The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Saturday Driver

For many years Peter Roberts worked with buses and coaches in Dorset. Here he remembers one particular summer day thirty years ago.

Bedford/Paxton bus, Wimborne

1978 Bedford/Plaxton APR 986T, the ‘best bus’, for use on the busiest days, arrives in Wimborne with passengers from the outlying villages.

It’s a hot summer Saturday in August 1977 and I have agreed to help out my friend John Walker, proprietor of Stanbridge Motor Services, by driving the Wimborne service for the day. The regular driver is off on a private hire job with students to Bath and Longleat – a pleasant change from the bus route for him! Maroon single-deck Thames VFN549 is the regular performer, and the bus is washed, fuelled and waiting for me (one of the perks enjoyed by part-time drivers).

She starts first time. I leave her ticking over to warm up for a minute or two while I collect the ticket rack and cash bag. I carefully ease out of the depot entrance, watching out for fast-moving traffic from either direction. Unhelpfully, the road bends away to left and right, severely restricting the line of sight –VFN is a trusty steed, but she is a bit long in the tooth and lacking in rapid acceleration.

In five minutes we are at our starting point by the old bakery in Manswood. No passengers waiting here, so prompt at 9.15 we set off for the first journey of the day into Wimborne. Waiting at the shelter at Manswood crossroads are our first three passengers: cheery greetings as we drop down the slope to the school and pick up three more travellers. Then we climb eastwards and on to Moor Crichel. I reverse carefully into the timber yard entrance, taking care to avoid the waiting passengers congregating there. Now we are a dozen and everybody seems to know everybody else. We retrace our steps for half a mile and turn left at White Farm.

Dropping down Lawrence Lane, we wave to Mr Biles outside his garage and workshop, then we turn right and pick up five people from the bus shelter that serves Newtown. On to Witchampton, where a dozen people old and young spill out into the road beside the wooden bus shelter and clamber aboard. Handbrake on, switch off and pick up the ticket rack – brightly coloured Bell Punch tickets, but no Bell Punch, so I have to go round and collect the fares from those on board. It only takes a few minutes – as nearly everybody is either a regular or a local, most have the exact money ready for me. Two more people are waiting for us at the lower end of the village.

Over the River Allen again and two more people picked up at High Lea, then a right turn to join the B-road south towards Wimborne. We slow as we come round the bend by the depot yard at Stanbridge and a young mum and her offspring (and pushchair) are waiting. That makes a tally of 35, a good load – it must be the warm sunny day that has brought people out to ride into town. We find one more regular client at Clapgate before arriving in Wimborne.

We stop first by Cowdrey’s Bakery, with its mouthwatering smell of fresh bread. A dozen people leave us, but the rest stay on board as we twist round narrow East Borough and pop out into Wimborne Square, where we drop off all the other passengers, with those who joined us most recently paying their fares as they get off. It’s 9.50 by the clock on the King’s Head and we’re bang on time, so those going on to Poole or Bournemouth have made their connections easily.

Round the block to the car and coach park to park up and then an hour to myself: a bun from Cowdrey’s and a stroll round Woolworth’s to chat to one or two of the Saturday girls when the supervisor isn’t looking. It’s also pleasant just to stroll around in the sun, as Wimborne is an old-fashioned market town and the people still have time to stop and pass the time of day with you.

The hour soon passes; after collecting VFN549 we come round the block again, mingling with the holiday traffic on the busy A31 for half a mile – the by-pass has yet to be built. We wait by the Midland Bank in the Square and at 11.00 start the first outward journey of the day. We have sixteen or seventeen on board, including one or two townsfolk going out to the villages to visit friends or relations. We drop people off in twos and threes and by 11.35 we are back at Manswood again.

We reverse and immediately set off for Wimborne, all the layover time being at the town end of the route. It’s pleasant driving round the lanes on a summer’s day, and we meet little traffic going the other way: occasionally a tractor or a farm vehicle, but courtesy and good humour prevail, and we always find a spot to pass each other by. Not so many people picked up on this run into town, just one or two here and there, maybe a dozen in total at most. As we pass the depot at Stanbridge, John Walker, the proprietor, appears for a lift into town for bread and milk from the shops.

We’re back in Wimborne at 12.00: time for a cup of tea and a chat with John, discussing the ups and downs of the bus and coach business.

Then it’s back to the Square in time for the 1.00 departure. Another fifteen or so people – no, make that sixteen, here’s a young lady running across the road frantically waving at us. Drop John off at Stanbridge and then out through the villages, and a longer journey this time as we go past Manswood and still a mile and a bit further down the hill to Long Crichel, which is only served on Tuesdays and Saturdays. A tight reverse into a narrow farm track opposite Higher Farm and then pick up the postmistress and her husband outside the post office ready for the trip into Wimborne. As a classic example of true country bus scheduling, we were not due in Long Crichel until 1.35 by the timetable, yet we are also the 1.20 departure – it’s not a problem, just the way things have been done all these years. More passengers at the crossroads and at Manswood, three or four more at Moor Crichel, half a dozen at Witchampton and an easy run back into town, although we end up three or four minutes later than the scheduled 2.05 arrival in the Square.

The tickets used on the Crichel route

The tickets used on the Crichel route were notably colourful. In those days a bus journey could be paid for with a few coppers!

Now it’s lunchtime – two hours to spare, so we run back empty to Stanbridge yard and tuck into the last of the sandwiches we have brought with us. Brian is back from an airport transfer to Heathrow and Rob comes in to get his coach ready for an evening private hire. So there is plenty of drivers’ gossip and the telling of some tall tales of those modern knights of the road, the PSV drivers. Soon it is time to run back empty into Wimborne and wait on the stop for the last trip out at 4.20. There used to be a later one back at 8.30, but that was dropped a few years ago, and before that there was one at 10.20 as well, but television put paid to the evening trade just as much in the country as in the town. So with about twenty people on board we pull out of Wimborne and drive back to Witchampton, Manswood and Long Crichel. It’s still sunny and there is a contented buzz of gossip around the bus as purchases are compared and opinions exchanged. Back down the hill to Long Crichel and drop off the postmistress and his wife.

Reverse in the farm track again, once more ignoring the illogicality of the timetable (5.05 arrival for 4.50 departure), and turn towards Wimborne one last time. This trip will be very quiet; some weeks there are no passengers at all and we can sneak into the depot at Stanbridge and not bother going all the way into town. But this Saturday there are two or three to take back who we brought out earlier. One of them from Manswood is slightly the worse for wear, one too many glasses of sherry perhaps, but he is no trouble and nods off on the back seat for a while.

Twenty-five to six and the last person is dropped off in town; ten minutes later we back into the depot yard, stop by the fuel pump and John comes out to fill her up. I give him the tickets and cash, bid him goodnight, leap into my car and drive off home for dinner. An interesting day for the country bus driver – particularly one of the occasional variety like me. Although not much of an operation in big bus company terms, we have performed a useful social service all day and the villages would be the poorer without us.

[Peter Roberts’s book Village Buses of East Dorset can be obtained from the author at 22 Deira Close, Quarrington, Lincolnshire, NG34 8UR]

Dorset Directory