Monday, January 06, 2014

Two years ago I decided to take a red bus journey from one side of London to the other. It took four-and-a-bit buses altogether, from Bluewater to Uxbridge via Parliament Square, providing me with a top-deck cross-sectional view of the capital. This year I've decided to go orbital instead. I plan to ride all the way around London by bus, about 150 miles all told, sticking fairly close to the boundary as I go. I won't be taking the outermost bus every time, nor will I be sticking solely to TfL services if they're not the best way to go. In particular I'm avoiding dead ends and loops, because I'm trying to keep the number of buses to a minimum. With judicious selection of routes I reckon I can get around the edge of town in about 25 buses.

492 >> R11 >> R8 >> 464 >> 64 >> 412 >> 166 >> 467 >> 71 >>

» A map of my journey

 Route 492: Bluewater - Foots Cray

 Length of journey: 13 miles, 65 minutes

I'm starting way out east, far beyond the London boundary, in a quarry in the Kentish borough of Dartford. TfL despatch three different buses out here, benefiting those who live along the way as well as those who want to go to the shops. There's not much reason to come to Bluewater other than shopping, although it is an excellent bus interchange for services to inner Kent. The car park was filling up fast when I arrived, because traipsing round the triangular mall counts as a day out for many, plus there was ice skating on the go somewhere within. I didn't have time to hit the sales, which did feel like a somewhat wasted visit after all the effort of trekking here in the first place, but my bus was due.

The 492 runs half-hourly to Sidcup, which is a very long way, but then most of London's longest bus routes are on the outskirts. It's also one of London's higher numbered buses, again characteristic of the outer suburbs, and I'll be riding another four hundred and ninety something further round on my orbital journey. I wasn't expecting a double decker, I didn't think the route would merit it, but I was pleased to get the opportunity to grab a top deck front seat (against minimal opposition). I'd have preferred it had the interior not smelt of fermentation, though I was unable to determine whether the cause was discarded fruit, spilt beer or worse as the journey progressed.

An intricate system of roads and roundabouts led us out of the chalk pit, past a silver reindeer installed for Yule, and up to a broad dual carriageway. Ahead the QE2 bridge was visible - this the reason that I've had to start my journey way out in Kent. Only one TfL bus crosses the Thames to the east of Tower Bridge, this the 108 through the Blackwall Tunnel, so I'm going to need a provincial service to get me back to Bluewater when this journey reaches its end. Instead the 492 turns left up London Road past The Bull (once ordinary pub, now 'Flaming Grill') and The Welcome Inn (once ordinary pub, now 'The Bridge Cafe'). We'd entered the village of Stone, where quarries and spoil have left their mark on the landscape, though often reclaimed. One extensive hillock was sealed off with notices warning "Private Land - No Grazing of Horses Allowed", blatantly flaunted by an equine herd 100 strong.

Ahead we crossed the M25, or in fact the A282 whose brief trans-Thames span creates the sole break in the orbital motorway ring. Then we were onto Watling Street, a much older roadway, lined by splendidly ordinary late Victorian terraces. East Hill leads down, fairly steeply, to the lowest point of the Darent Valley. This was the cue to enter the Dartford one-way system, which heading west enters the High Street, then swings out towards a mini bus station opposite the Rumpy Cafe. A particularly large lorry had parked on the bend outside the museum, requiring our driver to show exceptional skill to negotiate through the 'gap' which remained. And then on, past two Dartford Grammar Schools for Boys and for Girls, only one of which boasts The Mick Jagger Centre for the performing arts within its grounds.

Mick's childhood home was on Denver Road, the end of which the 492 passes just before exiting Kent for London. It was hard to spot the dividing line at the foot of Chastilian Road, but the bins were the giveaway, with Bexley's considerably thinner and less generous than those across the street in Dartford. We sped (not too fast) down the hill into Crayford, which is something of a transport bottleneck, and where the former Town Hall is rapidly being transformed into flats (all sold). A retail park has swallowed up the heart of town, while a mega-Sainsbury's has squatted on most of the land nearby. Here we waited to catch up with the timetable, giving time for a young mother to arrive with daughter in tow and contactless Barclaycard in hand. "Can we go up top?" pleaded the youngster, for whom the top deck would be an adventure, but boring Mum didn't like stairs so sank into a mundane seat by the door.

We climbed out of Crayford past the One Bell Inn to the very old parish church on the hill. There was time for one last view of the QE2 Bridge, and to pass a sports club proudly announcing Mid Kent Metal Recycling as their football team's sponsor. Hundreds of thousands of Londoners live on streets like Mayplace Road - nothing special but nice enough, with a parade of useful shops to nip to halfway down. And then suddenly we encroached on Bexleyheath, the municipal centre hereabouts, where the central streets have recently been rejigged to improve bus access. Umpteen services pull in beside the clocktower in the main shopping street, but waiting passengers rushed to catch something else, not our bus, which sat and waited some more. At least we were more fractionally more popular than the mini fairground rides sitting empty and childless on the piazza in the drizzle.

Exit from Bexleyheath was via Gravel Hill, which sweeps down to the A2 in grand curves. Here on the banks of the River Cray is Hall Place, a marvellous composite mansion with rose lawns and bestial topiary. It's one of the pleasantest attractions most Londoners have never been to, but the gardens looked mostly empty on a drizzly winter's day, so best save your visit for later in the year. Ahead lay Bexley Village, a nucleus of narrow streets with barely a chain store in sight, after which the surrounding borough is named. Only two buses turn left, ourselves and the legendary B12 to Joydens Wood, but that turns off just beyond the mill and parish church. We still had passengers, a fair few, though none were doing anything of interest. I always hope on these journeys that some onboard incident will erupt, or some conversation of note will transpire, but the 492 wasn't playing ball.

I'd never been down the next road before, a two mile dual carriageway scything along the Cray Valley (but thankfully missing the prettiest waterside bits). It starts at a roundabout that exists solely for U-turns and continues past meadows, farms, garden centres, and the occasional house. Further U-turn breaches are required in the central reservation for the benefit of very local traffic, which would be farmers and patrons of the White Cross pub. We passed a Q-reg milkfloat, and a Grade II listed care home, and a place that sells sheds, on the run-up to the less verdant North Cray estate. The final roundabout at Ruxley Corner has been sponsored by the adjacent Toyota dealer, and provides access to the A20. Instead we headed up Foots Cray High Street (a name which sounds more important than it is), where I did something highly unusual on a blogged bus journey, I got off before the end. 13 miles down, and so many more to go.

» route 492 - timetable
» route 492 - route history
» route 492 - live bus map
» route 492 - The Ladies Who Bus

It seemed clear that the next stage of my round London bus journey needed to head towards Orpington. But how to get there? To properly follow the edge of the London bus network would require taking at least four buses, each round a separate housing estate, including the R6, R4 and R9. I thought that was overdoing it, not least because I'd have some very long waits in the middle of nowhere, but also because I'm not forcing myself to ride the actual perimeter. Instead I chose to ride just one bus, almost along the edge, to get to my rendezvous with bus three. Even then there was a choice of two - the 51 or the R11. I should have taken the former, it runs slightly further out, but I'm saving that up for a future birthday. So instead I took the R11, and realised a childhood dream along the way. Don't get too excited.

 Route R11: Foots Cray - Orpington

 Length of journey: 5 miles, 30 minutes

There are a lot of Crays round here, almost an entire brotherhood. Crayford and North Cray we've journeyed through already, St Paul's Cray and St Mary Cray are coming up, and Foots Cray is where we are now. Foots Cray's riverside meadows are the best bit, especially the Five Arch Bridge, but that's quite a walk from the dull crossroads at the foot of Sidcup Hill where I changed buses. An off licence, a double glazing shop and a sandwich bar, these are some of the highlights, plus the chartered accountants on the corner with the big gold clock. It may not be your idea of somewhere important, but I suspect the sandwich shop is where BestMate once regularly bought his lunch, and that's good enough for me.

The R11 is the highest-numbered of eleven R-lettered buses to serve the Orpington area, and the only one not to serve the town's main railway station. It shuttles between Sidcup and Green Street Green, which is possibly the only place in London to repeat a word in its name. The bus doesn't go straight, it does the linking places thing, so it's not as busy as the direct 51. But it boasted more than its fair share of ladies with bags - large bulky shopping bags, even a stereotypical tartan trolley stashed in the luggage section at the front. This'd be because the first thing the bus did on leaving Foots Cray was deviate to an enormous Tesco. They do that sort of thing, outer London buses - supermarkets, stations and hospitals, the holy trinity.

The R11's diversion involved an extra trip across the Cray, reversing at a tiny turning circle and the opportunity to pick up people dangling weekly provisions. Nobody boarding the bus had availed themselves of a cup of national-chain coffee from the barista near the checkouts - I suspect they sell more to the car drivers. Imminent scenic highlights included the underside of the Sidcup bypass, a technology college and a scrap heap piled high with twisted metal. We turned right into the LCC estates of St Paul's Cray, past the first stop, and up it came. There on the electronic display, the next stop... Croxley Green. And that's where I knew I had to get off.
I found it in an A-Z sometime in the 1970s. I was looking in the index for the village where I lived and there it was, this 'other' place called Croxley Green, a street name somewhere in St Thingy's Cray. The map offered other hints of SW Hertfordshire in the road names - a Crescent called Chorleywood, a Road called Chipperfield, a Way called Whippendell. These were located about as far across London as it was possible to get, so I didn't think I'd ever go, I mean whyever would I? But here I was at last, stepping off the bus to explore.

I was pleased by Croxley Green's sheer ordinariness. A street of 50 houses all told, in a variety of styles, none especially ostentatious, none verging on slums. Up one end they were semi-detached, at the other mostly bungalows. Several were brick terraces with a hint of council house, others part of a very understated development of once-new-build flats. One homeowner was out front cleaning his car, front door wide open, while another house boasted no fewer that four vehicles crammed into what remained of the front garden and the pavement outside. A lady wandered past leading a small terrier, while a bloke in hoodie and trackies hobbled very slowly by on crutches. Damp cardboard packaging on a verge revealed that someone hereabouts was given "World of Lagers" for Christmas, and had sampled the lot.

Beyond the central crossroads was a turn-off for a rather more modern close, some kind of municipal infill, and then the street became a cul-de-sac. At the far end was a large patch of grass where the tarmac might have continued, blocked by two rows of concrete bollards. I stepped off the pavement onto the grass, looking carefully lest I step in anything untoward, but the locals must clean up after their dogs with diligence so I trod in safety. Here I could look back on the houses with their low hedges and satellite dishes, past one final street sign displaying the name of my childhood home. Croxley Green could easily have been a street in Croxley Green, I decided, and returned to its bus stop with a smile.
It felt a long way round the rest of the R11's estate loop, perhaps because we were running behind another service and it wasn't possible to overtake. Every time the B14 stopped we stopped, and everybody boarded their bus not ours, that is until we reached the station and only we had seats remaining. Here I grimaced at the lettering on the bus stop, with B 1 4 | R 1 | R 1 1 spaced out by some typeface pedant with zero interest in readability. If that's you at TfL Towers with the jobsworth kerning rulebook, oi, please stop it. And so we continued, with a fresh contingent of furry hoods and pink umbrellas now aboard, returning to join the queueing traffic on the main road.

The queues were courtesy of an out-of-town shopping mall, seemingly quite a good one, though with both an HMV and a Clintons Cards there might be a vacant lot here soon. We sped up afterwards, past a major southern outpost of Allied Bakeries with dozens of Kingsmill lorries parked out front. Commercial/industrial then gave way to patches of meadow/park, with ponds in Priory Gardens marking the point where the River Cray rises. It was hard to see Orpington High Street properly with the bus's windows part-opaque through rain, but the retail offering slowly rose from a reptile shop via a skunkworks to the full shopping centre selection. It's nice and self-contained is Orpington, thanks to its roots as a Kentish market town, and chock full too with buses. The ideal spot therefore for me to hop off and wait for the next.

» route R11 - timetable
» route R11 - route history
» route R11 - live bus map
» route R11 - The Ladies Who Bus

Orpington's 'R' bus network is unlike that anywhere else in London. It was created in 1987, around the time of bus deregulation, as a pilot scheme creating a "midibus" network from scratch. Old routes were replaced by new, supporting a mostly rural area with smaller buses running more frequent services. The 'R' in each bus's designation has nothing to do with ORpington, it stands for Roundabout, the name of the first company charged with running this pioneering franchise (much more information here). Today's route started out as the R2, but was renumbered R8 in 2004 (much more information here). It's also run, I think, by the smallest buses in London, little minibuses barely seven metres long. My orbital journey has hit the jackpot here.

 Route R8: Orpington - Biggin Hill

 Length of journey: 7 miles, 25 minutes

As many as 17 different buses pass the stop at Orpington War Memorial. Some run regularly, others spaced much further apart, so the Countdown display is particularly important. If yours isn't due you can nip into the McDonalds alongside, many do, or try your luck in the pawnbrokers nextdoor. It's a splendidly ordinary bit of High Street, this, a dual-facing parade not yet bereft of shoppers, though somewhat diminished by the enormous Tesco round the corner. With so many waiting the shelter can get a bit crowded, but numbers flush out when one of the long distance double deckers pulls up. This helps when it's chucking it down, as you might be able to squeeze in at the back in front of the margarine ad and keep dry. Is that a tiny minibus I see?

The R8 runs every 70 minutes. It used to be every hour, but the buses kept being held up round the lanes so the service became unreliable. They've been having similar issues on the joint R5/R10 route which runs out to neighbouring villages on the edge of Kent, so TfL recently held a consultation about reducing the frequency. Don't take our buses away said the locals, we rely on them to connect with the real world, any anyway the single decker you're using is too big for the narrow lanes. Thank you for your feedback, said TfL, but we're going to reduce the frequency anyway, and now the single deckers arrive every 75 minutes instead of every 60. You have to know the timetable on the edge of rural Bromley, you can't just turn up and go.

Eight of us boarded the Solo SE minibus that pulled up outside McDonalds. The vehicle could have fitted double that, plus the same again standing had it been some sort of extreme rush hour. The R8's entire fleet consists of two buses, only one of which is in service at any one time, with the other always there as backup. It's a dinky little vehicle, though still with plenty of space for a wheelchair, such is TfL's commitment to step-free access. It's also a bit dark aboard, with the whole back of the bus covered up, but a skylight acts as an emergency exit which sheds some light. Enough space on the back seat for three girls heading home from shopping, one asking their mates if they'd ever tried advocaat because "it makes this really nice drink called a snowball." I blame the parents.

For the first five minutes or so nothing geographically unusual happened. The street past the War Memorial is very ordinary, very residential, and served by rather more buses than you'd think necessary. As if to prove this one retired couple alighted after only a few stops and huddled off into the downpour towards some local Shangri-La. They could have caught any of the five services down Green Street Green High Street but merely caught the first that turned up, our miniature rarity. We passed a 'Frigidaire Equipped' launderette, and a pub called The Buff (no doubt full of drinkers making "I'm in The Buff" jokes). Our journey nearly got as far as Waitrose, then hairpinned back towards Farnborough - another London village most Londoners have never heard of. And then it got unusual.

Hang on, we've just turned left down a country lane. London buses don't tend to do this, mostly because London isn't the country, but this entire corner is. Shire Lane is a proper hedgerow wiggler, with woodland and fields stretching off to each side. That I think was the entrance to High Elms Country Park, not that there was a bus stop or anything useful, our vehicle just kept ploughing on. And then we turned left again, and that's when it got really unusual.

Hang on, we've just turned left down a single track country lane. London buses really don't tend to do this, because there might be something coming the other way, but this bus does. There are passing places every so often, if required, but thankfully there was absolutely nothing coming as we sped on. I swear my subconscious recognised one brief stretch of the lane from walking the London Loop, not that I realised I was walking 100 metres of a bus route at the time. A wholly abnormal route down an entirely atypical road in a wholly exceptional vehicle, and still more to come. Which bus driver wouldn't enjoy this switchback ride more than a bumper to bumper crawl down Oxford Street?

The village down the lane is called Downe, which at first looks like a hamlet, then reveals itself as a pretty rural hub with parish church and a couple of pubs. Again I had to pinch myself to think 'London', but this lot pay their council tax and vote for Boris just as much as the rest of us. They don't catch the bus, though. Nobody alighted, and nobody flagged us down outside the village hall, as if we needn't have bothered coming. But I was glad we had because we were about to pass one of the most important houses in London, nay the world. Down House was the home of Charles Darwin, it's where he assembled his theory of evolution, and the R8 passes right by the front gate. English Heritage only open up at weekends in the winter, but I can strongly recommend a tour (entrance in 1971 was 25p, today £10). Ding and the driver'll drop you off, it's Hail and Ride for the next couple of miles.

The next village past Darwin's back garden is Luxted. This is much more diffuse, essentially a long string of detached houses along a single track road called Single Street. Each house sprawls rather than hides, in that carefree way that rural residences do when the owners think that almost nobody's going to drive past. Nobody got off here either, most probably because they had a choice of cars to use instead. We met one of these coming the other way and had to employ the Passing Places Protocol, but other than that we kept strictly to timetable.

At Berry Green there were actual bus stops, because Jail Lane is actual civilisation. There was even actual pavement shortly after as we started the long run in to Biggin Hill. Technically this is Cudham, yet another barely-London village, or at least this is where the primary school is located. Further up the road is the secondary school, named after you-know-who the local scientist, and the R8 brings not many of its pupils to the front gate daily. Bungalows, bungalows, bungalows... this was no longer the rural idyll our half dozen passengers had enjoyed earlier. And while they stayed on board to ride to the heart of Biggin Hill proper I had no need, so alighted early by the war memorial, and dripped some more.

» route R8 - timetable
» route R8 - route history
» route R8 - live bus map
» route R8 - The Ladies Who Bus

Biggin Hill 's probably the place in London worst served by rail, there being no station within a radius of about five miles. All of this makes the bus very important, unless you have a car (or in this case perhaps a plane). It boasts two services to Bromley and two to Orpington, and then there's today's cross country route. There's a good reason it's not a double decker.

 Route 464: Biggin Hill - New Addington

 Length of journey: 3 miles, 10 minutes

I fear I rode the less interesting end of this route. The 464 runs all the way out to Tatsfield, the northeasternmost village in Surrey, which I understand is quaint and picturesque. I found Biggin Hill less so, although it's hard to tell when you haven't ridden through the centre. Instead I started on the northern outskirts, by the Black Horse pub, a sturdy gabled building which boasts Great Home Cooked Food Served All Day. It looks pleasant enough, but nearly lost its licence last year over accusations of crossbow attacks and drug dealing, so perhaps not. Nextdoor is Lunar Close, which is the sort of cul-de-sac you can drive home to from the Co-op in a mobility scooter, and then the floodlit War Memorial. This could have been my view for up to half an hour, but thankfully my 464 turned up rather more swiftly.

In good news, the bus runs along the edge of the famous airfield. First up are a bank of sheds and hangars, these now home to a minor trading estate accessed via the perimeter road, Churchill Way. Then comes Biggin Hill Airport proper, though it's unlikely you'll be flying from here soon. Plonked in the nearest corner is a grey monstrosity that's home to Rizonjet, a business terminal for Middle Eastern VIPs complete with luxury boardroom lounges and segregated his and hers prayer rooms. It beats queueing at Gatwick, be that on the ground or in the air. The lampposts get smaller as the dual carriageway continues, with the roadside verge offering a great view of any planes (or air shows) that might be taking off. The runway stops right alongside the road, with a bank of lights and a rather feeble looking fence the only protection should any flight ever overshoot.

The 464 turns off before the Spitfire, down an ominous slope. This is Saltbox Hill, another very atypical section of London bus route. The road's a bit narrow, so the 464's timetable has been tweaked to try to ensure that one of the two buses never meets the other bus coming the other way. The left-hand edge of the road is a wooded slope, over which it would I think be unwise to tumble, because we're entering a valley. And the gradient's steep enough to merit a 15% roadsign, and to get that special arrowed symbol marked on an Ordnance Survey map. You get these switchbacks in the provinces, sure, but it feels most odd paying by Oyster for the privilege.

Come in summer and I suspect the view's idyllic, all waving corn and contours. Over a damp New Year rather less so, although at least you can see the valley through the trees rather than experiencing the upper slopes purely by feel. And then yes, the road dives back up the other side, smartish, with the gradient meriting another OS notch. This is the delightfully-named Jewels Hill, and if anything is a bit steeper, and narrower, than the previous dip. Again anyone from Cornwall would laugh at the insignificance, but we are doing this in a London bus.

Compare and contrast. At the top of the hill, beyond the Roman Road, is the edge of one of the largest estates in London. The first sign of urban growth is the local secondary school at the end of King Henry's Drive, located where the Greenwich Meridian exits the capital. The 464 has entered New Addington, its swirling avenues nudged right up against the boundary with Surrey. This isolated residential outpost was built across fields in the 1930s and 1940s, finally completed by Croydon council in the 1960s, and is now home to over 20000 people.

New Addington doesn't have the best of reputations, but as you travel round this corner by bus it's not the housing that disappoints. The semis along Homestead Way are sturdy stock with tended front gardens, a decent amount of space for any family and relatively affordable. At any stop Duffer trackies and fur-hood anoraks might be waiting to board, perhaps a pushchair or two, but they won't be going far. The 464 stops short at Central Parade, annoyingly short of the bus station down the hill, for the good reason that there's an alternative means of escape. There may still be no trains anywhere near, but here beginneth the trams.

» route 464 - timetable
» route 464 - route history
» route 464 - live bus map
» route 464 - The Ladies Who Bus

I'm back at New Addington for the next leg of my round London bus journey. Could there be a better way to spend the weekend?

 Route 64: New Addington - Selsdon

 Length of journey: 3 miles, 15 minutes

I've blogged this bus before. Ten years ago I rode all the cube-numbered buses in London, because that made a feature, and this was bus number four. Somewhat improbably, I'm going to be riding another from that series further round my orbit. But for now I'm taking the 64 only as far as I need to, because there's no appropriate alternative. It would have been much more fun to take the T33, which is genuinely the outermost bus route hereabouts, but that starts at the bottom of the hill. Instead I'm at the tram terminus near New Addington's central parade, which for residents is as good as it gets unless they go to Croydon. Plonked into the lawn by the first stop are four wooden statues, each about six feet tall, and each depicting a different animal. Closest to the shelter is an eagle, then a dolphin, a gorilla and some sort of grizzly - all courtesy of chainsaw artist Dennis Beach who carved them on-site in 2002.

The 64 heads straight down the hill, along a grassy dual carriageway running parallel to the the trams. Occasionally the two cross, in which there are lights and the tram takes precedence. Residents wander across from the main body of the estate to escape, generally on rails, but a few joined me on the double decker instead. The view across the valley is green and pleasant, partly due to the adjacent golf course, even the occasional field of horses, but mostly because New Addington's houses are behind you. Original Addington is much smaller, nestled round an 11th century church where five Archbishops of Canterbury are buried, and a Harvester restaurant. Also at the bottom of the hill is a major bus station for interchange between tram and various local services. Running in this direction the 64 gets to circle it two and a half times, which gets a bit tedious, although the loop does provide double exposure for "The Home of Thomson - Tippers For Life" who have sponsorship of the roundabout.

After the tram diverges up Gravel Hill, the 64 continues along Selsdon Park Road. You'd think from the local parade of shops that all anyone round here does is eat, what with pizzerias and cafes and the winner of the Croydon Guardian's Curry Awards 2013. We've entered Forestdale, a planner's made-up name if ever I heard one, where rows of houses and cul-de-sacs tumble down the slope towards Selsdon Wood. Very occasionally a pre-WW1 cottage sticks out like a sore thumb, but generally this is anonymous and relatively pleasant suburbia. If you're fortunate (like me) you might spot one of London's rarest buses, the 359, which serves the Monks Hill estate less than ten times a day, and all between ten o'clock and three. If you're less fortunate (like me) you might be joined by three utterly stereotypical teens blaring tinny rap from the back seat, complete with unbleeped four letter words. One in hoodie, one in baseball cap and one what looked like a black stocking, but I didn't dare say that to his face.

Joining me at the front of the bus were Josh and Ryan, two secondary-age boys holding a conversation with each other while simultaneously on the phone. They were trying to rendezvous with five friends at a bus stop ahead, presumably for a shambling assault on central Croydon, and became more animated as Selsdon approached. I was hopping off here, just past 'Smallworths' supermarket, and spotted a proto-boyband waiting to board by the driver's door. I also spotted a suspicious looking youth in slate hoodie lurking outside the exit door, and it turned out the driver had seen him too. He flicked the door control as if trying to bat the invader out, unsuccessfully, then climbed out of his cab to remonstrate with the unwelcome passenger. It was clear the bus was going nowhere until the intruder backed down, which he eventually did, returning to mutter conspiratorially with some other lowlife on the pavement. I cheered, extremely quietly, on your behalf.

» route 64 - timetable
» route 64 - route history
» route 64 - live bus map
» route 64 - The Ladies Who Bus

Time for my orbital bus journey to leave the South East London bus map and nudge into the South West.

 Route 412: Selsdon - Purley

 Length of journey: 3 miles, 20 minutes

Selsdon's a suburb to the southeast of Croydon, just before the fields start. It has a proper high street - a run of fairly decent mostly independent shops pitched a little above the London average. But then it has a massive modern Sainsbury's, shoehorned in by the main crossroads courtesy of what looks like a cosy deal with the council. Two thirds of the building is aisles and checkouts, while the municipal remainder includes a new library, a community hall and a "please come downstairs for the cafe". Outside is a triangular traffic island, large enough for trees and grass and a clock where SELSDON replaces the numbers from 9 to 3. The 412 treats this as a roundabout, deviating off course to spin round once and pick up any shopper, or other resident, waiting to depart. The stop also serves non-London buses, such as the 409 to Caterham, which I could have caught instead but would have made my onward journey rather messier.

So no, I took the fairly quiet 412, unnecessarily a double decker from this point in its journey onwards, but who's complaining? It runs tangentially through Sanderstead, which is aspirational middle class suburbia par excellence. You can see this clearly if you look at an aerial photo, because all the residential avenues are sweeping, with uniformly large and arboreal back gardens. Here white detached houses line the streets in undulating rows, broken by the occasional golf course and lych-gated church. But what you don't get from above is a sense of the ups and downs, because this part of outer London is anything but flat. At one point a gradient sign warned 12% as we zipped down the side of a ploughed field, before re-entering a run of Tudorbethan cosiness near Riddlesdown station. And then there was a splendid reveal across a deep but narrow valley, with two separate railways down below and the residential slopes of Kenley opposite. These are the commuter hills of south London, swallowed whole before the Green Belt was created, and all much to the delight of today's residents.

We'd been making good time until we started our descent into Purley. Busy traffic on the A22 had created a jam on Downs Court Road, where it took a dozen attempts to edge downhill towards a set of filtered lights. So steeply does the land fall here that the lampposts rise to lounge level on one side of the street but above the chimneypots on the other, providing further (and lengthy) panoramic views across the rooftops. Eventually we reached the valley floor, joining a stream of motorists and dipping beneath the Brighton mainline. Ahead was Purley Cross, once no doubt a quiet intersection, now a massive gyratory beside an even bigger Tesco. We should have had right of way via a bus lane, but one driver exiting the superstore had nudged his Mercedes just too far out to allow our passage. I spotted a folded copy of the Daily Mail on his passenger seat (which is one of the advantages of nabbing the top deck front left seat) before he finally achieved escape velocity allowing us to pass. Tellingly every other passenger alighted at Tesco, leaving only me to ride one stop further to the high street to await my next bus west.

» route 412 - timetable
» route 412 - live bus map
» route 412 - The Ladies Who Bus

The 166 is a most peculiar bus route. It runs from Croydon out to Purley and Coulsdon before nudging beyond the edge of Greater London. It then serves villages along the Surrey border, generally only as far as Banstead, but intermittently extended all the way to Epsom. It's a proper London bus, funded by London taxpayers, but spends up to nine miles in alien territory. It serves, or very nearly serves, a dozen commuter-friendly railway stations. And it's also a jolly good ride out into the country, including one hill that's a genuine struggle for bus and driver alike. I enjoyed this one.

 Route 166: Purley - Epsom

 Length of journey: 11 miles, 50 minutes

If you're heading round London by bus you have to time this one right. The 166 runs three times an hour but only one of these runs all the way to Epsom, and then not evenings or on Sundays. You may end up waiting rather longer in Purley than you expected, in which case a cup of tea and cake in the Downlands Shopping Precinct might suffice. I almost got to watch some 'healers' in the precinct entrance, but arrived just as they were rolling up their healing mat with their healing hands, and packing away all their healing bits into a healing box. Several buses to Caterham and Coulsdon pulled up before my 166 arrived, a bus which was already half full from its run from Croydon. Almost precisely half full, as it turned out, with each double seat occupied by a 'selfish' single traveller, forcing me to squeeze into the legroom-free corner of the back row.

We headed south past a run of big gabled houses, most of them dentist-sized, and past several waiting passengers who weren't interested in our bus. Ahead lay Coulsdon, London's southernmost town, located at the point where three dry valleys meet. The main Brighton Road now diverts from the town centre via a sweeping bypass, but our bus turned right down the old coast road via the shops. I kept an eye open for the Bang & Olufsen where I once spent a very dull afternoon being forced to find hi-fi interesting, but I think it's finally closed after half a century's service. We rode the Chipstead Valley Road out of town, the houses here a little more mundane, and home to the little girl sat in front of me's grandma. She stopped playing with her pink tablet just long enough for her mum to pack it away, zip up her coat and bundle the pair of them off the bus. Then just beyond Woodmansterne station, and just before the railway bridge, those of us still on board exited London and headed into Surrey. I'm sure only I noticed.

A few hundred metres beyond the border is the Midday Sun, which for many years was as far as this bus went. There was a definite sense of terminus about the place as we swung off the road to wait outside what used to be a proper pub, but is now part of the Hungry Horse chain and looked like it sold as many chips as pints. And then came the most memorable section of the journey. The most direct route ahead isn't used because the lane's too narrow, so instead the bus diverts up the residential incline of Chipstead Way. Initially I didn't think the hill looked that steep, nor was our vehicle overloaded, but the bus's engine took great exception to the contours and wheezed up really slowly. Cars parked all the way down one side of the road didn't help matters, so oncoming traffic was forced to retreat into whatever spaces it could find as our snail-like juggernaut approached. A 12% section down was followed immediately by another slow chugger up, with one brief break in the houses revealing rolling downland beyond. It wouldn't have been half as much fun riding the other way.

At the top of the hill, 50 metres higher than we'd started, lay the centre of the village of Woodmansterne. The flint church had an attractively squat wooden steeple, the post office doubled up as a Londis, and there looked to be a nice pub down the lane but we didn't go that way. Instead we continued north, past a bus stop called Merrymeet, and unexpectedly nipped back into London again. We didn't linger, staying just long enough to turn left round the edge of a nondescript field. Had this been high summer it would have been ablaze with purple, because this is London's largest lavender farm, formerly an outpost for Yardley, now very independently owned. As well as gifts your gran would love it's seemingly impossible to take a bad photo here during the months of July and August, so best pencil in a visit via the 166 for six months time.

Having skirted a bit of Sutton we ploughed back into Surrey, along a winding lane lined by the occasional farm, several bungalows and somewhere to buy your kindling. Before long we reached the town of Banstead, a veritable cluster of middle class niceness complete with Waitrose and M&S Simply Food. They've still got a Bang & Olufsen, I noted, and a proper family butchers called Bettameats. As I said earlier, most 166s terminate here and head back to Croydon, but I was on the extension version and we still had several miles to go. I was particularly excited to see a gentleman in a wheelchair waiting to board with his young granddaughter in tow. Firstly, this proved that London's accessible bus fleet was doing good things even on the fringes of Surrey. But mostly I hoped I'd be able to get at least a paragraph out of the pair's exploits, and so it proved as the journey continued.

Grandpa sat backwards in the wheelchair space, a pink ballet bag draped over the arm of his vehicle, while Lizzie (not her real name) sat on an adjacent seat playing with his phone. Conversation proved difficult. She was engrossed playing Shoemaker, a game which I later discovered involved sticking jewels and lacy bits on a pair of digital high heels. "Can I have the phone when you've finished?" asked Grandpa. "It just made a noise, which means I've got a message." Lizzie played on. "Music's boring isn't it?" he tried. No reaction. Every opening gambit was batted back with a muted grunt, until eventually Grandpa insisted and was allowed to check his text. "It's from Nanny," he said. "Hello We Need An Onion For Our Cottage Pie." Suddenly the pair's journey had a purpose, which made Grandpa very happy, and one-sidedly more talkative, and then suddenly conspiratorial. "Don't tell Nanny about the Creme Eggs!" he said, three times, as if she didn't know her husband was a soft touch. And then the conversation faltered, as smartphone absorption kicked back in, and Grandpa returned to looking suspiciously at the bloke sat by the window writing notes.

During all this we'd progressed some considerable distance - past the outpost of Banstead station, up a brief detour to Drift Bridge (which sounded exciting, but proved to be a used VW dealer), and round the edge of Nork. This is surely one of the best place names in the London area, although alas Nork Way lies fractionally outside the border, and the 166 merely passes a sign to "Nork Village". It was around here that a small child called Ollie alighted, silver scooter in hand, and padded off. On any normal journey his earlier remonstrations with mum demanding to sit on the front seat would have been a narrative highlight, but Lizzie's mute defiance had stolen that crown.

A five-way roundabout heralded entrance to the Downs, and to the "Borough of Epsom and Ewell, Home of the Derby". I was surprised to see a roadsign pointing to the village of Grandstand half a mile away, then realised this was a feature of the local terribly well-known race course, its upper levels now visible across the grass. We headed nowhere near, veering right to pass close to Epsom Downs station, the not very accessible terminus of a minor commuter branch line from Sutton. And then we started the run-in to the town centre, past the college and a "Sorry driver, it's the next one!" wrong stop. I had, somehow, never been to Epsom before, but my first impressions were coloured by the major jam in the high street where everything queued to negotiate a single crossroads. I alighted here, followed closely by Grandpa and Lizzie on their onion quest, leaving the long distance 166 to complete its epic journey a little further on at the hospital.

» route 166 - timetable
» route 166 - route history
» route 166 - live bus map
» route 166 - The Ladies Who Bus
» map of my journey so far

Eight buses round my orbital route, and this is the fourth whose route number begins with 4. There is a reason for this, which is the numbering system first introduced by the London Passenger Transport Board in October 1934. Numbers below 300 were allocated to buses in central London, the 300s went to Country Area (north), and the 400s to Country Area (south). This rigid structure didn't last, but its legacy lingers. Today's first bus in fact started life as the 568, a Surrey Council route, but entered the London fold in the 1990s and earned an opening 4 for its trouble.

 Route 467: Epsom - Hook

 Length of journey: 6 miles, 30 minutes

Epsom is the non-London location served by the greatest number of London buses. Six different services flood the High Street, along with a multitude of Surrey buses in blues and greens and yellows heading elsewhere. The bussiest spot is on the High Street in the shadow of the Clocktower, where the pigeons circle in swooping loops from the roof of the Ashley Centre and back again. They don't have London bus stops here, they have white rectangles, and all the timetables look home-produced too, for which read "printed in Surrey". The 467 doesn't turn up very often, only every hour, and then not after seven in the evening (which is typical for a proper provincial bus). But the route still merits a double decker, which is extremely rare for an hourly red London bus. Or "Basic Useless Service", as the teenage boy in the smurf-like woolly hat delighted in telling his dad as they filled their time waiting for the 467 by coveting passing cars.

Escaping the first set of traffic lights took a while, then it was on down the dual carriageway High Street with the borough arms emblazoned on the central railings. Across the road I noticed a board advertising Famous Dave's Famous Cookware and Linen Sale, although that was the first I'd heard of it. And then we were off up the East Street on the way to Epsom's sister settlement of Ewell. My fellow passengers on the top deck were already being a little noisy. Smurf-boy's family had nabbed the front seats and were chattering merrily, while the mother sat behind them became increasingly animated into her phone. "I'm on the bus," she began, then berated her friend Shelley for not having taken some important object to a timely place. "So now I've got to go all the way home," she moaned, and continued to sigh frustratedly all the way to London.

We passed a weeny 470 minibus near the end of its long distance jaunt from (seriously?) Colliers Wood. And then we were rumbling into the centre of Ewell, a more characterfully compact affair with redbrick Tudor shops and the odd old pub. We rode round Bourne Hall Park, at the centre of which is a most unusual flying saucer shaped community hub (library, museum, meeting rooms, that sort of thing). What with all this weather we've been having lately the spring at the source of the Hogsmill River had overflowed out of its pool and across the pavement, extending the surface area available for ducks. Our exit through West Ewell, past Ewell West, was accompanied by the tinny sound of a YouTuber who didn't believe in headphones. Thankfully she wasn't joined by the band of sullen teenage girls with piled-up hair waiting at the next bus stop. They wanted the 418 to somewhere real, not the dead end outer suburbs.

You don't expect to see a crazy golf course packed with punters in January, but Horton Park's Jungle Adventure Golf is something else. Ten foot waterfalls tumble from fibreglass rocks while a fake snake gyrates, as if Indiana Jones might putt through at any moment. Ahead at the Bonesgate Stream, a tributary of the Hogsmill, our bus entered London for the first time. I noticed the housing estates change subtly, becoming a little less leafy, as we crossed. This council-ish outpost is the delightfully named Copt Gilders, named after the 181 acre farm it replaced, and a corner of the actual Chessington. Yes, there's not just a cripplingly expensive World of Adventures, there's a whole commuter settlement here with a history dating back to the Domesday Book. The 467 doesn't go via the zoo and theme park, but it does pass the bunker-like entrance to Chessington South station, and it will drop you off at Lidl.

By this point our driver had exhibited great community spirit by waiting a little too long for a nan and her pushchair, then got stuck behind an unovertakeable cyclist for longer still. On the main Leatherhead Road the frustrated mother from Epsom was finally getting ready to alight. "WAIT!" she screeched at her pink-wellied daughter, who'd reached to press the button before the bus had left the preceding stop. But during the pause that followed it was Mum's hand that slunk round to press the button, thereby denying her daughter the treat she'd so clearly been looking forward to. I spotted one properly old building amongst the residential sprawl, a pretty white cottage dated 1669, but I missed Enid Blyton's old house - she lived here in Hook at the start of the 1920s. The final stop came unexpectedly, because the timetable said we'd terminate at Ace Parade, and I was expecting somewhere more brilliant. Instead I got a shelter on a dual carriageway beside a recreational ground near a funeral directors. Thankfully my next bus whisked me away in under a minute.

» route 467 - timetable
» route 467 - live bus map
» route 467 - The Ladies Who Bus

This bus completes my tour of south London, from Bluewater-upon-Thames to the east to Kingston-upon-Thames to the west. For a change I'm on a radial route, not an orbital, heading in towards the centre of town. And sorry, this one's no thriller.

 Route 71: Hook - Kingston

 Length of journey: 3 miles, 15 minutes

I had a choice of three buses from Hook to Kingston, each heading along pretty much the same route north. By rights I should have taken the 465, because that deviates fractionally closer to the Thames right at the end, but no. A 465 was just pulling away from the stop at Ace Parade as I alighted, and it was half an hour til the next one. Plus I have the 465 pencilled in as a special blogging treat one day because it goes all the way to Dorking, that's 35 minutes beyond the edge of the capital on an Oyster-fuelled red London bus. Patience. Instead a 71 was approaching, which shouldn't have been a surprise because this is an every-eight-minuter, the most frequent service I'll be riding. It had started its journey back at Chessington World of Adventures, no passenger hotspot in January, then glided round Copt Gilders, yadda yadda, been there, done that. I bounded up to the top front seat only to find it empty because of a suspicious drip coming from the ceiling. But still I sat there, because one seat further back is never as good, and getting damp trainers was a small price to pay.

Hook Junction was Britain's first arterial underpass, a cutting dug where the A3 hits London. The ring on top is the Ace of Spades roundabout, named after a popular roadhouse, now The Cap In Hand pub. If you look down on the way round you can see the carriageway through a trapezoid hole, one lane narrower than it ought to be and prone to jams. Enough excitement, the Hook Road north wasn't overly memorable. London's slowest zebra crossing crosser popped out to greet us part-way, which was nice, but other than there was little of note. I did spot a cul-de-sac called Graham Gardens, which'll be amusing to those of you of a certain age, and I also noticed a bus going to Mansfield Park, alas not the literary version. And I enjoyed the pre-Worboys sign beyond the railway bridge where the A243 meets the B3370, its yellow background recently restored. But other than that there was little of note. We sped through.

And so to Surbiton, the archetypal commuter suburb, which thrived because Kingston Council didn't want a railway so its trains came here instead. The station is an Art Deco jewel, up at the top of the main shopping street, which of course all the buses round here divert to follow. I'd say Victoria Road gets nicer the higher you climb, with more charity shops at the foot and more florists at the top, though with places to nibble and graze nigh everywhere. Another suburb, another clocktower, where we turned left past another ornamental gardens. I longed for one of my fellow passengers to say something of interest, even to say something at all, but they were all downstairs, and I was still being dripped on.

It always amuses me that Surrey County Hall is still in Kingston, but Kingston is no longer in Surrey. We passed its mighty frontage on Penrhyn Road, nearly 50 years after the administrative extraction took place, with local dissatisfaction still readily palpable. By now we were already on the brink of the Kingston one-way system, a mighty beast which threads through the ex-medieval heart of the town. The 71 stayed well away from anything overtly historic, instead focussing on furniture showrooms, undercover precincts and cinemas turned into badly-spelled nightclubs. Kingston's range of shops ranks amongst the very best in London, no really, from giant department stores to boutique-y backways. And I guess that's why everybody else on board alighted on Eden Street, and only I rode the final one-way wiggles to the bus station. That did mean I got to see the town's famous toppled phone boxes, but also added 25% to the length of my journey as we jostled through various sets of lights. I'll be back here next month (and I hope for something a little drier).

» route 71 - timetable
» route 71 - route history
» route 71 - live bus map
» route 71 - The Ladies Who Bus

» map of my journey so far

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