The Company History
Founded in 1969 by a 25-year old Graham Clements in Backwell near Bristol, North Somerset Coaches existed as a traditional 5-10 vehicle independent coach operator for much of its early life. Lightweight Bedfords, and later Fords, were popular and the workload consisted of local home-to-school contracts, swimming runs and school private hires. There was also a small amount of evening and weekend private hire work. Original livery was black and white – and the first new coach (Ford / Dominant HYC521N) arrived in this livery in 1975.
In the early 1980’s Graham took the then-unusual step for such a small operator of upgrading to “heavyweight” coaches and at the same time introduced a striking new fleet livery of cream with orange and brown stripes. An AEC and a Bristol RELH coach were tried but the new firm favourites were Volvo B58s. Following this upgrade, more long-distance journeys, such as National Express duplication and even Continental Private Hires, appeared in the diary. The proudest moment for Graham came in 1985 when B97WHT arrived brand new from Duple – one of the unusual Calypso models based on a Bova underframe. It was a well-loved and cherished coach and was one of the longest-serving– surviving until 1999.
During the 1990s the first of two Leyland Nationals arrived for a new commercial school bus service to the local secondary school, but as coaches had become more expensive and luxurious it was no longer possible upgrade and keep a true multi-purpose fleet, so traditional school work regained prominence and the fleet began to age. Two TAZ coaches (a Mercedes 0303 built in Croatia) were very popular in this period due to their superb engineering and reliability. These began the trend of coaches remaining in plain white or previous operator liveries, and the North Somerset Coaches name disappeared from vehicles completely around the turn of the century. There was also a saying that the map in the office showed a 50-mile radius around Bristol, and if it wasn’t on the map the coaches didn’t go there.
By 2007, the fleet was down to just two non-branded coaches – a 1989 Volvo B10M Plaxton and a 1992 Dennis Javelin Berkhof – operating one home-to-school contract and a few swimming runs…
Enter another budding 25 year old (the same age as Graham when he started the company in 1969)
David Fricker, took on the business with a new Operator’s Licence for 5 vehicles and new enthusiasm to build on the established local reputation.
The first priority was re-establishing the brand, and bringing the name back to prominence in the local community. A very lucky break came in April 2008 when, at only 12 hours notice, a commercial bus service was taken on to St Katherine’s School at Pill in North Somerset. It was an unusual secondary school with 800 of its 1200 pupils arriving by bus each day on commercial services from independent operators. An ex. Busways Dennis Lance / Optare Sigma M204DRG was used for the Summer term, and Leyland Olympian G761UYT was bought when student numbers rose dramatically in September 2008.
The next innovation was the introduction of a new Nailsea and Backwell commercial town service in August 2008. Apart from Badgerline running a minibus for a short period in 1986 there had never been anything similar; the only buses were on main roads into Bristol. The idea for the service was to serve roads not covered by existing services and to complement rather than compete. Commuter-timed journeys to and from Nailsea & Backwell railway station (waiting for trains), and a reincarnated school service (the same as the Leyland Nationals many years before) filled a whole day for one bus – initially ex. Brighton Dennis Dart N216NPN, later Optare Solo S107LBL, then Dart SLF P302HDP, step-entrance Dart K91BNY, and finally Dart SLF S523KFL.
This diversification brought dividends of increased private hire work and a very popular Excursion programme with front-door pick-ups was also established.
In April 2009, cuts to routes locally by the dominant operator left a piece of fast dual carriageway unserved, and the “out of service” workings of the St. Katherine’s school bus (now needing two vehicles) were converted to a new Express Commuter bus service between Nailsea and Bristol. Newer vehicles (ex. Wilts & Dorset Spectra L131ELJ and one of a pair of ex. Stagecoach Alexander PSs M752/6LAX were usual) than the remaining big-group buses, fares at half the price, and half the journey time, brought sometimes-overwhelming passenger numbers. Combined with a totally unusual, friendly, personal and imaginative approach to service delivery (including read-and-return book club, Easter eggs and Carols at Christmas with the owner’s mother playing the accordion), the “Clipper” grew rapidly and soon needed larger, and even newer, buses. Two Dennis Trident low floor double-deckers arrived from Brighton & Hove (T805/10RFG) in 2010 and these stayed right to the end, latterly re-registered with cherished number plates and re-seated with leather coach seats. Their Brighton & Hove names (Maria Fitzherbert and Magnus Volk) remained on the buses and passengers and drivers alike always referred to them by name. Supremely reliable and popular, these buses above all others stand out as the most significant vehicles operated.
In 2010 the Town Service was nominated at the UK Bus Awards in London, and received a Highly Commended certificate. In the same category were contenders such as Leeds City and Heathrow Airport!
Smart-card ticket machines arrived in 2011 – well before the local big group operator – and with it the huge benefit of live tracking. Later, a stored-value top-up smartcard was introduced on X54 and the school service which significantly reduced cash handling and speeded up journeys.
A small heritage collection expanded alongside the main fleet, having begun in 2007 when distinctive former Badgerline Alexander P Type D101GHY arrived as a spare vehicle for the original 2 coaches. Heritage vehicles were always maintained to full commercial standards – and it wasn’t unusual for Bristol RE YHY592J to appear on a Summer or Winter morning commuter journey into Bristol or a schools working.
Coaching continued alongside the bus services, and two Scania Irizars R463/7YDT were owned briefly for the 2011 season but were particularly complex to maintain. Volvo Berkhof P717EJM (registered N50MST while with North Somerset Coaches) owned since 2010 outlived them and survived to the end, and continued to travel nationwide on most of the coaching jobs. It even visited Glasgow, Fort William and the Scottish Islands of Islay and Arran in 2013!
The final big change to the main local bus service network was the replacement of the town service by an all-day service to Bristol in 2012. This was to coincide with the introduction of two ex. Trent Optare Excel 2s Y243/51DRC, but only one of these ever entered service.
During 2013 recruitment problems, and increasing hostility from local authorities, made the owner realise the storm clouds were gathering against small businesses in the road transport sector (at least 9 operators have closed locally since 2013)
A larger local operator, Abus of Bristol, bought the X54/55 routes and the Dennis Tridents from 11th November 2013, and Carmel Coaches of Devon bought the Berkhof coach, school service and private hire work in January 2014. However the company name did not change ownership and a small amount of special event work continues but the main focus of the two owners now, alongside their main full-time jobs elsewhere, is the renovation, restoration and preservation of local road transport heritage.
One vehicle in the heritage collection – the newest and rarest – retains the maroon cream and black livery and North Somerset Coaches fleetname as part of the heritage collection. Ikarus 564KHT – bought early in 2011 when X54 numbers grew dramatically – is now almost unique and has opened up our collection to worldwide interest and new friendships across the continents, and led to the arrival to our collection in May 2018 of an ex. Budapest Ikarus 260.45 bus.