Bygone days of bumpy bus trips

DESTINATION OF DELIGHTS: a Yarmouth Corporation bus discharges passengers near Gorleston Pier and be

DESTINATION OF DELIGHTS: a Yarmouth Corporation bus discharges passengers near Gorleston Pier and beach in 1934, four years before the Floral Hall and swimming pool were built. The service was Britannia Pier to Gorleston Beach. - Credit: Archant

Rummaging through a box of old family photographs recently, I chanced upon a snap of me aged about six, pedalling a tricycle while wearing the stiff shiny-peaked cap of a bus-man. It was apparent that even at that tender age I had already made a career choice: to work on a bus, preferably as a conductor.

MAIN CHANGE OF SCENERY: regular customers of the Admiral Seymour public house on Salisbury Road in G

MAIN CHANGE OF SCENERY: regular customers of the Admiral Seymour public house on Salisbury Road in Great Yarmouth waiting to board a Norfolk Motor Services charabanc for their annual outing, perhaps about 1950. A former company driver recalled his years between the wars. - Credit: Archant

And not any old bus, but on a Great Yarmouth Corporation double-decker with its elegant pale blue and cream livery incorporating the borough coat of arms. If the corporation had kept the maroon/cream livery and not altered it in 1934, I might not have been as enamoured with our municipal buses...

Even in the wartime years our buses were ever-reliable. Although unheated with open rear platforms on which the uniformed conductor stood at the foot of the stairs - wrapped in a uniform great-coat in winter – we knew no better.

I envied the conductor as he rang the bell once (to tell the driver a passenger wanted to alight at the next stop) or twice to signal that nobody else was boarding and he could pull away safely. Conductors, I felt, enjoyed the added bonus of collecting fares, punching tickets or issuing them on the latest handle-cranking machines, calling out the stops, winding the destination blind at each terminus, chastising cheeky schoolboys...

A fulfilling working life beckoned, but somewhere along the way I entered equally-rewarding provincial journalism instead, but never lost my affection for our corporation buses.

I still enjoy bus travel, with my pensioner free pass, but much of the magic evaporated when one-man operation was imposed in the 1970s so conductors were redundant. Doors closing near the driver, and heating, were introduced. And then our monopolistic municipal transport undertaking was sold in 1996 to FirstBus which repainted the fleet in its own livery.

I was relieved that I had opted for newspaper reporting instead of a career on the buses.

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Recently I featured here a collection of Dinky Toys and a photograph of a line-up of eight models of our classic blue buses owned by ex-Gorlestonian David Cooke. He also sent me a copy of Terminus, a bi-monthly magazine published by the Eastern Transport Collection Society for bus and coach enthusiasts.

To my surprise, it reprinted a Peggotty feature from November 1966 when this column appeared nightly in the Mercury’s sister paper, the Eastern Evening News. That was during the decade I was away, reporting in other parts of Norfolk before returning to my home town in 1968, so I had never before seen it.

My 1966 predecessor wrote: “It was 1921. The 32-seater Yarmouth to London bus chugged along the Mile End Road, Poplar, at 20mph. A civilian dropped a white handkerchief as the bus passed him and, at the end of the road, a police constable studied his stop-watch.

“The result? Mr L G Whittaker, the bus driver, was fined £1 for exceeding the 12mph speed limit!

“‘That’s the way they did things in those days,” said Mr Whittaker when he brought some pictures of the early days of omnibus transport of Yarmouth into the office. Formerly of Yarmouth, he now lives in North Walsham.

“He drove the old buses for Norfolk Motor Services in the years between the wars and just after the second world war, notching up 30-plus years of experience in the days when there were no Traffic Commissioners {to regulate even the minutiae of the industry} and it was every man (and bus) for himself.

“It was not so much a bus ride but more of an endurance test of man and machine in those days. Mr Whittaker remembers taking the old bus, converted from a 1914-18 Army lorry, and driving it to London.

“‘We left the Britannia Pier at 8am and arrived at Page Street, Westminster, at 8 in the evening – and all on pneumatic tyres,’ he said. The lorry bus had no roof and had a rain hood which was pulled up and snapped into position. The driver operated the windscreen wiper by hand.

“‘There were 30 operators on the sea-front during the time that Mr Whittaker was employed as a driver, and he can recall driving up to London, returning with his bus and making another trip to London in one day, but this was in a Crossley six-cylinder vehicle.

“He claims to be the first driver to drive the old six-wheeler buses and the first to be at the wheel of a forward drive vehicle in Yarmouth.

“‘We had to work in those days,’ Mr Whittaker told me. “On your feet round the clock, and no days off! But it wasn’t a bad life...’”

Fast-forward to 2014, and we even have X1 Lowestoft to Peterborough buses with leather seats and free wi-fi, plus a destination indicator front and rear providing almost an overload of information and internal programmed announcements about imminent stops.

Mind you, recently I saw a routine FirstBus double-decker approaching the Market Gates terminus with a destination blind announcement I have never seen before. As I was driving in town centre traffic, I caught only a glimpse as it passed, but it read something like: “Bus full, not stopping.”

I wondered if, true to its word, it passed through Market Gates without halting...

Who would have envisaged that in the heyday of local buses in the 20th century, a decades-long era would be brought to a close by the affordability of the family car.

The popularity of out-of-town shopping has evolved because the majority of folk have cars and can drive there. Currently local Marks & Spencer customers without their own transport are wondering how they can reach the popular retailer’s premises when it relocates from the heart of Yarmouth to the Gapton Hall area because currently no bus service goes anywhere near it.

Perhaps some travel entrepreneur will spot a viable opportunity and launch a service like the stop-anywhere Flying Banana buses which hit our urban streets in 1989. I seem to recall that passengers would play bingo while they travelled.