Summer miscellany

Now that I’m working on the sightseeing tours 5 days a week and also some Saturdays for Crosville, life has become rather hectic of late. Hence the lack of new posts. So, to bring you up to date, here are some recent happenings in Busman John’s world.

VDV138S-Strand-Torquay

A significant sighting this morning was ‘Illustrious’, a Bristol VRT acquired by Rail River Link (the bus operation run by the Dartmouth Steam Railway & Riverboat Company) in 2013 from East Yorkshire Motor Services. Originally 938 (‘Warspite’) with Western National in 1977, it finally entered service last week on the 100 service from Torquay to Totnes via Paignton. It has spent much of the last 2 years in storage awaiting and undergoing an engine transplant. It arrived from EYMS under tow, having suffered an engine seizure before withdrawal. Now, wearing RRL branding over the existing EYMS livery, 938 is active once more in Torbay where it once operated (wearing Devon General fleetnames) when new. When I was working for RRL in 2013 I had a slim chance of driving 938 in service but, as it turned out, its return to active service has been rather protracted.

FD54FGG-Torquay-NT5

If you hadn’t already heard, the Leyland Tiger PS1 which was operated by Greenway Ferry to the National Trust’s Greenway House (Agatha Christie’s former summer home), has not run at all this year and rumour has it that the ferry and bus operations are up for sale. To fill the void, Rail River Link has acquired a 2004 Dennis Dart and is now operating it to Greenway House. NT1 runs to Greenway from the railway’s Churston Station and the early morning NT5 runs from Torquay. This is where I managed a quick passing shot of it a couple of days ago. FD54FGG is especially branded for the Greenway service and carries the name ‘Miss Jane Marple’.

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Down the leafy lanes to Greenway House

AHL694-Greenway-Road

A visit to Greenway House is an adventure not to be missed. And that’s before you set foot inside the National Trust’s Dart-side property! Just to restore the blog’s balance, I thought I’d describe a journey to Greenway in a vintage bus in a nutshell. It might tempt you to come down and try it for yourself!

The Agatha Christie Tour Bus, Leyland Tiger PS1/1 AHL694, actually makes three morning trips to Greenway every day that the house opens; one from Torquay, one from Paignton and one from Brixham. That’s followed by three afternoon trips to the same places, returning the visitors to their starting point. For the sake of this blog post, I’ll describe the run in from Torquay as it’s probably the most varied of the three.

Greenway-duck

When I arrive at Greenway Quay, where the bus is stabled, I’m usually greeted by the resident duck, closely followed by the ferryman’s dog. Sometimes quite literally. The duck usually flaps into the air to take refuge on the river.

When the bus is ready I drive it up the narrow, twisty lane from the Quay and through the village of Galmpton to reach the main road that connects the Bay’s three towns. The first of several hazards is met just a matter of yards from the Quay. The lane (still climbing) does a sharp turn around the estate’s North Lodge and, with a stone wall on both sides, I have to steer a particularly careful course to avoid scraping the side of the bus.

At this point the exhaust from the cold engine is still very smoky but, by the time I reach the main road, it begins to clear. Traffic is light as it’s only just gone 9 in the morning and I usually have time to park up opposite Paignton Pier for a few minutes.

AHL694-Paignton-seafrontI turn off the seafront road by Torquay railway station, where the sightseeing bus is stabled, and plod up the steep Falkland Road towards the top of Belgrave Road, my first stop. Annoyingly, there’s a set of traffic lights at the foot of the hill and, if they’re red, I always drop down through the gears in the hope that they will change before I get there. If not, it means a hill start in 1st and a snatch change into 2nd on a brief level bit before the road rises again.

A squeal from the front brakes announces my arrival at the junction with Belgrave Road. Anyone standing at the bus stop outside the Southpark Hotel will probably be nodding and saying “Ah, she must be just around the corner!”

Passengers are often picked up here and I issue tickets through the window behind me. Originally there would have been a sliding window but it’s been removed. I had to chuckle to myself a few weeks ago when one lady got on at this stop and asked “Do you stop at the harbour?” The answer of course was “yes” but I assumed that she wanted to alight there on the way back from her visit to Greenway. “How much is it?” she went on. “Twelve pounds, madam” I replied. She looked puzzled. “Really? Just to the harbour?” Then I realised that she only wanted to go to the harbour, not to Greenway at all. I had to politely explain that this was a tour bus to Greenway. I nearly added “Does this look like a Stagecoach number 12? Didn’t you see ‘Greenway House’ on the front and the side of the bus?” but thought better of it!

On down Belgrave Road through ‘hotel-land’ towards the seafront and Torre Abbey Sands. It’s here that three heritage buses are often found at the same spot.

3-heritage-buses-Belgrave-RoadIn this photo the Greenway PS1 has just passed one of the Rail River Link open top Bristol VRTs that I drove last year and is just about to pass the English Riviera Sightseeing Tours PD2.

Finally I arrive at Cary Parade, close to Torquay harbour, where more passengers are usually waiting. This is where my commentary starts so I don a headset and welcome everyone aboard. The commentary is the part of this job that I enjoy the least. I’ve had to work really hard to develop a reasonably entertaining script. Finding facts has been easy as I’ve lived in the Bay for about 30 years and additional research has been a doddle but my presentation and delivery is what I’d call ‘work in progress’. Not only that but I’d prefer to concentrate on driving the bus smoothly and safely so talking to the passengers at the same time has been quite a new discipline for me. I really envy the other Greenway bus driver – it seems to be second nature to him!

Only a few moments after setting off, we have to reverse our direction. A sharp turn around the Mallock Memorial calls for plenty of heaving on the steering wheel. We trundle along Torquay’s seafront, observing the Pavilion, Rock Walk and Torre Abbey on the way. The terrain is reasonably flat, apart from the short climb above Hollicombe, and soon we are passing Preston Green, the Redcliffe Hotel and Paignton Green. This is a busy bus route and most other drivers give a friendly wave although some of the Stagecoach drivers seem to think that waving at a vintage bus is not cool.

At the end of Paignton seafront we turn inland and cross over the railway lines. After the bridge there is a sharp drop, ending at a mini roundabout which heralds more squealing from the brakes. Then we pass Paignton’s ‘Big Tree’, except that now it’s not so big. Sadly disease took its toll and the once proud 92ft Monterey Cypress is a mere stump, albeit a very impressive one.

Passing the junction at the foot of Penwill Way we’re on a two-lane road which soon merges into one. It’s here that many impatient drivers try to squeeze past us, keen not to be stuck behind a slow old bus on the climb up to Waterside and Goodrington. It’s here that I make scathing (but good natured) comments about the pulling power of our bus, even doubting that it could pull the skin off a rice pudding.

Soon I’m changing down the gears in readiness for the turn onto the Galmpton road. There’s usually a line of traffic coming the other way but it’s not long before some kind soul lets me through. Passing through the village can be tricky, with parked cars and oncoming traffic presenting hazards and delays. But that’s nothing compared to the delights of driving down the lanes to Greenway. For a start the road surface is bumpy and, even at our slow speed, everything rattles. Then there’s other road users to contend with. Not only cars but delivery vans, dog walkers, tractors and horse riders. Last week I even met a dustcart coming the other way! Thankfully there are plenty of passing places and I’m glad the bus is no wider than 7′ 6″!

It’s a relief to finally pass through the gateway to Greenway House. A charming chap called Mike is usually there to ask how many passengers I have on board so that he can radio ahead to reception. If we have a full load they will mobilise extra staff to move people through as quickly as possible. We trickle down the driveway at about 10mph before pulling up near the reception building and, with a parp on the horn, I reverse the bus into a parking spot designated for the bus. I remind the passengers what time to meet the bus for their return journey and they disappear up the path to reception. For me, it’s a quick breather before taking the bus back up the lane for the 11:00 departure from Paignton seafront.

If I’m required to do all the timetabled journeys it’s a very full day and I normally return the bus to Greenway Quay after a 10.5 hour duty. I get two breaks during the day and, if the weather is warm, I like to wander in the gardens or sit on a bench overlooking the Dart estuary. There are times when I can imagine myself being here decades ago when Agatha Christie was living here. The illusion is completed by the distant sound of a steam train charging up the grade towards Greenway Tunnel and the elegant sight of PS Kingswear Castle paddling gently upstream…

Driving for Local Link: nearly but not quite

In my continuing search for employment I sent an on-spec enquiry to Local Link, (also known as Dial-a-Bus) one of my local bus service operators.

Local-Link-Optare

The photo above shows one of their buses in Paignton Bus Station today. It so happened that they were planning to recruit some more drivers so I was asked to come in for an interview. Of interest to the manager who interviewed me was the fact that I’d already been working for Rail River Link and it seems their Transport Manager had given me a good reference.

The interview went well but I had a few misgivings about the hours I would be required to work. They had no part time work available, only full time, which meant using up nearly all the driving hours that the VOSA rules allow. Putting that aside, all other aspects of the job seemed to be favourable. The Local Link depot is quite close to where I live and they use the same ticketing system as Rail River Link so I wouldn’t have had to learn a whole new system. A bonus: they employ a cleaner so drivers don’t have to wash their own buses before clocking off!

I went for an assessment drive in one of their Optare Solos. It’s a simple machine – you just point and shoot. In other words, it had automatic transmission in common with most modern buses designed for local service work. I found it a lot narrower than the Volvo Olympians I had driven in the summer and the interviewer commented that I’d probably get around much more quickly when I’d got used to the smaller size of the vehicle! I think he was trying to say that I was being more cautious than necessary.

Back at the depot, we talked about routes, hours and duties. The Transport Manager told me he wanted to start me the following Monday with a week of route training. I thanked him before I left to think it over.

Checking back over the duration of my recent Crosville duties, it turned out that there wouldn’t be enough driving hours available to drive for both Local Link and Crosville with a sufficiently comfortable margin. I didn’t want to curtail my heritage driving nor inconvenience either company if I was liable to run out of driving hours. I called the next day to decline the job offer.

I learned later that the Rail River Link manager (the one who had given me a glowing reference) had punched the air when he was told that I hadn’t accepted the job. We spoke recently and he wants me to drive for them next season. He also dangled a particularly juicy carrot before me, in the form of an ex-Devon General Bristol VRT which has been ‘repatriated’ from Yorkshire!