I spent a very long day assisting with the making of an episode of the BBC Antiques Roadshow last week, by driving a Bristol Lodekka on a Park & Ride service.
As well as having a glimpse behind the scenes as the programme was being filmed, I also had the pleasure of conveying most of the Roadshow experts on the bus. But my abiding memory of the day was that it left me completely exhausted!
I left home at 06:00 in order to pick up the bus and be in position by 08:15. As this was to be a very long duty, I had arranged for the bus (ex-BOC Bristol Lodekka LC8515) to be driven to an outstation just a couple of miles outside Minehead, which is where the programme was due to be filmed the next day. As I drove up the M5 in the pouring rain my heart sank as I knew that the cab of this bus is not watertight in any way. Walking around doing my checks left me soggy and even the Bristol AVW engine seemed reluctant to start.
My first task was to ferry the Antiques Roadshow experts from their hotel, where I also met my conductor Richard, to the West Somerset Railway station at Minehead. It was strange to see them up close and to exchange a bit of banter about the wet weather. One of them, clearly not a bus expert, asked “Is this a Routemaster?”
My instructions were to spend the rest of the day shuttling to and fro between the station and the Monday Market field, which was being used as a Park & Ride car park. I had looked it up on Google Maps previously and, while there did appear to be a tarmac track it didn’t seem to offer anywhere to turn the bus so, to avoid the risk of getting bogged down on account of the weather, I reversed the bus off the main road and down the track to the field. I was pleased to see in my mirrors as I slowly backed around a corner that a large part of the field had been recently covered with hardcore and stone chippings so, for the rest of the day, there were no problems getting in and out.
I’ve just enjoyed (is that the right word?) a couple of busy days at the West Somerset Railway, supporting its ‘Days Out with Thomas’ event 2016.
This year for the first time the event was held over three days instead of two weekends and two buses per day were provided by Crosville Motor Services to operate free vintage bus rides from Minehead station.
I was rostered for the Friday and Saturday so I was looking forward to a couple of days of fun. I always enjoy these turns as the format and route have become very familiar but they are quite tiring! One thing I didn’t have to do was to collect my bus from Weston-super-Mare first. Once again, another driver had kindly offered to bring it down the day before and park it on a farm outside Minehead.
Bristol LD6B 972EHW was delivered to Bristol Omnibus in 1959 as its LC8518 and was restored by the Bristol Omnibus Vehicle Collection in 2010. It has been in the custody of Crosville at Weston for much of the time since then and it has been well cared for. Several passengers commented on its superb condition during the 2 days. Outwardly it is indeed a fine specimen but I have to admit it is sometimes tricky to drive. The gearbox has seen a lot of use over the years, as you would expect. But, of all the Lodekkas of similar vintage I have driven, this one has the most awkward ‘box. There are offsets and ‘notches’ which sometimes prevent the driver from engaging a gear smoothly, notably 1st and 2nd gears. This adds a level of difficulty to a duty which is already full of challenges. Low branches, tight corners, narrow streets… you get the picture I’m sure.
Compared with a normal private hire job, where there is quite a bit of open road running, these Minehead trips are full of cornering and gearbox work. That means that the workload for the driver is quite high – must be a bit like the old days! Of course, the bus feels a lot heavier when fully loaded and this was very evident on Saturday when, as you can see from the photo at the top of this post, there were long queues for the bus.
My second ‘appearance’ at the West Somerset Railway in support of its celebration of the Somerset & Dorset Railway was just as exhausting as the first one but equally, just as rewarding.
Leaving home at 04:30 is unusual for me – I’m not normally called upon to work such long shifts. Plus, living so far from the Crosville Motor Services bus depot in Weston-super-Mare is a burden worth carrying when it comes to Gala days like this one. Once again I prepared my bus, ex-Crosville Bristol VRT DVG260 (HTU159N), for its long duty.
I arrived at Taunton Railway Station with plenty of time in hand so I had a chance to eat a late breakfast. Sadly, it came out of a Tupperware box* rather than the kitchen of the Quantock Belle which I would have preferred! I wore my traditional 1960s bus uniform, including a matching heavy overcoat. I was glad to have this because the weather, although forecasted to be bright and reasonably warm later, was decidedly chilly at this time in the morning and there are no heaters fitted to this bus! Moving up to the bus stop next to Platform 2 I loaded a handful of passengers for Bishops Lydeard, most of whom were carrying rucksacks and camera equipment.
The journey to the WSR’s southern terminus only takes about 20 minutes and the first departure of the day was waiting in the station as we arrived at the coach stop. Even at that time, the car parking spaces at the station were filling quickly and I made a mental note to use the service bus stop (which has a clear run to the station exit) on the other side of the bus shelter next time.
My next run from Taunton was far busier, with an almost full load. It took me several attempts to leave because, as soon as I pulled away, more people would emerge from the station and clamber breathlessly aboard. Even after circumnavigating the station car park I was flagged down by three more passengers, including one in a wheelchair. Getting him and his chair onto the bus was a bit of an ordeal because there was no raised pavement nearby. The VR made light work of the heavy load, thanks to the powerful Gardner 6LX engine and power-steering! I heard one of the passengers, who obviously also had an interest in buses, say to his friend as they boarded “Great – a bit of Crosville VR thrash”. The Bristol VR has a pleasingly raucous engine note and I love to hear it when it’s working hard. But I’m not one for thrashing buses so my usual, smooth driving technique prevailed. Although I may have been quite firm with the ‘loud pedal’ once or twice…
My latest duty for Crosville Motor Services involved another trip to Minehead in support of the West Somerset Railway. It was an action-packed day which included a surprise appearance by a bus I have been itching to sample for ages.
Rising at silly-o’clock-in-the-morning for an early drive up from Torbay, I booked on at 08:00 at the Crosville depot in Weston-super-Mare. The previous weekend I had done the same duty so the early start was slightly easier to cope with. On the first occasion I led a convoy of three heritage vehicles, a closed top Bristol Lodekka, an open top Lodekka and an open top Bristol VRT. The reason being that, by common concensus, I knew the route to Minehead better having done it twice before already. One of these, ex-Bristol Omnibus 1959 LD6B LC8518 (972EHW), was left in the First bus depot in Minehead as it was required on both weekends. The duty, as previously, involved providing free bus rides for those attending the special event at the West Somerset Railway (WSR) which, on these two weekends, was a ‘Days Out with Thomas’ event.
Owing to the fact that my rostered bus was already in Minehead, I travelled as a passenger on ex-Crosville KG131, a 1950 Bristol L5G (KFM893), with my friend Dave Moore at the wheel. It was unusual for me to be riding in the passenger saloon and I was surprised at how quiet it was, compared to the racket that I’m used to hearing in the cab! Admittedly it’s a very agreeable racket.
The action kicked off at about 10:20 but, until the first train arrived from Bishops Lydeard with more passengers, takers for the free bus rides were few. Conductor Kemble and I were in charge of the closed top Lodekka and we clocked up a grand total of 3 trips in the morning. As predicted, the open top Lodekka, 1961 ex-Crosville DFG81 (FSF6G 891VFM) was the most popular with people eventually queueing up to board before it had even arrived back from its previous trip.
Our 15-minute route was the same as before – a short jaunt up the main street and then along the seafront to Butlins and back – just long enough to give people a few good views and of course a decent ride on a vintage bus!
Yesterday dawned slowly. In other words, it was barely getting light at 7am when normally it would be bright enough to set the senses jingling at the prospect of a new day. It hadn’t improved much by the time I left home for what may possibly be my last conducting turn on the Service 400 ‘Exmoor Explorer’. Arriving at the Bishops Lydeard garage of Quantock Motor Services I was rather alarmed to see Bristol LDL6G VDV752 already out on the road and ready to go. Even more worryingly, there was already a conductor inside! However, it turned out a ‘clerical error’ had been made in the office and the aforementioned conductor left soon afterwards. Home to bed again, I was told.
We proceeded up to Porlock for breakfast, about an hour’s drive with an empty bus, through several showers of rain. On the way we passed through the appropriately named village of Washford (above). Today, I decided, it should be re-named ‘Awash-ford’. Arriving at Porlock’s Doverhay car park, I decided to delay wiping down the upper deck seats until AFTER we’d had breakfast at the Lorna Doone Hotel. I needn’t have worried. There weren’t any passengers to occupy them. We departed, still empty, for Minehead and parked at the seafront stop in a huge puddle of rainwater.
This past weekend was spent conducting on the Service 400 ‘Exmoor Explorer’, running two trips from Minehead seafront each day.
As regular readers will know, this service lost its County Council subsidy earlier this year and the operator, Quantock Motor Services, decided to continue with a shortened season on a commercial basis. The service has been running at weekends, Tuesdays and Thursdays during the school holidays. The adult return fare went up from £7.00 to £10.00, which is a huge increase on last year but I presume this was done in order to at least break even.
The loadings so far have been disappointingly low, by all accounts. This weekend was no exception. The weather of course is a significant factor but even so, we only carried 5 people on the first trip on Saturday and one of those got off at Exford!
The sun came out at lunchtime and drew in a few more passing punters but even so, we only carried 26 on the afternoon trip. In previous years we would be almost full on a day like that. The round trip is still great fun, even though my driver gave us quite a rough ride. He tended to lift the clutch very sharply and banged the gears in noisily when he couldn’t be bothered to wait for the engine revs to fall away. Such a shame, when I know how much more smoothly it can be done.
And so another seasons ends. The final weekend of services on the ‘Exmoor Explorer’ route was operated under clear skies and brilliant sunshine. A bonus for bus enthusiasts on Sunday was the addition of a Leyland PD3 parked behind our Bristol Lodekka during the lunchtime break between services.
XTF98D is a Leyland PD3, built in 1966 for the Haslingden (Lancashire) corporation as their Fleet No 1 but renumbered 45 when that company’s fleet merged with that of Rawtenstall to form ‘Rossendale’, whose livery it wears today. It had just dropped off a private party outside the railway station at Minehead.