In all my adventures as a bus driver I never thought I would find myself driving a train. A few days ago I did, but it’s not the kind of train you would expect.
Although Crosville owns two full sized steam locomotives, my duty was to drive the diminutive Land Train up and down the promenade at Weston-super-Mare.
It was the first time I’d driven such a thing so one of the Crosville managers gave me a brief introduction to the weird machine before I took it for a spin around the estate to get the hang of it. Underneath the glassfibre outline lies a small tractor, of the kind you would expect to find on a fruit farm. It’s powered by a three cylinder diesel engine and has three forward gears. Only one of these is ever used and, flat out, it can probably manage 8mph! To be fair, I wouldn’t want to go any faster for fear of the three trailers tipping over. Unladen, they are prone to wobbling about as my conductor James discovered when I powered through a few unexpected bumpy bits on the road down to the seafront!
The whole assembly is remarkably neat when it comes to turning around, being able to turn on the proverbial sixpence. I practiced on the estate roads and found that, if I turned the tractor unit sharply to do a 180° turn, the cleverly engineered trailers all followed my path looking for all the world like a line of ducklings following their mother!
After checking that all the lights were working properly, it was time to set off on what was probably the most hazardous part of the journey – the empty trip through the town to the promenade. I realised that I had to make all sorts of allowances for both the length and speed of the outfit I was driving. Particularly so when it came to emerging from junctions or entering roundabouts. I had to make sure that there was a BIG gap in the traffic!
Passengers were few in the first part of the morning and my conductor James had an easy time. But soon the sun came out and so did the holidaymakers. We were soon carrying full loads as we trundled up and down the prom. The Land Train doesn’t run to a timetable as such and just goes to and fro on demand. The train uses the wide promenade pavement, which it has to share with pedestrians. As you can see from the photo above, the ‘loco’ carries a bell and I tended to use it frequently to alert other pavement-users to our presence.
There are two of these trains, each of which carrying the identity of its mainline counterpart. The one I drove was linked to GWR ‘Hall’ class 4-6-0 locomotive No 4936 ‘Kinlet Hall’ which is currently undergoing a heavy general overhaul at Tyseley Locomotive Works.
If there’s anything worse than driving a Bristol Lodekka in the middle of a heatwave, it’s driving a Lodekka with CBC cooling in the middle of a heatwave.
On one of the hottest June days since the infamous summer of 1976, I had to endure the searing heat of not only the weather but also of the plumbing for the Cave-Brown-Cave cooling apparatus which passes through the driver’s cab.
This came the day after an equally hot and energetic duty with Bristol FSF6G 891VFM on the 100 service to Sand Bay and, while I usually enjoy sunny days, I began to wish it wasn’t quite so hot. Together with my conductor Kevin, I prepared ex-BOC LC8515 (Bristol LD6B 972EHW) at the Crosville depot. The bus hadn’t been used for a week or so and was very reluctant to start. It needed a lot of persuasion and, as I sat in the cab teasing the Bristol AVW engine into life, I began to wonder if it would ever develop enough power to drag the bus out of the garage! Eventually the AVW settled down into its familiar burble so I left it running while we attached ribbons and bows which had been sent in by the customer. With all the checks completed we set off through Banwell, Churchill and Lower Langford.
We arrived at Coombe Lodge with time to spare so we parked the bus in the turning circle and sought out some shade. Coombe Lodge is an attractive mansion built with local Bath stone, topped off with Cotwold tiles. It was originally the opulent country residence of the Wills family (founders of the W.D. & H.O. Wills Tobacco Company, based in nearby Bristol) and I was pleased to see that it retains a lot of wooden panelling. It’s not particularly ancient, being completed in 1932, but the pseudo-Jacobean style is well suited to its current use as a conference and wedding venue.
Yesterday’s private hire duty was notable for taking me to some places with very limited clearance. It was a good test of my spacial awareness skills.
The allocated bus was open top Lodekka DGF81 (FSF6G 891VFM), a genuine Crosville bus dating from 1961. I had spent most of the previous day in the office at Crosville and had time to check and fuel the bus so that I didn’t have to spend too much time early the next day in preparation. The pickup time was 10:30 at Orchardleigh House, near Frome so I allowed myself a generous 2 hours to make the empty journey. The most direct route was nevertheless a tortuous, rural one and my speed would rarely get above 30mph.
In fact ‘limited clearance’ could apply to the outward journey quite easily as I trundled through the villages of Banwell, Sandford and Blagdon. There was plenty of hedge-hugging, double-declutching and wheel-heaving! Reaching West Harptree, I set off along the B3114 to eventually join up with the A39 at Chewton Mendip towards Bath. Briefly reaching 45mph, I soon went back down the box for the turning to Farrington Gurney, Midsomer Norton and Radstock. Somerset seems to have more than its fair share of double-barrelled place names and today I seemed to be visiting most of them!
Finally, after passing through Buckland Dinham, I reached the imposing entrance to Orchardleigh House. I’ve been here before with a heritage bus and I recognised the twin stone-built lodges which stand guard over the gated entrance to the vast estate. The drive up to the house is almost a mile long and passes through a golf course on the way.
I parked the bus near the Walled Garden and the complex of cottages in which most of the wedding guests had spent the previous night. I caught up with some of them on the lawn and learned that the celebrations had started the previous evening!
Our buses are not decorated with ribbons as standard (although I plan to change that eventually) so some family members set to work with cream ribbons, bows and streamers of their own.
Last weekend saw the final runs in regular operational service for Torbay’s long-serving Bristol VRTs and I enjoyed a last fling with them on an evening Mystery Tour.
Rail River Link (the bus operating division of the Dartmouth Steam Railway & Riverboat Company) has operated open top Bristol VRTs in the area since 2000 but now, due to the introduction next year of new regulations to bring all service buses into compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (commonly referred to as ‘DDA’), the VRTs are being phased out.
Jim O’Hara and his team of drivers delighted local transport historians and enthusiasts by putting on a weekend of extra services and Mystery Tours. The 2 remaining RRL VRTs were joined by two other vehicles, another VRT supplied by North Somerset Coaches and a Leyland Atlantean which is owned by a local collector.
I joined the party at Paignton Bus Station after returning from the afternoon Sightseeing Tour on the PD2 (FFY403). Incidentally, this was my final duty of the season as the Tours season also finished the same weekend. A good number of other people also waited near the 100 Service stop for the celebrity VRTs to arrive. A gentleman standing nearby started asking me about the buses which were due to take part and he revealed that he’d seen publicity about the weekend a few days earlier but didn’t know what a VRT was. Apparently he’d found the information he needed on a website written by a local chap who also drives for a company in Weston-super-Mare. Yes, he’d been reading this blog!
Before long 2 of the VRTs had joined a Volvo B7 which was also in the station on the 100 run. I decided to take a ride on VDV138S for the first part of the tour. This was especially poignant because the bus (no 4 in the RRL fleet) was originally named ‘Warspite’ and was part of a batch of convertible Bristol VRTs supplied to Western National in 1977 as its 938 for service in Torbay. These buses replaced the ageing Leyland Atlantean ‘Sea Dog’ open toppers and happily several members of both types of bus have survived. Joining the fun for the weekend was VDV134S, now in Southern National NBC livery and carrying the name ‘Thomas Hardy’. To complete the set, as it were, one of the aforementioned ‘Sea Dog’ Atlanteans joined the convoy not long after we had left the bus station. Now registered MSJ499, it was originally 925GTA in the Devon General fleet and it has been returned to DG’s reversed cream and maroon livery, complete with ‘Admiral Blake’ name.
With the school summer holidays having kicked off, now is a good time to review the Sightseeing Bus season so far.
This my main occupation during the summer months and, with two buses in operation now, I’m doing tours Monday to Friday. The operating season started in May, with the majority of passengers at the senior end of the age spectrum.
Weather is always a major factor in passenger numbers and indeed whether we run at all. There was one day in May when foul weather – wall to wall heavy rain – was forecast so we elected to leave the open top Leyland PD2 covered up until the next day. June was much better, with improving loads as the month progressed. The last week in July brought the best day of the year so far, with 52 people on one tour. The bus has seating for 56 so we were virtually full. I’ll come back to that particular run later.
One very pleasing development this year has been the decision of the operator to invest in some more busman’s dust jackets. Normally uniform is optional, with some crews opting to wear the more informal printed sweatshirts. Ever since I started, I’ve worn a traditional bus crew uniform and last year bought myself a burgundy and tan dust jacket that matches the bus livery. I’m glad to say that my regular tour guide has decided to wear a jacket and cap so we both look as if we belong! People do appreciate it and I’m sure it helps to draw in some of our older clientele, with whom the tradtitional style of uniform resonates.
In the main photo above, the open topper has just stopped on Babbacombe Downs with a full load of primary school pupils. The bus had been hired as a Year 6 ‘Prom’ treat and we paused here to allow the children on the lower deck to swap places with those on top.
You may have noticed that the bus now wears two front corner adverts. These promote two of our local attractions and have been produced in the same style as those which adorned our local Devon General buses years ago.
In the good old days, or so I’m told, bus conductors used to call out “Terminus!” when their bus reached its destination whereupon any remaining passengers would alight.
These days, it would seem, Mr Progress is shouting “Terminus!” at terminii up and down the country, signifying the closure of once-busy transport hubs in our town centres. So, just for old times’ sake, here is a photograph of a bus station in its heyday. This is Salisbury Bus Station, taken by my father in about 1954 from his office window. Just like me when I worked for the Express & Echo newspaper in Exeter, my Dad enjoyed a fine view while supposedly at work! In his case he was learning the ropes as an architectural technician at Rawlence & Squarey.
The notes accompanying this photo state that the two buses in the foreground were at the time being used as a canteen and staff restroom. The double deck bus is Wilts & Dorset no 20 (ex-Southdown 920), a Leyland TD1 with a Willowbrook body. It originally carried a Short Bros body.
Fast forward 60 years and Salisbury Bus Station closed in January 2014. I was there, regular readers will recall. With a tear in my eye, I led a cavalcade of historic Wilts & Dorset buses on the last ever scheduled departure. In this rather shaky clip (fast forward to 14:15) I’m driving the leading Lodekka.
On the same day Amesbury Bus Station closed. Salisbury Reds, the present-day operator of bus services in the area, could no longer justify the cost of maintaining the crumbling and outdated structures. Services now arrive and depart from various stops around the city centre. How times have changed.
When a couple set a date for their wedding they often plan everything in meticulous detail. What none of them can do though is book fine weather for their big day.
So the law of averages dictates that some weddings will be plagued by some of the wet stuff or, as we like to say here in the UK, ‘liquid sunshine’. Last Saturday in Somerset turned out to be one of those days. In the photo above I am trying (but not succeeding) to hide the fact that both buses were far from clean after doing their duty in soggy Somerset.
Let me rewind the clock a little. Compared with some recent Crosville duties, my day had started at a reasonable hour. On the way to the depot in Weston-super-Mare I picked up my conductor for the day, my friend Cherry Selby. My journey up the M5 hadn’t been pleasant, with heavy rain and spray slowing my progress. The rain had eased by the time we arrived at the depot and, on the way to the Crew Room, we were pleased to see that our rostered bus was near the front of the garage and not buried deep within as is sometimes the case. My Work Ticket showed that two buses had been allocated to this job and the two green Bristol Lodekkas were parked together. Ours was ex-Bristol Omnibus Company LC8518 (972EHW), a 1959 LD6B. I’ve had this one several times before and is very presentable, if a little quirky to drive.
To begin with, this particular Bristol AVW 6-cylinder engine is always reluctant to start when cold. On this occasion I found that, once I had it running, it really didn’t want to go any faster than a slightly fast idle. Bristol engines are renowned for having what I call a ‘lazy throttle’, with a noticable delay in delivering power when the accellerator pedal is depressed. It took several minutes of persuasion to extract anywhere near full revs from the cold engine, quite unlike the Gardner equivalent.
Being prepared by Driver Lawrence was Southern Vectis 573, a 1962 Bristol FS6G (YDL318). After agreeing our route we set off in gloomy weather for Orchardleigh House, Frome. The 40-mile trip was not straightforward and can best be described as ‘rural’. There is no direct route and we splashed our way through the lanes on a variety of A and B roads before trundling up the very long drive of the Orchardleigh estate. The guests soon piled onto the 2 buses, many of them American, judging by their accents. One chap was amazed at the condition of the buses, saying “Wow, you guys really look after your old stuff. In the USA we don’t keep anything historic, it just gets trashed!”