1940s Festival on the South Devon Railway

Back in early July I took a Bristol L5G down to Buckfastleigh to take part in the South Devon Railway’s popular 1940s Festival.

The single deck bus was very familiar to me, having been a regular allocation during my time with Crosville Motor Services in Weston-super-Mare. Ex-Crosville KG131 (1950-built KFM893) still lives in Weston and is now part of the re-launched Crosville Vintage operation so my first task was to drive it down from Weston to Buckfastleigh, a distance of about 80 miles.

The Bristol L trundles along at about 42 mph on the motorway so it took about an hour and a half to complete the journey. On the way I had to face the stiff climb up Haldon Hill which, even with an empty bus, reduced my speed to about 15 mph. It’s at times like these that I feel quite vulnerable on dual carriageways and motorways due to my slow speed, relative to other traffic so I was relieved to turn off the A38 for the final few yards to the station forecourt at the South Devon Railway‘s station at Buckfastleigh.

My first departure wasn’t until 11:00 so I had time for a 45 minute break before starting service. I used that time to wander around the station and found myself in a time warp. I was surrounded by people in 1940s outfits as well as the uniformed railway staff. Visitors and re-enactors alike had gone to extraordinary lengths to enter in to the spirit of the event.

In a field adjacent to the station forecourt there was an impressive gathering of military vehicles and paraphenalia. I lost count of the number of wartime Willys Jeeps! On the station platform I passed a policeman in authentic 1940s uniform. In fact I saw him several times during the day, which turned out to be very hot and humid. To his credit (and probably his discomfort too), he kept his full uniform on all day!

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To Burtle and back

It’s always the same with buses. You wait ages for one and then several turn up all at once. And so it is with these blog posts. Here come two vintage posts but, so that I don’t tax your little grey cells too much, the next one will be along shortly.

I recently had the pleasure of driving another Leyland PD2 belonging to Quantock Heritage, for a wedding duty on my own patch.

It’s one of a handful of wedding hire duties I’ve agreed to do for the company just to stay current with vintage buses, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron. It came during a spell of very wet and squally weather we’d been enduring in June 2019, supposedly the height of summer! It also gave me a chance to work again with my conductress friend Cherry Selby.

My allocated bus was Stockport Corporation No 65 (HJA965E), a 1967 Leyland PD2/40 with East Lancs double deck bodywork. Although a late model (rear engined buses had already been around for about 6 years by the time No 65 entered service), the Corporation still favoured the traditional layout with an open rear platform. I’ve worked with this bus before, notably in 2007 when I was a conductor during the Quantock ‘Taunton Christmas Park and Ride’ operation, when I nearly froze to the platform in the bitterly cold weather!

I prepared the bus outside the small depot near Wiveliscombe with a little help from Steve, the boss. He was due to go out later with newly-restored Birmingham City Transport Leyland PS2 No.2257 (JOJ 257). If I play my cards right, I might get a turn later in the year!

When I started the Leyland O.600 engine it idled so slowly that I had to keep my foot on the gas a little for fear of it stopping altogether. It didn’t, and even when warmed up, it still ticked over slowly. In a funny sort of way it was quite pleasing because the injector pump had been set up so well (Steve favours Leylands and knows how to look after them) that there was no trace of hunting either. A very far cry from the similar Leyland PD2/3 that I used to drive in Torbay, which idled very fast due to a split diaphragm in the pump. This was only cured after I’d moved away!

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To Crowcombe with a Thames Valley Bristol L6A

A recent outing with a vintage bus saw me doing a solo duty for a wedding in West Somerset.

This was one of a handful of private hire duties I’m doing for Quantock Heritage as I’m keen to keep my crash-box skills finely honed!

The duty was solo in more ways than one, because there was nobody around at the depot either so I had to prepare the bus on my own. Fortunately, having done a duty here back in February, I knew the drill and the bus had already been checked, washed and fuelled.

My allocated bus was Thames Valley S302 (GFM882), formerly Crosville KB73/SLA73. It is a 1948 Bristol L6A, the ‘A’ signifying that it was fitted with a 6-cylinder 7.7 litre AEC diesel engine, rather than the more usual Gardner 5LW or Bristol AVW unit. This bus was converted by Crosville to OMO format comparatively early in its career in 1958 and has remained this way ever since. The bulkhead behind the driver has been removed, the side window set at an angle and a mounting for a Setright ticket machine provided. You can see the layout in this view, facing forwards.

GFM882 was parked beside an even older bus, W. Alexander & Sons P721 (VD3433), a 1934-built Leyland Lion.

Eventually my preparations were all done and I could put the moment off no longer. Yes, I was a little hesitant having not driven a crash ‘box bus since September 2018 and had never driven this particular example before. Fearing that there would be ‘Much Grinding in the (Langley) Marsh’* I set off gingerly down the hill and round the corner into Wiveliscombe, managing to find all the gears successfully. Downchanging was a different matter however and I made a right hash of several changes as the bus wound its way through the narrow streets of the town. Thankfully I had the empty journey to the pickup point to brush the cobwebs off my technique.

I soon discovered that this L6A has a well set-up clutch brake which enabled me to make quicker up-changes than usual, which is very useful when changing up a gear on uphill gradients!

I had researched the route and locality previously, as is my custom, but I could easily have come unstuck at the venue had it not been for the timely presence of the bride’s mother. I was just about to turn into the drive of the big house where the bridal party was gathering when the aforementioned lady jumped out of a car that had been following me and told me that marquees and gazebos had been set up beside the house, leaving nowhere to turn the bus. Thanking her profusely, I re-positioned, let her drive up to the house and then reversed up the drive. That could have been awkward! In fact it was still tricky because of the limited space available in the lane in which to manoever through the narrow gate.

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Back to bus work for a while

Most of my driving work for Bakers Dolphin involves coaches of various sorts but I’m sometimes rostered on one of the two registered bus routes as well.

Bakers Dolphin operates two bus routes on behalf of Somerset County Council, both of which serve the Bridgwater campus of Bridgwater & Taunton College. The No 62 runs from Weston-super-Mare town centre to Bridgwater College via Locking, Banwell, Churchill, Highbridge and Pawlett. It runs twice a day to serve the beginning and end of the college day.

The No 66 starts in Axbridge and passes through Cheddar, Wedmore, Mark, East Huntspill, Woolavington and Puriton before calling at Bridgwater College and terminating at Bridgwater Bus Station. It’s this route that I’ve driven most often although I sometimes get the 62 when its regular driver is off.

Now, I’m no stranger to bus service work but I’ve discovered since starting work at Bakers Dolphin that there’s a heirarchy in PCV driving work. Local bus service work is definitely near the bottom of the heap as far as coach drivers are concerned! Apart from the one regular No 62 route driver, I’ve yet to meet another driver who actually likes driving the bus routes!

Perhaps because I’m an easy-going guy who rarely complains, I often find that I’m allocated to the 66 route… sometimes for several days in a row. So what’s it like?

The duty starts at 06:30 and after 15 minutes or so of walkaround checks and preparation, I set off out of town towards Bridgwater before joining the A38 northwards. Usually I have a few minutes in hand so, in order to time my arrival in the narrow streets of Axbridge, I wait time in a layby beside the Bristol-bound A38 road.

My usual vehicle is No 97 (MX12DYS), a 2012 Wrightbus ‘StreetLite’ midibus. It’s very similar to its competitor, the Optare Solo. The rear-mounted Cummins diesel engine drives through a Voith fully automatic gearbox. Compared to most of the coaches at Bakers, the StreetLite is not a very sophisticated or comfortable bus. Braking in particular is very harsh and difficult to do smoothly. The retarder kicks in with an unexpected thump and the downward gearchanges only make it worse. Although it has air suspension, it is very hard and, together with the aforementioned deficiencies in the braking department, the ride is unpleasant and jerky. Not my usual style at all!

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Two Leyland PD2s to Priston Mill

After several months without seeing a heritage bus I thought it was about time I climbed into the cab again. Although I’m still hoping that the ex-Crosville fleet will become operational again, I was asked recently to do a wedding duty for Quantock Heritage.

Those of you who have been with me from the beginning will know that I’ve worked for this company before, then trading as Quantock Motor Services Ltd, so it was good to meet up again with old friends. The duty I was asked to cover was a 2-vehicle job, picking up in Bath and ending up at Priston Mill which is a few miles outside the city.

The two vehicles were both Leyland PD2 double deck buses and the one allocated to me was Rawtenstall No 18 (RTC822). This is a 1953 Leyland PD2/12 with an all-metal Leyland body. New to Rawtenstall Corporation, it is now presented in the livery of Scout Motor Services, Preston although it never ran for that operator in service. The other vehicle was Stockport No 65 (HJA965E), a 1967 Leyland PD2/40 with a Neepsend body.

I arrived at the small bus garage at Langley Marsh in plenty of time so that I could do a thorough walkaround check and become familiar with my new surroundings. As I mentioned above, I worked for this operator before but back then it was based next to the railway station at Bishops Lydeard. The driver of the other bus was already there, doing his checks. The boss, Steve Morris, was to be conductor on the Stockport PD2 and we were to collect Bill Ricketts, my conductor, on our way through Wiveliscombe.

Our first hazard was roadworks. BT Openreach contractors had chosen this day to dig the road up right outside the garage so the workmen had to move barriers and vehicles to allow our two buses to leave. As we began our journey I quickly became attuned to driving a half cab bus again. It didn’t take long and No 18 reminded me of the English Riviera Sightseeing Tours open top PD2/3 that I used to drive until I moved away from Torbay. However, No 18 still has its roof and is in much better condition, having had a more recent restoration in Quantock ownership.

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Another Bristol L for Weston-super-Mare collector

Following a lengthy re-restoration, a 1950 Bristol L has joined four others at a private location in Weston-super-Mare.

I haven’t yet been to see it but here’s a quick overview. The bus is a single deck Bristol LL6B, originally fleet no KW175 (LFM756) in the Crosville Motor Services fleet when new. It operated from the Chester depot until 1968 when it entered private hands and passed through a number of owners before being purchased by Jonathan Jones-Pratt in 2016. It went straight from its previous owner to the premises of ace restorer Ashley Blackman (also on Facebook) where it has been undergoing a complete external overhaul. The green and cream livery was applied by hand using traditional coach painting methods. I’m always amazed at the mirror finish that Ashley manages to get with his brush work!

The icing on the cake for me is the application of period advertising panels, each one carefully signwritten in the traditional way.

I’m looking forward to seeing this smart Bristol LL6B up close and perhaps have a drive. The 5-speed crash gearbox mated to the 6-cylinder Bristol AVW engine is particularly musical so it should be a treat for the ears as well as a sight for the eyes.

In other news…

Another Bristol bus to receive an external makeover (although now resident in West Yorkshire with Yesteryear Cars) is former Eastern National Bristol KSW5G WNO480. I became acquainted with this open top bus when it was purchased by Crosville Motor Services in Weston-super-Mare. However, in all the time it was in Weston, it only carried passengers in the town on one occasion and that was the Crosville Rally in 2017. While at Crosville it received a repair to the nearside wing and the dynamo was overhauled but, despite being made operational, no work was found for it as the company already had two open toppers active.

WNO480 was acquired by English Riviera Sightseeing Tours and I delivered it to Torquay last April. Once again, it was never used (there being a lack of suitable drivers for the crash box) and has now moved north. The photo shows the new Crosville-esque livery nearing completion after receiving repairs to some wooden framing and panels. It is likely to be used for wedding transport in Yorkshire this season.

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Dennis toastrack bus in Torquay

Way back in sunny May I paid a return visit to Torbay and met up with my friends at English Riviera Sightseeing Tours. I spent the day driving their open top Leyland PD2 and also met their newest acquisition, a Dennis Toastrack Bus.

Needless to say, the folks there were delighted to have me back, if only for a day. Apparently my gentle driving style has been sorely missed! It was great to be in the driving seat of FFY403 once again and to hear the banter and gags of my tour guide ‘Wayne Champagne’ as we trundled around the tour route.

Since I last drove it, the PD2 had undergone some engine repairs, the fuel pump and injectors getting particular attention. Those with long memories will remember that my only disppointment with driving the PD2 was its excessively high idle speed. Usually a Leyland O.600 engine will tick over very slowly without doing any harm, sometimes with a little ‘hunting’ too. But on FFY the idle speed used to be so high that I had to de-clutch far sooner than normal when rolling to a stop. I seemed to have to coast for ages with my foot on the clutch before stopping.

Anyway, having refurbished the pump and replaced a split rubber diaphragm, the idle speed could be brought right down so driving it again this year brought great satisfaction. At long last I was able to hear the engine idling normally. Why couldn’t this work have been done when I was a regular driver?!

Wayne couldn’t resist bringing out one of his favourite gags in my honour as we passed through Paignton during the afternoon tour. As we approached Manor Corner on the return to Torquay, we were about to pass the Paignton Spiritualist Church. “I have some late breaking news for you, folks,” piped up Wayne. “This evening’s clairvoyance meeting at the Spiritualist Church has been cancelled,” he continued with barely suppressed giggles, “due to unforeseen circumstances!” Gales of laughter from the saloon behind me followed by “It’s not my fault, ladies and gentlemen, that one was especially for our driver John!” from Wayne. He knows that I’m a churchgoer (though not a Spiritualist) and likes to trot that one out for my benefit, although I doubt that Spiritualists can look into the future any more than I can.

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