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What a journey!

Earlier this week, on Monday 5 July, we marked the 73rd birthday of the NHS. If we didn't know it before, the last 18 months has certainly shown us how much we owe to this fantastic institution and, even more, the amazing people who work in it.

When the NHS reached its milestone 70th birthday in 2018 we got a phone call from the BBC asking us to work with them on a documentary to celebrate the anniversary. This fell at the perfect time for us as we had just started to create our new exhibition ‘Blood, Bandages and Blue Lights’, dedicated to telling the story of the ambulance service from the first horse-drawn vehicles to wartime ambulance services and the birth of the NHS itself.

The idea was that we would join the BBC on a journey around the UK, tracking down vintage ambulances in a number of locations and recording people’s stories and memories of the NHS. You would think the task of locating historical ambulances all over the UK would be easy but to be honest, there’s not really that many other there.

Ambulances live a hard life and once they reach the time to retire it’s normally for a reason. There are also not many organisations that collect them. In the UK we don’t actually have an ambulance museum in itself, but a handful of ambulance services have retained some of their own vehicles as they come out of service including West Midlands, East Midlands, London and East of England. In some cases separate charities have been created to care for these, such as the Ambulance Heritage Society who care for the collections of the West and East Midlands ambulance services along with their own collection and some privately owned historic ambulances.

Other organisations like the London Ambulance Service have their own ‘heritage collection’ and internally fund and care for their own service's collections and history. As NESM we work with as many of these groups as possible to help guarantee that the history of our emergency services is preserved and on public display for generations to come. Within our current ‘Blood, Bandages and Blue Lights’ exhibition we have vehicles and exhibits that have been kindly loaned from some of these organisations including a 1950s City of Sheffield Austin ambulance and one of the first horse-drawn ambulances, dating back to the late 1800s - both owned by Yorkshire Ambulance Service and permanently cared for by our museum.

That might sound like there's a lot of historic ambulances being cared for but actually only about 20 per cent of all UK ambulance services have a heritage collection like this. Which brings me back to that BBC filming...

The BBC had already collected stories from London and some towns and cities in the South of England but that was still only a small amount of what was needed for the full project and, as with every filming schedule, time was swiftly running out. As if often the case, something that sounds easy is not always easy! So the project changed tack and the decision was made to ‘follow that ambulance’ and head off on a tour with just the one vintage ambulance from the museum’s collection. We would begin in Sheffield and set off on a little adventure.

That adventure started with what was, at the time, the newest addition to our ambulance collection, a 1979 Bedford CF. This was swiftly sent into the workshops of the Ambulance Heritage Society who kindly offered to get the vehicle ready for its trip. It needed some TLC as the vehicle had not moved for a number of years before it was donated to us.

But where exactly would this ‘little adventure’ take us to? Following on from filming in Sheffield we set off to Manchester arriving bright and early in the city centre. Filming these sorts of things is never a short day; 30 seconds on TV probably took about three hours of work. Hopefully I’m not revealing the magic here but we always smile when we see what looks like six cameras have been filming from six different angles, when it was was actually just one camera and most likely 12 re-runs of the same drive; making sure you take the exact same track and keep to the exact same speed each time. It might have been a long day but when you see it back on TV, it’s all worth it!

From Manchester the plan was to drive on to Llandudno in Wales… but you know what they say about best laid plans! I don’t actually remember passing the ‘you have left Manchester’ sign before we broke down. These vehicles were built as local workhorses and our Bedford, at 42 years old, was getting a little tired with aching and creaking in all its joints (like most people do as they get older). Thankfully this time it was something simple and after a little roadside tweaking by one of our volunteers (who kindly came to the rescue) off we were, only in the dark now. The only other issue was missing the arrival time at our Llandudno Hotel and last orders in the restaurant saw a lack of fuel for us.

Next day, with an early start and thankfully fuel in the tank of both the ambulance and the driver, we headed down to the beach front. With the sun shining and people enjoying their day at the beach we had a fantastic day and even got the chance to pop into the local lifeboat station and grab some stories from the crew. As the day comes to a close the decision was made to miss the next stop in Preston and continue straight up to Scotland!

Thankfully we broke up the journey and stopped in a hotel just outside Preston for the night before continuing the next morning up to Dumfries in Scotland. One thing I will never say again is “this is going well” and “isn’t the weather lovely” as while traveling up the M6 the weather changed and the rain came down just at the same time as the battery went flat and we rolled to a stop. Thankfully this was an easy fix and after laying on the wet cold floor for a short time fixed the problem! Well a little jiggling around to find the problem may have also helped.

A little late arriving in Scotland means a little late leaving but at least it’s all downhill to Sheffield from here. Five days of plodding around the country in our ambulance was fantastic and all to thank the NHS and celebrate its rich history. The NHS is 73 years old this week and whether it’s a natural disaster or a worldwide pandemic the NHS never stops.


Matt Wakefield

Museum CEO

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