Friday 27 March 2020

Taunton Bus Station - The End?

By TV&GWOT Chairman, Colin Billington

Today (27th March 2020), the last bus and coach services will leave Taunton Bus Station and from tomorrow the new bus and coach station will be distributed around the bus stops in the centre of Taunton. This is a very sad and puzzling ending to a centrally located bus station which has served the public for 68 years since it was opened in 1952.

This remarkable panorama combines three shots taken by the late Dave Farmer, capturing the construction of the current bus station, with foundations of the main building taking shape on the bottom-left. Western National service buses layover to the right, while a Royal Blue Bristol L takes centre stage as it mingles with an impressive selection of Black and White coaches. (Dave Farmer)

Buses and long distance coach services had arrived and departed at this location and nearby Castle Green since 1947. The principal reasons given at the time of opening the new station in 1952 were to provide passenger facilities (enclosed, heated waiting room and information desk and displays, refreshment kiosk and toilets) and, also, in order to relieve congestion on The Parade to where many of the departures are now to return!

In 2015 the importance of the Bus Station and its transport heritage was marked by the unveiling of a Transport Trust Red Wheel. At the unveiling ceremony both the Mayor of Taunton and the Managing Director of First South West, owners of the Buses of Somerset brand, made much of the importance of the bus station in its provision of high quality passenger facilities and a transport hub enabling coach and bus passengers to interchange conveniently at one location.

Some well insulated ladies make a beeline for Bristol LD6B No. 1877 (RTT 996), a majestic centrepiece of a busy bus station as it awaits departure on Service 213. 1877 survives today, and is currently awaiting restoration at TV&GWOT's South Devon base.

My association with Taunton Bus Station goes back to 1958 when my family moved from Comeytrowe in the South West of Taunton to Jeffreys Way, Stonegallows, named after the infamous Judge Jeffreys who committed many to be hung at the Bloody Assizes following the defeat of the Monmouth Rebellion. The Stonegallows were situated at the top of Stonegallows Hill on the A38 between the Taunton Borough boundary and the village of Rumwell. Previously we had used Taunton town service No. 210 to travel into Taunton which did not terminate at the bus station but travelled through the centre of Taunton with several stops between the Parade and the Railway Station before heading out to Dorchester Road on the Pyrland Estate. By the time we moved I had graduated to senior school and was travelling to Wellington to school six days a week so the proximity of our new abode to the bus stop was a great improvement to the long walk I had been making from Comeytrowe to the nearest stop of the buses to Wellington on the A38 at Hicks’s Garage. Also the choice of buses was much increased with services 203 to Rockwell Green or Tonedale, 262 to Cullompton and 277 to Tiverton all virtually passing the door and, in the Summer, a constant stream of express and touring coaches from all over the country taking holiday makers to Torbay and the Cornish Riviera.

Bristol FS5G No. 1967 (519 BTA), one of only two of its type in the Western National fleet, departs Taunton Bus Station on Service 203 to Rockwell Green. Both the bus and the route were regularly used by Colin on journeys to and from school. No. 1967 later became Taunton's driver training bus, TV5, and was rescued for preservation by Colin in 1992. 
Laying over in the necessarily spacious bus station is Bristol MW No. 2600 (VDV 769), with sister 2606 (904 AUO) further down the line, LS saloons 1673/58 (MOD 964/49) and an unidentified SUL. 2600 has arrived from Cullompton on Service 262, regularly used by Colin on his way home to Stonegallows.

With all this activity and also the gradual decline in steam on the railways it was perhaps not surprising that my principal interest would gradually move from train spotting to bus and coach (and British Road Services) which had no alternative to the A38 in the pre-motorway era. The 203 to and fro’ Wellington was half hourly leaving Taunton on the hour and half hour but with an extra school service leaving Taunton at 8.15am. This seemed unnecessarily early to me and the 8.30 from Taunton was usually a wartime K type either 343 or 346 compared to the more mundane KSW (1825 or 1861) which was the usual steed on the homeward journey anyway. Saturdays were different as there was no school special so we were supposed to catch the 8am from Taunton. Getting up and going out in the dark was not palatable so I opted for the Saturday only 8.05 departure on the 277 to Tiverton. There were many advantages to this service which left the A38 at Three Bridges (just before Sheppy’s Cider) to meander over to Bradford-on-Tone and on to Nynehead before rejoining the A38 just outside Wellington town. It required 7’6” wide single decks, normally an early L with a post war Beadle rebody (e.g. 297, 299 or 303). The approach to the River Tone bridge at Bradford was down a steep hill always taken at the highest speed to almost take off over the humped back. Great skill was needed by the driver as the width between parapets was less than a foot wider that the bus.

Driver George Kelley with Colin Billington, Aged 12.

My interest was really inspired by meeting Royal Blue driver George Kelley who drove his Royal Blue L type Monday-Saturday during the summer from Westward Ho! To Taunton and back, arriving at 11.12am and returning at 4pm. During his layover George had another job as a swimming instructor so I first met him when I was learning to swim. He had been working for the National since the mid-1920s and had taken his own photographs in those early days. His knowledge and experience was encyclopaedic and he opened our eyes to the extent of the National’s territory and the size and variety of the fleet. He was also involved in early preservation activities have arranged for Dennis Mace No. 668 to be saved for conversion to a mobile caravan and kept on the road for many years by the Gameson family and then the purchase of L type 262 and its transfer to the Cotswold PSV Group.

An early attempt at photography, but atmospheric. As these Taunton K types lazily await their next turn of duty, one imagines their drivers must have been pedalling to the bus station; the ample provision of bicycle parking shows there's nothing new about firms encouraging eco-friendly transport to work 

This encouraged me to start taking my own photos and some of my early attempts are somewhat bashfully revealed here. I say this because a common feature of the first roll of film was a cut-off rear caused by a bent stay on the lens of an old bellows camera which my father had dug out for me, no doubt thinking it was expendable. I soon developed a trick of pressing the bracket forwards to compensate and later attempts weren’t half bad! I quickly made a real nuisance of myself until I got a new Russian Zenith SLR for a birthday which then over many years produced thousands of photos.

Two generations of Taunton stalwarts lurk together at the back of the bus station, in the form of Bristol LWL5G  No 1612 (LTA 771) and SUL4A saloon No. 651 (420 HDV), dating from 1951 and 1961 respectively.

The south western boundary of the bus station was, for many years, marked by the building of the Taunton Gazette. Posing alongside it is Bristol KS5G No. 995 (LTA 814). The clock shows that it's perhaps too early to visit Applegates.

Please look kindly on these early attempts which I think capture the atmosphere of the time during the late ‘50s and the Swinging ‘60s. I have continued to take photographs throughout the West Country and the Thames Valley graduating to colour slides, prints and digital SLR, returning to Taunton at least a couple of times each year to see and capture the changing transport scene. I hope you can understand my sadness and regret at the passing of Taunton Bus Station, not just out of nostalgia but a strong belief that public transport should have a greater role in both local and long distance travel, and the loss of such a facility – a true transport “hub station” interchange as stated in the Red Wheel citation.

Immaculate Bristol MW saloon No. 2628 (FTA 240D) awaits its call of duty on Service 262 to Cullompton.

Thursday 13 February 2020

'National' Centenary

2020 is a year of significant anniversaries from our transport heritage along the Thames Valley & Great Western corridor.

Today, 13 February 2020, marks the centenary of the National Omnibus & Transport Company Ltd. On this day in 1920, the company's name was officially registered and changed from the National Steam Car Company Ltd, recognising that, by then, all of the company’s operations used petrol engined motorbuses. 

'National' 2009, originally a World War 1 army lorry, purchased by
the National Steam Car Company in 1919. It was fitted with this
second hand clerestory roofed body, re-registered XA8366 and
moved to the West Country in 1920. (TV&GWOT Archive)

'National' was expanding rapidly to the east and north of London and establishing new operations in the West of England. It completed the purchase of a business in Stroud whose licence was transferred to 'National' on 17 February 1920. 

By the late Spring of 1920, services had been established from Stroud, Bridgwater, Yeovil and Taunton which hailed the development during the 1920s of a bus network covering the South West from Land’s End as far as Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, Devizes in Wiltshire and Bournemouth in Hampshire.  These were, of course, important foundations of the much celebrated Western and Southern National Omnibus Companies that would later be formed, incorporating the road operations of the local railway companies.

AD 6863 was an AEC YC, pictured on one of the earliest routes from Stroud, this
one running from Chalford through Stroud to Stonehouse. (Peter Davey Collection)

We will be celebrating the centenary of 'National' throughout the year, particularly at Penzance Vintage Bus Running Day on 19 April, on our Royal Blue Run in June, and at Kingsbridge Vintage Bus Running Day in September. 

For more details of these events visit, where you can also sign-up for our quarterly magazine and find out more about getting involved and supporting  the Trust.

'National' 2018 (BM 7763), an AEC YC, at the terminus in
Corporation Street, Taunton awaiting departure to Wellington
in 1920. (Brian Veale Collection)

Sunday 24 September 2017

Backstage at Kingsbridge

This year's was our 10th Kingsbridge Running Day and we wanted to make it special...

Well loaded Bristol K6A 353 (FTT 704) - (c) Barrie Whitehall
This majestic scene at Slapton Sands is typical of the magic achieved, thanks to the efforts of our Supporters, vehicle owners and other volunteers. Free bus services were operated by 43 vehicles - more than ever before - on 24 routes through the glorious South Hams. Visitors came from as far afield as Australia as well as all corners of Great Britain; and, of course, our army of local residents turned out for what we're told has become one of the town's favourite events.

(c) Ben Woolvin
Consequently, we gave a record 6,550 free passenger journeys, each one creating a big a smile and furthering public interest in our transport history.

Not a bad day's work, you might think; but for our Trustees and Supporters organising 'KE' is a year-round operation. No sooner have the vehicles returned to their various bases across the country, we are already reviewing the lessons learned from this year's event, making arrangements for the use of the bus station next year and telling the world to 'save the day'.

For some vehicles, the return from Kingsbridge signals the start of Winter maintenance and restoration, though many have other events still to attend before the end of the season, so any faults or issues developed during 'KE' must be put right.

Early in the new year, vehicle entry forms and posters are prepared, programme sponsors are approached and early calls for bus crews and other volunteers are made in our Supporters' magazine To and Fro'. We try to give lasting value to our event programmes by including historical information and articles that will ensure its place on your bookshelf long after the event itself. Many months of hard work go into researching and writing these through the year.

The Summer months are dominated by the mammouth tasks of researching 'new' routes (every one is actually an authentic route from the past or present), creating route instructions for crews, scheduling the free bus services, allocating vehicles and crews and fashioning the timetables you will use on the day to plan your journeys.

The amount of work in preparing the vehicles might surprise you, too. The 'home' fleet alone - those vehicles belonging to Trustees and Supporters which are based locally - comprises some twenty vehicles which must all be fully prepared by volunteers.

Bristol SUS 600 (672 COD) awaits its 5am departure for MOT Testing (DS)
Eight of these require their annual MOT tests in early September, entailing staged departures for eight drivers, the first at 5am, for a 140 mile round trip to our 'local' Class V test station in mid-Devon. (1,120 bus miles in total!) The promise of participation in the annual drivers' breakfast at Sourton Services acts as an incentive, but only for those who pass their tests...

Pre-1960 participants may be exempt from MOT, but to ensure the highest safety standards at Kingsbridge we require these buses to undergo a full fitness inspection by a qualified tester. For the 'home' fleet these inspections are carried out locally, while visiting vehicles must show documentation to confirm they have been inspected. We also collect evidence of suitable insurance, taxation and driver qualifications for every vehicle and driver taking part.

Bristol LL6B 1218 fuels with LWL5G 1613 on their return move to Devon. (DS)

For some vehicles, preparation includes heavy maintenance or repairs, either carried out on site or elsewhere. This year, four vehicles each made the 400 mile round trip to our Berkshire base to ensure they would be ready for 'KE', each individual move requiring a full day, a tank of diesel and sometimes a low-loader plus crew. And pasties...

Bristol LWL5G 1613 (LTA 772) underwent treatment for major oil leaks plus some bodywork; LL6B 1218 (JUO 983) received attention for some engine idling issues; Bristol LHS 1560 (FDV 790V) received a major engine rebuild alongside other work to remedy ongoing problems with the clutch; and Bristol FLF6G 2019 (824 KDV) underwent a programme of mechanical improvements following return to its owner from First.

The two months leading up to Kingsbridge involve many more tasks than you might imagine when you're enjoying the big day. Every volunteer receives a detailed instruction pack which must be individually prepared and distributed. Programmes must be completed and printed in time for pre-orders to be satisfied, and stocks must be distributed to the local Tourist Information Centres who experience great demand from local people.

Arrangements for accommodation and catering must be made, not just for the volunteers over the weekend itself but also the various work parties in the immediate run up to the event. Pre-orders must be taken for the post-event volunteers' dinner. Hundreds of sandwiches and revitalising cups of tea are made and consumed during preparations - this year, some of the cake and bread was even baked by volunteers!

Warwick Hulme's Devon General SN 839 arrives from Bristol (DS)

Many vehicles travel long distances to take part in 'KE'. Some are brought by their owners for the weekend, others are loaned to the Trust for the duration of the event, and these must be collected and returned by volunteer drivers. This year, Albion Nimbus SN 839 (XTA 839) was ferried from Bristol and SUS4A 603 (675 COD) was collected from Herefordshire. We are grateful to all owners for allowing their buses to take part and for generously covering the cost of the fuel used by their vehicles.

During the last few days of preparation, fuelled by adrenaline, every participating vehicle is washed and dried externally, hoovered and mopped internally, windows are cleaned and appropriate destination blinds from our archive are installed. Uniforms are allocated to volunteer crews and ticket machines are issued to conductors from our growing fleet of working Setrights.

Despite a demanding build-up during the days, weeks and months preceding the big day, our volunteers somehow always find the energy and enthusiasm to put on a spectacular show like no other for our thousands of grateful visitors.

Happy passengers enjoying the adventure of a South Brent School Bus journey. (DS)
We send our thanks to each and every one who helped to make our 10th 'KE' so special. 

If you'd like to get involved with planning and delivering our events, there's plenty to do - as you can see! Tasks big and small can be found to suit all skills. Visit our Supporters' page for more information on how to get involved with the Trust, and sign up online. 

Tuesday 20 June 2017

Royal Blue Run 2017: "Right Along the Coast"

All photos and videos (c) Thames Valley & Great Western Omnibus Trust (DS)

'Have you ever said to yourself "I wish I could get there without the trouble of going"?'. 
So asks a leaflet advertising Royal Blue's new express service 'right along the Coast'.

For the owners, drivers and passengers of the fifteen vintage coaches taking part in our Royal Blue & Associated Motorways Coach Runs, it's all about the going. Our annual long-distance run is unique in recreating a bygone era of coaching as faithfully as possible. For most, the journey back in time along spectacular country and coastal roads is as much of an attraction as the destinations.

The runs stick as closely as possible to the original roads, submitting to bypasses only where essential. After months of careful research, each proposed route is driven in advance by car, inspected and interpreted in a comprehensive book of instructions and maps, issued to each coach. This year's three day run took us from Northampton to Bournemouth, along the coast to Exeter, then east along to A30 towards the Trust's Berkshire base.

'Every coach is warmed' the leaflet continues, 'with rugs to every seat'. There was no need to deploy such features this year, thanks to the carefully planned heatwave which gave rise to some spectacular sunny views of the coaches along the way, enjoyed by countless spectators across eight different counties.

In this virtual journey, we hope you'll enjoy a few sights we captured along the way.

The coaches joined us from various parts of the country, including the West Midlands, Home Counties, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. Many had a long journey to make before the run began, with an overnight stop for most in Northampton. Western National 420 and Royal Blue 1250 nap after their journeys from South Devon (224 miles) and Berkshire (52 miles) respectively.

Welcome to Sixfields Stadium, Home of the Cobblers - and, on Friday 16 June 2017, the start of our run. Representing Royal Blue in this all-Bristol line up are LL, RE and MW types, with relief cars consisting of a Hants & Dorset MW, two Crosville REs, a Wilts & Dorset L-type, and the inevitable Western National SUL - the latter not just for the cases, despite jibes!

A drivers' briefing gets underway ahead of the 1030 departure. As can be seen, the run is a spirited and informal occasion, with some drivers extending the visual spectacle to their own attire and others choosing to wear a vintage uniform...

 The coaches avoid travelling in close convoy to minimise inconvenience to other road users, but natural clusters do form and allow for 'on the road' shots such as these, showing (above) Royal Blue 1299 near Bicester and (below) Red & White RC968 near Abingdon.

Lunch on Day 1 was taken in Newbury, where coaches parked on the site of the former Thames Valley bus station at The Wharf.

The run south took us across green and pleasant lands through Andover, into the quaint city of Winchester. Here, our Northampton to Bournemouth service coincides with the route of the London to Exmouth service whose later stages were to be recreated on Day 2 - the one described in the leaflet.

Onwards to Southampton where Friday rush hour traffic slowed our circuit of the city.

Terrain is notoriously varied on our runs. Only half an hour separates these shots of Royal Blue 1460, seen exiting the suburbs of Southampton (above) and later resting in the wilds of the New Forest with Western National 420 (below); meanwhile, Royal Blue 1250 forges on at some considerable speed...

 A major attraction of the runs is to witness similar vehicles working alongside one another. Here, at Bournemouth West Coach Park - journey's end for Day 1 - three of the five participating Bristol RELH coaches flaunt their stylish attributes.

Day 2 began at Bournemouth West, picking up the route 'right along the Coast' after some Saturday morning congestion had been negotiated.

In the same week the town of Wareham has been celebrating its newly reinstated railway service to Swanage, resident spectators must have been hopeful that Royal Blue might also make a return, with an incredible fifteen coaches an hour!

Now firmly into former Southern National (and later Western National, and even later, 'Southern National' again!) operating territory, the coaches were enjoyed by hundreds of beach goers as they passed along The Esplanade.

The journey then passed along the spectacular undulations of the B3157 to Bridport.

Here, the familiar bus and coach station survives in almost its original form and, aside from modern cars and camper vans (and that very futuristic white RE!), the scene is one of a busy Summer Saturday in the 1960s. The former Royal Blue refreshment stop opposite, the Cafe Royal, survives as a Domino's pizza outlet - so modern day passengers adapted accordingly!

Coaches were able to choose between two alternative routes west of Bridport, according to size and disposition. Smaller coaches were able to negotiate the 'service car' route along the Jurassic Coast via Lyme Regis, Seaton (left, alongside the former Southern National depot) and Beer, while larger coaches travelled inland.

 These two intrepid duplicate cars tackled the winding lanes and hills to complete the scenic route, with Wilts & Dorset 279 climbing towards Beer (above) and resting in the village (below) with Western National 420, looking characteristically pleased with its achievement.

Both routes lead coaches into, and out of, Sidmouth, creating some useful passes for photographers on the main road. There are many occasions on Royal Blue Runs when coaches pass one another travelling in opposite directions on the same road, but this time it was deliberate! Royal Blue 1250 makes a fine sight as it enters the town....

... as does the shorter L6B on its way through Budleigh Salterton, flanked by Royal Blue 1299 and its reflection.

 Day 2 concluded in Exmouth, where the early evening sunshine made for spectacular scenes such as this, the coming together of Royal Blue MWs 2256, 2250 and 2246.

Day 3 began at Exeter Coach Station, earmarked for redevelopment last year but mercifully still extant.

 The journey to Berkshire took us along the course of the original A30, these days substantially by-passed between Exeter and Honiton, so the quiet and scenic roads made for scenes from quite another era.

 An early start from Exeter meant that coaches were away before breakfast (although some were carrying substantial provisions!), so a longer-than-scheduled* stop was made at Yeovil Bus Station for bacon sandwiches. Here, Rodger's National Express RE meets its contemporary.

*Here, during a much longer than scheduled stay at Yeovil, we see fitters Helliker and Sheppard engaged in jubilant horseplay, having just secured Western National 1420's continued participation following a puncture. This was to be the only major issue to affect any of the fifteen coaches on a run totalling some 450 miles.

The run concluded at our Berkshire base with a party to celebrate, amongst other things, Royal Blue 1250's 45th year in preservation with TV&GWOT Chairman, Colin Billington (although there was a different number on the cake).

We'll therefore conclude our virtual trip with a shot of 1250 in action on its way home from another hugely successful and enjoyable Royal Blue Run. Our thanks to everybody who made it possible.