The red buses to Leeds - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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The red buses to Leeds

Once our family had settled into No 29 Cotton Street, we visited my maternal grandparents in south Leeds regularly because we could take a bus to Leeds to visit them on any day of the week that fitted in with Dad's shifts at Wakefield Prison. For many years the West Riding Automobile Company had operated all of the extensive bus services in the Wakefield district. On two routes the buses were painted red and were all double-deckers; on the other routes they were painted green and were a mixture of single and double-deckers.
Left: This is a scan of a very old picture of the Bull Ring that I found in my Dad's papers after his death. Westgate is at the top, Northgate is off to the right; Queen Victoria is in the centre on her pedestal where she had been since 1905.

Only very late in life did I learn that the red buses operated on the two routes that had formerly been operated by the Wakefield trams: Sandal to Leeds and Agbrigg to Ossett, the first running roughly south to north and the second roughly east to west and both passing through Wakefield's Bull Ring in the city centre. When the trams were withdrawn in 1932 someone had decided that it would be a nice gesture to remember the trams and painting the replacement buses on the Leeds route red seemed as good a way of doing that as any other.
The Queen Victoria statue moved around quite a lot as though the Council did not really know what to do with her. After 45 years in the centre of the Bull Ring it was moved to the main entrance to Clarence Park in 1950. She then returned to the Bull Ring in 1985,

The image on the left, which I took in 2008, shows Queen Victoria about to be moved yet again to make way for a pedestrianised area. She then went into storage for a year before ending up where she is today, in Castrop Rauxel Square in what Wakefield Council like to call the Civic Quarter. The Square is so-called in recognition of the fact that Wakefield has been twinned with the German town Castrop-Rauxel since 1949.

The red buses from Sandal arrived in Wakefield on the A61 over the Calder Road Bridge, up Kirkgate, past the cathedral and into the Bull Ring and then continued to the Corn Exchange in Leeds using the main A61 trunk road all the way. Most of the red buses had centre doors with two curved flights of stairs leading left and right to the upper floor. During the war the buses ran every few minutes from early in the morning until late at night, which was just as well because they were almost always extremely busy and queuing at many stops along the route was inevitable. The bus fare to Leeds was 9d for adults, 4½d for children.

From the Bull Ring, the red buses wound their way along Northgate, which was much narrower than it is these days, past Clayton Hospital on the left and the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School on the right, and down a slight hill to Newton Bar, once a toll gate on the turnpike in the days of stage coaches. There the road split: to the left was the A650 road to Bradford and to the right the A61 up Newton Hill to Outwood and on to Leeds. Just before reaching Outwood, the route passed where I now live but until 1984 much of the area was open fields. During the war the bus conductors used to call out the name approaching each stop: First Avenue, Outwood Church, Lofthouse Gate (another former toll gate location), Halfway House, Wood Lane, etc. After 'lighting-up time' there was no street lighting and only the very minimum of light inside the buses. The headlamps of buses and the very few other vehicles on the roads were masked so that only a narrow, horizontal sliver of light remained. How drivers ever managed to see where they were going was a mystery to me. (In the case of our neighbour, Mr Pilbrow, he obviously couldn't see where he was going because he ran into the back of a lorry one night on Denby Dale Road and was killed.)

Left: This is Outwood looking towards Leeds (2011). The church is on the left and the bus stop referred to below was on the left by the lychgate.

After passing Outwood Church, where the buses often stood for a few minutes when they were ahead of schedule, there was a slight downgrade before the next up gradient at Lofthouse. Many of the buses had a real struggle to get up Lofthouse Hill, even in bottom gear. There was a mandatory bus stop before the start of the hill at the junction with Potovens Lane; this allowed the driver to engage bottom gear, which he could not do while the bus was in motion because of the lack of synchromesh gears.

All of the buses were built pre-war and lacked the power to exceed walking pace up Lofthouse hill. On more than one occasion I can remember the bus grinding to a complete stop halfway up, with steam pouring from the engine compartment. There was then nothing to be done except wait a few minutes for the engine to cool down. On another occasion when I was on the bus, all the adult males were invited to get off and walk alongside to the crest of the hill. No-one ever seemed perturbed by these delays: it was just another inconvenience blamed on the war.

I remember Lofthouse Hill for another reason. Halfway up on the left hand side there was a small farmhouse behind which was stationed an anti-aircraft battery in the middle of a large field. On the steps of one of the outhouses which was obviously used as a cookhouse, there was often a group of soldiers sitting with large dustbins of water between their knees as they peeled huge mounds of potatoes. I always waved to the soldiers as we passed and they usually waved back. On the few occasions when we returned from Leeds in the dark after visiting grandparents, I can remember seeing the searchlight alongside the anti-aircraft battery raking the sky. This always seemed to cheer up the passengers on the bus because it made us feel secure.

A couple of miles beyond Lofthouse was, and still is, the Halfway House pub at Robin Hood - equidistant between the Bull Ring and Leeds City Centre. Many Yorkshire folk believe that this area, not Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, is the real Robin Hood territory but I won't go into that argument here. On the left opposite the Halfway House pub there was a small garage and on most days when I went past on the bus there was a beautiful red, open top, MG sports car parked on the garage forecourt. I was fascinated by that car and kept telling Mum and Dad that one day I would own one. 20 years later I did buy an MG sports car - but mine was in British Racing Green livery - the favourite colour of the 1960s.

After the Halfway House there was a straight stretch of open, undulating road with dozens of long, low, rhubarb forcing sheds and acres of potato and cabbage plants. This is where Cobham's Flying Circus was performing on the day I was born; nowadays it forms one side of the Rhubarb Triangle, the centre of the rhubarb industry. Allegedly, more rhubarb is grown in this relatively small area than in the rest of England put together. Over on the right hand side of the road was the sinister hospital with its very distinctive clock tower. It was actually known locally as 'The Workhouse' but it was really a hospital for the destitute elderly, for patients with chronic and acute mental illnesses, and for persons with a variety of what we term today 'learning disabilities'. The building is still there today but it finally closed as a hospital in 1991. It, and its surrounding grounds, have since been converted into executive houses and flats. I wonder if the sad folk who used to live within the hospital now haunt the rich new inhabitants.

And so to the last gradient: Bell Hill. At the top of this hill Wood Lane, the road from Rothwell, joined on the right. On one of those rare days when the industrial smog had partially or completely lifted, the whole of Leeds city would suddenly come into view, spread out below in a vast panorama. A bus stop on Wood Lane at the T-junction was marked by a huge set of genuine whalebones standing vertically on the pavement. No-one seemed to know why they were there, or who put them there, but they are still there in 2015 but now on the opposite side of Wood Lane and, for some reason or other, turned through ninety degrees.

Above: The whalebone monument at the junction of Wood Lane and Leeds Road
Partway down Bell Hill, at the road's narrowest point in a cutting between the undulating hills on either side, a roadblock was constructed over a period of several weeks in 1940/41. When the work had been completed, a solid mass of reinforced concrete about three metres high stretched across the road; there was a gap in the middle just wide enough for a bus or lorry to pass through. Sometimes we could see armed soldiers, or perhaps they were Home Guard volunteers, guarding the gap. Of course, I was too young to understand the population's fears of a German invasion. The remnants of the roadblock were visible on the embankments at either side of the road for many years after the war, if you knew where to look, but the original cutting was eventually widened considerably to accommodate the new road layout.

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