Sunday August 16th was the date of the Westcountry Historic Omnibus & Transport Trust (WHOTT) Running Day. Set in the ancient market town of Dorchester, this new format proved to be much more successful than the traditional static bus rallies of previous years.
Although I’d had the date in my diary for some time, no particular task had been assigned to me so I was pretty much free to help out on the day whenever the need arose. As it turned out, I ended up with a couple of very interesting driving turns.
The venue was the Top o’ Town car park in Dorchester, chosen because the erstwhile Dorset bus and coach operator Bere Regis Motor Services once had its offices on the site. The day also saw the launch of a new book by Stuart Shelton, a comprehensive fleet history documenting every vehicle that Bere Regis ever owned. The book runs to 96 pages and I had the privilege of preparing the artwork for this WHOTT publication. This complements a similar book on the history of the company by Andrew Waller.
My first task was to help move some vehicles which had been stabled overnight in the Damory yard just round the corner from the event venue. I elected to drive Bristol LHS coach CLJ413Y, which is the sole surviving ex-Bere Regis coach still wearing its original livery. It also happens to be the very last LH chassis built by Bristol Commercial Vehicles. As some of you might know, the Bristol LH is not my favourite vehicle of all time but I was happy to drive this particularly historic coach the short distance to the static display area.
I pottered about after that, watching other vehicles arriving and society stalls being laid out. Of particular interest was a scale model of a Harrington-bodied Commer Avenger coach. This had for many years been on display above the doorway of the old Bere Regis offices that used to stand just a few yards away. In the static display area was an immaculate pair of Bedford OBs in the livery of Lewis Coaches, as seen in the photo at the top of this post.
I recently took part in the vintage bus running day to commemorate the Wilts & Dorset Centenary. It also gave me the opportunity to relive some of my childhood memories in Salisbury.
Wilts & Dorset Motor Services Ltd was incorporated in 1915 and the centenary of that event was celebrated in great style in Salisbury, with more than 50 buses operating old W&D routes or on static display. The day ended with all the surviving Wilts & Dorset buses at the event being posed together for photographs (see above).
I had originally planned to take a Hants & Dorset Bristol K6A – now owned by Crosville Motor Services – to the event but the bus is still undergoing refurbishment so that plan fell through. Knowing that I was available but had no bus to drive, the event organisers invited me to drive Wilts & Dorset 628 (1956-built Bristol LD6G OHR919) instead. Of course, I leapt at the chance, having enjoyed driving it at the Salisbury Bus Station Closure event in January 2014.
The day started at silly-o’clock, when my alarm went off. With my son Peter for company (he was also to be my conductor for the day) I set off for Salisbury, where I had arranged to meet the owners of the bus. Allan and Kevin Lewis also own Hants & Dorset 1450 (Bristol FS6G 5677EL) and were happy for me to drive their Wilts & Dorset Lodekka while they crewed their FS.
All the buses running in service began to congregate in the Millstream Approach Coach Park, along with growing numbers of photographers. Peter and I began to wonder if we’d have to join them as our bus didn’t arrive until 10 minutes before our planned departure on service. Salisbury’s one-way system was to blame!
Suitably attired in our Tilling uniforms (OK, so they’re more suited to a Hants & Dorset bus, but red-trimmed jackets are as rare as hen’s teeth), we took charge of 628 and drove round to our stop on the Blue Boar Row. The sight that greeted us was amazing. Every one of the bus stops along the busy city centre street seemed to be occupied by a heritage bus of some sort. There was only just enough room for us to tuck in at the back. As soon as we drew up hordes of people rushed to board, even crossing the road from the static display area.
Eventually Peter gave me two bells and we departed slowly on our first journey, which was the number 60 to Wilton. Slowly, because other buses were also departing and the crowds were spilling over from the pavements into the road. I’m sure I’ve never seen so many camera lenses pointing in my direction before!
They say that ‘Two’s company, three’s a crowd’ but I beg to differ. Sharing a wedding duty with two other colleagues brings with it much cameraderie and banter, not to mention practical assistance in tight spots.
Last weekend’s duty called for two Lodekkas to transport a large group of wedding guests from a church near Taunton to a reception venue on the other side of town. It gave me the chance to meet up again with one of my former colleagues from ‘Exmoor Explorer’ days, Conductress Cherry Selby. Our pickup point was All Saints Church in the strangely named village of Trull, just outside Taunton and we arrived at the nearby Community Hall car park to find that there was a large section coned off for the wedding buses. How very organised!
Two white vintage cars awaited the bridal party while the rest of the guests were grouped together beside the churchyard for photographs before boarding the buses. With Driver Wilkins leading in Bristol Omnibus LD6B LC8518 (972EHW), we drove in convoy across Taunton to Roughmoor Farm which is near the new Park & Ride site on Silk Mills Road. Both buses were almost full and the steering on Southern Vectis FS6G 573 (YDL318) was noticably heavy. Or maybe I’m still shaking off my winter lethargy…
After our passengers had departed for the reception, we drove across town and parked up near a big Sainsburys store for 5 hours before returning to the farm. In the bright sunlight both buses looked splendid, having enjoyed the attentions of the cleaners back at the depot. 573 is still very presentable, despite being due for a repaint this year. The Bristol Omnibus Lodekka rarely gets an outing these days so we swapped buses and I drove it for the return journey.
While we waited, Driver Wilkins regaled us with scary tales of coach tours to Alpine ski resorts while Cherry and I reminisced about our adventures on the Service 400 ‘Exmoor Explorer’.
“Did you go to Winkleigh this year?” The words were uttered in hushed, almost reverent tones. Actually, I hadn’t been to Winkleigh recently.
Why would I? It’s a small mid-Devon village with a charming 14th century church, 2 pubs, a Post Office, a butcher’s shop, a wet fish shop, a general stores, a vets and a doctors’ surgery. None of these, although vital to the life of the village, would draw me to Winkleigh. Then there’s the old WWII airfield, once the home of RAF Winkleigh, which used to host Beaufighter and Mosquito night fighters. Now we’re getting warmer.
In a corner of the airfield – quite a large corner actually – is a hangar, sundry outbuildings and hardstandings. Since the early 1960s this has been the home of Colin Shears’ vehicle collection, a safe haven for countless classic cars, commercial vehicles, buses and coaches. The location soon became famous as the West of England Transport Collection (WETC) and over the years ever since, hundreds of enthusiasts have made the trek to Winkleigh for the annual Open Day. Many of the vehicles on display would have ended up as baked bean tins, were it not for Colin’s determination to save them and many historically important vehicles still with us in 2015 owe their survival to Colin Shears.
Sadly, Colin passed away about a week ago after a spell in hospital. He died at the grand old age of 81 and will be sorely missed in the classic vehicle world. Fortunately for us, Colin’s son Daniel has inherited the collection and is continuing in the tradition his father started. In his hands, the collection is safe and indeed continues to grow. Recently the collection at Winkleigh, under Dan’s direction, has developed a military flavour!
A visit to Winkleigh is a unique experience. Not only will you see sparkling examples of buses, coaches and commercial vehicles with important westcountry connections, you will also see some in a desperate state. Some will have languished at the end of the restoration queue for many years, some will have been acquired as a source of spares and have been heavily cannibalised. Despite this, Colin’s legacy is a lifetime of activity with road transport which has bequeathed the preservation world with some priceless examples of our transport heritage. It comes as no surprise that the Greenway House Leyland PS1 that I drove last year and the Sightseeing Tours Leyland PD2 that I currently drive have both spent time at Winkleigh!
The boss of the Dartmouth Steam Railway’s bus division (Rail River Link) looked most bemused as we drove past each other in Paignton town centre the other day. Even so, he waved enthusiastically at me from behind the wheel of his Volvo Olympian on service 100 to Totnes. I don’t think he expected to see open top Leyland PD2/3 FFY403 out and about so early in the season!
This was on Thursday last week when, together with the proprietor of English Riviera Sightseeing Tours, the 1947 ex-Southport Corporation Titan was awakened from its winter slumbers for pre-season servicing. The process of extracting the bus from storage was rather time consuming, due to battery issues. Not on the PD2, I hasten to add, but on the MCW Metrobus parked in front of it. The old PD2, bless her, started on the button. Mostly because I had disconnected her batteries after some work was done back in January.
Eventually, after much swapping of batteries, we managed to start the ex-London Transport Metrobus – filling the storage shed with trademark Gardner smoke in the process. Then it was the Titan’s turn and soon she also was standing outside in the sunshine, looking very dusty.
With the Metrobus returned to the shed, I drove the PD2 back along the Totnes road and through Paignton which is where my aforementioned ex-employer and I exchanged busman’s waves. It was good to be sitting behind the wheel of the PD2 again, such a familiar place! She trundled along without any complaint, except for a bout of ‘tyre-bump’. That’s my term for the rhythmic bump-bump-bump produced by tyres that have stood in the same position for several months. Apparently the rubber deforms in that time and retains the shape until a few miles have been covered.
One of my blog readers sent me a couple of photos of a mystery bus, now operating in New Zealand.
Ray Bounsall emigrated to Australia many years ago but originally hailed from Somerset. He and his wife were on holiday in New Zealand recently and were amazed to see this RML in Christchurch. Ray managed to fire off a couple of photos as the bus passed by and has given me permission to post them here. The bus retains its London blinds but has lost its UK registration number. Any fleet number it may have carried is also missing so, which bus is it?
Some quick net research reveals that the mystery bus is in fact 1967-built RML2724 (originally registered SMK724F) and was exported to New Zealand in 2005. It is now operated by Hassle-Free Tours in Christchurch and is one of three ex-London Transport Routemasters in their fleet.
During their visit to Christchurch, Mr & Mrs Bounsall saw much evidence of the terrible earthquake that rocked the city a few years ago. “By the way, whatever you may have seen on the telly when Christchurch was hit by the massive earthquake in 2011 is only a shadow of the real damage done. The centre of this beautiful city has had its heart ripped out and 4 years on, there is still a lot of rebuilding to be undertaken. If the LT AEC had been driving around 4 years earlier it could have been mistaken for a post WW2 war era. It was like it had been blitzed.”
Ray also says that he thought he recognised the driver of the Routemaster. “Looks like you driving, were you having a busman’s holiday?”
Many of the classic buses and coaches which we enjoy today owe their survival to non-PSV use after withdrawal. One such bus is a Bristol FLF which has featured heavily on these pages in the past.
The photo above shows Hants & Dorset’s 1220 (FLF6G DEL893C) in gleaming H&D livery a couple of years ago but long before that it entered service, still wearing faded Poppy Red, with Double Two Shirts in about 1981. This large Wakefield-based manufacturer used to run quite an extensive fleet of ex-service vehicles, mostly Bristol FLFs and VRTs, to convey staff to and from the factory. I recently came across a YouTube clip of some of these vehicles in action:
After passing through the hands of several owners, including Quantock Motor Services (left, seen entering Porlock), it reached Weston-super-Mare in the ownership of the fledgling Crosville Motor Services. It became a mainstay of the heritage hire fleet and was the first bus I drove in service after passing my PCV test in 2012.