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.
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.
I attended the Exeter Twilight Event a couple of times and I’m shown here having just arrived at Crossmead with Bristol Omnibus LC8518 (LD6B 972EHW). I would invite this bus to my event as it is powered by the relatively rare Bristol AVW engine. And because it’s a Lodekka of course.
I’d like to invite this 1947 ex-Bullock of Featherstone Leyland PS1, mostly because it carries one of only two surviving Barnaby bodies. Also partly because I would love to see it restored and fit to attend a rally. When I used to drive it in Torbay it was desperately in need of attention. By the way, the gentleman waving to me is Richard Wilson (AKA Victor Meldrew), who was just about to board the bus.
Bournemouth Corporation received three Burlingham-bodied Leyland PS2s for circular tours of the resort and remarkably all of them survive. I drove this one when it was in service with English Riviera Sightseeing Tours in Torbay where it was performing a similar function to when it was new. It retains its sumptuous 1930s-style coach interior and that helps to ensure its presence at my Virtual Bus Rally.
I would include this venerable 1930 Dennis GL, fitted with a Roberts toastrack body. It’s a bit quirky to drive, having the accelerator pedal in the middle and the footbrake pedal on the right. It messes with your brain! It is shown acting in a promotional role for the English Riviera Sightseeing Tours operator that I used to drive for until I moved to Somerset.
Although this ex-Southdown Bristol VRT was built in 1977, I would still class it as rather modern. However, it deserves its place on my invitation list because it is now a classic design in its own right, being one of many preserved examples of a sucessful first generation rear engined bus. This particular bus was my regular allocation when I drove for Dartmouth Steam Railway & Riverboat Company in 2013.
This is one of a very few AECs that I have driven. Its owner Steve Goss kindly offered me the chance to drive it when we both attended the WHOTT bus rally in Dorchester. I had driven an open top Bristol Lodekka to the event but was keen to get up close and personal with this Devon General 1965 AEC Regent V because I remember it in service in Exmouth, where I grew up.
Another vehicle that deserves to be included is this 1965 Hants & Dorset Bristol FLF6G. It became my regular bus at Crosville Motor Services on wedding duties. I’m pictured here driving it along Torquay seafront during the Torbay Bus Running Day just a month after I had passed my PCV driving test.
Pictured at the final WHOTT rally to be held at Westpoint Showground, Exeter, is Exeter Corporation No 5, Maudslay ML3 (FJ9424). The superb livery is the brush-painted handiwork of Ashley Blackman (The Revivist). I was chosen (allegedly because of my skill with a crash ‘box and my slim stature) to drive the bus at its debut event, after a long and costly restoration. I later went on to drive the old girl down to Exeter from mid-Devon to transport the Mayor of Exeter and his entourage to the historic Guildhall for a civic event.
Pictured with me at the same WHOTT event is Nick Muir who is wearing the Exeter Corporation uniform he wore as a conductor on the Maudslay’s successors. Photo by Robert Crawley.
Any bus with an exposed radiator gets my attention. If it’s a Bristol, so much the better. And if it’s wearing a Tilling Red and Cream livery that’s better still! Ex-Crosville (and later Thames Valley) Bristol L6A GFM882 is pictured at a wedding in Crowcombe, Somerset in 2019 on a duty I did for Quantock Heritage. It qualifies for entry because it is very similar to the Wilts & Dorset Bristol Ls I remember seeing in Salisbury, although by then they had a modified full front.
Although not a half cab, this early Southern National Bristol RELL (HDV626E) gets an invite mostly because of its aural effects. I’m pictured here arriving back at Coldharbour Mill, Uffculme, Devon, after a trip through nearby Cullumpton. The throaty roar from the exhaust threatened to shatter the shop windows as we passed through the narrow streets! Photo by Paul Carpenter.
My late father would have seen this bus many times as it passed his house in Wilton Road, Salisbury on the Bath Services route shown on the blind. Any Bristol K would be welcome at my virtual bus rally but this one gets an invitation because it retains its Bristol AVW engine as well as having a family connection. On the occasion shown I was driving it around Minehead in association with a West Somerset Railway special event.
This Bristol K6A (Hants & Dorset TD895 – HLJ44, retaining its AEC engine) earns its place because of the stunning restoration carried out by The Revivist (Ashley Blackman). I remember driving it up to Yorkshire from Somerset – that was a long 35mph slog! It is presented in the livery it wore when new – delivered initially to London Transport in 1949 to cover for RT losses and late deliveries due to the war.
Following many years in storage and several more under meticulous restoration by Roger Burdett, this Wilts & Dorset Bristol K made its debut at the 2014 Warminster Bus Running Day. Roger had replaced the original Gardner 5LW with a larger 6LW but it gets an invitation to my virtual event because it completes the hat-trick of engine options and (of course) because it’s a Wilts & Dorset bus!
Seen after I had driven it to the same event as the previous photo, this 1950 Bristol L5G was another of my regular allocations for weddings at Crosville Motor Services and is a delight to drive. It also sports the attractive dual purpose livery and would contrast fittingly with the Thames Valley bus-spec Bristol L6A pictured earlier.
The aural symphony produced by the 4-speed crash gearbox of a Bedford OB would be most welcome at my Virtual Bus Rally. I’m pictured here driving Duple A-bodied Crosville SL71 (MFM39) along Weston-super-Mare seafront during a 2019 bus rally. Photo by Paul Jones.
I remember seeing and riding on this bus and its stable-mates in Salisbury, where I often went to stay with my grandparents as a child. The current owners of Wilts & Dorset Bristol LD6G OHR919 kindly let me drive it at the W&D Centenary event in 2015. I’m seen here with my son on layover at Wilton Market Place. Because of my personal connections to this bus it is guaranteed a place in my virtual event!
A year earlier I had the privilege of driving OHR919 during an event to mark the closure of Salisbury Bus Station. Here I’m leading a convoy of Wilts & Dorset buses on the last ever timetabled departure on a suitably dismal afternoon in January 2014.
Whenever I get the chance, I love to create a ‘then and now’ photo. In 2010, even before passing my bus driver’s test, I was allowed by owner Steve Morris to bring ex-Western National no 1935 (Bristol LDL6G VDV752 of 1957) down for the Torbay Vintage Bus Running Day with a few friends. I have in my collection a photograph of the same bus taking a break while in service in the 1970s with Devon General so I couldn’t resist the chance to recreate that shot with the same bus in the same location. I would love to have this bus at my event because I spent many happy hours conducting on it while in service on the ‘Exmoor Explorer’.
Here’s another ‘then and now’ shot. WHOTT has a photograph in its extensive archive which showed Conductor Wooldridge climbing into the cab of Exeter Corporation’s Maudslay ML3 (FJ6154) while learning to be a driver. The photo on the right is me with the same bus about 80 years later. Photo (right) by Robert Crawley.
If it all seems to have gone rather quiet recently for Busman John, that’s because the opposite is true. Life has been extremely busy with bus movements, private hire duties and new responsibilities.
One of the more unusual private hire duties is pictured above – a day spent with a film crew from BBC Bristol ‘Points West’. This was another ‘get up at silly o’clock’ day, when I had to travel up from Paignton, prepare my rostered bus and get myself in position at BBC Bristol in Whiteladies Road by 08:30.
The people from Points West, the local BBC News programme, were interviewing the six candidates for Mayor and I spent the day with the Bristol VRT open top bus taking the film crew to six locations in the Bristol area to meet and interview the candidates.
Our first stop was the duck pond in Winterbourne, just to the north of the city, then on to Kingswood where we drove along the busy shopping streets while the filming took place on the top deck.
From there we went south to Chew Valley Lake for another interview and a lunch break. Getting there however was a bit fraught because I had only been rostered for the job the day before and hadn’t had a chance to do my normal route research. Planning our route was a bit of a team effort – not ideal. The inevitable happened, we chose a route that included a narrow, weight restricted bridge! I had to turn the bus around in a very small space and go back the way we’d come. How embarrassing!
The other stops included the very elegant Royal Avenue in Bath (pictured at the top of this post), just below the famous Royal Crescent. The footage was aired during the local news programme a few days later and was also published on the BBC Points West Facebook page in six short segments.
Alongside occasional design work recently, I have also been tasked with delivering and collecting some of the Crosville fleet in preparation for the 2017 season.
This has meant a lot of solo mileage but fortunately the destinations have been familiar, so not too stressful. The first of these movements, a few weeks ago, saw me taking one of the Crosville hybrid deckers up to the Yorkshire premises of Cobus, the bus restorers. Last week I took another of the Wrightbus hybrid buses up to Cobus and, the following day, brought the first one back to Weston-super-Mare as its conversion to open top had been completed.
As before, the journey was slow and tedious. Don’t get me wrong, the bus is dead easy to drive around town as it was originally used on the (mostly flat) streets of London. But put a gradient in front of it and, just like a tired donkey, it gets all moody and unresponsive. Normally, power comes from a Cummins diesel engine which charges the propulsion batteries but in Direct Energy mode (used for these long journeys) these batteries are switched out and the bus relies solely on the relatively small diesel engine. Propulsion still comes from the Siemens electric traction motor but it can only deliver the energy provided by the diesel engine. Which isn’t nearly enough on hills. Even on motorways, where gradients are usually gentle, our speed dropped away alarmingly. At times we were down to about 30mph!
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.