Mark Bailey’s late wife used to say he was like Peter Pan because of his obsession with restoring a wrecked 1950s ambulance he rediscovered in a pub car park.
So when he finished lovingly renovating the classic Morris vehicle in time for the 70th anniversary celebrations of the NHS this year, he decided to call her Wendy in honour of the charming character in the much-loved children’s tale by J M Barrie.
By then, Iris had sadly passed away but Mark thinks she would have been immensely proud he managed to finish rekindling his romance with the vehicle he affectionately calls “the other woman” in his life.
“She was always very proud of the fact I was an ambulance driver,” Mark reminisces.
Now 80, he first spotted Wendy when he was serving as a young ambulance driver in Edmonton in 1960.
But his love of ambulances went back much further.
Born with a closed lung in 1938, he had spent winters in the war years being ferried backwards and forwards to hospitals in ambulances, and the smells, sounds and distinctive design of the vehicles stuck with him
At that time, Wendy was a utility fire vehicle, being driven around London by a crew of five to tackle blazes caused by Blitz bombing.
In one raid she was badly damaged, with her front lights blown off. Mark says the crew were almost certainly badly injured in the incident.
Later, as an impressionable child playing out in the street one day, he saw an ambulance with its smart cream livery and all those memories came flooding back.
“I thought she was the most beautiful vehicle I had ever seen,” he recalls.
Then there were fondly remembered days with his father – also an ambulance driver – at the various ambulance stations where he was based, and being allowed to sit in the cabs and grab the steering wheels. It was a child’s dream.
By this time, the war had ended and Wendy and some 60 of the hard-working fire vehicles were bought up by Middlesex County Council and converted into ambulances. Their wartime bodies were replaced by new, larger purpose built cream ones.
Inspired by his father, Mark decided to train as an ambulance driver and join a service which was still dominated by ex-servicemen from the war.
He recalls the lack of training compared with today’s paramedics.
“They used to call it the ‘scrape and run service’ because you literally scraped people off the road and got them to hospital as quickly as you could. You weren’t really trained to treat them,” he says.
It was while driving ambulances like Wendy in Middlesex in the 1950s, that Mark met Iris who was working as a secretary and a nurse at one of the local hospitals. He used to wave at her while driving his ambulance past her office window to and from calls.
Later while Mark and Iris raised their son, Wendy served as a St John ambulance before finally being sold to a vehicle preservation society in 1970.
Incredibly, more than 20 years later after completing a full career in the ambulance service himself, driving numerous vehicles around London and witnessing all the horror and hope such a career entails, Mark spotted Wendy – or what was left of her – across a pub car park in Hertfordshire.
“I couldn’t believe it. I recognised her straight away,” he says.
It was love at second sight. It was 1983 and speaking to the pub landlord revealed she had been used by gypsies to tow trailers before being dumped. An old girl by then, Wendy was in a sorry state with much of her body rusted away, and her engine in need of a complete overall.
“There was nothing on her that didn’t need work,” Mark muses.
But Mark didn’t want to let Wendy slip through his fingers again, and four years later he was able to buy her from the pub landlord and begin the painstaking process of restoring her.
It was a long, tortuous journey with Mark travelling across the UK from Nottingham to Cornwall to try to track down the precious parts he needed.
He even made connections with other vehicle enthusiasts and restorers spanning the globe to track down the rare parts and skills needed to painstakingly put Wendy back together. It truly was a labour of love.
“I called her a few names over the years, I can tell you,” Mark laughs.
It was only six years ago after his wife’s death that Mark really pushed ahead with the renovation, and he became determined to get Wendy ready for the 70th anniversary celebrations of the NHS.
He began to dig out his old Middlesex Fire and Ambulance Service uniforms – which Iris had always told him to throw away – ready for the big day.
Then last week he was delighted to be invited along to Wendy’s former workplace at West Middlesex Hospital, in Isleworth, to celebrate with the staff.
They clearly had a great time finding out about the aged ambulance and her fascinating history – which Mark has pieced together bit by bit, gathering tiny pieces of evidence and photographs. Incredibly, he can now trace Wendy’s near-entire career service.
After so many years of valuable service, Wendy has clearly earned a restful retirement and she now resides most of the time in the Whitewebbs Museum of Transport in Enfield where she is looked after by the volunteers who run it.
But despite her great age, and his, Mark fully intends to keep his romance with Wendy simmering, taking her to rallies and events.
Wendy is even finding a new role in life, and was recently offered a part in the filming of the popular television series, Grantchester.
Mark even hopes one day she might be displayed in the Museum of London to help tell the incredible story of the Blitz firefighters and the London Ambulance Service. One day, he jokes, he will leave her to the “ungrateful nation” who almost let her die.
One thing is for certain, Iris would surely have been proud to see Wendy reunited with her beloved Peter Pan to keep him company in his twilight years.
And Mark says he has made so many connections and friends while restoring Wendy, she has helped him to discover a new lease of life too.
Through one of these friends he discovered morris dancing and has found a completely new social life he never thought he would have.
Like their fictional counterparts, it seems Mark and Wendy are destined to remain forever young.