It’s a heart-rending moment for Norfolk’s longest established operator; but owner, Charles Reynolds, will take away some happy memories
Sadly, the doors are closing for the final time at the depot of Reynolds Coaches. With the company logo emblazoned across the building and the petrol pumps outside, it is a well-known site in Caister-on-Sea, near Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. Earlier this year, its owner, Charles Reynolds, announced he had taken the heart-breaking decision to close the operation.
That is a difficult conclusion for anyone to make about any company. But what makes it even more poignant is that it closes the final chapter to an extensive history of coaching, as Charles explained.
Reynolds Coaches’ history goes back to 1910. However, the family can trace its roots back further than that, having been based and running businesses from the general location of the current site for much longer. It was Charles’ grandfather, Newman Charles Reynolds, that started the operation in Caister, originally with ponies and traps. The business carried out a variety of operations including passenger transport, haulage, taxis and even building development. In fact, Reynolds Avenue in Caister was named after Newman, with him having developed properties on the road.
When automation took off, Newman added a Model T Charabanc to the fleet. It could be a 14-seater in summer to carry holiday makers or converted into a truck to make it pay its way in
Charles said: “I remember my grandfather said he took a group down to London for the first time in it. He got there and he had never seen so much motorised traffic. He ended up dropping his passengers off at a Tube station, saying they could catch the train in and out of the city. Now, London is such a state that people are considering doing the same thing again.”
Newman died in 1944. After WWII, Newman’s son Leonard and his wife Grace took over the haulage and passenger transport side of the business. After the war, the company re-located to its present site at Ormesby Road, Caister. The haulage operation was closed in the mid-70s to concentrate on coaches. It was at this time the company started to get school contracts, as the county council was closing village schools, meaning children were having to travel further. Where previously the coaching was done in the summer and trucking was carried out in the winter, the coach side became a year-round operation. Charles said: “We went from there and started building up.”
Charles was born next door to the depot, in the family home. In 1977, after engineering training with Mann Egerton & Company, he joined his father’s business. He became a Partner in 1984 and on Leonard’s death in 1996 became sole owner. Between the mid-90s and the present day the coach fleet expanded from eight coaches to its present-day size of 21. In 2007 Reynolds became a Limited Company.
One development over the years was when Caroline Seagull, a Great Yarmouth operator, folded in 2008. Reynolds employed Geoffrey Buckle from the defunct operator, Charles said: “Geoffrey was one of the directors there and he came over and joined me. It was Geoffrey that trained me in running coaches. He is one of the finest engineers ever. Now I don’t know what I would have done without him. He left at 3.30 this morning to take a coach to Duoflex for some trimming work.”
“I’ve been involved in politics since I was 16,” said Charles, a staunch Conservative party member. He was the Chairman of the young Conservatives when he was 21. In the 1979 by-election, he stood for Caister and won. “In 1981, I then became a County Councillor, which I enjoyed immensely.”
He was reselected in 1985, but it was then that Norfolk Motor Services shut down, causing change in the area’s transport industry. “It changed my life a lot, so I didn’t stand again.”
He did not end his political career, but stood for Ormesby, a village in the Great Yarmouth area, which he has stood for ever since. Next year will be his 40th year as a councillor.
One of the most lucrative services Reynolds ran was ferrying passengers to and from holiday camps in the area. Charles said: “I remember coming home once with £700 in notes. The fare was peanuts too! This was in the ‘80s.”
At the peak of these services’ success, there were six coaches running them. “The real peak of it was from the mid-80s to the late-80s. Great Yarmouth had eight theatres at one point. If you counted the 6pm and 8.30pm shows, you had 16,000 theatre seats available. They were full every night. The stars would arrive there in June and stay there until September.”
Over the years of providing transport to these shows, Charles was able to meet some of the performers. He said: “Morecambe and Wise, Bruce Forsyth; they became part of the community here. Ken Dodd used to come from down the road for petrol. One of my best friends is Des O’Connor, who I know from the theatres.”
He fondly reminisced of his times with the stars: “It was just such good fun. Two to three times a year, they would have a night off and we would take them in a coach to the Norfolk Broads.” His eyes sparkled as he remembered one instance: “We took Rus Abbott once and what a character he was. He threw one of the comediennes that came with us into a river!”
It was not to last though. As overseas holidays became more prevalent, seaside vacations waned in popularity. “The holidays just faded away. Sadly, all seaside resorts have declined. I caught the tail end of things. We were doing so well financially and people were lovely to deal with. Now it’s all got harder and more competitive.”
Taking the decision
Despite the happy memories, running Reynolds has been a hard task. “I start work at 5am every day; the first coach goes out at 6am,” said Charles.
But it was not these punishing hours that made him take the decision to close the operation. “The main thing is this illness I’ve had. I thought, shall I cut down? But no, the phones will still be ringing and I will still have worries.
“Everything had gone well until late October when we had a couple of weekends away and I didn’t feel right at all. I said to my wife, I have to see the doctor with these aches and pains. I went for scans and tests and the next week I was told I had lung cancer. At that stage, I had to ask the question – how long have I got?
“I started with the treatment the next day. I was working all the time, as much as I could. I warned the education departments about the situation, I didn’t want to let them down. I thought, if I’ve only got a short time, I want to get everything with my family sorted out.
“Anyhow, back in March I had scans and the treatment had cleared it. The doctor did warn me it’s a nasty thing and it could come back, but from now on I’m OK. I was delighted with the thought I’ll have a few more years.
“But I had to admit, mentally and physically I’m not what I was. And in this profession, you have something happening every day. I thought, what do I do? Geoffrey is fit as a fiddle, but he’s getting older and I think he would like to ease down.
“Then there’s London,” he said, referring to the ULEZ. “With all this about Euro VI there, I don’t know if it’s going to be a success. This is politics gone mad. If I continue, I’ll need a 70-seater and a 52-seater to go into London. I’ve never used finance for more than two years. I’m 62 years old now, and I would have to borrow money. Then all my staff are getting older and with this emission thing, it all gets worse and worse.
“Then there’s CPC driver training. Now I believe in training, but why is it possible to do the same course for five days in a row?”
Unfortunately, Charles does not have anyone to pass the operation to. He has one daughter, but she lives with her husband and two young children in the south west. They have their own property and leisure business, so are unable to succeed him.
“I’ve often thought, you would have to replace me with three people. I do everything. I don’t object to it though – it’s better than doing a proper job! But I have sacrificed my family life and all else with it.”
Another option would be to sell the company on, but unfortunately there was no suitable buyer.
Reynolds fleet is to be auctioned by Malcolm Harrison on Saturday 11 August, with a viewing the day before. Go to www.malcolmharrison.co.uk for more details
It will certainly be sad to see the operation go, especially after so many years. But at least there will be some great memories for Charles. When asked about some of the most stand-out moments for the operation, he sank back in his chair in thought for a while: “My father pioneered coaching to Switzerland from the UK. This was in 1954. The headmaster of a Caister school said he was thinking of going to Switzerland. My dad didn’t know how to price that. It involved two nights across France and then into Switzerland. They had a wonderful time and it became a yearly thing. They took other people, mums and dads, friends. It went on until the mid-70s. Then the currency conversion rate of the Swiss franc and pound got terrible.
“I’ve handled some things probably out of my league in my time. Beecham Group held a conference here and it saw 2,500 people come in from all over the country. They asked me to pull together a whole transport package for it. They passed it on to me and I came back with a figure. I spent a lot of time putting the whole thing together; I got everything within a 20-minute window. This was about 35 years ago. I got a cheque for £28,000, which was a fortune. How pleased they were. We’ve done sport tours like that too. There was a rugby event in Great Yarmouth and we had 16 coaches bringing kids in from all over the country.
“I think the big thing for us is that I try to achieve constant reinvestment without getting into too much debt. If you don’t put yourself under financial pressure, you can stand the idiots that come along. You get the ones that start up and invariably in two years they are finished and gone. I’ve seen several in my lifetime. If you want the job done professionally, you have to have the right rate to do it.”
One of the successes Charles has had includes being able to cope with the changes that have beset the industry over the years. He said: “The coach market has changed greatly. Our excursion trade has declined from 40,000 people a year to 5,500 last year. People have changed their holiday habits.
“When Gordon Brown announced the free bus pass, it was like a death knell. People can hop on a bus for nothing. Private hire groups have died away, they catch the bus for free there now. They have even got to a stage where they say why do we have to pay for the coach?”
What is the key to Charles’ success over the years? “You have to be good at something. I’ve built a first-class reputation with schools. Even though I’m not the cheapest, I still get the work.
“I know I’ve done the job well. I might not have got it 100% every time, but I’ve done it well. It’s been great fun. I see myself as a classic family-type coach operator. I’m very proud in what I’ve achieved. I have absolutely no regrets.”
A tear to the eye
So, for all this to come to an end after so many years, how must it feel? “I can’t take it in; it’s surreal. Yesterday morning, I thought this is the last Wednesday I will be locking up at 5am. I still can’t take it in. It will probably hit me hard.
“Drivers and staff have been very good about it too. I’ve got first class staff here, full and part time. They took it very well. We did it all properly, and they have been very good. It’s cost us a lot in redundancy. Even those who did not get redundancy, they didn’t walk away from the company.
“Over the years, we have had little staff turnover. I think I’ve gained a reputation to be a nice chap to work for and they’re not driving rubbish.”
Will he miss it? “Terribly,” he said, misty-eyed. “Terribly. I can’t tell you how much. At the end of the day, with all the letters I’ve had, the emails, the phone calls, I didn’t appreciate how much I am so well thought of. It brings a tear to the eye.”
Meet the ladies
One thing to notice about Reynolds’ fleet is they bear ladies’ names. Examples include Lady Merroney, Lady Patricia and Lady Jodie. “It started years ago by naming them after ex-girlfriends,” Charles chuckled. “Then Lady Diana got popular, then family members. We get requests for them every now and again.”