Know - and drive - your buses

FOR most of us, a bus is a bus is a bus: a workaday box with wheels that whisks us from A to B. For James Race, though, they're transports of delight – things of variety and beauty. Lowestoft's youngest bus driver (probably) told Steven Russell about these kings of the road

THERE was literally a surprise around the corner for James Race. There he was, doing research for a pocket guide to Britain's buses, when he was stopped in his tracks by a chance discovery.

Sitting in a layby outside Chester railway station was a Leyland Lion. Now, to you or me it's just another bus, with a dated look from the 1980s. To an enthusiast, however, it's a bit like stumbling upon one of Willy Wonka's golden tickets. Even in their heyday it was unusual to come across one in service, since only just over 30 were sold. And now here was one in front of his eyes – and still being used, as a school transport vehicle, by the looks of it.

'I'd never seen one before in my life, let alone one sitting there waiting to go somewhere,' James explained. He'd imagined that any remaining examples would be preserved in a collection, and certainly not still rumbling along the highways and byways.

'I wasn't expecting to find one in service. It was ex-Nottingham City Council. They were quite rare when they were new.'

Not surprisingly, the Lion has won a place among the 44 models in the little book he's put together: Know Your Buses – the latest in the Know Your... series from Ipswich-based Old Pond Publishing. His selection shows the most popular types found in Britain, along with some more unusual examples.

Today, he's most likely to be found working later shifts, behind the wheel of a Dennis Dart SLF or a Volvo Olympian.

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A regular day might involve a contract run taking workers to the Bernard Matthews site at Holton, near Halesworth, 'then a bit of a town run, and then a couple of trips to Southwold'.

Aged 23 now, and 21 when he began, James is quite possibly the youngest bus driver in the Lowestoft area. Certainly he was the youngest when he started.

Know Your Buses is designed to appeal to the new enthusiast, but with the die-hards in mind. 'I didn't want it to be full of complicated jargon.'

James did once drive a Routemaster – the type of double-decker that for decades was a London icon. What was it like? 'Very strange. Having been used to a door next to you, and the wheels behind you, to get in something that's suddenly got a bulkhead to your left and its wheels underneath you. I remember getting in and thinking 'This is tiny!' Then I looked up at the wing mirrors and thought 'This is huge!''

The Routemaster did boast power-steering, however, and was 'ever so easy to drive. Remarkably so. But I wouldn't like to take one to Bernard Matthews, down those country lanes!')

What's the biggest difference between old and new buses, in his eyes? 'Probably the heaters, from the driver's point of view. I don't know if that's quite what you were looking for.'

Does he ever worry about cynics attaching the 'geek' label, as they often do with trainspotters? 'I've never encountered it, personally, though I've no doubt people have.'

When James took to the road – doing it for real – he didn't find it too difficult, 'once you remembered it's a big vehicle.' The wheels are behind the driver, 'which means you have to go further forward and out than you might first imagine to get round a corner. You do have to think about it.'

He takes out both single- and double-deckers – usually the bigger type to Bernard Matthews's plant. They're not that much different to drive, he reports. 'You've just got to remember that one is taller!'

l Know Your Buses is published by Old Pond at �4.99. ISBN 978 1906 853389