A Woolworths Wedding: branches everywhere!*

In the photo below you can see two double deck buses sitting serenely outside a country house but the tortuous journey they had to make to get there tells a different story.

The job in question called for a pair of red double deck buses to convey wedding guests from Huntsham Court in Devon to a church in Taunton for the marriage ceremony and back again afterwards. But what you need to realise, dear reader (and which also filled me with fear and a sense of foreboding), is that Huntsham Court lies in the middle of the Devonshire countryside.

The venue can be reached by several routes, all of which are narrow and twisty. But for drivers of highbridge double deck buses such as my colleague and me, it is the trees and their overhanging branches that present the greatest worry. As I researched the various routes on Google Maps I realised that I’d been to this venue before with a modern coach and that the road I had used then seemed to be the most suitable, although far from ideal.

The looming presence of overhanging branches near a farm and another on the driveway of the house itself was sufficiently worrying that I decided to drive the route in my car the day before so that I could get out and assess the clearance for myself. Having also driven one or two of the other potential routes, I reckoned that this one was do-able but only with the assistance of a conductor walking in front.

My conductor was Mrs Busman John, who has joined the team quoting the old adage ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’. Together we prepared London Transport AEC Routemaster RM1001 (1CLT) and collected my old friend Cherry on the way. She was conductress for the other bus, which we met at Tiverton Parkway where driver Andrew was waiting for us.

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Dunster shuttles with a 1934 Devon General AEC Regent

An ambition of mine, held for many years, has been to drive a Devon General AEC Regent I have known about for ages. My chance came recently when I was due to drive a rail replacement service for the West Somerset Railway.

Devon General was an independent bus and coach operator in south Devon, serving places such as Exeter, Torquay and Sidmouth. Its attractive maroon and ivory livery remained unchanged for decades until NBC Poppy Red replaced it in the early 1970s. Although the company took vehicles from builders such as Leyland and Guy, AEC products seem to have dominated and my rail replacement bus is an early example supplied new in 1934 as part of a batch to replace trams in Torquay. It was converted to open top form by Longwell Green, Bristol, in 1955.

The West Somerset Railway (WSR), with which Crosville Vintage has links, normally runs for 20 miles from Bishops Lydeard to Minehead but, due to ongoing engineering works on a level crossing just outside Minehead station, trains have to terminate at Dunster. On train operating days, three buses provide a link between the two stations, two of which are from the Crosville fleet and the third is a low floor decker from First, the local service bus operator.

On this day, the first of several I have lined up this season, I started the day by bringing a 1967 Leyland PD2/40 (ex-Stockport Corporation) from Weston-super-Mare to Dunster. This was a replacement bus for the usual open top Bristol VRT (see ‘In other news’ below). As I sat on the PD2 sorting out timetables and other paperwork I was joined by a WSR volunteer TTI (Travelling Ticket Inspector) who was to drive one of the vintage buses. He told me that he was more than happy to let me take the Regent as he had struggled previously with the gears. He was delighted then, when I told him about my long-held ambition to drive the Regent!

As soon as I had completed my checks, I took the opportunity to get to know the bus while it was empty as it needed re-fuelling before the day’s work. The first thing I noticed was the strangely offset steering wheel, similar to a Bristol K or L but more pronounced. One result of this was that, when hauling on the steering wheel, I found myself falling sideways off the slippery leather seat!

The cab has several reminders of the early origins of the bus, including quaintly worded instructions on how to start a cold engine and how to operate the chassis lubrication equipment. Next time I drive this bus I will take some photos.

Other than that, driving the Regent is similar to most other crash gearbox buses with the notable exception of the short pause between gears when changing up. This is because the AEC engine revs die away quickly compared to heavier engines such as a Gardner 6LW, which seems to take about 2 weeks to slow down especially when you are in a hurry to change gear!

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Vintage Allsorts: pre-season positioning moves

When a friend asks you if you could help move an assortment of heritage buses between two locations and you haven’t driven a half-cab bus for several months, what would you say?

Well, ‘yes’, of course! And so I did, with barely concealed excitement. A couple of days ago I spent a happy afternoon driving and shunting a variety of buses (and one coach) in preparation for what we all hope is a busy few months with private hire jobs for Crosville Vintage.

As I arrived at the location where some of the buses are stored I saw a Bristol L coach on a low-loader so I spent a few minutes inspecting it. A recent acquisition by private collector Jonathan Jones-Pratt, LTA895 (1266 in the Southern National/Royal Blue fleet) is a 1951 Bristol LL6B with a shapely Duple 37-seat body. Although complete, the brush-painted bodywork looks rather tired so it is going off for a thorough re-restoration. I was unable to view the interior but I suspect that it too will need some TLC. As the designation LL6B suggests, this elegant coach retains its Bristol 6-cylinder engine and I look forward to driving it one day. I’m rather fond of the melodious Bristol gearbox fitted to 6-cylinder engines. The ‘box fitted to Gardner 5-cylinder engines is not so tuneful, in my opinion.

HJA965EBut my first drive was a Leyland PD2, added to the Crosville fleet last year along with a PS1, of which more later. I’m quite familiar with the PD2 marque, having driven one regularly on sightseeing tours for several seasons in Torbay. This one, a 1967-built PD2/40 with Neepsend bodywork, was originally No 65 in the Stockport Corporation fleet in whose livery it remains today.

For many years it was a mainstay of the Quantock Motor Services heritage fleet but has now moved to Weston-super-Mare and is now one of four heritage vehicles in the active private hire fleet of Crosville Vintage.

Once in the cab, it felt a very familiar place and the slow tickover sound of the Leyland O.600 diesel engine next to me was very comforting. The 7-mile drive to the Crosville operating base, just outside Weston-super-Mare, was long enough for me to reacquaint myself with the 50/50 gearbox. By that I mean that it’s a manual 4-speed ‘box with synchromesh on 3rd and 4th gears but not on 1st and 2nd. So, to move between 1st and second, as well as down from 3rd, I had to use my trusty-but-rusty double-declutch technique.

Manoevering into the industrial unit which serves as an operational base for the private hire fleet was tiring. The steering on a PD2 is normally heavier than its Bristol counterparts but this was compounded by the fact that my arms are not as fit as they used to be. Several years of power-assisted coach driving has spoiled me!

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London Transport RT delivered to Kent

Last week I had my first half cab drive since March and it was a long distance delivery job for a new owner.

The AEC Regent III, 1951-built RT2591 (LYF316), came to Somerset in 2019 as part of a batch of purchases from the former Yorkshire Heritage Bus Company fleet. My friend Dave Moore and I had quite an adventure bringing this bus and a Wigan Leyland PD1 back (full story here).

Being suplus to requirements in Weston-super-Mare, RT2591 has now been sold to a gentleman in Kent so this was a solo delivery journey.

I hadn’t driven a bus with a pre-selective gearbox for several years so I had arranged to take the bus for a quick drive the previous afternoon, just to familiarise myself with it. Not the kind of task a driver can do safely when the bus is parked only 3 minutes from the motorway! Fortunately I recalled the required technique readily, helped by the fact that I’d watched several YouTube videos showing the driver in the cab of an RT. The thing to remember is that the pedal on the left (normally the clutch in a manual ‘box vehicle) is a gearchange pedal. A gear is selected in advance of actually needing it using the column-mounted selector. The pedal does the actual change when the time comes.

Confident that I knew my way around, I turned up before daybreak the next day to do my checks. It happened that there had been an overnight frost so my first job was to scrape away the ice on the cab windows! The 9.6 litre engine sprang into life readily enough but I began to get worried when it didn’t appear to be building up air. In the RT there aren’t any air pressure gauges. In fact the only dial in the cab is the speedometer! Instead, there is a metal ‘flag’ which hangs down in front of the driver when the air is low. Imprinted on the flag is the word ‘Stop’, making it abundantly clear that it’s not safe to move off. In this case, I couldn’t move off anyway because the gearchange mechanism is air-operated and I couldn’t engage any gear at all!

I revved the engine and waited for several minutes. Still no air. Time was ticking by and I was keen to get away as I didn’t know what delays I might encounter on the way. Not only that but my ticket for a return train journey had already been booked.

In desperation I sent a couple of messages and I soon learned that this particular RT is reluctant in the cold. A bit like me, in fact. The trick is to hold the gearchange pedal down while revving the engine. Lo and behold, within a few seconds after doing this, the ‘Stop’ flag withdrew itself into its box above the windscreen and all was well.

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Bristol Lodekka outing to Clevedon

My first heritage bus duty of 2020 was a wedding in Clevedon using ex-Southern Vectis 573, a Bristol Lodekka I have driven many times before.

It was also my first duty from Crosville Vintage’s recently established storage unit just outside Weston-super-Mare which is best suited to the double deck members of the fleet. There had been a vehicle change during the previous week because a London Transport RT had originally been allocated but this vehicle was still under repair elsewhere in the UK. I didn’t mind using YDL318 instead as I am very familiar with it. Besides, I have a Tilling winter uniform but not a London Transport one!

Also during the previous week I had used a couple of spare hours between school contract runs to carry out a recce by car in Clevedon because I was not sure about access for the bus into Clevedon Hall. This is a large hotel near the sea, formerly a private residence, which is a popular wedding venue. There is a driveway up to the original main entrance but there isn’t enough room to turn a bus around so I went into the hotel reception and found out that, when they have coach parties arrive, the vehicle reverses up the drive. I walked down and visualised a Lodekka doing a reversing manoever. Satisfied that it was all do-able, I went on to St Andrew’s Church which is only about 10 minutes drive down the road. There is a narrow one-way system serving the church where low hanging branches also posed a problem but I decided that there were alternatives!

Having earlier had a guided tour of the storage unit I arrived on the Saturday morning to prepare and do my walk round checks. Since having an engine overhaul last year, the Gardner 6LW seems to be reluctant to burst into life when cold so there were a few anxious moments while I coaxed the old girl into life. In previous years I remember she would fire up after a couple of turns. The storage unit soon filled with pungent exhaust smoke so I quickly brought the FS outside into the open.

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