On January 3rd 2000 I jumped on a Winchester bound train to take part, as a passenger, in the King Alfred Running Day and catch up on all those rides that had eluded me in previous years. The sheer number and variety of buses and routes make that a tough target, but thanks to well-thought-out timetabling there is no need to return to The Broadway for change of steed: there are plenty of mid-route points where you can cross the road and pick up another service.
Things started well: an understanding driver waited as I scampered towards his Renown in Winchester's City Road and leapt on, oblivious of the destination. Cold, drizzly weather and a good passenger load mean misty windows that fog up as soon as you clear them, but as we pulled up at a stop I just made out Mervyn's Bedford OB coach HOD 75 waiting the other side of the road. Together with several other passengers, I transferred and after a few minutes of time travel - the induction hiss, the wailing gearbox, the wood work , I realised how low-geared the axle must be: the engine was never noisy, but at 30mph it seemed to be spinning quite busily.
Back at The Broadway, timetable study was cut short by the sudden appearance of what looked at first like a Bedford SB (not my favourite!) with a coach body but the heavy front wheels demanded a second glance. It turned out to be a GWN 432, a 1950 Dennis Lancet J3, rebodied in the 60s by Thurgood. It took us to Cheriton via the 578ft Cheesefoot Head. Effortlessly swift on the flat, it benefited from good early down-changes on the climbs. Despite a full-width cab and the lack of a bulkhead the engine was strikingly quiet, even when working hard (is this not normal for a Lancet with an 06 engine? - Ed). Sound effects were exactly as A&D K3 Lance 145, with which this Lancet shares nearly identical running units. It was beautifully driven and full use was made of the lovely overdrive.
On my next ride, I was afforded a "head to head "comparison with the Dennis: a rebodied Bristol LL6B, also with 5-speed overdrive gearbox (with practically identical ratios to the Dennis), own-make engine, full-width-cab no-bulkhead body and similar unladen weight. As I love both makes I had no reason to wish either one to lose. There was scarcity of hills on the way to Farley and some of the lanes seemed little wider than the bus. The Bristol was noticeably noisier than the Dennis, possibly because the soundproofing over the engine was less generous, but the Dennis 06 is an uncannily quiet and vibration-free engine and so a hard act to follow. We never got into overdrive. I wondered had the box been replaced by a 4-speed one? A more subjective point: despite its mouth-organ radiator grille, the Bristol came out on top for looks!
I only had time for a quick browse round the excellent book-stalls before taking a seat on a rare machine: KRU 224F, a Bristol BVW engined semi-automatic ELF. If you are used to the standard Gardner engined constant-mesh version, this variant affords most unexpected sound effects, with resonances that come and go at different engine speeds. Even to the passenger this vehicle has an entirely different sound and feel from other FLFs.
Some of us left this Southampton-bound service at Botley, to return to Winchester on a Southdown PD3. The engine seemed to be working hard and the transmission was practically silent, yet we made good speed. Of 25% greater swept volume than the average double-decker engine of its day, the Leyland 0600 is often credited with the PD2 and PD3's success.
Last ride of the day was in WCG 104, the King Alfred Tiger Cub, which whisks along a full load with far more gusto than its smallish engine might promise. Perhaps James Freeman has a special way with it. Light in weight it may be but it is a properly engineered bus. I like the rather utilitarian body, too. Un-patriotically, this year, I missed a ride on either of the two A&D Reliances, but I have been on both of them before.
One of the pleasures of any running day is the cheery helpfulness of the conductors, who often have the delicate task of turning away half a queue of would-be passengers. They patiently answer the same questions on the vehicles and often volunteer background information on the routes. Another pleasure is the confident and safe handling by the drivers of buses that are over 35 years old (the little King Alfred Dennis is twice that) and which might present a challenge to drivers trained on today's vehicles.
Finally, sincere thanks to those behind the scenes. Like the A&D events, King Alfred Running Day doesn't just happen: it is the fruit of months of planning and years of restoration.