Bristol L tackles a stiff climb out of Bath

It’s not often I get a wedding duty in the depths of winter but yesterday was one such day. The job included a very steep climb which really tested the pulling power of the bus.

kfm893-bath-guildhall

The destination was in Bath, which meant a 30-mile empty journey from Weston-super-Mare. I knew it was going to be a cold day so I set out wearing lots of layers! Even so, I was beginning to feel chilly by the time I had finished my walkaround checks. I was pleased to see that my rostered bus, ex-Crosville KG131 (1950 Bristol L5G KFM893), had been well prepared the day before. She stood in the garage gleaming, wearing white wedding ribbons inside and out. A quick peep into the fuel tank with a torch revealed that she had been topped up to the brim with go-juice as well.

Winter is the time when most of the heritage fleet is serviced, repaired or refurbished so the Bristol L was the only member of the fleet which was active. However, the job involved transporting more than 60 people to the reception venue so a modern coach was to join me. Needless to say, we didn’t travel together as my single decker needed a head start due to its slower performance.

As I drove out of the garage there was sleet in the air so I pulled on a pair of gloves and braced myself for a wintery blast through the cab. I couldn’t help thinking of the poor bus drivers of days gone by who had to endure icy conditions day after day and still get the job done. Busmen of the past were obviously made of sterner stuff – I’m really a fair-weather driver!

Several months have passed since my last duty with a heritage bus and even longer since my last stint in a Bristol L. So maybe I could be forgiven for a few graunchy gearchanges. Fortunately, by the time I picked up my passengers, I was back in crashbox mode.

With the South Bristol Link Road now complete, I was able to cut off a significant corner as I headed towards Bath. Just like a lightning strike, I’m always looking for the path of least resistance!

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Vintage bus link to Hestercombe Gardens

Yesterday I had my second duty with a vintage bus at the West Somerset Railway (WSR), when I provided a link between the railway’s southern terminus at Bishops Lydeard and Hestercombe Gardens.

KFM893-at-Bishops-Lydeard

Crosville Motor Services has a new contract with the WSR to provide vintage bus services in support of various special events. However, this duty was the first in a series of weekly excursions which run throughout the season. I arrived at the depot to find my allocated bus, Crosville KG131 (Bristol L5G KFM893), ready and fully fuelled just inside the garage. So it wasn’t long before I was on my way, via the southbound M5, to Taunton and thence to Bishops Lydeard. Despite its age, this bus bowls along at about 40mph as it benefits from having a Bristol overdrive gearbox.

This is really one of my favourite buses to drive at the moment. Not only is it immaculately presented inside and out, it’s very rewarding to drive. It took me several outings to properly get used to it but these days I can jump into the cab, settle into ‘L’ mode and produce a relatively crunch-free ride. Only once yesterday did I miss a gear and that’s because I let my concentration lapse. I fear I may have been thinking ahead to tomorrow’s marathon drive with a 1929 Maudslay!

As I arrived at the station I had a definite feeling of déjà vu. I have been there many times in a heritage bus because that’s where Quantock Motor Services had its bus depot. And there to film my déjà vu moment was my friend Mike with his camcorder!

I had about 10 minutes before the train from Minehead arrived so I had a chat with a chap in the ticket office, just to let him know where the bus was parked. The first train of the day was also labeled the ‘Hestercombe Gardens Express‘ online and passengers booked on this excursion have a vintage bus journey and entrance to the gardens included in the price. The train arrived, hauled by GWR Large Prairie Tank no 4160. As the passengers left the platform I stood near the bus shouting, in my best bus conductor’s voice, “Anyone for Hestercombe Gardens? Bus leaving shortly!”

Only 7 people boarded the bus and, after conferring with the Stationmaster, I prepared to leave. I had a quick word with the passengers after checking that they all had tickets. I also explained that the journey would be ‘leisurely’ as this elderly bus doesn’t go very fast. In fact, it didn’t go very fast when it was new either. They all seemed happy and sat back to enjoy the ride.

My first hazard was a modern ‘Tally Ho’ coach parked just ahead of me beside some parked cars. I edged through, watching the front nearside wing and my mirrors intently. Our route included a quick blast down the A358 past Cotford St Luke and then through the suburbs of Taunton before turning onto Cheddon Road. Soon we were out into the countryside again and the road became a lane. I’d seen ‘Pitchers Hill’ marked on the map and had wondered how steep it would turn out to be. Third gear? Second? First even? With the hill now in sight ahead of me and knowing I had a light load I decided to give it a go in third, changing down well before the hill to enable the Gardner 5LW to wind itself up to full revs. The gradient was short and sharp and our speed soon fell away. The passengers, especially the gentlemen I suspect, must have been thinking “change down man, change down!” But I have a knack of knowing if my bus will make it to the top or not and I stayed resolutely in third gear. It’s a little game I play with my passengers, especially if I have a Gardner lump beside me. These engines develop plenty of torque way down into the rev range. Sure enough, just when you could begin to count ‘1-2-3-4-5’ out loud (OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration), our speed began to pick up and I allowed myself a little grin.

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Post-restoration duty for Bristol L KFM893

After about 14 months of restoration work on Crosville KG131, it fell to me to have the honour of taking it out on its first revenue-earning job. The 1950-built bus was waiting for me in the sunshine when I arrived and looked as if it had just emerged from the Finishing Shop at Eastern Coach Works. A five-figure sum has been apparently spent on the very thorough restoration, with lots of wooden framing and most of the aluminium panels being replaced.

KFM893-first-duty-1

In some ways it was a shame that more than half of the wedding duty would take place in darkness but, as it turned out, that gave me the chance to indulge in some night-time photography.

I had arrived with plenty of time in hand, just in case of unforseen delays due to the vehicle being fresh from the restoration workshop but the only thing missing was the little key to open up the tachometer head. The Workshop Manager soon found one for me and I was able to complete my walkaround checks. On starting the 5-cylinder Gardner 5LW diesel engine, there were clouds of blue smoke – typical behaviour while these engines are cold – but this soon cleared by the time I had left Weston.

KFM893 was numbered KG131 in the original Crosville fleet, but was later changed to SLG131 which is borne out by a small metal plaque which is still carried above the rear entrance door. It is fitted with slightly more plush seating than a standard bus and carries a Tilling dual-purpose livery. This being KG131’s first duty since restoration, I was feeling quite apprehensive as I drove out of the depot. It would be terrible if I dented or scratched it on its first trip!

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