Peak Centenary

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Hulleys of Baslow celebrated its centenary in late April. Jonathan Welch paid a visit to see how the company has evolved over the years

In 1914, Henry Hulley began a taxi business in Baslow, although the first bus didn’t arrive until 1921 when he acquired a Model T Ford with solid tyres. It entered service on 29 April that year, initially operating on a service from Baslow to Chesterfield via Cutthorpe. In September 1922 most journeys were re-routed via Wadshelf and Old Brampton and extended back to Bakewell on the route still operated today as the 170. As the fleet grew, a house and garage were built on Calver Road, Baslow in early 1922, and by around 1925 the route was further extended beyond Bakewell to Middleton-by-Youlgrave, laying the foundations for an operation which would survive through the generations to become an operator which today runs services across the picturesque Peak District and reaches the major industrial cities of Sheffield and Manchester.

To find out more about the company’s long history, we spoke to current owner Alf Crofts about its current operations, and long-serving driver and transport historian Dennis Vickers who has researched the Derbyshire firm’s earlier days.

“Henry Hulleys’ nephew Stanley Eades was operating a service from Chesterfield to Eyam and agreed to transfer his licence to his uncle from 17 December 1930, and Hulleys extended the route to run between Chesterfield and Tideswell via Eyam,” explained Dennis.

By 1934 the fleet had grown to seven buses, most bought new, and regular summer excursions were added to popular tourist destinations. Henry Hulley & Sons Ltd was formed on 25 January 1938, and in 1939 the company acquired the routes and two buses from Maurice Kenyon of Grindleford, providing links from local villages to Grindleford railway station.

“The war effort saw three buses requisitioned in late 1939,” Dennis continued, “but Hulleys managed to acquire a few replacements during the course of the conflict, some of which were in such poor condition that they had to be re-bodied.”

In June 1946 the company took over the services of Sellers and Kent, Ilam, but in 1954 sold the work to Warrington’s of Ilam. One-man-operation began on some journeys in 1952 to reduce the costs of employing a conductor, and around the same time buses gained a new livery of red with a duck egg grey roof, plus maroon band and wheel arches. Excursions were very popular in the 1950s and the fleet expanded, but the increasing popularity of the motor car was to reduce the amount of coaching work.

“Henry Hulley died on 20 June 1955 and in his memory, his children bought a new Bedford coach which the firm operated for 20 years,” continued Dennis.

Changes

”With falling passenger numbers, the original route from Baslow to Chesterfield via Cutthorpe ended on 25 July 1970, and most journeys to Grindleford Station were abandoned. However two new routes linking Bakewell with Over Haddon and Monsal Head, were added in 1971, replacing ones withdrawn by North Western.
“With the raising of the school leaving age in 1973, the fleet expanded again and by 1976 just three of Henry’s children, Jack, Ben and Nina, were left running the company. Nearing retirement age, they decided to sell. There was interest from Chesterfield Corporation, but it pulled out of a deal at the last minute and Hulleys was bought by J. H. Woolliscroft & Son, who ran it as ‘Silver Service’ from Darley Dale from 7 August 1978.”

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By now, the fleet was looking somewhat run down and buses had to be hired from other operators. Silver Service bought double-deckers from Scotland, followed by long, low Leyland Panthers from Liverpool, and small engined Fords, all off which proved themselves unsuitable for the firm’s operations. “By the winter of 1981-82 the fleet had deteriorated to such a degree that the firm was called to a public hearing by the Traffic Commissioners and the number of vehicle operating licences was reduced from 18 to 9. It bought a batch of Bristol buses which proved very reliable, and the red was replaced by blue.

Long distance

With current routes stretching as far as Manchester and Sheffield, and summertime seaside routes to Scarborough and Skegness starting within the next few weeks, the company is no stranger to long distance routes.

“From January 1985,” Dennis continued, “the Chesterfield to Tideswell route was combined with a long distance run from Lincoln to Manchester, the X67, which Hulleys ran jointly with two other companies. From early 1987, buses began appearing with the fleet name Hulleys Services, and in 1988 financial reasons saw Silver Service sell off the bus operation at Baslow. It was bought by Traffic Manager Arthur Cotterill and Peter Eades, nephew of bus operator Stanley Eades, and once it regained independance, the Hulleys of Baslow fleet name returned, and Silver Service went into receivership a year later.”

In the following years, the fleet was slowly modernised, with some buses coming from South Notts, whose livery was cream and dark blue, leading to the adoption of these as the livery which is still carried today.

“In 1998 the first brand new coach since 1956 was bought,” said Dennis, “then in 2001 Arthur Cotterill retired, with Peter Eades’ son Richard taking over as joint Managing Director. In April 2005 the company bought its first brand new service bus since 1936, which was followed by more. A number of routes were now being won on tender and with a declining demand for coaching work, coaches were now being replaced by service buses.

“Peter Eades passed away in July 2013, leaving son Richard to continue as sole Managing Director and with the help of driver Alf Crofts, who had previously owned his own bus company, the number of bus routes operated continued to expand. By 2019 Richard wanted to sell the company and offered it to Alf, who took on the ownership from 10 March 2020, although he had taken control as Operations Manager the previous September.”

Unexpected challenges

When Alf took over the running of the company, he could never have predicted what was just around the corner, and what challenges would lay ahead as he sought to modernise and put his stamp on it. Alf takes over the story: “I started as a driver here in 2003. After a couple of years I found myself getting more involved with the scheduling side of the business, and it grew from there. One Saturday morning, I had just pulled into Sheffield Interchange and the phone rang. It was Richard. I thought it was strange as he wasn’t one to just call for a chat. After a little while, he asked if I’d be interested in not just taking over the business but buying it. I didn’t need to be asked twice.

“We set about valuing the vehicles and depot. We did it ourselves, independently of each other, and came to within £3,000 of each other’s number for the vehicles, and within £8,000 on the land, so we were pretty much on the same page. After that we had to involve solicitors, and the legal process took around 9 months.

“The first thing I did when I took over was to get rid of our last coach. It didn’t fit in, and went to an operator in Wales. I decided to keep the livery, it is simple and classic, but thought the fleetname needed an update. I have a friend who is good at publicity and vinyls, and we have a driver who is gifted at web design, so it was a bit of a team effort.

“I made some changes in how the garage is run, brought in an Engineering Manager and spent £34,000 on a new inspection pit and diagnostic equipment, as well as making improvements to the administration systems. Things weren’t poor before, but now breakdowns are even more rare and everything runs smoothly. Buses are defect-free and I have confidence in everything we put out. We just took delivery of our first new vehicle in 10 years, a Volvo MCV eVoRa.”

People

“I had already had a transport manager’s CPC since I was 21 but put myself through it again for my own peace of mind and to make sure I was fully up to date. I wanted to try some new ideas. I registered the X70 to effectively protect the Chesterfield to Bakewell corridor from Stagecoach competition, which Richard had been worried about. It cost us an extra bus but has paid for itself; it has done very well.”

Although Alf is the sole owner, he takes on board input from a number of key staff to help make decisions and drive the business forward. “We’ll get together and throw ideas around,” he continued, “it’s nice to have creative people on board who are passionate about what we are doing. I have a good team in Jonny Axe, Jake Davis and Nathan Cartwright. It is a collaborative effort. We have Matthew in the office too, who takes a lot of pressure off me with day-to-day things. The attention to detail now is impressive. Destination blinds for example are always properly programmed and all buses have snap frames fitted for timetables or advertising.

“We have 42 staff at the minute. Three of those are in the office, six work in the garage and the rest are drivers; some full-time, some part-time. We find people come here and don’t leave. And with launching some new routes and late night services to Sheffield and Manchester we’ll need some more staff. The last departures from Manchester and Sheffield will be at midnight.”

New routes

“We launched the Alton Towers service last March, and that has been doing reasonably well. Then we introduced the X57 in October. Everyone on social media thought we were stupid and that it wouldn’t last. Right now it’s one of our best performing services. The Snake Pass is a difficult route, and passengers know the weather can mean it is delayed or has to divert via Woodhead, but on the whole they have been grateful that we took the risk and introduced it. It has given Glossop a direct connection to Sheffield. We’re a little operator trying something big, and we’ve had lots of positive feedback online, with people keen to try it out once coronavirus restrictions lift. We’re currently back up to around 65-70% of our normal passenger levels.”

Fleet

Hulleys’ 25-strong fleet is a mainly single-deck one, and tailored to the needs of each service and route. There are currently just two double-deckers, a Volvo B7 and an Enviro400, one of which is needed for the busy Sheffield to Castleton service operated jointly with First South Yorkshire, and the other for the Chesterfield to Bakewell route. The remainder of the fleet is made up of: one Optare Versa; five Optare Solos and one Solo SR; two Optare Tempos; one Wrightbus Streetlite DF; five ADL Enviro200s; two Darts; one Scania Omnilink; four Wrightbus Volvo B7 single-deckers; and the newest vehicle, an MCV eVoRa on a Volvo B8R chassis, more about which can be found on our Deliveries page this week.

“We’re coming round to heavyweight buses,” Alf continued, “they’re more suited to the work we do. We’ve just bought three 55-plate Volvos as spare buses. The Streetlite has become a good bus and people seem to like it, but it came from Leask’s of Lerwick, and had a lot of corrosion underneath because of the harsh operating conditions in Shetland when it arrived.”

Heritage

As part of the celebrations to mark the firm’s 100th anniversary, a special display and rally has been organised for Sunday 26 September at Chatsworth House, and a number of buses are being painted into heritage liveries from various periods of the company’s history. The first, ADL Enviro200 MX63 XAU, received the pale blue and cream livery of Silver Service. A second was recently released into service in the red and cream colours of the 1950s-1970s era, whilst a third is due to carry the blue and white livery dating from the time when Hulleys regained its independence after Silver Service, a livery Alf describes as ‘the most basic livery you can imagine’ thanks in part to its even more basic fleetname. Again, the recipient will be an Enviro200.

Seaside service

Following the positive reception for the X57, Hulleys wanted to try something else different. From 3 July, the company will be operating services to the seaside. Summer Saturdays will see a daily round trip to Skegness, whilst Sundays will offer a journey to Scarborough. “It was interesting trying to work out a route on Google Maps,” said Alf, “one which passed suitable bus stops so we can run it as a local service. The Scarborough service will pass through Sheffield, Rotherham, Doncaster, Hatfield, Goole, Driffield and Filey. The Skegness one will go through Sheffield then out to Wragby and Horncastle, and continue to Fantasy Island after Skegness. For those boarding right at the first stop, it will take about three hours from end to end.”

The obvious next question was ‘why?’ “It’s something different. We’ll try anything that’s different and makes us money. I don’t think we’ll have any problems finding drivers for it! Sunday’s have always been hard to cover, but we’re seeing an increase in Sunday work. It was four buses, then five. We’ve just gone up to eight.” Around 50% of the company’s current workload is tendered, with the remainder commercial, giving a current weekday PVR of 19.

Peak routes

“The Peak District is a big tourist area, so we’d be mad not to exploit it. Sheffield and Manchester both have large student populations who are keen to come out here. Our job is to make sure that they come with us.”

The rural nature of a large part of Hulleys’ operating area can cause problems, especially on narrow roads. “We had a big problem with parked cars on one of our tendered services in Cressbrook, with parked cars repeatedly preventing us from getting through. We eventually stopped serving the village until the situation was sorted. I didn’t enjoy creating hassle or pulling the service, but it reached a point where something needed to be done.”

“There has recently been a spate of unannounced road closures, something which, disappointingly, the local authority have been either unaware of or unable or unwilling to stop. It seems utility companies can dig up roads without a second’s notice, leaving our 12-metre buses marooned in villages on tight streets with nowhere to turn. We’ve been very patient so far, but that patience is quickly running out, and, as with the Cressbrook issue, we may need to take action.”

The firm’s normal operating area stretches from Ashbourne in the south to Sheffield and Manchester, but most routes serve the towns and villages of the Peak District National Park. “We put up all our own bus stop flags and timetables,” Alf continued. “We think it’s important. We’ve been out and cleaned and refurbished some of the unused timetable cases on stops and shelters ourselves to put our information in. The council don’t mind, it saves them the work! All our signs, timetables and maps are done in our smart house style.”

The future

What does the future hold for the 100-year old company? “We’ve been invited to take part in the Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP). There’s a lot of good stuff in those 84 pages, but as a small operator we are nervous that that consultants will come in and look at the Derbyshire network and carve it up. We have concerns about ticketing too. It’s great from a passenger point of view but at the moment, we have the Derbyshire Wayfarer which is valid on multiple operators’ services. In terms of revenue, the money lies where it falls. Whichever operator sells the ticket gets the £14, there is no big pot.”

That can have a number of consequences for an operator like Hulleys, Alf explained. One worry is that with such arrangements, operators on city services have lots of ‘points of sale’ on high frequency routes, and those routes are often used to connect to services into the Peak District, meaning that the city operators sell the tickets then passengers travel ‘free’ on Hulleys’ routes. In the opposite direction, Alf believes there are far fewer passengers who buy a ticket on a Hulleys bus for onward travel elsewhere, although there are still those for whom it is a useful option, such as to travel to main hospitals or shopping centres..

“We don’t think this would be right in the BSIP,” he continued. “There needs to be a better way to apportion the revenue, such as based on miles travelled not where the ticket was bought. We’d also argue that had a service like our Sheffield to Ladybower or Chesterfield to Bakewell routes not existed, then the passengers wouldn’t have bought a ticket on the city bus in the first place.
“We wonder too whether the BSIP will stifle innovation. The X57 for example, no one had thought the risk was worth it until we tried. Will the BSIP stop that from happening? I think so. And we’d be pretty upset if we’d spent time and money developing a route like that only for it to go to another operator.”

The Hulley’s centenary event will take place on Sunday 26 September in the grounds of Chatsworth House

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