The magic of London buses
TICKETS PLEASE! Dave Fall with a London bus in Matjiesfontein during a visit to the transport museum. How a genuine red London bus came to be in their possession has never been easily explained. IMAGE: Dave Fall
Author: Dave Fall
Whenever I think of London it’s a place that always cheers me up - not that I’m down in the dumps or anything like that. I can’t really put a finger on why that particular euphoria should exist – perhaps it’s just good old-fashioned nostalgia shining through.
As a matter of fact the Fall family lived well outside of London in a place called Hatfield, in the county of Hertfordshire.
That town’s claim to fame (Hatfield) would have been the De Havilland aircraft factory headquarters that spawned the likes of Gypsey and Tiger Moths, Dragon Rapides, Mosquito fighters, the Comet series of passenger airliners, and eventually Blue Streak missiles – to name just a few.
Every Sunday morning we would pile into dad’s company car, a Jowett Javelin, and 30 minutes later we would be walking around Chapel street market in the Borough of Islington, North London to do the weekly shopping. If my brother and I had behaved ourselves that week, we’d all jump on a London Transport (Regent III) RT* bus and travel deep into the heart of the City to spend the afternoon feeding peanuts to every creature we could entice at Regent’s Park Zoo.
Bus conductors back then must have been exceptionally fit. We’d watch him/her in amazement helter-skelter upstairs and downstairs collecting fares and issuing tickets in a whirr of hand movements, how they knew who had just jumped on and where they were seated, I often used to marvel. Dad always knew where to find me though - behind the glassed-off driver’s compartment watching his every move as he wrestled with the biggest steering wheel I’d ever seen, while deftly shifting gears.
What a skilful and responsible driver he was. He “chauffeured” 56-seated passengers — 30 upstairs and 26 below — another eight (overflow) were allowed to stand at the back of the bus on an “exposed-to-the-elements” platform. All of them, rather alarmingly I thought, clutching on for dear life to the vertical pole fixed to the floor and ceiling, as it lurched and swayed it’s way across London town.
Was the driver aware he had a mighty 9.6-litre diesel engine coupled to an ultra-smooth Wilson pre-select-type gearbox under the engine cover? He would certainly have needed to remember, though, his bus was extraordinarily long at 11.5m. He deftly manoeuvred the RT along Marylebone Road, past Madame Tussaud’s on the corner of Baker Street, just so we could give the animals their lunch.
CLAIM TO FAME
The RT proved something of a global celebrity in the early sixties thanks to the British pop star Cliff Richard and his bunch of pals, who used one in a film called Summer Holiday. If you saw the film (and who hasn’t) and thought that film-star bus might have been a ubiquitous Routemaster, now you know differently!
There might well be red letter boxes to be found on street corners, red phone boxes spotted everywhere (and we mustn’t forget the Chelsea Pensioners in their red and gold uniforms, or the Beefeaters protecting the Queen’s property at the Tower of London) but nothing quite captures the sights and sounds of the iconic red London bus for me — no matter what series it is.
*The London Transport RT bus is still used around the City on very special occasions, while 2013 is the 75th anniversary of the RT (Regency III), first used in London in 1939. Nearly 7 000 of them were manufactured by AEC. Surprisingly, a round-the-clock fleet of 150 were in use for the duration of the Second World War. Well, Winston Churchill and his war cabinet, along with advice from our very own Jan Smuts, had to get to Whitehall to make those necessary plans somehow.
If you want to know what magic these London buses really have, we have one in South Africa. Next time you're visiting the Klein Karoo, there's a romantic little town called Matjiesfontein - be sure to check out their transport museum. How a genuine red London bus came to be in their possession has never been easily explained.