THE RURAL BUS
The Old Norfolk of my and Elizabeth’s childhoods has all but vanished, swallowed by twee new houses on “Miller’s Drifts,” Home County accents (Potter Heigham is not pronounced Potter HighAm but Potter Ham!) and digested by commuitng
However, there was one recently deceased remnant for which we had a great deal of affection and respect…
Carried through the countryside in a modern, urban service bus, it is easy to forget its rural forbears. Such was “The Firm.”
Founded in 1939 it gave rise to 1990’s rumours about the coaches…”scratch the paintwork and you will find wartime camouflage underneath,” “You can still see the remains of the rear gunner’s turret,” and of course, “the bullet holes provide excellent ventilation.”
Post war, the great sporting attraction in the east of our county was the City Speedway. A driver from the time reminisced how the owner, ever ready to adapt to market trends, increased capacity by fitting planks across seats to provide for more passengers in the aisles.
The Firm first came to our aid following Thatcher’s assault on transport in the name of competition. In consequence of which we were deprived of all buses north of the village.
Despair not! The Firm stepped manfully into the breach by providing one bus per week on Market Day to a nearby market town.
The eight mile journey took an hour-nothing to do with the buses so much as the winding and twisting east Norfolk roads linking isolated villages in real need of market access.
This journey provided time to study the same weekly rural passengers that are no more. The temptation of awarding nick-names was simply too great. (heaven knows how they described us!) First on was “Helmet Woman.” She was a devotee of a particular style of headgear modelled on a “pickelhaub” helmet so beloved of First World War German Infantry, but without the spike. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the spike was kept readily to hand, rapidly fitted in times of extreme need and embedded in the ground to provide an instant chamber pot?
Next in line was “Chumbling Paddy.” Renowned for singularly loose dentures and an addiction to pear drops, His consequential dental castanets could have backed a flamenco dancer.
He was often joined by a mate who on one occasion, having not seen him for sometime, was heard to exclaim, “Cor, you old bugger, Paddy. Oi thort yew’d rolled up!”
Next village and there was “Firestick Lady,” her front room window festooned with a huge poster advertising firewood for sale. Nobody enquired into how much of a hit had been taken by the local flora.
We were now getting into serious countryside villages. Next on was Gumbo- not a tooth in her head but truly imaginative in the styling of pink Chiffon for hat and scarf alike.
By now approaching another village, we prepared for the arrival of the Queen of our little band. A retired school teacher of ninety-three we recognised her as an accepted authority on the use the Chain Saw! (Hence her soubriquet of “The Chain Saw Massaccarist.”
Her entry was somewhat tarnished by her companion, ever strongly smelling of sprouts, hence “Sprout Lady.” Rather than take a chance, the more sensitive the traveller, the more likely they were to sit anywhere except directly behind her!
Yet, we only ever had one doubtful moment. A mile out from our destination, I sniffed and sniffed again…diesel fumes. Was it our imagination, were we getting light headed and more to the point, was the driver, bearing in mind he had been sitting over the tank for longer than we had. Doors open, windows open, we finished the journey frozen to the core but smiling beatifically.,
Never mind passengers, the drivers deserve a chapter all of their own. First of all there was the founding father of The Firm’s transport empire. He had a longstanding contract to provide school buses for the High School where then I taught. One afternoon a colleague and I went out onto the yard to supervise the children getting on the bus. Parked in the yard was a builder’s van with ladders fixed on the roof, warning flag attached. The company owner, himself driving, swung his bus round ready to park. As he neared the van, my colleague and I watched paralysed as he slowly but surely backed onto the ladders which went straight through the rear window of the bus! Realising the extent of the damage, he leapt out of the vehicle and called the builder everything but a Christian for leaving his van where it was!
On another occasion he berated two of our young lady teachers for being unable to control the kids as they boarded the bus. This was grossly unfair as they had used the time honoured method of lining the kids up in single file by the side of the bus and letting them know that no one would get on and home until there was order and quiet.
They were in fits when they told me that no sooner were the kids aboard than they greeted their chauffeur with cries of “Hello you old bugger, …run against any good ladders lately? etc.”
It was not long after that his waterworks began playing up so he took and hid a chamber pot about his bus for emergency use. Kids, being kids, however, just had to lift up the doors to the luggage racks and find it, “Here , what’s this for? Do you use it while you’re driving! Aren’t you feared of dropping some? I hope you don’t do anything solid in that!” And so he had the pleasure of driving back to the garage with that inquisitive barrage of questions for company.
The buses were far from new and I remember on another occasion talking to a driver while again waiting for the children to board the bus for home.
“You wont believe it. Last Wednesday afternoon I took a village party to the Amusement park just this side of Lowestoft. I’d no sooner parked up and let the passengers off than all the other coach drivers came round to stare at my bus. They reckoned it was a real museum piece! They were right!”
We next entered the age of driver Michael with his uncanny resemblance to Warren Mitchell playing Alf Garnet with East London accent to match. In the summer it was noticeable how many visitor passengers would nudge their companions with a whispered “’Ere, don’t he look like…?” He came into his own during the early days of bus deregulation, racing from stop to stop gazumping passengers from under the noses of Eastern Counties buses. Woe betide the passenger that kept him waiting fumbling for change.
Leaving many a white knuckled car driver in his wake on our narrow country lanes, retribution at last took a hand. Coming back with him one Saturday afternoon we got to within two miles of the garage when we noticed fumes coming from the engine. Michael brought the bus to a shuddering halt and climbed out to take a look only to return mouthing hideous oaths about his employer, his bus and alleged engineer.
There was nothing for it in those days before mobile phones…he had to put on his coat and shank it back to the garage to get another bus! He was Very Unhappy as he trudged off down the road. Fertile passenger imaginations ran riot. Would he return? Would we be marooned like latter day Ben Gunns? I favoured a Charlton Heston style rescue…flown over in a helicopter and crashing through the windscreen on the end of a rope. Truth to tell it was an anticlimax when Michael and replacement bus finally appeared!
Then of course there was a certain lady bus driver, (You know who you are!) on an early morning route who went over the little humpbacked bridge at such a speed that wide eyed and gibbering survivors later claimed that all four wheels were off the ground.
This started the rumour that it was only the strength of the dollar that had stopped The Firm from flying Stateside!
In conclusion, this blog has been written not out of spite nor imagined superiority but deep affection for a departed generation. They caused none of the world’s problems but by their good humour, kindliness, respect for both themselves and each other, just might have supplied some of the answers.