Number 831 to Roughmoor Farm

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.

YDL318-&-972EHW-at-Roughmoor-Farm

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!

White-wedding-car-SV9795-Trull

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…

972EHW-&-YDL318-at-Sainsburys

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’.

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A challenge and a chuckle in deepest Dorset

A recent wedding duty with a Bristol Lodekka brought me one of my toughest challenges yet. I’m pretty good at judging the width of any bus I’m driving (well, I haven’t hit anything yet…) but this tested my driving skills to the max.

YDL318-beaminster

Even before I arrived at the pickup point, I thought we were doomed. I had met Simon, my trusty conductor at the Crosville depot and had prepared FS6G YDL318 for its long trip to Beaminster and back. Now armed with my own Crosville fuel card, I topped up the tank with diesel. I had allowed plenty of time to do the 51 mile journey, or so I thought. As we headed down the M5 in our 30mph bus all went well until we met our first traffic jam. Not long after passing Bridgwater, red brake lights lit up ahead. I’m not sure why, but all three lanes slowed to walking pace for a mile or so, very frustrating.

The route I had planned took us off the motorway at Taunton and down to meet the A303 via the A368, which is a single carriageway road. I was glad that it wasn’t too hilly because I was having to endure some very lengthy gearchanges. This particular bus has a Gardner 6LW engine, very common in Lodekkas. But, of all the ones I’ve driven, this one needs the longest pause in neutral in the history of crash gearboxes. Gardners are well known for having a lot of inertia and it takes quite a while for the revs to die away between gears when changing up. But the one in YDL, when the engine and transmission are hot, takes AGES to spin down and, if changing up on an uphill gradient, you can easily run out of road speed while waiting and you have to abandon the change and start again. Either that or force it into gear before it’s ready and suffer the inevitable grinding noise. Embarrassing!

Pretty soon though worries about changing gear were overtaken by worries about arriving late. We met nose to tail traffic on the A368, as far as the eye could see. I nervously glanced at my old wind-up watch from time to time as my generous time allowance was gradually eroded. Eventually we reached the A303, crossed over it and continued south through Ilminster on traffic-free roads. I love the summer but I’m not too keen on the traffic delays it brings!

I don’t know how we managed it but we arrived in the village square in Beaminster (pronounced ‘beh-minster’, apparently) just in time to hear church bells ringing. Phew!wedding-car-beaminster I was annoyed that I couldn’t park straight, though. As you see in the photo at the top of the page, we stuck out at an angle but my excuse is that this was the only place on the square we could use and, hidden behind the bus, there was a pile of Co-op delivery cages standing in the road so I had to do a reverse parking manoever. My arms ached a bit after that!

After the wedding car had left, the guests boarded the bus and we drove out of Beaminster and headed for the village of Waytown. I had checked the route on Google Street View and knew full well that some of it was very narrow. It was very nearly our undoing. We almost got stuck in one particular street in Netherbury, where there were parked cars on one side and a very solid looking stone wall on the other. To make matters worse, there was a telegraph pole planted beside the wall at the narrowest point! I was very glad to have a conductor right then as Simon stepped down from the platform and waved me forward as I inched my way through a gap that was only a few centimeters wider than the bus. Although I was relieved to get through unscathed, I knew we’d have to do it all again coming back!

The passengers left the bus to go into a reception venue which had been set up on the wedding couple’s property while we took the bus a bit further down the lane and reversed it into the car park of the Hare & Hounds pub. YDL318-hare-&-hounds The landlord and his wife were very kind to us, offering food and drink, as well as their ‘facilities’ while we waited for about an hour and a half to pick up the guests again. As they boarded the bus we could tell that they had been well ‘wined and dined’ as some of the erm, ‘young ladies’ were decidedly unsteady on their high heels. One be-suited young chap had just finished off a can of beer as he stepped onto the bus and was at the ‘loud’ stage of inebriation.

After navigating ‘the narrows’ again, HMS Southern Vectis set sail for The Acorn Inn at Evershot, another village about 8 miles away in the Yeovil direction. Again, I had memorised the route beforehand but many of the other guests (who were travelling by car) obviously had not. They all waited for us to depart so that they could follow the big green bus!

As we descended the hill into Evershot, the bell rang in the cab. I stopped the bus beside the verge. Looking at my nearside mirror, I could see my conductor standing on the platform, having already opened the platform doors. Standing beside him, looking very agitated, was Mr Loud. He leapt off the bus and darted behind some bushes. Simon came up to the front of the bus, laughing. A round of applause could be heard from inside the bus. Apparently Mr Loud had been asking “are we there yet?” and “how much further is it?” while at the same time doing a little pee-dance on the platform. In the end it got too much for him, the beer won the battle and he demanded that we stop the bus for relief! The convoy of cars streamed past, their occupants grinning at the escapade they’d all just witnessed. Included in the convoy was the white wedding car containing the bride and groom. I suspect that Mr Loud was teased merciliessly once everyone had disappeared into the pub!

The journey back was uneventful in comparison. We joined the A37 just before Yeovil and stuck to ‘proper’ roads – now mostly free of holiday traffic – all the way back.

PSV driver training with Devon General (part 2)

Just to recap, this post continues my account of some free driving lessons I managed to wangle out of Devon General in 1985.

The purpose of driving down to a quiet part of the Marsh Barton trading estate of course was so that my first attempts at driving would not pose too much of a hazard to other drivers. Bill Porter, DG’s Senior Instructor, climbed down into the saloon through the space behind the driver’s cab that was once a window. “There you are, it’s all yours!” he said cheerily.

Once in the driving seat I immediately felt two emotions. First, elation at finally being allowed behind the wheel of one of my favourite buses. Second, a feeling of dread at what I was about to attempt. The second one was soon to eclipse the first as I pulled gingerly away from the kerb. I was struck by the enormous width of the vehicle compared to the cars I had been used to driving. Then there was the heavy steering. I began to regret not doing some bicep exercises previously! As the first morning’s lesson wore on, I began to appreciate Bill’s advice “…everything happens slowly in a Lodekka”.

I was quietly confident that I would be able to master the double declutch technique needed for the crash gearbox, having spent hours and hours in my childhood kneeling on the bench seat at the front of Wilts & Dorset Lodekkas in Salisbury. I was fascinated by the drivers’ skills, some greater than others it has to be said, with the unforgiving gearbox.

By the end of my first lesson I was indeed fairly proficient and my gearchanges were getting quieter. Hardest of course, was changing down. I struggled to rev the heavy Gardner 6LW engine enough to allow the gears to mesh neatly, but I was improving all the time.

We ended the morning back at Exeter Coach Station a couple of hours later. Bill was very encouraging in his remarks and we agreed to meet again the following Saturday. Before leaving, I asked him why Devon General used such an ancient vehicle to train its drivers, particularly as most of them would only be driving minibuses. “I look at it this way,” he replied, “if they can drive this old thing, they can drive anything!”

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