This private hire differed from my usual wedding jobs, the guest of honour was celebrating his 70th birthday and his family had laid on an open top bus to take him to a pub for lunch, a fact they somehow forgot to mention to the chap!
Sunday morning found me at the Crosville Motor Services depot in Weston-super-Mare where my bus was waiting. Originally, the hirers had asked for 891 VFM, the 1962 Bristol FSF Lodekka but she disgraced herself by breaking a piston ring and is currently laid up inside the garage looking very forlorn. Thus my replacement was LEU 263P, a 1976 Bristol VR. This isn’t a type of bus I’ve had much experience of driving! So I started off by trying to familiarise myself with the controls. Then complete the walk round check and get her out into the open. First problem was that I couldn’t close the front doors. Eventually, I realised that the emergency control outside the bus had been left on open! Then I found I couldn’t operate the front doors independently of the centre doors. In fact, I never managed that the whole trip. I’m not sure if there was a fault with the bus, or just me! Anyway, onto the open road and get a feel for the bus. Being a VR, there were several creature comforts I’m not used to, power steering, semi-automatic gearbox, self parking windscreen wipers! I’m definitely in the lap of luxury here!
MY first pick up was at Batch Farm Country House Hotel. I had been assured I could turn the bus around in their car park and as I drove along a single track road for half a mile towards it, I hoped my information was correct. It was a long way to reverse! When I reached the hotel, the car park to the front looked ominously small, but continued to the side and this looked a bit larger so I started to manoeuvre the bus when a young lady came bouncing over to tell me that if I carried on around to the back of the hotel, there was a huge car park where I would have no problem. She was right! I managed to swing the bus around there in one go.
I was rather early, so I turned the engine off and took a break. Just before the appointed time, a young man appeared by the door and told me the guests were waiting at the front of the hotel. It felt impolite not to offer him a lift and I fired up the engine and attempted to move off. Well, the engine was running and I had gears but there was no response from the accelerator. The bus crawled along at less than walking pace. Then in an uncharacteristic flash of inspiration, (for me at least!) I tried opening and closing the doors. Lift off! Obviously, the centre doors hadn’t closed properly first time. From then on, I only used the emergency controls by the front door.
The guests slowly boarded the bus, with most deciding to be brave and venture up top, or outside in old bus parlance, with three wimps staying inside, and I made my way towards Weston. I pulled up outside the house of the guest of honour, who was somewhat surprised to see members of his family looking down on him from the top of my bus! Once he’d got over the shock, he came onboard and I headed for Cheddar, following the scenic route. i.e. narrow Route! It wasn’t long before I had to stop to re-adjust my nearside mirror, which had been knocked back by a tree branch as I squeezed past a line of oncoming cars. Strangely, although I stopped opposite a layby, none of the cars following me seemed keen to get past. Once on the A371, I was able to pick up speed but always conscious of my top deck passengers who might get blown away. I carried on to Axbridge, passing the former railway station, and then Cheddar itself. Again, narrow roads were the order of the day and there were frequent stops to let oncoming traffic pass. At the foot of the gorge, I passed a stationary open top bus waiting to start a tour of the gorge. This might have been another VR but I didn’t have time to see properly before I started the ascent. Slow going of course, either due to the gradient or the narrow passes and several times I found myself in 2nd gear. The view of the gorge from my cab was impressive, and must have been amazing from the top deck. From there, I drove across to Wells and onto Rodney Stoke where lunch was being taken. I had been told by the hirer that I could use the car park and turn the bus around in a camp site immediately behind that. It was tight to get in but I made it without mishap. The entrance to the camp site didn’t look ideal to allow a full sized bus through but luckily, the inn car park was only half full and I was able to use that to turn around in.
The guests then disembarked and went off but very kindly offered me a drink with them. Coke, if you’re wondering! Whilst they enjoyed themselves, I set the tacho to rest and took the chance to have some sandwiches, followed by a book. There was a three hour gap before I was required again!
The three hours passed rather quickly, must have been a good book, and then the guests reassembled ready for the last leg back to Batch Farm. A much quicker return, as I didn’t have to take a scenic route and the roads were rather wider. As they got off at Batch Farm, one lady commented that she’d think twice about taking her car down some of the roads we’d traversed, she was amazed that I’d managed to get a bus through. I didn’t like to tell her she wasn’t the only one who was amazed!
Finally, the return, (off service?) to Crosville’s depot. Again without incident, although I did point out to the cleaner once I arrived, that there were several small twigs and leaves littering the upper deck floor! All that was left for me to do was complete the paperwork and head for home.
I can’t say this was my best drive, from a passenger’s point of view, possibly because I’m not used to driving VRs. I couldn’t manage to push the accelerator down smoothly and thus, I always felt there was a jerk as the power came on, although that could just be a quirk of this particular bus. None of my passengers commented on this but they might have been too polite to say so. I don’t think there’s that degree of control that you get in a bus with a manual gear change and clutch pedal but that might be my lack of experience in this type. Comments from other VR drivers would be welcome.
No more driving for Crosville for the next month but at the weekend, I’ll be at The North Norfolk Railway for a vintage transport festival. I’m not sure which buses I’ll be driving, apart from one turn on AJN 825, the 1939 Westcliff Bristol K, but I’m looking forward to it.