Saturday, December 01, 2001
Square Routes - December 2004
It's time once again for diamond geezer to spend a few days exploring London by bus. I thought I'd get out and view some more of the capital from the best vantage point of all, the top deck of a London bus. And then I'd come back and tell you all about what I saw. Just like I did this time last year.
Last year I travelled on seven buses whose route numbers were cube numbers. This year I've decided to switch my mathematical allegiance to square numbers. (1x1, 2x2, 3x3 and so on.) Square routes. I'm only going up as far as 10x10 because the journeys get a little too suburban after that, but the first ten square routes are fascinating enough. Oystercards at the ready - hold very tight please.
London bus route links
• anorak-level route information
• anorak-level historical route information
• anorak-level bus information
• anorak-level bus map information
• anorak-level operational details
Square Routes: Day 1 x 1
Bus 1: Centre Point - Canada Water
Location: London southeast, inner
Length of journey: 6 miles, 35 minutes
The first bus in London begins its journey, appropriately enough, at Centre Point. It's London's 20th tallest building (well, it was last time I checked), a 35-floor concrete tower dominating the eastern end of Oxford Street. At its foot, up an obscure sideroad, a queue of number 1 buses wait to begin their journey from the middle of everywhere to the middle of nowhere.
I boarded the first bus outside Argos on a busy Saturday afternoon, clambering up to the top deck where there was the unnerving smell of fish. We headed east along mostly-deserted roads straight through Holborn and south towards Aldwych. A bespectacled librarian came and sat behind me, commentating on the view throughout the journey for the benefit of his Japanese lady visitor. He was keen to tell her that London's buses are amongst the most successful in the world, with passenger numbers back up at 1969 levels thanks to Mayor Ken Livingstone's ambititious Transport Strategy. I could have hugged him for making such a pertinent comment just two paragraphs into my ten-day exposé of the capital's bus network, but he was an ugly old git so I thought better of it. He went on later to point out a market stall full of plaintains, or "crooked nanas" as he called them, so I think I made the right choice.
We crossed into South London over Waterloo Bridge, with one of the best views of the Thames spread out to either side (so long as you don't look too hard at the concrete mess on the South Bank). Passenger numbers picked up outside the ghastly Elephant and Castle shopping centre (it's pink, and poorer than poor), then it was on towards the Old Kent Road (rightly the cheapest property on the Monopoly board). At the Bricklayers Arms (a giant traffic square-about) we headed off into deepest Bermondsey (also poorer than poor), skirting the edge of the Congestion Charge zone.
There was the sound of shouting, nay yelling, from downstairs. The driver had forgotten to stop at the last stop, or maybe these two women hadn't pressed the button in time, but clearly the whole thing was now 'the other person's fault'. The driver inched the bus forward on a go-slow as the haranguing continued, before finally letting the harpies disembark and carry their Safeway carrier bags grudgingly back up the road.
It's not a long journey this one, so just a few more railway viaducts, street markets and one-way systems for the bus to negotiate. Straight past the new Surrey Quays shopping nirvana and on to our final destination at the new Canada Water transport 'hub'. An oval glass atrium sits beside the new bus station, and atop a new tube interchange between the Jubilee and East London lines. Where once were the old Surrey Docks, this new bus station/station has made Rotherhithe an area where people actually want to live. So I'm told. And just a short bus/tube ride from where the real action is.
• Route 1: anorak-level bus information
• Route 1: anorak-level route information
• Route 1: journey time and connections
• Route 1: timetable
Square Routes: Day 2 x 2
Bus 4: Waterloo - Archway
Location: London north, inner
Length of journey: 8 miles, 55 minutes
From Waterloo you can catch the Eurostar to Paris and Brussels, or you can catch the number 4 bus to Finsbury Park and Archway. It's a tough choice, but I took the latter option. Waterloo station is so big that it took me a good ten minutes to find the right bus stop from which to begin my journey, out beside the rumbling Waterloo Road. An endless stream of red double deckers navigated down the street, pulling in to pick off passengers from the harbour of their bus shelter. I waited ages 4 my chosen vessel to arrive. We sailed off round IMAX Island, then steamed ahead across Waterloo Bridge. The view to port and starboard along the river from my lookout in the crow's nest was picture perfect.
The bus skirted Aldwych, passing a cluster of dossers drinking out of brown paper bags. We entered the City at the original site of Temple Bar and descended Fleet Street, now a mere shadow of its former journalistic self. I was surprised to see that the only publishers remaining in the street are Kall Kwik (based, believe it or not, in the very shop where Sweeney Todd once used to slice and dice his unshaven victims). Up Ludgate Hill we just caught a glimpse of Temple Bar in its new setting, lost in the scaffolding and redevelopment around St Paul's Cathedral. Herds of open-topped sightseeing buses passed us by, and tourists stared into our ordinary top deck as though we were sights ourselves. A few minutes later we exited the City past the giant concrete blocks of the Barbican, its flowerboxes arranged in regular tiers like some multi-coloured waterfall.
As soon as we drove north of the City our view immediately changed. The backroads of Islington (officially the very southern end of the A1 trunk road) weren't quite so wealthy, or quite so photogenic. There were a couple of exceptions - notably Upper Street (a buzzy place to whine and dine) - but either side we were suddenly reminded that real people live in London and that not all of them can afford the antiques being sold up the road. Life looked at its grimmest around Finsbury Park, although the road here did boast a view of London's finest football stadium - as well as the Arsenal Fish Bar, the Arsenal Cafe, the Arsenal Supermarket, the Arsenal Barbers, the Arsenal Tavern and The Gunners (another pub, of course).
By the time we reached the Holloway Road our driver appeared to be trying very hard not to stop, but he was thwarted by passengers who kept trying to flag the bus down. He paused briefly along a residential avenue in Tufnell Park to let on board a mad lady and her two contrasting dogs. Mrs Mad charged up to the top deck where she let both her smelly alsatian and small yappy mongrel off their leads and let them both roam free. Then she spent the rest of the journey talking to both of her canine companions. I'm sure that repeatedly gurgling "Ooh you're so big, you're so big" is normal behaviour for a pet owner behind closed doors, but her unhinged utterances felt extremely uncomfortable on board public transport. On reaching our final destination at Archway Mrs Mad then yelled loudly at the driver to open the doors and let her menagerie disembark which, after a short delay for effect, he was only too pleased to do. I followed a safe distance after.
• Route 4: anorak-level route information
• Route 4: journey time and connections
• Route 4: timetable
• Huge petition against appalling service on route 4
Square Routes: Day 3 x 3
Bus 9: Aldwych - Hammersmith
Location: London west, inner
Length of journey: 5 miles, 40 minutes
I made this journey three months too late. Back at the start of September this was a Routemaster route, but alas the new replacement boxy double deckers make the number 9 now as anonymous a route as almost any other. Shame. My third square route was a relatively-brief jaunt from the West End to West London, beginning almost directly outside the boarded-up entrance to another long lost transport legend - the disused underground station at Aldwych (deceased 1994). King's College nextdoor is much older, 175 years old this year, but still very much functional.
My journey would have been much more pleasant in a Routemaster. Just one stop down the Strand we had to wait for two minutes while a balding Japanese man battled to find change and then feed it into the ticket machine beside the bus stop. Actually we didn't have to wait - our driver was just being kind - but this delay would never have happened with an on-board conductor to sort everything out. My grandstand view of Nelson's Column would also have been considerably better had I not been sitting on a stiff plastic seat of the kind you'd expect to find in a cheap cafeteria. Still, such is progress.
Apart from Trafalgar Square, route 9 has much to recommend it to the tourist. This might explain why five tourists crammed into the three seats next to me at the front of the top deck for most of the journey. They ooh-ed at Admiralty Arch, they ahh-ed at Piccadilly Circus and they prodded furiously in the general direction of the Ritz. I could have told them everything there is to know about Piccadilly as we sped down the bus lane there, but instead I chose to keep quiet. Knightsbridge was a bit of an ugly disappointment, although the retail cathedral of Harvey Nicks definitely caught their eye. They strained in vain to spot Princess Di's fountain through the trees in Hyde Park as we passed close by, then disembarked rapidly when we reached the Royal Albert Hall. I'd like to think that this was for cultural reasons but I suspect it was more likely they just wanted to take each other's photos beneath the gaudy gold of the Albert Memorial.
Just before we reached Hammersmith, a sad sight caught my eye at the end of Kensington High Street. Here stands the Commonwealth Institute, a low concrete building with a curved green copper roof which for 40 years promoted cultural diversity to an under-enlightened nation. I remember being taken round the exhibition halls as a child and seeing strange African masks from distant lands that Britain had only just realised it didn't rule any more. Alas the building now lies empty, having been closed to the public two years ago by its somewhat suspect board of trustees. A number of Commonwealth leaders support the idea that the Institute should be knocked down and the money from the sale of the land used to fund schooling for disadvantaged children. No doubt property speculators are licking their lips at the prospect, but I would be saddened if this slice of post-imperial heritage were to be replaced by 'Tanzania Court' and 'Lesotho Villas' (1 and 2 bedroom apartments available). As my number 9 journey had shown, the past is always in danger of being lost forever.
• Route 9: anorak-level bus information
• Route 9: anorak-level route information
• Route 9: journey time and connections
• Route 9: timetable
• The last day of Routemasters on Route 9
Square Routes: Day 4 x 4
Bus 16: Cricklewood - Victoria
Location: London northwest, inner
Length of journey: 6 miles, 65 minutes
My apologies if you live in Cricklewood or Kilburn, but the number 16 bus route isn't exactly a thriller. There may be Marble Arch and Hyde Park Corner to enjoy, but all you see for most of this journey down the A5 arterial road are shops, shops and more shops. Most of them aren't even very exciting shops, just the sort of anonymous retail outlets you'd find along any street just outside any town centre. So I thought that for my account of this journey I'd just list the names of some of the shops I saw from the top deck along the route. There are actually tons more shops than I managed to list, but my pen started running out halfway down Cricklewood Broadway so listing suddenly became an extremely challenging task. But the bus was travelling very slowly in the Saturday afternoon traffic so I did manage to scratch down the names of the following...
Cricklewood Broadway: Lidl, Wickes, Matalan, The Cricklewood, Hammond and Son Butchers, decks.co.uk, Eboneeze health & beauty salon, Curtains Direct, thisisfurniture.com, Sheila's Restaurant and Cafe, Beacon Bingo, M C Clary Coin Op Laundry, Vid Biz, Pound Village, Cricklewood Halal (best meat and grocery), Shannon Dry Cleaners, Walford & Co Solicitors, Bagel Delight Bakery, KFC, Burger King, McDonalds, Iceland, Rupali, Herbal Acupuncture, Pink Rupee Tandoori, American Wheels, Kwik Fit.
<there are no shops on Shoot Up Hill>
Kilburn High Road: Kilburn Flowers Ltd, Naam Travel, Pandora's Box 2nd Hand Shop, North London Tavern, The Kebabish, All Cash Amusements, Small & Beautiful Restaurant, Food City, NYC Hip Hop Clothing, Poolcrest Snooker Centre, Call The World For Less, Tricycle Theatre, Planet Pizza, Woody Grill, Nail Art, Classy Chicks, Poundstretcher, H Samuel, Benny Dee Clothing, Woolworths, Greggs, Brent Textiles Ltd, Purple and Pink, Dumpling Chinese Restaurant.
<there are no shops on Maida Vale>
Edgware Road: Remedys Pharmacy, Threshers, Café La Marquise, Al Sutan Supermarket, Kandoo Persian restaurant, Zorba Fish Restaurant, Al Kanater (Lebanese cuisine), Caesar Ceramics, Video Prince, Micro-logic.com, Fatoush, Gulf Telecom, Grosvenor Victoria Casino, Shazia Food Hall, Woolworths, Al Mustafa, Beirut Express, Maroush Deli, Kiddy Boom, Starbucks, the Tyburn Bar, Odeon Marble Arch, Sainsbury's Local, Pret, Chequepoint bureau de change.
Park Lane: MG Rover, Stratstone Aston Martin showroom, BMW Park Lane, Porsche, London Hilton.
<there are no shops on Grosvenor Place>
Victoria: The Beresford Clinic, Brava! Lingerie, Balls Brothers, H Stain Jewellers, The Shakespeare, Victoria Cafe.
• Route 16: anorak-level bus information
• Route 16: anorak-level route information
• Route 16: journey time and connections
• Route 16: timetable
Square Routes: Day 5 x 5
Bus 25: Ilford - Oxford Circus
Location: London east, inner
Length of journey: 10 miles, 90 minutes
Report from Saturday, 26 June, 2004
The 25 is one of London's busiest bus routes (absolutely jam-packed it is, even on a Sunday afternoon), and follows a pretty much arrow-straight route from Ilford to Oxford Circus (via my house). 'Busy and straight' are the perfect conditions for a route to be taken over by huge 18m-long bendy buses so, as of dawn this morning, the huge 18m-long bendy buses have taken over. Overnight the Mile End Road has been hijacked by road-hogging articulated vehicles that can't manouevre particularly well. There's more space inside a bendy bus than inside the old double deckers but there are far fewer seats. Passengers have a choice of three doors to board through but they have to buy a ticket before boarding or else they get kicked off. It's all a bit scary. I've been out for a Saturday morning ride on these new urban monsters, just to see how they and the travelling public are coping, and initial reports are not good.
The 25 starts its ten mile journey into civilisation just opposite the Oxfam shop on Ilford High Street. I hopped on through the rear door, just for the novelty value, and perched on a raised seat near the bendy bit in the middle. The bus smelt like the inside of a freshly purchased new car, deceptively spacious but still clean and gleaming. Hydraulics tilted the bus slightly towards the pavement at each stop to increase accessibility, the bell rang with a satisfying non-artificial ding, and none of the on-board Oyster card readers beside the second and third doors were yet functional. It was clear that our driver wasn't used to driving a 60 foot snake, so he edged gingerly round the narrow bends on the Ilford one-way system. "You've just got to keep thinking thin," he said to the bus company operative keeping a careful eye on him.
At the second stop outside Ilford Library a young Asian lady tried to board without having bought a ticket. The driver sent her back to the machine on the pavement and kindly waited while she tried desperately to stick a pound in. "It's only a machine, you only got to put money it!" said our driver, helpfully. Except this machine wasn't working properly and it took ages for her to extricate a small piece of paper from the slot at the bottom. By the time a second passenger had gone through the same rigmarole we were already running four minutes late. The driver learnt his lesson and whenever ticketless passengers tried to board later in the journey he sent them packing and drove off without them.
The bus chugged on through Manor Park and Forest Gate, slowly filling up with Saturday morning shoppers. Soon all the seats were taken and it was standing room only, although nobody seemed to want to stand on the bend in the middle for some reason. Passengers hadn't quite got the hang of being allowed to board through all three doors and so most queued up at the front door, only to squeeze on and discover that most of the remaining space was right down at the back. It's a long and difficult walk down a crowded aisle full of strap-hangers, eventually an impossible one, and as we approached Stratford the bus soon became front-heavy. It wasn't the most pleasant travelling experience for those forced to stand.
All this waiting around while passengers try to board isn't helping the buses to run regularly. The 25 is supposed to run every 6-8 minutes but instead these bendy buses appear to be bunching up with big long gaps inbetween. They seem to be running in pairs most of the time, the second emptier bus too cumbersome to overtake the first. At one stage I saw no buses passing the other way for about quarter of an hour, then six buses all within two minutes. The photo above shows four 25s queued up outside Bow Church, like a solid wall of red approaching the flyover. The front bus was packed, the second busy and the rear two almost empty. What a way to run a service.
Along the route a number of Transport for London employees were standing around in special red baseball caps handing out leaflets, generally at the least busy bus stops. One of them poked her head in to ask the driver if he'd tried out his ramp yet. He hadn't. In fact our only semi-disabled passenger had boarded at the rampless front door then struggled to hobble on crutches down the gangway, muttering "'kin assholes" under his breath. Given the speed that the swish new electric doors slam shut I wouldn't be surprised if these buses create more wheelchair-bound passengers than they transport. A ticket inspector climbed aboard along the Whitechapel Road, failing to find anyone who'd sneaked on without paying. It won't last.
We sped through the City, always deserted at weekends, until we were diverted off down an awkward sidestreet behind St Paul's to avoid major roadworks. Our driver took it slowly and thought thin. Down Oxford Street we joined the usual bus-jam, our now half-empty juggernaut taking up vastly unnecessary roadspace. At Oxford Circus we followed the new 25 route left into Regent Street (because these lumbering buses aren't very good at turning right) before pulling to a final stop outside John Lewis. It felt a very long way from the Oxfam shop in Ilford, and a very long way from the horse-drawn omnibuses that used to drive into London down the Mile End Road 150 years ago. I took the tube home - I fancied a seat.
• Route 25: anorak-level bus information
• Route 25: anorak-level route information
• Route 25: journey time and connections
• Route 25: timetable
• Matt's report on the new bendy 25s
Square Routes: Day 6 x 6
Bus 36: New Cross - Queen's Park
Location: London southeast-northwest, inner
Length of journey: 9 miles, 65 minutes
And now for something just a little bit special. The 36 is one of London's seven remaining Routemaster routes, or at least it is for the next couple of months. I rode it just in time because on 28th January next year all the Routemasters on route 36 are due to be whisked away and replaced by a fleet of anonymous (but accessible) buses. The accessibility argument is especially weak in this case because the 36 is shadowed along almost all of its route by bendy bus route 436. Given the choice, as far as I could tell, passengers waiting at bus stops were far more likely to board a friendly 36 than an impersonal 436 if both arrived together.
The 36 is the longest of London's remaining Routemaster routes, crossing the capital from southeast to northwest. The route used to be even longer (and there used to be a 36A and 36B too) but the original southern terminus at Hither Green was cut back to Lewisham in 1991 and shorn still further in 1994. The route now begins in New Cross, just along the road from the bus garage, and it was here that I leapt onto the open platform ready to be carried away. The bus headed off on a direct line through South Caribbean London, where fast food shops sell patties instead of burgers and where plantains are ten for a pound. We passed shabby old housing infilled with trendy new apartment blocks, we squeezed through the bustling pedestrianised main shopping street in Peckham and the engine throbbed as we queued to traverse the ancient crossroads at Camberwell Green.
I was surprised to discover that a TV screen had been placed just above the window at the front of this old Routemaster, broadcasting a diet of adverts, news, adverts, information and more adverts to the captive audience on the upper deck. I watched Michael Palin dash through the Arctic pulled by huskies approximately every ten minutes throughout the journey and I learned that transferring money to Ghana and Cameroon needn't cost the earth with Cashmo. Most eerie of all, however, were the occasional live shots taken by a small black and white camera positioned just above the bus's rear platform. Watching people hopping on and off was like viewing an old sepia film from yesteryear, and a reminder of these buses' long and distinguished heritage.
In Kennington I was treated to a grandstand view of the Oval cricket ground (now the ghastly-named Brit Oval) and of a vast crescent of green plastic seats which next month will be opened as the redeveloped Vauxhall End. We drove on round Vauxhall Cross, a giant ring road which has been undergoing a radical facelift for what seems like forever. In the centre of the roundabout lay a gleaming new bus station with futuristic steel canopy, but completion was running months behind schedule and, when we passed by, the slip road remained barriered to all traffic. (Update: the bus station opened on Saturday) On our way across Vauxhall Bridge we passed the landmark owl-shaped towers of St George Wharf, while over the river in upmarket Pimlico I spotted "Noel Coward House" (you wouldn't get away with a name like that in South London).
At Victoria the bus's clientele altered - south London disembarked and north London clambered aboard. Two hoodied boys bounded up to the top deck and spent the next 15 minutes discussing PlayStation strategy in white middle-class street patois ("did ya see the boss demon on the next level, well hard he was"). Leaf fall along Grosvenor Place allowed us to see directly into the Queen's back garden (nice tennis courts you have there, Ma'am). Up at Speaker's Corner the audience numbered only six, so there was no need for one over-optimistic orator to have brought a stepladder along with him. And a volley of passengers leapt off the platform at the Royal Oak traffic lights, as if making up for the fact that they won't be able to do so in two months time.
The final leg of the journey headed northwest into inner suburbia, crossing over the main Paddington railway line, beneath the concrete pillars of the A40 Westway and above the Grand Union canal. Our bus played leapfrog with another, each taking on passengers at alternate stops as we wended our way through the last few streets of terraced villas. Our destination was a quiet triangle of roads beside Queen's Park station, at which point the conductor babysat the bus for a couple of minutes while the driver popped off to the nearby corner shop. Two Routemaster fans were standing around snapping photos of the doomed buses as each pulled up. I joined them and made three.
• Route 36: anorak-level bus information
• Route 36: anorak-level route information
• Route 36: journey time and connections
• Route 36: timetable
Square Routes: Day 7 x 7
Bus 49: Shepherd's Bush - Clapham
Location: London southwest, inner
Length of journey: 6 miles, 50 minutes"We must ask ourselves what the man on the Clapham omnibus would think." (Lord Justice Bowen, 1903)According to legal counsel, the man on the Clapham omnibus is the 'ordinary, reasonable man', intelligent but non-specialist. So I thought that on this journey I'd look inside the bus for a change, observing "everyman" to see what he was doing and listening in to what he had to say. I was helped in my quest by the 49's on-board camera system which relayed seven different interior shots onto a screen directly in front of me throughout the journey. And I suspect that things have changed somewhat on the Clapham omnibus since 1903.
The man on the Clapham omnibus...
...is wearing a fleece, is listening to music on headphones, has been playing kickabout on Shepherd's Bush Green, is carrying 12 cans of cheap lager in a Morrison's carrier bag, is plugged into his Nokia phone, is young and overweight, is reading a discarded tabloid, is wearing a cheap suit, is "going to meet Dom", is sitting on the back seat with his two hungover mates, says he should have got off at the last stop, is wearing grey sweatpants, is reading a London tourist guide, is accidentally dropping books onto the floor out of a Waterstones bag, is drinking a bottle of Strathmore water, is talking into his mobile in Japanese, hasn't shaved, is probably single, is carrying a manbag, is listening to the women on the Clapham omnibus discussing hair extensions, has big teeth, is eating something that smells like macaroni cheese, is wearing a baseball cap, is breathing out alcohol, has spent £50 at the Virgin megastore in Kensington High Street, is out with his wife, is wearing a scarf, is gossiping in French, is clutching a printed out map, is carrying a green rucksack, is lugging a pushchair on board, has been to the National History Museum with his son, isn't driving a 4x4 like everyone else in Kensington, is sipping a steaming latté, is off to buy antiques in the Kings Road, is bald, is discussing Chelsea Harbour in a loud voice, is drinking Fanta, is carrying a set of golf clubs, is cradling his sleeping girlfriend on his shoulder, is bashing on the ceiling yelling "Last stop, all change".
• Route 49: anorak-level bus information
• Route 49: anorak-level route information
• Route 49: journey time and connections
• Route 49: timetable
Square Routes: Day 8 x 8
Bus 64: Thornton Heath - New Addington
Location: London south, outer
Length of journey: 8 miles, 30 minutes
There are two ways to get from Croydon to New Addington by public transport. Not that I'm quite sure why anyone would ever want to. New Addington is a giant council estate, more the sort of place you'd want to get away from. You can take the bus, as the locals used to do until 2000, or you can take the new tram. The tram is now by far the more popular route, and rightly so. Me, the rules said I had to take the bus instead.
My 64 journey started at Thornton Heath Pond, just north of Croydon. I didn't spot the pond anywhere, just a giant bus garage and a lot of big 1930s houses, but no doubt they all suffer from waterlogged foundations. It's only a few minutes down the London Road (one of 21 roads in the capital with that name), past the worryingly named Mayday Hospital, into the bustling centre of Croydon. We stopped off at the bus station so that I could be tempted into catching the tram instead (must... resist...), then skirted the enormous retail nirvana that is the Whitgift Centre. Armies of Christmas shoppers emerged, blinking, into the daylight with an armful of carrier bags and a still-warm credit card.
Outside East Croydon station the bus and the tram lined up as if for a race, competing for passengers. We lost. The tram scuttled off down what used to be a main road, heading for New Addington via the direct scenic route, while we headed for the hills. It's a bit of a shock to an East End resident like me to realise that London has contours, but the Croham Valley has them in abundance. Hills, tree-lined avenues, views, vistas, lovingly-tended rugby pitches... and above all money. Huge detached mock tudor mansions lined the roads, like little suburban empires, with the majority of front gardens paved over to accommodate the family's collection of gleaming cars. Might explain why nobody at all got on the bus, or got off for that matter.
We skimmed through Selsdon with its traditional parade of shops (one florist, no kebab shops), then on past contrasting estates of pebbledash and redbrick. Ahead of us was historic Addington Palace, which in the 19th century was home to the Archbishop of Canterbury. I once spent a day singing there, back when I was more a cherub than a geezer, so I was most disappointed to discover that this great house is now a sports club and 'perfect wedding venue'. At last the bus met up with those telltale parallel tracks again, and traffic lights suddenly switched to let the next tram glide ahead of us. A big bus/tram interchange has been built here in a field in the middle of nowhere, where local estate residents are supposed to transfer onto feeder buses. They don't, they stay on the tram and then walk home, so an army of unwanted bus drivers stands around beside the portakabin waiting for custom.
The 64 ascends its final hill before grinding to a halt beside a non-descript parade of shops, just beside the tram terminus. New Addington's not a bad council estate, as overspill estates go, but it is enormous and somewhat lacking in character. And lacking in railway stations, the nearest being a three mile drive away, which is why they brought Tramlink here in the first place. It's revitalised the area, bringing commutability to these former fields on the very outskirts of London. And yes, I returned to Croydon by tram. Faster service, comfier seats, more legroom, and a scenic switchback ride back through a rich swathe of forest. No wonder nobody takes the bus.
• Route 64: anorak-level bus information
• Route 64: anorak-level route information
• Route 64: timetable
• Official tram site: from Transport for London
• Unofficial Tramlink website: far far far better than the official one
• Croydon Tramline album: another tramspotter's page
Square Routes: Day 9 x 9
Bus 81: Hounslow - Slough
Location: London west, outer
Length of journey: 12 miles, 55 minutes
The 81 heads west out of west London and keeps going, and keeps going, right off the edge of the map. I think (and Matt will undoubtedly tell me if I'm wrong) that the 81 is the London bus route that terminates the furthest away from the centre of the capital. About 25 miles away, in this case. And, as for that final distant destination, I had hoped I'd seen the last of this particular town earlier this year when my bosses sanely decided not to relocate my workplace in this far-flung hellhole. But no, here I was destined to return. Bloody square numbers.
Hounslow felt far west enough, but this was merely where my journey on the 81 began. The bus station here has seen better days, just eight featureless bus bays beneath an ancient roof, and thankfully due to be rebuilt before the end of the decade. I could have bought a halal burger for just £1.50 nextdoor in the Hounslow Snack Bar but I chose not to. The town centre was thronging with red and white buses, while jet planes droned overhead on their final approach into Heathrow. I didn't think the shopping centre was too bad actually, but then I'm used to East London and almost anywhere else's shops are better than that.
In the High Street our bus was boarded by a teenage single mother in a bright pink coat with white fur trim. At first glance her hair appeared blond, but closer inspection showed that her roots were as black as her eyeliner. She carefully manoeuvred a giant pink three-wheeler pram (with leopardskin trim) into the wheelchair space, then settled down to flick through something important on her mobile phone. The pram was full of cuddly toys, its interior completely sealed off from the outside world by a protective plastic covering. Of the baby itself I neither saw nor heard any trace for the entire journey.
We followed the old Bath Road out of Hounslow, then took the A4 along the northern perimeter of Heathrow Airport. I ducked instinctively as an Air China jumbo screamed unexpectedly low above our heads. The airport stretched out beside us for a good three miles, a mass of towers and tailfins and terminals. On the opposite side of the road stood an endless succession of anonymous shoeboxes, or 'hotels', where weary business travellers prepared to spend yet another lonely night emptying the minibar. Near the motorway slip road the bus was boarded by a swarm of off-duty cleaners and service staff, heading west away from their menial jobs towards where the cheaper housing is. Some town planning joker had named a nearby cul-de-sac 'Heathrow Close', which was an understatement.
Suddenly we were crossing over six lanes of snarled-up traffic on the M25 and making a clean break out of London. Grey gave way to green. The winding village of Colnbrook looked like it had been successfully saved from the ravages of 75 years of motor damage thanks to the building of one of Britain's first bypasses. Langley was more suburban, one of its lampposts transformed into a shrine by the addition of several bouquets of flowers. The bloke beside me began to fall asleep, as if in anticipation of our final destination, gradually lowering his weary head onto my shoulder. As we swung round the M4 roundabout he woke with a start, apologised profusely to cover his embarrassment and then promptly fell asleep on my shoulder again.
And then Slough was upon us. Home of the Mars Bar, birthplace of Thunderbirds and an inspiration to John Betjeman. Or, as far as I could tell through the bus window, a fairly typical modern town with a huge shopping centre, lot of cars and no character. My apologies to those who live and work here, but I'm glad that I do neither. We made a full circuit of 'that roundabout you see in the opening titles of The Office' before pulling up just outside the equally legendary Brunel Bus Station. It's a grim building, dark and filthy and forgotten. My photo shows the westernmost bus stop on the entire London Transport bus network, where a line of Slough residents waited to board escape vehicle 81 back to civilisation. I had the choice of a dingy subway leading south towards the delights of the town centre or a short walk to the railway station and a fast exit. I'm sure you can guess which route I chose.
• Route 81: anorak-level route information
• Route 81: timetable
Square Routes: Day 10 x 10
Bus 100: Shadwell - Elephant & Castle
Location: London east, inner
Length of journey: 6 miles, 40 minutes
And finally, route 100 - possibly the bendiest bus route in London. I don't think I've ever been driven around quite so many corners as I was on this particular bus journey. Our little single decker snaked through Shadwell, wriggled through Wapping, curled through the City and finally wound up at the Elephant. And it all began down one of the most infamous streets in East London.
The 'Battle of Cable Street' was a pre-war watershed in the British fight against facsism. Back in October 1936 Sir Oswald Mosley aimed to stir up racial tension by rallying his loyal Blackshirts for a march through the Jewish East End of London. But he had reckoned without the strength of feeling of ordinary Londoners who were determined that the march should not pass. They set up barricade after barricade down Cable Street using bricks, barrels, corrugated iron, paving stones, timber planks and a builder's lorry. A pitched battle was fought, not against the fascists but against the police who had come to bring order to the streets. Stones were thrown, batons were raised and several participants were either injured or arrested. The protest had the desired outcome, however, and Mosley's march was re-routed west into the City where it soon dispersed. Sir Oswald would no doubt be appalled by modern Shadwell and its integrated multi-ethnic mix. The Itthadi Supermarket now stands side by side with Peter's Pie and Mash, and a giant mural on the side of the Old Town Hall commemorates the day the flames of intolerance were snuffed out.
We headed south into Wapping past the monolithic headquarters of News International and the failed retail centre at Tobacco Dock. Where Shadwell had been poor, Wapping was bubbling over with unexpected affluence. The bus squeezed down narrow cobbled streets, the old dockland wharves to either side now converted en masse into elegant yuppie housing. Pirates used to be executed round here, now estate agents sell off studio flats for criminal amounts. Remind me to come back and blog about Wapping properly sometime, it's a fascinating and historic place.
The City of London may only cover one square mile, but our journey aboard the 100 appeared to thread around most of it. To our right the Royal Mint, to our left the Tower of London, to our left the Gherkin, to our right the Barbican, to our left the Museum of London, to our right St Paul's Cathedral, and to our left an enormous crane blocking the road while topping out yet another enormous new office block. The direct route from Commercial Road to Blackfriars Bridge would have been far quicker, but not half as interesting.
We then began our final descent into South London, speeding past Southwark station, rounding St George's Circus and lurching towards our destination at Elephant and Castle. Words cannot describe the awfulness of the shopping centre here (except for words such as 'hideous', 'over-pink' and 'poverty-stricken'). The market clinging to the pavement outside the main entrance was wretched enough but the bleak selection of shops inside was even worse, reminiscent of some struggling postwar Eastern European state. The quicker they knock this place down the better, although I believe 2010 is the earliest likely date. I had to leave - my tenth and final Square Route had finally driven me round the bend.
• Route 100: journey time and connections
• Route 100: timetable
Square Routes (the journeys I didn't make)
121: Enfield Lock → Wood Green (outer London, north)
144: Muswell Hill → Edmonton Green (outer London, north)
169: Barking → Barkingside (outer London, northeast)
196: Brixton → Norwood Junction (outer London, south)
225: Lewisham → Bermondsey (inner London, southeast)
256: Noak Hill → Hornchurch (outer London, northeast)
289: Purley → Elmers End (outer London, south)
441: Englefield Green → Heathrow Airport (outer London, southwest)
484: Lewisham → Camberwell (inner London, southeast)
625: Plumstead Common → Chislehurst (outer London, southeast) [schoolbus]
729: Sutton → Bluewater (outer London, southeast) [limited service, Saturdays only]
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