Busman John’s Virtual Bus Rally

Of the many casualties of the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, the one that I have missed most this year is the opportunity to drive at various bus rallies and running days. Some organisations have run a virtual event instead, so here’s mine!

There are many buses I have driven or have seen that I would like to invite to my Virtual Bus Rally but I’ve narrowed it down to this selection. The captions describe my reasons for inviting them to my event.

Driving the 300 heritage service to Lynmouth

There are a handful of timetabled services and tourist operations in the UK which use heritage vehicles for a certain number of days. This summer I’ve had the chance to drive for one of them in Somerset.

Earlier this year I was invited by Steve Morris at Quantock Heritage to join the driver roster for his 300 service from Minehead to Lynmouth. At the time I had very little heritage driving work lined up so I agreed and signed up for a series of Wednesdays during the summer holidays. This was of course done with the knowledge and blessing of my full time employer Bakers Dolphin, as workloads are always lighter during the school holidays.

In a nutshell, the service runs two return journeys every weekday throughout the school summer holidays. It operates from outside the WSR railway station on Minehead seafront and ends in the car/coach park next to the Lyndale Tearooms in Lynmouth. The route goes through Minehead town centre, picking up outside the Co-op by request and then continues out of town to join up with the A39 to Lynmouth. As it is a timetabled public service, the 300 picks up and sets down at any of the bus stops along the route and is used by tourists mostly, including a good number of hikers heading for the high ground of Exmoor.

Quantock Heritage is able to use non-compliant (step entrance) heritage vehicles on this route because the DDA (Disability Discrimination Act 2005) rules have an exemption allowing a non-compliant vehicle to be used on up to 20 days per vehicle in a year. There are three single deck buses available for use so the summer period is amply covered.

The bus I used on all but one of my turns was newly-restored Birmingham City Transport 2257 (JOJ257), a 1950 Leyland Tiger PS2 with a 34-seat front entrance Weymann body. An interesting history of this batch of BCT saloons is on this Classic Buses web page.

On my first turn I was accompanied by Steve so that he could show me the ropes and we met at a farm on the outskirts of Minehead where the bus is outstationed. The bus is a testament to the skills of Steve and Andrew at Quantock who, together with an experienced joiner who was brought in especially, transformed this former tow bus from a gutted wreck into the smart vehicle pictured above.

For most of its former career 2257 was a ‘One Man Operated’ bus and this continues today, with a Setright ticket machine mounted on a plinth beside the driver. The bulkhead behind the driver’s seat has been cut away to provide access to the saloon and so that the passengers can communicate with the driver.

With all checks done and opening numbers written on the waybill, we set off for Minehead seafront. I used the journey to get used to driving the bus. I found that it was very similar to most of the PD2 and PS2 buses that I’ve driven before, including the rather heavy steering (compared to a Bristol L, for instance). The 9.8 litre Leyland O.600 engine tends to ‘hunt’ noticeably, which was my only gripe. This makes it difficult to drive smoothly at low engine revs because the engine speed is not constant but rises and falls rythmically.

I had to smile when issuing the first few tickets because it was me that set up the print run for the ticket rolls when I was a conductor in about 2007! The bus was about half full when we left at 10:05. Having left Minehead, I drove along the A39 with Steve behind me giving directions. Passing through Allerford, we arrived in Porlock and waited at the stop beside Doverhay car park until departure time. I had arrived early and this tendency plagued my first journey – I had been bombing along the main road at 42mph when 35 would have been ample! After driving through the narrow streets of the pretty village we took a right turn and followed the Toll Road, which climbs through the wooded slopes towards the edge of Exmoor. This avoids climbing the infamous Porlock Hill, of which more anon.

It was here that I met my first challenge: hairpin bends. There are two of them on the Toll Road and Steve talked me through the approach (go down through the gears to 1st). The first bend can’t be done in one go, even on full left lock so I had to virtually bury the nose in the hedge and then carefully roll backwards towards the armco barrier, unwinding the steering at the same time. Then slowly forward in 1st to re-apply full left lock to complete the turn. I was pretty breathless by then!

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To Crowcombe with a Thames Valley Bristol L6A

A recent outing with a vintage bus saw me doing a solo duty for a wedding in West Somerset.

This was one of a handful of private hire duties I’m doing for Quantock Heritage as I’m keen to keep my crash-box skills finely honed!

The duty was solo in more ways than one, because there was nobody around at the depot either so I had to prepare the bus on my own. Fortunately, having done a duty here back in February, I knew the drill and the bus had already been checked, washed and fuelled.

My allocated bus was Thames Valley S302 (GFM882), formerly Crosville KB73/SLA73. It is a 1948 Bristol L6A, the ‘A’ signifying that it was fitted with a 6-cylinder 7.7 litre AEC diesel engine, rather than the more usual Gardner 5LW or Bristol AVW unit. This bus was converted by Crosville to OMO format comparatively early in its career in 1958 and has remained this way ever since. The bulkhead behind the driver has been removed, the side window set at an angle and a mounting for a Setright ticket machine provided. You can see the layout in this view, facing forwards.

GFM882 was parked beside an even older bus, W. Alexander & Sons P721 (VD3433), a 1934-built Leyland Lion.

Eventually my preparations were all done and I could put the moment off no longer. Yes, I was a little hesitant having not driven a crash ‘box bus since September 2018 and had never driven this particular example before. Fearing that there would be ‘Much Grinding in the (Langley) Marsh’* I set off gingerly down the hill and round the corner into Wiveliscombe, managing to find all the gears successfully. Downchanging was a different matter however and I made a right hash of several changes as the bus wound its way through the narrow streets of the town. Thankfully I had the empty journey to the pickup point to brush the cobwebs off my technique.

I soon discovered that this L6A has a well set-up clutch brake which enabled me to make quicker up-changes than usual, which is very useful when changing up a gear on uphill gradients!

I had researched the route and locality previously, as is my custom, but I could easily have come unstuck at the venue had it not been for the timely presence of the bride’s mother. I was just about to turn into the drive of the big house where the bridal party was gathering when the aforementioned lady jumped out of a car that had been following me and told me that marquees and gazebos had been set up beside the house, leaving nowhere to turn the bus. Thanking her profusely, I re-positioned, let her drive up to the house and then reversed up the drive. That could have been awkward! In fact it was still tricky because of the limited space available in the lane in which to manoever through the narrow gate.

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