On the buses
Lorraine Gibson surveys Bournemouth through the eyes of a Yellow Buses driver
Published in February ’12
With her dark burgundy locks and rock-star shades, Vanessa Knowling doesn’t fit the stereotype of a bus driver, but there is no doubting the 37-year-old’s place in the army of drivers who transport Dorset’s commuters on Yellow Buses throughout the year.
It was still dark at 6.01 this morning as she reported for duty at the depot in Yeoman’s Way, behind the Castlepoint shopping centre on Castle Lane. It is now afternoon; she has already worked one five-hour shift and, after a long break, she boards a different bus for her next shift, starting at 12.45.
It is the number 5a, a single-decker, which journeys from Bournemouth Square to Kinson and back (via Bournemouth Rail Station, Charminster, Winton and Ensbury Park), three times in total. She first ensures that the bus actually starts and then completes the green-card checklist of safety measures, which must be performed before the vehicle can be deemed roadworthy.
She signs in to her Wayfarer ticket machine and, with a sudden whoosh of air, throws open the doors to her first batch of passengers. Despite the time of year, the sun thinks it is August, so the town is buzzing with lunchtime crowds enjoying the unexpected good weather and the twenty-or-so people boarding Vanessa’s bus are in good spirit. She has a quick natter with pretty much all of
them as she takes their fares and swipes their cards. Some look surprised at the interaction, most seem delighted.
All aboard, and it’s off round the corner, past Beales’ brightly-lit windows; to the right there is an uninterrupted view of the façade of St Peter’s Church with its elegantly-hewn arches and splendid, four-panelled stained-glass window.
Beyond the Criterion Arcade in the Quadrant Centre on St Peter’s Road the bus stop is empty, so it is onwards via Fir Vale Road to Horseshoe Common, where a very heavily pregnant, very weary young woman lumbers on, announcing that she can’t walk another step. ‘Don’t blame you, let me do the hard work for you,’ pipes Vanessa, and the entire bus chuckles. Along Christchurch Road it is a bit of an obstacle course of other buses, delivery trucks and dashing pedestrians, but plenty of weaving, waving and giving way keeps tempers in check.
The red-brick clock tower and the deco curves of Burt & Vick’s landmark corner building – now a teeming KFC – announce the approach to the Lansdowne roundabout, before a left turn into Holdenhurst Road – with its Victorian architecture to the right and meld of 1930s to 1970s to the left – heading towards the train station.
Just past St Paul’s and the Asda supermarket, with its packed car park, she swings into the bus stand opposite the railway station’s clean red and cream brickwork and industrial, heavily-riveted iron framework; a line of yellow taxis idles in front.
Here an elderly man, who is shaky on his feet, attempts to drag an array of heavy shopping bags on with him. Before you can say ‘Where to, sir?’, Vanessa has leapt out of the cab, nabbed his bags, stowed them securely, made light of it, asked him how he was, then got another passenger to help him to a seat. She does a lot of this: mums with buggies, folk with wheeled shoppers, people with walking aids all benefit from her personal service; she even radios a fellow driver to let them know she’s spotted someone who might have a sight issue waiting on Charminster Road for his soon-to-arrive bus. ‘We all do this. If we see anyone who looks vulnerable, or who might need some extra help, we warn each other.’
Throughout the rest of the journey, which involves negotiating swelling traffic along both the aforementioned Charminster Road and Alma Road, she chats to everyone, and in the diffuse, late-afternoon sunlight, turns left just beyond Kinson library to stop at the unassuming terminus, not quite at 2.30, opposite Smile Dentistry. She is a few minutes early.
The return trip to Gervis Place is busier. After two round-trips, the customer profile has become a mix of pensioners, mums and toddlers and people going to the shops. The be-suited office workers from her earlier shift have morphed into students. Many are from abroad and in Bournemouth to learn English, so Vanessa has become adept at quickly ascertaining what they want and happily advises them on routes and tickets. ‘I enjoy all the banter; it keeps the job interesting. People like it and it gives them a bit of a lift.’ She is always conscious of the moment in her training when she was told that she ‘could well be the only person some of these people talk to all day.’
Many of the passengers recognise Vanessa. Her striking appearance partly explains why – that and the fact that she is almost super-humanly cheerful throughout her ten-hour shifts, which can start or end at some ungodly hour of the morning or night. However, as far as she’s concerned the hours don’t seem long. ‘When you’ve worked in the hotel industry for fourteen years, you know what long hours really are, believe me.’
What of the late-night crowd? ‘You get the odd person who is just out to be troublesome or have a go at you, but I find people generally want to be nice, so I don’t even mind which shift I do,’ she says. ‘On the late-nighters, for instance, I just smile and go with the flow, use a bit of banter to keep things calm. It’s completely different to driving a car. My ethos is to let everything go over my head. Let the guy out, ignore the person who carves you up on the roundabout, smile and wave on those people who throw themselves into the road in front of you. I like the very early mornings most, though; that magical time just before most people are up and about is so peaceful. You have time to appreciate your surroundings. I especially enjoy driving down Alum Chine and catching that gorgeous view of the sea at dawn.’
Vanessa seems to relish everything she does; even the most mundane aspects of the day job, like checking the coin machine and changing the digital direction panel at the start of a shift, are done
‘It’s always interesting because it’s so varied, not just the routes, the buses are always different, too. You just get used to driving one, the next thing you’re getting to grips with the gears on another; a single-decker suddenly becomes a double-decker.’
As if to confirm this, at Fernheath Road near Kinson, a man leaps on and cries: ‘Where’s your big bus my darling? Why’ve they got you driving a go-kart today, then!?’
Round the corner near Coleman Road, a mum of eight, who benefits from Vanessa’s helpful nature every time she brings her brood on-board, calls out from the street that she’ll see her later.
It is surprising to learn that she has been doing it for less than two years; what is not so surprising is learning that she’s already won a good service award and received fourteen commendations from satisfied passengers who have taken the trouble to contact her bosses and sing her praises.
At Columbia Road, a gaggle of po-faced teenage school pupils attempts to pile on. Firmly she insists they wait to let everyone off first. This they accept without grumbling, then they file on beautifully as she joshes them about their nail varnish, lack of smiles, giant bags, and so on. Each one smiles and thanks her as they disembark.
During each journey she issues tickets and advises on the best ticket type, she broadcasts and receives radio communications and has to remember to nudge passengers who have asked her to let them know when they’ve reached their destination. She must also regularly refer to her timetable to ensure her time-keeping is up to scratch, which, of course, it is. At the Kinson terminus, she’s early again, but not for her the closed doors and a quick catch up of the paper; she is outside, explaining the complexities of a timetable to one woman, before inviting all the others inside until she’s ready to go. From dawn ‘til dusk, she wends her way along the 5a route and as darkness falls just after four, the landscape takes on a different feel. Lights come on, some people are already heading home and certain roads are extra busy thanks to a traffic incident in Charminster.
At the Winton Banks traffic lights, the traffic is now at its peak and trying to take the sharp left into Wimborne Road is hairy, but she does it.
Vanessa, who undertook her two week training with trademark zeal and passed the bus driving test in nine days, is an ambassador for bus drivers everywhere: ‘I would recommend this job to anyone who relishes a certain degree of freedom, enjoys driving, of course, and likes interacting with the sort of people who appreciate a smile and a chat.’