Same Shot, Different Day

Here we have a photo taken on the 19th of April 1985, a Friday, in Holmes Chapel. It was Easter time and I had a week off, armed with one of Crosville’s Weekly Wanderer tickets and ready to Explore.

I wanted a safari suit for days out with Crosville but my mum wouldn’t let me

Based as I was in Runcorn, an hour the wrong side of Chester for heading off into Wales [and without the benefit of the rail travel the Rideabout ticket offered – for a premium] I decided in view of the moderate daylight hours to spend a few days exploring previously uncharted former North Western territory not so far from home in Cheshire.

That’s me in the corner: none of the places visited in this account are shown on the map. We are in between Warrington, Northwich, Congleton and Macclesfield

It’s important to bear in mind that at this time nobody could imagine that one day North Western buses would once again ply the streets of Alty and the lanes of rural Cheshire. This was a year and a half before bus deregulation and, though there were murmurings in the world of public transport, few ordinary punters had any idea of what was in store…

Finding myself at Altrincham at lunchtime my next move was on a previously untried route, quite an obscure one and peculiar in being one of a few former North Western routes numbered in Crosville’s H series. H-routes were supposedly operated by the Merseyside depots Liverpool, Runcorn, and Warrington. I think that Warrington may have had some limited involvement in these Cheshire operations at times but the H39 service I took was operated by Congleton depot and went nowhere near Warrington. Was there a plan, I wonder, when carving up the old North Western operations, to have a Crosville outstation of Warrington at Altrincham to operate these routes?

The bus waiting for me at Altrincham was a disappointment. I was hoping that this irregular service would provide an enjoyable ramble on one of Congleton’s dual purpose RELL6Ls but it was not to be. Dual purpose Leyland National ENL829 was to be my ride and the driver hadn’t even been bothered to wind on the destination blind from the usual K of Congleton’s routes to the exceptional H for the H39 service. To make matters worse, the bus was missing the offside section of its bumper…

Though the bus was ultimately destined for Congleton I planned to abandon it at Holmes Chapel [as seen above]. After a short wait, I could connect with another journey operated by Congleton, only this time it was an odd Crosville-operated trip on a PMT service. This transfer of work between National Bus Company subsidiaries was after the MAP revisions of the early 1980s, where the survey must have indicated that Crosville could operate the run at less cost from Congleton than a PMT bus which would have been Burslem-based. By this time such services would not operate without substantial local authority support, so the authorities were starting to have a say in what economies could be made.

The 319 was a long established route serving the lanes around Goostrey and the notable Jodrell Bank radio telescope. I expect that the mid-afternoon trip would normally have been busy with schoolchildren but this was a school holiday. While waiting for it to arrive I changed the lens on my camera from standard 50mm to telephoto 135mm, making the perspective of the following photo very different even though the buses were parked in exactly the same place. This is sister bus ENL833 waiting time before my next trip.

These photos are the perfect illustration of the value of standing back and zooming in to photograph vehicles in a more natural proportion to the landscape around them. The standard 50mm camera lens and its wide view makes it necessary to stand too close to the vehicle just to make it big enough in the frame. This close-up wide-angle approach means that that the surroundings are diminished to the point almost of irrelevance. A more distant viewpoint, reduced field of view and slight magnification gives a more balanced perspective of a vehicle in the street or the landscape. Though I was standing further away, the buildings in the background figure far more importantly in the telephoto view. Also the bus looks more rectangular, like a bus does in the real world.

But just look at that destination display! The K is once again left untouched and the third number track is left in limbo between the 8 and the 9. No destination is shown [it should have read “319 Goostrey Circular”]. At least the bus is intact this time. But, really…

Many years later I was in Holmes Chapel enjoying an unhurried, meandering return to base with a preserved bus after its successful MOT test. I decided to pay tribute to the conscientious staff of Congleton depot by parking Crosville RELL6G SRG181 in the same place again and recreating the composition with the same destination display. Same shot, different day.

This is an excerpt from a longer account of the day in question which will be published in ebook PDF format with these and many more illustrations in full HD. This will be given away free, but only at the time of publication, to my e-mail subscribers. To ensure your copy you can sign up in the box on the right of any page on this site. The ebook will be published in the coming weeks: don’t miss out!

Fondly remembered [part 1]

In the short time I have been maintaining this site I have learned of the passing away of two loved and respected figures from my time in Mid Wales.

In an earlier post I showed this photo of Crosville’s last ENL romping through the little village of Comins Coch as it approached Aberystwyth on its way from Machynlleth.

ENL978 was the last of Crosville’s ENL class

In a comment on a Facebook thread linking to my page it was revealed that the driver shown here, John Fletcher, who I had only ever heard called “Fletch”, then the lead driver at the sub-depot at Machynlleth, had passed away only recently.

The news made me feel very sad and I thought back to the rides I had had on his bus and particularly one day in the summer of 1985 when Machynlleth depot operated an extended S18 service. This usually ran from Machynlleth to Dinas Mawddwy but, for the summer holiday weeks that year, it continued once weekly over the dramatic mountain pass of Bwlch Oerddrws to join the S13/S14 Aberystwyth-Dolgellau route at Cross Foxes. From Dolgellau it extended to Barmouth, allowing visitors a few hours at the seaside before returning mid-afternoon.

On the 25th of July I caught the special S18 at Dolgellau. I had arrived ahead of it on SNG357 on the S14 service from Aberystwyth and walked back along the route a short way to take a photo of Gardner-engined Leyland National SNG409 arriving from its climb over the Bwlch. When it appeared I had the bonus of snapping an inspector’s mini in pursuit of 409. On the platform an inspector can be seen standing.

Gardner-engined Leyland National SNG409 arriving in Dolgellau with inspectors’ mini in pursuit

The minis were used so that inspectors could intercept buses without the drivers’ knowledge that they were in the area. The general public see ticket inspectors as the threat that persuades them to pay the correct fare for their trip for fear that they could otherwise be caught cheating and have consequences to suffer. What they may not have realised is that the platform staff were under much greater scrutiny for their adherence to the rules and there were more rules to apply to the staff than the passengers. So when inspectors were at large it was not unusual for drivers to give one another a signal as they passed.

In the Merseyside area this was generally a “thumbs down” sign but, when the minis were introduced, drivers adopted a two-hands-off-the-wheel alternating up-and-down movement of the hands to denote the act of steering. This would signify a sighting of the inspectors’ car in the area. A bus going over the Bwlch would be easy prey for the inspectors with no chance of the driver knowing that they were at large.

As I joined Fletch on SNG409 in Eldon Square he was breathing sighs of relief. The long climb up to 1200ft at the top of the Bwlch reduces the bus to a low gear and a crawl so he thought it a good time for a crafty smoke. As the bus crested the summit he saw the mini parked up ahead and just had the time to drop the offending fag out of the cab window undetected.

His morning had another stressful moment in store on the road from Dolgellau to Barmouth. The road winds along the Mawddach estuary and was bordered by stone walls along much of the way. There were places where it was very difficult for wide vehicles to pass. It may have been improved during the last 35 years, I sincerely hope so!

The nightmare scenario was the oncoming caravan driver. Many tourists would come to the area in the summer time. Unfortunately, not all of the drivers were familiar with the hazards on what passed for the main roads. An unfamiliar and inexperienced motorist towing a caravan could wreak havoc on roads like these. So there was a big groan when we rounded a bend and saw up ahead the Wrexham driver of the D94 service returning from Barmouth having met a caravan coming the opposite way.

Pulling up behind the impasse I had a golden opportunity to capture the scene, one frequently encountered but rarely depicted. The photo shows how little space the drivers had to work with. Bear in mind that, after passing the caravan, the driver of the D94 had to pass the bus we were on! Eventually we did and no damage was incurred by any vehicle.

I have been informed that in later years Fletch worked for Evans of Penrhyncoch and was made responsible for the Mid Wales Motorways operations out of Newtown when they were taken over, driving a school bus outstationed in his home town of Machynlleth into Newtown in the morning and working at Newtown during the day. After that he is said to have worked for Lloyds of Machynlleth.

I am always saddened to hear of old Crosville men passing away but especially when I have been the direct beneficiary of their kindness and patience with a young enthusiast. It was the good nature of these people that inspired me to work in the bus industry and many of my photographs are the result of their generosity of spirit in passing on the latest news, suggesting interesting workings to aim for and pulling up just where I wanted, to let me get the best photo. Fletch was definitely one of those! RIP John Fletcher.

Not all it seems…

Ribble 800 at Burnley on 30th January 1989

I’m standing well back here and zooming in with my 135mm lens. Probably trespassing on the tarmac at Burnley bus station. The boarding passengers give me dark stares.

Telephoto compression adds to the illusion. This B-series Leyland National is 11.3m long, which of course wasn’t an option for the mark 1 National. Because this is not a mark 1 National, it is Ribble 800, the prototype mark 2 National as exhibited at the 1978 Motor Show at the NEC near Birmingham. It was fitted with a radiator and fan at the rear, like the mark 1 model, but production models had the radiator at the front to give the trademark bulge, a more curved and inclined windscreen and an extra 0.3m in length.

Built in 1978, it was given over to Ribble to be tested in service in February 1979 and operated out of Burnley depot. In 1980 its O.690 engine [a modified engine based on the O.680 I believe] was replaced with an L11 engine. The only National I drove with an L11 [or perhaps a TL11] was North Western 310 [LFR869X] and that was more powerful than most Nationals I drove but had the advantage of being a metre shorter than most Nationals. I think that, despite the L11 option, most Mark 2s ended up with O.680 engines until Leyland succumbed to pressure to offer the National with a Gardner engine.

The advertising livery it wore was bright yellow. If you like pretty colour pictures, I found one here.

By the time I caught this bus and rode on it to Blackburn it was over ten years old and hundreds of production models were in service. At the time, North Western were running much older ex-Ribble RESLs on town services in Blackburn in competition with the municipal bus company. This was the era of the Bus Wars where companies would register routes in competitors’ territory in an attempt to cause them financial ruin. Sometimes it led to their own.

In January 1989 we were two years into the deregulated era and it was hard to keep up with changes in the industry, they were coming so thick and fast. But word got around and no doubt I was tipped off that there were some Bristol rides to be had so an investigation on a rest day was arranged.

It was evident that Blackburn were under pressure with the town full of buses in different colours. Some, as you would expect, were from Hyndburn who had always shared the route from Accrington. But the 46 route between the two towns had a new competitor in the form of Battrick and Brown, trading as M&E Coaches, who were running ex-United Counties Bristol REs in competition on the main arterial route. The option of an RE ride was usually the best on offer and my notes tell me I rode on SBD219M, a Plaxton coach, and flat-screen ECW bus URP343H that day as well as a RESL new to Ribble in North Western colours.

M&E Coaches’ former UCOC RELH SBD219M with typical mismatched number blinds and paper sign in the windscreen for destination display

In the illustration above, North Western RESL6L no. 395, on which I had just made a scenic circuit around Shadsworth housing estate, sits behind the RELH which then carried me to Accrington.

I suspect this day was facilitated by a Red Rose Rambler ticket, a ticket which I think was co-ordinated by Lancashire County Council and permitted a day’s freedom within the county boundaries on all operators. The moves into and out of Lancashire were provided by North Western’s 761 Liverpool-Blackpool service on which my Crosville staff pass was valid. If I turn up the ticket or a promotional leaflet as I rifle through my boxes I will add it here.

Blackburn Borough Transport saw off the competition but sold out to Transdev Blazefield in 2007 who rebranded the buses “Lancashire United” before later backtracking and branding buses operating in the town “The Blackburn Bus Company”. All the M&E REs were sold by June 1990. I don’t know whether operations continued beyond that time.