A SWIFT Romance
FAR OUT in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the northern spiral-arm of the LONDON TRANSPORT empire lies a small, unregarded market town called Hitchin. On a Saturday morning in the Winter of 1971, a young, ape-descended life-form entering Timothy Whites in the High Street was shocked and amazed by the approach of a strange machine, the like of which had never been glimpsed before. Painted Lincoln Green and yellow, and incredibly shiny in the winter light, there came a single-deck bus bearing the legend 303. Now this was a considerable surprise, because only the previous day the familiar Routemaster had performed in its customary fashion, and single-deckers NEVER came on the 303. In fact, apart from a period during and after World War II when the Q class vehicles were used, Hitchin's trunk route had always been served by stately double-deck vehicles from the London Transport stable.
AS THAT DAY WORE ON, similar machines came and went at approximately 30 minute intervals, and it became obvious that something that had seemed immutable had, indeed, changed for ever. No longer was it possible to pile onto a bus at St. Mary's Square and await the return of the driver and conductor from the Churchyard. Instead, one waited without a shelter, apart from the nearby market stalls, while the driver performed strange paper rituals and wound round the destination blind. Oh, the distant and mysterious lands of Hatfield, Brookmans Park BBC Station, Welham Green Stores and New Barnet Station. Once on board, tendering the unfamiliar decimal coins, the blue moquette on the seats and the bright interior was a radical departure from the rather stuffy brown and custard colours of the old buses. Behind the central exit doors there was a step up to a balcony which gave a commanding view of the whole bus, and at the back there was wide bench seat with little armrests at the sides. Tucked into the nearside rear corner, above the engine which emitted a very pleasant note, one received an exciting ride around the many right-angled corners of the route through town. When it was time to get off, the driver's bell gave a strident ding and the air-powered doors gave a loud and purposeful hiss.
SADLY, THE HONEYMOON did not last. The overworked drivers couldn't keep time when collecting fares and the buses broke down when pushed harder to compensate. The passengers found that there were fewer seats when the overdue buses arrived, and many of the whizz-bang features started to malfunction. The short-term solution was to draft in similar, older vehicles called Merlins, which had fewer seats but bigger engines. Finally, after just a couple of years, the long-term solution was the brand-new Leyland National - a story repeated throughout the LONDON TRANSPORT area. It thus became necessary to use a Green Rover to travel on trunk routes that were still operated by Swifts (e.g. Berkhamsted's 353) or Merlins (e.g. Windsor's 335).
DESPITE THEIR PROBLEMS, I remained very fond of the Swifts. Their body styling was strong and purposeful. Their interior finish showed a continuance of the best traditions of the world's greatest transport undertaking. Their short life and terrible reputation did not endear them to enthusiasts, who mourned the passing of types that had endured for a generation essentially unchanged. It all seemed very unfair, but it was all forgotten when I moved away to Leeds University, and when I returned the LONDON COUNTRY fleet had become 50% Leyland National, which made it the same as every other fleet outside the cities. Occasionally, stories were heard of Swifts still working for a living, and that a few had been preserved.
IN THE EARLY 1970's I read a book that had a profound, if long-dormant influence on me. Hitchin did not have a large library, and just one rack contained most of the books I cared for on transport, model engineering, geology and the like. One day I found a book about practical bus preservation. I have no idea to this day what the book was called, nor by whom it was written. It planted an idea in my head that bus preservation was possible, and that people could do it. Preserved trains at the time were the preserve of businessmen who could afford really expensive toys like the Flying Scotsman (which has since bankrupted two owners). Canals, on the other hand, were populated by ordinary people digging or repairing locks, which seemed very interesting and didn't look expensive (unless you owned a boat - which we ended up doing - and it was). So for many years it was canals for us as they had holiday potential, and visionaries like Cliff Richard owning and driving buses privately could only be found in films until New-Age Travellers were invented.
AFTER MORE THAN 20 YEARS of owning a canal boat, a lot of mysteries have been unravelled. Diesel engines, dry-docks, paints and painting, rust, fungus and persistently damp winter weather have all been explored and some have become overwhelming. The canals we navigated upon have changed over the years. The links with the traditional life of working boats have become strained to breaking-point, and the canals themselves have become polarised into those which are overcrowded with very smart, floating country cottages, and those which are unattractive or un-navigable as a consequence of uncontrollable elements of local society. In the early 1970's the canals movement was a holistic one, but in the 1980's the game changed and regeneration was driven by the benefit to jobs and local business. Accordingly canal-users had to pay their way and the biggest business became boat-building. Few people care about canals any longer - only about boats - and the number of people with an understanding of a boating way of life is falling steadily. Since our boat has become a very expensive thing to maintain in a floating condition, and no longer fits the needs of my dispersing family, we have given up.
THAT ONE OF A TINY HANDFUL of AEC Swifts surviving from London Transport's fleet of over 800 should come up for sale just at this point is surely the hand of destiny showing itself. It is also worth noting that the London bus is an international transport icon without parallel, so long as it is red and a double-decker and called a Routemaster, even if it is an RT or a Bristol VR. Large numbers of those are cared for across the globe, and I am pleased for them. Owning a bus which has an impeccable London pedigree, but which is green and has exactly one extant sibling is therefore a rather special mission. SM106 will be a private shrine to the greatest commercial vehicle builder of all time, AEC at Southall. I just hope that the bus will not deteriorate as fast as I can mend it.....................
Apologies and apprporiate homage to the late Douglas Adams are proffered.