Betty’s Bus

Back in the late 70s and early 80s Ribble got some good publicity for their special rural bus services wending their merry way around the area between Clitheroe and Burnley, in the Ribble valley and around Pendle Hill. Their regular driver, Betty Gray, became a bit of a local celebrity after appearing on local TV in reports showing her at work. She was also as a guest, or rather a subject [if I remember correctly] on “What’s My Line” on ITV. She had her place on a Ribble publicity postcard, feeding the ducks at Downham, which features in my archive.

“Betty’s Bus” even had its own special headboard as seen above. Actually, there were two “Betty’s Buses”, a pair of consecutively-numbered Bristol LHS buses. The Ribble fleet numbers were 271 and 272. Monday to Saturday there were different route variations each day, mostly based on Clitheroe and reaching Burnley four times a week. The Saturday service in my 1983 timetable did not start or end at Clitheroe, apparently being worked from the Burnley end. This, I imagine, because Betty had her weekends off.

The Bristol LHS was perfect for the narrow country lanes and quite photogenic with it. I could have taken hundreds of photos along the route because there were so many scenic compositions to be made. Film cost was a limitation in those days, and obviously there was only so much stopping for photographs that the driver and the posse of regular passengers could tolerate [I made them late!!]. But Mrs Gray was very patient and generous and allowed me to take some really unique photos.

I will not linger too long on the subject here because I have decided to focus on the route in more depth in a special extra-blog feature, extra in two senses:
(a) it will feature material not shown on these blog pages and
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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.