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.

Covid-19: all change at Bakers Dolphin

In case you are getting super bored under enforced lockdown conditions in the UK and elsewhere, here’s a bit of an update to help pass the time!

As soon as the new deadly coronavirus ‘Covid-19’ began to raise its ugly head in the UK, Bakers Dolphin’s private hire work started to dry up and tour customers started cancelling. Sales staff promptly worked with them and our holiday venue partners to postpone, rather than cancel bookings to retain as much custom as possible for the future. Even so, morale among the normally jovial drivers began to drop with people beginning to wonder if their jobs would last much longer.

In the meantime, schools work continued. It’s the bread-and-butter of the business but soon that came to an end as well and it began to look like we were in serious trouble.

During the week before the government closed the schools, my regular bus was a Scania Omnidekka service bus (XJI5457, ex-Nottingham, pictured here before Bakers Dolphin branding was applied). Many of the other coach drivers are reluctant to drive it but you know me, I’ll drive anything! OK, the ride is not as refined as a coach, it’s noisy, rattly and takes ages to warm up in cold weather but it has one redeeming feature. Like several other Scanias in the fleet (the Gold coaches), it has a clever switch on the dash which sets the lights going in sequence. This makes my early morning walk round check easy because I just walk around the vehicle and watch as it turns all the exterior lights on and off by itself!

At a staff meeting in the yard, we were asked by the MD if we would voluntarily reduce our contracted hours to help protect the future of the company and many of us put our hands up. This was before the government’s job retention scheme – where 80% of a furloughed worker’s wage would be covered – was announced. However, on the bright side, management were in talks with other employers in the region to see if a deal could be done which would further safeguard our future. As a result of this, 20 of my colleagues have re-trained as ambulance drivers and now operate, partnered with paramedics, for Bristol Ambulance Emergency Medical Services.

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Bristol Lodekka outing to Clevedon

My first heritage bus duty of 2020 was a wedding in Clevedon using ex-Southern Vectis 573, a Bristol Lodekka I have driven many times before.

It was also my first duty from Crosville Vintage’s recently established storage unit just outside Weston-super-Mare which is best suited to the double deck members of the fleet. There had been a vehicle change during the previous week because a London Transport RT had originally been allocated but this vehicle was still under repair elsewhere in the UK. I didn’t mind using YDL318 instead as I am very familiar with it. Besides, I have a Tilling winter uniform but not a London Transport one!

Also during the previous week I had used a couple of spare hours between school contract runs to carry out a recce by car in Clevedon because I was not sure about access for the bus into Clevedon Hall. This is a large hotel near the sea, formerly a private residence, which is a popular wedding venue. There is a driveway up to the original main entrance but there isn’t enough room to turn a bus around so I went into the hotel reception and found out that, when they have coach parties arrive, the vehicle reverses up the drive. I walked down and visualised a Lodekka doing a reversing manoever. Satisfied that it was all do-able, I went on to St Andrew’s Church which is only about 10 minutes drive down the road. There is a narrow one-way system serving the church where low hanging branches also posed a problem but I decided that there were alternatives!

Having earlier had a guided tour of the storage unit I arrived on the Saturday morning to prepare and do my walk round checks. Since having an engine overhaul last year, the Gardner 6LW seems to be reluctant to burst into life when cold so there were a few anxious moments while I coaxed the old girl into life. In previous years I remember she would fire up after a couple of turns. The storage unit soon filled with pungent exhaust smoke so I quickly brought the FS outside into the open.

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Out and about with Bakers Dolphin

It’s about time I posted something new so here’s Part One of a brief look at some of the outings I had last year with Bakers Dolphin.

I always look forward to the summer months because this is when most of the work is private hire jobs or Bakers Dolphin ‘Great Days Out’. Writing in February about summer outings reminds me how little I’ve posted about my current full time work with what is now Weston-super-Mare’s only remaining coach operator, so I apologise for that!

I try to take photos at most of the destinations to remind me where I’ve been and, of course, for your benefit dear reader. So, in roughly chronological order, here are some photos from some of my more memorable trips. I’ll aim to post some more later.

I’ve taken school groups to Cadbury World twice so far but have yet to go around the factory on the official tour. Maybe next time. Anyway, outside the complex in Bourneville looking rather forlorn, is Cadbury No.14 – a Hudswell-Clarke diesel locomotive which formerly hauled chocolatey goodness around the Cadbury factory at Moreton.

Back in June I had the pleasure of taking a coach load of primary school children from Cheddar to the West Somerset Railway. I’ve been there often with Bakers Dolphin – I’m sure that somebody in the Operations Department knows that I like heritage railways! Anyway, I delivered the children to Bishops Lydeard station where they caught the first steam-hauled train of the day to Minehead. While the train steamed 20 miles down the line to Minehead, I drove to meet them and donned a period bus conductor’s uniform in which to welcome them back on the coach. This, as you might guess, went down very well!

If you have ever been to The Making of Harry Potter you will know how popular the tour is, and with good reason too. Based around the film sets at Warner Bros’ Elstree Studios, the tour takes you on a magical journey through many scenes from the films featuring the actual sets and props created for the films. One of the more recent additions has been the Gringotts Bank set which is breathtakingly elaborate.

Standing outside is The Knight Bus, which appeared in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. This bizarre triple-deck vehicle was created by Warner Bros using the chassis of a Dennis Javelin bus and body parts from three AEC Regent III RT buses. I feel rather sad that these were sacrificed for the film but I have to admit that it looks convincing!

If I play my cards right, I might get the chance to drive a proper RT later in the year on a local private hire job for Crosville Vintage.

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