At 4.05 pm on Saturday, July 21st 2012, a light aircraft took off from Perranporth airfield in north Cornwall. Shortly after, the plane crashed into cliffs near Portreath killing the pilot. That pilot was Andrew Stillwell-Cox. I was shocked, and very sadden to hear of Andrew's death. After getting my PCV licence, Andrew and I became friends. A wonderful man and hilarious company. I will miss him. My thoughts are with his family.
Hold Very Tight, Please!
(A Very Painful Transition from Conducting to Driving)
As the rear wheels of my coach mounted the kerb for the umpteenth time, accompanied by a string of expletives from my instructor, words I hadn’t heard since my time in The Army Cadet force, I started to wonder whether I had made the right choice in trying to obtain a PCV driver’s licence. I was undertaking an intensive, four day driving course to achieve this goal. (I avoided using the term Crash Course, that would be tempting fate too much!) My test was in 24 hours and it wasn’t going well. My instructor said I’d fail before I’d travelled a mile from the test centre. He was wrong. I’d fail within a hundred yards!
The decision to go for a bus driver’s licence started back in November 2010, and that didn’t go well, either! I went along to the nearest DVLA office in Truro and got an application form along with a medical form. Next, I contacted my surgery to arrange a medical examination. They only did these on Wednesdays. I was working on Wednesdays for the next six weeks. What did they charge for this? How much??? Following a search on Google, I came across Drivers Medicals. (www.driversmedicals.com) Cost for an examination would be £52.00 and they could offer me a slot next Monday at the First Bus Depot, Plymstock. No problem. Having got the medical form filled in by their doctor, the application was sent off to Swansea and I waited, and waited,……. Three months later, I contacted my MP to ask for his assistance. The provisional licence should have come back within three weeks and without it, I couldn’t book or take my theory tests. Strangely enough, a week later, my licence dropped through my letterbox. I then booked the three theory test modules. A multiple choice test, a hazard perception test and a CPC case study test. Nothing to stop you taking all three in one day but in accordance with Sod’s Law, the Driving Standard’s Agency could only offer me tests spread over one week and at two locations. Luckily, I managed to pass all three comfortably and set about arranging the practical training. I’d already approached Roselyn Coaches at St. Blazey, a mile and a half from where I live, and their instructor, Andrew Stillwell-Cox was happy to take me on. (Well, we all make decisions we regret later!)
Monday, June 6th I started, with the test booked for 11:45 on the Friday. It’s well known that humans have to spend some time in purgatory; mine was from 8 am on June 6th to 2 pm on Thursday 9th! Nothing prepares you for your first time behind the wheel. I might drive a motorhome, 7’3” wide, 20’ long and weighing 3 tons but the coach was 8’2” wide, 39’ long and weighed 12 tons. A completely new experience. Firstly, I couldn’t steer the bus! I found myself weaving all over the road. A drunkard would steer straighter. Put your hands on the wheel at ten to two? No! Twenty five past seven! The coach has very light power steering and eventually, I got the hang of controlling it by having my hands almost in my lap. Put your hands in the normal car driving position and you lose fine control.
Then, don’t look where you’re going. Sorry?
“Use your mirrors.”
“ But Andrew, they point backwards!”
“ Trust me David. Use your mirrors. Nothing is going to happen in front of you, any accidents will be at the rear end.”
After a while,(a long while!) you get used to seeing the white lines on the road, down the middle and along the kerb in your rear view mirrors with a glance ahead to check the road is still clear.
Next. Don’t brake on the engine! Look at the floor and you see three pedals. The one on the right makes it go faster, he one in the middle makes it go slower, and the one on the left, does neither! No, the technique is slow down by treading on the brake and when your speed is appropriate, select the corresponding gear. Don’t brake and change down at the same time. Similarly, if you’re approaching a junction at, say 30mph in 4th gear, decide which gear you’ll going to need to leave the junction. If 1st is appropriate, slow down the coach with the foot brake, leaving it in 4th gear, then as you trundle up to the junction and just before the engine starts to shudder, depress the clutch, roll the gearstick into 1st then prepare to pull away. Totally alien to everything I’ve ever been taught about driving. Somehow, I can’t see myself taking the FLF with a full load down Union Street, Ryde, in top gear and relying on the brakes to stop me. I rather suspect I’d be halfway along the pier before I came to rest. Another thing you have to learn is that you can’t manage racing changes on the gearbox. Try and force the gear in and it will kick back, however, if you take your time, you find the stick will drop into the gear.
So we hit the open road. What went wrong? What didn’t! You name it, I did it. Stalling on major roundabouts, rolling backwards, dragging my rear wheels over kerbs, speeding whilst negotiating hazards, dawdling on the clear roads, letting the engine labour because I was in too high a gear, thrashing the engine because I was in too low a gear, sending Andrew’s blood pressure off the scale. I did notice the more stressed he became, the more frequent the cigarette breaks became. I’ve been driving for 40 years. You’d be forgiven for thinking I’d been driving for 40 minutes! My only consolation each night was the fact that I hadn’t actually hit anything although the near misses were uncomfortably close. My Guardian Angel must have been on overtime.
One interesting item of the coach was the anti roll-back feature. Release the handbrake and you’d hear a puff of air as the brake came off. There was then about a one second period when the coach would be able to roll forward, but not backwards. Very useful on hill starts!
I asked Andrew what was the worst incident he’d encountered whilst on training runs. He struggled to think of a worse pupil but eventually remembered the student who managed to take off the wing mirror of a Police BMW, then added insult to injury but running over the mirror. The Police driver was apparently quite amused by the incident but not his WPC passenger, presumably because she was detailed to deal with the paperwork. Well, at least I knew where the bar had been set!
Then at 2pm on Thursday came the Road to Damascus Moment, although exactly how this happened I’m struggling to understand. Suddenly, everything clicked into place. I could position the coach correctly in the lane, avoiding straddling the solid white lines in the centre of the road, and also avoiding cycle lanes. Approaching roundabouts, I could choose the correct line so I didn’t run over the kerb or the roundabout itself. I could deal with oncoming traffic, even if I had to pass out into their path. Up till this point, my very understanding wife had kept quiet, especially when she’d asked how each day had gone, but at 2pm on that Thursday, she sensed I needed some help and it somehow arrived. Do not expect me to explain the mechanism of this assistance! All through Thursday afternoon, Andrew kept asking what had happened to the person who was driving the coach earlier. He’d missed the handover. So that night, I got a better night’s sleep than I’d managed in the previous three nights. Next day, the day of my test, I was wondering if the previous afternoon was a fluke and I’d revert to form. However, once I got behind the wheel, it was still alright. I continued to make minor errors but progress was good. Now for the test itself.
Andrew parked up the coach and we entered the test centre office to settle the paperwork. Check my driving licence and sign a statement that the vehicle I was using was correctly licensed and insured. Well, I knew it was licensed, but insured? I certainly hadn’t seen any documentation. First part of the practical test is reversing. Drive up to two cones, stop, and reverse, aiming for a bay to my left. Not easy, but you’re travelling at a slow walking pace. Then onto the road and the independent navigation phase. “Follow the signs to Camborne, town centre, please.” That in itself is straightforward but Camborne has a few tight turns. Try Google Street View at the junction of Church Street and Commercial Street. Left turn, no more than 50 degrees and completely blind due to the granite building on your left. Creep forward, stick your nose out and try to see what’s coming. A First double decker wanting to turn right! Too far forward to stop and let me out but he did manage to get past me without problems, giving me a quick wave as he went. From then on, only one minor hiccup when I inadvertently selected 3rd instead of 1st. But by then, I was confident enough to stop before the engine stalled and recovered to continue. 15 miles and 50 minutes later, I was back at the test centre. Bring the coach to a halt, handbrake on. Turn off the engine. How had I done? To my relief, I’d passed. I had the famed blue A4 pass certificate. Then followed the de-briefing. 11 minor faults, but I was allowed 16. The examiner was talking about these but I wasn’t taking anything in. He could have said he knew the winning numbers for the Euromillions Lottery draw that evening. It was another 24 hours before I came back to Earth!
...... © Dave Moore
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