I have to admit that I’ve had fun writing about my youthful misadventures, and from the feedback I’ve had, people like to read about them too.
l only have one slight misgiving about some accounts, and that is; I didn’t always own a camera to document the events in question. However, I have taken advice on this, and I’m assured that my readers will, for the most part, take me at my word…
Still, if I’d known that I was going to be an award nominated blogger (sorry, couldn’t resist) in the future, I would have made more of an effort.
I apologise for my lack of foresight.
Back in 1985, I was working (having already completed the inaugural, slave-labour influenced, year of the Tories’ much trumpeted YTS scheme) for an electrical shop in Crowborough, East Sussex, whilst living in a bedsit with my friend, Dan.
Unfortunately, our landlady hadn’t got permission to have lodgers, so, after months of debauchery, we were put on eviction notice.
Luckily for me, it was at exactly this time that The Wizard came to town…
The year before, an old friend of mine and his girlfriend had bought a decommissioned coach from a company in Romney marshes. He had then spent some time – with occasional help from me and a few mates – converting it into a fairly well appointed mobile home, using the local railway sidings to park it up.
They had subsequently travelled around Wales and the West Country, from whence they’d returned following some unwanted attention from local law enforcement, at precisely the time I was being kicked out of my flat.
Well, it would be daft to pass up a chance like that wouldn’t it..?
It just so happened that I was having some, shall we say, disagreements with a certain jumped up assistant manager at work around this time, so it wasn’t long before my job went the way of my flat and I was officially destitute.
(This is, of course, completely untrue, as my parents lived just round the corner. But when you’re 18, out of a job, nowhere to live, and your mates turn up in a coach, you obviously go for the “destitute” option every time)
At first, when the coach left Crowborough, another friend and I hitched a lift, taking a tent with us to sleep in. The plan was to travel across the border into Kent for the start of the apple picking season.
We arrived in Lamberhurst in the early evening, much to the consternation of the very middle-class residents, to meet up with a group of other vehicles, some of whom Mick, (for the purposes of this story) the owner of the coach had travelled with before, some not.
Apparently, it had been arranged that we would gather here, before continuing to Goudhurst the next day, where there was supposed to be work for us.
Now, I’m not entirely sure what happened later on that evening, I
have a vague recollection of some sort of “business” needing to be done by my tentmate, with one of the travellers who was late turning up, but how we got left behind is beyond me.
Anyway, I don’t know how far it is from Lamberhurst to Goudhurst, but it’s too bloody far to walk late at night, in pitch darkness, on a dangerous winding road, carrying all your camping gear, and trying to skin up at the same time.
I remember watching the sun coming up, sitting on a bench by Goudhurst duckpond, eating a couple of bread rolls we’d pinched out of the back of a bakers’ van (It’s not big, and it’s not clever kids, don’t do it), thinking that this was the life.
Having had only a couple of hours uncomfortable doze in a shop doorway a little before dawn, we badly wanted somewhere to relax, so we went searching for the convoy of vehicles that had left Lamberhurst the night before.
All we knew was that the job we’d been told about was on a farm owned, paradoxically, by a magistrate – hardly known for being tolerant of “travellers” at the best of times, let alone on their own land – called Large.
We asked around, and finally found the driveway leading to the orchard and parking field.
Upon arrival, we found not only the coach, about which more shortly, but also two other smaller coaches, a converted horsebox, a few other tents, and two large “benders” – large, igloo-shaped structures, made by bending long poles into a dome and stretching a tarp over the top – and were met with variations on theme of “What the bloody hell happened to you?” in the key of Bastards.
Large, the magistrate, turned out to be pretty much what you’d expect, so we steered clear of him for the most part, getting into a good routine of working as quickly as possible to earn what we considered enough to live on each day, in order to have as much time in the glorious Indian-summer sunshine as we could.
Thinking back to those days fills me with an overwhelming sense of youthful wonder and adventure, and I still always recall one absolutely crystal clear memory; sitting on the steps of the coach, watching the sun set over the orchard, drinking a cup of coffee, smoking a spliff, and still not quite believing how free it all felt.
I can, even today, over twenty five years later, conjure that feeling of joyous freedom just by picturing that shimmering summer.
But it was the coach itself, The Wizard, that was the undoubted star of that whirlwind year of my youth, so I shall do my best to describe it for you.
The original paint was in fine condition, a two-tone purple that had faded slightly, and from outside, the rear half of the side windows had been sprayed black with a simple white moon and stars design and “The Wizard” in stylized script.
Inside, the cab section remained unchanged, as did the first row of seats. After that, all the seats down the right-hand side (looking backwards from the front door) were removed, and the second pair on the left had been reversed to face the next pair, a table having been built in between, for meals. Down the right side was the sink, the cooker, and storage cupboards.
At the half way point of the 53 seater coach, there was now an insulated partition with a heavy curtain. Beyond this was the main living/sleeping quarters, and they were remarkably comfortable.
Having painted the side windows, they had been packed with loft insulation, covered in fibre board, and wallpapered. The large rear windscreen, in front of which there was a double bed, was left unpainted, with curtains for privacy. A single bed, made of recycled seats, was along one wall, doubling as a sofa during the day.There were hurricane lamps at night, the fabulous green enamel woodburner to keep the place at a roasting temperature even with the skylights open, and the huge coach battery to power a stereo and other small appliances.
One of the most popular tracks from that time spent amongst the orchards of Kent, unsurprisingly I suppose, was Magic Bus by The Who, which was played practically solidly from an almost worn out copy of Live in Leeds, along with a lot of Hawkwind and the Doors.
It was to get a lot more interesting that summer, not always in a good way, but just then, in a field in Kent, late summer sun going down, bleeding into the apple scented dusk, sitting there on the steps with an almost bursting sense of contentment, my 18 year old self would have told you that life doesn’t get much better…