North East People

By bus to Russia

Re-loading after an overnight stop

At the end of the term that I spent at Staveley Road Secondary Modern School, I saw an advertisement for somebody to drive a busload of schoolboys to Moscow and Leningrad and back.

I spoke Russian and could get by in French and German; but I had never driven anything larger than my father’s Daimler (in which I had failed my first driving test). Nevertheless, I applied and was accepted. The main driver was a mechanic who had driven heavy lorries across Australia between Sydney and Perth.

The schoolboys were fifth- and sixth-formers from the King’s School, Canterbury. They had clubbed together and bought an old Maidstone and District bus. The father of one of them worked for British European Airways (BEA) and had managed to get some airline seats which were being thrown out, so the boys removed the old bus seats and fitted these instead.

These days, a 25-year-old wanting to drive a bus would have to be licenced to do so. But in 1960 that was not necessary – provided that no passengers were carried.

I went for a short practice run round the streets of Canterbury, during which I learnt how hard it was to change gear smoothly: you had to double-declutch (no syncromesh on local buses in those days). Then I drove down to Dover to put the bus on the ferry. The memory of that manoeuvre stays with me today: reversing from bright sunlight down a ramp and round a stanchion into the dark hold of the ferry, trying at the same time to control the gears. But I managed it.

There were three adults on the trip: a teacher accompanying the boys; the main driver; and me, co-driver and interpreter. The teacher drove the school’s Bedford CA van, which was making the journey to perform as the group’s local run-around.

The European rules on driving a heavy vehicle were not the same as the British ones so I was now allowed to drive the bus with passengers on board. We drove from Ostend through Brussels (taking a wrong turn there and getting lost), then to Berlin, Warsaw, Minsk and Smolensk.

Crossing the border from West to East Germany was easy, for the teacher had made sure that we had visas; but it was not permitted to buy visas in advance to get from West Berlin into East Berlin, so we had to hang around in Berlin for a couple of days while we went through all the required hoops to get the necessary permits.

On the road from Berlin to Warsaw, the teacher allowed one of the boys who had passed his driving test to drive the van. Eager to get going, the boy let in the clutch with a bang and broke a half-shaft. We decided that the best place to get it fixed would be Warsaw, so we fitted up a tow-rope and towed the incapacitated Bedford behind the bus. Maybe the Poles along the road thought that that’s how we Brits travel; it certainly saved us on petrol.

Of course, there was no spare part to be had in Warsaw. But we found a small workshop where the mechanic said that he could fix it for us: he’d just make us a new half-shaft. So we left the van with him and travelled on without it. The other thing we did in Warsaw was to (illegally) exchange our sterling for roubles: you weren’t allowed to bring roubles into the Soviet Union but had to exchange your money for roubles at the official rate once you had crossed the border. Since the official rate was so much lower than the ‘unofficial’ one, it seemed advantageous to do a deal in Poland. We hid the roubles on the bus by putting them inside one of the lighting panels that ran along the bus above the windows. The two boys and I who had done the deal never told the teacher.

Then through Minsk and Smolensk and on to Moscow. All accommodation along the way had to be booked in advance through Intourist, so we had to keep to an agreed route and a pre-arranged schedule – no straying off the official path.

From Moscow we went to Leningrad, stopping off at the beautiful city of Novgorod (Великий Новгород) on the way.

The bus in Leningrad

Leningrad is also a beautiful city and in 1960 was not overrun by visitors, as it is today. Nor was it geared up for foreign tourists: I decided to visit the Hermitage Museum, where were no guides, all the labels (such as there were any) were in Russian and most of the time I was the only person looking at the displays. I wandered into a room labelled Англия XVIII век (England 18th century), opened at random an unlabelled drawer and found a whole pile of Hogarth prints and drawings. When Leningrad became St Petersburg, the Hermitage lost a lot of exhibits from theft; but I do hope that those Hogarths are properly displayed somewhere.

Then back the same way as we had come (Intourist wouldn’t allow anything else), picking up the van from the Warsaw workshop with its newly manufactured half-shaft in place and fully working.

It was an interesting trip and I experienced things that I had not when I was in Leningrad in 1955 and Moscow in 1957. But I was disappointed by the reaction of some of the boys in the group. Most of the party had assimilated their new experiences and had learnt something; but some had started the trip with closed minds and finished it with closed minds. Presumably, 61 years later, their minds are still closed.

The following year, the teacher was sacked from the King’s School: he didn’t believe in ranking his students on a crude percentage scale and gave each of them 66% on every piece of work. The school management didn’t think that this non-system was appropriate for a respected public school and got rid of him. I liked him.

Read more by Jim Walker

Please follow us on social media, subscribe to our newsletter, and/or support us with a regular donation