know the bus while it was empty as it needed re-fuelling before the day’s work. The first thing I noticed was the strangely offset steering wheel, similar to a Bristol K or L but more pronounced. One result of this was that, when hauling on the steering wheel, I found myself falling sideways off the slippery leather seat!

The cab has several reminders of the early origins of the bus, including quaintly worded instructions on how to start a cold engine and how to operate the chassis lubrication equipment. Next time I drive this bus I will take some photos.

Other than that, driving the Regent is similar to most other crash gearbox buses with the notable exception of the short pause between gears when changing up. This is because the AEC engine revs die away quickly compared to heavier engines such as a Gardner 6LW, which seems to take about 2 weeks to slow down especially when you are in a hurry to change gear!

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Wedding at Maunsel House: always have a Plan B

When severe traffic delays threaten to ruin your day even before it has begun, you need to have a Plan B up your sleeve. This was one of those days.

It was while drinking my morning cup of tea that the ever-vigilant Mrs Busman John saw a social media post saying that the M5 motorway, which I was planning to use on my route down to Maunsel House near Bridgwater, had been completely closed southbound following a serious collision the previous evening. I would have checked Google Maps anyway but this gave me advanced warning and brought Plan B into play.

Maunsel House is a modest 15th century country estate just outside the village of North Newton, whose Parish Church was the location for the wedding ceremony. I was booked to arrive at 12 noon, to be in position for a 12:20 departure for the church. With the M5 shut and all other alternative routes clogging up fast, I girded my loins and arrived at the garage more than an hour earlier than originally planned.

Fortunately my allocated bus was ready to go and presented no issues so within 20 minutes I had locked up and was ready to leave. LFM320 was fleet no KA244 in the Crosville fleet when delivered in 1950. Its Leyland E181 engine drives through a 4-speed crash gearbox and, despite having a juddery clutch, provides a reasonably smooth ride.

Avoiding the M5 motorway completely, I motored southwards on the A38. Having long sections with a 50mph speed limit, my top speed of just over 40mph did not hinder following traffic too much. As I approached Highbridge I met a long queue of traffic which disappeared out of sight into the distance so I changed to Plan C, a B-road that I often use on various school routes. It did seem strange to be driving a 1950s half-cab bus instead of a school coach!

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