The spot where Forrest Gump gets offered a seat is pretty well where the shower is now.
I’m spending the night at a campsite in Suffolk, sleeping aboard ‘Texas’, the first converted vehicle offered by American School Bus Glamping. Until this time last year the bus was transporting students to and from school in the Lone Star state. Now it sleeps up to six (double bed, two bunks and a sofa bed, all John Lewis linen provided), has a funky little kitchen (oven, hob, high-end crockery, plus a barbeque outside) and that (exceedingly decent) shower. Unlike some glamping companies, this one fully recognises that the first syllable denotes ‘glamorous’. My favourite touch is the fridge – its front is disguised as a Marshall guitar amp.
After years of iconic red London buses being converted for weddings, camping and the like, it’s time for their yellow American counterparts to enter the fray. ‘Texas’ will live at Church View campsite, with ‘Long Beach’ due to find a home soon (though they will talk to you about hiring a bus for private use at events like Glastonbury). The driver’s seat, steering wheel and dashboard remain as they were – if you spend a night in this bus and deny pretending to drive it, I simply won’t believe you.
The famous colour (officially known in the States as ‘National School Bus Glossy Yellow’) was the idea of Frank Cyr, who in 1939 called for such vehicles to be painted in a way that would make them more visible on the roads. Before that school buses came in all sorts of colours, including at least one district where they were painted red, white and blue to make children patriotic. Yellow was chosen because it’s the most visible colour – in peripheral vision it can be detected 1.24 times more easily even than red. US federal law now prohibits any other colour for school buses.
Another safety feature is the ‘crossing arm’, a five-foot long pole that extends in front of the vehicle whenever pupils are dropped off. This prevents them crossing the road immediately in front of the bus, where the driver wouldn’t be able to see them. But the buses don’t have seat belts – they’re so sturdy in a crash that they don’t need them.
One of the reasons the vehicles are so iconic is that they’ve appeared in so many movies. Forrest Gump’s first journey on one sees the other children refusing to make room for him, until Jenny (‘my most special friend’) lets him sit next to her. The closing credits of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off see a broken and defeated Principal Rooney forced to accept a lift on a bus full of students, while in Nightmare on Elm Street 2 one of the characters has a nightmare about his bus being driven by Freddy Krueger. InThe Dark Knight Rises the Joker uses a yellow school bus as his getaway vehicle in a bank heist, pulling out into a long line of identical vehicles.
With thousands of the buses being replaced every year, there’s a big secondhand market. American churches buy them to transport worshippers, police forces to transport their officers (and indeed criminals, after suitably secure conversion). Other buses spend their retirements as mobile libraries or blood donation centres. The author Ken Kesey bought one to transport his friends (known as the Merry Pranksters) from California to New York in 1964. He painted it in psychedelic colours, and added an observation turret comprising a washing machine drum stuck through a hole in the roof.
Thankfully American School Bus Glamping have converted their buses to a somewhat higher spec. If you stay in the one at Church View you can gaze out at the campsite’s splendid collection of activities (assault course, escape room, axe-throwing and the like). If you don’t fancy using the kitchen or barbeque, there’s an on-site Thai restaurant, or fish and chips from the nearby village.
All this in the shadow of a 13th-century church. As a mix of traditional England and modern America, it’s hard to beat.
From £150 per night