Friday, 23 December 2011

Christmas Memories Of German Bombs

Christmas is a good time to visit St Andrew's Church, Bolam, situated about 16 miles North West of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, on the way towards the Scottish border. Not only is it is a hidden Saxon Church of great simplicity, beauty and peace, but it also was subjected to an attack by a German bomber in the Second World War.

One night a Luftwaffe bomber was following the railway line which the pilot thought would lead to Newcastle, where he could drop his bombs. But either because he was being pursued by a Spitfire, or was just lost in the clouds, combined with the fact that it was the wrong railway line conspired to put the pilot in an unenviable situation. As he came out the fog at zero level, his windshield was filled with the shape of a church spire.

The only way he could avoid a collision was to drop his bombs so that he could rapidly gain height. He did and he missed.

My father, a little boy, was in bed in a nearby house when he was awoken by the explosions. The vicarage fared worse and had all its windows blown out. The vicar went down to check the church without a light or torch. In the darkness he tripped over something cold and solid. An unexploded bomb.

There is now a stained glass window showing where the bomb came into the church.

The pilot came back to apologise in 2004. My father met him.

This year is the first Christmas without my father. It is important to remember the stories and the delight he had in telling them. They were always interesting. Often funny.

So the Accidental Bus Driver is vacating England for a few days. To the Czech Republic. A few days of Borovicka, carp and knedliky. Not a glimpse of a turkey or a soggy roast potato.

Paradise. A true white, frozen Christmas. Thank you King Wenceslas.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Power Of Christmas Or Lack Of It

Just when you thought it was safe to come out of doors. When the dreaded orange smiley faces had rotted on the compost heap. When the little devil masks and witches had been binned ....

...then this happens.

But this year everything seems to be refreshingly different. The biting of recession has made for a happier High Street, or so I think. There are less people and less useless things to buy. What there is out there, is so heavily discounted. The traffic seems less as are the queues.

It has been an interesting run up to Christmas.

An Air Ambulance flew over the house last week. It was the most exciting thing to happen for a month. It flew around eight times. It was lost, searching for the spot where someone had unfortunately fallen over on the ice and damaged their hip. It turned out later that a colleague had been running around on the frozen lawn wildly flapping his arms in an attempt to catch the pilot's attention.

It seemed to be the most exciting event in the Valley for many people. Joggers stopped running. Cars pulled over on the verge. People got out and stared. It was a major excitement and source of chatter as to who the victim might be.

It was the shape of things to come.

It certainly was.

As the weather worsened the power lines became overburdened with ice and the conductors snapped, plunging us all into darkness. For hours. For a night and a day. There were so many electricity company vehicles around that the area resembled a NATO winter exercise.

And as luck would have it, the company missed their imposed customer care deadline and gave us all a gesture of goodwill. £54 of goodwill to be precise. Except for a householder who had the word 'Farm' at the end of their address and were paid £108.

'It's Christmas come early,' said an over-excited neighbour, not latching onto the reality that the £54 plus some more would shortly be going back to the electricity company, as a result of the extra useage over the Festive period.

But still, it is the thought that counts. Or ... Det ar tanken som raknas ... as the Swedes say.

Is This A Future Bus Driver Of The Year?

It is possibly the third most dreaded road conditions of any bus driver. This is behind black ice and snow. High winds would be a close fourth. When it rains all the gunk comes down onto roads and they can become slippy and aquaplane pitches.

There is also the fear of water coming up through the air vents which can cause the engine (in my technical speak) to blow up. It has happened on numerous occasions to others. Fortunately not to myself. The worst I have had to contend with is having to take off my shoes, shocks and roll up my trousers to wade through a deep puddle.

The water held no fear for our local bus driver. The floods left him undeterred as he sped through them as if he was driving in normal conditions.

Maybe his bus company should enter him into the UK Bus Driver Of The Year competition. It is unlikely there will be floods as it is held in Blackpool. But you never know. It has known to be stormy along the Golden Mile.

Will I be entering? ... What do you think?!

This Is Not The Weather For Ducks

Why should anyone be surprised? The heavy rain combined with the melting snow tends to make the rivers swell and roar. 'The weather for ducks' said a weather presenter on either the TV or the radio.

No it isn't.

They would be foolhardy yet  fast ducks. Extreme sport ducks, white water rafting on their webbed feet down the speeding waters, out of control, before being launched off the top of the waterfall to almost certain death on the jagged rocks below.

In fact there hasn't been a duck flying all day.

They must be sensibly holed up on some more sheltered pond, cowering in the rushes.

It will be a few days before they are back. It is a pity that the local motorists do not do the same and keep there cars in the garages. They take no heed of the copious quantities of water on the roads and drive at their usual breakneck speed.

As I walked the dog along the road, there came another well known local. He'll slow down for the pedestrian I misguidedly hoped but in no way expected. He sped up, waved and disappeared around the corner having driven through the adjacent puddle.

Oh well. At least that will be my bath for December.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Trouble With Snow - It Melts

Just when I was getting used to the crisp, snowy conditions, the bloody stuff decides to melt. The crisp cold has been replaced by a windy blast. The sort of wind from which you can never hide and as a result you are permanently shivering.

I had just got used to the clear days where the sounds of the wildlife. And talking of wildlife - what's that smell.


It's some dog dirt, which like a submarine seems to have resurfaced after a long stint under the ice. And guess who's stepped in it.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

The First Snow Of Winter

The last of the unseasonal weather has passed. The freak autumn heatwave which made the spring bulbs rise four months early has finished. This morning was the first snowfall of winter. The bulbs withered and looked shocked at the ferocity of the drop in temperature. They had been lulled into a false sense of security.

Even the stone sculpture looked shocked. The water had ceased to spurt out of the fish's mouth.

The roads were surprisingly treacherous. Slippery and skiddy. The higher up the hill, the more slippery it became. The gritter had not been along the road, so it was perfect for practising a few manoeuvres and getting acquainted with driving in the snow again. I've missed it, I thought as the rear wheels tried to overtake the front ones.

The industrial landscape took on an eerie beauty. The dour grey slag heaps were unseen. The first snow of winter hides a multitude of sins. This is just the beginning - early December. Winter could last until May. Come to think of it, in these parts, it has been known to snow in every month of the year.

Ho Ho.

Bah Humbug - No More Bribery

'Bah Humbug, Royal Mail bosses warn staff not to accept gifts greater than £30 after introduction of Bribery Act,' wrote the Daily Mail. 'Customers who tip more than £30 warned they could be drawn into an investigation if there is a complaint the payment is corrupt.'


Oh to be a postman.

£30. It's unbelievable. Maybe I'm just a Scrooge-like bus driver, but it's hard to believe that anyone gives their postie such a substantial tip.

In the season of goodwill, where the proliferation of chunky men in red suits, often accompanied by attractive female elves, I suppose anything is possible. But my suspicious mind wonders if it is a well aimed press release to encourage people to give a larger tip.

Perhaps it will work for bus drivers. Tipping is a hit or miss business on the buses. Maybe the average donation can be upped from the general 50p with a carefully placed notice above the exit door:

'Give Your Driver At Least £1 Or You'll Not Be Dropped Within Walking Distance Of Your House.'

That will test the Bribery Act. Though maybe Alexander Pope was more on the ball:

'Alas! the small discredit of a bribe
Scarce hurts the lawyer, but undoes the scribe.' ...

...or in this case the bus driver.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

No Jobs. Low Jobs. That Won't Stop The Humour

Times are tough. Times are very tough.

If you live in the North East of England, this is nothing new. Times have always been tough, the only variant being the different degrees and interpretations of toughness. Everything always seems to be 'below the the national average'.

As you can see from the above pub, there is a sense of downwardness. Is the pub sign describing the general state of Northern haute cuisine or is it the usual Northern sense of humour, consistent in the face of adversity and more prevalent during this worldwide depression?

It's the latter, of course. Northerners have always shown their true grit, despite everything being thrown against them. The loss of lead mining,coal mining, shipbuilding, smelting, steel, farming, glass making and other heavy industries have not thwarted them.

This street sign is pretty well reflective of current times everywhere. The next street, though, is called High Jobs Hill, giving some sense of optimism.

The optimism is short lived, as opposite is High Wheatbottom, which sounds like the need for a doctor's appointment.. But, of course, it doesn't take long to find the state of humour in the North East.

Just take another look at the road sign ...

...on the other side... will see...

Hope ever springs eternal.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Oh Flower Of Scotland - No Flower Of England

 It was a day of flowers.

Strange flowers.

Can't be bothered flowers.

No flowers.

It often irks when you have to leave somewhere you love. It is a trick of the mind because, yes indeed, I was leaving Scotland which holds commands the romantically delusional side of my soul. But I was also returning home, to the North of England, which is equally lovely in many ways.

How nice to be in a no-lose situation. But the mind plays tricks and I tried to cushion the blow of leaving Scotland by stopping in Banchory and filling the car with loaves of Chalmers' Balmoral bread, some Lorne Sausage and bags of Pan Drops.

The morning had started strangely in a floral way. The mild November weather had put Nature in a tizz. The roses were in bud and looking as if they were about to flower. The gorse was half out, giving the roadsides a yellow hue and even some of the snowdrop, crocus and daffodil bulbs seemed to have shoots breaking the surface.

Meandering over the bonnie road over Cairn O'Mount, the pass which connects Deeside with the North Sea Coast and was used by Edward I's army on its return to England in 1296, was a delight on such a clear day. You can see for miles in all directions. The Grampians behind. Angus, Montrose, Arbroath and Dundee in front.

I stopped, at the parking space at the summit, expecting peace. There was also a white van driver there, but his engine was turned off and he was asleep, with a lopsided copy of The Daily Record lying on his dashboard. There were no other cars, yet it was far from peaceful. The noise was quite deafening. An unusual noise, like a child's toy windmill on a sandcastle.

I traced it down to some flowers, still in their cellophane, laid in the stone cairn. In fact there were several bunches and clumps of plastic lilies and Christmas roses. I call them the 'can't be bothered' flowers as they still have the supermarket wrapping paper and the price on them. They must have made someone feel better, that they had done their duty and paid their respects, even if it was in a shoddy way. I always think even picking some dandelions from the verge and making a little posy would be more meaningful. But each unto their own.

So to arrive at a hospital in the North East of England to find that there was a 'No Flower Policy' as they might spread germs, was something which gave off mixed emotions. On the bedside table of the person I visited, there were a bunch of flowers, sent unbeknowingly by a well wisher from the other end of the country. Hidden. Hidden because they were covered in a cloth, awaiting a porter to come and dispose of them. At first I thought 'how bloody ridiculous', but after a while it was refreshing to see no cellophane as recently, in the hospitals I had been too, the nurses were too busy to start unraveling flowers, and they remained in their wrappings.

'Dinna worry,' I heard a nurse say. 'They'll get sent to Maternity. They haven't banned them there, yet'.


Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Vignettes From The North East Scotland (Part 4) - Eating Out

Scotland's favourite cigarettes seem to be John Player Special Blue. This is based on my casual observation while walking the dog along several roads around North East of Scotland and only finding these scrunchled up packs of cigarettes thrown into the verge.

There were no other brands in any verge. And I walked some verges, too.

This was on the way to lunch in the Alford area of Aberdeenshire. It didn't augur well as we passed such places as Corse and Bogend Cross Roads. Lunch was looking like deep fried haggis, lorne sausage and Mars bars.

The pub looked as if it could be 'either way'. The pebble dash and the advertising of a family room  had the potential of one of those highly coloured chains offering awful microwaved and pre-cooked food.

But it was far from the case. The Muggarthaugh Hotel was superb. The most delicious bowl of Cullen Skink (creamy smoked haddock and potato soup to those who don't know it) followed by homemade burgers of Spartan size was quite delicious.

No - it wasn't Masterchef. But it was simple and good. All I can say is -  go.

Vignettes From The North East Of Scotland (Part 3) - The Hidden Sights

It was an unnerving sight.

Demonic looking, brutish, yellow sheep. I thought for a moment that I had one whisky too many last night.

But here they are. Photographic proof. Perhaps Stephen King has been hasty in leaving the horror genre and writing  sci-fi novel instead.

No, this is all fully explainable. The bulkiness - well that is the nature of the breed. The yellow fleece shows that they have recently been dipped. The green eyes are just a result of my poor photographic skills.

 This old Massey-Ferguson 525 was hidden down a back lane. It would probably be a sought after sight to all combine spotters.

The hay stack was being propped up by wooden planks. It was precariously close to collapse.

It gives me an idea. Maybe there is a gap in the market for a different kind of agricultural tour. In the North East of Scotland there will be no shortage of things to see.

First stop Aberdeenshire.

Vignettes From The North East Of Scotland (Part 2) - The Tourist View

Autumn and early Winter in the North East is stunning.

This year it is exceptional. The colours are more pronounced than usual. The roses are in bud. The gorse is flowering and the verges give off  the occasional burst of colour as some wild flowers emerge amongst the dead and dying grass which is more usual at this time of year.

The beauty of the hills at dawn are a sight to behold. The mist rises gently from the glen floor and the colours gather strength as the sun rises.

Little by little the valley begins to stir. The sound of cars, logging trucks, tractors and school buses whose revving engines shatter the silence. People begin to gather outside the shop several hundred feet below. What they do not realise is that sound always rises and even at this high and far away distance, it is possible to hear every word they say.
The strong and urgent Doric tones floated up to where I was standing:

'Aye, aye. Mechty me. Fit yer deen? Ye're a better door than a windae.'

'Urrgghh,' was the reply. And that was the end of the conversation.

Vignettes From The North East Of Scotland (Part 1)

Yes. I am back in Scotland again.

It is as beautiful and fun as ever. The local newspaper billboard champions the latest good news. The straths and the glens are green - far greener than is usual in November. The Christmas Fairs are again in full swing, but with the mild air, mince pies and mulled wine does not seem to taste the same.

The life in Aberdeenshire is slower. The waitress in the local tea shop slowly comes over to the table when the bill is requested. She has her hair tied up in a bun, with two stakes, sticking out of the brunette mop, similar to a Geisha Girl.

But this is Scotland. They are biros not bamboo. The waitress reaches into her hair, pulls down one of the biros and starts totting up the bill on the white carbon paper.

'My boss is a little wee bit wary of me,' she says. 'I've lost that many of her pens, that she is considering giving me a wage reduction.'

The ensuing visit to the garage is an experience too. The forecourt has the usual 'For Your Safety' - but in reality 'we hope that if we swamp the place with signs that you won't sue us when something goes wrong' notices. But the experience changes when you go into the shop to pay for the diesel.

There are the shop assistant and a customer in deep and animated conversation. The air is punctuated with:

'He said to her ... and she said th him ... ooh ...really? ... och noo ...I dinna ken ..' and seemed to just short of the Victor Meldrew-ism 'I don't believe it.' They continued with their chitter chatter and as I wasn't in a hurry I didn't have the heart to distract them.

At last they saw me standing in the air. Both leapt in the air. The customer rushed out of the shop and the shop assistand blushed.

'I'm awfy sorry,' she said. 'But I don't see her that often.'

Now you see why I love this place.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

2 Year Olds Liven Up Any Journey

A relative once wrote about his two-year-old daughter:

'Her favourite thing in the car is to spot buses, and wherever we go we hear excited shrieks of 'Bus! Mummy. Daddy, bus!' The trouble is that she also considers vans and minibuses to be full-blown buses, so the novelty wears a bit thin after 50 miles.'

The unpredictable nature of children's remarks are sometimes enough to make you nearly drive off the road. My daughter nearly made me, when she was aged 2,  on the way to some Playgroup.

'Oh my God,' she said.

'You can't say that. Say goodness or something like that,' I stupidly replied.

'Oh OK.' Silence fell but I could see she was thinking.

After a few miles she said:

'Does that mean I can't say bugger either'.

I have since tried to freshen up my responses when a green light mysteriously turns amber. 

Friday, 11 November 2011

Bridge Leads To Troubled Waters

Bridges. The bane of bus drivers' lives (and truck drivers too). These days there are so many road signs littering the road which act as an information overload for drivers of big vehicles. It is not surprising then, that occasionally accidents happen.

Sure enough, while I was away  there was a news story about a double decker which for some reason went under a low bridge. The driver is facing dangerous driving charge.The miracle was that no one was killed, which seemed to be down to the quick wittedness of the children who realised what was about to happen and ducked.

I can't talk. 

I've driven a double decker bus into the depot doors. Not with any passengers on, I might add. But the doors were bent sideways and the bus  needed some new paint, but luckily the top window did not break and was marked with multiple scratches. On another occasion I scraped some narrow gates with such force that the large stone ball moved and at one moment looked as if it was about to detach itself fully from the gates.

Double deckers are hard to drive. There are many things to think about.

My contretemps with stationary objects was not confined to buses. Once whilst driving a truck in Poland, disaster struck. It was in the centre of Torun, while following another much more experienced truck driver, thaat we both hit the railway bridge and put large holes into the top of our trailers.

Strange, we thought. We had looked at the height restriction sign and were not expecting any problems. All hell broke loose as we were surrounded by Polish Policemen and the main North-South highway was shut whilst we were interrogated. It turned out not to be our fault. The road had recently been tarmac-ed, meaning the height had lowered, but no one had thought of changing the sign.

It was an expensive morning. The fine was several thousand zloty. Rough justice, I suppose.


Paris Or Paisley?

There is the old joke about the man who went into the travel agents and asked for a holiday.

'Where would you like to go?' asked the agent.

'I dinna mind,' was the reply. 'Whether it's Paris or Paisley, it matters nae to me.'

So, true to form, the Accidental Bus Driver has also ended up in Paisley. I'm delighted. It is a fascinating place in many ways. There is the grand Paisley Museum - with the history of the Paisley Shawl and the Paisley pattern.

Paisley has a variety of unusual churches. There's the beautiful Paisley Abbey, with its magnificent French organ. The Thomas Coats Memorial Church which is sometimes described as the 'Baptist Cathedral of Europe', which in addition to its wonderful architecture, has a remarkably well preserved Doulton & Co blue and white porcelain Victorian loo. And there is the Oakshaw Trinity Church which has Europe's largest unsupported ecclesiastical ceiling, meaning there are no pillars holding up such a large ceiling.

But what's best about Paisley is it's Imagine campaign on how to make a difficult shopping climate look good. In this recession, many councils have let their town centres go to rack and ruin with boarded up shops and whitewashed windows.

Not Paisley.

They have had the imagination to paint their empty shops with optimistic and bold visions of the future.

The shops looked fantastic. Whether or whether the fantasy will be met by an equal reality in the future is another question. But it doesn't really matter. It has had the result of creating a bustling town centre. The charity shops which surround these beautiful creations are good too.

What more could you want from a town.

If it's a choice between Paris and Paisley next time ... it is tempting to swop the Cafe Royale forCardosi's Contemporary Italian Cafe.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Scotland Signs A Better Future

I went to one of my favourite places in the world yesterday.


It rained most of the day, the traffic was awful, it was dark and dingy - but I was the happiest I have been for quite some time.


It must be down to the warmth and generally carefree attitude of the people. And that it has retained a truly Scottish identity with people who are proud to be Scottish. In England sometimes, I feel people are embarrassed to be English, failing to celebrate their many great characteristics.

Scotland is by no means perfect. It has many oddities. One of which I found whilst driving up the motorway.
All the signs were lit up. All contained advisory and precautionary messages. It was exhausting. By the end of the trip, I had felt I had read a book. It was particularly more tiring in the dark.

The signs read:

Drive Carefully

Drive Efficiently

Drive Safely

Drive With Consideration

Think About Car Share

Save Money By Car Sharing

Observe Speed Limit

Tiredness Kills - Take A Break

Tiredness Can Kill

Check Tyres Regularly

Keep Windscreen Clear

Use Correct Child Seat

Is Your Car Ready For Winter?

and ... Red X Is Mandatory

It certainly had the desired effect. On a boring motorway, it gave me something to keep my mind on. I began to look forward in anticipation of what the next sign might say. Perhaps, in the future there will be smart signs which will identify specific cars and drivers ...

You. Yes You. In The Red Car. Stop Picking Your Nose. Hands On Wheel.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Dog Day Afternoon

'The more I meet some people
 The more I like my dog'...

was a sign my father used to place on the shelf above his desk. Some people were visibly rattled by this forthright piece of information and they would fidget uncomfortably in the chair on the opposite side of the desk.

'Which one am I' - you could usually read into the furrowed look.

I rather agree with the saying, as you probably have already gathered from my writing. Dogs have a habit of seeing through the disingenuity people try to keep hidden.

Take Cedric, pictured here, for instance. He walked into someone's house the other day, took an instant dislike to the coats people had left on the hallway floor, cocked his leg and did wee wees on them.

Though it was not a pleasant sight, and it was an even more unpleasant clean-up operation which had to be performed - I strangely had a secret admiration for his brazen behaviour and disdain for some not so nice coats. At least he was honest.

Take the place I visited the other day. There were signs all over the place telling you what not to do. nothing new, you may say. It is something we are all subjected to everyday. But this place can only be described as overkill and the disengenuity shines from every corner.

For your own safety? I don't think so.

A more apt sign should have read:-

'Do not climb on barriers or hand rails as we know that some of you b%**%**£s will see this as a chance of making a fast buck by suing us for whiplash and all other ills.'

Then again, some of this Health and Safety lark has its plus points. Can you imagine how transformed the world would be if the above sign was mandatory across the board. There would be a lot less stressed looking adults.

And as for Cedric. He would have many happy hours looking out of the window, identifying which rabbit to chase, which postman to harangue or which coat to cock his leg on next.