The Railway Connection

Many of you will have followed my driving adventures since I was a lowly conductor and will know that the subject of railways has cropped up more than once. In fact it’s curious how often the buses I’ve conducted on – or have driven – have crossed paths with trains of one sort or another. Naturally, those hauled by steam locomotives grab my attention more than any others!


This was the scene a couple of weeks ago when the Sightseeing Tours bus was parked at Preston Sands halfway through the afternoon tour. The coastal road passes over the railway line by Hollicombe Beach and I’d spotted a plume of steam rising from the stationary loco as it waited for a path into Paignton station. Fortunately I had plenty of time to position myself for a photo before the train passed by. The loco was GWR 4-6-0 No 5029 ‘Nunney Castle’ which was hauling the Cathedrals Express into Paignton from Westbury.


Several years ago I was a conductor for Quantock Motor Services (sadly no longer trading) which had its depot right next to Bishop’s Lydeard station on the West Somerset Railway. I was able to see, hear and smell many steam-hauled trains while preparing buses.

Quantock used to provide a fleet of buses for a Christmas Park and Ride service into Taunton town centre and it was while conducting on one of these services that the bus I was on passed over the new Silk Mills bridge just as Gresley Pacific ‘Sir Nigel Gresley‘ passed directly underneath!

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Down the leafy lanes to Greenway House


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.


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…

Torquay’s Sightseeing Tours open top bus

To supplement my part time driving to Greenway House I have recently started doing a few days’ work with the English Riviera Sightseeing Tours bus. This is a Leyland Titan PD2/3 with Leyland body, converted to open top in 1962.


The operation of this bus is quite different to the Leyland Tiger PS1 that I drive for Greenway Ferry & Pleasure Cruises. The sightseeing bus is not running a registered service but pay-on-the-day tours and only runs when the weather is fine and there are enough passengers to make it worthwhile! The Greenway House bus runs to a timetable, from three different parts of the Bay. Bizarrely, both of these Leyland buses were built in 1947!

As you would expect, both buses are similar to drive. The biggest difference is that the open top PD2 is fitted with a 4-speed synchromesh gearbox whereas the Greenway PS1 has a crash box. This makes the PD2 easier to drive in terms of changing gear and I can perform quicker changes (helpful when climbing a hill) without crunching the gears.

The tour starts from Torquay Strand, beside the harbour (pictured above) and starts climbing immediately. Passing well-to-do Wellswood, we pause briefly on Babbacombe Downs to take in the stunning views. If the air is clear, we can see right round to Portland Bill, on the other side of Lyme Bay! After passing the famous Babbacombe Model Village, we retrace our steps towards the harbour but make a detour past the Hotel Gleneagles which provided much of the inspiration for the classic TV series Fawlty Towers, starring John Cleese. Then past Kents Cavern and down the Ilsham Valley to Meadfoot Beach. A stiff climb over the Lincombes comes next, followed immediately by a steep drop in 2nd gear to Torwood Street and back to the harbour.

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