Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Fifty years ago, at the end of March 1965, London was a lot smaller than it is today. The County of London was home to just over three million people, and stretched from Stoke Newington in the north to Streatham in the south and from Putney in the west to Plumstead in the east. It had been created as part of the Local Government Act 1888, taking over the administrative area of the Metropolitan Board of Works, an unelected body charged with coordinating London's infrastructure, particularly sewerage, parks, streets and bridges. Through administrative inertia its 1855 boundary somehow survived for over a century, until the London Government Act 1963 grasped change and extended the capital's area fivefold.

Fifty years ago, on the 1st April 1965, Greater London was born. This enlarged administrative area extended the old County of London by including almost all of Middlesex, plus large chunks of Essex, Surrey and Kent. The capital now consisted of 32 new boroughs, each created by combining two or three existing boroughs or districts - a mighty complicated jigsaw. In the process all 28 metropolitan boroughs of the County of London were extinguished after 65 years in existence, and most of their Town Halls rendered surplus to requirements.

Below I'm looking at what ended up where in what's now Inner London, and later we'll move onto Outer.

Westminster = Paddington + St Marylebone + Westminster
Population 1965: 266,000 / Population 2015: 227,000
Paddington: Originally the Vestry Hall and dating from 1853, Paddington's classical Town Hall on Harrow Road was enlarged in both 1900 and 1920. Reorganisation in 1965 led to its closure, and it was demolished four years later to make way for the Westway urban motorway.
St Marylebone: Designed following a competition in 1911, but not opened until 1920, the classical Graeco-Roman town hall on the Marylebone Road is faced with Portland stone. The building is now Westminster Council House, and contains not just the main council chamber but also a register office suite in which numerous famous people have been married (currently closed for refurbishment until 2017).
Westminster: This metropolitan borough became a city in its own right in 1900. An early town hall, known as Caxton Hall, opened in 1883 round the back of St James' Park station (it's now luxury flats). Shortly afterwards Westminster City Hall (aka Cavell House) was built in classical style along the curve at the southern end of Charing Cross Road (beside the Garrick Theatre).

Camden = Hampstead + St Pancras + Holborn
Population 1965: 236,000 / Population 2015: 230,000
Hampstead: The Old Town Hall on Haverstock Hill, Belsize Park, is now the Interchange Studios, home to performing arts association Wac Arts.
St Pancras: Neoclassical St Pancras Town Hall on the Euston Road, built 1934-7, is now Camden Town Hall.
Holborn: Comprising only 400 acres, Holborn was the smallest of the County of London's metropolitan districts. The Portland stone-fronted town hall on High Holborn (opened in 1908) might since have become a hotel, but was instead redeveloped as offices (and the Shanghai Blues restaurant).

Islington = Islington + Finsbury
Population 1965: 243,000 / Population 2015: 216,000
Islington: The town hall on Upper Street was opened in 1923, and continues in use to this day.
Finsbury: Now almost a forgotten placename, the borough of Finsbury comprised the urban quarters of Clerkenwell and St Luke's. Its town hall on Rosebery Avenue, opened in 1895, is an art nouveau delight with a wrought iron and glass canopy out front and chandeliers within. The building now combines life as a dance studio for the Urdang Academy and a premium hire-out-able event space.

Hackney = Hackney + Shoreditch + Stoke Newington
Population 1965: 251,000 / Population 2015: 258,000
Hackney: The 'French-Italian' style town hall in the Narrow Way (now a Coral betting shop) was replaced in 1937 by an Art Deco town hall in Mare Street, and retained as the Town Hall for the modern borough of Hackney.
Shoreditch: The magnificent town hall on Old Street started out as a Vestry Hall in 1865, and became an independent arts venue following a major refurbishment in 2004.
Stoke Newington: In 1900 this was the London borough with the smallest population, a mere fifty thousand. The town hall on Church Street was built in the mid-Thirties in an English Renaissance style with art deco interiors, then restored by Hackney in 2009 with the Council Chamber and Assembly Hall now available for hire.

Tower Hamlets = Bethnal Green + Stepney + Poplar
Population 1965: 200,000 / Population 2015: 273,000
Bethnal Green : Smallest of the three constituent Tower Hamlets boroughs, its Town Hall in Patriot Square was opened in 1910 and extended in the late 1930s. In 2010 the building was reopened as a luxury apartment hotel, retaining much of the original art deco interior, but a world away from the community it was built to serve.
Stepney: This slum-packed borough declined significantly in population over the first half of the 20th century. St George's Town Hall on Cable Street is most famous for the Battle of Cable Street mural painted on an exterior wall.
Poplar: A long thin borough, stretching south from Bow to the tip of the Isle of Dogs. Its first town hall in Poplar High Street was recently flogged off cheaply to a friend of the current Mayor, while its 1938 replacement in Bow Road was unashamedly modern and is now the Bow House Business Centre.

Greenwich = Greenwich + Woolwich
Was nearly called: Charlton
Population 1965: 231,000 / Population 2015: 264,000

Greenwich: Until 1939 the town hall was at West Greenwich House on Greenwich High Road, now home to the West Greenwich Community and Arts Centre. A larger Art Deco Town Hall and Borough Hall was then opened further up the road - the brick edifice with the tall rectangular tower. Most of the building was sold off in 1970, while the main hall now houses Greenwich Dance Agency.
Woolwich: A peculiarly-split borough, with a tiny fraction to the north of the Thames. North Woolwich had been part of Kent since the 11th century, thanks to William the Conqueror's allocation of land to his lords, becoming part of south London in 1889, then Newham in Outer London in 1965. Woolwich's ultra-ornate Town Hall is now the administrative centre for the borough of Greenwich.

Lewisham = Deptford + Lewisham
Population 1965: 286,000 / Population 2015: 286,000
Deptford: A borough covering the parish of Deptford St Paul, its grand baroque town hall was built with maritime flourishes between 1903 and 1905 on New Cross Road. Now owned by Goldsmiths College it was very recently restored as a 'cultural hub', and even more recently occupied by angry students.
Lewisham: The first town hall was built in Catford in Gothic Revival style in 1875, replaced by a complementary building nextdoor in 1932 (now the Broadway Theatre). Lewisham's new town hall, on the same spot as the first, is more of a Sixties monstrosity, and Sir John Betjeman campaigned (unsuccessfully) against its development.

Southwark = Bermondsey + Camberwell + Southwark
Population 1965: 301,000 / Population 2015: 299,000
Bermondsey: The Victorian town hall on Spa Road was bombed during World War II, so was replaced as seat of government by the Municipal Offices nextdoor. Post-1965 Southwark Council used the building as offices, before selling the lot off in 2012, and now (of course) it's 41 loft-style apartments with a mighty grand entrance foyer.
Camberwell: The lofty Town Hall opened on Peckham Road in 1934. A redevelopment project is currently transforming the building into 149 student accommodation rooms, a café and art gallery, and rehearsal space and for Theatre Peckham nextdoor. Meanwhile council staff were shifted to 160 Tooley Street in 2009.
Southwark: Originally the Vestry of St Mary Newington, Walworth Town Hall (and the Cuming Museum collection) was heavily damaged by fire a couple of years ago. Plans are afoot to create "a new, world class civic centre" with a library "space" and museum "space".

Lambeth = Lambeth (+ some Wandsworth)
Population 1965: 331,000 / Population 2015: 315,000
Lambeth: The modern borough is unusual in that it comprises just one pre-1965 borough plus the eastern slice of sprawling Wandsworth, essentially Clapham and Streatham (more specifically "so much of the metropolitan borough as lay east of Hazelbourne Road, Cavendish Road, the railway between Balham and Streatham Common stations and the railway between Streatham and Mitcham Junction stations"). The Town Hall in central Brixton is constructed from red brick and Portland stone, topped off by a 41m high clock tower, and was completed in 1908. A current austerity-inspired project aims to condense 14 council buildings into just two, to create Your New Town Hall.

Wandsworth = Battersea + Wandsworth
Population 1965: 326,000 / Population 2015: 311,000
Battersea: The former Battersea Town Hall on Lavender Hill (opened in 1893) is now the Battersea Arts Centre. Alas the building was ravaged by fire earlier this month, destroying the Grand Hall and Lower Hall and causing the central tower to collapse.
Wandsworth: Covering 37 square kilometres, this was the largest borough in the County of London. Hence it got split, with a little given to Lambeth and most being combined with Battersea. The town hall on Wandsworth High Street is architecturally restrained, with "historic scenes in stone bas reliefs running the length of the facade", and was opened in 1937.

Hammersmith = Hammersmith + Fulham
Was nearly called: Riverside, or Olympia
Renamed Hammersmith and Fulham in 1979
Population 1965: 211,000 / Population 2015: 179,000

Hammersmith: The dominant partner in the 1965 merger, the new borough retained Hammersmith's 1930s 'Swedish Georgian' town hall and added a modern extension on King Street.
Fulham: The 19th century Vestry Hall on Walham Green was sold off by the council in 2011 to an American property developer who plans to convert it into "a shopping arcade and a revitalized place in which to live, work, play and relax; along with a quintessentially British shopping experience", god help us.

Kensington & Chelsea = Kensington + Chelsea (obviously)
Population 1965: 215,000 / Population 2015: 156,000
Kensington: A royal borough since 1901, at the posthumous request of Queen Victoria who was born at Kensington Palace. The Italianate town hall, built in 1880, was controversially demolished in 1982 and replaced by a bland shopping parade opposite High Street Kensington station. Its replacement up Hornton Street is one of Sir Basil Spence's brickier behemoths.
Chelsea: Chelsea may have been the minor partner in the merger, in both population and size, but somehow retained its name, this being the only one of the 1965 boroughs to namecheck both of its constituent parts. The old town hall on the King's Road is hired out by the council as an events venue.

Fifty years ago, at the end of March 1965, the Home Counties nudged a lot closer to central London than they do today. Those living to the east of the River Lea were still in Essex, including everyone in Stratford and Walthamstow. Residents of Bexleyheath and Orpington were still very much in Kent, while the population of Wimbledon and Richmond belonged wholly to Surrey. Meanwhile Middlesex still existed as a crescent-shaped swathe to the northwest of the capital, including the suburbs of Acton, Golders Green and Tottenham. Middlesex was an ancient county of Saxon origins, bounded by the Colne and Lea, with parliamentary representation since the 13th century. By the 20th century it was one of the smallest counties in England, behind London and the Isle of Wight in terms of area, and with its own administrative HQ on Parliament Square. And fifty years ago today it only had one more day to go.

Fifty years ago today, on 1st April 1965, Greater London was born. This enlarged administrative area extended the old County of London by including almost all of Middlesex, plus large chunks of Essex, Surrey and Kent. Potters Bar in Middlesex escaped, transferring to Hertfordshire, while Barnet Urban District switched the other way from Herts to London. Essex had already lost control over West Ham and East Ham, long since unitary authorities, while Kent surrendered only a small fraction of its land. Surrey found itself in the most awkward situation, with its county council now based extraterritorially across the border in Kingston upon Thames. All in all more than fifty boroughs and districts from the shires found themselves in Outer London overnight. Here's an overview of what ended up where.


Waltham Forest = Chingford + Leyton + Walthamstow
Population 1965: 241,000 / Population 2015: 266,000
Was nearly called: Walthamstow, or Forest

Chingford: The old Town Hall on The Ridgeway has been converted in the last couple of years into five luxury flats.
Leyton: Leyton's eclectically Victorian town hall on Adelaide Road is now a library, a heritage pub and rococo entertainment space.
Walthamstow: The first town hall on Orford Road (1876) was replaced by a Swedish-influenced art deco beauty on Forest Road in 1941, still very much in use.

Redbridge = Ilford + Wanstead and Woodford + Dagenham (part) + Chigwell (part)
Population 1965: 248,000 / Population 2015: 288,000
Ilford: The ornate Renaissance style town hall on the High Road, begun in 1901, has been retained as Redbridge's town hall.
Wanstead and Woodford: The council used to meet on the High Road, South Woodford, their ceremonial mace presented by local MP Winston Churchill.
Dagenham: "The boundary between Redbridge and Barking shall be such as the Minister may by order determine on or near the general line of Billet Road."
Chigwell: Only 81 acres of Chigwell Urban District, around Hainault, transferred to London in 1965 (the remainder stayed in Essex).

Havering = Romford + Hornchurch
Population 1965: 246,000 / Population 2015: 242,000
Romford: Upgraded to a municipal borough in 1937, its competition-winning art deco town hall is still used by Havering council.
Hornchurch: In 1965 this was one of the most populous urban districts in England. The council's offices were at Langton's, an 18th century mansion, which became the new borough's register office.

Barking = Barking (part) + Dagenham (part)
Population 1965: 170,000 / Population 2015: 194,000
Renamed Barking and Dagenham in 1980

Barking: Barking's Town Hall was built overlooking the abbey as late as 1958, and thankfully got more than seven years of use.
Dagenham: Combining Barking with Dagenham very sensibly brought the Becontree estate under a single administration. The long low art deco town hall (opened in 1937) has become the Barking and Dagenham Civic Centre, and thankfully won't now be sold off as a new school.

Newham = West Ham + East Ham + Barking (part) + Woolwich (part)
Population 1965: 254,000 / Population 2015: 318,000
West Ham: In 1901 over a quarter of a million people lived in West Ham, making it the ninth most populous district in England. It was governed from an Italian Gothic Town Hall in Stratford, built in 1869.
East Ham: West Ham plus East Ham equals New Ham, geddit? East Ham's St-Pancrassy town hall now serves as Newham Town Hall.
Barking: "The boundary between Newham and Barking shall be such as the Minister may by order determine on or near the general line of the River Roding and Barking Creek."
Woolwich: Until the 19th century these two tiny detached parts of Woolwich were usually described as 'Woolwich in the parts of Essex'. Read more here.


Bexley = Bexley + Erith + Crayford + Chislehurst and Sidcup (part)
Population 1965: 215,000 / Population 2015: 237,000
Bexley : At the start of the 20th century the Council offices moved to Broadway, Bexleyheath.
Erith: Erith's Town Hall became Bexley's Town Hall in 1965, until councillors moved out to a new civic centre in Bexleyheath in 1980.
Crayford: The 100-year-old Town Hall (and library site) is being transformed (in two phases) into 188 new homes, a new library, "modern community facility", health centre and shops.
Chislehurst and Sidcup: Mostly the Sidcup bit, to the north of the A20.

Bromley = Bromley + Beckenham + Orpington + Penge + Chislehurst and Sidcup (part)
Population 1965: 301,000 / Population 2015: 318,000
Bromley: The former Bromley Town Hall, opened on Tweedy Road in 1907, was built "in neo-Wren style using red brick with stone quoins and window dressings".
Beckenham : Beckenham's last town hall, built in 1932, survived until 1990 when it was demolished to make way for Marks and Spencer.
Orpington: Created as an urban district in 1934 from parts of the abolished hinterland of Bromley Rural District, which explains Greater London's largest concentration of remote villages.
Penge: Up until 1866 Penge was officially part of Battersea, a detached hamlet no less.
Chislehurst and Sidcup: Mostly the Chislehurst bit, to the south of the A20.


Croydon = Croydon + Coulsdon and Purley
Population 1965: 326,000 / Population 2015: 373,000
Croydon: This being a historically important settlement, the first Croydon Town Hall is thought to have been built in either 1566 or 1609. The present (enormous) Town Hall was opened in 1896. Croydon first bid for city status in 1954, and is still trying, whenever.
Coulsdon and Purley: In a familiar tale, Coulsdon and Purley Urban District Council Offices on Brighton Road, Old Coulsdon, have been transformed into 24 flats.

Sutton = Beddington and Wallington + Carshalton + Sutton and Cheam
Population 1965: 166,000 / Population 2015: 196,000
Beddington and Wallington : The council was initially based at 37 Manor Road (now an Indian restaurant), before opening a new Town Hall on Woodcote Road, Wallington, in 1934. It was still used for council meetings until 1977.
Carshalton : The former town hall on The Square, Carshalton, became the local library (but was sold off in 2011).
Sutton and Cheam: The borough's Municipal Offices opened on the High Street in 1902, but were demolished in the 1970s (Wilkinsons now stands on the site).

Merton = Mitcham + Merton and Morden + Wimbledon
Population 1965: 185,000 / Population 2015: 203,000
Was nearly called: Morden

Mitcham: Founded in 1915, this local government district has now been extinct for the same amount of time as it existed.
Merton and Morden: After World War II the council moved into Morden Hall in Morden Hall Park, now a post-Whitbread husk. Merton's modern civic centre rises nearby above Crown Lane.
Wimbledon: The original Town Hall was on The Broadway, replaced by a new building on the corner of Queen's Road in 1931.

Kingston Upon Thames = Kingston upon Thames + Malden and Coombe + Surbiton
Population 1965: 145,000 / Population 2015: 167,000
Kingston-upon-Thames : This ancient borough received its charter in 1484, its royal title confirmed by George V in 1927. The council governed from the quaint Market House until 1935, and then from the Guildhall, designed by Maurice Webb. Unlike its modern successor, the pre-1965 borough had hyphens.
Malden and Coombe: Because the borough was incorporated in 1936, its civic mace had the rare distinction of carrying the arms of King Edward VIII.
Surbiton: The parish of Chessington was added in 1933, nabbed from Epsom.

Richmond Upon Thames = Barnes + Richmond + Twickenham
Population 1965: 180,000 / Population 2015: 192,000
Barnes : Before the war the HQ of this urban district was a Georgian house at 123 Mortlake High Street. Upgraded to a municipal borough in 1932, you can watch two minutes of the Charter Day celebrations here.
Richmond: The old town hall near Richmond Bridge, opened in 1893, now houses the Information and Reference Library, the Local Studies Collection, the Museum of Richmond and the Riverside Gallery.
Twickenham: In 1926 the urban district council purchased York House, a stately home by the Thames, which remains the council's ceremonial hub. Except hang on, the Municipal Borough of Twickenham was in Middlesex, not Surrey.

MIDDLESEX (ceased to exist, 1st April 1965)

Hounslow = Brentford and Chiswick + Feltham + Heston and Isleworth
Population 1965: 207,000 / Population 2015: 263,000
Brentford and Chiswick: The town hall overlooking Turnham Green was opened in 1901. It remains in civic ownership, containing a few council services and a Citizens Advice Bureau, and can be hired out for weddings.
Feltham: The Assembly Hall on Hounslow Road was used by the council from 1906. It too remains in civic ownership, for leisure purposes, and can be hired out for weddings.
Heston and Isleworth: The Public Hall in Old Isleworth has the look of a small Victorian school. It too remains in civic ownership, although you probably wouldn't hire it out for weddings.

Hillingdon = Hayes and Harlington + Ruislip Northwood + Uxbridge + Yiewsley and West Drayton
Population 1965: 233,000 / Population 2015: 287,000
Was nearly called: Uxbridge

Hayes and Harlington: From 1924 the town hall was Barra Hall, a late 18th century manor house in Barra Hall Park, Hayes. The building is now a Sure Start Centre.
Ruislip Northwood: Among the first decisions of the new council in 1904 were a reduction in the number of workmen employed on the highways from ten to seven, cancellation of the cleaning of roadside ditches, and a cut in the pay of the lowest-paid man working on the sewers. Much more here.
Uxbridge: Uxbridge's town council grew out of the local Board of Health, one of the first in England.
Yiewsley and West Drayton: Key House, the old Town Hall, replaced the Yiewsley District Council Offices on the same site in 1930. It now houses Hillingdon Voluntary Services. From 1952 the seat of government switched to Drayton Hall.

Ealing = Acton + Ealing + Southall
Population 1965: 302,000 / Population 2015: 343,000
Acton: The town hall on the High Street was opened in 1910 and extended in 1939, the annexe described as "very noble and thoroughly English without extravagant ornamentation". A recent upgrade has filled the building with swimming pools and a gymnasium, funded by relocating the library.
Ealing: The large gothic Town Hall on Ealing Broadway was built in 1886, replacing an earlier town hall on The Mall (now a Nat West bank), and is still used as council offices (subsidiary to nearby Perceval House).
Southall: Southall Town Hall was built in debased classical style in 1897 to the designs of local architect Thomas Newall. My thanks to Ealing council for being the only current borough with full information about its three constituent town halls.

Brent = Wembley + Willesden
Population 1965: 291,000 / Population 2015: 317,000
Wembley: Wembley's austere brick town hall on Forty Lane, completed in 1940, is unashamedly modernist, and described by Pevsner as "the best of the modern town halls around London, neither fanciful nor drab." Brent council sold it off a few years ago to a French international school (opens September) when they moved into their new Civic Centre overlooking Wembley Stadium.
Willesden: In 1891 civic oversight came from the board offices in Dyne Road, Kilburn, later enlarged to become Willesden Town Hall. Deemed unnecessary after amalgamation with Wembley, the town hall was demolished in 1972.

Harrow = Harrow
Population 1965: 208,000 / Population 2015: 244,000
Harrow: Harrow is unique in Greater London as a borough formed from a single pre-1965 district, hence it was able to celebrate its sixtieth anniversary last year. The Queen came to celebrate its 50th birthday in 2004, an honour she'll be bestowing on absolutely no London borough today. Harrow's monolithic Civic Centre dates from 1972, and looks it.

Barnet = Barnet + East Barnet + Finchley + Friern Barnet + Hendon
Population 1965: 314,000 / Population 2015: 369,000
Barnet: Thanks to historical boundary contortions, Barnet lay in Hertfordshire up until 1965 but was almost entirely surrounded by Middlesex. Its former Council Offices were on Wood Street, in the Old Court House, later used as a register office, and more recently refurbished as coroners court for the Northern District of Greater London.
East Barnet: The district of East Barnet was buried even deeper into Middlesex than its Barnet cousin. Until 1935 it was known as East Barnet Valley. Its Italianate town hall opened on Station Road in 1892.
Finchley: Finchley's Urban District Council initially met every third Monday at offices in Bibbesworth House, Church End, before moving to Finchley Hall in 1902. This was heavily bombed in the war and demolished shortly afterwards. Church End Library stands on the site.
Friern Barnet: The imposing town hall in Friern Barnet Lane was completed in 1941, given Grade II listing in 2002 and sold by Barnet council in 2003. Barratts have since converted it into apartments.
Hendon: Hendon Town Hall, on The Burroughs, is somehow still a customer-facing outpost of Barnet council and its committees meet here. Opened in 1901, it's (in)famous as the place where Margaret Thatcher made her first speech as Prime Minister.

Haringey = Hornsey + Tottenham + Wood Green
Population 1965: 252,000 / Population 2015: 264,000
Hornsey: Hornsey Town Hall (opened in 1935) is one of Middlesex's finest modernist civic buildings. Alas Haringey council have left the building to decay, and plans to refurbish it for the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts collapsed earlier this year through lack of funds.
Tottenham: Opened in 1905, the Edwardian Baroque town hall fared less well after 1965, ending up on English Heritage's At Risk register. Following redevelopment, the vaulted Moselle Room is one of the grand rooms that can be hired out at 'The Dream Centre'.
Wood Green: Council meetings were held at Woodside House, now used by Haringey Adult Services. The borough's Latin motto nostrum viret robur translates either as 'our strength is a tree' or 'Wood Green Flourishes'.

Enfield = Edmonton + Enfield + Southgate
Population 1965: 272,000 / Population 2015: 321,000
Edmonton: The (crenelated perpendicular) Town Hall was built in 1884 and demolished in 1989, but the clock was saved, restored and recently erected on Edmonton Green.
Enfield: Until 1961 the administrative HQ was at Little Park, Gentleman's Row, after which the soaring Civic Centre opened on Silver Street - retained for use by an enlarged Enfield borough four years later.
Southgate: The borough was administered from Southgate Town Hall on Green Lanes in Palmers Green. In the 1970s the building became became the Local History Archive, but is (imminently) to be converted into 19 flats.

Fifty years ago today, on 1st April 1965, Greater London came into existence. And about time too. The original County of London was considerably smaller than the conurbation that had grown up roundabout, hence the need to enlarge the capital to better reflect suburban reality. But where to draw the line? The Herbert Commission was established in 1957 to answer the question, and published its report in 1960. Its terms of reference included the area now known as Greater London plus a number of neighbouring authorities, shown approximately below in red, pink and green. Areas considered but discounted are shown in green, notably Rickmansworth, Watford, Elstree and Chigwell to the north, Esher, Epsom, Ewell and Banstead to the south, and Dartford to the east. In pink is Potters Bar, swiftly liberated from Middlesex to Herts. And in red are a handful of districts recommended for inclusion but later thrown out by the government, including Cheshunt to the north, Staines and Sunbury to the west, and Caterham to the south.

Fifty years ago today, on 1st April 1965, Greater London was born. You'd think there'd be celebrations, or at least some sort of fuss in the media, but instead the anniversary is being allowed to pass almost entirely unnoticed. Maybe the austerity agenda means councils have neither the cash nor the motivation for a birthday celebration. Maybe the General Election rules prohibit unnecessary drum-banging during the purdah period. Maybe our Mayor hasn't even noticed, who knows. Whatever, the London borough in which you live is half a century old today, so offer it some respect as it enters middle age. And how much longer it has to live depends very much on how long it is until our capital's boundary is redrawn again. Perhaps next time round Watford, Epsom and Dartford will find their time has come... as Harrow, Romford and Richmond discovered fifty years ago.

 Monday, December 22, 2014

I'm riding an A-Z of London buses. That's complicated by there not being a Z, or a Y, so in fact I'm riding an A-X, and even that'll have eight further letters missing. I'm not riding every single prefixed bus, just one starting with each letter (The Ladies Who Bus did the whole lot, if you're a completist). And I'm doing it in alphabetical order, which means an A bus first, then a B, then a C and so on. My A has to be the A10, but then comes the element of choice in this project as I have to pick from one of the six Bs.

Here's part two, from N to X.

Though not officially lettered bus routes, London has almost more Ns than all the other A to Xs put together. Approximately fifty of the capital's nightbuses need an N prefix because they don't run the same route as a daytime bus, in general running rather further. I had to pick one of these Ns to ride, which wasn't a simple choice. I decided I wanted a night bus running out of central London at the weekend, ideally Trafalgar Square, to get the most genuine after-dark experience. I decided I wanted a bus running east, because none of my other lettered journeys are taking me beyond Newham. And I also wanted to be able to get home at 2am without getting straight back onto the bus I'd just got off. Which meant, oh boy, the N15... Night bus to Romford.

 Route N15: Trafalgar Square - Romford
 Length of journey: 18 miles, 95 minutes

I check the list with some incredulity. Yes, the N15 has 85 stops on its way from central to outer London, and I'm going all the way. Sooner me than you. I'm in Trafalgar Square on a Saturday night, technically Sunday morning, as the first nightbuses start to swirl out from sideroads to start their intrepid journeys. The square is both busier and bussier than I was expecting, as the evening's drinkers continue their partying or choose to head home. Ground zero appears to be the 24 hour Co-Op food store at the end of the Strand, from which a steady stream of 20-somethings emerge clutching nibbles, fags, bottles, whatever. And the N15's journey begins immediately outside, which is convenient, or more likely the recipe for a blocked pavement.

Normally I rush for the top deck but when the bus arrives I settle in downstairs, behind the doors, to better get a feel for all the interior action that lies ahead. The bus takes a couple of minutes to fill up, and with mostly non-drunken folk, indeed it's the first hint that this might not be a journey characterised by jostling banter. Someone asks the driver how to get to Moorgate - it seems there are many options - and eventually we pull off. We're heading through the heart of the West End, but only for the next few minutes, so this is our best opportunity to fill up before heading to the suburbs. On Aldwych an ambulance has pulled up beside a girl leaning over and nodding semi-consciously into her hands, which is what passes for a Saturday night out for many in these parts. Within a couple of stops every seat downstairs has been taken. The tally includes a pair of tourists clutching yellow M&M's Store bags, more fool them, and a bloke in a leather jacket perusing Ferraris on his phone, but the bus is by no means packed yet.

The City isn't Party Central, but a few quieter couples swell our number. St Paul's is beautifully illuminated after dark, as are various building sites along the way, and umpteen office receptions where a security guard is attempting not to fall asleep. Every minute or so an electronic voice announces where we're stopping next, plus "Alight here for..." some station or attraction that isn't open and won't be for hours. It takes until Monument until the first 'ding' signals someone wants to get off, because normal loading patterns don't apply at one in the morning. The last train to Romford is leaving Liverpool Street around now, so any residents with any sense would surely be on that, or more likely have stayed out drinking rather closer to home.

It's Aldgate and Aldgate East that turn out to be the most heaving, as the East End piles aboard. Some are wearing highly ill-advised thin dresses, while others do that thing where they go upstairs and poke their head above the rail, note there are no seats and come back down. I thought it might never happen, but the driver finally has cause to push the "No standing on the upper deck or stairs" button, thereby legitimising the night bus experience. This means there are several stops between Stepney and Limehouse that our driver sails past, resulting in frustrated rapping on the window and a collective need to wait for the next bus. On the N15 that's not too far away, but on less frequent night services the "bloody hell, he didn't stop" moment causes genuine inconvenience.

My latest neighbour is a rather posh young lady, at least by Tower Hamlets standards, attempting to maintain a conversation at crotch level with her bow-tied other half. Another upmarket pair are clutching theatre programmes - they alight at Westferry into a less civilised crowd of chicken eaters and cola swillers. After too long a wait at the Blackwall traffic lights we rise up and over the Lea on the only elevated section of the journey, for a glimpse of the increasingly upstanding lights of downtown Stratford. An older couple seem agitated when we turn off at the roundabout, but it's so we can stop off at Canning Town bus station for a profitable haul of passengers. It's now half past one and I'm extremely surprised to see a non-night-bus setting out on a backstreets journey to Mile End... but then London's bus network is often bloody marvellous like this even if you're not awake to see it.

We're now into the less glamorous half of the journey and about to hit Plaistow. At stop number 42 Emma Highnett's electronic voice announces "Balham Leisure Centre", and at least two locals can be heard to yell out "BAY-LAM!", because the poor girl never gets this right. I note it's still possible to buy fruit and veg on the Barking Road even at this time of the morning, or indeed a round of McShakes, which an entire posse of girls are clutching as they board. They get off fairly soon afterwards in Upton Park and dash straight into Papa's Fried Chicken, as their evidently classy night continues. It's here that the worst behaviour of the evening occurs - a slightly surly bloke sticks his head in through the middle doors and stops us heading off for, ooh, at least ten seconds. It's no riot, the Saturday night bus to Barking, or at least it definitely isn't on this occasion.

We pass a seemingly endless run of greasy food joints and metal shuttered shopfronts, broken by the occasional cluster of minicab drivers awaiting the opportunity of a swift fare. The glow ends suddenly at the Barking Flyover, where I'm surprised to see a large electronic clock reading 1219... until I realise that's the price of diesel. The people of Barking appear to have had a good night, with several spilling out of the King's Lounge onto the pavement. And it's at the bus stop outside the station that most of the passengers aboard suddenly pile off, dispersing swiftly into the night. Indeed it looks like the remainder of the ride, a mere five miles now, could be a relative anti-climax. Five more miles, sheesh.

Once out of the town centre we pass the bus garage where a fleet of red cuboids is packed tightly into the depot and forecourt. Our windows are no longer steaming up, which is good, except there's far less to see out here in the proper suburbs. We're running a lot faster too, and stopping far less frequently, but then it's almost two o'clock and nowhere much is open. In Becontree three giggling gents bundle down the stairs, Red Bull in hand, one suspects with the intention of continuing their evening indoors. My onboard entertainment now involves little more than watching the security camera action on-screen, intermittently cutting from the the silent few downstairs to the six sleepyheads on the upper deck. And then, to my narrative delight, one wobbles up to the driver and asks where Faircross is, only to be told that we passed it a while back and he'll have to get out and catch a bus back the other way. Bad luck mate.

"You are now entering Romford." Hang on a cotton-picking minute, when did buses start announcing generalities like that? But here we are, on the outskirts of town at first, where a t-shirted lad with a bandaged fist bounds aboard, smelling of a skinful. There can only be a dozen of us left, our glowing box parading past groups of twenty-somethings in Essex-style evening dress awaiting their minicab home. The police are out in force in South Street, it now being Saturday night chucking-out time in Romford's premier nightclub zone. Cigarettes are being smoked and taxis are being tipped into, but there's no sign of the brouhaha I might have been expecting, and indeed you might have been hoping for, sorry.

I'm the only passenger to linger to the very last stop round the back of the market. It's remarkably quiet on the ring road, which suits me because I feared I might have a long wait for my next bus and didn't fancy being in the thick of post-clubbing shenanigans. I'm still shivering in the bus shelter fifteen minutes later when the next N15 turns up and a young lad with a big bag steps out. I watch as he crosses the carriageway and goes and waits on the other side of the road for exactly the same bus to turn up for its return journey. If he gets his head down on the top deck he could get an hour and a half's uninterrupted sleep, and still have time to get back to Romford before the N15 gives up for the night. My own bed may still be an hour away, but I feel incredibly fortunate to have one that doesn't shift eighteen miles a night.

» route N15 - route map
» route N15 - timetable
» route N15 - live bus map
» route N15 - route history

The P4 started life in 1973 as an experimental flat fare minibus, one of three routes that brought "Hail and Ride" to the capital for the first time. Initially it ran from Brixton to Brockley Rise, via Dulwich Village, but was extended in 1983 to Lewisham. At no time has the P4 ever gone anywhere near Peckham, after which it was named. And I hoped I'd enjoy the ride more.

 Route P4: Brixton - Lewisham
 Length of journey: 7 miles, 45 minutes

The centre of Brixton, on a Saturday afternoon, is awash with people and buses. The traffic is a curse for shoppers, much of it double decker, though I'm waiting for something humbler to arrive. And I've been waiting a long time, thanks to a hideous jam that's brought everything to an effective standstill. I can see the next P4 in the queue, but it won't be here for some time, and so the crowds amass. Across the road a steel band are playing on the pavement outside Iceland, which keeps us entertained, as does the patter of the salesman attempting to flog phone credit from the doorway behind. And here it is at last, and damn it's only going to Brockley Rise, and I want all the way.

I stand back to let the hordes on, it's quite a stampede, and then go back to people-watching as the bus departs. Just as I reckon the traffic's clearing a blue light approaches, and an ambulance duly parks up in the inside lane immediately behind the bus stop. That's half the carriageway blocked, hence the next P4 is going to be considerably more than the timetabled twelve minutes away, and the slow drip of other buses continues. Thankfully most of the other waiting passengers want the other buses, so they're averaging a three minute wait, whereas I've already racked up longer than the entire journey's about to take.

Eventually P4 number two arrives. This bus has Lewisham on the front, and isn't so packed, which is a relief because my visibility would have been heavily curtailed on the previous steamy service. Instead my close-up view consists of a woolly hat and headphones combo, from which the sound of tinny hiphop is already leaking. Our first stop invites us to "alight here for the Brixton Academy", which in 2014 sounds like it ought to be a school, but thankfully isn't. And then we're off round the backroads to reach Coldharbour Lane, the market end of Brixton being awkwardly impenetrable, by which point all the seats aboard have gone. Loughborough Junction is essentially a collection of railway bridges, of which we negotiate three, and then at last the P4-only section of the route begins.

Herne Hill Road boasts some rather tasteful Victorian terraces and a splendid Carnegie Library, on our gradual climb past one end of Ruskin Park. It's here that Bus Stereotype Number 15 gets up from his seat and moves to close the window, because it's all about what he wants and stuff the rest of us. We break the rise at the top of Denmark Hill, and then continue into the Sunray Estate and the marvellously-monikered bus stop at Casino Avenue. The name commemorates Casino House, a Palladian mansion designed by John Nash at the turn of the 19th century. Today only the ornamental lake survives, the remainder having been turned into the Sunray Estate after the Great War. I doubt that the two residents who nip off here know any of this, but you never know.

Things turn fractionally more rural around North Dulwich station, which is appropriate because Dulwich Village lies ahead. This is the poshest spot in inner south London, by far, and the P4 was its first bus - the residents wouldn't have appreciated anything bigger. It's like hitting Surrey, all cottagey and Georgian with chain fences and even a village signpost. You can see why Margaret Thatcher moved out here after her time at Number 10, admittedly to a Barratt home in a gated enclave... and blimey, she only paid £400,000 at the time. We pass all things Dulwich - the Park, the College, the Common, the Art Gallery - with a film crew busy doing their thing outside the latter. And the exclusivity goes on for minutes longer than expected, so much green, and so much money.

And bam, it's back to normality on Lordship Lane. A council estate, a boarded-up pub with sealed-off car park, and Lewisham's finest museum, the Horniman. Most of those on board disembark here, which is either good news for the capital's cultural future or because they don't want to ride into the hills beyond. Right on cue we veer off up Honor Oak Road onto the ridge, somewhere no larger bus would venture. Houses block most of the view, but there is a brief glorious panorama down Dunoon Road towards distant southeast hills. Honor Oak's shops turn out to be much like any other quite nice shops but with the words 'Honor Oak' shoehorned in front of their name. Change here for the Overground, which several do, or stay on until the bottom and Brockley Rise.

Hurrah, this P4's going further. To the Brockley Jack, which is a vibrant pub/theatre combination, and onto Brockley Grove, which is a road. Aspirationally parallel Victorian streets lead off, seven of these named after the offspring and relatives of the estate's developer, consecutively Elsiemaud, Henryson, Amyruth, Gordonbrock, Arthurdon, Francemary and Phoebeth. I worry for any dyslexic children brought up within. We've now entered Ladywell, a pleasant suburb with rough edges, as can be detected from the local combination of patisserie and nail salon. Those still aboard are restless, and our new companions looking as if they'll not be settling in for long, as we cross the Ravensbourne and enter Lewisham proper.

Many alight at the Fire Station, this because there are shops here and not for want of smoke alarm advice. I'm surprised because the main shopping centre is further on, but maybe they're trying to get off before the jams start. We've finally hit somewhere as buzzing as Brixton, a hub with all the delights of a Primark, Iceland and proper outdoor market. Our penultimate stop is behind a dustcart stickered 'Justice For Lewisham Hospital', close to The Sausage Man, before the Clock Tower. And then I was expecting the station, but we're summarily chucked off before that thanks to the all-transforming Lewisham Gateway project. This has dropped a massive building site between the shopping mall and the station, which'll one day be new roads and bland flats, but is currently a miserable wasteland of pedestrian diversions that makes me want to escape from Lewisham as soon as possible. And not by bus.

» route P4 - route map
» route P4 - timetable
» route P4 - live bus map
» route P4 - route history
» route P4 - route history
» route P4 - The Ladies Who Bus
» route P4 - four pubs

This next bus is proper unusual.

a) The R10 is one of eleven R-prefixed buses that operate out of Orpington, the last town heading out of southeast London. What's peculiar is that this corner of the capital extends far beyond the edge of the built-up area into open countryside, so TfL has a duty to run services along narrow lanes to connect remote communities. In this case that's the hamlets of Cudham and Pratt's Bottom, as well as the Kentish villages of Knockholt and Halstead, all linked around a ten mile rural loop. This might just be as pastoral as London's bus routes ever get.

b) Normally buses run in both directions, but the R10 runs only anti-clockwise. All journeys in a clockwise direction are numbered R5, this to prevent residents of certain villages accidentally riding the wrong way round the loop and taking an extra half hour to get home. The distinction was introduced in 2008, prior to which all journeys were designated R5.

c) Only one vehicle is assigned to the R5/R10 combo. It runs the R5 from Orpington back to Orpington, changes its driver, flips its blind and then runs the other way as the R10. And this means that intervals between buses are the longest of any buses on the TfL network. The gap used to be two hours until a consultation last year extended it to two and a half, this because individual buses weren't managing to get back to the start in the scheduled hour and the service was becoming wholly unreliable. Local people aren't happy, and said so, but TfL told them a more reliable service is better than a more regular service, so 150 minute gaps it is. If you ever try heading out this way, make sure you check the timetable carefully first.

 Route R10: Orpington - Orpington (via Knockholt)
 Length of journey
: 17 miles, 65 minutes

I checked the timetable carefully before I left home, which was fortunate because there isn't one at Orpington bus station. The R1, R4, R8 and clockwise R5 each have a timetable at the stop, but nobody's been bothered to make sure the anti-clockwise R10 is included too, which is a miserable state of affairs when it runs so infrequently. Thankfully I'd arrived just before my R10 was due to leave, revving up in the parking bay at the far end before driving across to my side. Another passenger was ready to board too, which seemed exciting until I realised he only wanted to go to the High Street and was simply nipping aboard the first bus that turned up.

There's more to Orpington, apparently, according to the sign on Station Road just before the War Memorial. There's certainly more Orpington on this route than you might expect, starting with a run up the High Street... and back again. I'm riding on a Saturday morning, too early for anyone to have finished shopping and be heading home, so we pick up nobody outside Londis on the way up, nobody outside the huge Sainsbury's where we turn round, and only one lady outside McDonalds on our return. Things'll no doubt be rather different in two and a half hours time. Within a few minutes we're passing the War Memorial again, this time straight on, and leaving the muted Christmas lights behind.

A mile of desirable semis lines the Sevenoaks Road on the journey south, broken by a splendid Metroland-style parade with 'Frigidaire Equipped' launderette. Our first destination is Green Street Green, a pleasant village-turned-suburb, somehow deemed important enough to have its own Waitrose. By now we're running slightly ahead of schedule so our driver finds a bus stop labelled "buses must not stand here" and does precisely that. Our other passenger wants the next stop, lugging her shopping off towards Old Hill, whereas we're taking a country lane with the warning sign IGNORE SATNAV AND RE-ROUTE. If I was surprised earlier to discover that the R10 isn't a minibus, I'm even more surprised when I see where we're going next.

Cudham Lane North is two miles of not-quite single track road with either front gardens, or high hedges, to either side. Two cars can pass OK but a bus is another matter, so there are several occasions where we pull in sharply to the side and a vehicle going the other way attempts to edge through. A Tivo van (they're still going, who knew?) finds the going too narrow and is forced to reverse a considerable distance, which slows us down somewhat. It's the obstructiveness of this stretch that baffled R10 users during last year's consultation. They wondered why the route couldn't be run with a smaller vehicle, keeping better to time and retaining a two hour service. TfL disagreed, citing worries that a minibus might fill with short-distance travellers in town, plus they were determined to change the timetable anyway... and so the larger bus squeezes on.

Detached houses and bungalows come and go, but the high hedges and fields beyond carry on. As Cudham approaches a deep green valley opens up on the right hand side, most unexpected for any bus user more used to crawling bumper to bumper down Oxford Street. The village has a lovely setting, if not a green wellies and labradors vibe, plus a plaque to Little Tich the music hall entertainer at the Blacksmith's Arms. Here too is the only bus stop on this long southbound leg - presumably the rest of the journey has been Hail and Ride, but the onboard electronic display has singularly failed to mention this. It fails again by then announcing the Three Horseshoes in Knockholt as the next stop, despite this being four further miles of Hail and Ride down the road.

Horns Green is the last hamlet in London, a string of homes heralded by a tiny village sign on a tree. And after a few more cautious corners and general woody remoteness, we finally turn left into Kent. So, this is Knockholt, is it? I've always meant to visit but never come, so I'm almost tempted to get off for a look, until I remember that the next bus in this direction is two and a half hours away. Plus Knockholt's really long, the same distance as from Marble Arch to St Paul's, so it doesn't pay to alight too early. At this far-western end the majority of buildings really are farms and stables, plus an attractive-looking pub, then the big-drived houses kick in. A road sign warns of toads for the next half-mile, which is mostly fields again, and I'm grinning that my Oyster card allows me on such an adventure.

When we finally reach a proper bus stop on the village green at Knockholt Pound, hurrah, another passenger is waiting. Technically it's here that the return half of the R10's journey begins, so it's no real surprise to have been the only person aboard on the outbound. More surprising is that TfL run a bus out this far at all, as it's the taxpayers of Kent who really benefit, and they fund the 402 which runs through Knockholt hourly. Ditto the village of Halstead, to which we're turning off next. A fairly standard residential estate feels quite out of place compared to where we've just been, but The Cock Inn (established 1718) quickly restores more rural credentials. The R10 uses Halstead's one non-cul-de-sac to loop back round and return the way it came, indeed this extended Halstead loop is one reason the bus can't quite keep to an hour's running time. But we get some elderly custom out of it, and then it's back to Knockholt again, now on the home run.

Our return to London comes at the top of Rushmore Hill, a relentlessly wooded gradient above, and then descending into, a narrow notched valley. At the bottom is a beautifully-positioned primary school, one of Bromley's most isolated, serving the populace of (snigger) Pratt's Bottom. It's well-named, geographically speaking, with rolling fields rising up on all sides, indeed the view from the R10 is briefly overwhelmingly pastoral. We've arrived during the brief window of the village's Christmas Fair, but again I daren't risk getting off to explore. Abruptly we hit a petrol station, a red route and the main A21, bringing our rustic safari to an end, although there's still one last expanse of farmland to savour before we return to Green Street Green.

And you already know this bit, because I rode it on the way down. What's different this time is that we have passengers, because thousands of people live nearby and we're now just another bus to the shops. At peak crowding there are ten of us, a handful from Pratt's Bottom and beyond, the rest, well, it wouldn't have hurt them to walk. Apparently the R5/R10 gets an average of 200 passengers a day, that's about fifteen people per bus, so today we've been running a fraction below par. Oh look it's the War Memorial again, and our third visit to Orpington High Street, this time emptying out and with a lot more queueing traffic. Thankfully this time we escape via a backstreet... and pass the War Memorial a fourth time... does any other London bus pass the same spot quite so often?

And look, I've actually ridden the whole 17 mile circuit back to Orpington station without the driver once eyeing me suspiciously and asking why I didn't get off. Presumably they're used to sightseers on this journey - it's the perfect route for it, should you ever be tempted to take a £1.45 coach trip to London's proper countryside. Blind flipped, the bus is almost ready to go back round again. Any takers?

» route R10 - route map
» route R10 - timetable
» route R10 - live bus map
» route R10 - route history
» route R10 - The Ladies Who Bus

The first three S-prefixed buses circled Stratford in the early Seventies. This S1 is not one of these, but part of a Nineties foursome serving Sutton. The rest run infrequently or have been cancelled, but the S1 proved its worth and is now the backbone of suburbia. It also runs via several parts of London I'd never previously visited, which when you've lived here 13 years and 'get about' a lot, was most unexpected.

 Route S1: Lavender Fields - Banstead
 Length of journey: 9 miles, 70 minutes

When I heard that the S1 was being extended to Lavender Fields, earlier this year, I assumed this was somewhere scenic. The Sutton area was once famed for its lavender, and Mayfield Lavender is still a (gorgeous) commercial concern. Alas that's near the southern end of the route, and the S1's Lavender Fields is a bog-standard housing estate close to Colliers Wood. The new terminus gleams, in that way fledgling bus shelters do, close to the mini-roundabout that allows the slightly-mini buses to turn around. When I arrive it's just starting to rain, so the driver gets off his phone and allows we two waiting passengers to board early. They're nice like that, bus drivers, sometimes.

My fellow passenger isn't going far, two stops in all. That's the entire extent of the S1's extension into unserved territory, indeed he could easily have walked to the main road in the five minutes we were waiting. But instead he used TfL's red taxi to hide from the rain, or avoid traipsing past the cemetery, or because he's a lazy sod, one of the three. And then he's off, and over the road, and straight onto a much more useful bus to Tooting Broadway. Down Figge's Marsh we gain another lazy sod, female this time, who lasts on board for only one stop. I'm starting to wonder if Merton residents are compulsively idle, or else the S1 has a magnetic attraction.

Pebbledash leads to parade leads to, oh, hang on, this is quite nice. Mitcham is one of the places en route I've inexplicably never been to before, and I'm quite impressed. The greenspace by the shops has an independent panini hut at one end, and further on an unmistakeably villagey vibe. The cricket ground remains at the heart of Mitcham life, a whirl of listed buildings around the perimeter, each discoverable via an information panel near the boundary. At the next stop a blind man is waiting, alone, so has to ask the driver which service this is... and then lets us go without boarding. It strikes me that all these iBus route announcements ("S1... to... Banstead") are no use when trying to work out whether to get on, only to confirm you're on the right bus after it's left.

Our exit from the town centre becomes increasingly green, then positively undeveloped along the edge of Mitcham Common. How fortunate the residents of Mitcham Garden Village, tucked into a snail-like whorl between the railway and the woods. So this is Mitcham Junction station, is it? It's about a mile out of town surrounded by golf course and industrial estate, hence not as useful as local commuters would like it to be, and therefore bus links to the middle of nowhere are much appreciated. Three of our latest complement are only going as far as Mill Green, the next common down, which used to be where the S1 started (and would have saved you from having to read the previous three paragraphs).

Beyond the dead pub and the River Wandle, the S1 starts its backstreets tour of St Helier. Our route round the LCC estates traces out the pattern of two crooked teeth, ticking off streets just to say that a bus runs nearby. But our presence is much appreciated, the bus is starting to fill up now, as we edge past parked cars, yet more open space and various pushchair posses. Green Wrythe Lane scores points for a streetname with an endearing heritage, if not a particularly picturesque present, running through The Circle shopping parade, home to Fudge Cakes Circle Bakery. One particularly narrow diversion takes us past armies of Saturday morning footballers, and their doting parents, playing in the Carshalton Little League. And there across the goalposts rises the Thirties Metropolis fortress of St Helier Hospital.

Several passengers are waiting here, including a rotund mum with the flabbiest neck I've seen in years, which wobbles like a turkey as she pushes down the bus behind her not-yet obese daughter. Three teenagers are holding court by the central doors, one wondering whose idea it was to catch the slow bus, another twiddling a cigarette in anticipation of getting off. As we double back again, avoiding Carshalton, we thread through a very typical slice of outer London - a bit hilly, a bit pleasant, a lot residential, and a Seventies pub for a lager on a Friday night. Then at the foot of the hill Teenager Number Two reaches up as if to press the emergency release button, waits for the look of shocked embarrassment on his companions' faces and grins broadly before retracting, and getting off with everyone else.

So, this is Sutton proper. I've walked down the pedestrianised High Street, but never experienced the parallel one-way system that closely encircles it. Four times we pull over into an odd layby to swap will-be-shoppers for just-been-shoppers, gradually exchanging the entire complement of passengers other than me. The bus is now packed, sufficient to steam up the windows so that the word 'dirty' magically appears scrawled in the mist. We're not seeing the town's best side, indeed we're barely seeing it at all, as we bend round what I think is B&Q towards the station. With another top-up here I count sixteen people standing, which makes this the most crowded lettered bus I've yet ridden.

Most are on board for the next deviation away from a straight line, a detour serving some quite nice houses to the southeast of town. One man goes to the aid of a mother trying to lug her pushchair off the bus, then returns to find his seat taken by someone else, who fails to move. Up next is Belmont, a borderline settlement that again I've never been to, and doesn't instantly impress. Missing two hospitals and a prison we instead make a break for Surrey across the Downs, where one stop appears to serve no-one but ramblers. And hey presto, Banstead, which looks and feels different to London with its verges, old pubs, and long Tudor-style shopping parade. M&S is as far as we're going, which is quite far enough, but well worth the trip.

» route S1 - route map
» route S1 - timetable
» route S1 - live bus map
» route S1 - route history
» route S1 - The Ladies Who Bus

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