In 1966 I was a student at Bulmershe Teacher Training College in Reading. Just down the road at Farley Hill, a school established to serve the needs of severely handicapped boys contacted the college to ask students for assistance with the pupils. As a payoff Hephaistos School gave us hands on experience.
Hephaistos (Greek spelling) was the son of gods Zeus and Hera. He was cast off Mount Olympus by Hera because of his lameness, the result of a congenital impairment. The school’s founder thought his name appropriate for her school. One of the pupils, a 17 year-old wheelchair-bound paraplegic, floated a proposal to visit the temple of Hephaistos in Athens.
As the proposal began to take shape, we were asked if we would participate in what seemed to be, let’s face it, a hare-brained scheme! But youth will out and soon the group took shape; four pupils from the school, nine students from Bulmershe and three young nurses from the school staff. So far so good. Hmmm – how are we going to get there?
The school owned a former London Transport Leyland Tiger half-cab, a more or less universal style of buses and coaches where the driver had his own cabin to one side to allow access to the engine the other side. An already fitted electric wheelchair hoist replaced the passenger steps thus enabling wheelchair access.
Various contacts known to the school proprietors worked absolute wonders to prepare the 1949-built bus for the mammoth excursion; BOAC donated 7 banks of 3 airline seats; the local garage overhauled the engine and provided replacement tyres. Many, many others provided practical and financial assistance.
One of the pupils required a portable iron lung to assist with overnight breathing. Electronics wizards found the solution by linking together a series of commercial vehicle batteries behind the rearmost row of seats. If our overnight stops had no mains electricity, we could run the iron lung from the on-board battery bank.
To minimise the costs of the adventure, we decided to camp our way across Europe. The local army garrison loaned enough tents in the form of two-man bivvies. Not exactly the height of luxury but we were young! The local garage mounted a huge roofrack on top with a canvas tarpaulin cover filled to overflowing with a month’s worth of provisions and the tents.
We quickly named the bus Jessica in honour of her vehicle registration plate. I’ve written up the story of the adventure and called it By Wheelchair to Greece. The story itself is too long to set out here. Suffice to say we achieved our aim and the bus never once let us down!
About four years ago, seated at my computer, I idly typed in the bus registration. To my total amazement Google found several hits! I couldn’t believe it. Not only had the bus survived but Timebus, the current owners, had undertaken the restoration of the bus to her former LT glory. I wrote to the company, explained my connection with the bus and asked to visit the works. This I did along with my wife and daughter.
Time had been unkind to the old lady. Her bodywork comprised inner and outer aluminium skins fixed to a wooden frame. The wood had rotted. After carefully removing the skins and windows, the restorers hand-built a whole new wooden frame, then reinstalled the windows and skins. After respraying the outside in LT livery, the inside in LT cream, ordering and installing all new LT style seating she took her place amongst Timebus’s fleet for special occasions hire.
Earlier this month I received an email from Timebus to say that Jessica would participate in the Hendon Vintage Bus Running Day. Would I like to be a VIP passenger? You bet! She would retrace her former route on Sunday 21 November linking two termini of the Northern Line, Edgware and Mill Hill East. I couldn’t believe how many turned up to try and get a ride. Those who couldn’t chased the bus to photograph it en route.
Deb, my wife, and my daughter Lisa shared the day with me.
Malcolm Gill 22/11/22