ASHLAND — When former Londoner Melissa Walton saw the three red, double-decker London buses on the Internet, rusting in a field in Southern California, it all came rushing back to her: the nostalgia, the sounds and smells of childhood — and the need to save them, restore them and put them to use here in the Rogue Valley.
After a $100,000 restoration, the first of the half-century old buses is chugging up and down the byways of the Rogue Valley, appearing in Ashland's Fourth of July parade, carting corporate clients to the Britt Festivals, chauffeuring guests to weddings, day-tripping to wineries and being the Night Bus for the Harry Potter bookfest at Tree House Books Friday night on the Ashland Plaza.
"We didn't do it to make money. It's a very emotional thing for me, a heartfelt reaction. I felt compelled to rescue these buses, because of what they represent, a certain era in Britain," says Walton, who uses the bus to promote her Urban Minx clothing stores in Ashland and Medford. The other two are currently in storage in Gold Hill awaiting restoration.
From appearances in countless movies and travel posters, the double-deckers have become instantly recognizable icons of London — and of more civilized times, when "clippies," the ticket-punching conductors on the bus' rear platform, would joke with harried moms and get on a first-name basis with the businessmen in bowlers, says Walton.
"It's been a real jaw-dropper. The kids and the older men seem the most touched by it. My grandmother rode this bus in south London. My mom rode it to work at the Guardian, where she was a journalist. Its route included London Bridge — and the sound of the diesel engine and the smell are very familiar to me," says Walton, who rode a double-decker (later model) to her job at Harrods department store.
Walton's husband, Sean McFadden, whom she calls "Mr. Impossible," took on the seemingly impossible project, paying $15,000 each for the buses, though they hadn't been started in a dozen years. He trucked them to the Rogue Valley and began locating rare parts, including a dynamo (generator) through the Friends of the Fifties Buses, a group of double-decker fanciers in Britain, which counts Walton's father among its members.
Half a dozen mechanics in the valley took one look at the bus and its antiquated, straight-six engine and wouldn't touch it, says McFadden. The club connected him with ex-Liverpool resident Wally Meller, now a mechanic in Davis, Calif. (and something of a genius with double-deckers). Meller came to the Rogue Valley and, after three hours of tinkering, fired it up.
"There wasn't a dry eye in the place," says McFadden, noting that several grown men working on the project suddenly got choked up.
The staff of sales girls at Urban Minx quickly adopted the double-decker as the store mascot and began sanding off the rusty paint and buffing up the metal fixtures, including charming brass headlights, and Gordy's Custom Paint and Body Work in Gold Hill restored the bright red paint.
On order are the appropriate window curtains, being made in Manchester, England, and the appropriate signs, such as those that say, "Do not alight from the bus whilst in movement" and "Mind your head." While the expensive, gas-guzzling buses might seem an impossible dream, Walton and McFadden observe that dreams do have magic, bring people together and lead to unexpected and magical places.
"It's taken off. It has a life of its own, but will it pay for itself? No," says McFadden, with a weary smile. The 8-ton behemoth gets 10 miles a gallon. But it also brings $100 in charter fees and carries advertising on its flanks.
McFadden has checked out a possible bus route but found it too difficult, with regulations and high insurance costs. But he is considering a regular tourist run, serving area hotels and bed-and-breakfasts — with those businesses footing the bill — and taking guests to area attractions, including wine tasting rooms, festivals and restaurants.
The couple (and all double-decker fanciers) swear that each bus has its own personality, a friendly, positive and endearing one. "Doris," for instance, is stubborn.
"She is determined to run," says McFadden. "She had a blown head gasket, we thought, but she fixed herself. She loves being driven."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.