Friday, 21 December 2012

2012: A Special Year In Pictures

It's now just over three years since a tow truck drove into my world with a big green pest tied to the back of it.

Before then, life was probably peaceful, predictable and calm - I'm now too tired to remember. But I'm glad to say it hasn't been any of those things ever since.

In this special festive post - a review of 2012, our friend's 50th anniversary year - new readers will come to understand why the chaotic life is altogether more exhilarating and fulfilling. Our friends of old will smile and nod as we relive the joys and pains of an incredible 2,500+ miles of motoring in the naughty but entirely lovable Bristol SU coach we count as 'our friend'.

Click the links to read what we wrote as we went along...

2012 began with the loo roll list, the menu of Winter tasks so long that only a toilet roll could provide sufficient length for its scribe. You'll recall that 270 KTA had made its tentative return to the road only six months earlier, after a long illness.

Among the jobs ticked off before Spring was the changing of the injector pipes, the correction of a leaky hub, changing of the filters, fitting of a newly dipped steering wheel, fitting new batteries and associated cleaning up and chassis painting underneath. And that was just sheet one...

Of course, nothing is ever as easy as the forecast, and the beleaguered expression of your scribe suggests there could be easier Winter sports than trying to get an SU back on the road...

Yet, back we were by April - briefly. Our third attempt at attending the Penzance Vintage Bus Running Day was a success only in as much as we got there and back. A blown manifold gasket resulted in some of the loudest noises you can reasonably imagine a little four-cylinder Albion engine being able to make, and I decided to spare the public a noisy ride - and myself the embarassment. We limped home, but not before I'd taken a photo which proved that, at long last, our friend had been to Penzance...

I had a week to patch things up before the wedding of friends Linda and Mark, whose guests I'd promised to transport in style. With gaskets bunged up with Gun Gum (brilliant stuff to get you home - and to weddings...), we made it. I'm very glad we did.

The changing of the gaskets was an unpleasant job, but rewarding in its own way. With a week to spare, it was finished in time for a busy weekend in May, when BBC Radio Devon's two most devoted listeners joined us for a cream tea outing to Slapton Sands in the morning...

... and in the evening, the guests of the Stagecoach South West Long Service Awards posed alongside 270 KTA for their official photographs. Here, our friend waits patiently for her owner to stop making bad jokes on stage at Sandy Park, hallowed turf for Exeter Chiefs fans.

With another MOT success in June, albeit an eventful one, 270 KTA would be good to go for the celebratory tour I'd planned to coincide with the week running up to the 50th anniversary of her delivery to Western National in June 1962.

Beginning at the Weymouth rally, we visited each of the areas in which 270 KTA had worked during its time with Western National and Devon General between 1962-76 - in most cases, for the first time since then. We recreated photographs around Weymouth, Trowbridge, Bridgwater, Taunton (above) and Newton Abbot, ending up with a celebratory picnic in the former Kingsbridge depot yard - her original home - on the anniversary itself. It was one of the proudest weeks of my life, and the 50th Anniversary Tour write-up makes for a heartwarming read.

With confidence building in our steed, the annual Royal Blue and Associated Motorways Run didn't seem as daunting as it had done last year, when I concluded that our friend wasn't yet in good enough shape. Not so for 2012, when we successfully completed the run from Exeter to Salcombe, Plymouth, Bodmin and return to Bath.

Peter Murnaghan's fine on-the-road shots show 270 KTA passing Liskeard in the company of best friend 275 KTA, a more accomplished (and slightly faster) member of the Sheppard family. Incidentally, rumours that our friend was overtaken by a cyclist on this run are entirely true...

The annual Plymouth Hoe rally gave an opportunity to catch up with Trevor Layland, a former Western National driver who was based at Totnes for many years. Trevor used to drive the SU coaches a great deal (most often 1222), and having exchanged photographs in recent months I thought we'd better see if he still looked comfortable in the seat. He did!

August witnessed the coming of age for long-suffering Conductor Farley, a great supporter of 270 KTA even if not the greatest admirer of its type. By way of persuading him of its merits, we organised a trip across Dartmoor for 30 of his pals. Despite selecting one of the hottest days of the year (and consequently boiling up on a particularly tough hill), we made it to Princetown for a heavy lunch at The Plume & Feathers. To say the Cornish can drink...

Yet more old friends turned out for our favourite event of the year, TV&GWOT's Kingsbridge Vintage Bus Running Day, in the shape of Brian and Ron, the only Western National Kingsbridge drivers still alive today. They remembered our friend very clearly, and had no idea it was still going. Another emotional moment for 2012.

Fortunately or unfortunately, they weren't able to join us to sample my own driving on the notoriously hairy East Portlemouth route, which we conquered successfully for another year, though with little regard for the timetable...

A second return to Wiltshire came in October, and a very welcome chance to carry passengers on some of our friend's old Trowbridge-area routes at the Warminster Running Day. This was glorious, and will henceforth become an annual pilgrimmage.

Making the most of the 50th year, activity has continued well into the Winter of 2012. TV&GWOT supported an event in November hosted by First Great Western on the Liskeard-Looe branch line, which saw the return of the Great Western Railway Society's steam rail motor to Cornwall. Toegther with Colin Billington's Bristol H, 270 KTA provided a connecting bus service which followed the train, Titfield Thunderbolt-style, through the Cornish countryside.

The first of the two weekends went swimmingly, though the second was marred for us by gearbox troubles which, typically, I've been unable to replicate now the time has come to investigate. Better add it to this Winter's loo roll...

And so it is that the pest of old has brought adventure and joy to the lives of many over the past twelve months. More than 2,500 miles, well over 500 passengers, it's surely been a most glorious 50th year for 270 KTA. And, as I look back on the 1,000+ photographs I've taken to prove it hasn't all been a dream, I realise it's been a very special year for me, too. Chaotic, exhilarating, fulfilling... and very special.

Happy Christmas to all who follow our adventures - there'll be many more in 2013...

Friday, 23 November 2012

Whine On

I'm glad someone can smile...

There's mixed news from Camp SUL. The good news is that our friend has found a way of persuading me that, after 2,500 miles of successful motoring this year, now is the time for Winter hibernation. The bad news is that we may now have a major job to add to the list...

(Is it me or does the smile get bigger when trouble has been caused?)

Sunday's trip to help out with the second weekend of heritage train and bus services in Looe didn't go so well. A gentle whine, which has nagged my conscience since Warminster last month, developed into something less subtle on the jouney down to Cornwall, and culminated in some 'oribble grating sounds coming from the gearbox (nothing new there, I hear you quip, as I sob into my whi... I mean, wine).

We made it to the event but didn't take part, Penzance-style. 'The nasty noise' became more frequent, even on tickover, and was about as painful a noise as an owner could wish for his vehicle to make.

There's almost certainly a bearing breaking up in there. The knackered bearing would explain the whine, and 'the nasty noise' could be bits of the bearing being churned around the gearbox. Not nice.

So we limped home in fourth gear (which doesn't turn the lay-shaft in the gearbox, and therefore doesn't whine at all), and 'the nasty noise' soon disappeared - presumably the alien intruder had long since broken up.

On Sunday I'll drain the gearbox, and I'll show you what comes out. It's probably going to mean having the gearbox out over the Winter, and I already had plenty of jobs to do. But I can't really complain. We got home.

Sheppardian philosophy says: In every bag of sweets there are the horrible yellow ones that taste so disgusting you can barely swallow them. But if we do, they make the lovely red ones taste even more delicious when you get them. Yesterday, after months of charmed chewing, I picked a yellow one.

A revolting yellow whine gum.

Monday, 12 November 2012

A Day in Looe

Now the rally season is done, I've been busily preparing a blog post on Winter hibernation.

It tells you all about the work I plan to carry out while 270 KTA enjoys a well deserved rest from motoring over the Winter months. Hub studs, the gear linkage, that horrible crack in the windscreen...


I can't post that yet, because our friend refuses to hibernate.

This weekend saw a special visit of the Great Western (Railway) Society's newly restored steam rail motor to the Liskeard-Looe branch line in Cornwall, and on the request of First GreatWestern, TVaGWOT ran a free heritage bus service for the punters to enjoy once they'd ridden on the train. Pish to hibernation...

Main traction for the day was to be Colin Billington's Bristol H, which would have conceivably met Churchwood rail motors like this at stations in the 1930s/40s, and extra capacity was to be provided by our friend - the comparitive youngster of the day - as and when required.

As it turned out, interest in the buses was such that 270 KTA ran (and with good loadings) on all but one of the runs. A bonus for some, and "the highlight of the day" for others, including a woman from Lowestoft who practically welded her finger to the name of the town when she saw it on 270 KTA's builder's plate. "I was built here too...."

The route from Liskeard to Looe, via St Keyne and Duloe (Western National's Service 69), was quite a sod to drive. With hairpin bends preceeding unannounced hills and narrow bridges, not to mention stretches of road lined with photographers waiting to photograph the buses and steam motor side by side, it's a wonder we managed to beat the train each time. Western National allowed 45 minutes in the 1930s, we just about did it in 35.

Chasing a steam train through the Looe valley in a Bristol SU was a magical experience, and one I won't forget. It was like we were in The Titfield Thunderbolt.

 (Wonderful photos of the Steam Motor and tiny 270 KTA from across the water come courtesy of Peter Murnaghan, who underestimated how much I'd enjoy them!)

Shame you missed it, really. But don't worry...

We'll be doing it all again next Sunday!

So, if you regularly read this blog but haven't yet met 270 KTA, we insist that you join us for a ride. This really will be your last chance before hibernation in 2012...

(Right, Sheppard.)

Tuesday, 9 October 2012


Return to Standerwick, please…

At Standerwick Garage, 1969/1970
At Standerwick Garage, 2012

Sunday’s Warminster Running Day was pure magic. It was my first as a driver, and I spent much of it smiling to myself. Not only was our friend in fine fettle, but we were watching history repeat itself…

270 KTA’s association with Wiltshire goes back to 1968, when she was transferred from Kingsbridge to Trowbridge depot. And it’s an interesting period in her life for so many reasons.

‘Normals’ - our non-enthusiast readers – may like to look away for a minute...

Firstly, Trowbridge was a remote bit of the Western National network, and 270 KTA (like 281 KTA, which she replaced there) was the only Bristol SU in town.

Secondly, there’s a controversy. The Trowbridge operation was, on 1st January 1970, given up by Western National and absorbed into the Bristol Omnibus network – quite appropriately when you look at a map. Both legend and records show that Western National were quick to move-in all the vehicles they didn’t want – older buses like KS and LS saloons, as well as some FSFs they’d bought secondhand from Bristol only years before – and they quickly scooped up everything they wanted to keep.

All the records show that 270 KTA was scooped, to the safety of Western National’s Taunton depot, in December 1969. But was she?...

Here’s the dark secret to which I referred a few months ago. I have several photos of our friend in the snow of late-1969/early-1970, all of them in Wiltshire. One is even dated January 1970, by which time Bristol Omnibus had firmly moved in. So it could be that she stayed on, and it could be that she did work for Bristol Omnibus – the only SUL ever to have done so – if only for a few days or weeks.

It’s hard to say conclusively. The transfer of Trowbridge to Bristol Omnibus was notoriously messy. Photos show the buses carrying fleetnumbers of both fleets simultaneously. Here's 270 KTA below the depot canopy at Trowbridge with the ‘Western National’ lettering removed, but no ‘Bristol’ name yet in place...

For those with an interest in Bristol Omnibus – myself included – it’s quite a tantalising thought. Would she have become ‘309’? Would she have gained OMO livery? Would she have been transferred to another Bristol depot eventually? Overhauls at Lawrence Hill? Struggling up Park Street? See, tantalising…

If 270 KTA did stay on to help for a bit, it’s unlikely to have been official. Western National hadn’t long shelled out to have her converted to dual-purpose configuration, and they had plenty of work for the converted SUs at that time. And frankly, it would have been an undesirable thing for Bristol Omnibus to inherit, a lone SUL, an uncommon vehicle in its own right and unique in the fleet (though they did have SUSs, of course). Despite the age of the LSs and K-types they did end up with, they were at least ‘standard’.

To me, it’s fascinating.

… and ‘Normals’, back you come again.

Thirdly, it’s a really lovely part of the world. The towns and villages are distinctly west country in their feel, and the countryside is plentiful. It’s a peaceful bit of blighty that often gets forgotten.

Yep, magic. It was 270 KTA’s first passenger carrying exploit in Wiltshire for over 40 years, and we carried almost 200 people. They ranged from twenty year old Rich, having his first ride on an SU, to a former Western National driver from Totnes who used to drive the SU buses in the 60s.

“He didn’t comment on the driving once” said his pal as they jumped off at Frome. “That means you were okay.”

“Better than that - I’ll pass you”, said the driver. “I used to do the training.”

Sometimes a little pat on the back sends you to the moon. Naturally, I cocked up every gear-change on the journey home…

Also at Frome we met another of 270 KTA’s old drivers. He accused our friend of getting him a caution in June 1970 (when at Taunton), having run out of fuel in Wiveliscombe. Apparently you were supposed to check these things…

Fortunately I did. 386 miles later, averaging 21 mpg, we completed yet another successful mission, and our final rally of 2012: 270 KTA’s 50th year. Who’d have thought we’d complete the best part of 2000 miles without incident?

See - Magic…

Photos courtesy of "Beckingtonian" (Standerwick 1), Luke Farley (Standerwick 2) and Darren Harris (Warminster) - many thanks to them.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Heart Warmin'(ster)

The postman brought good news for our friend today...

Warminster Running Day, a week on Sunday, will see 270 KTA back in service on two of the routes she worked between 1968-70.

The 242 - between Warminster and Westbury - and the 247 - between Westbury and Frome - would have been staple routes during her time at Trowbridge depot.

As with Kingsbridge, it's especially magical to ride on a vehicle knowing you're recreating history with uncanny precision. So come along and see us.

To tempt you, here we are at Dilton Marsh, recreating part of the 247 on 270 KTA's 50th Birthday Tour in June. I suspected then we might be back soon...

Monday, 17 September 2012

On Time

Can you believe it’s twelve months since we were chased up the road by a lady on a broomstick?

Yes, it's 52 weeks since we had to limp back from South Pool with a broken injector pipe and a full-load of passengers, spilling fuel over the road as we went… 365 days since we had to perform a 9-point turn in East Prawle when Sheppard mis-read his instructions...

This year’s Kingsbridge Bus Running Day was slightly less dramatic for our friend, but equally enjoyable – if not moreso for her long suffering owner-driver.

Here's our friend, reunited by chance with Brian and Ron, who proudly claim to be the last two ex.Kingsbridge drivers still with us. Between them they drove most of the vehicles at Kingsbridge in the 50s and 60s, before being made redundant when the depot closed in 1971. Both still local men, they turned out for the running day and wandered up to the old depot building, only to find their old coach lurking round the side... 

Brian and Ron both remember 270 KTA with remarkable clarity. They drove her on Dartmoor tours, Royal Blue duplicates, the lot. They remember her being sent away from Kingsbridge in 1968, and not getting her back. It was incredible to hear.

This is why bus rallies are good, but Running Days are better. The vehicles are back in their own environment, doing what they used to do, summoning up long-forgotten memories for those who were there first time around, and passing them on to those who weren't. I lapped up every word.

Brian told me about the day a new state-of-the-art diesel pump was installed on the forecourt at Kingsbridge; and then about the following day, when he took it out with the side of a bus and got himself suspended for two days. Ron told me about the time he got an SUS stuck on a hill on the East Portlemouth route because the farmer's cows had "made the road slippery". 

(And, by the way, guess which route I was about to drive?...)

They spoke about these things as if they'd happened yesterday, and looked at me in horror when I mentioned that 270 KTA had just celebrated her 50th Birthday. So yes, time does fly.

Especially when you're having fun.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Home By Night

Twas the night before Christmas...

Not quite, but just as magical. Here's our friend outside her former depot on Friday night, having completed a route learning tour to East Portlemouth.

In fact, twas the night before the 5th Kingsbridge Vintage Bus Running Day.
More to follow soon on the morning after the night before...

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Infamy, Infamy...

Unlike a career in radio, owning a bus means you get recognised.

How lovely to meet so many people at Sunday’s Plymouth Hoe rally who knew all about 270 KTA’s exploits as soon as they saw her.

“Got any springs, David?”, came a shout as I parked up.

“I found these and thought of you” said another, pressing some photographs of SUs into my hand. Brilliant.

“Good to see she made it -- this time” came another cry. Bloody cheek.

When I started writing the blog two years ago, it was my intention to share all the bits of bus preservation which are normally hidden behind barn doors, where things tend to look very different to the scenes we enjoyed on the Hoe on Sunday. Little did I think that over 12,000 people would find it a thing of interest, many of them making it a regular place to visit…

I’m thrilled – it’s great to know you’re there.

I only hope that our run of recent successes (Sunday included) won’t discourage those who enjoy the more sadistic element of reading the blog. Rest assured, there’s much potential for late night despair and jeopardy in the next few weeks as I try to renew the studs in 270 KTA’s nearside rear hub.

All the studs have been replaced with bolts of various sizes over the years, and all are working themselves loose with use. It’s going to be a horrible job, with each stud needing to be specially machined down to size; plus, it’s going to need to be done against the clock if we’re to make our next appointment in the rally calendar, published here in a moment of foolhardiness a few months ago.

See, you’re already interested.

Speaking of the calendar, I’m pleased to add to it the Warminster Running Day on October 7th, when 270 KTA will be retracing her 1968 steps on some of Western National’s Wiltshire routes. It’ll be a fitting close to the rally season in her 50th year, and great to meet again some of the new friends we made on her Birthday tour.

See you there too? You're sure to recognise one of us...

Photographs courtesy of Laurence Mayhew - very nice they are, too.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Royal Success

Our more forensic readers will have noticed an inconsistency in the blog since it started: sometimes 270 KTA is described as a bus, and sometimes as a coach.

For the uninitiated, there is a difference. Buses are designed for short journeys, and are generally less opulent than their long-distance coaching cousins which are purpose built with passenger comfort as a priority. The difference between an SU bus and an SU coach is marked. Our friend is really a coach, built with a high floor and posh seats, but was later modified to make her suitable as a ‘dual-purpose’ vehicle – she could be used as either a bus or a coach as the occasion called.

So the inconsistency can be excused.

But this weekend, 270 KTA was definitely a coach.

The annual Royal Blue coach run has become one of the highlights of my year. For people like me who never got to enjoy the halcyon days of coach travel, recreating the old coaching routes with preserved vehicles is the nearest I’ll get…

… and it’s always pretty convincing.

We avoid the by-passes and the motorways and stick to the old roads, some of them long forgotten. We drive into the tiny villages long neglected by public transport, and as I mentioned in my last post, we collect hundreds of waves along the way.

Friday’s leg of the run was from High Wycombe to Exeter, via Reading, Salisbury and Honiton; given the mileage up-country, I decided against bringing our friend along for this bit, instead travelling down on brother 275 KTA (a long-established member of the wider Sheppard fleet – and always a coach, having never been converted to dual-purpose).

Indeed, between Salisbury and Exeter I drove him for the first time. He’s a little more refined than our friend, but then we’ve had him for a long time. Very nice indeed.

Some suggested I’d better wash my clothes before Saturday, when 270 KTA would smell the scent of another SU on me. As it happens, they’re actually good friends (as witnessed by their beaming smiles whenever they’re together), and a reunion on Saturday morning would turn out to be a wonderful occasion for us all.

Indeed, a far cry from when I first saw them together in 1996…

Saturday’s journey took us from Exeter coach station (an old haunt for both), along the coast through Dawlish and Teignmouth, towards Torquay and Paignton, Dartmouth and Kingsbridge, and finally Salcombe. 270 KTA proved to be a little slower than 275 KTA on the hills, but they held their own against the much larger Royal Blue coaches they would have worked behind as duplicates in the 1960s.

Colin and Helen Billington threw a fantastic party on Saturday night to celebrate having owned their Royal Blue Bristol LL coach for 40 years (see – it’s not just me who marks these things), and it was one of those brilliant occasions when like-minded people come together to have a great time. I think the coaches enjoyed themselves, too.

Speaking of occasions, Sunday marked fifty years since 270 KTA was first registered with the DVLA. It’s a less notable ‘birthday’ than the one we celebrated the week before last (that of her delivery from the factory), but how brilliant that she should spend the road on a long distance journey from Plymouth to Bath, via Bodmin, Okehampton, Exeter, Glastonbury and Wells.

I won’t give more than a brief mention to what happened on the immediate approach to Plymouth; we’ve heard enough about throttle springs breaking already, and it would be as much of an annoyance to revisit that on the blog as it was at the roadside… so that never happened. Alright?

(Okay it did – but I have some new springs on order, so it won’t happen again for a very long time…)

Otherwise, both SULs performed faultlessly, as did all the seventeen coaches. Those who set out for Bath made it, and as far as I know, all made it home again.

With the best part of 1,000 miles under our belt in the past fortnight, I’m beginning to feel much more confident in 270 KTA’s readiness for longer runs. That in itself is a great achievement.

As ever, there’s much to do before our next outing. The nearside hub is beginning to leak a little (a result of a bodge by previous owners, in which half-shaft studs were replaced with bolts – I have a plan to reverse that).

Plus, I do need to finish fixing that door, which is currently wedged shut during journeys with a plastic bucket. Perhaps a little more bus than coach in that respect…

With thanks to Peter Delaney and Peter Murnaghan for the on the road shots.