Although everything described in this article is true, the events didn’t all happen on the same day, nor to the same person. It is presented here to give you a flavour of what has become perhaps one of the UK’s most unusual jobs: a bus conductor on a public service.
The garage was filled with acrid smoke when I arrived at 8.30am to clock on. The service buses had already left and a pre-war single decker was being prepared for a private hire job.
After a few minutes of busman’s banter in the canteen, my driver left to check the oil and water in our rostered vehicle, an ex-Western National Bristol Lodekka. Having checked that my trusty Setright ticket machine was still able to issue tickets and, more importantly, that all the counters were working, I filled in my waybill with the opening numbers, straightened my conductor’s cap and went out to our vehicle.
I found my driver dipping the tank – the only way to check the level of fuel remaining. We were rather low, the last driver had perhaps run out of driving hours and couldn’t make a detour to the filling station in the remaining time.
All checks completed and kit stowed, I dinged the bell twice and we were on our way. As we travelled empty to Minehead, I filled my leather cash bag with my float and sat back to enjoy the view.
On the way in to Minehead we pulled into the Tesco filling station. I chuckled at the strange looks we got from the shoppers. It’s not every day you see a 50-year old double decker bus join the queue for fuel! Some may have wondered whether we would fit under the canopy but thankfully, being an open topper, we had nothing to worry about. Fully fuelled, we drove round to the seafront bus stop.
With departure time fast approaching, I waited by the bus while my driver went to check out the steam loco at the head of the train to Bishops Lydeard. He’s also a volunteer on the railway, which explains his divided loyalties! For my part, I had a rapidly filling bus which required my attention.
Before I could collect any fares, I was accosted by a rather loud gentleman who insisted that I listen to his recollections as a bus driver in the Midlands 40 years ago. He didn’t seem to grasp that I had a job to do but I eventually persuaded him to take a seat on the bus. Starting upstairs at the front, I worked my way round the bus, taking fares and answering questions.
Inevitably, one of the first people I came to offered me a twenty pound note. It pays to have a very comprehensive float ready! Having stowed a folding buggy and two bags of shopping under the stairs, I gave my usual speech from the front, in my best tour-guide voice. How far we travel, how high we climb, how steep Porlock Hill is, how good our brakes are (just to reassure the uneasy ones) and please mind the low branches. Oh, and the emergency exits are here and here (indicating over the side…)
Downstairs again, having repeated the speech (leaving out the branches bit), I checked the pavement for latecomers before giving the driver two bells and we were off. There are a couple of stops in Minehead where passengers are picked up so we dutifully stop if there are people waiting. At Bancks Street an elderly lady asked me “Are you the bus for Taunton?” She obviously hadn’t read our destination blind. I could have sworn the last time I looked it said “Exmoor Explorer” but I politely told her which bus stop she should be waiting at.
Leaving the town behind, we made a spirited dash down the main road to Dunster at a breathtaking 40mph. As we crawled up the gradient into the village, two middle aged ladies climbed gingerly down the stairs seeking the shelter of the lower saloon.
As I checked that the ladies were comfortable, I pointed out the ancient Yarn Market to their new travelling companions and immediately regretted it. Mr Retired Midland Red Driver piped up again with his broad accent and started regaling us with stories of his many adventures with different kinds of gearbox. I felt I had to at least look interested. Yes sir, this bus does have a crash box and yes, our driver is doing a great job so far. I nearly added “but we’ve hardly begun, just wait until we get to the steep bits…” but decided I had to leave and talk to the passengers upstairs.
Unfortunately my mind was still on hills and gearboxes as I climbed the stairs. We were now bowling along in fourth gear and the stiff breeze tugged at my conductor’s cap. Before I could grab it, the wind took it clean off my head and deposited it in the hedge beside the road. Some of the passengers thought it was a great laugh but I silently wondered if I would ever see it again. Fortunately for me, a villager later recognised it, picked it up and handed it in at the Post Office. They kindly rang our office and I collected it a week later.
It had rained earlier on and as we passed under a tunnel of trees, the upstairs passengers were assaulted by branches hanging low with rainwater. A man in the back seat said rather sarcastically “It’s all right for you, you can retreat downstairs!” He was right, and I promptly did.
There’s a long, long climb up to Wheddon Cross, the highest village on Exmoor. Eventually we reached the village and, as the driver slowed for the crossroads, a trail of water appeared behind the bus. The falling revs were unable to keep the coolant flowing fast enough through the hot engine and the result was an incontinent radiator. Luckily we’re used to this and, as the bus stood gasping at the bus stop, the driver and I topped up the radiator from the large container of water kept under the stairs for the purpose.
Springing a leak seemed to have broken out among the passengers too, as several left the bus to use the toilets in the nearby car park. Others left for other reasons, namely to walk for several miles through the stunning scenery of Exmoor.
The walkers had vacated the bench seat by the door so at last I was able to sit down for a while once we were safely under way again. A few more fare stages were passed and I dutifully acknowledged them by moving the dials round on my ticket machine.
By the time we reached Exford, we were a few minutes up on the schedule so I allowed some of the passengers to alight and visit the village shop or to take photographs. On starting away up the narrow lane, I again advised the upstairs passengers not to put anything of value over the side, like arms, unless they were sure they could get them back in again unscathed. I was of course referring to the foliage which was about to invade the roof-less bus along the narrowest lanes we would meet.
Speaking of meeting things, as we climbed Edgecot Hill in first gear we were confronted by a lorry coming the other way. Not only was it carrying horses, but it was driven by a suitably horsey lady who stubbornly refused to reverse her vehicle into a passing place which was in plain sight a little way up the hill. After some one-sided negotiations (we lost), I walked behind the bus, whistle at the ready, while the driver cautiously reversed down the hill until Ms One-Day-Event could turn off towards the stables. Back at the garage later, the driver told me how fortunate we were not to have the Southern Vectis Lodekka with its vacuum brakes. With the engine idling, he was sure we wouldn’t have had enough vacuum to safely reverse down the hill.
At long last we burst (if that’s possible travelling at 5mph) out onto Exmoor proper, with its vast open spaces and free range wildlife. I had no need to point out wandering sheep or Exmoor ponies grazing contentedly among the heather. But I did spot some red deer on a hillside to our left so I made sure everyone was able to see the graceful animals as well.
There’s an awkward junction where the moorland road meets the A39 from Lynmouth. As we approached it, I made my way to the front of the top deck to act as a second pair of eyes for the driver who at that point was unable to see up the hill to his left due to the overhang next to the half-cab. When all was clear, I pushed the buzzer twice and we carried on towards the fearsome Porlock Hill. While everyone was taking in the magnificent views over the Bristol Channel and the distant coastline of South Wales, the service 300 Scania hove into view. As we passed at a crawl, some smart-alec on the Scania’s top deck shouted out “Oy, move over!”
The signs along the road, warning of the perils ahead, made some of the top deck passengers edgy so I reassured them again that the bus was fully roadworthy, had an excellent driver, we’d been doing this journey for years without any trouble and they were not to take any notice of any strange smells. As the driver went down the gears to first, the queue of cars behind us grew, unable to do anything but wait and curse.
Sure enough, as I descended the stairs, I was greeted by the acrid smell of hot brakes, “Fragrance de Ferodo”. We safely negotiated the final 1 in 4 section and pulled in to let a stream of cars past.
Progress through Porlock village was slow, due to heavy summer traffic and very few places to pass. We dropped a few passengers off at the stop in the village who we would pick up later on our second round trip. A couple of people got on, just for the journey into Minehead. “2 for Minehead sir? That’s £4 altogether”. Bargain price for a 10 minute trip on a vintage bus! They were fascinated by the characteristic metallic clickings of the Setright ticket machine as it spat out their single tickets to Minehead, reviving childhood memories.
All too soon we had passed through picturesque Allerford and found ourselves on the outskirts of Minehead again. As we entered the built up area I got up to occupy the platform again. This was my territory and woe betide any scruffy urchin who tried to leap onto my moving bus!
Giving the driver one bell as we approached the town centre, we set down a handful of passengers before arriving back at the seafront. “Terminus, all change please!” Cheesy, I know, but the older passengers appreciated the old fashioned slang. Standing on the pavement offering my best smile to the disembarking passengers gave me a buzz as they made appreciative comments in return.
The afternoon trip was uneventful, except perhaps for the group of 13 disabled youngsters whose leader asked me, even before I’d had a chance to have my lunchbreak, if they could reserve seats on the next departure. She seemed disappointed when I told her that this was a public service and it was first come, first served. She resolved the issue by having her group board straight away. In the event, they were delightful and I enjoyed entertaining them on our leisurely jaunt around the moor in the afternoon.
Eventually the day’s work was done and, having first checked for lost property and sleeping passengers, we took the empty bus back to the garage. I made use of the journey by counting my cash and completing my waybill.
Tired, hot and dusty, the driver and I parked the bus among the other cherished heritage vehicles in the garage before bidding each other farewell until the next time. What other job could be so exhausting yet so very satisfying? I don’t know of another so, for the time being, I’ll count the days until my next duty!
Photo © M. Fowler