Staff at Eastern Coach Works 1948

Following a visit I made to Lowestoft several years ago, I posted on here to describe the journey with a Volvo B10M coach. Now a former Lowestoft resident has contacted me, having read the post recently.

Penny Ewles-Bergeron writes “My uncle by marriage Archie Fuller worked at the Eastern Coach Works in Lowestoft for a number of years and I have a few images from the 1940s that might interest you.” Penny sent me these fascinating photos which show Archie Fuller and some of his workmates at ECW. She goes on to say “I’ve always been keen on history and family history has an extra piquancy, of course.  Archie (Daniel Archibald) Fuller was born 26th Feb 1916 and died in October 1996, being buried in Kirkley Cemetery on 1st November.  He married my aunt Grace May Ewles in 1947 or 8 (I don’t have the exact date) and they lived at 20 Homefield Avenue, Lowestoft all their married lives. I’m afraid only one of the photos is truly useful from a bus enthusiast point of view but you definitely pick up the camaraderie from these images.  In his younger years he had been a cook on a fishing boat – stories of lashing pans to the stove in the galley – he remained in charge of cooking chips at home after that!  Always delicious.  I don’t know when he left the bus factory”.

If you are a regular reader of this blog or if you browse through some of the previous pages you will know that the majority of the heritage buses I had driven carry bodies by Eastern Coach Works. It is very likely that Archie Fuller and his workmates helped assemble some of them. I wonder what Archie would think if he knew that his handiwork has survived well into the 21st century?

From what I’ve picked up from restorers and their clients, ECW products have a reputation for being well built, using quality raw materials such as burmese teak. Perhaps this has contributed to so many vehicles having survived way beyond their planned service lives.

Click on a photo to view full size and to read the caption.

There’s a brief history of Eastern Coach Works here and there’s also a fascinating archive film of ECW on YouTube:

Around Minehead with an open top Bristol VRT

In a welcome return to heritage buses, I spent two days driving around Minehead, Somerset, in an open top 1976 Bristol VRT giving free rides to people who were taking part in a West Somerset Railway event.

The West Somerset Railway has not been able to run any passenger-carrying trains this year because the coronavirus lockdown was announced before the 2020 timetable had begun. But two consecutive weekends were set aside to offer a Living Museum event, where people could pre-book tickets to enter Minehead station and see shunting and turntable demonstrations, see exhibitions and have a ride on a vintage bus. I was asked to drive for the second weekend.

The vehicle in use was 1976-built Bristol Omnibus C5055 (Bristol/ECW VRT LEU263P) and, as it had been used during the previous weekend’s event, it was still in Minehead so I didn’t need to drive it all the way from Weston-super-Mare, where it is stored. So, after a fairly leisurely drive down the A39, I arrived at about 09:45 to find the bus parked up in the coaling bay at the WSR’s Minehead shed.

In addition to my usual walk-around checks, I had to go around the bus with disinfectant and wipe down all the frequent contact areas such as handrails and seat tops. This was just the start of a very strict anti-Covid19 regime. I dipped the tank and found it about a quarter full so, knowing that the bus would be taken back to Weston at the end of the next day’s duty, I stopped off at the Morrisons filling station for fuel.

I finally arrived outside the Turntable Café beside Minehead station where I met my conductor for the day who, under normal circumstances, would have been checking tickets on one of the WSR’s popular steam train services. We introduced ourselves and ran through the various procedures – face coverings, maximum capacity (only 20 per journey), anti-bac sweeps after every journey and so on. Also in attendance was another railway volunteer who was acting as despatcher in our loading bay.

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Busman John’s Virtual Bus Rally

Of the many casualties of the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, the one that I have missed most this year is the opportunity to drive at various bus rallies and running days. Some organisations have run a virtual event instead, so here’s mine!

There are many buses I have driven or have seen that I would like to invite to my Virtual Bus Rally but I’ve narrowed it down to this selection. The captions describe my reasons for inviting them to my event.

Back to school runs in lockdown

Another update in case you thought I had lost interest or succumbed to the dreaded Covid-19. No, I’ve gone back to working on school contracts.

I had been on furlough (the UK Government’s Job Retention Scheme paying 80% of my wages) since the beginning of May but about 6 weeks later was recalled by Bakers Dolphin to carry on driving a school contract.

I’m driving a minibus on a regular run to the Kings of Wessex School in Cheddar. My usual vehicle is this Mercedes Benz 515CDI with Mellor bodywork. It has an automatic gearbox and is quite smooth to drive, if a little high-revving when climbing. If there’s anything I would complain about, it’s the lazy electric door. It opens quite quickly but, after pressing the button to close it again, it waits for a second or two to have a think about it before it decides to move. You learn to live with it!

The route is different each day of the week because students go to school on a rota system and the most I’ve carried is 5, so it’s a relatively quiet life for me. Especially this morning, when neither of the two students on my list turned up. The only excitement at the moment is when I come across a road closure and have to follow a diversionary route!

Although some of the full size coaches are in use on other school contracts, these too are only carrying handfuls of students and the bulk of the coach fleet is still laid up in the garage. There are currently no holidays or excursions operating but the company has plans to start these again in August. Whether I will be allocated any day trips remains to be seen, as there are plenty of experienced tour drivers waiting in the wings, absolutely desperate to get back behind the wheel of a coach.

This week, in a change to the usual routine, I and a couple of the other school run drivers took 3 of the Mercedes Benz Tourismo coaches to Nailsea for their MOT tests and yesterday I drove one of the posh Gold coaches up to Bristol for some bodywork attention. These tri-axle Scanias are very smooth and comfortable but you can’t rush them! That suits me actually because I’m quite a sedate driver compared to some others.

That’s it for now, folks. Bus rallies and running days have mostly been cancelled this summer due to the coronavirus pandemic so, in the absence of any heritage driving, I may be forced to put on my own virtual vintage bus rally so look out for the next post from Busman John.

Coronavirus, furlough but no buses

Just a quick update, in case anyone was wondering if I had dropped off the face of the planet. I haven’t, but there has been no bus-related action to write about for quite a while.

Friday May 1st was the last time I drove for a living and that was on the Bakers Dolphin combined school route to Churchill School, carrying just 5 students. From that date I was placed on the Government’s Job Retention Scheme, otherwise known as ‘furlough’. The UK Government pays 80% of my normal contracted hours and effectively I have been on extended leave. In some ways it has given me a taster of what it might be like when I eventually retire! I have been busy under lockdown conditions, mostly working in my garden to set up a secondhand greenhouse, demolish a garden shed, prepare the ground for a new one and build a wooden log store from the good parts of the old shed. Gotta love recycling!

Sadly there has been no bus action and the many heritage bus turns – weddings mostly – that would normally have come my way have been postponed until a later date due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. There is however a rumour that I may be undertaking a few bus positioning runs before and after restoration work but nothing has been confirmed yet. My only involvement with the heritage bus movement has been online, by browsing various groups where bus photos are posted from happier times. Some interaction with The Revivist* via Facebook has however been both fascinating and rewarding. In due course you may see me in a Live Stream talking about driving and if that happens I will post details here.

The prolonged shut-down of the holiday and tourism season has had many casualties, including the recent and very sad closure of Shearings Holidays, together with its parent company Specialist Leisure Group. I shall miss seeing that distinctive blue livery on the roads once we return to normality. The group also included the famous name of Wallace Arnold, an operator with a long history and connections with the west country. The Wallace Arnold name lives on in the form of several preserved coaches, the latest being James Pratt’s Volvo B10M (W656FUM). From what I’ve heard, Bakers Dolphin is in a stronger position to weather the Covid-19 storm thanks to super-human efforts by the company directors and some very good trading in recent years.

It now seems that my period of furlough may be about to end, as I had a call from Bakers Dolphin last week to offer me some work. It would of course be school work, driving a minibus, starting sometime this coming week (w/c June 1st). If I can manage to make something interesting happen, I may be able to squeeze another Busman’s Holiday blog post out of it!

*The Revivist, or to give it its full title ‘The Revivist: Classic Vehicle Restoration & Coach Painting’ is the brainchild of Ashley and Kirsty Blackman and offers not only a world-beating paint finish on your bus but also very informed and generous support to all in the preservation movement. Their regular contributions to Bus & Coach Preservation magazine have demonstrated Ashley’s skill as a vehicle restorer as well as his passion for sharing his knowledge of heritage vehicles and how best to care for them. Their Facebook page (linked above) is the place to start if you want to get involved.