Robert Hampton

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19th September 2010

Lark in the Park
Posted by at 9.57pm | 2 responses | Out and About

Birkenhead Park Festival of Transport 2010This weekend offered a great variety for the intrepid Merseysider intent on transport-related frolics. In the north of the county, the Southport Air Show offered fun in the sky for the whole family. Unfortunately the sky decided to have some fun of its own, depositing a large amount of rain on the showground overnight, causing flooding and a hasty cancellation.

Marginally better off was the Birkenhead Park Festival of Transport, the annual event showcasing all sorts of transport-related… er, stuff. The official web site, which played an embedded MIDI file on a continuous loop (is it 1996 in their webmaster’s mind?), promised “Traction engines, vintage cars, buses and military vehicles, steam engines, steam boats, radio controlled model boats, sailing boats, steam powered carousel and vintage fairground”. Exciting, yes?

Actually, to be honest, I was slightly dubious about the whole thing. Steam railways are one thing, but steam traction engines don’t do anything for me. Maybe I’m just prejudiced — Trevor was my least favourite Railway Series character. But classic cars? Military vehicles? No thanks.

Merseytravel bus timetableWhat swung it for me was (a) it’s a free event, and (b) there was a parade of vintage buses laid on to ferry people to and from the Park.

I have to emphasise that normal buses don’t excite me that much — but vintage buses do, especially when they carry the liveries of the long-dead nationalised operators, a throwback to a time when public transport was run as a service (imagine!) rather than a way to line businessmen’s pockets.

Merseytravel are a keen supporter of the festival — not only do they organise low-floor, wheelchair-friendly buses to supplement the heritage examples, they produce timetable leaflets to make sure people know when and where the bus will turn up. This sort of attention to detail pleases me.

I arrived at Victoria Street in Liverpool City Centre to find no fewer than three heritage buses lined up:

Buses line up in Victoria Street

I’m not a bus expert, but a bit of Googling has helped me identify the buses in the picture above. At the front of the lineup is a Leyland Olympian dating from around 1989, wearing the colours of MTL North. This is the bus of my childhood, as I clearly remember when Merseybus first introduced them. 7-year-old me was fascinated by the flip-dot destination indicator which could be programmed to show any text. It all seemed impossibly futuristic.

Behind it is a Leyland Atlantean, which entered service in 1969 with Merseyside PTE. Behind it is a later Leyland Atlantean from 1980, wearing National Bus Company red and the Ribble logo. The latter vehicle is owned by Ribble Vehicle Preservation Trust, the other two are part of the Merseyside Transport Trust collection.

MPTE Atlantean number 1111I sat on the top deck for the short journey under the river. Going through the Queensway Tunnel in a bus is always an exciting experience. The lanes seem just slightly too narrow for the bus, and passing vehicles whizz past just a little bit too close for comfort. It’s fun, but I was relieved to emerge into the daylight of Birkenhead.

A few minutes later we were pulling up outside the park. Although the event was free, I was guilt-tripped into popping a few quid in the collection bucket to get a programme. I didn’t mind: I thought it would come in handy. However, I ended up stuffing it in my coat pocket and hardly referred to it.

Green Goddess fire engineThe weather was incredibly poor, with the rain increasing in intensity and the ground becoming increasingly squelchy underfoot. With the exception of the odd exhibition tent and the park’s cafe, there was little shelter from the rain, and I had stupidly forgotten my umbrella.

Nevertheless, we battled on through the weather to view the various attractions, which included a Green Goddess fire engine, a ploughing demonstration(!), an uncomfortably large number of tarot/palm-reading stalls, and a stand offering alpacas for sale (yes, really). Scott took exception to a paintball game where one of the targets was a cardboard cut out of Katie Price (I found it amusing, although a bit unfair on Ms Price, given that the alternative target was an Al Qaeda terrorist).

We found ourselves wandering away from the festival and into the rest of the park which was open to the public as normal. Birkenhead Park was the first public park in the world and famously the inspiration for New York’s Central Park (the inspiration for Central Perk in Friends is, thankfully, unknown). Having been neglected for many years, Birkenhead Park has had a lot of money spent on it in the last few years to restore it to a state appropriate for a park which is Grade I listed. It certainly seems like a pleasant place to spend a few hours. Scott happily entertained me with stories of being flashed in the park by random strangers, which happened on two separate occasions (he does seem to attract that sort of attention).

Having briefly stopped by the adjacent playing fields to watch a rugby match (phwoar) we headed back to the festival where, it transpired, we were just in time for the Parade of Steam! A cavalcade of impossible-looking contraptions passed, each looking like a rejected design from Wacky Races.

Parade of Steam 1 Parade of Steam 2 Parade of Steam 3 Parade of Steam 4 Parade of Steam 5 Parade of Steam 6

The rear was brought up by the incongruous sight of a Llandudno tram on the back of a low loader:

Llandudno tram

We headed back to the cafe for a relaxing coffee before checking out the impressive model railway display in the adjacent visitor centre. When we emerged, the rain had finally stopped, so we took the opportunity to have one last stroll around, before heading to the bus stop.

In addition to the Liverpool shuttle buses, a second group of vehicles were running a circular service around Birkenhead town centre. Parked up waiting for its next duty was former Birkenhead Corporation 105, a Leyland PD1 (apparently). New in 1946, it is now part of the Wirral Transport Museum collection.

Birkenhead Corporation Leyland PD1 105

I couldn’t resist a ride and persuaded a barely-interested Scott to join me. We clambered aboard took up seats on the top deck, right at the front, disappointing a family with a large group of children who wanted the good view (you snooze, you lose, sorry). The interior was classic 1940s, all wood-panelling and polished chrome. Also amusing was this entreaty against spitting, a product of a time when tuberculosis was a very real threat and hygiene was of paramount importance.

No Spitting Sign

It’s interesting that passengers were encouraged to shop spitters to the authorities. Nowadays, of course, it’s benefit cheats and suspected terrorists (and anyone with more than one phone) we’re supposed to turn in. We’ve come a long way since the 1940s.

Having taken on a reasonable load of passengers, we were on our way. In those austere post-war years there was clearly no time for luxuries such as working gearboxes and suspension, and the ride was a rather jerky, bumpy experience. The route took us an a tour past some of Birkenhead’s finest small industrial warehouses and patches of waste ground. Scott again played the part of tour guide, pointing out places where smackheads like to congregate and the pub he drank in when he worked in WHSmith. If City Sightseeing ever introduce an open-top bus tour of Birkenhead, there’s a guaranteed job for him there.

Twenty minutes later we were back at the park and it was time to say goodbye. Sadly the bus which turned up to take me back to Liverpool was a modern Arriva single decker, but part of me was quite pleased to have a nice smooth ride.

Overall it was an enjoyable afternoon, despite the weather. Old buses and a chance to shoot paintballs at Jordan — what more could you want?

Scott’s version of events, with more pictures and sarcasm, is up on his blog.

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2 Responses
  1. Comment by Scott
    19th September 2010 at 10:33 pm

    That does remind me that in 1994, I came to visit Liverpool to view the Uni. Both I and Ines (the girl I was visiting with) were ridiculously impressed to spot that buses in Liverpool had TVs on them. I don’t know if they ever worked, I don’t know if they showed anything other than The Liver Birds and the Brookside omnibus, but the fact that there were tellies on a double decker was all we talked about when we got back to Luton.

  2. Comment by Roy McNeil
    20th September 2010 at 6:45 pm

    They generally showed adverts, Gillettes World of Sport and self help videoes. It was really kewl to start with but they never changed what was on and within a few weeks they never worked. They were just run from a VHS player on loop!