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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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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A typical day as a Bakers Dolphin coach driver

Life has been so hectic lately that ‘Busman’s Holiday’ posts have been regrettably thin on the ground. As promised in an earlier post, here is a flavour of a typical day in my new role as a Baker Dolphin coach driver.

During term time every available driver (except those away on tour) starts and ends his day with a school or college run. Most days will see me rising, blurry eyed, at about 5am (ugh!) ready for an early start at the depot. Regular practice is for the Operations Department to finalise the day’s roster by the evening of the previous day. Unfortunately this means that I won’t know what duties I’ve got until the previous evening, which leaves very little time to do my customary route planning.

As soon as I arrive I pick up my Work Tickets and the keys for my coach and greet some of my colleagues before heading off into the coach park to find my allocated coach. With up to 70 vehicles stabled there overnight, finding the right one sometimes takes a while! For the next 20 minutes or so I complete my walkaround checks and fill in a Defect Report. If anything is amiss – such as a blown bulb – this must be attended to before I can leave.

Depending on which school/college route I’ve been given, I may have to check with another driver or a member of the Operations staff if it’s one I haven’t done before. Although all the pickup points are listed on my Work Ticket the exact locations aren’t always clear. One route which I have done quite often is a Bridgwater College route which starts in Portishead, near Bristol. After a quick blast up the M5 for the first pickup, it meanders through the Gordano valley and into Clevedon to pick up students from a couple of places in the town. I continue southwards and into Yatton and finally Congresbury before re-joining the M5 for a short distance. Arrival at Bridgwater College is normally around 08:40. On busy days I will then have a series of short jobs, mostly conveying school children on swimming trips or other outings.

My favourite kind of duty is a private hire day trip, some of which last for the rest of the day after a school run. One such trip (as illustrated above) took in two venues in Devon. The coach was hired by members of a U3A group in Weston-super-Mare and I met them at the town’s coach park. I welcomed them on board, made sure they were comfortable and checked with the group leader about further pickup stops. After giving a safety talk over the PA we set off, picking up a few more passengers along Locking Road as we headed towards the M5 motorway.

The coach I had been allocated was a comfortable Mercedes-Benz Tourismo, which has an automatic dry-plate gearbox. From a passenger’s point of view, it feels like a manual box (with a pause between gearchanges) but the automatic transmission takes care of all the clutch work. It’s 10 years old and was bought second hand by Bakers Dolphin, with 3 others, from Swanns of Chedderton. I quite like driving these coaches although some of my colleagues don’t get along too well with having to wait for gearchanges to complete. They are rather ‘leisurely’ which is a pain when one is hoping for a swift acceleration!

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Coach driving for Bakers Dolphin

As some of you already know, I now work full time for Bakers Dolphin coaches in Weston-super-Mare. There isn’t a heritage element sadly but I’m able to keep my hand in with the ex-Crosville vehicles occasionally.

Bakers Dolphin can trace its roots back to 1889 when Charles Baker first started trading commercially in Weston-super-Mare. It’s come a long way since then and currently has around 70 vehicles in its fleet. I joined in June and straight away found it hard work.

I spent the first three days on an induction course and then learned a school contract route with another driver. The next day I was out on my own! There has been a huge amount to learn – Bakers does things very differently from Crosville and learning the new routines and procedures was not easy. On the whole though I have enjoyed the experience so far, particularly as Bakers have the flexibility to offer me the kind of work that suits me best.

During term time this is mostly a school run in the morning, private hires in the middle of the day and a return school run to finish. Other work, particularly during the recent school holiday, has included day trips, feeder trips and day-long private hire duties. In another post I will write about a typical day trip just to give you a flavour.

The vehicles in the fleet range from cars and minibuses to luxury touring coaches. So far I’ve driven cars, minibuses and a midi service bus (Wrightbus Streetlite) at the small end and coaches of all sorts at the bigger end. Although I once had a luxury coach for a day trip that was only 2 years old, I haven’t yet risen to the dizzy heights of the ‘Gold’ service, which has a courier and all the latest bells and whistles.

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The final curtain for Crosville

The writing was on the wall for a long time but Saturday April 21st marked the end of another chapter in the long-running Crosville Motor Services story. Although this is now old news, it deserves an airing here because of my involvement with the latter-day company.

To recap, a combination of falling revenue and some difficulties with the Traffic Commissioner made it inevitable that the company would have to cease trading.

The management of the Weston-super-Mare company decided to go out with a flourish, so organised a running day on the last day of operation. Based at the Beach Lawns on Weston’s seafront, heritage vehicles were either lined up on display or used in service on the 100 route to Sand Bay. With Crosville’s Sentinel steam bus ‘Elizabeth’ joining in the action as well, that meant that the road to Sand Bay got very busy at times! (Photo copyright Paul Jones, used with permission).

Sadly I was committed elsewhere on that day so missed most of the action but did have a couple of hours to spare in the morning so I was able to help ferry some of the heritage buses out to the seafront site, including recently restored Bristol K6A HLJ44 and Bristol FS6G YDL318.

Then it was time to put all the toys away in the box and go home. With local bus routes and private hire bookings unable to run due to the lack of an Operators Licence, the next few weeks were rather sad as the once-busy depot was gradually cleared out. Most of the service buses and coaches were sold off, either for further use or for scrap. I drove two ex-school contract vehicles, Leyland Tiger CRZ9853 and a yellow Dennis Javelin coach (whose number I have already forgotten), up to a coach trimmer near Banbury. In a final twist, each had only been bought for its seats. With most of the ‘modern’ vehicles sold, the vast hangar which served as the Crosville depot looked forlorn.

There was a plan to continue running the heritage fleet, which had a healthy order book for 2018, under the auspices of Southern National (another JJP Holdings company) but this failed to materialise due to licencing issues. All bookings were cancelled and refunded. This had a direct impact on me because I had been, up to this point, managing the bookings and crew rosters for the heritage fleet.

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Heritage bus roundup: Spring 2018

Early Spring 2018 brought a flurry of heritage bus activity for me. Although we’re now well into a very hot summer, here’s a sample of what I was up to earlier.

This is a very attractive Bedford OB coach which was once operated by the original Crosville Motor Services in north Wales and now resides in Weston-super-Mare. It is now up for sale but I was asked to drive it up to Bristol to have its analogue tachograph calibrated as part of preparations for sale.

I’ve have driven this delightful vehicle several times before and I savoured the sounds from the very tuneful and distinctive gearbox. However I didn’t much like the steering, which is very heavy! I don’t know if this is typical of OBs because this is the only one I’ve driven (so far).

I saw this OB in Dorset recently, during on a birthday treat visit to Ringwood Brewery. I would have volunteered myself as a driver but Ringwood is quite a trek from Weston-super-Mare! If it had a canvas tilt on the back it would have looked exactly like the Bedford OB van that my grandfather used to operate (there’s a tiny me standing next to him). That was green as well!

One of the stalwarts of the Crosville fleet in recent years has been ex-Crosville Bristol FSF6G 891VFM and this is seen here having a thorough steam clean prior to its first outing of 2018. This was a trip down to Minehead to spend the day giving free rides to people who attended the Paw Patrol special event for children put on by the West Somerset Railway. I’ve driven at several of these events before and I was happy to be rostered as the driver. I really enjoy driving this Lodekka because I find it easy to drive it smoothly. It also has a good turn of speed (45mph+ on the level) thanks to having a rear axle from a¬†coach fitted.

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