Martin Eagle is the fourth generation of the Eagle family to take the helm of the family coaching business, which can trace its passenger carrying credentials all the way back to 1882, making it the oldest established operator in Norfolk. The world has changed completely in the intervening 127 years but Eagles continue to meet the needs of the rural population they serve, as Martin explained when he told me more about Eagles then and now. History James Eagle moved up from London to take on the George public house in Newton by Castle Acre, bringing with him his young son, Martin's great grandfather, who like him was called Martin James Eagle. It was Martin James Eagle who later took on Drury's Farm in Castle Acre, one of the most charming villages in Norfolk, and in 1882 established a horse and carriage (or wagon) service. He provided a Tuesday link between Castle Acre and Kings Lynn, around 15 miles away, and as well as carrying goods and passengers would often take along his greyhounds for a spot of hare coursing, selling anything he caught at Kings Lynn market. Something of a wheeler dealer, on occasions he would return with a different set of horses to those he had left with. He also liked a drink and folklore has it that, on at least one occasion, he had to be lifted from his seat because he could not stand unaided. In the early years of last century, heavy snow fell during a trip to Kings Lynn causing him to abandon the journey at the Crown pub in Middleton, the last village before their destination. He and around half a dozen passengers spent the following two weeks there until the snow thawed. Apparently, the telegraph from the village remained operational and was used to obtain a guarantee of sufficient  funds for the amount of ale they were consuming.

 

Castle Acre is known for its ruined Priory, Bailey's Arch on its main street and its village green, not to mention its public houses. One of these is The Ostrich, so named because the bird appears on the coat of arms of theDuke of Leicester, whose Holkham Estate includes much of the local land. It had as its Landlord, Jack Eagle, the son of Martin James Eagle, who had been born in 1900. Jack inherited his father's entrepreneurial instincts and took on his transport business, which he ran from quite an early age, though he did not officially become the proprietor until December 1950, shortly before his father died in 1952. Unlike his father Jack was teetotal, it was his wife Ethel, better known as Ettie, who was the daughter of another nearby publican, that actually ran the Ostrich. As well as the pub and his transport interests, Jack also maintained a herd of cows and a dairy business, ran Standard Vanguard taxis, had a coal round and undertook haulage for local farmers, never using anything bigger than a four wheeler that would invariably be overloaded. Horses continued to provide the motive power for the enterprise until around 1921 when the first bus was bought, understood to have been a Model T Ford. The details are a bit hazy but it appears that there may have been two, at least one of which had a long stay in the fleet because it wasn't sold until late 1931. By this time a couple of Ford AAs with 14 and 20 seat bodies respectively had been acquired, the larger of which stayed in the fleet until 1947.

Jack was quite a character. Pictures show him with either a flat cap or a trilby, and his wide breeches tucked into his socks. He always wore boots or, if he was on the land, wellies and a yellow rubber apron. His idea of getting dressed to go on a job was to remove his wellies, take the apron off and change his hat. If something needed doing he commandeered those nearby to assist. When there was an escape at the farm, a coach driver would be told, 'the cows are out you'll have to help me,' rather than being asked.  Rarely on time, Jack's philosophy was that it was better to run a few minutes late and not miss anyone, which would put him at odds with modern Traffic Commissioners.  Habitually, he would turn up at the yard for the 9.30 service at 9.25, change out of his wellies and depart at 9.32. Jack and Ettie had two children, John and June. Born in 1930, John was Martin's father.  As he grew older he helped Jack by delivering milk and working on the smallholding and on his 21st birthday took and passed his PSV test.

Martin recalls how hard his father worked for his grandfather. 'In the days before tachographs he would often do a Saturday trip to London, which, with no motorways was probably four hours each way, wait there for seven hours, then come back, wash down and do the same thing the following day.' Work in the early days had been private hire and commercial market day runs with school runs picked up later. There were Tuesday and Saturday stage services to Kings Lynn, with Swaffham served on Wednesdays and Saturdays and Dereham on Fridays.  Picture houses in Swaffham and Kings Lynn were big attractions.  These services continued and often included quite a number of return runs. By the 1950s there were speedway and football runs to Norwich. On a Saturday there would probably be three coaches departing for the football in the afternoon, one of which would stay on for those who also wanted to take in the speedway. Works services for the food canners Corbatch at Swaffham and Beeston involved collecting the predominantly female workforce from the local villages.  Harking back to the Second World War, Jack made the most of the opportunity presented by the presence of American airmen at Wendling aerodrome. He charged them to travel out of camp to Castle Acre where he served them beer in the Ostrich.  Though supplies usually came from the Greene King brewery in Bury St Edmunds, when sufficient beer was difficult to source, he would call in at the Kings Lynn premises of Peatling and Cawdron for extra provisions, bringing them back in the boot of the coach. For years the pub played a big part in generating trade. There were sports team and, on summer Sundays he'd put a small chalk-board outside in the morning saying that a coach would depart for  Hunstanton, or some similar seaside destination, at one o'clock. As often as not he'd fill it and regularly put on a second coach. He always went to the seaside on a Bank Holiday, with passengers going to the back door of the pub to book. For many years the fleet operated from the rear yard of the pub, though these day it is based in a yard a little further along the road with a purpose built maintenance workshop, driver's facilities and an office.  When it came to theatre trips, Jack provided the coaches but didn't get involved in the organisation, leaving it to a lady in the village. She arranged pantomime visits and excursions to see performers such as Cliff Richard in Norwich and other lesser known names in Hunstanton. At that time such trips sold easily and would either have a waiting list or a second coach on.  Helping John with maintenance for many years was Albert Bambridge, a large red-faced man who was completely uneducated but a very clever mechanic. Given to eating extremely thick doorstep sandwiches, he ran a garage in Rudham with his brother as well as driving a coach for Eagle's. A notice on his garage wall read, 'The man who lends the tools is out'. Time was of no importance to him. He would arrive to undertake some major mechanical task at 10 in the evening and begin by sweeping the floor and laying down newspaper or sacking. He'd work by Tilley lamp, even when there was electricity available, and usually have the job done by three in the morning, usually with some assistance from John.  

 

Often two coaches were out-stationed at Gayton, possibly at the premises of Raspberry's Coaches. One  was driven by Reggie Lunn, another driver with a small garage of his own, this time in Swaffham. A dapper man noted as a fast driver, he would leave Swaffham at the same time as the second coach, travel a far more circuitous route via Sporle, and arrive back in Castle Acre at the same time as the other vehicle. Jack continued to take charge of the company until the time of his death at the age of 89 in 1989. John then took over but it was only for a very short period as he died at the young age of 62 less than two years later.

 

It had never been Martin's intention to become involved in the business because he did not want  to be treated as his father had been, working all hours for little reward. Accordingly, when he left school he trained as a bricklayer because he saw more money in doing so, though as a lad he had helped on the smallholding as well as washing and cleaning the vehicles.  Though he had a separate career, a smart secondhand 1973 Bedford Dominant 45-seater was bought shortly before Martin's 21st birthday that nobody was allowed to drive until he was 21. Martin took his test at Kings Lynn in it and passed at the second attempt. To this day he is sure that he would have passed first time, but his grandfather had not had the correct legal lettering put on the side and the examiner, who mentioned the fact, held it against him. 'I didn't drive any better on my second test when I passed,' he recalled. He has since acquired an articulated HGV licence.  Maintaining the full time bricklaying role, he then drove on Saturday services and occasional trips to the coast. Martin didn't actually become involved on a day to-day basis until 1986 when the building trade declined and he was made redundant. His grandfather was keen for him to come into the business but he was still hesitant. Then a school contract came up from Castle Acre to Swaffham's Hammond's High School via Sporle, a total distance of around 32 miles a day. Jack offered him a Bedford YMT Plaxton Elite coach and asked if he should put in for the contract on Martin's behalf, to which he agreed, insisting that he did so at a considerably higher price than Jack thought achievable. To Jack's surprise the contract was won and Martin began operating on a full time.  As of April 2009 martin runs 11 coaches, 9 of which go out daily on school runs.

 

Bedford YNT

 

Leyland & Duple Dominant

 

Bedford YRT