Western National Cornwall

Western National Cornwall

My father worked for British Railways in Nottingham, so unlike most of my schoolfriends who had to be content with holidays on the Lincolnshire coast or maybe North Wales, we made the very best use of our free rail travel. A favourite destination was Cornwall, and since the railway came to an end at Penzance, it was usually Penzance!

In those days, of course, Cornwall was almost wall-to-wall Western National. Even the most important roads tended to be narrower there than elsewhere, so buses to the old 7 foot 6 inches standard width were preferred. In my mind, the double deckers (all lowbridge type) were mainly Bristol K6Bs with a few KS6Bs and K5Gs. KSWs were not unknown, but not numerous (though I have seen a picture of a KS at St Ives sporting an 8 foot wide KSW type body. Lodekkas had been invented a long time before they became common in West Cornwall. I think the long main road service 18 to St Austell was the first (a full 3 hour journey) and then the 21 main road service to Falmouth.

Single deckers were mainly standard rear-entrance (and therefore conductor operated) L6Bs or LL6Bs. This, of course, was a bit wasteful of staff (especially considering that many services had to be heavily enhanced for Summer visitors) and a number later received front entrance, full front bodies and were thereafter one-man-operated.

Route 9 to Newlyn and Mousehole was an exception. It could not take an L of any description since it was geometrically impossible to get that length round the narrow street corners in Mousehole village. So there was a clutch of Bedford OBs with Beadle bodies. I believe they were also used elsewhere in Devon and Cornwall where local conditions required very short vehicles, but in the Penzance area, route 9 was their reason for existence.

The main terminal point in Penzance was at the railway station, but quite a lot of routes heading eastward started instead in Alexandra Road at the western edge of the town – a location referred to on timetables and destination blinds as “Penzance Promenade”. This ensured that most services in any direction had convenient stops throughout the length of the town.

The depot was at Wherrytown, a few hundred yards farther west than “Penzance Promenade” and Royal Blue coaches were also stabled there overnight. There was a fair amount of to-ing and fro-ing between Wherrytown and the Railway Station terminus, and the timetable book contained the following note : “Garage Working Journeys : Wherrytown – Promenade – Railway Station : PENZANCE. In addition to the journeys shown in the timetable between Railway Station and Promenade passengers are also carried on certain buses proceeding between the Company’s Garage or Promenade and the Railway Station prior to and after working other services.”

The range of routes is still more or less recognisable to this day, although many are now operated by Western Greyhound instead of First Western National. There was the famous route 1 and 1B to Lands End. (In line with the usual Lands End commercial twaddle, I suppose it ought to be have been called “the first and last bus in England”!) 4 and 4A were two versions of the route to Porthcurno. 5 was a local to the Gwavas Estate up Chywoone Hill beyond Newlyn. 7 was a Thursdays only run to Nanquidno. 8 went to Grumbla and “Golf Links”. The 9 to Mousehole I have already mentioned, but then there was also 9A which, illogically, had no connection or relationship to the 9, but headed off in the opposite direction to Perranuthnoe. Then there was the mind-numbing variety of St Just services – 10, 10A, 10B, 10C, 10D and 10E. Actually the vast majority were 10B and 10E which formed a circular route running Penzance – Pendeen – St Just – Penzance and vice versa. 11 was a town service to Treneere Estate. Then there were three different routes to St Ives – each having its own number (14, 16 and 17) instead of being distinguished by suffix letters like the St Just services. 18 was the long route to Camborne, Truro and St Austell. 20 was an occasional service to Praa Sands. 21 was the main road route to Helston and Falmouth, and the 22 was a much more interesting village service taking in Townshend, Godolphin Cross, and Constantine. Lastly, and way out of numerical sequence, was the 138 which ran to Tredinnick on Thursdays and Saturdays only.

Routes 1, 4, 5, 7, 8 9 (but not 9A) and 138 were usually single deckers. The rest were usually double deckers, but there were exceptions. I recall an LL6B setting off as a 21 on the 2 hour run to Falmouth, full up and standing. On one surprising occasion a K6B turned up on route 1 for our return journey from Lands End.

From the front nearside seat (downstairs on a double decker) you got a splendid view of the road ahead, as well as the full audio benefit of the 6B being worked hard over steep gradients, hairpin bends and narrow roads. The view from the long bench seats upstairs was even better, though the engine music was more muted, and on the sunken lanes it was entertaining to spot cars coming the other way, that the driver couldn’t see from down below, before we met them on a blind bend or particularly narrow stretch of road.

St Ives Malakoff bus station was (and still is) a remarkable place – a constricted triangle of concrete perched on the very edge of the cliff overlooking Porthminster Beach, surrounded by a flimsy looking guard rail. It looked a work of art to turn a double decker there and position it for departure with the rear backed up within a few inches of the sheer drop (and a substantial chock under the rear wheel to guard against mishaps). We always arrived in good time for the 7 o’ clock (evening) number 14 back to Penzance, so as to make a strong bid for the front seat upstairs. Then it was away, plunging down the narrow, steep and sharply curved Tregenna Hill into the town centre; left into the Stennack and right, up what, as you approached it, looked like a footpath, called Bullans Lane. Out along the twisting coastal road with views over the cliffs and sea to Zennor and Gurnards Head, and then turning south across the moors on the narrow lane through New Mill to Gulval and Penzance.

Another memory of old Western National was their useful bus stop display. Instead of mounting a boring plate on a post, they erected a notice board by the roadside (even in very rural locations). These had neatly pointed eaves along the top to deflect the rain, and the whole thing was painted in Western National green. On the notice board a poster was stuck, comprising the timetables of all services in the region. This was printed on a deep yellow paper, and overprinted “BUS STOP” in red letters about 4 inches high. These displays were a distinctive icon throughout Western and Southern National territory.

These memories are from say, 1957-59.

By 1967 much of the old order was disappearing. In that year we holidayed in Falmouth instead of Penzance. One day I set off to travel the Newquay branch line. There was a fairly regular direct bus service from Falmouth to Newquay – Western National route 46/46A. My plan was to take an early bus as far as St Columb Road station – a journey of about 1 hour 40 minutes. This gave me time to travel by train down to the mainline junction at Par, back right through to Newquay, and finally return to St Columb Road, with about 10 minutes to spare for the bus back to Falmouth.

We were staying out of town at Golden Bank, and the expedition began predictably with an LD6B originating from Helford Passage on route 43C to Falmouth. I had seen the Newquay buses earlier in the week and knew they were invariably FLFs. Falmouth had a number of town services, most of which were by this time LDs, with just one or two Ks still lingering on. About five past nine, one of these museum pieces turned into the bus station. I first saw it from the side and paid little attention to it, expecting it to be heading for Gyllingvase Beach or Pendennis Point. Then it turned sharply left into the bay where I was waiting and the destination blind revealed all “46A NEWQUAY”!

It was, I think, the oldest K5G I have ever travelled on. I kid you not, it had timber instead of metal-framed seats. I don’t think it had strayed more than 5 miles from Falmouth garage in years. It was obviously a last minute substitute, and probably the last available bus in the garage, because I feel certain that an hour’s notice would have given them time to juggle something more recent into position for a two hour cross country journey. It is the only time I ever remember a conductor apologising to passengers for the age and condition of the bus before we set off! There were several long hills on the trip, and the superannuated 5-cylinder was a bit short of breath. Where possible the driver took a run at the hill. Then as speed fell off rapidly, there was that growling, grinding double de-clutching change down to third, and often again to second.

The departure from Truro was memorable up the long Mitchell Hill and Bodmin Road – a noisy, window-vibrating grind at about 10 mph in second gear. Even so, the driver got the bit between his teeth on stretches of road where the gradient was favourable. If she wouldn’t go uphill, she would just have to go down – and 40+ mph in a 20 year old K5G was a rattling and exhilarating experience. I was sorry to quit at the country cross roads by St Columb Road station, and watch her roar off into the distance.

I had done a quick calculation, and worked out that after reaching Newquay the same vehicle should do another round trip to Falmouth before I caught it again on the homeward trip. About half past four in the afternoon, I waited with mounting anticipation at that country cross roads. Sadly Falmouth garage had mended whatever had forced this unusual substitution. My hopes were dashed as a familiar FLF hove into view.

Stephen Ford


14/08/14 - 15:09

Stephen, if you were riding on the number 10 to St Just via Morpha Pendeen in that era you may have met me! in a primary school green blazer going home to Pendeen, boarding the bus at the cattle market?
Reason for replying to your article is that I remember that old bus, well maybe similar but there was only the one that I ever saw, we called it the boneshaker, it had those bench seats upstairs and very notable was its long narrow radiator grill. along time ago now, but I still have memories of her, we did seem to have allot of the cast offs from up country.
Enjoyed your article, brought back a lot of memories, pity I didn't spend more time studying my lessons as I did about the buses.
It was never an ambition of mine, but ironically I did end up driving buses for MPTE Liverpool for 11 1/2 yrs after leaving RN. Many of the back loaders we had were boneshakers.

Jim Delleur



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