Driving dreams realised

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Driving a 13.2 metre Setra 416 GT-HD is just another day at the office for Margaret. ALAN PAYLING

Alan Payling met up with Margaret Orr, tour driver with Cresta Coaches of Bridgend, while she was in Torquay recently to talk about her travels and her very happy life behind the wheel

I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons why many young people are reluctant to be tour drivers is because of the age gap between themselves and coach holiday passengers. I’ve also reflected upon the observations that I’ve made of tour drivers and their passengers in that the older, or more mature the tour driver is, the more aware they are of the needs of the people they have to look after. Generalisations, I know, but not perhaps without some foundation in fact. Also, the more mature the driver, the more they fit in with the average coach holiday passenger on a social level making for a happy mix.
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But there is one tour driver that I see in Torquay on a regular basis recently who blends in perfectly with her passengers. In fact, when she’s not in uniform, if you were to play a game of ‘Spot the Driver,’ and put money on it, you would probably lose. Mind you, if you’re a tour driver yourself, you will probably know who I’m talking about so you would spot the driver in question straight away.

The special lady I’m referring to is Margaret Orr, currently working for Cresta Coaches of Bridgend in South Wales. Margaret was staying at the Riviera Hotel on Belgrave Road (formerly the Rainbow Hotel) with a group of 48 passengers on a Leisuretime Turkey & Tinsel five-day holiday. Margaret was more than happy to sit down with me to tell me about her working life, and a very happy working life it has been too.

Though she was born in the Rhymney Valley in South Wales in the Caerphilly village of Brithdir near New Tredegar, Margaret and her family moved to Coventry when she was seven. She left school age 15 and first worked for haulage and coach company Red House Motor Services, later part of Harry Shaw Travel, in the city as a telephonist. But from about the age of 18 when she saw all their excursion coaches heading off from Pool Meadow bus station in Coventry where she sold tickets for Red House’s day trips, it was a life out on the road that Margaret yearned for. Margaret told the owner of the company, Tommy Venn, that she would be driving his coaches one day. He was supportive but did say to Margaret that she would have to wait till she was older for insurance purposes.

When Margaret was age 24, Mike De Courcey of Travel De Courcey taught her to drive in an old double-decker during a Sunday church run. Mike would drive the bus to the church with the passengers on board and Margaret would then drive it round empty while the passengers were attending the service. Mike would then drive the passengers home. Eventually, Margaret took her PSV test, passing first time, and has never looked back and was destined to eventually put her days answering the phone behind her.

In at the deep end

Course I’m happy, the hotel staff are looking after me! ALAN PAYLING

It was always coaches that Margaret wanted to drive, never having driven service buses. It was the romance of the the open road that appealed to her. She had seen all the Red House coaches heading off to places like Blackpool and Great Yarmouth, and that was where Margaret wanted to be, going somewhere, anywhere. She describes being a coach driver as like having an incurable disease. It was to be a long illness for Margaret then, but one that only gave her pleasure, not pain.

Initially, Margaret carried on, reluctantly, answering the phone for Red House, but at weekends she started doing a bit of part time work for Vanguard Coaches of Bulkington near Coventry for owner Ken Evans. This was to gain experience and involved work such as school trips. But Margaret had much wider horizons in her sights. It was when Harry Shaw bought Red House that Margaret’s career as a fully-fledged international tour driver really took off.

She had always wanted to drive for Harry Shaw and it was when she got behind the wheel of one of his coaches that her dreams started to come true. Margaret credits her time with Harry Shaw as the company where she gained most of her experience, saying that they were some of the best days of her working life. However, it was sometimes a case of being thrown in at the deep end. But Margaret is a very good swimmer and handled whatever was asked of her.

For example, her first job was a tour for the Townswomen’s Guild in Coventry. Easy enough you might think. Well, sort of. But the women wanted to go to Sangohousen near Rudesheim in the Rhine Valley for a 10-day tour. So that was where Margaret took them. And no sat navs in those days Margaret reminds me, she just bought a good atlas and off she went. Margaret took to the work like a duck takes to water. Other jaunts she recalls were Harry Shaw’s camping holidays to the South of France. These tours involved taking groups to the company’s own camping sites in St Tropez and Port Grimaud, otherwise known as the Venice of Provence. On these tours Margaret worked alongside other drivers so she was able to gain wider experience while tapping into the knowledge of her fellow drivers when they took passengers out to places like Nice, Cannes and Monte Carlo.

Being younger, and as the tours were during the summer months, at the time, Margaret didn’t mind her accommodation being in a tent, or even in a mobile home. But Margaret requires – and deserves – a decent room nowadays please. Margaret took groups to most places in Europe when she was with Harry Shaw. The continent really was her oyster. Memorable tours included the Munich and Belgian Beer Festivals which Margaret recalls ended up with everyone in a merry mood. She has fond memories of tours to the Tulip Festival in Keukenhof in the Netherlands as well as trips down to Lake Garda. Switzerland was a popular tour for Margaret taking in the delights of Lake Geneva.

Of course, over the years she has done the full gamut of European work including skiing trips to Chamonix and school trips to, well, most places in Europe. This included trips to Belgium, the Netherlands and again, down to the South of France. Spain also made Margaret welcome when she visited places like Lloret De Mar and Blanes on the Costa Brava taking passengers to Barcelona where they could see a bull fight. Oh, and in addition to the European work, Margaret also worked on tours throughout the UK. You name it, she’s been there. Her dreams really did come true.

Margaret initially spent some 10 years with Harry Shaw before moving to live in Scotland at Blantyre near Glasgow. She worked there for McPhails Coaches which was then in Newharthill in Motherwell. This as you can imagine saw Margaret again out on the road on tour as the company was covering work for Caledonian Travel and other coach tour operators. Quite often she would take tours on the long trek down south to Cliftonville in Kent. There would then be trips to France for a wee dram and a few smokes and then to places like Canterbury, Broadstairs, Ramsgate and Rochester. After a happy 10 years in Scotland, due to her mother falling ill, Margaret moved back to South Wales. In order to to take care of her mother and grandson and be at home at night Margaret did some driving for operators in the area covering local work.

She then worked for Bebb Travel of Llantwit Fardre near Pontypridd in Rhondda Cynon Taf for some eight years doing private hires and a bit of National Express. Here she was covering the 509, Cardiff to London, the 537, Cardiff to Edinburgh and the 320, Cardiff to Bradford/Leeds. As you can imagine, given all the autostradas, autoroutes, autobahns, autopistas and autovias Margaret had driven on in the previous years, she has to say that she didn’t exactly enjoy the National Express work. Being very much a people person, she badly missed the chance to mix and socialise with her passengers. Sadly, on National Express, there was no real communication with the people she was carrying. After her time with Bebb Travel Margaret spent a few years doing local work in South Wales for a number of different operators.

A taste of the Orient
Eventually, as her heart was really out on the road on tour, Margaret returned to Harry Shaw in 2017 and 2018 on tour work to help them out during the summer months. This meant commuting from her home in South Wales to Coventry, but she was back in her element, out on the road doing tours. While this work was exclusively in the UK carrying incoming groups, Margaret loved the work. She particularly enjoyed carrying Chinese groups. If you have carried parties from the Orient, you will know why Margaret had a very big smile on her face when she was talking about the groups from China that she looked after.

In addition to the Chinese groups, Margaret was also carrying parties from Korea, America and Germany throughout mainland UK. Normally arriving at Heathrow, the passengers would be transferred by a local company to a London hotel. Margaret would then pick the group up and would be their main driver on seven day tours throughout the UK.

This would take Margaret to places on the UK’s tourist trail like the British Museum, Buckingham Palace, Stonehenge, the Harry Potter Experience, Stratford, York, Bath and Edinburgh. On other occasions groups would fly into Edinburgh meaning she would have a drive solo up to the Scottish capital to meet them.

Back to Wales

Margaret in her element – behind the wheel of a coach. ALAN PAYLING

After her second summer season with Harry Shaw, in September 2018 Margaret discovered that Cresta Coaches in Bridgend was looking for a driver. After an exchange of emails, as she was looking for work closer to home, Margaret started working from South Wales. This presented a new challenge, as vehicles like the Setra 416 GT-HD 13.2-metre tri-axle she was driving when I met her in Torquay, she had never driven before. But, for Margaret, it’s a case of nothing daunted. After receiving training from Cresta’s MD, Ian Williams, she was back out on the road with six wheels on the tarmac. Nowadays Margaret mainly covers the company’s private hire work and tour work for Leisuretime of Cardiff. This is a mix of three-day and some five-day tours for the company.

While not working ‘full time,’ again, after all these years, Margaret still can’t stand sitting at home. So the chance to get behind the wheel of a tidy coach is too much for Margaret to resist. And needs must, the trouper in Margaret will see her get her uniform on, check her coach over and hit the road with a big smile on her face. And she’s never happier than when she is heading north to Scotland. After all, she loved her time living north of the border and the chance to head into the Highlands is a joy for Margaret.

Of course, it’s the people that she meets that Margaret loves. And, it’s a matter of the heart for her. Speaking of how she relates to her passengers she said proudly and sincerely: “I love them.” She also said of her current boss, Ian Williams, that she loves him too. So, a marriage made in coach heaven there which must make for a happy working relationship that can only reflect in the positive way Margaret treats her passengers.

In turn, Margaret likes being looked after, saying that she loves staying in nice hotels when she has a nice room. She says that it’s one of the perks of the job that the hotels feed her meaning that she doesn’t have to go shopping, doesn’t have to cook and doesn’t have to do the washing up. What a life. This happy life includes mixing with her passengers and in recent times she has been spotted dressed up as Mother Christmas and as a Christmas Tree – on separate occasions, I hasten to add, and not while she’s driving.

In fact, when you meet up with Margaret, she will whip out her phone and she will proudly show you the many, many photos of her with her passengers not to mention her photos of the coaches she’s driven. Best keep a few hours free for that! But that may be interrupted as before now she has stood in as the entertainer offering her own versions of Play your Cards Right and Name That Tune, not to mention her vast experience as a bingo caller.

A real professional

Leisuretime’s MD Ceri Johnson and Sales Manager Nathan Bowen present Margaret with a floral tribute following compliments from her passengers. LEISURETIME

There is no doubt that as a tour driver Margaret is a true professional. When I asked her for an interview and said that that I would like to take some photos of her with her coach, the first thing she said was: “I’d better make sure the coach is clean.” Actually, it didn’t look that mucky to me, but it mattered to Margaret. Also, Margaret rang me up recently. She had to go to Dartmoor for the day. Some drivers would have set off having just had a quick look at the map. Not Margaret. She rang me, told me where she had to go, explained that she hadn’t been there before and could I help her.

She obviously realised that Dartmoor was a place where poor research can catch out the most experienced driver. So I spoke to Margaret for about 15 minutes or so. She had a map in front of her and I outlined the roads to take and where she could drop and park. Her visit to Dartmoor was a success and passed off uneventfully insofar as any problems were concerned. There will be some who will say that will all her experience Margaret should have known where she was going. On the contrary, I would say that with all her experience she knows what she doesn’t know and knows when to ask questions. To my mind that is the mark of a professional driver who has a large group of people to look after and wants them to just sit back and enjoy their day out without any aggravation.

And in another professional touch, when I wanted to take a photo of Margaret sat in the driver’s seat of her coach, she insisted that she be photographed wearing her seatbelt. Oh, and in yet another very clear sign of her professionalism, of the high standards she sets, Margaret is a regular reader of CBW. Well, say no more there!

And I’m not the only one to comment on Margaret’s professionalism. In a lovely photo on Leisuretime’s Facebook page, she is pictured being presented with a bunch of flowers by the company’s boss, Ceri Johnson, due to the positive feedback that has been received about Margaret from the company’s passengers. And her current employer, Ian Williams said that: “Margaret really is truly dedicated to the industry and her level of customer service and wealth of experience is something I personally truly value. If only I could get a dozen more drivers like her.”

It was a pleasure to chat to Margaret and hear her story. So, long may the highways and byways be blessed by her, a real trouper, the mother of all tour drivers!

Thanks to Ian Williams of Cresta Coaches for his help in preparing this article.
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