Chapter 6 Back Home-Bristol and Hemel Hempstead
From winter in Australia to a beautiful Sunday summers morning in twenty four hours and we were back in England. My brother John and his wife Joyce met us at Heathrow. John and Joyce took Annette and I to Reading where we caught a train to Bath. Our plan had been to buy a house in Bath so Annette would be near her Grandmother and her life long friend Ruth. I was to become a driver working out of either Bristol or Bath depots. So much for plans. I had arranged an interview at Phillip Marsh bus garage in Bristol, intending to wear my best suit, first impressions and all that, and where was my best suit, in Auckland New Zealand that’s where.
Flash back to Sydney airport a few days earlier. We had seen our suit cases trundling across the airport apron to our aircraft all on the same trolley, and then one of those miracles of air transport occurred, one suit case went left to England the other turned right and went off to New Zealand. This we discovered when we arrived at Heathrow. Annette refused to leave the airport until our luggage had been located. We were shown into a large room full of displaced luggage but it was not there. Then an airport official went through a mass of telex messages, referring to lost property, until he eventually located our luggage at Auckland International Airport. So with a promise to send our case direct to Bath upon its return to England we left Heathrow.
Whether having the suit would have made any difference to me getting a job on the buses in Bristol I don’t know. After a test drive around Bristol in an old crash gear box double deck bus I was told “we don’t want non of you fast London types down 'ere.”
I rather think it was my lack of experience with a crash gear box that let me down rather than my dress sense. I was to find out some years later one needs to take things a lot slower with crash gear boxes than a pre select gear box. So no house in Somerset, what next? Well house prices in London were now beyond our reach, so it was to the Country Area that I now had to look for a job back on the buses.
Whilst we were away in Australia something very ominous had begun to happen to the bus industry, it was called deregulation. I feel that a small diversion from my memoirs is required here to set the scene for my future adventures so please bare with me a while.
The 1930 Road Traffic Act created a bus and coach market in which all aspects of service were tightly regulated. Licences were only issued if applicant could show that the service was in the public interest. In order to run a service an operator had to meet prescribed standards of vehicle safety and driver competence. and, more restrictively, acquire a Road Service Licence from the Traffic Commissioners. This Act created a stable transport system which put the public first.
However with public transport in decline and the rise in the use of the private motor car the bus industry was due for a revamp. In 1970 the Country Area of London Transport was hived off to fend for itself, and was named London Country Bus Services Ltd. It came under the umbrella of the National Bus Company. Things under the NBC plodded along with a few minor changes, uniforms changed from London Country green to the NBC grey blue, and bus liveries became very similar through out the British Isles. However in 1974 a Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher came to power and it felt that the bus industry like any other National enterprise would operate more efficiently if it was privatised. To do this the NBC was split up into small groups and sold off to private companies. London Country was seen to be too big, and it was split into four small companies. The introduction of the 1985 Transport Act allowed any company to compete over any routes and the only requirement was that changes to routes or timetables had to be notified to the Traffic commissioners 42 days prior to any such changes. In 1986 the bus industry became a deregulated market.
Chaos reigned until gradually the small companies were swallowed up by the bigger players and eventually we were back with three or four big bus operators and stability was once more restored. All the garages that were once London Country (the former London Country Area of London Transport) are now nearly all under the umbrella of Arriva Plc.
So I set off to the Country Area. Whilst Annette stayed with her aunt in Southend I went to stay with my brother in Tring. I enquired at Tring garage about a driving job and was told I had to apply at Hemel Hempstead garage as Tring did not have training facilities. But first Annette and I needed a place to live. Accommodation was so easy to find in Australia but now back in England things were proving a little harder. I walked through all the towns and travelled by bus all the way from Tring to Watford enquiring at all the estate agents for flats to rent. Eventually somewhat foot sore I found a one room flat in Watford and was able to ring up Annette to tell her we had some were to live, it was a start.
I now had to get to Hemel Hempstead and get a job and so I started walking whilst looking over my shoulder for any approaching buses. As luck would have it a very kind 706 coach driver saw me and pulled up, the driver, Bert Ponder, became a good friend of mine later on when I moved to Tring garage, but for the time being a few new pence purchased me a ticket to Hemel Hempstead bus garage where I made the acquaintance of one Assistant Chief Inspector George Holby.
George was a large jovial kind person. He explained that I would have to take a preliminary driving assessment and also a small written exam and as it was Saturday he would arrange for a driving assessment for the following Monday and he would conduct the written test then and there. The test consisted mainly of elementary maths questions. No longer was I to be a bus driver but I was expected to rise to the ranks of an OMO (one man operator) later to be changed for political correctness to an OPO, or one person operator. Well lets face it you couldn’t go around with OMO’s and OWO’s (one women operators). I would be issuing tickets and taking money, no longer the preserve of a conductor, but not quite yet, crew operation was still at large at Hemel Hempstead with only a few routes converted to one man operation.
I successfully passed the written exam and on Monday passed my preliminary driving test. Before commencing driver training I had to pass out as a conductor. Horrors of horrors, I was a driver, not a conductor, when I worked for London Transport I had my own conductor. But times had moved on and it was inevitable that I would soon be doing OMO work.
So it was off to the central training school at St Albans garage where, under the careful eye of a Mr Wilcox, I was to be instructed in the use of the Gibson Ticket machine, the same type that my old conductor Brian at Edgware used to repel boarders. I was also shown the complexities of the waybill, used to record all cash transactions and the auxiliary waybill, a small white form that was left on the bus by the driver of the one man bus when he changed over so that an inspector can check for tickets issued by the previous driver. I was also informed at the training school that during my first six months probationary period I could be allocated not only driving duties both crew and OMO but also conducting duties, what had I let myself in for.
In retrospect however I found the conducting duties quite an eye opener for it allowed you when driving to really appreciate the difference a good conductor could make to your working day, and although as a conductor you had the responsibility of handling the cash you did not have to worry about whether the driver in front was going to turn left or right or had just forgotten to cancel his indicators.
Having received my conductor training and passed the required conductors PSV test I was told to report to Garston garage in North Watford the next day to commence my driver training.
I was met at Watford by my driving Instructor Jock Short a rather dour Scott. Having walked me around the bus, a green RT, he showed me the radiator and explained the procedure for filling up the radiator with water. At this point I casually remarked that it would be great to get back in the cab again. “What do you mean, again”
I explained how I’d done three years driving at Edgware and Uxbridge
“Why the hell did you let me go through all that rigmarole, get up in the bloody cab and lets get going”
And off we went, spending a pleasant few days driving around Hertfordshire baring in mind that at the end of the week I had to pass a full PSV test and with a family on the way I had to pass.
After a couple of days Jock was called away to other duties and I, along with two other trainees, was put in the very capable hands of driving instructor Bob Spence an ex Hemel Hempstead driver who was to eventually become the Chief Driving Instructor at the Central Driving school at St Albans garage. Jock and Bob had very different approaches to instructing drivers. Jock would always be sitting behind you, almost leaning into the cab and likely to bellow in your ear at the slightest misdemeanour, whereas Bob would sit back in the saloon and go over your mistakes at the end of your driving session. A good example of Bobs powers of observation took place when I was driving to Alperton bus garage. I casually looked back into the saloon and observed Bob reading a newspaper. We were having a cup of tea in the canteen at Alperton and Bob was appraising the other two trainees' morning drive, when he looked over at me and said, “You’re not supposed to look back into the saloon whilst driving by the way” Did he have holes cut in that newspaper?
I got to know Bob quite well over the years and at one point he told me that before coming onto the buses he had been a signal man on the railways and had the dubious honour of having to open up the next signal box from Harrow Weald the day after the 1952 Harrow Weald rail crash.
The end of the week soon arrived and it was time for my second PSV test in my career as a bus driver. The chief driving examiner, a Mr Harwood, was a somewhat fierce looking chap who wore a suite and trilby hat. I sat upstairs whilst the first trainee climbed up into the cab and commenced his test. Everything was going smoothly until we reaches a junction with Wembley High Road. The traffic was quite heavy and the driver could not pull out straight away, however a following motorist was becoming rather irate and started to sound his horn. The next thing I heard was a load of swearing telling the motorist what he could do with his horn. Well I thought that’s blown it for the trainee, you certainly don’t swear at other motorist especially when you are on a test. I later found out from Bob that it wasn’t Alan the trainee but the Chief Examiner who was leaning off the platform of the bus and having ago at the poor motorist. My turn soon came and I managed to give a reasonable drive and having been told to pull up and climb down from the cab I then had to endure a series of highway code questions whilst Bob looked on impassively not giving any clues as to whether I had passed the test or not. To my great relief after a few minutes I was handed a pass form to be taken to the Public Carriage Office in Peyton Street. After we had dropped off the Examiner, Bob drove all of us up to Kings Cross were we waited in the same café that I had sat in five years previously whilst we took it in turns to go across the road to the Public Carriage Office to collected our Licence and PSV badges. Yes plural, we now had to have a conductors PSV badge. My second drivers badge No was N71033; the N denoting the London Metropolitan Traffic Area. The United Kingdom was divided into a number of Traffic Areas overseen by its own Traffic Commissioner who was responsible for the licensing of all PSV operations within his or her area. This included disciplinary measures against both drivers and operators and the approval of route changes, and timetable alterations.
Having collected my new licence and badge I immediately rang up Annette from a call box to tell her I had passed and I was once more employed as a bus driver and we could now start looking for a home of our own.
Before starting work at Hemel Hempstead there was one more task to perform. The allocation of buses at Hemel Hempstead were RTs for crew operation and single deck RFs for one man buses and Greenline coaches. I therefore had to receive type training on the RF bus, so once more over to St Albans. Type training usually involved a half day driving around St Albans until you were familiar with the cab layout and the dimensions of the vehicle. The RF had a full fronted cab unlike the half cabs of the RTs and not being able to see the nearside wing would take some adjustment.
Not for me the half day around St Albans oh no. Unfortunately my driving instructor had to attend a disciplinary hearing that day at London Country headquarters which just happened to be in Reigate Surrey. Apparently he had inadvertently allowed a trainee to reverse into a wall the previous day and had to explain his actions to his chief at Reigate. So my familiarisation consisted of a three hour drive from St Albans through London and Dorking to Reigate, I’ll give the instructor his due, he did drive me part of the way back. I must admit that the RF was a lovely vehicle to drive, the cab layout was the same as the RT, a pre select gear box, but with the engine set mid way back and under floor it was so much quieter than the RT, and gave a far smoother ride.
To get to work from Watford to Hemel Hempstead I had bought a small Honda 50cc motor bike, it was to be many years and many motor bikes before Annette and I could afford the luxury of a car.