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.


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