Thursday, 29 July 2010

Rampant Rabbit, Pocket Rocket And The Bash Street Kids

An experienced fellow driver had a first when he was recently on a trip.

A thirtysomething lady's bag broke as she stood up to get off the bus. A load of magazines were splayed across the floor and before the embarrassed lady could scoop them all up, the driver noticed they were, ladies specific interest for ladies mags.

When he returned to the depot and was cleaning the bus, underneath the seat to his surprise he found a Rampant Rabbit and a Pocket Rocket. Needless to say there have been no requests to the bus company for the return of this lost property. In the unlikely event that the owner of these items is reading this blog, she might be pleased to know that the items are safely stored and ready for collection at any time.

It had been an interesting time for the driver who had just returned from taking the Bash Street Kids on a trip to a farm. This was a school which was renowned for having unruly children. The trip to the farm was true to form and the teachers sat idly watching as the children ran riot, jumped the fences and rode the pigs, sheep and cows bareback, rodeo style.

The reason the teachers turned a blind eye was for their continued good help as one or two children had notorious parents who could be violent. So the child who said:

"Do that and I'll fetch me fether up," was to be respected.

Day Trip To Whitby: Winkles And The Broken Bridge

"You can pick me up tonight on the road out of Whitby, driver," ordered one of the club members. "I'll be either lying on the grass or if you cannot see me I'll be lying under the hedge.

Traffic was worse than I remember from the last time I was in Whitby. It is a beautiful place with history, culture, a thriving fishing industry and as the people in Torquay named daytrippers in the 1960's........grockles. The grockles had doubled in size too since my last visit, to American proportions. It was typified when I was forced to stop at a pelican crossing to watch a man and a woman in mobility scooters cross the road simultaneously. The man was very old but light framed, wearing a smart tweed jacket and cap. He shot across the road. The woman was much younger but resembled a barrel of lard. Her scooter struggled, even on the flat bit. When it came to the small pavement ramp it gave up the ghost trying haul this great weight and other pedestrians had to push.

Looking around the shops, there was little in Whitby to encourage slimmer bodies. Everywhere smelt of frying. Doughnuts, fish and chips, burgers, even the ice cream smely of fat. I managed to find some winkles. I thought they tasted good but just as I had finished the last one, a local Yorkshireman decided to stick his oar in:

"I hope you were careful where you bought your winkles," he grinned. "Some places are unscrupulous and tend to pick them close to the sewer pipe." (Two days later, I am writing this and I'm still alive.)

It was fascinating sitting and eating my winkles by the broken bridge. Whitby has a swing bridge which opens to let boats up the river. It had stuck in the open position and was awaiting a spare part from somewhere in Europe. In the meantime there was a buzz about the place as people queued for the lifeboats and other craft who were charging £1 a head to transport people across the river. If this goes on for a long time, I thought, they will be able to buy a new lifeboat on the proceeds.

The return trip was uneventful at the start. One of the club members, sitting close behind me insisted on farting at regular intervals. Unpleasant ham and pease pudding lingerers. The trouble with driving a bus is that you cannot escape these appaling aromas bar sticking your head out of the side window. The others slept.

I saw one of the other buses parked by the side of a dual carriageway, in the gateway to a large stately home. I stopped to see if anything was wrong, only to find it was for the usual 'piss stop'. When I looked back at my bus, all my passengers had unloaded too and were peeing up against the hedge of one of the lodges.

Holy s**t, I thought. Let's hope the residents are not looking out of the window. They might call the police. Then again they were probably used to large vehicles stopping and using their drive as a public convenience.

I tried to get them back on the bus as soon as I could. You could hear the tyres screeching as we left.

Day Trip To Whitby: Elevenses In The Lay-By

The solitary truck driver sitting in the cab of his truck in the lay-by near Sedgefield must have got the shock of his life as four buses pulled in and 200 men disembarked. It must have been an unusual sight for passing motorists too.

"You've parked too close to the verge, driver,"said the committee man who happened to be a retired bus driver. "You should have put the lager in the back." He was right. There was an disorderly rush for the beer and the resulting bottleneck of people with their tongues hanging out approaching the side lockers from all angles caused some irritation. The old hands didn't mind. To fill in the time, they pee'd wherever they stood, modesty forbidding.

"When I get to Whitby," said an octogenarian, "I'm not going to take me coat." He felt his pockets and smiled. "But I've got me black pudding, bread and cheese."

They were even merrier when we set off again.

Day Trip To Whitby: The Mulling Throngs At The Pick Up

The pavement was heaving with men of varying ages, but mainly 60+. They had come out the back door of the vast Tyneside club and began boarding the four awaiting buses. It was 9am. They were in jovial mood and had already had a couple of pints to see them through to the proposed stop in a lay-by for a can and a stottie filled with ham and pease pudding, cheese savoury or pork and stuffing.

This was the club's annual day trip to Whitby. 200 of them going for an outing. It was a piece of history in the present as there are not many clubs left like this. Even though beer is £1-something a pint, the membership is dwindling. Maybe it is because of a shift in society's needs and aspirations, but the young are not joining.

The four drivers sat on the wall while the buses loaded up. One sneezed, just as a mother and pushchair was passing. She stopped and looking concerned said: "Aw, you shouldn't be out, pet, with that terrible cold. Get yous back to bed."

Standing beside my bus was one of the 'committee men' with a clipboard in his hand and he was loudly telling people:

"This is the young 'uns bus. Only for young 'uns."

"So what's a silly old c**t like you doing on it," was said by the anonymous voice down the back.

The committee man took out his displeasure on me and advised me not to repeat the same trick that happened on the last trip to the races where unbeknown to them the Police had sent the driver to a different coach park. Of course chaos ensued and the driver got the blame even though it wasn't his fault.

"I just got up," said one panting latecomer. "I just got up 5 minutes ago. Had to run a bit. But no worries - it is the same every year."

We were ready. The 200 cans of beer and lager were loaded. The 200 sandwiches were loaded. The 200 club members were loaded too.

"It's alright for you driver, but we've got to keep drinking all day."

Off we went.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

This IS The North Of England

After a trip to the continent, life in general tends to descend to earth with a big bump. My bump came in the form of having to do a local school run.

"This IS the North of England," scowled the classroom assistant who was obviously not overly pleased at having drawn the short straw and was on bus duty in the coach park. Pointing out that it had been 33 degrees in Paris the night before was perhaps a tactless remark which had not engendered feelings of goodwill towards bus drivers.

The 33 degrees had been downgraded to 22 degrees in Kent. Then the further north we traveled the more the temperature gauge plummeted, until on arrival at the bus depot it hit 9 degrees. Now, sitting in the coach park, it was like a November day with storms and high winds.

12 hours later, things had changed. It was 4am and I was crossing over the High Pennines en route to South Yorkshire to pick up another school. It was the sort of morning to thank God for being alive. There had been a small frost in the night, the winds had dropped and the whole region had an air of calm about it. The sky was three tone pink, the clouds were purple and mauve, the blinding orange of the sun made the fields shimmer and glimmer. There were pockets of mist scattered at various places in the valley. The peace continues down the deserted motorways to outside the school gates.

"Ey up. I'm worried, driver. I don't think I have enough sick buckets........"

The peace is shattered. Reality beckons.

School Trip To Poitiers: 8. The Finale

"I don't do kisses," whispered my co-driver as he stood uncomfortably, arms pinned to his sides, as he was hugged and given a kiss by each teacher.

There is something good which develops between teachers and drivers on a successful trip. That is said without the risk of divorce, if my wife reads this - all the same I'd better explain it more clearly. A school trip is very stressful, particularly for any teacher. There is much to think about, many potential hazards and many things that can go wrong.

So there develops a relationship between teacher and driver which relies entirely on helpfulness, reliability and doing everything in one's power make things run smooth.

This had been a good trip. Everyone seemed to have enjoyed themselves. The teachers had been quiet and had ensured everything ran smoothly.

The final hurdle was getting through customs and the UK Border Agency at Calais. It is no laughing matter going through the procedures and questioning in the port. Even I was at my most tactful best. No flippant remarks. No jokes. Just answer all their questions. We went through three checkpoints, manned by polite but stern young officers. Even having cleared all the checks, a flying squad of handlers rolled up and started randomly checking various vehicles.

I am minded that the onus is on me as the bus driver to make sure there are no 'clandestine entrants' (as they call them) on board. We had locked all doors and lockers when we set off from Poitiers. We had stopped and checked at a service station outside Calais too, though this can be difficult as it is where asylum seekers often lurk and try to sneak on. If one is found on the bus, them the driver is liable to a £2000 fine or civil penalty as they prefer to call it. Perhaps this is meant to soften the blow, or give you, the bus driver a sense of citizenship status and responsibility in life.

But we made it trouble free to Maidstone services, where our hours ran out and we had to turn the bus over to another feeder driver, who drove them back to the North.

After such an enjoyable trip, there was a momentary pang at saying goodbye. After all the hugs from the teachers one of the livelier boys came up to us and said: "We'd just like to say we were really impressed with what you did for us in that seat. I hope we were good for yous."

That boy will go far. Ambassador material, without doubt.

School Trip To Poitiers: 7. A Bus Driver In Paris

'I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles,' sung Ella Fitzgerald in the famous Cole Porter song.

The children on the bus, who were uninterestedly watching a second rate dvd, suddenly sat up in their seats, flung back the curtains and cheered.

"Look," yelled one in great excitement. "It's the Eiffel Tower. It really is. It's over there. Look." However many times you have seen the structure on film and tv, there is something magical when you see it in the raw for the first time and times thereafter.

Driving a bus through Paris does not give one the luxuries of looking a the nice buildings. The utmost concentration is needed to cope with the constant hooting, carving up, two fingers raised out of car windows, fast manoevering motorbikes and mopeds and all the other hazards, made doubly bad tempered by the heatwave.

"I don't do Paris," my co-driver had announced that morning, so here I was driving the bus past Notre Dame at 4.30pm, at the height of the Paris rush hour. I didn't mind. I like driving in Paris and agree with some of their warped ideas about how to drive. It can be disconcerting for the co-driver and passengers who you feel are clutching onto their armrests when the bus does not look like stopping at a red light.

It is tiring as you have to have eyes at the back of your head, never get complacent when things seem to be going well and just be patient, take your time, without giving the Parisians one inch. A bus is fair game for the locals. A British bus is worth double points and simple to cut in front of.

I knew I was being accepted onto the Parisian net when after one particular junction I managed to thwart a van and three motorbikes from cutting up the insides. It was satisfying to see in my mirrors the van try but be thwarted by an aggressive looking concrete post and having to brake sharply. The bikers, too, realised that they were heading for disaster. The hooting was prolonged.

Soon after, at a clearer piece of road, one of the bikers stopped at my window, stood up on his bike and in a firm yet calm said:

"Use yoouurrr eyezzzz, Monsieur," before disappearing in a cloud of Chatelet dust. Yes! I thought to myself - they've accepted me.

We went on without incident to Montmartre, where the school were getting out and walking through the Artists' Square, the Place de Tertre and Sacre Coeur to their restaurant. There is no hanging around at the small drop off point in Montmartre. Taking buses into Paris has been made as difficult as possible by the city authorities, but it is home from home and the same applies in the UK where cities seem to want the tourists but not the buses.

I blocked the road as their were no spaces. I put on my stupid and obtuse bus driver act and ignored the hooting behind.

"No park, no park," shouted an official looking meet and greet parking attendant.

"No park 'ere. Stopping OK but know parking." I nodded and agreed with him, resisting the temptation to say an smart ass phrase like 'I know that'. Three minutes later we drove off. We drove to one of the few streets where parking was permitted for buses. Relieved to find a space and place we placed our permit in the window, just in the nick of time as the same parking warden we had encountered in Montmartre was now checking the buses here. This time he semi-smiled.

We had a couple of hours break, so we went in search of something to eat. Around the Gare du Nord seemed a good place to be ripped off by some Parisian Cafe owner. It did not take long and we simple Engleesh were forced to fork out 16 Euros for two ice creams and two soft drinks. We obviously had 'I saw you coming' written all over us.

When it came to returning to the Montmartre drop off point to reunite with our party, there were double the numbers of buses. The place was gridlocked. There was little room to move as half the road was divided by a concrete lip to form a service buses only lane. The hooting was unbearably loud this time. Nothing moved for fifteen minutes. I was expecting a Parisian punch in the nose.

But then it cleared and we were off, away out of Paris and on the road north to Calais.

Perhaps Peter Sellers in the 1968 film Inspector Clousseau could have summed up what it is like to take a bus into Paris when he said:

"There is a time to laugh and there is a time not to laugh, and this is not one of them."

What Bus Drivers Do Abroad

"You're not like other bus drivers," said my co-driver on our day off. "Most seem to want to sit in their hotel room and drink."

He was right on the first point and I minorly corrected him on the other point when we stopped at various points for a beer or to buy a bottle of wine, to prove that I was not one of those prudish and sometimes pious teetotallers.

His words echoed around the bus park in which I was standing in windy Northern England, sometime later on a different trip.

"Four of us bought 186 bottles into the European resort. We were staying for a week and didn't have to drive." said a driver reminiscing. "But that only lasted the first night."

"Yeah, Bloggins was in a terrible state. he fell over flat on his face into someone's garden."

"But he missed the flowers," chipped in another driver.

"We got to bed at six o'clock. Breakfast was at seven."

"We missed breakfast," said the lead driver, shaking his head.

School Trip To Poitiers: 6. Thinking About Going Home

"Am I speaking Mandarin, or what?" said the teacher in a tired voice, trying to address the children who were scrabbling onto the bus and haphazardly trying to re-arrange the bus seating plan and had only succeeded in forming an ugly queue down the aisle. "SIT DOWN in your normal seats." It was a lost cause as they continued regardlessly. We were an hour late when we finally set off.

It felt that we had been in France for weeks. It was only 48 hours since we landed at Calais. And now it was time to head for home. Following the time spent at the theme park, this was to be the cultural day of the trip.

See France in a day and die, to misquote the Bourbons description of Naples. It was going to be a hectic day. One hour in Amboise, two hours in Paris then a rush to Calais to catch the ferry home, a drive up the A1 and back home in time for breakfast the next morning.

Amboise was memorable, not for the beautiful chateau, overlooking the baanks of the Loire, but for the little girl who was sick down the back of the bus shortly after leaving.

"That'll be all the ice cream and sweets coming back up," one of the teachers graphically explained. The bus was steaming, it was 33degrees outside. The children curled up, drew all the curtains and watched a dvd.

Just as we were about to enter Paris - they put on another dvd.

School Trip To Poitiers: 5. Dinner Time - The English Abroad

"Sir, sir, come quickly." The girl was looking horrified. "Someone's messing on. 'E's putting 'is bread in my water."

The children had made it quite plain earlier that day at breakfast that they did not like the bread. Why? No one could fathom as it was the usual delicious buttery, crispy French baguette. The whole room smelt of it.

They did not like the other food either. It was simple but good - a salad and a piece of fish or chicken on a bed of green beans or pasta. The teacher managed to get them to eat a little pasta by asking the waiter for some grated cheese to be put on top. The packed lunches also were not to their taste either - they were fed to the ducks by the river in Amboise on the return home.

There were two successes however. One was the pizza restaurant in Paris which provided fried chicken and chips and the other was sweets. Everywhere we stopped, the children loadedup with bagloads of sweets and biscuits.

This kept them going.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Tip Of The Day: How To Stop Freeloaders

My colleague in France told me a useful tip.

Often in the North East and most probably in all parts of the country many passengers hold out large notes to the driver in the hope that he/she does not have enough change and that as a result they will get a free ride.

"What you do," he said, "in that situation, is take their note, hold it up to the light, then rip it in two, telling them that you don't like the look of their money. The look on their faces is a treat. there's no damage done because you just tape it up and the banks will accept it.

They never do it again.

School Trip To Poitiers: 4. The Teachers Are Wilting

We returned from our tranquil day off, exuberant at not having to spend the whole day at the theme park. The opposite was to be said of the teachers. They had began the trip, full of life and leadership. Now, following 18 hours in a coach and 12 hours of stressful watching their children, they looked shattered. They were so exhausted that at sometime during the day, one at a time, they had curled up on a bench and had a ziz.

"I made a right idiot of meself," said one of them.

"I know, I was standing right behind you when you said it," said the other.

"I was so tired that I forgot all me French"

"Ah, that was why you said.... 'Je would like un bottle o' water s'il vous plait, garcon."

"Well I'm sure I never said garcon."

At that moment, one of the girls passed the teachers and said loudly to another girl: "Stay away from them boys, Gloria."

One of the teachers dragged themselves to their feet. "Here we go again," before disappearing past the queues into one of the attractions.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

School Trip To Poitiers: 3. There's A Big Stink At The Gare

My poor uncomplaining co-driver and colleague looked knackered.

It had been a long day off. We had decided not to lurk around the theme park and headed into Poitiers for sampling of French life and culture. It began with a French lady bus driver who looked like a middle aged version of Brigite Bardot. She was immaculate in her short black skirt and white blouse, leaning up against the front door of the bus, smoking a cigarette. Her blonde hair was artistically tied up in a bun and held in place by a pair of Armani sunglasses. How very different to the counterparts in England.

The style continued throughout the day. Excellent salads, cheeses, sandwiches and French beer. We walked round Poitiers, stopping occasionally to look inside a church or a park or a shop. It was a perfect antidote to the last 24 hours hard slog down the autoroutes.

Everything had that certain French je ne sais crois. Everything except for the behaviour of the station cleaners. Before returning to the theme park, we stopped at the central station for one final beer and a little trainspotting, which my colleague was keen to do.

When we returned to the concourse from seeing the TGV's and the SNCF diesels, there was the most horrendous smell. Commuters and other travellers were running through the station, holding their noses. The strange thing was when we got outside the main doors, into the open air, the smell strengthened.

There, in front of, was a cleaner with a trolley. She was brown from head to waist. Her glasses were covered in a brown viscuous concoction. Her hair had turned brown. In one hand she held the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner and was sucking up what seemed like a constant stream of brown liquid. Her other hand was busy picking white tissues out of the top of the nozzle and placing them in the bin liner mounted on the trolley she was pushing.She wore no gloves, her fingers were encrusted with the brown liquid.

This was the termination of stylish France. The primitive way of clearing the drains was peculiar. It is one of the few downsides to France. Their sewage system has always been inferior to the UK. But the woman didn't seem to mind. She noticed the bewildered look I was giving her. She raised her nozzle and grinned, baring her yellow teeth through her brown lips, before carrying on and coontinuing to fill the air with this foul odour.

Ah....les Francais.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

School Trip To Poitiers 2. The Long Hot Drive

"How did you do that?" the boy said to me in sheer amazement. "Did you speak to them in their own language or some-at? His bag was safely in the bus again thanks to the French Gendarme I had spoken to in my appalling and limited French.It had been left on the boat and the unamused crew had passed it on to security who had reunited it with its owner.

As the day got hotter and the temperature gauge nudged 30, the number incidences of children losing their possessions increased and kept on increasing. Three times mobile phones went missing, a coat, a purse and a wallet. All were found on various service counters, pavements or amongst the pile of papers and melting sweets under their seats.

It was a great feeling to see the sign for the theme park gates at 5pm the next day, 17 hours and 55 minutes after we had departed. The children were still running on high octane and not unduly tired.

"What are you going to do now you are here," I asked one girl, expecting some enthusiastic answer about going on the rides in Futuroscope.

"Well first of all I'm going to complain to the hotel management," she replied. "Just look at the hotel. It looks like a prison. It reminds me of the young offenders unit back home."

Eleven year olds seem to have high standards these days. The hotel wasn't bad. It was a 1* Billy Butlin-esque basic hotel, where they handed remote controls for the telly with the room key. It had the stale smell of a holiday camp wooden furniture, but it did a good job, considering the fast turnaround of school trips staying there.

Supper was in a restaurant in the theme park. It was simple but good French fare. A salad, chicken on broad beans and an ice cream. The children did not like it and left most of their food on the plate. They persuaded me that, even though I had told them I detested any kind of theme park, that I should attempt one of the rides before going to bed. So nervously I went on some 4D simulation cartoon ride. It was fantastic. Amazing. Incredible. So good that I did it again the next night.

I was fortunate. The teachers were forced onto one called 'Dancing With Robots.' They reappeared looking distinctively queasy.

School Trip To Poitiers. 1. The Nervous Beginning

I had mixed emotions taking a busload of schoolchildren to France from the North East of England. The success of the trip depends on the teachers and whether they can enthuse their children and make it fun.

The drive to Futuroscope, the theme park outside Poitiers was going to be 18 hours. The pavement was packed with children and parents when the bus pulled up outside the school gates.

As I was loading the luggage, one mother pigeonholed me and said: "You look after them. Don't you take your eyes off that road for a minute." They needn't have been nervous as most of the children were equipped with the latest smart phones and they were ringing each other before we hit the city limits.

Another worried mother came to the back of the bus and said: "My daughter is always sick on any bus trip, but she says that she is always much better when she is sick, mind." Her information was spot on and two hours later a teacher was walking down the inside of the bus carrying a white plastic bag and hurriedly tying knots at the top.

It was 2am. The bus was wide awake. The children were talking loudly. No one was going to sleep except the four teachers who dozed at the front. After another two hours the red and orange services sign loomed large out of the mist. The bus cheered. The children raced into the building and headed straight for the hamburger concession. They ran the place out of burgers. They bought so much that they were given free chips.

This, on top of the vast quantities of sweets they had already eaten, would ensure they remained hyperactive until Dover at the very least. Maybe even to just outside Calais. I could be in for a very long night.

How wrong I was. They stayed awake the whole 18 hours to Poitiers. Incredible.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Weather The Storm

The second highest village in England had returned to its usual grey and dismal appearance, as I descended out of the low cloud. It had been blowing a gale all night. The school run that day was a stop start affair, stopping constantly to remove debris from the roads. I removed traffic cones, donkey bags, branches, wheelie bins and even had to upright some temporary traffic lights.

This is July. The English summer has returned to its usual unpredictable state. The weather in the North Pennines too, has reverted to type. In the heatwave it was easy to forget that the area was known for having had snow in every month of the year at odd times.

The farmers were saying that it was Autumn come early.

But I am heading south. South to France, taking a school trip to a theme park in the centre of the country. I am hoping things will improve weatherwise, or to quote the title of an H E Bates novel - Fair Stood The Wind For France.

Voyons voir!

Trip On The Tyne Tests Most Backsides

"Twenty odd years after being involved in a bus crash and my friend still has shards of glass coming out of his body," said one of the pensioners with great relish. "Yeah, you stand next to him and next thing you know is a bit of glass drops onto the pavement. It's remarkable what the body retains."

The rest of the party were slowly walking up the ramp from the boat. They had been on a trip on the River Tyne. It had been windy and their usually spotless hair-do's were a little wayward. They piled back onto the bus.

"Are you ready for a cup of tea and a cake at the farm shop?"

"Yeessssss, certainly," they cried out in unison. "Oh hold on we are missing three." This was a mystery as I had been standing at the top of the pier and had directed them to the bus which was parked across the road. You couldn't fail to see it or the Rolls Royce parked beside it, outside one of the North east's largest firm of solicitors.

After an extensive search, I found the three walking in the opposite direction at a leisurely amble. quite unconcerned the man said: "We've been sat on our behinds on that boat for three hours and we needed to go for a walk and stretch our bottoms." This was not popular with the rest of the party who felt they were losing valuable tea and cake time.

Naturally the entrance to the farm shop was not designed for the large 13 metre bus. This was the same bus whose mirror I had crunched in Fleetwood. The memory was fresh, particularly as I wound gently round the corner of the narrow farm track towards the narrow cattle grid. Not only was the road narrow, but it was against the traffic flow and cars used this as a one-way system.

I exhaled a huge sigh of relief as I had got round the second last corner without meeting a car coming the other way. Then from nowhere came a people carrier, driven at speed by a bearded man, in search of the pick-your-own strawberries. There was two inches of spare room as I tried to pass him. His hand shot out of his window and hurriedly tried to retract his wing mirror.

"Pheewwww," the ladies behind me said. "That's close." I closed my eyes. When I opened them the car had gone.

All was well.

Good Yorkshire Hospitality

Author Barbara Taylor Bradford was once quoted in an article in the Yorkshire Post as saying: "Is there something unique about the Yorkshire character? I'd say it was strong and determined, very welcoming, genuine and hospitable."

I was sitting in my bus in a street outside a school near Wakefield, when there was a knock at my door. There was an elderly man at the door, in his cap or flat 'at as they call them down there. He was returning from the paper shop and had his newspaper rolled up under his arm.

"Ey up, driver. The pot'll be t'ready in t'five minutes. Just knock on door if ye'd like cuppa."

"I will do that. Which door at the school shall I come to? Front or back?" I asked thinking he was a teacher who has come to offer me a cup of tea.

"Nay lad," he said, "I live at number 27. It's just over hill, round t'corner. Pot will be waiting." He walked off.

I waited and three minutes later there was another knock on the bus door. Another gentleman wearing his flat 'at and with his newspaper rolled up under his arm waited there. But he had a concerned look on his face.

"Bah, you'll 'ave a long wait, driver. I 'ope you'll be alright." He walked off too.

I felt loved and cared for, even if it was by strangers in an alien place at 7am. My faith in humanity has been rekindled.

They Grow Up Fast These days

"Snodgrass wants to be a murderer when he grows up," I overheard the little girl say to her friend.

"Yeah," added the mischievous boy in the seat behind, "he's going to chop their 'eads off then boil 'em up in a mega big pot."

"Euuurrrgghhh. Yuk. Don't be dim like Tim. Don't be shut in like Jim," another boy started singing over and over.

"Sexy," Jack-the-lad muttered. He had disyllabically muttered 'sexy' at various times throughout the journey. There had been many inappropriate times when he had come out with his only known phrase, but this seemed to take the biscuit.

This was an earthy topic from the children. The teachers were sitting at the back and could not hear what they were saying. Perhaps they had been watching too many dvd's or perhaps the recent news about Raoul Moat had got to them.

All of the girls on the bus could have been named after American actresses. There was Yasmine, Megan, Brittany, Courtney and Lauren. They all had loud voices and answered questions in the same way.





But they were sparky children. Funny too, with a lot to say for themselves. I started to try and divert their attention away from boiling heads:

"Why are the fields yellow?"

"Dunno - have they been painted?" Jack-the-lad thought he wasbeing clever.

"Sir," one of the girls shouted down the bus to the teacher. "Driver's giving us a geography lesson. Look at all them buttercups, sir."

But soon the subject of death returned. "Poor old Ricky," said one boy. "'E died from the smoke."

The others answered with an "Aah. Poor old Ricky. He was the local tramp, you know" they kindly told me.

"E lit a cigarette and set fire to his mattress. Me Dad tried to put 'im out. But it was too late."

I felt I had lived a sheltered life.

The Cumbrian Feeder (Part III) - Nearly There

Possibly the worst part of the journey for any school returning from a European trip, is the long haul back up the M1 or the M6 to their Northern base. The teachers optimistically tell their pupils that it always seems quicker on the way back. Perhaps they are so shattered that they do not remember much of the return trip in their semi-conscious delirium.

European driving regulations mean that most times the two drivers who have driven the stretch across Europe are forced to stop somewhere around Dover or Maidstone as the hours they are permitted to drive have expired. So a third feeder driver (to feed the service to and from the port) is required, and that's me.

The wretched Cumbrian students suffer the hot bus for ten hours. It is a scorcher of a day. They are great and never moan once. Then we arrive on the outskirts of their town and have an enforced 20 minute stop in a lay-by, while the gridlock caused by parents and buses picking up the children at the end of the school day has finished.

Still they do not complain. Even when the teacher orders them to clean up the bus. I take out eight black bin liners of half eaten sweets, plactic drink containers and general rubbish. This is on top of four I had got rid of earlier.

They had eaten for Britain.

The Cumbrian Feeder (Part II) - The Glasgow Effect

I met the best and worst of Glasgow in the space of three minutes in the coach park of a Northern service station. Since some of service station companies have subcontracted the parking to private companies, things have changed. There are now strict time limits and rules to be observed. There are also wardens patrolling or numberplate recognition cameras to enforce the regulations.

So I shouldn't have been surprised to find the coach park full of caravans, camper vans, motor homes, cars, motorbikes, Uncle Tom Cobley and all. There was one space left between two caravans. A gothically tatooed man with short 'See You Jimmy' style hair and his fat wife were sitting on the kerb, in the space which made it difficult to reverse into. They refused to move.

After the four hour drive from Kent, I was tired and looking forward to my cappuccino. I reversed towards them. They still would not move, until I was close to them. Then all hell broke loose as they realised that the bus was unlikely to be stopping. fatty and the redhead leapt into life, shouting and screaming and banging the bus. They were speaking in such thich Glaswegian patter that neither myself or any of the people on the coach could understand them. They could have been telling Armenian fairy tales for all we knew.

The man came up to my window. His scarlet face mirrored the lobster tint of his sunburnt skin on his upper torso. He screamed:

"Oon-bel-eeeeev-a-bill. Fookin' oon-bel-eeeeev-a-bill." With that the couple dashed into their car and drove away with their wheels screeching. The windows were wound down and as they turned the corner four fingers came out, two each side.

"Well I never...." said the teacher who was standing behind me, watching proceedings.

As the angry Glaswegians went out, a smart coach came in and parked in the spot vacated by the caravan. I instantly identified the same Glaswegow accent, but this time it was a warm voice with plenty of humour. I listened to him have fun with his bus load of old age pensioners:

"30 minutes here. But I have plenty of water for sale. And it will be a lot cheaper than in that service station. And I know where it came from. It came from my tap."

"Can you tell me the way to the toilets?" an old lady asked.

"Aye that'll be £20. But it'll be cheap at the price."

What a difference three minutes makes in the bus world.

Friday, 16 July 2010

The Cumbrian Feeder (Part 1)

It was hot and sultry walking along the tow path beside the River Medway in Maidstone. The heat had turned the river a curious shade of green and it gave off a pungent odour, more akin to a stretch of water somewhere near the Equator. The hotel where I was staying was the same heat as a sauna. Health and safety only permitted the windoows to be opened one inch. But this was a blessing as the car park was shared by the pub next door and the noise of late night revellers was horrendous.

I was doing a feeder. Swopping with two drivers who had driven from Germany to drive the school the rest of the way back to their hometown in Cumbria. It had been a long drive down in one of the driver's aged Mercedes, which had the handling of a tank in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme.

The call finally came and I drove to the service station to take over from them. It was a noisy place too. High speed trains on one side, loud mouthed youths playing football in the coach park and using the buses for goalposts.

In between there were teenage Northern girls talking about their purchases in France. "I've got six bags in my handbag" said one.

My bus arrived. The children and the teachers were shattered. There was another 8 hours to go.

Supremely Scary Scarecrows

The country seems to have a love affair with scarecrows. Every village seems to have a Scarecrow Competition. The one we are driving through in this Cumbrian village is one of the more professionally organised. There is a Park And Ride scheme. Whatever next?

Recently I've passed a succession of Policemen-like figures hiding behind hedges and lampposts, holding something which is meant to represent a hand held speed camera. One had POLITE written on the back of the hi-vis jacket. No doubt to avoid being sued or jailed for impersonating a policeman.

The irony was that in our local village crime actually seemed to be on the increase as a result of the scarecrows. The man sitting on the bench in his wellies, overalls and Farmer Giles hat was stolen and the church choir and conducter were used like a coconut shy and had their heads unceremoniously removed by flying objects.

The children from Manchester I was driving seemed to like them. Passing psychiatrists too. They had plenty to chew over and speculate over as each competition seemed to get progressively more weird. If this was a public viewing of certain peoples' inner souls and thoughts - then Lord help us.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Granda An The Old Bedford

The boss was short of buses and drivers. He took his pride and joy the 1970's old Bedford on a school run.

"Urrggh. Not that smelly old bus again. It stinks," said one little girl. The boss was taken aback.

"It's a lovely bus," he replied. "You are very lucky."

"No we're not," said another.

"Look. Do you have a Granda (Cumbrian for Grandad)?"


"Does he smell a little bit."

"Well, yes he does," the little girl said rather uncertainly.

"There you are then," the boss went on. "When you get older you tend to smell a little bit more. So this bus is no different from your Granda."

"Well I suppose you're right." She went to the back of the bus and said no more.

Pay Rise

All our drivers are happy. We've had a pay rise. A substantial pay rise. It is an inflation busting 7.69230769230% increase, taking our hourly rate to a staggering 20% over the minimum wage. This of course will come down to 18% when the minimum wage goes up in October.

Yes, dear friends, bus drivers are the lowest of the low when it comes to the topic of salaries. A Polish friend of mine, I found was on a better wage putting plastic lids on plastic containers in a plastics factory.

But who's complaining. A blog about working in a plastics factory would run out of ideas fairly quickly. And I am the lucky one. The company I work for is a decent company with fair and kind employers.

The more horror tales I here from drivers show what a complete shower of individuals there now are in the bus and coach industry. The larger companies now have their drivers in an Orwellian grip. There are so many cameras on their bus that they cannot pick their nose without it being uploaded onto a masterframe computer and recorded on their record as a black mark for evermore. The smart cards which they swipe at the start of their shift also dish out black marks for excessive breaking, excessive acceleration, exceeding the speed limit, leaving the engine idling etc etc. No fun. No wonder they are struggling to find drivers, though the credit crunch should help.

Some of the smaller companies are even worse. Some pay a meagre hourly rate. Some only pay the hours you drive. You could only drive two hours and wait around for ten. Some pay a percentage of the private hire fee, meaning if it was a ten hour day and the fee was only £120........well you do the maths. Some don't pay their drivers for months.

I am the lucky one.

All Curled Up With No Place To Go

Hold it!

The perfect school that I mentioned before are not so perfect.

On a routine cleaning inspection of the bus and due to a vile odour which seemed to be prevalent throughout the bus, it was discovered that in the onboard lavatory lay one enormous and hard turd.

It took all the persuasive force of the pressure cleaner to remove the object, and only after the third attempt.Someone must have sneaked in and managed to find a way of unlocking the door. Full marks to the teachers, I suppose reluctantly for inducing such ingenuity into their students.

Personalised Number Plates game

I have a new game.

The standard of driving is getting worse, it seems. There are an increasing number of boy and girl racers who try everything to get in front of a bus. Near misses are a common occurence. When there is one, I take the last three letters of the offending car's numberplate and make up some phrase. You should try it. It is great therapy and an antidote to raod rage or getting hot under the collar.

So.......... PGM.............Pisspot Going Mad

AUD.............Another Untalented Driver

IHV.............Inviting Hospital Visit

DHB.............Driver Hates Buses

TIT.............Haven't thought of a good phrase yet.......

Mirror, Mirror On The Bus..........

Woodrow Wyatt would refer to this country as 'Dozy Old Britain' when it failed to keep up with the times over something or other. No doubt he would have used this phrase to describe the access route to Britain's largest theme park, Alton Towers.

I can hear him now.

"Only Dozy Old Britain would build the largest theme park in the middle of knowhere, with narrow country lanes with stone walls on either side as the only way into the place." Or something along those lines.

One driver told the tale of the coach driver who followed him into the park. He had driven round a tight corner to find a service bus coming the other way. He pulled into the side and made space for the service bus to get past. But the service bus driver waved his arms and refused to move.

The coach driver was extremely angry at this unhelpful attitude. He drew alongside and asked the driver why he had stopped.

"We have been told if we see a coach, we must stop and let the coach hit us," he explained. Incensed the coach driver got out of his coach, went to the window of the other bus and raised his arms. "You can't hit me as you will be responsible for your actions," said the service bus driver pathetically.

"I have no intention of hitting you," said the coach driver. He reached up and tore down the service bus's mirror, picked it up, put it under his arm, walked back to his bus and drove off. The service bus was left in a pickle as it was as good as useless without a mirror.

The coach driver drove on to Alton Towers, parked his coach and left the mirror on the concrete in the coach park. he went off to the drivers' canteen to have breakfast. "If the Police come and they want me, they vcan find me in the theme park, " he told the other drivers. Fat chance.

When he returned the mirror was not there. Travellers? The Police? A thief? Unlikely. Perhaps tit had been reunited with the service bus.

The Perfect School?

"What's it like to not be able to see the sky?" said the pupil to the teacher.

The teacher just laughed and replied: "You know I'm from Middlesbrough. Ha ha. Very funny." Of course he was referring to the nickname for people from that city - the Smoggies - because of its close proximity to large chemical factories which historically belched out smoke and covered the region in smog.

They were an excellent school. Teachers and students talked to each other as equals, making it a happy bus. Apart from one terse remark along the lines of: "Nice timekeeping, gentlemen", aimed at three boys who had overslept and nearly nissed the bus, there was a great atmosphere, making the 4 hour trip to Alton Towers fly by.

I wonder if they could be the perfect school.

Kerb Crawling, Jack Daniels And Some Strange Teeth

The coach park at Alton Towers is a great place to be. The happiness of the schoolchildren and other coach parties seems to result in an infectiousness which rubs off on the drivers. The coach park has a holiday camp atmosphere and the drivers, who congregate from every part of the country seem genuinely pleased to see one another.

Often they are looking over their shoulders as VOSA are often there inspecting vehicles and drivers records. (VOSA stands for Vehicle & Operator Services Agency and its slogan is: Saving lives, safer roads, cutting crime, protecting the environment.) It is a great place for them to be stationed as they can guarantee 250 t0 300 coaches visiting daily in the high season. It is a veritable history of buses too with many ancient vehicles parked.

But the day I was there, VOSA were not and the sun was shining. The park was packed with groups of drivers, huddled under the shade of an oak tree, telling stories and tales of great driving endeavours.

"Yes they did think I was kerb crawling," said one. "There I was driving my bus around the city looking for a parking place, when, darn it this Policeman pulls me over.

'Are you looking for business, sir' he asks us. No, I says. I'm looking for a parking space. I told him it's cheaper to drive around and pay for the extra diesel than it is to pay the city's parking charges. The Policeman laughed and told me to drive on."

"I just got myself a bottle of Jack Daniels," another driver added. "I was in a queue on the motorway when this other bus alongside me on the inside lane, opened the window in the door on the passenger side and waved a bottle of Jack Daniels, meaning for me to take a swig and pass it back. I took it and at that moment the traffic cleared. So I drove off. There was a lot of hooting and flashing of lights behind me, but it was too late. I was gone."

"That's nothing," another driver piped up. "When I was in Paris, this German bus came into the coach park. It was driven by a man with large glasses who looked like Mr Magoo. He reversed straight into the next door bus's mirror and broke it. The driver was furious and went over to Herr Magoo.

'Sorry, but you wouldn't hit a man with glasses,' Magoo said in pigeon English, before getting back into his bus and reversing into the side of three more coaches before driving off down the Champs Elysees."

There was a quiet driver standing a few yards behind the others. He suddenly said: "That's not a patch on the night when four drivers were sharing the same bedroom. The elderly one took out his false teeth and placed them in the basin. One by one, the other drivers got up in the night, bleery eyed and pee'd into the basin. Come the morning the elderly driver picked up the teeth and put them in his mouth. 'Funny taste me teeth have today',he said."

The congregation of bus drivers hurriedly split up.

Tarty Touts

"Any tickets for sale?" asked the agressive gang of girls who were cruising the coach park at Alton Towers. They had short hair, were stockily built and looked as if they meant business.

"No, sorry," I replied. It was a free ticket from Alton Towers which they give to all coach drivers to get into the theme park. I was just minded that if I gave away or sold my ticket then in future they would hand them out anymore.

"I'll give you a fiver," yelled the girl.


Then they turned nasty. "That's typical, another bloody bus driver who has ruined our day." They stomped off. I was rather glad I had ruined her day as a 'fiver' seemed a little on the mean side when I saw the official admission prices which varied between £29 and £33.

Two hours later, the same girls were still trawling around the overflow coach park. They still did not seem to be having much luck. Marvelous.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

I Love Lamp Posts

It is not usual for me to be standing under a lampost after Midnight, staring at the nettles growing on the inside of the telephone box. I was waiting for the wedding party to return to Newcastle and in this out-of-the-way North Northumberland village, there was little else to do.

How different Newcastle was when we drove through the City Centre at 1.30am. The lampposts now had a secondary purpose of propping up paralytic women who used them not only as a support, but also they seemed to give a brief respite for a tug at the short hemlines in an attempt at restoring some sort of order and dignity. This had the opposite effect for the lady I was watching closely. Not because of her beauty or desirability. She scored poorly on both counts. But in case she passed out and fell prostrate in front of my bus.

It was just then that the intense Canadian sitting behind me broke the silence. "Oh my God. Stop the bus. I suffer from motion sickness." I caught my breath and tactfully avoided telling him that even if he was suffering from the very worst case of disentry, there was no way the bus was going to stop in the middle of the Geordie 'Big Night Oot'.

He had second thoughts too, when he spied a very drunk man take umbrage at the Chilean buskers on the pavement, launch a punch and try to snap one of the bands pan pipes. The sight of the man being enveloped by four burly Policemen made the motion sickness disappear as fast as it came.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

International Party Near The Moat

You may think that by his silence that the Accidental Bus Driver has been lazy. Au contraire. He has been running about like a blue arsed fly.

I have just returned from an international wedding in a village hall in North Northumberland. Well, I haven't been to the wedding, but I drove the wedding guests, a group of Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Malaysian, Luxembourgian, Mauritian and even a couple from the Isle Of Wight.

It was an odd feeling to be in a place which was only a few miles from where Raoul Moat had killed himself the day before. I found my mind wandering as I watched the bride and groom left the wedding at Midnight, through a throng of laughing and happy people waving sparklers, without a care in the world. How delicate life was, I thought. Happiness and sadness so close to each other.

That was enough psychoanalysis of the world. A very un-bus driverly way to behave. So I returned to the real world, turned on the radio and tuned in to the late night chat show, full of drunken experts telling Northumbria Police how they should have done their job.

Usually wedding jobs are boring. The bus driver drops them and then waits until the prescribed pick up time in the wee hours. Usually they find all sorts of excuses to delay and extend their departure time. Usually the final straw is when they are all on the bus except for Joe who has passed out under the rhododendron bush. Bus drivers loath these jobs.

But this wedding party was different. Perhaps because they were a strong christian group. Perhaps because they were from all parts of the world. They left when they said they would leave. And what's more they were stone cold sober.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Mangoes In A Northern Hurricane

When I was shaving at 6am this morning,John Humphrys announced on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 that in the past 40 years, only 18 teachers had been sacked for incompetence. He said that poor teachers tended to be recycled into the system and moved on.

Yesterday, driving a bus load of schoolchildren, I felt in hindsight that one of the teachers should have become number 19. It was a wild and difficult day. A mini-hurricane had decided to descend upon us, making the driving difficult. On top of that there were Police roadblocks, set up to catch an alleged murderer who was on the loose and making headline news.

When I take schools, I like seeing the teachers mix with their pupils and sit at various parts of the bus chatting to them. Call me old fashioned, but it makes a happy and ebullient bus and the journey goes much faster.

Some teachers hog the front four seats, two by two across the aisle and sit chatting amongst themselves. This was such a day. They chatted about their problems and their likes and dislikes, occasionally to yell at a child to sit down or put their seatbelt on.

It lightened up dramatically, however, when we passed a pick-your-own fruit farm. One of the teachers asked:

"I know they have strawberries, but what other fruit can you pick there?"

"Mangoes," I sarcastically replied, fully expecting either laughter or a slap.

"Oh really, that's nice."

In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought and continued down the leg pulling route.

"Papaya, too." I went on.

"Oh good."

"Bananas as well"

"Oh that's fantas.........." The teacher stopped as the penny dropped, but valiantly tried to dig herself out of the deep hole of embarrassment that had been freshly dug.

"Well I suppose you can buy Mangoes there, anyway?"

"Only if they have bought them off the wholesaler or a supermarket," I finished and went back to driving. She returned to talking about other matters with her colleagues. I wondered what the children were being taught in the classrooms.

What goes around comes around and on the return journey, when the bus was empty, I received my well deserved comeuppance for being sarcastic and deliberately trying to egg the teacher on up the garden path.

As it was so windy, I decided to travel back a more sheltered route, but a branch fell and hit my wing mirror. The glass cracked. I now have to brace up to the inquisition I will face from the bus company mechanic. It will begin with:

"What have you broken now.........................??"

Yank In A Tank

"Last year, I slipped on the wet cobbles and fell over and hurt my arse," said the teacher as we set off on the school's trip to the beach.

It didn't bode well.

The weather had indeed broken. The sheep and grouse earlier that morning had been trying to warn me. The skies looked threatening and it did not look the day to go to the seaside.

It was a two bus job. The other driver looked up at the sky and said: "It's not like the seaside I went to last. I went to the Normandy beaches with a group of Veterans."

He went on, "there were loads of Americans there all dressed up in vintage uniform with period fake guns and bazookas. You couldn't move on the boat."

Some of the roads to the beaches were narrow and he stopped at the top of one particular road and pondered whether to go down it or not. At the same moment an old American Jeep came thundering up, being driven by a veteran in D Day landing uniform.

He leant out the window and asked: "Is this road suitable for a coach?"

"Well," the American replied, taking off his helmet. "I came down here in '44 in my tank. But I sure did some damage."

He drove off, leaving the coach driver to ponder.

What's The Weather Forecast? Nature Knows

Rob McElwee, the BBC's most experienced weather forecaster is entertaining. He's entertaining in his knowledge. He's entertaining in his presentation and little jokes. He's entertaining in the wildly variable and accurate predictions he makes.

I suggest you ask a bus driver about the weather. It might not be so entertaining, but some of the time it is more accurate. We are on the spot. We can see the black clouds rolling in across the distant hills from our raised drivers' seats.

Many of my passengers are retired farmers who have learnt the tell tale signs of changing weather patterns. I knew that we were in for a bad winter last October when one of the ladies remarked:

"Them thar sheep are awfy low on the fell. That's a bad sign." That was an understatement. The snow was so bad that my local village had 82 consecutive days' skiing.

I knew it was going to be a heatwave. The sheep began to look listless. They huddled together and stopped their mass breakouts across the walls and fences to taste the roadside grass and to lick the residues of the winter salt on the white lines.

It's 5am. I'm on my way to the seaside. A mother grouse and her covey of five chicks rush across the road directly in front of me. I stop. The mother grouse shows her bravery by turning towards me and trying to attack the bus, until her brood have safely disappeared into the bracken on the other side. then she flies off.

The sheep are looking more animated. I think the weather is breaking.

A Nocturnal Mirage

I was disturbed as I overtook the girl cyclist on the country road through the hills. Something was not right. It was dusk and she was peddling fast downhill, making it hard to get past.

Then it struck me. She was wearing a black taffeta ballgown, under her hi viz yellow waistcoat. Why? Had she lost a bet?

The answer was around the next corner. I jammed my breaks on to avoid running into three girls with long flowing blonde hair, standing in the middle of the road. All were in ball gowns. One deep red, one yellow and one turquoise. Collectively they resembled the Moldovan national flag.

It was the local school prom at the country house hotel and the girls just disembarked from their taxi. It was good to see it taking place because another school I had recently taken had cancelled theirs.

"It was fine when it started," said the teacher, " then the parents and children started to outdo each other. First they hired larger cars, then Bentleys, then stretch limos. The final straw was when one student arrived in a Monster truck, demolished the school gates and churned up the lawns. We stopped it."

Judging by the state of the steady stream of old bangers which were now coming down the road, there was no danger of this prom being cancelled by the school.

Manchester Home Cooking Through A Child's Eyes

Every passenger has a story in them. Every passenger has done something interesting or surprising, often amusing or thought provoking. It is usually the quiet ones and seemingly dullest who come out with the most amazing stuff.

Children, on the other hand are different. They rarely are silent and tend to be upfront with their views and remarks. The Manchester children returned to the bus following their stay at the outward bound centre, bubbling over with energy and vitality. Their effervescence was catching as I talked to them as they boarded the bus.

"Did you have a good time?"

"Yeeeaaaahhhhh," they replied in unison.

"Fun things to do?"

"Yeeeaaaahhhhh," they replied again.

"Food good?"

"Yeeeaaaahhhh," they cried out.

"But I bet you are looking forward to getting home and to Mum's home cooking?"

There was silence. Until one girl said: "Nah. I don't like it. She burns everything."