Thursday, 28 June 2012

No Rest

It's a mark of either great ambition or sheer stupidity that 270 KTA's 452 mile Birthday tour was something of a 'proving' run...

Either way, its success means that our friend will be among the seventeen coaches taking part in the annual Royal Blue & Associated Motorways Coach Run this weekend. The long-distance run (organised by TV&GWOT, of which I'm honoured to be a trustee) is a chance to recreate the golden era of coaching, when the journey was an integral part of every holiday.

If you're reading this there's a strong chance you're already succeptable to the joys of coaching. But for the unitiated, Royal Blue was Western and Southern National's coaching division and was among the best loved of all the coach operators, not least because it took you to the West Country.


270 KTA was used as a duplicate coach on Royal Blue services to London in the early-60s, so she's appropriate traction for the run. She'll be there for Days 2 and 3, when the convoy will follow the old roads from Exeter to Salcombe, Plymouth, Bodmin and back up to Bath. She'll also appear with best mate, 275 KTA, for first time in public since 1996...

As previous years have shown, it won't just be gricers turning out to wave us on our way. The public remembers coaches fondly; at the time of writing, the coaching episode of BBC Four's excellent Timeshift show has attracted its biggest audience to date (in fact, it was repeated for the umpteenth time only last night, due to demand) - and some remarkably normal looking people usually turn out in their droves along the route to wave and take photographs.

And, of course, Sunday is the third of three 'birthdays' for our friend - this is the anniversary of the date of registration with the Department of Transport, so the likely first day of service.

Let's hope we get some more sterling service this weekend...

Friday, 22 June 2012

On Tour at 50: Dreams Without Sleeping

Four days, 452 miles, one snapped spring and countless little chats and smiles: here is the story of 270 KTA’s 50th Birthday Tour…

Not everybody has a hobby that stops them from sleeping at night; I’d count myself lucky in that respect if my insomnia was purely down to excitement.

To be honest, on Saturday night it largely was. But when you look back at the coach I bought almost three years ago – no MOT, no brakes, no mileage to speak of in the past twenty-five years – you could forgive me for being a little nervous about my plans for quite an ambitious 50th Birthday tour.

5am came, and I went. It had been raining solidly for five days in Devon. I’d washed the coach the previous day in monsoon-like conditions and been soaked to the skin and beyond.

Yet Sunday morning was glorious, the roads had miraculously dried overnight, and there was no call for the wipers which I’d fixed specially for the occasion.



270 KTA drove well. At 53mph, we cleared Exeter inside the hour, and bowled onto the A30… where my right foot suddenly felt a jolt through the throttle pedal, and I realised we had our first problem. I eased my foot off the pedal, but it kept going.

Throttle wide open, the thing was now driving itself…

I put my foot on the clutch, the engine raced; I pulled the engine stop (thank gould I’d replaced the piece of string that had been in use as an engine stop only weeks before) and it just about kept things under control.

I managed to stall it into a layby, and then went outside to discover the inevitable: the throttle-return spring - which pulls the mechanism back to the tick-over position – had snapped.

Bugger.

The old English method of maintaining calm through tea still works. This was to be a Thermos assisted repair, using a cup of tea, two pairs of molegrips, a screwdriver and one asbestos glove (the spring lives next to the manifold, so it was fuuaaahhhh… quite hot). Managing to bend the end of the spring enough to form a looped end, it did the trick.

We were back in business.

The onward journey to Weymouth was filled with the heightened euphoria that only overcoming moments of near disaster like this can bring. It’s the old thing about banging your head against a wall. Mind you, if we hadn’t stopped, it could have been a lot more than just my head…



The Weymouth rally was a triumph. We arrived to the usual bus rally paparazzi, and the smiling faces turning up for a chat seemed endless. One turned out to be a former Weymouth driver who remembered the SU’s with remarkable clarity.

“Do the throttle springs still snap on these?” asked he, unprompted.

“Yes – they do” said I, showing my newly acquired Halfords spring selection pack…

270 KTA even had a special Birthday cake, hand-baked and hand-delivered by the lovely Jill Ponsford and brother Andrew, who’d come all the way from Kent.

And while we enjoyed the lemon drizzle, Humphrey the dog made notes on the driver’s gear changes during a trip to Littlemoor…

Weymouth was 270 KTA’s final place of work with Western National, and it was only a brief stay in 1976; but it’s one of my all time favourite towns and I’m glad the association is there.



Here she is outside the depot for the first time in 35 years, parked alongside the old Weymouth Quay tramway which would have seen full sized trains running along the streets of Weymouth during 270 KTA’s brief tenure.

An early evening drive along The Fosse Way is to be recommended, especially in a Bristol SU. This is exactly the kind of road 270 KTA would have travelled in the 1960s, and whilst the scenery bowls effortlessly past on the flat, you soon get a chance to catch up with it on the next hill, which is never far away…

We diverted off the A37 briefly to visit Evercreech Junction, “the Clapham Junction of the West” according to John Betjeman who visited on the train in 1963. With two lifelong fans of the old Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway (closed in 1966) aboard, the opportunity had to be taken for a photo - although strictly speaking as a competing road vehicle, 270 KTA wouldn’t necessarily be a welcome visitor…

An overnight stay in the beautiful Wiltshire village of Beckington afforded a choice of celebratory pubs, and I think we got it right with the Forrester’s Arms. Bus drivers deserve enormous dinners by virtue of the heavy steering they do, so the 2 inch thick gammon steak which arrived was entirely justifiable. I’m not quite sure how the conductor got away with his 16 tons of pasta, mind – he’s only got a little handle to contend with…



Some say I’m a bit over protective when it comes to our friend. But the four visits I paid overnight in the hotel car park felt like the right thing to do. After all, this was her first night in Wiltshire for over forty years – anything could have happened.

As I say, it’s good to have a hobby that keeps you awake.

Monday was very much a day for recreations. 270 KTA was very well photographed during her time at Trowbridge depot in the late ‘60s, and I had many poses planned. The first was outside Frome station where very little had changed (I’m going to save the ‘then’ and ‘now’ shots for a blog post of their own, so you can look forward to seeing those).

Next came a shot at Standerwick, kindly supplied by Stuart, the original of which in 1970 appeared to be outside a tranquil rural garage. Today it’s alongside the main A36, and we brought most of Wiltshire to a brief standstill while we lined things up…

Dilton Marsh was a regular haunt of 270 KTA for many years, and the charm of the village was clear to see as soon as we pulled up outside the former Post Office, where the new occupants turned out for a friendly chat and some photos.



Then onwards to Trowbridge. For so many reasons, this was the bit I’d been looking forward to. You’ll remember that when I was a small boy I bought a photo of 270 KTA outside Trowbridge depot, long before I knew she still existed; plus, her Trowbridge existence is the era I’m aiming to recreate in her restoration.

This would be the first time she’d been back in 42 years…



The depot is long gone, now flats, that much I knew. But disappointingly the parking area at the top of the bus station – where my boyhood photo had been taken – has been boarded up within the last few weeks, so we’d need to be creative in trying to get our photos.

What a great excuse to drive 270 KTA round and round the block, time and time again, in the bright Summer sunshine, while photographer Farley did his stuff. To me, something so simple couldn’t have felt more significant and spectacular. It’s probably the most fun anyone’s ever had in Trowbridge…



Speaking of self-indulgence, the next part of the journey took us to Winsley. 270 KTA probably knows it well, but for the rest of us, it’s a tiny village on the Wiltshire/Somerset border with very little that should have brought it to your attention.

And yet, 60 years ago, a camera crew from Ealing Studios turned up there to film a single scene for “The Titfield Thunderbolt” – the bit where Pearce and Crump’s bus pulls up and declares itself a rival to the little branch line that the film is all about saving.

It’s taken me an eternity to find out where it was, and enquiries to the Winsley Village Society eventually solved the mystery - so here we are with 270 KTA, sixty years on….



Talking of Titfield, we decided on tea at a favourite pub in Midford (another location). Had we decided on a route too, rather than following our stomachs, we might have avoided a) an eighteen point turn on a private farm-track off the main A36, and b) a journey down Midford Lane, which really wasn’t suitable for any large vehicles – the sign was right after all.

Following a hearty dinner at the Hope & Anchor (again, the conductor managed to put away a disproportionate amount of lasagne versus the driver’s meatballs), 270 KTA hauled her increasingly heavy occupants towards Bridgwater, via Shepton Mallet and Glastonbury.

The Tor looked spectacular...

Tuesday’s first task was to get Mr Farley to Bridgwater station in time for the 0726 train to London. That we failed to do by 2 minutes, owing to a misleading sign in the centre of Bridgwater (Reggie Perrin would be proud of that excuse)...



And so it was that 270 KTA revisited Taunton a little earlier than planned, and with a little more urgency than expected. We made the 0819 with quite some time to spare, and by the time Mr Farley took his usual seat in the buffet car our friend and I were already most of the way back to Bridgwater ready for our next appointment.

I received an email from Steve Oxbrow back in April, an avid reader of the blog who was keen to bring girlfriend Emily to see 270 KTA while we were nearby. They were to meet us at the site of the former Bridgwater depot – now the most enormous branch of ASDA – before going off to celebrate their own anniversary (lucky Emily, getting to start the day with a ride on an SU). Nice people, and one of my more memorable visits to a supermarket car park, I must say…



Back to Taunton
, where the most extraordinary day would unfold. Having picked up our pal Neil Markwick, we embarked on a mission to talk our way onto the depot forecourt at Hamilton Road in Taunton, still open, the very place where 270 KTA spent most of the early 1970s. Not only did the supervisor allow us, he regaled us with tales of the SU’s he remembered working on, and insisted we stop for a photo in the yard. It made such a change from being chased out of bus depots…

Likewise, the welcome we received on our unannounced visit to Taunton bus station was unprecedented. We were beckoned in and asked which vehicles we’d like to pose alongside, and then sent up to the manager’s office for a coffee and a look through some old photographs, SU’s among them…

One driver, now the senior Taunton driving instructor, approached me with some ruse about needing to move my bus to the space next door. I instantly knew what he was up to, and asked him what route he used to drive.

“264 to Yeovil – it was always an SU”, he said. A man of obvious experience, I told him he’d better change the blind and pull it round into the bus station…

Four laps later I eventually got 270 KTA back, but not before one of the toothless passengers in the bus station cottoned on to what was going on.

“Any chance I could have a quick spin?” he asked through his gums.

Sorry, son…



We continued our journey to Exeter, then on towards Newton Abbot on the coast road. If you ever need a lovely pub on the way down to Torbay, don’t miss the Anchor Inn at Cockwood – in fact, you probably won’t miss it if you’re driving anything wider than an SU…

Next, Newton Abbot. This is not typical SU territory by any means, and 270 KTA’s career there came late on, between 1973 and 1976, when she became the only SU coach to work for Devon General. The depot there has long since disappeared under new buildings, but we tried our best to line up some comparative shots by swerving dangerously across Kingsteignton Road when it was quiet…

And so to Wednesday, 20th June 2012: the 50th anniversary of 270 KTA’s delivery from the Eastern Coach Works factory as a brand new coach, and the final day of our tour.

Given her proximity to Kingsbridge, the depot to which she was delivered, this would be a comparative doddle – but it was arguably the most touching of the recreations we’d done.



Incredibly, the little depot building is still there. It’s now a very successful electronics factory and because of the number of deliveries they have each day, we had to time our visit outside of office hours.

Jubilant, we sat outside and had a picnic. It rained for the first time on the whole tour, but I could forgive that – we’d done it. We’d re-visited every depot 270 KTA had worked from, and we were having tea outside her original base exactly 50 years on, just like the men who’d picked her up from Lowestoft had probably done.

Mission accomplished.


To all the men and women who have built, driven, maintained, cleaned, painted and serviced 270 KTA over the past 50 years. Some I know of old, some I’ve met this week, others I never had the chance to meet, this post is dedicated to you – with thanks for keeping the coach alive. I carry the baton with immense pride.


Wednesday, 20 June 2012

On Tour at 50: Day 4

Precisely 50 years ago today, on Wednesday 20th June 1962, a brand new coach was delivered to Western National's Kingsbridge depot.

It was driven on tradeplates from the Eastern Coach Works factory in Lowestoft, and days later was registered 270 KTA.

Later today, that same coach will arrive at the same depot looking much the same as it did five decades ago...

I'm very proud to be the man at the wheel.

Happy 50th Birthday, 270 KTA!

On Tour at 50: Day 3

You're never alone with an old coach.

Today, like days one and two, has been made complete by the many wonderful people we've met along the way.

From Steve and Emily - avid readers of the blog (“We always laugh, seeing what the coach does to you“) - who turned out to see us in Bridgwater, to the chaps at First in Taunton who not only allowed us into the depot and bus station for photos but insisted we went in for a coffee and a look through some old photos. Magic!

Neil Markwick arrived from Bournemouth to join us for the day, so no surprise that a long lunch in the sunshine ensued... Very nice, too.

Mr Farley, now with car, managed some excellent 'on the road' shots, some of which you'll see in the full write up in due course - probably once I'm back home on Thursday, after a very long lie in...

Another faultless performance from 270 KTA today - I could get used to this...

Bring on the Big Birthday tomorrow.


Tuesday, 19 June 2012

On Tour at 50: Day 2

Suffice to say, there were no lowlights of Day 2, and the highlights were many.

If a trip to Trowbridge doesn't sound much of a highlight to you, you'll have to wait for the full account to see why it was a glorious moment for our friend.

Immaculately behaved today, it couldn't have gone better. We're a bit behind schedule, hence brevity here, but only because the driver is getting a little carried away. Who'd have guessed?

More tomorrow.


Sunday, 17 June 2012

On Tour at 50: Day 1

Quick highlights and lowlights: Day 1

- Glorious sunshine, out of nowhere, for almost the entire day. A result.

- Tea in a layby of 270 KTA's choosing at the side of the A30. The throttle return spring snapped just past Exeter airport, leaving us bowling along at 53mph with the throttle jammed OPEN. I managed to stall her and roll into a layby, where an hour with a pair of molegrips put us back in business. Disaster averted.

- Arriving in Weymouth to find 270 KTA's picture in the rally programme - thank gould we made it. It was a brilliant event - Robin, Graeme and Terry deserved the sunshine.

- 270 KTA's very own birthday cake, made by the lovely Jill Ponsford - hope she and brother Andrew enjoyed the ride (dog Humphrey prefers trains)

- Being greeted by an old Southern National driver from Weymouth whose first words, unprompted, were: "Do the throttle springs still go on it? We always used to carry a spare." Sadly he didn't have any on him.

- Marvellous recreation of the 1976 photo I have of 270 KTA outside Radipole depot behind a tow truck. No truck required today (in the end);

- Splendid trip around the Edge of the Mendips on The Fosse Way, with photos at Evercreech Junction, "the Clapham Junction of the West" according to John Betjeman. It's now an industrial estate...

- The biggest gammon steak in the world - and certainly Wiltshire - to finish a long but rewarding day.

Tomorrow?... Go on then.

Pics of all the above and more to follow.


Saturday, 16 June 2012

On Tour at 50: Here Goes

It's 5am, Sunday 17th June 2012.

Our friend's big 50th Birthday adventure begins in an hour. And for the first time in 72 hours, it's not raining.

Of course not - I fixed the wipers yesterday.

I'll be updating you in short bursts alongs the way using my phone. Here goes...


Thursday, 14 June 2012

Love is Blind

Preparations for the Birthday tour continue into the night...


Monday, 11 June 2012

Another Jubilee

Next week sees the 50th anniversary of 270 KTA's delivery to Western National from the ECW factory in Lowestoft.

Essentially, it's our friend's 50th Birthday (although you'll remember from this post that births take a bit longer when you're a bus). To mark it, we'll be embarking on a very informal four-day tour.

The mission is to visit the site of every depot from which 270 KTA worked during her time with Western National and Devon General. Along the way we'll recreate some of the many photos I have from those locations and out on routes.

It's still a work in progress, but here's the ambition...


SUNDAY 17th: WEYMOUTH

- Weymouth Bus Rally;
- PHOTO RECREATION 1: At the gates of Weymouth depot;


MONDAY 18th: TROWBRIDGE, BRIDGWATER

- PHOTO RECREATION 2: Passing Radipole Spa Hotel (hopefully not behind Recovery Vehicle 1, as in 1976!);
- PHOTO RECREATION 3: Frome station forecourt;
- PHOTO RECREATION 4: Standerwick village;
- Dilton Marsh (a regular 420 haunt);
- PHOTO RECREATION 5: Trowbridge depot site (now flats) and bus station site (now a car park), several aspects;
- Titfield Thunderbolt tour* (Limpley Stoke, Winsley, Monkton Combe, Midford);
- Travel via Shepton M and Glastonbury to Bridgwater;
- PHOTO RECREATION 6: Bridgwater Depot forecourt (now Asda car park);


TUESDAY 19th: TAUNTON, NEWTON ABBOT

- Outside Taunton depot;
- PHOTO RECREATION 7: Taunton Bus Station;
- Coastal road via Dawlish and Cockwood Harbour;
- Newton Abbot depot site (offices);
- PHOTO RECREATION 8: Newton Abbot bus station site (offices);
- PHOTO RECREATION 9: Torquay Coach Station (partially extant);
- Travel via Paignton and Totnes.


WEDNESDAY 20th (Anniversary of Delivery): KINGSBRIDGE

- Recreation of delivery to Kingsbridge depot (buildings extant as Jades Electronics factory).
- PHOTO RECREATION 10: Kingsbridge Bus Station.


All being well, it'll be a fitting way to mark our friend's actual Golden Jubilee in what I promised would be a year of constant celebration - so it has proved so far.

And, of course, celebrations will continue on June 29-July 1st when both 270 KTA (first registered July 1st 1962) and 275 KTA ('born' a few weeks later on July 11th 1962!) will together be taking part in the Royal Blue Run, driven by David Sheppard Junior and David Sheppard Senior respectively - and perhaps the other way round on the odd leg.

Updates to follow here, of course...

Footnotes:

The photo is courtesy of Stuart, and is one that I plan to recreate next week. It has also sparked some speculation about 270 KTA's recorded history - the scandal to which I hinted in the last post - on account of the date it was taken. (That matter deserves a post of its own, really, so I'll save it._

* Also, our route takes us close to the GWR's Limpley Stoke - Camerton branch line, the location of filming for the "The Titfield Thunderbolt" exactly 60 years ago in June 1952. It seems opportune to photograph 270 KTA at some of the locations, including the depot where "Pearce & Crump's" Bedford OB lived in the film, now a housing estate... Indulgent? Yes!



Thursday, 7 June 2012

Love and Affection

With such a succession of MOT failures in our early days together (most of them failures even to reach the test station), I suppose the least I’m owed is two passes in a row. Good.

270 KTA sailed through her second MOT yesterday, quite literally. Yesterday was the wettest day since biblical times, and now we know why Noah chose not to fit an opening windscreen to his ark. SUs were always known to leak in severe weather, and I’m happy to confirm that mine still upholds the tradition very well.

Between that and the nearside wiper being blown onto the roof every other mile, plus visibility so poor that I’ve now almost forgiven myself for missing a turning, our usually pleasant two-hour journey up to Guscott’s of Halwill Junction turned into a three hour struggle against the elements.

We arrived way too late for our 8am slot, so 270 KTA had to spend an unexpected day in Halwill waiting for a vacant MOT slot in the afternoon. Meanwhile, her (soaking wet) owner was kindly given the use of a Guscott’s courtesy car to get him back to Plymouth in time for his radio show. It was not my finest hour…

That said, when I arrived (post-show) at Guscott’s exactly twelve hours later to collect our friend, I was very light of heart: it was a pass. Another year of adventures and, crucially, celebrations in her 50th year.

I was completely knackered. The drive back was like the drive there, only darker. After locking 270 KTA away for the night, I eventually arrived home at midnight – 20 hours after I’d left home that morning. It must be love.

Thinking about it, I don’t know when somebody last managed to keep 270 KTA on the road for two consecutive years. It’s probably not even within my lifetime. Other than the (distinctly questionable) lapsed MOT I inherited when I bought her, the only certificate I have is from 1982/3. Given the history, it’s plausible this was the last time.

So… we’re on for Weymouth on June 17th, and the 50th Anniversary tour that week. For those who have been waiting forever for details of that, I will be setting it in stone on Sunday; details will follow here, and on email for those who have asked to be kept informed… Plus, I’ll reveal that salacious gossip I promised in my last post – it all ties in.

Now, where’s my towel…