London Transport
Route 321 Reminiscences

by Laurie Bishop

It seems to me that one of the biggest differences when travelling on a bus nowadays when I compare it with my school trips in the 1960s is the lack of conversation with the bus crew. Back in the ’60s I never got the opportunity to talk to the driver of a London Country or London Transport bus except when you got off at the same place as a crew change. The driver was in his own cab completely cut off from the passengers and the rest of the bus except for the ringing of the bell: one ring to tell him to stop, two rings to tell him to pull away from the stop, and three rings to tell him not to bother to stop at the next stop (normally because there was no-one for the fare stage or the bus was full).

But the conductor, well he was someone different. On the 321 in the ’60s the conductors were almost all men, and older men at that. But then when you’re only 14 yourself, any man over 40 looks like an old man. After all, my father at that time was 42 for goodness sake!

Most conductors just did their job without any great showmanship but there were one or two that have stuck on the mind. One of them we nick-named Happy, because he was pretty morose most of the time. His mantra as he went around the bus was “Anyone want to pay?” which seems a rather pointless question: few passengers wanted to pay although most of them probably had to, or needed to. But such niceties of use of the English language would be lost on most of the bus, myself included in those days. And most people did pay, as they were basically honest.

The conductor I looked forward to seeing on the bus most of all was a guy who must have been about 50–55, and he always called out the name of the stop as the bus approached it. He was practically the only conductor who did announce the stops, but it wasn’t just the fact that he did so, it was the way that he did it.

Three stops down from where I got on was Lye Lane, and he would announce it as “Lye Lane, for Spielplatz”. Spielplatz is German for playground, and the Spielplatz in Lye Lane—when it was founded in 1929—was the UK’s first naturist club (or nudist camp as the village called it). Although people did get on and off the bus at Lye Lane from time to time, we schoolboys were always disappointed that all, particularly the women, appeared to be fully clothed.

The next stop was announced by the name of the nearest lane off the main road, and this escapes my memory [possibly Chiswellgreen or Tippendell], but I do remember that the conductor always announced it as “×××× Lane, for Mrs. Brown’s house”. Who Mrs. Brown was, and why her house merited a mention, I was too shy to ask, and nobody else on the bus seemed at all bothered.

All the following stops were announced without anything out of the ordinary, including the Three Hammers, Midway, and the King Harry, until we got to St. Albans Abbey railway station at the bottom of Holywell Hill. The terminus of the branch line from Watford Junction, this was announced as “The Abbey station, or Dr. Beeching’s disposal unit”. The Beeching report had just been published, and the line was scheduled for closure. (It never did close, and nowadays boasts an electrified service, and two new stations.) A few years later, when Labour replaced the Conservatives who had commissioned the Beeching report, a more sympathetic attitude towards some railway lines appeared. The stop was then announced as “The Abbey station, or Barbara Castle’s recovery unit”. Mrs. Castle was Minister for Transport in Harold Wilson’s government.

(Incidentally, the Gas Works was by the Abbey station, and I remember being taken round as part of a school group to be shown how heavy industry worked. Of course this was Town Gas production, and all the coal needed came in by rail. It was a filthy dirty environment, and coal dust was everywhere. The smell was highly unpleasant and if it was foggy as well, then the resulting smog was dangerous to everyone’s health, especially if you were asthmatic. I wasn’t, but one of my friends was.)

The next stop was three-quarters of the way up Holywell Hill and it was here that I got off to walk through Sumpter Yard, past the Abbey itself, and through the parkland to school. This area of St. Albans had lots of pubs. This was the conductor’s tour-de-force. His announcement was “Holywell Hill, for The Goat, The Garibaldi, The Beehive, The Hare & Hounds, The White Hart, The White Lion, Ryders, and the Abbey”. Ryders was a very well known seller of packet seeds founded in 1895 by Samuel Ryder—the very same Ryder who established golf’s Ryder Cup. Their building was a wonderful glass-fronted and -roofed affair and is still in use today, as either a café or flats, I believe. The great thing about the announcement was the way pubs took precedence over commerce, which in turn took precedence over the Abbey—probably the most important building in St. Albans—and certainly at or near the top of most visitors’ list of things to see!

On today’s buses you hand your money to the driver and that’s the end of it. You may get a thank you, you may not. When I get off the bus, I tend to say thank you. I may get a thank you or OK in return, I may not. The opportunity to engage in conversation has gone, just as it has on the railways, where you can no longer even thank the driver in his hermetically sealed cab, let alone slip him half-a-crown in gratitude for a good run. But then they’re probably paid more than most these days, and that was most certainly not the case in the 1960s.

The 321 route worked tremendously well at getting people into St. Albans from north and south of the city centre. In the depths of winter it did even better. Its pièce de resistance during my time was the winter of 1962-63 when there was snow on the ground from Boxing Day 1962 through until March 1963. How the drivers got up and down Holywell Hill without mishap is beyond me, as workers, shoppers, and schoolchildren fought their way through the heaps of snow. And although the buses were late (how could they be otherwise?) they were not that late, and they didn’t tend to be cancelled.

One day the button and ring-cord mechanism used by the conductor or passengers to tell the driver to leave or call at a stop refused to work. The only way the conductor could tell the driver to start was to knock on the window separating the driver from the lower deck seating area. This was fine while the bus was less than full, but this particular day I was soon offering my seat to an adult passenger. (If you were in school uniform and did not offer your seat to any adult who would otherwise have to stand then you ran the risk of being reported). As more people got on I was gradually standing nearer and nearer to the driver’s compartment. Eventually we had a message relay system going which ended with me tapping on the separating window with a half-a-crown: once if a passenger wanted to get off, twice to get the bus away from the stop, and, eventually, three times to tell him we were full and to pass the next stop without stopping.

This was using a basic communication system to keep the bus going, and the conductor’s instructions would be shouted by relay down the central aisle for me and my half-crown to alert the driver. I wonder what today’s Health & Safety officers would think of it all?

Soon after I left school the frequency of the 321 service started to reduce. When I came back from university there were only four an hour, and then the one-man-operation (or OMO) buses were introduced. The buses became slower as they spent longer at stops, and bunching (as made famous by Flanders and Swann in A Transport of Delight: “We like to drive in convoys, we’re most gregarious”) started to occur in the rush hours. Travelling by bus would never be the same again.

RT3254 [LLU 613] on route 321
RT 3254 [LLU 613] taking a turn on the 321 during the 2007 St. Albans running day (Sunday January 14th).
Colin Cooke photo, courtesy the
Oxford & Chilterns Bus Page.

I remember going to and from secondary school in the 1960s (and before then shopping with my mother) when we used the 321 service from our village to St. Albans. In those days in the rush hours there were up to eight buses an hour in each direction. I could catch the 8.15, 8.20, or 8.25 and be sure to be at school well before 8.55. Even catching the 8.35 was just about OK as long as you didn’t get caught in traffic going up Holywell Hill, and [then] ran through the Abbey grounds.

The express 803 wasn’t much good as its timings didn’t coincide with school starting and ending, unless you were kept in late for some disciplinary reason. But I do remember quite clearly on one Wednesday afternoon in winter 1965 when we got let off Games early because the pitches were frozen. We were told to do three laps of the athletics track and then we could shower and go home. The games fields were south of St. Albans city centre, and I used to walk to the King Harry stop which was the 803’s first stop after St. Peter’s Street in the centre of St. Albans. The 803’s scheduled stops after there were at Chiswell Green (Three Hammers), Bricket Wood (Mount Pleasant Lane—my stop), and then Garston Bus Garage, North Watford (Library), and then Watford Junction, although there may have been another stop between North Watford and there.

Anyhow, I had just got to the King Harry stop some time just after 3.00 when this 803 swung round the corner having obviously charged up the hill from the Abbey station and got through the traffic lights on green, and was then disgusted at having to stop for the only passenger there—me. I had barely got a foot on the platform and we were off. We overtook a 321 picking up fares at the Three Hammers (that was why there was no one else waiting at the King Harry) and so didn’t have to stop there, and in what must have been little more than four minutes to cover the three miles after being picked up, I entered into the spirit of things by jumping off the bus as it slowed for my stop, allowing the driver to accelerate away to get up the incline for Garston. The conductor told me that they had started out from Welwyn garden City 15 minutes late (I never found out why) and had managed to cut that to ten by St. Albans, and would be no more than five late at Watford Junction. They wouldn’t have had much chance to regain much more as the traffic in Watford even 40 years ago mitigated against high-speed running!

My mother was convinced I’d been sent home early for some misdemeanour, and only my detailed explanation (see above) would eventually convince her.

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