HEARTFELT tributes have been paid to a 'well-known and much-loved' County Durham bus driver who suddenly died earlier this month.

Stephen Foster, who lived near Darlington, established himself as a legend and 'local celebrity' after driving buses in the region for almost three decades.

The 54-year-old, who worked out of Arriva depots in Bishop Auckland and Darlington, unexpectedly died overnight on Wednesday, June 10.

But paying tribute to an 'absolutely unique' best friend, Stu Gray told The Northern Echo how Mr Foster's infectious personality had left his mark on 'everyone.'

He said: "Steve was a celebrity in his own right. He worked in the North-East since the 90s and got to know everyone."

Mr Foster joined the West Auckland-based bus firm, The Eden in 1992, where he remained working until 1997.

He started to gain recognition after outfitting his bus with Christmas decorations during the festive season, most years.

He even managed to impress far and wide after bagging himself an appearance on the news programme 'Network North' at the time.

'It was never a dull ride with Steve'

After a stint away from what would later become his real passion, Mr Foster returned to bus driving where he joined Arriva North East.

Mr Gray said: "He had a break from bus driving but came to Arriva in 2004 – he did so much for his customers, looking after them, it was never a dull ride with Steve.

"He always had time to make people smile. All he wanted to do in life was make people smile.

"If you got on the bus grumpy, you wouldn’t be when you got off.

"He watched customers grow up and he never forgot them, and they never forgot him."

But Mr Foster wasn't just known for operating bus services in County Durham and Darlington.

He owned two vintage Leyland National buses, which he used on day trips and bus rallies across the country.

The Northern Echo: Steve Foster while using a vintage bus Steve Foster while using a vintage bus

Mr Gray said: "He had his own vintage buses and he used to take people out on trips.

"Some of them would come from disadvantaged backgrounds. For some of them, it was their only days out.

"He didn’t expect any money from them, it was always off his own back.

"That was his mission, he wanted to make people smile and please everybody."

In recent years, Mr Foster had become a regular face on the Arriva X1 service between Crook, Bishop Auckland and Darlington.

Mr Gray said: "He was just one of those people, he’d make an impression as soon as you met him.

"Never had a cross word to say about anyone, and he was everyone's friend." 

Mr Gray described Mr Foster's sudden death as an 'earthquake' amongst the community as he said he would be sorely missed by everyone.

He said: "I am just devastated, it is just more the fact that he was still quite young.

"He was in good health, it came as a massive shock. The impact he's had on so many lives – it was a real shock.

"We will never get another Steve Foster."

'One in a million'

Mr Gray's feelings were echoed by hundreds of people on social media as tributes poured in for Mr Foster.

One comment said: "There will never ever be another, he was one in a million and I can't ever remember him talking bad about anyone."

Another said: "RIP Steve, gone but shall never be forgotten - another decent driver gone too soon."