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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A typical day as a Bakers Dolphin coach driver

Life has been so hectic lately that ‘Busman’s Holiday’ posts have been regrettably thin on the ground. As promised in an earlier post, here is a flavour of a typical day in my new role as a Baker Dolphin coach driver.

During term time every available driver (except those away on tour) starts and ends his day with a school or college run. Most days will see me rising, blurry eyed, at about 5am (ugh!) ready for an early start at the depot. Regular practice is for the Operations Department to finalise the day’s roster by the evening of the previous day. Unfortunately this means that I won’t know what duties I’ve got until the previous evening, which leaves very little time to do my customary route planning.

As soon as I arrive I pick up my Work Tickets and the keys for my coach and greet some of my colleagues before heading off into the coach park to find my allocated coach. With up to 70 vehicles stabled there overnight, finding the right one sometimes takes a while! For the next 20 minutes or so I complete my walkaround checks and fill in a Defect Report. If anything is amiss – such as a blown bulb – this must be attended to before I can leave.

Depending on which school/college route I’ve been given, I may have to check with another driver or a member of the Operations staff if it’s one I haven’t done before. Although all the pickup points are listed on my Work Ticket the exact locations aren’t always clear. One route which I have done quite often is a Bridgwater College route which starts in Portishead, near Bristol. After a quick blast up the M5 for the first pickup, it meanders through the Gordano valley and into Clevedon to pick up students from a couple of places in the town. I continue southwards and into Yatton and finally Congresbury before re-joining the M5 for a short distance. Arrival at Bridgwater College is normally around 08:40. On busy days I will then have a series of short jobs, mostly conveying school children on swimming trips or other outings.

My favourite kind of duty is a private hire day trip, some of which last for the rest of the day after a school run. One such trip (as illustrated above) took in two venues in Devon. The coach was hired by members of a U3A group in Weston-super-Mare and I met them at the town’s coach park. I welcomed them on board, made sure they were comfortable and checked with the group leader about further pickup stops. After giving a safety talk over the PA we set off, picking up a few more passengers along Locking Road as we headed towards the M5 motorway.

The coach I had been allocated was a comfortable Mercedes-Benz Tourismo, which has an automatic dry-plate gearbox. From a passenger’s point of view, it feels like a manual box (with a pause between gearchanges) but the automatic transmission takes care of all the clutch work. It’s 10 years old and was bought second hand by Bakers Dolphin, with 3 others, from Swanns of Chedderton. I quite like driving these coaches although some of my colleagues don’t get along too well with having to wait for gearchanges to complete. They are rather ‘leisurely’ which is a pain when one is hoping for a swift acceleration!

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Summer 2018 heritage happenings

Alongside my coach driving duties for Bakers Dolphin, I’ve been able to keep my crash box skills up to date with some of the ex-Crosville heritage fleet.

YDL318-at-WSR-Steam-Fair

I had made it known that I’d be happy to do a few voluntary turns, if any came up. Towards the end of the summer term, Uphill Primary School in Weston-super-Mare had requested that a vintage bus attend the School and Village Fair in the school grounds. Crosville had provided a bus for static display for several years running and I was asked to take a bus – any bus – to the Fair. Mrs Busman John was keen to come along as well so we chose to take open top Crosville DFG81 (Bristol FSF6G 891VFM) as the weather seemed once again to be wall-to-wall sunshine.

The Lodekka hadn’t seen any action since the closure of Crosville in April so we went down to the depot early to make sure that she would start. Fortunately there were no problems so we drove the short distance to Uphill. After parking on the school field we left the bus open so that people could have a look around. Many did, most heading for the top deck! We had a look round the stalls and displays but, when we got back to the bus, found that I’d left the power on and some children were taking great delight in dinging the bell. Not only was it annoying for the nearby stall-holders but it might have depleted the batteries so I turned off the isolator when no-one was looking.

891VFM-in-BD-yard

At the end of the afternoon we took the scenic route back to the depot – via the seafront of course – which pleased Mrs Busman John, who was naturally riding up top. Sensing the need for a cheeky photo opportunity, I drove into Locking Road Coach Park and briefly parked the Lodekka among the Bakers Dolphin coaches!

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Heritage bus roundup: Spring 2018

Early Spring 2018 brought a flurry of heritage bus activity for me. Although we’re now well into a very hot summer, here’s a sample of what I was up to earlier.

This is a very attractive Bedford OB coach which was once operated by the original Crosville Motor Services in north Wales and now resides in Weston-super-Mare. It is now up for sale but I was asked to drive it up to Bristol to have its analogue tachograph calibrated as part of preparations for sale.

I’ve have driven this delightful vehicle several times before and I savoured the sounds from the very tuneful and distinctive gearbox. However I didn’t much like the steering, which is very heavy! I don’t know if this is typical of OBs because this is the only one I’ve driven (so far).

I saw this OB in Dorset recently, during on a birthday treat visit to Ringwood Brewery. I would have volunteered myself as a driver but Ringwood is quite a trek from Weston-super-Mare! If it had a canvas tilt on the back it would have looked exactly like the Bedford OB van that my grandfather used to operate (there’s a tiny me standing next to him). That was green as well!

One of the stalwarts of the Crosville fleet in recent years has been ex-Crosville Bristol FSF6G 891VFM and this is seen here having a thorough steam clean prior to its first outing of 2018. This was a trip down to Minehead to spend the day giving free rides to people who attended the Paw Patrol special event for children put on by the West Somerset Railway. I’ve driven at several of these events before and I was happy to be rostered as the driver. I really enjoy driving this Lodekka because I find it easy to drive it smoothly. It also has a good turn of speed (45mph+ on the level) thanks to having a rear axle from a¬†coach fitted.

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BBC Antiques Roadshow Park and Ride

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.

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Free bus tours with a 1952 Bristol KSW

Not long after my Birnbeck Pier duty (see previous post) I had the opportunity to run free bus tours around Minehead with a bus that’s very close to my heart.

ohy938-at-minehead-wsr

This is a duty that I’ve done many times before in support of the West Somerset Railway. This particular day was billed as a ‘Shaun the Sheep’ day, aimed at children of course, and one of the attractions on offer was the chance to have a free ride on a vintage bus.

I was thrilled to find that, for the first time on a private hire job, I’d been allocated a Bristol KSW. Crosville doesn’t own one of these in operational condition (although a genuine ex-Crosville example has just been taken north for a full restoration) so the one I was to drive was on loan from the Bristol Omnibus Vehicle Collection.

L8089 entered service with the Bath Services subsidiary of Bristol Tramways & Carriage Company in 1952 and was often in use on the long distance Bath – Salisbury route. This is where my family connection comes in. Salisbury is where my grandparents lived and L8089 would have driven past their house many times. I remember Bath Services Lodekkas (the successors to the lowbridge Bristol Ks) passing by when I stayed with my grandparents in the 1960s and 70s.

So now you can imagine my delight to be given this particular bus to drive! However, I tried not to let the mists of nostalgia cloud my vision while I prepared the bus in its compound near Minehead and drove it over to the WSR terminus to begin service.

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Thomas the Tank Engine revisits the WSR

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.

972EHW-Thomas-Day-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.

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