Oxford” Repatriated and Restored

Longtime readers may recall that for a time I cultivated an interest in tales of around-the-world travel. It’s still an interest of mine (and a voyage I one day hope to make), and so I like to keep abreast of the comings and goings in the expeditionary world.

One of my favourite tales in the genre is First Overland: The Story of the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition, which I came across, and consumed voraciously, in 2004.

The blog post I wrote about the book back then, it being an earlier era, attracted a fascinating collection of reader comments from devotees of the expedition, and that led me to the First Overland website, maintained by Graeme Aldous, and its associated newsletter, which I signed up for and have been lapping up eagerly ever since.

In today’s issue of the newsletter came almost unbelievable news: one of the two Land Rovers that made the 36,000 mile journey, the one nicknamed “Oxford,” was found, more than 60 years on, decaying on the island of Saint Helena, an island about as far from anywhere as anywhere can be:

After the two ‘First Overland’ cars arrived back in the UK from Singapore, the Rover Company (who had only loaned them to the Expedition) used them for publicity purposes for a while. Then (doubtless when the Series 2 was on the horizon, and the Series 1 was looking obsolete) they sold off ‘Cambridge’ — more of that later — and loaned ‘Oxford’ to the British Ornithologist’s Union to take to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic as support vehicle for a centenary expedition to study the Wideawake Tern. This is covered in the book ‘Wideawake Island’ by Bernard Stonehouse (sadly no longer in print).

On the island it lost its signwriting and acquired a pale blue top coat, probably at the same time as the Expedition’s base huts were painted! When the expedition ended it wasn’t really worth the expense of shipping the car back home again, so Rover said that they could leave the car behind. I originally heard that they could sell it for a nominal amount, and post the cheque back to Rover — the story I’m hearing now is that they were to donate the car to someone who had assisted them in an important way during the previous months. Either way, it passed into the hands of Mervyn March, the water bowser driver. He was from Saint Helena — another island even more remote in the South Atlantic where Napoleon had been imprisoned. He used the car for a while (re-registered with the local number A268) until it got unreliable, and then transferred to a later ex-Cable & Wireless 88” vehicle (867). When his tour of duty on Ascension had finished in 1977, he shipped both cars back to his home, intending to use ‘Oxford’ for spares on an island where everything is precious.

Word of “Oxford’s” resting place reached those who knew of its past, and an effort was mounted to repatriate it and restore it, an effort made easier by the recent opening of an international airport on Saint Helena; the island had previously only been accessible by sea.

It’s a gripping tale that the newsletter relates the broad strokes of:

There’s not room here to tell the whole saga of getting the remains containered, and back to Yorkshire… it includes breakdowns involving both ships and cranes, and Adam will keep you enthralled for hours. As he says, the amazing part was not just that everything went so smoothly — it didn’t, but somehow each setback was swiftly overcome. On Tuesday May 9th 2017, I collected Tim Slessor from York Station, the container was opened, and for the first time in 61 years he was re-connected with the car that took him 36-thousand miles to Singapore and back. Grown men don’t cry — but Tim would admit a certain itching around the eyes when he walked into the container. I felt something similar when I touched the additional side light, raised to the wing top to clear the jerry cans on the front bumper… this was definitely ‘Oxford’. And when the car was pulled partly out of the container, and we could get round the back, the rear tent runners above the hardtop rear door were the clincher. “There’s only two cars in the world like that”, said Tim, “and the other one’s ‘Cambridge’!”

The newsletter closes with a suggestion that it will be updated with additional photos and video of the recovery; stay tuned.

As it happens, there is an Island connection to this tale–isn’t there always. Owen Jennings, a Master of Arts in Island Studies student at the University of PEI, presented a lecture titled Saint Helena: an island in flux in April, 2017. From the news release announcing the talk:

The allure of islands relies on often-inaccurate assumptions. These imaginary islands are small, remote, and—more often than not—tropical. Where most islands fall well short of that imagined island, the South Atlantic island of Saint Helena comes pretty close to the ideal. Over the past decade, this island has been gifted a new connection to the world—an airport. When it eventually opens to commercial traffic, the airport is expected to reduce travel time to and from South Africa from five days to a few hours. The Saints, as the islanders call themselves, will soon be able to travel in a way that most similar island communities take for granted. This lecture considers the experience of travelling to and being a researcher on Saint Helena, and what being a Saint might mean as the island’s connection to the rest of the world changes dramatically.

The recovery of “Oxford” is but one small example of that new reality for Saint Helena.