Friday, 29 April 2011

Fair's Fair At The Fairground

'EXCUSE me,' said the man who was working on the new gates at the entrance to the park. 'I am a registered stonemason.'

'I don't care if you are,' said a council worker, 'they're still crooked.' Then turning to me he said, 'Bloody 20 Grand they cost. You don't get much for that sort of money.'

It had been a day with a difference. I arrived at the coach park to find that it had been taken over by a funfair. The council's clean up team were just sweeping up the last of the broken glass and cardboard pizza boxes.

'There's been a fight down here every night, so we've had to come down and clean up each morning this week,' the council man said. 'Bloody ridiculous - it's taken an hour just to clear this little corner here.'

'Do you see that barrier, over there?' he went on.

'No,' I said.

'That's because there isn't one.' I looked again just to make sure. 'Darned joyriders. When they see the barrier down, they just crash into it and break it down.'

It wasn't all bad. The old local fairground owners had been so pleased with their cleaning that they told them to bring their wives and families and they would be given free rides. How nice it is to know that things like this still go on.

The Flying Pig Has A Temporary Strop

It was the local market day service earlier in the week. It is the highest service bus in England. Great on a day such as the day I went, where there was not a cloud in the sky and Scotland was visible with ease. Not so good when it is raining or snowing, when the cloud is down and it is impossible to see anything.

The Flying Pig was commissioned to do the run. These days I am never quite sure what is going to happen with this ageing bus. It's a great old servant which I am very fond of, but there tend to be more stutterings and strops these days from it.

Today there was a strop. In fact, far more than a strop. A complete refusal to go anywhere as all the electrics and the engine cut out while going up a steep hill. There was a lot of teeth sucking going on in the back. It was mainly the sucking of false teeth as it is predominantly the elderly who use the service.

'We're going to be late home,' scowled a cross voice from the back. 'I'd better ring home - or maybe not there's no mobile reception around here.

But the Flying Pig burst back into life when I turned the key. We continued on our way as if nothing had happened. It was a minor strop.

Pensioners Take Over The Post Office


Never go to a Post Office on State Pension payday.

I've just spent ages queuing for a stamp. In front of me were an army of pensioners, waiting in line to be paid out. Each customer took at least five minutes to process. After the initial chat, they got the wrong papers, the wrong card or the wrong day and were told to come back later.

The ones who did manage to produce the right details, then put their cards into the machine the wrong way up. Several put in the wrong pin number, meaning the transaction was cancelled and the entire process had to start again. Before they left the queue, there was another three minute gossip and they slowly moved away.

Why am I laughing? It won't be long before I am doing the same.

A Tunnel Is A Bus Toilet Drop

The Royal Wedding is a perfect place to invent puns which satisfy the British love affair with lavatory humour. Brigg Town Council in Lincolnshire led the way with their 'Royal Wee story':

I had my own lavatorial story, when a fellow driver told me about the last time he was driving his car through a tunnel, following a bus. Being a bus driver you tend to have a sixth sense about how other people are behaving in buses, when you are driving, regardless of whether it is in a bus or a car.

When he saw one of the drivers running to the back of his bus and disappearing out of sight, alarm bells started ringing. He did not believe any driver would do what he thought was about to happen. Seconds later a deluge of blue liquid and circular solids sprayed out of the back of the bus. The driver had obviously pulled the release handle on the chemical toilet. His car was covered.

Chemical lavatories are the bane of bus drivers' lives. The bus companies order drivers to empty them, before returning to base, but they refuse to pay the £10 or £20 charge reputable toilet dropping places charge. So a tunnel is an intuitive choice as an illegal depositing point, as the chances of getting caught are slim.

So be careful, if you see a bus in a tunnel, give it a wide berth.

Rail Replacements Services Are Enough To Send Anyone Off The Rails

Whenever you read about rail replacement coaches, it is rarely good news. Take the bus which took a wrong turn, last week. The finger was pointed at an over reliance of the sat nav - a familiar problem all motorists suffer from at some stage:

A Polish truck driver got stuck in my village the other day and had to spend the night with a local resident, while the police figured out how to get him out. A Polish truck driver got stuck in my village the other day and had to spend the night with a local resident, while the police figured out how to get him out.

I feel sorry for the driver. Not for the mistake he made, all us bus drivers have made them at some stage in our careers and have had to face the music for our stupidity. I am the best example of someone who has had his fair share of dents, bumps and being trapped in a place I shouldn't have been.

I feel sorry because he was on the wretched occupation of rail replacement buses in the first place. It is one of the most the most numbskullingly boring jobs I have ever done. Ignore the fact that it is lucrative for the bus company and well paid for the driver, in bus company terms. It involves hour upon hour of sitting around, usually in a school car park miles from the station, where you cannot go far from the bus, in case you are called to take a load of passengers down the railway line to all stations.

It's impossible to relax, as you are always in fear of being called. There is only so much you can say to the other waiting drivers. I am in the minority. The other drivers seem to take it all in their stride. Having pulled my hair out, plucked my eyebrows, I begin to count the hairs on the back of my hand.

Many of the routes are around low bridges and narrow lanes. There are easier ways of earning £7 an hour.

'Don't bother going down to that station,' said the only passenger I once had on the bus. 'It's so narrow you won't be able to turn around. Besides there won't be anyone there - there's only one passenger a week who goes from that station - and he works on the railways.'

A helpful passenger. far more helpful than the inadequate notes I had been given by the rail company. I was in luck. Usually passengers on rail replacement services are the last people you ask for help. They are in a bad mood because their journey has been interrupted and they have been evicted from their nice warm carriage onto a cold bus.

It's enough to send anyone off the rails.

Romantic Royal Wedding - Though The Buses Were A Little Insipid

Watching the Royal Wedding live, it is immediately evident that the enthusiasm, the romance and the planning is as good, if not better than any previous royal wedding. I have seen. It demonstrates that Britain is still the only nation in the world who could organise such an event.

Now, from a bus driver's perspective, the only slight disappointment is the insipid nature of the modern fleet of mini-coaches which ferried some of the relatives from the palace. They looked like a conglomeration of the an American airport transfer coach and a popemobile.

In years past they may well have been operated by Frames Rickards, an old company with the smartest coaches in beautiful, stylish maroon livery. Have a look at

But, hey, ignore the ramblings of an ageing bus driver. Blink and you missed the mini-coaches. In the grand scheme of things, it is unimportant.

Long live the royal couple.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

A Pre-Easter Christian Act Of Kindness

It is Easter week.

Is it just me, or does there seem to be a concerted image to demolish Christianity and the church, aided and abetted by the media? Whenever I have turned on the radio, there seems to have been an atheist arguing his case and an attempt by the interviewer to load the questions, or not give so much time to the counter argument from whoever was representing the Christian side. Either way, the atheist came out of the interview as the one who was hip, trendy and in touch with modern times, whereas the Christian tended to be made out to sound old fashioned, revisionist and out of touch.

It makes one think, if you will excuse the pun, that the Church is 'between the devil and the deep blue sea'. Declining church audiences, crumbling buildings, alternative distractions such as shopping and an increase in competition such as atheism, humanism, christian science create an atmosphere of difficult times.

But in the gloom, there are still Christian acts of great kindness. I had one towards me yeesterday. There was a knock at my front door and a lady who had been on a recent trip where I had been the driver, was standing there. She gave me an envelope.

'What's that for?' I asked.

'It's your tip. Well half of it anyway,' she said. 'When we saw that it was a different driver taking us back, we thought we are not going to let him have all the tip. We wanted you to have some of it.'

She had actually bothered to come and seek me out. Now that was a friendly act.

Happiness Outweighs The British Fashion Disaster

The summer has begun. It is only mid-April too.

Driving today, I saw some sights I would rather not have seen. The first time the sun comes out, the British go mad. They have been so starved of any kind of warmth or light for the past five and a half months, that they don't care anymore, so long as they can take the first steps towards a sun tan.

All along the valley, there were people sitting on the pavements, by the roadside, dangerously near the road catching the rays. The reverse black and red floral cami tops and the denim hotpants clashed with the albino white arms and legs. Their faces were flushed in the typical British lobster colour as a result of too much sun, too fast.

But look on the bright side, fashion disasters apart. This road I travel is not usually crowded with so many people. The ones you see, usually are miserable with heads down, struggling against the bitter wind and driving rain. Today everybody was happy.

May this be the start of a long, hot summer.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Theres Fame And There's New Found Fame

Having said goodbye to my passengers at their hotel, I drove down to the seafront, to St Annes Pier to pay hommage to the statue of a comic genius. Les Dawson came from Lytham St Annes and often used to poke fun at the place in his act.

"I live in Lytham St Annes," he said, "where it's so posh that when we eat cod and chips we wear a yachting wife is a sex object - every time I ask for sex, she objects."

Like the Eric Morcambe statue, a few miles up the coast in the town of Morecambe, the Les Dawson bronze exudes happiness of a golden age of comedians making people laugh in an uncomplicated way. I saluted him as I drove past.

Returning to the depot I found that the boss had become a celebrity too. Well in a slightly lower key way, having his face splattered across page three of the local paper. It was part of an article about bus companies being booted off bus routes, as part of the spending revue and a slimmed down contract being offered to a charity in the form of a 'community bus'.

The telephone never stopped ringing in the office. This was new found fame.

"Hello. Can I help you?"

"What time does the bus leave for Keswick?"

Perhaps not.

It's Not All White On The Night - On The Way To Blackpool

Tebay Services was busy. Tebay Services was extremely busy. It was a Friday afternoon and there were few spaces to park the bus in. The Polish and Hungarian trucks and some other Northern coaches had a monopoly on the car park. But there was one space left at the front and the forty seven elderly passengers, on their way to a Dancing Weekend in Lytham St Annes, something they did every year.

I loved taking them. They are an inspiration, being strong willed, upright and not really caring what they said or did. The starting age was seventy something and increased by at least a decade or maybe even two. I watched them disappear into the building for their tea stop.

It had been an early start with multiple pick-ups in various towns around the area.

"Wait! Joe's just gone to the toilet" said one concerned lady at the designated bus stop where the luggage had been loaded. She was concerned that I might have driven off and left him.

"Come on," said an impatient voice somewhere down the back of the bus. "I hope he hasn't got diarrhea. Otherwise we will be late." There were nods of agreement.

"Excuse me bus driver," said another lady in tones which, if you shut your eyes, sounded like a merging of Alan Bennett and Paul O'Grady. "Have you got a wheel here?"

I looked puzzled, but said: "Yes, madam. This bus actually has six wheels."

"No, no," she replied looking equally puzzled. "Am I sitting on a wheel?" The other passengers were beginning to get agitated, so I avoided the sarcastic reply of 'it depends from which point you are coming from' and told her instead that she was sitting on a seat.

"No. No. No, lad." She looked mortified. "I where we are sitting, me 'usband and I, is it over the wheel?"

"I don't know, I'd better go and have a look outside and........" I wasn't allowed to finish.

"Because..." continued the lady, "I am very sick on buses. And I have traced it to when I sit over the wheel when I am very, very, sick."

The bus groaned. The other passengers raised their eyes, looked out the windows and looked as if they didn't want to hear this monologue. After much kerfuffle the couple moved to other seats, somewhere between the front and rear wheels. Every stop I would ask the lady: "Is everything alright?"

"Lovely, thank you," she would reply. It was sod's law that she was fine and that one of the other passengers had taken ill.

"Can we stop?" one of the other passengers had asked as we drove down the M6. "She's taken a queer turn. It must be the heat or something." It had been hot and cold the whole journey. various passengers had come to the front of the bus:

"It's too's too hot...can you put the blowers on?...can you turn the blowers off?" And it had to be that the ones who wanted it cooler were in the hottest part of the bus and those who wanted it warmer were in the coldest part. It was impossible to be all things to all people, so it was a relief to have a stop at the service station.

When it came to loading up the bus again, it was pandemonium. Two other white buses with different company logos had parked behind me. Both had 'Blackpool' destination stickers prominently placed in their windows. One was from the North East and the other from Glasgow. All the passengers from all the buses got into a muddle and boarded the first white bus they saw, without checking the company logo.

A Glaswegian couple boarded my bus and sat in the front seat. They looked around, failed to recognise any fellow passengers and realised their mistake.

"We're on the wrong bus, hen," said the man.

"Aye and that's without having a drink," said the woman.

Some Geordies wandered aimlessly between the three buses, in a disorientated stupor and even some of my passengers came back looking shaken:

"That was confusing," said one of the men. "We thought you had done a runner."

And run we did. I went as fast as I could. The sooner the passengers could take in the sea air the better.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Freezing Winds, Geological Marvels And Trouble With The Leek Show Cup

I was on another Know Your Hadrian's Wall Country trip. It was yet another great day. Geology, presented by the excellent Brian Young. A tour around the Wall to various rock formations, fossils and mines. My mind was expanded. He made the subject come alive. Previously I had thought of geology as being an acquired taste at the politest. I want to know more.

The passengers were the usual mix of interesting people, equally keen to learn. It made the day go fast and I felt a twinge of sadness when it ended, back at the friendly Twice Brewed pub with its international menu, catering for the large amount of international visitors.

"What is Serbian Style Chicken?" I asked the waitress.

"It's got tomatoes in it," replied the happy Northumbrian voice.

The wind had blown in gusts. Even the hardiest of the passengers sank their hands into their pockets and their chins into their jacket lapels. It was Northumberland at its most raw, and most beautiful too. The wind kept the rain away and therefore the light was crisp and the views towards Scotland and the South of England were spectacular.

"Would you like the microphone?" I asked the geologist.

"No thanks," he laughed. "My wife says I have a voice like a foghorn."

The tales continued all through the day. Discussions of all things in the North. In fact the tales had begun before the tour began, when I went into the local shop next to the bus depot.

"My friend's had a problem," said the manageress. " She was naked in her bedroom, overbalanced, fell into the wardrobe and landed on the cup her husband won at last year's Leek Show."

"That must have hurt," I said, stating the bleeding obvious.

"Not as much as the long lasting scars," she went on. "When she landed on it, it had the eeffect of a branding iron and for weeks she was walking around with 'DIDDLYSQUAT WORKING MEN'S CLUB - FIRST PRIZE LEEK SHOW' imprinted on her bottom."

Coach Driver Catches The Vibes

There is a joy and freedom where I am lucky enough to live, to walk up the hill and escape from a bad day's bus driving. This morning there is no wind, there is glowing sunshine warming my back and there are no sounds apart from passing birds. The black Patterdale puppy stops and looks up at the alarmed screeching in the sky. It is a buzzard being harassed by a solitary, brave, dive bombing lapwing. The lapwing is almost kamikaze like in its behaviour. He plunges at full speed. The buzzard tries to take evasive action, but his lumbering bulk cannot compete with the aerodynamics and the lapwing slams into his midrift, causing the alarmed screeching.

Not that I had a bad day's bus driving yesterday. To the contrary, I had an exceptionally good one. I did, however see another bus driver; a lady with dyed crimson hair who looked like a hangover from Red Nose Day, struggle to negotiate the cramped car parks of the various points. She was driving a thirteen metre coach full of bird spotters. It came up the hill to a scenic viewpoint of the Wall before she realised the road narrowed dramatically and the only way out was to reverse through the tight gateway to the car park.

Having helped to guide her back, she turned, parked in a muddy lady and got out the bus to light up a tab. We looked at her bus and discussed the difficulties which sometimes occur when strap lines and buzz phrases are written across buses. Next to the company logo, in large, informal typeface were the words:

'Just Go'.

"Yeah, I know," she said. "One of my passengers said 'Just Stop', when I struggled to get through the hotel gates this morning. It was embarrassing, but I haven't got stuck yet."

Great to meet a coach driver with a carefree attitude. I was not so lucky at the next coach park. There was another driver who insisted in keeping his engine running. The noise and smell of fumes was distracting.

"Why's he doing that?" asked one of my passengers.

"Probably looking at a dvd," I replied, "and doesn't want to run the battery down."

"For sure," said someone else, "looking at the size of him, he obviously watches many dvds." At that precise moment the driver looked across at me with a disdainful look. He could not have heard. But the radio waves must have travelled and he realised he was being watched and spoken about. I blushed. Caught in the act. We drove off.

Nothing is sacred.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Happiness Is A 1973 Bedford

"It's embarrassing," said the child, shaking her head as she got on the bus. "Plain embarrassing. Why have we got this old bus? The 38 year old Bedford puffed a little as she climbed the hill.

"Be careful," the mechanic had warned me before I had set out. The Bedford was the boss's pride and joy and because the company were so busy, needs must and I had to take her out on the longer school run. Longer than she usually goes. A pleasure for me as the Bedford is a joy to drive. none of this computerised new fangled push button stuff. You really feel you have driven a bus as grabbing the steering wheel and keeping it straight is akin to an hour on weightlifting equipment in the gym. She tries to wrench your arms from their sockets.

There is a slight pressure when you drive her, however. I can hear the boss whispering in my ear: 'Don't bump the Bedford'...and the mechanic; "Drive very carefully'.....and the other boss; 'Not like that- TOOL.' In fact they all spoke at once in my imagination when I turned the corner and the builders' delivery wagon was trying to skid to a stop. We both headed for the ditches and somehow missed each other. It was an intake of breath moment.

It happened again when a minibus thought he could squeeze past on a very sharp corner. I stopped and closed my eyes. The mini-bus didn't. But somehow, whether or whether not he closed his eyes, he mounted the verged and bounced along a bank, narrowly missing the bus.

"Why yo geeve meee thees bus?" the Eastern European boy asked. "Is awfuf. Is rubbish." I resisted pointing out that this Bedford was a far better bus than some of the more modern buses in his country, but that would only have sent him into a dark strop. Besides it would not be right because it is on the day that Action For Happiness, the membership organisation dedicated to spreading happiness is officially launching.

Happiness is a 1973 Bedford full of a load of moaning students. It could be worse.

Tip A Winner - He Couldn't Tip A Waiter

So much for the big Grand National tip. So much for Big Fella Thanks. Thanks indeed. He moved up menacingly with four fences to go,flattered to deceive then promptly ran out of puff and went backwards.

"Oh well, you had a good run for your money," said a passenger in typical apathetic do-good mode.

"No, he didn't," said another passenger indignantly. "The bleeding 'orse lost. He lost his money." I would have agreed with him, if I had put some money on. I hadn't. Too many years, in the distant past had taught me there were better opportunities of having a chance of winning than betting on the Grand National.

The tip which I had been given by the Liverpudlians last week had bombed. I rarely listen to tips as every owner, trainer and jockey thinks their horse is going to win and tells everybody. So the tip I had been given on the bus in the outskirts of Merseyside, I assumed had been halfway around the country before reaching me.

I hardly ever have a bet. Only on rare occasion when someone I know and respect tells me to place a bet. Prudish? No. It's because I've only ever met one person who has won serious amounts of money on the horses. many who have won serious amounts but have lost even more serious amounts. And thousands of mugs who have just lost.

"Yeah, I reckon the quickest way to lose friends," continued the passenger "is to tip horses."

I kept quiet. Possibly because I was thinking that grumpy bus drivers would run a close second to tipsters in the not making friends stakes.

Next stop, olease.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Just Like That Mr Tommy Cooper Junior

" So Mr Tommy Cooper Junior is your new nickname,eh?" said a friend. "It suits you."

He told me of a friend of his who was in an Arab country, looking around the market for a souvenir. He went into one of the shops and asked the proprietor if he had a fez for sale.

'Just like that," said the proprietor.

'Ah, you know Tommy Cooper, then?" said the friend.

'No, I've never heard of him.'

'Well how do you know about the catchphrase "just like that"?

'Because all of the English tourists come into my shop, pick up the fez, put it on and say 'just like that.' I have no idea what it means.

I must find my fez and give it a brush Who knows what will happen when I wear it on the next bus run.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Exciting Border Reiver Tour

The Border Reivers are one of the most interesting parts of British history and one of the least promoted or advertised. Of course people have tried and there is a well marked tourist trail, several good books and a few museums. But if anyone wants to understand what is going on in Afghanistan, look no further than what happened between England and Scotland from the 14th to predominantly the 17th Century, but with odd outbursts of violence into the 1800's.

Even today there is a little angst in the border communities. Certain things are never mentioned, family names are instantly identifiable and linked with their murdering ancestors and the countryside still has a feel of menace to it.

That's why I was looking forward to driving the this tour, with a local historian as a guide. Having done the local school run, I put on my Wallace tartan tie and feeling misguided pride swelling up in my half Scottish bones, drove over the top of the hill towards the meeting point at Lanercost, near Brampton in Cumbria. There you will find a fantastic tea room:

next to a beautiful 12th century red stoned priory.

The weather was moody. One side of the valley was bathed in sunshine. The valley floor was a contrast of greys and blues and various shades of yellows and greens. The other side of the valley looked like the entrance to the gates of hell. A wall of black clouds stretched as far as the eye could see. It had rained heavily during the night. The rivers were swollen and the roaring water was the colour of drinking chocolate. The River Esk at the border town of Longtown was out of control and had burst its banks. The power of nature was admirable, particularly in the knowledge that we were observing from the safety of the bus.

The trip was fascinating. Tom Moss, the local historian was a knowledgeable speaker. Tale of Johnny Armstrong, Kinmont Willie, Lang Sandy, the Murderous Robsons, Adam Scott the King of Thieves the romance, the suspense, the tales of deadly deeds, murdering, pillaging and double dealing should have been an amazing experience.

"On the right is Hollows Tower, one of the finest and best preserved peel towers in......." announced the guide over the bus pa system.

"Where?" said a voice from behind.

"Where?" said another frustrated voice.

"I can't see anything," said another.

The inside of the bus with the strange mix of very warm air and damp cool air from outside had defeated the single glazed windows. There was nothing that could be done until we reached our destination, the Clan Armstrong Museum at Langholm, twenty minutes away. But they were experienced tourists and there was plenty of elbow rubbing, creating circular porthole sized areas through which they could see. Though this was not productive, as the Scottish mist was lurking outside the bus and having cleared the window, it was not possible to make out much of the passing landscape.

It brought back the embarrassment of another driver's story of a tour of Germany during the winter, where he didn't see eye to eye with the tour guide. She had ordered him to stick to the programme and go out on a tour of the Black Forest on an atrocious day. The fog was so thick that they never even saw one tree.

In the Borders, it was different. The clouds lifted and revealed a beautiful windy but warm day. Scots Dyke came and went. We passed through the Debateable Land and Liddesdale. Lunch was at the Liddesdale Arms in Newcastleton which serves the finest chips in Britain.

"What do you do to them?" I asked the owner.

"Well I cook them," she replied. Ask a silly I refrained from asking any more. The menu was truly Scottish, haggis fritters, Scotch Broth. Excellent and simple food. In the window of the pub was a poster for an evening with clairvoyants.

"I used to work with a mystic called Madame Zarina," said one of the passengers. "When she came to do a promotion at a shop, she complained that it was too busy - so I told her that she should have predicted this. But she wasn''t pleased and said no one can tell there own future - so I won't be going to see these clairvoyants."

The time flew by. the tour moved on. On to one of the most dramatic castles in Scotland - the Hermitage castle. Seeing it it the middle of nowhere, surrounded by windy, cold hills sends shivers down your spine. A quick tour of Hollows Tower, guided by the 85 year old descendant of Armstrong.

"Watch him," said his helper, "as you drive away. he will give you the final curtain." As we passed him he bend his right elbow and smacked his left arm onto hih right arm. It was the Armstrong motto he was re-enacting, not some continental obscenity, we were later told.

Back to base and a satisfying end to the tour. In the words of the Lament Of A Border Widow;

'Nae living man I'll love again
Since that my lovely knight was slain
Wi'a lock of his yellow hair
I'll claim my heart for evermair.'

The romance did not last long. "You're late," said the passenger as I raced to do the Carlisle return service.

Give me a Border Reiver anyday.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Ramblers Try To Stonewall The Farmer...And Fail

Sundays are sacrosanct. Not for bus drivers they aren't.

There is nothing like the soggy smell of wet waterproofs. There was an April shower just prior to the Ramblers boarding the bus at a pre-designated meeting point somewhere along the Pennine Way. The bus windows steamed up. The floor was a muddy mess. Condensation rose from the tired group of people who flung themselves into the seats. They seemed to be smouldering.

We had a long wait, because of an indiscretion with a stone wall. The majority of the ramblers had chosen to jump over a stone wall rather than keep to the right of way. The farmer had been tending his sheep and had seen them. There followed a ten minute animated bollocking in the middle of the road of the organiser. The rest of the group sat with me on the bus, watching the green waterproofed farmer wave his arms, tick his fingers, turn all shades of red and hop from foot to the other, while the organiser stared at the tarmac like a naughty schoolboy who knew he had done wrong.

"I did offer to rebuild his wall," he said in a crestfallen voice, when he returned to the bus, "but he didn't believe me."

You can see why their is a knife edge of tolerance and understanding each other is not an easy road for the rambling and farming fraternities to tread.

Thanks Big Fella Or Big Fella Thanks - A Liverpool Conundrum

Ever heard of M.A.Winkleby? No?

D.R.Ragland? Nope?

J.M.Fisher? No, he's not a character from Beatrix Potter.

Or S.L.Syme? No? Never heard of them? Well nor had I, until I read their report they wrote in June 1988 at the School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley, entitled:

'Excess risk of sickness and disease in bus drivers: a review and synthesis of epidemiological studies'

The be-all and end-all is that bus drivers, surprise surprise are more at risk from nearly all diseases. I thought about this as I felt sorry about my assortment of ailments - my sinuses were causing discomfort, a wart had recently appeared on my thumb, where I gripped the steering wheel and my muscles and back were sore from too much sitting.

To make matters worse, all the passengers sitting behind me had many sniffles, coughs and sore throats. Poor old bus driver will catch them in the next forty-eight hours. But the humour of the children makes up for it. I am near Liverpool. Always interesting and their quick wit is as good as ever.

"I've been on holiday," said a little voice behind. "I'll give you a clue where you think I've been. It's an island, surrounded by water within two hours of Liverpool."

"The Wirral?" said another boy's voice.

The teachers were getting excited as it was a big weekend for Liverpool. The Grand National was due to be run this Saturday. "We've been given a tip - we're going to be backing Big Fella Thanks."

An omen maybe? It is one of the phrases I hear often when I drive buses. "Thanks big fella," people often say - so this could not be just mere coincidence. But then again, the quickest way to lose friends is to tip horses, so no rude comments on Monday morning please, if you lose your shirt.

Journey Through The Netherlands: 11. Returning To Rioting Blighty

I woke abruptly at 4.50 am. I could not have blamed the rooster this time. I rather missed his croaky tones. As the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, the rooster seemed a preferable option to the monotonous clunking sounds of the boat's engines. At least the rooster stopped after one hour.

The boat shadowed the North East coast and the lights of Scarborough, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Sunderland shimmered through the grey murk of an English dawn. The deck was deserted, apart from a fat middle age couple with dyed hair, attempting to do some form of tai chi chuan. They were English and were so hungover that the merest raising of an arm, put them in danger of overbalancing.

I saw the two grumpy Scotsmen in the shop. They were more bad tempered than they were the previous night. Their eyes were watery red and they had a vacant look as I heard them mutter to each other:

"Och, me heid. I've got a sair heid."

"Aye," echoed the other. "Sair heid. It's awfy sair." The last I saw of them, they were moving at speed to the deck rail.

I knew how they felt. I'm seasick myself. I get seasick watching the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race on the television. Once, returning from a truck trip to Poland many years ago, I was sick over the rail on the DFDS ferry to Harwich. That was before the boat had even left the quay at Bremerhaven. The boat and the quayside were crammed full of people, mainly West Germans waving goodbye to each other. Then all the excitement, all the chatter stopped as they all turned to watch my abysmal performance. It was similar to to an H M Bateman cartoon - the man who was sick before the boat went to see, or something like that. You could hear a pin drop. You could feel the harsh edge of Germanic displeasure biting into my neck.

When at the DFDS reception they had asked if I had anything to declare, I thought silence was the most prudent course of action. Thankfully both voyages were calm. Thankfully I could hide amongst selected others who were in a far worse state than me.

"What's being happening in the News?" I asked another bus driver who was waiting to pick up his passengers outside North Shields ferry terminal.

"There have been these riots in London." he replied "A funny thing happened to me, though. The Unions rang me and asked me to take them to London. I normally charge £450 return, but I knew there was going to be trouble. The word was out. So I said no - my windscreen costs £500 to replace, so it was not worth it. They rang me back and said would I do it for £800? I still said no. I didn't want the bother, but imagine that the Unions have all this money to spend. Incredible."

Welcome back to Britain 2011 or is it the early 1970's and the start of the three day week? When's the next ferry to the Netherlands?

Monday, 4 April 2011

Journey Through The Netherlands: 10. Goodbye Netherlands

It was Sunday. The final day. It started with final goodbyes to everyone. The Policeman, the host families, the organisers, even the flaming rooster. The rooster had proved elusive. He had become wary of me and my Size 15 shoes. The day before, I had come out of the front door of the piggery for some air and he was sitting on the lawn a few feet away. We made eye contact.

That was enough for the rooster as he turned and raced away at lightening, heading for the refuge of the beech hedge. It was consoling to find out that we had a mutual understanding of each other.

It was a surprisingly emotional farewell at the church. All the host families had appeared for one last time. There were so many hugs and presents. They had been so kind during the week, and such fun, inviting us into their houses and giving us any drink or eats.

It was going to be a busy day. Back to Ommen for the 10 o'clock service at the church. There was a concern about the Priest's sermon. In the Netherlands the length of the priest's sermons often run to over half an hour. As we had a ferry to catch in the afternoon and a 2 hour plus drive, someone whispered in the priests ear to curb it.

He mounted the spiral steps to the pulpit situated in the middle of the church. His stance and stature could have been similar to John Knox. He raised his hand and for a millisecond I thought he was about to bash the Bible.

"How long are the sermons in your church?" he began "11 minutes? I will be 10, then?" Everybody breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was eight minutes in Dutch and two in carefully prepared English, telling jokes.

We left as soon as we could, after the service. "Don't go back," said one of the hosts, "come with me to Groningen. I'm off to a whisky festival." It was a tempting offer. I had wanted earlier, for sentimental reasons to have one final herring sandwich in Ommen, but all the shops were closed on Sundays. It was a refreshing change to see a deserted town, with only the cafes open and a few people strolling around the streets. So different from Britain and the frenetic run to the shopping centres.

The roads were less crowded too. The return journey to the port was going well, until the authorities closed the motorway for maintenance works. At the start of the diversion there was a van with its back window smashed, sitting in the middle lane. Behind the van was a motorbike lying on it's side. There was no sign of any people, but it looked as if the bike had hit the van and the motorcyclist and gone over the top of the bike and through the van window. Nasty.

Despite the jams, we arrived at Ijmuiden with plenty of time to spare. The boat was larger than the one we arrived on and it was fuller. The passengers seemed more tranquil too. No Richard Geres or Lady Gagas. Only two grumpy Scotsmen who were evicted from the buffet restaurant for obnoxious behaviour, possibly inspired by a wee dram or two.

The bunk beckoned.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Journey Through The Netherlands: 9. Mr Tommy Cooper Junior Goes To Zwolle

"Good morning Mr Tommy Cooper Junior," said the policeman. "Yes, yes, you are quite like him actually." I didn't tell him that it was closer to the truth than he realised as I have a fez in a drawer at home and in my childhood I used to be a regular visitor to a joke shop in Slough owned by Tommy Cooper's brother.

Today was the big day. A concert in the Zwolle Basilica, alongside the Police choir. The Zwolle Police were looking after our choir for the day, commencing with a tour of the Police station followed by lunch.

And boy, what an amazing Police station. What an amazing lunch. The building looked more like a city stockbrokers office. There was a large atrium, skywalks disappearing in all directions and plenty of greenery and water features. There is a cafe on the ground floor, open most mornings, where the public are asked to come in, have a cup of coffee, read the newspapers or discuss a problem if necessary. Talk about community policing. Would it work in England? I'm not so sure. Attitudes are so different.

Lunch after the Chief of Police had personally visited the choir and given a speech, was superb. Indonesian meatballs, Dutch erte soup (split pea) and every kind of meat, bread and cheese under the sun. The policemen we met exuded health. If you were a criminal, you maybe would think twice as they were stocky and strong.

"I'm worried there will be a problem with the parking," I said to one officer.

"Problem? What problem?" he replied.

the bus could only drop off the choir at a point nearest the Basilica. I then had to drive round the canal to another parking place. There was a traffic jam making life slow.

"Don't worry," said the officer. "I'll get out and move them." He did.

Walking from the parking place to the basilica, there was an angry looking tatooed man walking two pitbull terriers on leads. Another even more aggressive looking man came round the corner and started shouting, abusive sounding words at him.

"Muffcase. Muffcase. Muffcase," was his parting shot at which the tatood man snarled and his dogs barked.

I turned to the member of the choir I was walking with and asked: "Muffcase? what does this muffcase mean?? At which the lady walking in front snapped her head back to expose her look of utter shock and horror. But it wasn't that bad - we later found out Muffcase or Mafkees just means weirdo or idiot.

The concert was a great success. The best attended. The most cds sold. The longest standing ovation. The Basilica's famous tower is known as the Pepperbus or Pepper pot, due to its shape.

On return to Hardenberg our hosts treated us to one final discussion about the depressed rooster. "We don't want to kill him ourselves, even if he is useless. That would be pointless."

They weren't enamoured with a possible solution of pouring food in a trail onto the road, then someone else would do the deed by running him over. Alternatively the door to the hut could be left open and Mr Fox could have a healthy breakfast.

But no. He could be the first immortal rooster. Disconsolate, but immortal. What an awful thought.

Journey Through The Netherlands: 8. Hilda's Haircut, Grolsch And Preparing For The Crazy Horse

It is 4.44am. This is the worst rooster morning so far. I have suffered a duet this morning. The equivalent of a depressed Pavarotti and an over exuberant Bryn Terfel matching each other with arias from I Pagliacci.

The disconsolate has hidden himself under the beech hedge. That shoe waving must have had some effect.

The programme had changed, meaning that we were in Hardenberg all day and the bus was not needed. So the night before, we were taken to someone's house and I was allowed a drink. Seeing that we were not too far from the Grolsch factory - that seemed a good place to start. it progressed onto wine and Austrian schnapps.

When the rooster's concert performance started up, my head hurt more than usual.

The day began with a visit to the 2000 plus High School. The choir attended a music class and sung to the students who looked initially bemused, then warmed to this new style of music.

"I teach them pop mainly," said the teacher, "then sometimes I try to introduce some classical."

"Yeah, we're not that good, we only try and sing like Lady Gaga," said a voice from the back.

Then the choir were free. The men went to investigate the opening hours of Hardenberg's celebrated nightclub - the Crazy Horse. The muscle pain continued as a second game of rounders was ordered in the park. There was a near disaster as one of the choir insisted in leaping out in front of you, in an attempt to stop you completing a rounder.

She unfortunately chose me as a target. I am not a fast runner. I consider my running style to be similar to that of an oil tanker - slow to start, get up to a pedestrian lollop but take five miles to stop. When this player decided to jump out, I was up to my full cruising speed of 1.5 kph. The impact was horrendous to the spectators who shut their eyes, fearing the worst. We landed in a heap and somehow, by luck rather than skill, I avoided flattening her like a Disney cartoon.

There had been a joke going around the host families about my forthcoming haircut, they had arranged with Hilda, a small yet vivacious flame, spiky haired woman, who had been cutting hair in Hardenberg for over forty years.

"Do you go to Hilda?" I asked them.

"Noo-no-ho-ho-no," they replied laughing, then tried to put the fear of God into me with stories of pudding bowls and fast cuts with hedge clippers. But it was a great experience. Hilda was a wow. A good haircut too. We joked and laughed, and though she spoke no English, we understood each other. The phrase - 'looking like a sheep' seems pretty universal. I ruined the hosts fun by mistake, by going in early for an appointment. Little did I realise that at the appointed time the hosts all arrived with cameras to record this remarkable haircut. I blew it.

The concert in the evening was the best attended yet and the choir sang their best too. Standing at the back of the church, I discovered the humour of the men, who look so serious and dedicated as they process down the nave of the church. One farted loudly. The others kept straight faces and awaited instructions from the conductor:

"Right gentlemen, sit on my cue."

"What did he say?" asked a baritone.

"He said - he wants us to sit on his cue," said a bass in slow, deliberate tones. The others stifled their giggles.

Journey Through The Netherlands: 7. Wrong Way Round Utrecht And Singing In The Pancake House

The rooster began earlier this morning. It was 4.57am when I looked at my watch. I leant out of the window, bared my teeth in what must have looked more like a Benny Hill style grin, rather than something more threatening. I picked up one of my shoes and waved it, as menacingly as I could.

He did not take the blindest bit of notice and I was the one who came off worse because I caught the bridge of my nose with the clunky heel of the shoe.

"I will not be accompanying you today," said the policeman. "I have to work." It was the choirs day off. A chance for an excursion and they had chosen Utrecht.

"I suspect you will be hearing about my driving," I said.

"Yes - but hopefully not during the day and not until this evening,"

I was thinking of his words when we arrived at a T junction where the road signs advertised Centrum to both the right and the left. We hadn't a clue where we were going. The person who had offered to stand in as a guide had not been to Utrecht for some time. The road got narrower and narrower. Up ahead there were bollards which I didn't like the look of. So there was only one viable option which was to drive down the specially cordoned off bus lanes which looked suspiciously as if they were for the exclusive use of buses not coaches.

Plead stupidity. Plead idiot British. Plead the fifth ammendment. Plead anything if stopped. Two policeman walking down the pavement gave me an inquisitive look, but that's where it ended. I suspect we were tracked by CCTV all the way through the City Centre.

At the end of the bus lane was a muddling junction with few advisory road signs. I shut my eyes and drove straight on. From around the corner came two bendy buses at speed, straight towards me. I had selected to try and go into Utrecht's main bus and train station, the wrong way up a one way street. The bus drivers were kind. They stopped. One gave a gentle toot on the horn and gently pointed the direction I should be going in.

I reversed and turned sharply left and as if by form of a miracle, the parking places for Touring Buses appeared.

Utrecht is a grand city. An old town surrounding a canal. It is attractive, being the fourth largest city in the Netherlands, it is also busy with top quality shopping. But there are still little touches you don't see in other cities. There was a little pot bellied pig wandering the streets hoovering up the scraps. The Greek take-away put out plates of free food to sample. The men of the choir went off on their own for a well deserved break. They came back with photos of signs where the English translation was dubious.

They drank bottles of Bastard Beer. They found a shop called Sissy Boy, a minibus called Sickman and a road sign stating Kiss And Ride (in fact it is a drop-off point outside a school for parents to stop, give their children a quick kiss before dropping them and driving off).

Then the afternoon was spent on a visit to the Organ Museum. I didn't hold out much hope and thought the children might be bored. I ate my words. It was an amazing place - not about church organs, but Dutch barrel organs, mechanical organs, pianolas and the like. One was a size of the room and played Rock Around The Clock.

The tour guide, who was demonstrating the instruments had to dig herself out of a hole when she described the belly organs, portable organs which were played on street corners. Behind were two posters, similar to the ones which the organ grinders would have stood in front of singing a selection of bawdy songs.

One poster was dour and gruesome. The other was like a porn mag with a picture of a sailor, in his ship's cabin, with a semi naked girl over his knee having her bottom spanked. Behind there was the leering face of another sailor ogling through the porthole. The scenes got worse until the picture at the base which was no holes barred.

"Ah yes," she said realising why there was a great deal of tittering amongst the choir. "All I can say is that the poster on the left has a better ending...let's move on."

We did. On to that old Dutch favourite - 'my heart is like a bus with 30 persons on it'. We had to leave Utrecht in a hurry. The male members of the choir noticed a small leak behind the bus.

"Is that the toilet leaking?" asked one of them. "If so it's all Smithers' fault. He has been rather a lot".

"No, no, of course not," I said unconvincingly. "It's just the air conditioning." They didn't believe me. so we hurried away before a passing environmental officer took notice.

Having fought through slow Utrecht rush hour traffic, we stopped at an excellent restaurant. It was a a truckstop which had appeared on a Dutch television programme called Master Chef, which is a similar format to Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares and tries to turnaround failing restaurants. De Lichtmis Pannenkoekenhuis near Zwolle has a great atmosphers with very good food

"Could I ask you if the choir could sing?" asked the owner. They did. Where they sat, they rose and sung some English choral piece. It was a Youtube moment. The restaurant came to a grinding. People stopped eating. The waitresses froze. People started ringing their friends and families on their mobiles and held them in the air so they could hear. Everyone stood up and applauded at the end.

It didn't end there. The owner sent one of his waitresses who was 50 that day, to the table. The choir surprised her and sung a choral rendition of Happy Birthday.

It put a new slant on having to sing for your supper.

Journey Through The Netherlands: 6. Herrings, Broken Locks And The Rooster's Revenge

"I would rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth," Steve McQueen is supposed to have said.


At 5.10 precisely, I shot up in bed, wide awake, as if I had been struck by a thunderbolt. The rooster had started his dawn chorus. Bloody thing. This was the proud new rooster who had ousted the other one and taken all the hens. I looked out of the window and could just make out, through the early morning fog, the hunched shape of an out of sorts cockerel.

The cockerels and the Policeman had made me have strange dreams of an incident in the past. It was of a local policeman, I knew when I was a child, who used to breed chickens. Once another breeder rang him up to ask about the size of his male birds.

"I can assure you I have the biggest cock in England," he had replied. He was never allowed to forget those words which even appeared on the cake at his retirement party.

I growled out the window and went downstairs, where my mood improved enormously as the generous organiser I was sharing the piggery was already up and had cooked breakfast. Tucking into the boiled egg made me think of the chance of roast rooster for dinner and good soup from the stock, the next day.

The fog lifted and it was another beautiful day as we drove to the Hanseatic city of Ommen, situated on the banks of the River Vecht. It is another nice place with three traditional windmills near the centre of town. It is famous for its Bissing Fair in July and for being a good place for camping, walking and cycling and attracts over 30,000 people every summer. In March, it is quiet. The choir practiced in the old reformed church in the centre.

The other helpers and myself went off for a herring sandwich. The cleanest fish shop had a bucket of herrings on the counter. He reached for one, filleted it, placed the pieces in a bread roll, added some raw chopped onions and hey presto. Heavenly. And all for just over 2 Euros.

I walked back to the bus, feeling satisfied and put the key into the lock of the back door. Catastrophe struck. The lock disintegrated and the barrel fell into the palm of my hand. What was I going to do? Was it legal to drive with a broken lock? Not sure. We were on a tight schedule and due to drive to Germany in two hours.

The international breakdown service worked. After a series of phone calls, a rescue truck appeared alongside the bus with a genial Dutch mechanic.

"Ah yes," he said, "this is a typical Van Hool problem. I have seen it many times."

"Can you fix it?"


"Why not?" said in slightly shrill voice with a hint of rising panic.

"Because it needs a new lock. I deal in Scanias and not Van Hools. I haven't got the part."

"How long to get it?"

"It could be days." The alarm went off inside my head. "But don't worry I think you can drive. When you go you take this lock barrel and you put it in your pocket. When you stop you take it out and open the door. It is OK."

After a little persuasion he tried to repair the lock, put some washers on and managed to get it working again, all be it fragilely and only being able to open and close the door, but not to lock it."

"It may last one minute, one hour, one day, one month. I cannot say," he said cheerfully. "But no matter - I give you a strap so you can secure the door from the inside. Free."

"That's very generous of you," I said.

"No it's not. I found it in a lay-by."

Before we parted, he showed me the inside of his articulated truck which had been converted into a state of the art mobile workshop. As we were standing talking, one of the organisers, who was also a priest came up the steps. The mechanic turned pale when he saw him. After he left he pointed to a calendar on the wall with a picture of a hot, naked Dutch girl in a compromising pose.

"I am worried," he stammered. "Do you think that priest saw this picture?"

I was never to use the outside door handle for the rest of the tour. It didn't seem worth the risk. Sure it was a pain to have to open from the inside and remember to secure it with the strap whenever we stopped. But it could have been worse.

The tour travelled on to Emlichheim, just over the German border in Lower Saxony. The region is sitting on top of oil, so there are nodding donkeys scattered around the countryside. The Roman Catholic church was vast, modern and circular resembling a wigwam. There was excitement on the bus as one of the congregation had telephoned to say 500 people were expected at the concert. Disappointment followed when few more than 60 turned up. There must have been a technical hitch and something must have been lost in translation.

My secondary job, in addition to driving the bus, was to help sell cd's after the concert. A few went. My third job was to play rounders with the choir during the rest period. It was a competitive affair resulting in the revellation of discovering muscles in various parts of the body, which I never knew existed for days after. My fourth job seemed to be to eat. Everywhere we went, the food was marvellous. Emlichheim was no exception and the church had laid on a feast of chicken schnitzels, buttered rice, roast buttered potatoes with ham and onions, beef stroganoff and a salad. The smells permeated every corner of the church.

The trouble with the fourth job is that I am expanding at an alarming rate. It is becoming harder to get through the bus door. I am beginning to look like the industry stereotype. On the positive side, I suppose the salad gave allowed some breathing space.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Journey Through The Netherlands: 5. A Policeman Makes Things Happen

There's something unbelievably spoiling having a Policeman as one of the organisers and guide of the tour. From a bus driver's perspective life tends to be easier. Everything runs more smoothly.

Coming out of the church car park after the concert a car had parked right in the place where I needed the extra room to swing the wheel and avoid hitting the church wall. The organiser jumped out the bus, knocked on the doors of the terraced houses opposite until the offender was found. the car moved smartly and we continued on our way.

On the return journey, he spoke of the arranged concert where the choir would be singing jointly with the Police choir in Zwolle.

"Everyone when they see a Policeman often expect they are going to have to pay a fine," he said. But not this time, because this concert will be a free concert."

Parking shouldn't be a problem.

Journey Through The Netherlands: 4. A Piggery, A Spurned Rooster And A Dutch Sense Of Humour

It was a perfect day in the Netherlands. The sun shone. It was a warm Spring day. The traffic was good. It was only 2.5 hours to the destination of the genteel town of Hardenberg.

"I must cut these trees sometime," said one of the Dutch hosts as the bus inched past the foliage into the car park behind the church. It was narrow yet manageable with care. The ensuing laughter potentially set the tone for the week to come. The Dutch sense of humour is always something to behold. Frank with a hint of schadenfreude. Fun and mischievous. This was going to be a great week.

There was a large crowd standing outside the front of the church. Welcoming, waving and smiling. These were the host families who had come to take the children into their homes. Then I and another organiser were taken to our hosts, who lived five miles out of the town on a beautiful, traditional Dutch farm.

"We have just converted the piggery," they said. "We hope it is comfortable."

Comfortable? That was an understatement. It was luxurious. They had even been kind enough to stock the fridge with cheese, eggs, bacon and some juice and wine.

"One thing though," they continued. "Our rooster is not very happy. The hens have kicked him out. They have gone off with another rooster." It proved to be a timely warning.

The evening meant a half hour drive to the town of Coevordon for the first concert. Coevorden may have indirectly given its name to the city of Vancouver in Canada. It was named after George Vancouver, the Victorian British explorer. His forbears may have originally come from Coevorden - van Coevorden to Vancoevorden to Vancouver.

Coevorden is a town with a good feel to it. Designed in a star shape with all streets converging on a central market place. The 17th Century reformed church is fine. Inside the acoustics were remarkable and the choir sounded good. At the end during the traditional Dutch standing ovation, I turned to one of the organisers and said:

"What a fantastic church. The sound must be like going to heaven."

"Yes," he said, "but as we say in the Netherlands - it is like going to heaven with one wooden leg."

Journey Through The Netherlands: 3. The Geordie Richard Gere And Lady Gaga Run Riot On The North Seaa

Life on the ocean wave is great when it is calm. It was calm outside the ship in the North Sea. It was not so calm inside. My heart sank when, after the fantastic DFDS buffet dinner, we spotted a stag night on the way to Amsterdam, running up and down the corridors. To make matters worse they were in fancy dress.

The Geordie impersonator of Richard Gere was three-quarters pissed. His American Naval Officer's white uniform from the film An Officer And A Gentleman was ruined. There were beer stains down down the unbuttoned front. He was accompanied by Lady Gaga in a purple wig, who was toatlly pissed. The boxer shorts were hanging below the leather mini skirt ruined the effect. Both were shouting as they struggled to find the onboard nightclub.

I escaped to my cabin and slept to 1am. After that it was difficult to sleep anymore with the noise of the stag party rampaging around the ship. But I was the lucky one. For the next morning one of the organisers of the trip appeared at breakfast with huge bags under her eyes. She had got no sleep as the stag party's cabins were on the same deck as the children and there had been the necessity to patrol the corridors for most of the night.

Even the relaxed DFDS staff who were made up mainly with Poles and Filippinos looked as if they had been through the mill.

"We are arriving at Ijmuiden on time," announced the Captain. Everyone looked happy.

"But we are going to be late, as there are traffic problems in the port," he continued. Everyone moaned.

One hour later I was through customs and parked outside the Passenger Terminal entrance, waiting for the group to walk off the ship and go through Passport Control. Richard Gere and Lady Gaga came through first. Though they were out of fancy dress, I still recognised them from their mannerisms. They looked badly hungover and to revive themselves they resorted to playing Jackass style tricks on each other. The rest of the passenger and assembled crew of waiting Dutch bus drivers had to watch a display of happy slapping and whacking each others backsides.

How tolerant the Dutch are. The British neanderthals they must encounter. They deal with them brilliantly. They ignored the stag party who soon got bored and boarded a bus for Amsterdam. It was a relief to link up with the group again and hit the open road.

The tour had truly began.

Journey Through The Netherlands: 2. The Friendliness Of The Port And The Danish Ferry

Many years ago, I used to drive charity trucks to Poland. This meant having to start the journey at a variety of ports in England. Harwich, Purfleet, Tilbury and Dover. I was fond of the people who worked on the docks. They were great characters, kind and interested in what you were up to. The Customs, too were equally helpful. More direct, but different from the mixed reputation described to me by fellow truck and bus drivers.

So it was no surprise to find that the atmosphere at North Shields was equally genial. The dockers and the customs were inquisitive.

"A choir? On a tour of Holland? What an experience for them," said one. "Hope they have a wonderful time."

It was a painless performance going through Customs, who checked the bus and looked in various suitcases. The huge DFDS ferry, Princess Seaways was relatively empty. There were only two buses. One returning to Lille and us. The boss's words were ringing in my ears as I drove onto the boat:

"Don't do what another driver once did and drive into the doors, bashing all the panels on one side of the bus. And whatever you do - don't forget to put the ferry lift up."

My previous record of having being the only driver to hit the depot's main door on both sides and the top was still fresh in his memory, even though it was done a few years ago now. The ferry doors were far narrower and eminently hittable. But I missed them and the ferry lift worked, meaning the bus chassis raised up perfectly and saved the crunching of metal as the bottom of the bus would have connected with the ferry deck.

The evening was magical. The huge Princess Seaways gently turned in the narrow Tyne, avoiding crashing into the oil rig on the south bank and we floated out towards the north sea in the cloudless blue sky and warm Spring sunshine.

At the mouth of the river, there was a flurry of excitement among the children. Two of the parents had stationed themselves on the sea wall and were waving goodbye to their child. The North Sea was like a millpond with hardly a wave.

This was going to be a good start to the tour. The trouble on the hill had faded into the distance.

Journey Through The Netherlands: 1. The First And Last Hill Is An Embarrassment

"I've had an Anus Horribles," said the Essex driver while we were chatting in the coach park and waiting for our respective tours to arrive.

"Do you mean Annus Horribilis?" I arrogantly corrected him.

"Yeah. That's it. Anyway it's been bloody awful so far this year."

My party turned up. The luggage was substantial and there was an abundance of bottled water which was loaded onto the bus. I hoped this wasn't going to be the start of my own annus horribilis, as it all looked very heavy.

The choir and their entourage boarded, brimming with excitement. We set off for the ferry port and the first leg of the journey to the Netherlands. Out of the coach park. Round the corner. Children waving. Mood ecstatic. Up the hill. Up the steep hill. Up the very steep hill. Up, up, up. Traffic lights green. Traffic lights still green. Slow car in front. Slower, slower, slower. Bus was slowing, but we might still make it. Lights turn to amber. Slower, but we can still make it. We can shoot the lights.

Blast. Drat and double drat. The pensioners in front have stopped. This could be interesting, I thought.

Sure enough when the lights turned green the pensioners slowly drove off. The bus didn't. It has a little foible of a slight delay on hills when the accelerator and the hand break have an argument. I was stuck. The bus wouldn't move. Even in crawler gear, no matter how much you revved the engine. The lights turned red again. Then green, then red. nothing happened except the queue of traffic behind me, which now stretched down to the bottom of the hill and round the corner. There was only one thing for it. Put the hazard lights on, reverse back down the hill and take a run at it, trying to time it to perfection.

So that's what happened. The cars behind scattered, overtook, undertook and blew their horns. Once on the flat, I started again and the gently climbed the hill again. I could hear the deep intake of breath and gasps from the passengers sitting behind. All was going to plan, until a second car piloted by pensioners appeared in front of the bus, driving at granny pace.

Oh no not again.

But the pensioners had a second wind and sped away, possibly as a result of seeing a bus steaming up behind them. The lights changed to amber, but it was too late to stop and we shot off up the hill, to nervous cheers of relief from the passengers.

I felt the confidence in their bus and volunteer driver had rapidly seeped away. What had they let themselves in for. It looked a distinct possibility that they may not make North Shields, let alone the Netherlands.

Bizarrely, I was brimming with confidence, armed with the knowledge that this was the first and last steep hill, it was downhill to the ferry port and the Netherlands would be flat as a pancake.

Restoring passenger confidence might take more work. I was now truly under the microscope.

Unseemly Rush For The Front Of The Queue

What is the difference between an English bus driver and a continental bus driver?

Many things, which would take an age to explain. Predominately you must look at the attitudes to bus drivers in both places. On the continent the bus driver is seen as an esteemed professional and therefore acts accordingly. In England, because the industry is run on a shoestring and often bus drivers are viewed as being the lowest of the low, there is a temptation for some juvenile behaviour.

I saw it yesterday on a school run.

As I approached a junction to turn into the school, three buses from the same company approached from the opposite direction. I watched the drivers' determined faces, as they were desperate to beat me to the front of the queue. I let them have their moment of triumph. It didn't worry me - they would only gain thirty seconds. Simple pleasures for small minds.

"Oh yes," said the courier later when I told her, "they are terrible. Do you know, last week a driver got to the front of the queue ahead of them and they harassed him and made him move off and join the back of the queue. Pathetic."

Of course, if you pay peanuts.......

Any Old Fool? No I'm Just An April Fool.

If you can't beat them - join them.

Britain has gone mad with April Fool mania. Everywhere you look, there is a prank. Every television channel, every newspaper, every corner. I blame Richard Dimbleby. He started it all with his spaghetti tree hoax on Panorama in 1957.

The school bus is not immune, so I thought I'd better strike first before the children sabotaged me.

"Sorry," I said. "There's an overturned truck which has shed its load of bananas on the road, so you will have to walk the last two miles to school. Mind where you step, though. Don't skid on a banana skin."

"Oh really?" said a child.

They got progressively more puerile and infantile. School closed because of blocked drains....lessons will be in the playing fields today....a UFO has landed and the teachers have been temporarily engaged...etc etc.

"You're LATE," said one angry student on boarding the bus.

"No I'm not," I replied indignantly, "I'm never........Oh."

They always have the upper hand.

Bus Driver Banned From Eat As Much As You Like Restaurants

"You're just an animal," the boss said to Big Man bus driver. Not me, my friend and taller colleague, who is a local legend in all aspects but particularly in his eating habits.

"Well, for a night out I used to go to the Chinese. I'd start with Chop Suey with steak on top, then have chips with curry sauce with steak on top. Then some steak. Then I'd have another Chop Suey with steak on top. You see I am very fond of steak."

He is the only person I have ever met who has been banned from two 'Eat As Much As You Like' restaurants in the same street. They were unfortunately owned by the same person. Having been booted out of the one at the top of the town, he went down to the bottom but the owner made a rare visit and he was caught and evicted again.

The one price eat all carveries suffered the same fate. He took the whole joint of beef at one hotel and the whole joint of pork at another, filling the empty space on the plate with roast potatoes, Yorkshire puddings and veg.

"You can't do that," said the horrified chef.

"I can," the driver replied. "It says 'eat all that you want, and I want this. I like steak you see." Eviction Nos.3 & 4 followed.

"You're banned for life," said the owner.

"What your life or mine?" queried the driver. "He was nearing 70, you know."

The boss was silent for a while before asking: "Does that explain why your're not quite so trim these days? Is the fact that your shirt is often untucked hiding a few folds?"

"Wey aye. But it's just a little overhang."

Know Your Hadrian's Wall Country

The first day back when returning from a continental trip is disorientating. Things just seem to run more smoothly. Maybe that is a view seen through rose tinted spectacles, but that is just how it is. The adrenalin does not flow so readily when you return to the daily grind, but that will be in all areas of life, not just on the buses.

So what better than to take a tour locally around the region. It was a tour organised by Hadrian's Wall Heritage under the banner of 'Know Your Hadrian's Wall Country'. This walking tour was guided by the excellently knowledgeable Robert Forsythe and the theme was Transport and Industrial Heritage. It was a peaceful day and I learnt a great deal of the local history.

Have a look at the Know Your Hadrian's Wall Country Facebook page

for details of more themed trips. The next is a Border Reivers' tour around the Debatable Lands with author Tom Moss. Should be a fascinating day. Particularly with the knowledge that the Accidental Bus Driver will be driving.

Pack your steel bonnets.

The Children Only Scream In A Low Voice

The bus pa system boomed with the harsh tones of an Eastern European voice.

"Put your head between your knees......PLLEAASSE," said the agitated voice. I resisted the urge to add 'and kiss your arse goodbye', as it was a school bus run and the voice was one of the students.

"Do not move," he continued, "otherwise you will into the toilet crash." Due to the usual basic school bus being busy on another route, I had to take one of the executive coaches, which is equipped with dvd player, coffee machine and onboard lavatory. Far too good for a school bus run, but I had locked the lavatory and the dvd player was not working, so the microphone seemed harmless fun. Besides I had ultimate control and could turn it off at any time. It's a bit of fun for the children and makes the time go more quickly.

Having a diversionary tactic stems from my own childhood memory when my mother used to drive the school run. If the children were rowdy in the back of the car, she would wind down all the windows and invite us to scream as loud as we could out of the car. After five minutes we were exhausted and the rest of the trip continued in satisfied silence. Reverse psychology at its finest. Then again, the reason why my mother was so extrovertly tolerant may have been due to the fact that she was quite deaf.


Back To Plus Ca Change Britain - Now Normal ABD Blogging Service Resumes

'So much to do - so little time', as Terry Wogan often used to say.

It's been a busy time. A tour on the continent. A tour around the North East. Schools bus services. The normal tightrope of balancing home and work life. 'No time to fart' as a friend reminded me.

Britain is in the same state as I left it. Riots, strikes, gripes and moans about the weather. The cuts to bus services are in full swing. The excellent Simon Calder, Travel Editor of The Independent has just highlighted a bus - "the 12.45pm departure from Central Milton Keynes to Southill which operates on the Fifth Tuesday of applicable months." If you miss the one on March 29th, the next service is on May 31st. Welcome to 21st Century Britain.

But let's not dwell - it could be worse.

There is plenty to write about. Plenty of Accidental Bus Driver stories to fill you in on.

So if you are sitting comfortably....I will begin.