Friday, February 07, 2014

Today I'm returning to my orbital London bus ride. It's my tenth bus, and already the second I've blogged about before, way back in 2003 as part of my Cube Routes project. But I've tried very hard not to re-read that post, and entirely different things happened on my 2014 trip anyway, so what follows should be original.

>> 216 >> 441 >> U3 >> 331 >> 8 >> 142 >>107 >> 84 >> 313 >>

 Route 216: Kingston - Ashford

 Length of journey: 11 miles, 55 minutes

The 216 is one of those London buses that heads for the border and then keeps on going. It runs roughly along the edge of Surrey, so is ideal for my purposes, although I'll be alighting before the final destination in Staines. The first stop is at the larger of Kingston's two bus stations, a busy well-laid out place where buses of all sizes and colours arrive and depart. The 216 gets its own bay so an incoming driver can rest, with three seats out front for waiting passengers. Our driver let us on early, which was kind, or rather he took pity on two cold ladies who'd been shopping, and the rest of us bundled politely behind. The bus kicked off by turning right below an overhanging cinema (headroom 15'9"), then took the concrete ring road before picking up a full complement of shoppers outside Bentalls. It being a weekday morning most were retired, including some in full hat and gloves combinations, although alas I got the uber-sniffling youngster sat in front of me.

The 216 exits south London across Kingston Bridge, with a fine view over the Thames (which may or may not be almost overflowing when you pass). This is a very green way out of town, sandwiched between a royal park and the grounds of Hampton Court Palace, both part-hidden behind a low brick wall. Slowly the umpteen chimneypots of the palace draw nearer, with one stop optimal for the maze and the next for the main visitor entrance. Former owner Cardinal Wolsey has a pub named after him on Hampton Court Green, appropriately enough complete with banqueting and conferencing annexe, while Christopher Wren is commemorated by a blue plaque on the row of houses nextdoor. Traffic was busy on Thames Street, so when the speed sensor flashed up "9mph" I wasn't surprised to see an electronic smiley face light up alongside. A Heal's delivery lorry escaped to cross a narrow bridge to an island in the Thames, here smothered with houseboats and expensive cottages where sailor types might live. Nobody considered boarding, or alighting, our bus.

Just beyond the end of Bushy Park is Garrick's Villa, with its riverside temple, and the edge of the suburb of Hampton. Their residents don't get to live by the river, because that strip's taken up by a set of reservoirs and water treatment works. We plied the main shopping street, the sort of place that sells fireplaces and where the local caff is fully licensed, and where several of our older passengers alighted. The road beyond Waitrose was then London's last hurrah. The 216 turned back to the river at the border with Surrey, just before Kempton Park racecourse, to enter the village of Lower Sunbury-on-Thames. It still had that village feel too, with quaint terraced cottages along a narrow riverside high street where you really wouldn't want to meet another 216 coming the other way. Each bend brought sight of another flood meadow, one with a properly flooded bench, another with ducks, and another beside an 18th century walled garden (plus Millennium Embroidery). How swiftly our semi-rural idyll then changed.

At The Three Fishes we turned inland to enter more ordinary suburbia, a landscape of retirement avenues and recreation grounds. A pair of life-and-soul pensioners boarded the bus, she gossiping broadly, he with a folder under his arm that no doubt contained the minutes of some community meeting. We passed over the railway and under the M3 to enter Sunbury Cross, and its uninspiring high street of Mary, Mungo and Midge architectural vintage. It was here that the buggy wars began. A small pushchair had boarded earlier, but now a megabuggy entered, bags hanging from every extremity, forcing its smaller cousin to shift. Maternal glares were exchanged. When we diverted to Tesco shortly afterwards, and an old man settled into a front seat with his shopping trolley blocking the aisle, negotiating around the bus suddenly became extremely difficult.

We followed an arterial ribbon, a world away from Ye Olde Thameside, past a water treatment works with a peculiarly repetitive roof. London was still only a couple of streets away, but we were officially in Spelthorne, one of those local council districts with an eminently forgettable name. On Feltham Hill Road another pushchair entered, this time leaving mum trapped at the front of the bus while twins Luke and Robert squeezed through to grab a seat further back. Both were dressed in Thomas the Tank Engine garb, topped off with blue stripey woolly hats, and both had the most disarmingly cute smile. The bus collectively melted as they toddled by.

Somebody's failed to maintain the roads on the approach to Ashford, so we jolted over a set of potholes on the way in. A larger jolt came in the high street as a set of traffic lights changed and our driver braked fast, sending the twins' mother almost tumbling. "Sorry about that, you all ok?" asked the driver, and the entire bus mumbled back an apologetic affirmation. Ashford's shops were good enough for several passengers to alight, including the twins who maintained their cute quotient to the bitter end. Ahead at the station one man disappeared fast out of the front of the bus to catch a 555. That's one of those high-numbered Surrey buses that runs into the Home Counties hinterland, of the kind that most Londoners never need to explore. I'd be taking one next. I stepped off by the Harvester and awaited my fate.

» route 216 - timetable
» route 216 - live bus map
» route 216 - route history & RF heritage
» route 216 - RF photos from the 1970s
» route 216 - The Ladies Who Bus

Only one bus runs along the western side of Heathrow Airport without terminating at Terminal 5, so that's the bus I'm taking. It's also my first venture onto a non-TfL bus during this orbital journey, hence a very different experience lies ahead. The 441 runs from Englefield Green, the other side of Egham, through Staines to Heathrow Airport. It's branded the 441 Flyer, with the 1 and the F run together in a way designers thought clever. And a ticket costs how much?

 Route 441: Ashford - Heathrow

 Length of journey: 7 miles, 25 minutes

I'm standing at a bus stop on the A30 London Road on the northern outskirts of Ashford. Across the road is a carpet fitters workshop, on the corner a suburban-friendly Harvester restaurant, and behind me a green bank leading up to the massive Staines Reservoirs. It's a cold morning, and the bus shelter isn't doing a great job of keeping out the wind. I watch the dual carriageway for sight of a bus of unknown colour approaching from Staines - the 441 only runs every half hour so I'd hate to miss one. After ten chilly minutes a white single decker appears, and I think the electronic display on the front reads 441, ah yes it does. But it's not pulling into the bus stop. The driver pauses in the inside lane and stares at me for quite some time in what I eventually deduce is a 'come hither' manner. He doesn't want to lose his place in the queue for the traffic lights ahead, so I wander out (and back down the road a bit) to climb aboard.

Many things about this bus are different. For a start there isn't a sheet of protective glass between me and the driver - they must trust the passengers out here in Surrey, or else management have health and safety a little lower down its agenda. And then there isn't an Oyster reader, so I have to hand over actual cash in what feels like a quaint 20th century way, but is of course perfectly normal for buses outside the capital. My ticket costs £3.50 (yes driver, that's single), which is one pound more than the equivalent cash fare in London, or two pounds more than with Oyster. Maybe the price helps to explain why half of all bus journeys in England are made in London, or maybe the causal link is the other way round. I head for my seat, which has a number a bit like being on coach, and slightly comfier material than I'm used to. I'm sat where there'd normally be a door, were this a London bus, and I'm still cold, a fact I put down to the inbuilt air-conditioning. Plus, oh, there's no electronic "next bus stop" display to tell me where I am, so I hope I get off in the right place.

The first stop is supposedly Ashford Hospital, although the enormous Tesco across the car park seems a greater draw for alighting passengers. We head along the edge of the reservoir, below millions of tons of water, to enter the urban village of Stanwell. Although dating back to the Domesday Book it's hard to spot much that looks old, bar the fine 12th century church with its tall spire and flinty walls. Instead the bus passes postwar residential overspill, no doubt built to house employees at very-nearby Heathrow Airport. There's a hint of hardship along the main shopping parade, not least a shop called simply "Affordable Shoes", whose unbranded frontage tells it like it is. When the 441 turns off the route of the 203 the bus stops change from roundels to provincial white rectangles, further evidence that TfL's influence has faded away. One of these is near the entrance to Stanwell's 17th century manor house, alas long demolished, and two caravans now fill the space between once grand gateposts.

The 441 continues to a sheep-infested T-junction sandwiched between reservoirs and gravel pits, then turns towards Stanwell Moor. This is the northernmost settlement in Surrey, and will probably remain so after recent proposals for the extension of Heathrow ruled out a southwestern extension to the airport. Planes still fly very close, with the line of the southern runway crossing the north end of the village. The 441 gains access to Stanwell Moor via the London Borough of Hillingdon, at a roundabout beyond which the grand swoop of Terminal 5 is clearly visible. The bus rolls off Airport Way and back into Surrey to give villagers without cars a half-hourly escape route. It turns left at The Anchor pub, then stops outside the post office and 'T5 Stores' before heading back out past the village hall. The Heathrow control tower can be clearly seen beyond the village sports ground, with flights to the Mediterranean somewhat closer.

The 441's local one way system means we've driven the next stretch of Stanwell Moor Road before. The lampposts ahead are shorter than usual, a sure sign of adjacent airport, as we veer off to follow the Western Perimeter Road. The grey bunker by the side of the road claims to be a "biodiversity site", which doesn't sound convincing until you realise that the emerging concrete channel is what's left of the Duke of Northumberland's River. One glance through the security fence reveals a large flock of blue, red and white tailfins parked up, this being BA's corner of Heathrow, and then the row of lights that marks the end of Runway 27L/09R. The bus is now approaching Terminal 5 but can only enter from the north, requiring a long run-in via the roundabout that welcomes traffic from the M25. There are a lot of taxis about, many joining the long queue to pick up a fare, as the world stands waiting to climb aboard ahead. One bus stop back we were outside a village shop, and now we're entering a global hub.

Terminal 5's bus station sits beneath the elevated departures deck. It's a dark and cavernous place, with more bus stops than you'd think any place needs, but then several of the waiting services are heading to individual car parks, crew stop-offs or hotels. We negotiate several belisha-ed crossings, stopping near arrivals to collect only two new passengers, who look like they do manual handling nearby. The 441 now runs through the Heathrow Freeflow Free Fare Zone, a little known concession covering all sides of the airport where you don't need a bus ticket to ride. Nobody takes advantage. Instead we ride round the Western Perimeter Road again - the 441's very loopy round here - and pass another set of runway lights on 27R/09L. Nipping across the DoN's River allows us to escape the airport proper and join the hangers-on on the Colnbrook Bypass. Amongst the essential services hereabouts are hotels, a McDonalds, an Immigration Removal Centre and more hotels for good measure, perfect for that 6am getaway. And here I alight, at the first stop on the Bath Road, my £3.50 perhaps well spent.

» route 441 - timetable
» route 441 - route map
» route 441 - heritage day 2011

Some fairly unglamorous bus routes hug the edge of the capital. Today's bus is one of these. A local service plying the outermost estates, linking to hospital, university and the shops. It's also the busiest bus I've ridden so far, because Uxbridge is where the action is.

 Route U3: Heathrow - Uxbridge

 Length of journey: 8 miles, 45 minutes

The northern edge of Heathrow Airport is a strange place, and feels like it exists solely for economic reasons. Amongst the big bland buildings are Chinese restaurants solely for visitors bored with hotel food, domestic airline hubs and business centres for gents in suits to discuss freight deals. My first bus stop overlooks a parade of shops featuring a massage centre and an off licence, for the benefit of a handful of local residents and many more passing through. A huge car park lies opposite, from which cabin crew and ground staff occasionally emerge to break out from their current roster. And yes there are planes to watch beyond, not far away, either taking off or landing parallel to the Bath Road. There's plenty to watch while you wait for the U3 to arrive.

Pinglestone Close is the penultimate stop in the Heathrow Freeflow Free Fare Zone. A scrolling message rolls by - "Please ensure you have a valid ticket" - for the benefit of anyone who's been on board for nothing since the central bus station. They'd have to be off by Skyport Drive, which sounds the most fantastically futuristic name for a bus stop, but the adjacent reality looks more 1990s. Ahead, across paddocks and farmland, is the one of the most threatened landscapes in London. The U3 serves the village of Harmondsworth, or the ex-village of Harmondsworth if one of three possible airport expansion plans is selected. The entire village would disappear under the north-west runway plan, including the 12th century church and the medieval tithe barn. The latter is the largest timber-framed building in England - Betjeman called it the Cathedral of Middlesex - and would be reassembled elsewhere to make way for hangars and tarmac. Think on that as you ride between the fields on Holloway Lane.

Across the protective barrier of the M4, suburbia is secure. The U3 has been specially selected to deviate round an estate on the outskirts of West Drayton, where Laurel Lane and Wise Lane have been augmented by more modern residential avenues. These homes are the natural habitat of "people who take buses" so the seats slowly fill as our circuit completes. You can see their point. The only retail offering at the far end is a parade of seven shops seemingly selected for their mundanity. A pharmacy, a convenience store, a Chinese takeaway, a dry cleaners... everything you could possibly need, and yet nothing. A few hundred yards ahead is the River Colne, and the boundary with Buckinghamshire, but the U3 pulls back to serve Londoners in London. In amongst the postwar ordinariness is a bungalow with chickens and a small piglet running loose in the front garden, before we advance to an older nucleus of housing around a church green. There are 30 on board our single decker now - it's been a justifiable loop off the main drag.

The lady texting beside me is one of those infuriating souls who's never worked out how to turn off the beep every time she presses her phone, or else never realised how annoying this can be. The sound effects continue into West Drayton proper, and a high street retaining Metroland-style character. A sign of the times is the pound shop called "One Pound Plus", while Granny Satchwell's bakery looks slightly more appealing. We pull into the station forecourt - every bus hereabouts does - which involves negotiating a narrow teardrop turn outside the main entrance, then pulling up to a) collect rail passengers b) almost block the road. Beyond the canal the high street switches suddenly to become Yiewsley, London's last suburb, alphabetically. Its fine parish church was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, best known for his Gothic St Pancras, but the real attractions hereabouts are the shops. Almost every passenger disembarks at Morrisons, or else the combined Aldi/Iceland, or hangs on for the mega Tesco.

And that's it for the near-border of London. I should have switched at this point to the 222, but instead I stayed aboard the U3 as it veered into Hillingdon. Ahead a very 1930s estate, with roads tweely named after trees that blossom. On Apple Tree Avenue our U3 driver stops to chat with the driver of a passing U1, and for slightly too long, causing a cacophany of car horns to erupt from behind. A map in a shelter on Violet Avenue is entitled Buses from Colham Green, which I realise is another London place name I've never heard of before. More well known is Hillingdon Hospital, revealed from alongside as a hideous tall block of stacked wards with further lower blocks dumped all around. I bet the view from the eighth floor is great, but the amount of parking space down below is clearly inadequate, hence those that alight from the bus here are doing the place a favour.

Cowley's next, across the River Pinn, with a lovely listed church and the most expensive houses along the route. Many are probably owned by lecturers at nearby Brunel University, outside whose modern campus the U3 next pulls up. We're the only bus that serves, so a mass of students who'd rather not walk three quarters of a mile to Uxbridge town centre are waiting. Almost 20 climb aboard and spend the rest of the journey chattering about debt, essays and the unfair allocation of college car parking permits. On The Greenway a mother and daughter board, or try to because mum's Oyster card has no money on it. She fumbles in her handbag for change, in a way she'll be denied this summer when the buses go cashless, but never mind eh, the next U3 is 20 minutes behind. Her daughter Daisy's a real live wire, announcing "I don't like Chinese" and "look at the old women" as we enter Uxbridge High Street. Anyone with any sense - that's all the students - bundles off here rather than slowly touring the one-way system to end up on the other side of the pedestrianised bit. Daisy dings the button prematurely and too frequently, to earn a smiling reprimand, before we're all chucked off before the bus station.

So that's me, finally, halfway around London by bus. Last time I crossed town from Bluewater to Uxbridge it took four buses to cover 42 miles in just over four hours. Round the edge it's taken 12 buses to cover 80 miles in six and a half hours. Plus stops, of course, and there have been rather a lot of those. When I return I'll be taking a bus I've ridden before, but only part of the way. I wonder how long it'll take to get back?

» route U3 - timetable
» route U3 - live bus map
» route U3 - The Ladies Who Bus

The 331 runs in a giant horseshoe from Uxbridge round to Ruislip - only three miles direct, but 14 miles on the bus. It nips in out out of London twice, linking communities along the northwestern rim of Hillingdon. And yes I've blogged about it before, but only the first two stops, so prepare for pastures new.

 Route 331: Uxbridge - Northwood

 Length of journey: 9 miles, 35 minutes

Red buses stream like clockwork out of a dark hole round the back of Uxbridge station. The bus station is a busy hub for shoppers and folk alighting from the Underground, patiently waiting for the correct-numbered service to take them home. If you wanted to get to Ruislip quickly you'd take the U1, so it's a fair bet nobody climbing onto the 331 is going all the way. Today's cargo includes a pushchair loaded up with Pampers, while presumably Junior is elsewhere, plus a teenage girl carrying a box of pristine size 3 Converse trainers. Several more passengers board in the High Street, and most get a spare seat alongside for their shopping or else for their spouse. The bus heads north out of town, past several boxy office blocks towards the bridge over the canal. The 17th century Swan and Bottle pub is London's last hurrah, before we're across the River Colne and beyond the capital's border. But that's the bit I told you last time.

We've entered Buckinghamshire, "County of the Paralympics", and also home of Denham Ladies Football Club. The broad road ahead shifts swiftly from urban to rural. Amid the fields is junction 1 on the M40, where a loop of mini-roundabouts create the greater Denham Roundabout, which our driver negotiates with ease. If I've counted correctly the next road is seven lanes wide, overlooked by the glasshouses at Shanes Nursery and a "Stop HS2" banner. Some of the nicest streets in Denham are off to the right, in the Village, whereas Cilla Black plumped for Denham Green just beyond the railway bridge. I remember a restaurant on the corner here based in an old railway carriage, but that's long gone, and the boarded-up pub alongside is currently transforming into a set of "later living apartments". We lose a couple of passengers here, including the job-lot nappy buyers, plus a bloke whose hairy beard is the only facial feature visible beneath a trackie hood. Not one of Cilla's neighbours, I suspect.

Our first dalliance with the Home Counties is complete, returning to Greater London at the line of the River Colne, or where the edge of the Colne ought to be if it wasn't rather higher than usual. A strip of lakes mark the gap from here to the Grand Union, an uninhabited strip which HS2 will be exploiting via viaduct. The Horse and Barge sits in prime flood risk territory, a 1937 replacement for a bargee's stopover called The Halfway House. The hamlet ahead is South Harefield, essentially a few streets of quite big semis, at the foot of the long residential climb into Harefield proper. This is a rare London village, unswallowed by suburbia, still with a part-medieval church and a half-timbered pub at the crossroads by the pond on the green. The village sign is a hare, of course, inside a metal globe. I also spot a well-pinned community notice board, and a garden with a St George's flag on a pole nearby, as if perhaps this proves something.

The bus is running a couple of minutes ahead of schedule so pauses outside the drycleaners, where one lone soul is ironing beneath a hotchpotch of hangers. Across the street the Harefield Discount Store has closed down, as has the organic sorbet shop, the latter for more readily discernible reasons. As the 331 heads out of the village we pass Harefield Academy, swish filming location for BBC3's Tough Young Teachers, where I watch for chaos erupting inside Meryl's English classroom. There's none of that, but one of their music teachers boards carrying a black case of a size which completely disguises the instrument inside. We're on the Northwood Road, which is the most rural my journey has been since six buses back near Banstead. Any houses along the way tend to have stables attached, or a car with a personalised numberplate parked outside, or both. We splash through huge puddles between high hedges, not that anyone's out walking, but a 4×4 gets it broadside.

A few slight hills later we drive fractionally outside London again, this time nudging Hertfordshire and the concealed entrance to Moor Park Golf Club, beloved by Betjeman. Our raison d'être for being out this far is a London hospital, that's Mount Vernon, with public transport access only on the far side. Four buses serve this borderline outpost, one of which I'm taking next, but a storm has whipped up so I resist disembarking early to join two windswept souls beneath a brolly. One patient, one porter and one nurse climb aboard - at an educated guess - before we head on down the hill into proper Metroland. One of the avenues off to the left, Kewferry Road, is so stereotypical that it's where they filmed The Good Life. Our bus passes a cricket club and a college of theology on the run-in to the chic centre of Northwood, plus a poster on a lamppost advertising "found body of dead black and white cat". We pull in at the tube station, where the music teacher et al alight, because nobody really wants to double back to Ruislip. Best hide from the downpour, perhaps inside the ticket hall, perhaps with a spin round Waitrose, before continuing.

I've agonised long and hard about which way to go next. I need to get beyond Stanmore, that much is obvious, but there are at least a couple of ways to get there. Decisions decisions. [NW bus map]

» route 331 - timetable
» route 331 - live bus map
» route 331 - route history
» route 331 - The Ladies Who Bus

What I should have done next on my orbital bus tour of London is to ride the edge of Harrow. The H12 runs from Pinner to Stanmore pretty much along the edge of the capital, so taking it should have been a no-brainer. Two problems. To reach the H12 from Northwood would require a brief bus hop via H11, and I'm trying to save you from excess bloggage. More importantly, the H12 terminates at Stanmore station, two stops before the next bus I need to catch, and my journey doesn't allow me to walk. So instead I'm going to divert out toward Watford and then back in again, because that's the only peripheral way to get beyond Stanmore in two buses.

Today's bus is therefore another non-red non-Oyster service. It's the only single digit bus in London not to be run by TfL, sharing its route number with my local bus from Bow. This 8 runs from Mount Vernon Hospital to Abbots Langley via the centre of Watford, not that I need to go quite that far to catch my next bus back in. And it didn't always used to be the 8. Go back forty years and this was the 347A, a London Country service running all the way down to Uxbridge. Here's a 347A timetable from May 1975.

I'm assuming we do all have forty year-old bus timetables stashed away in our spare room? I know I do. This is an actual timetable that might have been posted under glass at a bus stop, almost two feet long, and double-sided with 'to Uxbridge' on one side and 'to Hemel' on the other. I've got another 347A timetable from February 1971, this with the original London Country logo at the bottom before the National Bus Company's double arrow subsumed it. I can't quite remember how I got hold of them. I think my Dad brought a stash home one day sourced via someone at work - blimey, actual bus timetables - and I was of course extremely excited. I do however remember being not quite so excited by the 347s, not when there were 319s, 385s and even 803s in the pile, buses that actually served our village. But hey, after all these years it's the 347/347A which turns out to be the more relevant sheet of paper.

A bus every half hour between Hemel Hempstead and Uxbridge? You wouldn't run that today! The entire journey took the length of a football match, plus stoppage time, because the bus took the back lanes rather than anything direct. The 347 and 347A ran an almost identical route except in Oxhey, where the more occasional 347A looped more lengthily via Carpenders Park station. In 1978 the lettered variant was renumbered 348, because that fitted on the blinds better. In 1995 the 348 was cut back from Uxbridge to Northwood, with London Buses introducing the new 331 to fill the gap. At the same time the poor old 347 was killed off. Then in 2000 Arriva buggered about with route numbers in Watford and beheaded the 348 to just 8. And that's the bus I'm about to catch in Green Lane, Northwood. I assume there are a few of you still reading.

 Route 8: Northwood - Bushey

 Length of journey: 5 miles, 30 minutes

While you're waiting for a late-running 8 in Northwood, there's plenty you could do. Buy pansies and Avo's from the fruit stall by the station. Nip into Taylor Made for a sandwich, or Shandy's for Pick'n'Mix. Meet Jean Page for flowers or Julie Holliday for hair. Gawp at the flapping glass in the bus shelter, burst open in the winter gales. Or watch everyone else at the stop boarding one of the more regular TfL services, like the H11 to Harrow or the 282 to Ealing. Not many of us are heading for Watford. But there is a wheelchair already on board, proving TfL don't have a monopoly on accessibility, plus a few other souls whose pallor strongly suggests they boarded at Mount Vernon. The driver charges me £3.20 for my ticket, but struggles when I offer £3.50 instead, then forces me to play mathematical swapping games with small coinage to meet my fare.

We are the only bus along the Watford Road. For two stops before the Hertfordshire border, the roundel-topped posts proclaim the passing of the 8, like this was Bow or something. There is no obvious changeover point amidst the big houses and woody gardens to greet Three Rivers, no "welcome" sign, just the sudden switch of bus stop design to provincial style. A high metal fence is the first sign of something nasty in the forest. This is Northwood Headquarters, Britain's premier military HQ, from which campaigns near and far are plotted. Growing up nearby in the 1970s I knew that this was Soviet target number one, hence my passive participation in any nuclear war would be mercifully brief. Its concrete buildings still have an air of menace even today, toned down slightly by two fluttering flags near the main entrance. We turn off just before, wiggling through the green and pleasant heart of Oxhey Woods to reach the council slopes of South Oxhey.

This postwar estate was built for London overspill, and the terraced semis repeat in blatantly municipal style. We're going the long way round the southern perimeter, past drives and avenues I've previously only seen in bus timetables. The verge along Prestwick Road has been sacrificed to chequered concrete as hardstanding for cars, or else is riven by muddy tyre-track trenches made deeper by the rain. We stop a lot, at one point inviting aboard a bloke on crutches, a bloke with a basket on wheels, and a woman who takes ages to pay. I spot a couple of institutional-sized pubs, the Grapevine and the Dick Whittington, the latter no doubt named to make South Oxhey's first residents feel at home. The main shopping centre's OK for small stuff, but a little bleaker than the planners intended, and the mini jungle animals in the centre of the main precinct don't necessarily help. Up the road is one of the Home Counties' cheaper golf courses, only £5 on Fridays, with a local market in mind.

And then suddenly we're into Oxhey Hall, with close-packed detached houses, paved gardens and folk out jogging. This whole mixed-bag area reminds me of where I grew up, which is perhaps not surprising given that I grew up about two miles away. Our driver spots a gap in the traffic and turns right into the borough of Watford, where our progress is suddenly stalled by a queue of vehicles. "Localised flooding - please drive with care" hints an electronic sign more used to warning of jams near the football. We creep ahead to the next set of lights, blocking them temporarily, then stop/start slowly along the edge of Oxhey Park. Across the grass (and an emerging line of daffs) is a surprisingly clear view of Retail Watford on the other side of the Colne valley. The river is some way below us, until we descend with no hint of urgency down the hill past St Matthew's Church. I could have got off at Bushey station, indeed it would have been much quicker to walk the next bit rather than wait to filter into traffic at the Bushey Arches roundabout. It's only when I alight by the river that I finally understand what's been causing the delay, and why my next bus might not be coming at all.

» route 8 - timetable
» route 8 - route map
» route 8 - route history

Up next on my orbital London bus journey, the 142. This is one of Watford's bus links to London, running from the Junction station all the way in to the shopping centre at Brent Cross. I'm meant to be catching it at Bushey Arches, except the road is mostly jammed in one direction and empty in the other...

I have arrived in Watford, purely by chance, at peak flood. The River Colne is in spate, recording its highest level this century this very morning. The Environment Agency have just issued a flood warning ["River levels remain highly sensitive to any further significant rainfall as the catchment is saturated. Standing water is likely to remain for a couple of days."] as water spills out and overtops the banks. It takes me a while to realise how bad things are. The low bridge across the river is clear, and northbound vehicles are passing through slowly without incident. But the forecourt of the Mercedes Benz garage on the southern side is underwater, and someone's had to shift half their stock of used cars from the wet side to the dry. There's no immediate problem to the north, allowing traffic to swing round the edge of B&Q around the one way system. But for traffic in the opposite direction the Lower High Street is most definitely flooded, and a pool of grey water has seeped across the road.

For anyone attempting to walk into Watford, negotiating the Lower High Street is the only option. That's fine up to a point, but the land is lowest between the cafe and the Seat garage and here water has smothered the entire road. One man strides through in wellies, but others weren't expecting a deluge and are wearing far less appropriate footwear. For smaller shoppers a lift on Dad's shoulders is appropriate, but others are forced to brave the puddle at the end of Bridge Place by dunking one trainer below sock level. Officialdom is here, standing watching outside a shuttered shop as a pump extracts floodwater back to the river. A sign on the side of the building reads "Warning! Risk of flooding", but most people who park their car here won't ever have considered the possibility this might actually happen. Across the road are Frogmore Cottages, a few inches from danger vertically, but several feet horizontally, and as yet seemingly unworried by the water lapping at the garden gate. Things are a bit worse at the next road junction where one half of Waterfields Way is underwater, which isn't especially impressive for a relief road built relatively recently to ease traffic congestion in the town. But at least northbound traffic still has one carriageway to escape, because the next section of the Lower High Street is completely inundated too.

This end of Watford used to be water meadows, so it should come as no surprise that the River Colne sometimes reclaims the land. One old road nearby has long been called Water Lane, in recognition that this end of Watford isn't somewhere that's ideal to live. Of course that didn't stop the council from siting a huge retail park here, complete with Mothercare, Halfords and one of the biggest Tescos in the country. Waterfields Shopping Park flooded the very first week it opened, which did make locals smile, but now they drive there in their thousands and clog the place up with metal boxes on wheels rather than surplus liquid. On this particular Saturday business is at least partly suspended, and those who've unintentionally driven into this overflow situation are having to retreat, creating even longer delays. Thank goodness then that somebody's managed to divert the 142 via a guided tour of North Bushey, so that it stops (eventually) outside Bushey station and then continues towards London as if nothing untoward had happened.

 Route 142: Bushey - Stanmore

 Length of journey: 5 miles, 25 minutes

At last a double decker. It's been a while, since way back in Kingston in fact, and I've missed being able to sit up top for a better view. I can't quite nab the front seats because they're taken by an Eastern European threesome and a hoodied lad with his trainers pressed flat on the window. I sit behind, and try not to be distracted by the cuddling (from two of the former) and the phone calls (from the latter). Bushey station is a fine building, with clocktower and steam-loco weathervane, plus a newsagent with a Daily Telegraph awning. We circuit beneath the arches before climbing Chalk Hill, its contours providing instant protection from any threat of flood, to enter Bushey proper. Oh hang on, this is rather nice.

I am almost entirely unfamiliar with Bushey. It's diametrically opposite the side of Watford I grew up, so as a family we never had any need to go there. But it's lovely, isn't it, or at least the run along the High Street is. It's properly high too, routed along a rising ridge, with the occasional view down across green and golf-coursed slopes. Beyond a gleaming white academy the shops kick in, and they're nothing like I'm used to hereabouts. You'd never get a yarn shop called Mavis Crafts in South Oxhey or Garston, nor would the local salon have won national awards, nor would Country Life Interiors turn a profit. It's bistro-ville, this, and blimey was that a sign off to Bushey Museum? I've made a note to visit. I tick off three churches with towers - it's been mostly spires recently - and a Golf & Country Club - ooh, get you Bushey. And still we climb, one stop's even called Steeplands, to a fourth church with tower at the top of Sparrows Herne.

Outside a newsagent I spot a board advertising the latest headline in The Jewish Chronicle, a sure sign that NW London is approaching. We've now reached Bushey Heath, once planned to be the farthest end of the Northern line, but the station would have been in distant Green Belt so was shelved. It too has a winsome high street, including a restaurant called Ruby's which unbelievably isn't a curry house. The edge of the capital comes at the highest point hereabouts, a crossroads which at 153 metres above sea level is also the highest point in North London. Boards on one corner adorn the perimeter of Bentley Priory, HQ of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, now "A Rare Chance To Own A Luxurious Home In A Landmark Development". The brand new museum in the main building opens to the public on Mondays, Wednesdays and the 3rd Saturday of the month, but the 57 acre estate and Italian Sculpture Gardens are solely for the benefit of residents, sorry.

Just past Stanmore Common a very ordinary bus shelter is adorned with two dozen bouquets and covered with photos of a young girl. Eleven year-old Lily was waiting here in December when a Ford Fiesta mounted the kerb killing her and leaving her mother in a critical condition. Mum's better now, physically at least, while the collective memory lingers on. They're big homes on the way down Stanmore Hill, where the vista suddenly opens up to reveal all of west London before you. The view's probably not quite so great below the upper deck, but Wembley's arch appears crystal clear amid a panorama of suburban undulation.

We've picked up quite a few passengers along the way, both from Hertfordshire and the long run down into Stanmore. Many alight in the town centre, a pleasing retail hub whose aspirational heart is dragged down only by a much more popular Lidl at the far end. Rather more alight at the chimneypotted tube station to ride the Jubilee to somewhere bigger. The next two stops are the sole reason I've ridden the 142 rather than the more borderline H12. The first stop is named after the adjacent synagogue, apparently the best attended anywhere in Britain. To my eye it looks uncannily like a secondary school and is in full "leaving after service and shaking hands" mode as we pass. And the second stop is at Canons Corner, where the A5 hits town, and the local pub is now a McDonalds. Next up, the bus to Walford!

» route 142 - timetable
» route 142 - live bus map
» route 142 - The Ladies Who Bus

The next bus heads out of the capital to serve the Home Counties, then heads back in again, which is unusual. Along the way I'll pass Albert Square and the Big Brother house, an unbuilt tube station, a synagogue in a pub and a windmill...

 Route 107: Stanmore - Barnet

 Length of journey: 9 miles, 50 minutes

They call it Canons Corner, the roundabout on Watling Street where I'm waiting for the next 107 north. It was named after the old manor house at Little Stanmore, though were it named today it'd probably be called Tesco Metro McDonalds Drive-Thru Corner. I'm not overkeen to hang around. When my double decker arrives there is plenty of room upstairs, but I can only sit up front if I remove an empty box of three Superdrug perfumes from the seat. The hill ahead is part of Watling Street, now the A5, and swiftly exits suburbia for more open country. We pass fields and a farm atop Brockley Hill, along with the umpteenth hospital along my journey, the Royal National Orthopaedic.

The next roundabout marks a major road junction, it's where the A5 meets the A41 meets the M1, except there's no access to the motorway at this point. We've just passed into Hertfordshire, or 'County of Opportunity' as the boundary sign has it, and right on cue a massive post-industrial trading estate appears to our left. This used to be London Transport's main bus repair depot, the Aldenham Works, built on a site safeguarded but never used for the extension of the Northern line. Had all gone to plan a tube station would have been built in the field opposite, called Elstree South, but the usual WW2/GreenBelt combination stifled development and so we were denied a rather swish Charles Holden design. As it is, rather than a serving an important rail hub, our 107 zooms through without stopping.

Ahead is the village of Elstree, which I'd always imagined was larger than it really is. The name 'Elstree' has had a good press, with its own film studios and prime position in the name of the local Thameslink station. But both of those are actually in Borehamwood, today by far the bigger partner, while Elstree is little more than a crossroads on a hill with a few residential avenues tacked on. It's very nice, though. I have plenty of time to admire Elstree, almost ten minutes, thanks to the temporary traffic lights at the main road junction. A 3-way filter means we have to wait our turn, denied forward progress even on green every time one of the cars in the stream ahead wanted to turn right. The delay allows a few bonus passengers to leap aboard, before we we're finally off down Elstree Hill past parish church and Shtiebel, the latter until recently the village pub.

Allum Lane starts off green and horsey, ideal if you need livery facilities or a swimming pool in your back garden. But Borehamwood rears up soon enough, kicking off with a brief loop to pull in at the station. Opposite is The Crown, an institutional pub, or rather was because it closed down last year and is now lined up to become lots of flats. The west end of Borehamwood's high street has more than its fair share of boarded up shops, but things pick up a little as the lengthy parade continues. At its heart is the 3-month-old "state of the art" library at number 96, an imposing blocky construction that incorporates the town's invigorated museum. I've made a note to visit. And at the far end of the street is the behemoth that's sucking trade from the smaller traders elsewhere, a very big Tesco, and it's telling that many of the passengers on board wait until here to alight.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was filmed in the supermarket car park, close to where the 107 pulls up. This used to be half of Elstree Studios, which lives on and thrives nextdoor, and where the Big Brother House now resides. You can't see that from the bus, neither is Albert Square visible, but that's across the other side of the street beyond Malden Road. They have pink and purple buses out here, and the borrowed vehicle heading to Watford has "Thorpe Park Express" emblazoned across the front. Our eastern exit from the town isn't going to be pretty, with a considerable number of bland commercial buildings lining the main drag of Elstree Way. I'm joined upstairs by three well-wrapped Eastern Europeans, they've been to Wickes, and the one in the biggest hat insists on sitting next to me at the front. I don't see much as we rattle from trading estate to ex-council estate because it's suddenly pissing down. Rain splatters across the upper window, obscuring all but a blur, but that may be for the best.

Outer London is regained at Stirling Corner, a huge roundabout on the Great North Road. Morrisons have swallowed up one quadrant, while a garage, a Harvester and a tightly-packed housing estate have claimed the others. My apologies but there are going to be a lot of Harvesters along the route of the next few buses - for some reason North London is riddled with them. We ignore the dual carriageway and head on up Barnet Road, a steady climb with fenced-off scrub to one side. Arkley is one of the highest points in North London, which is probably why there's an actual windmill here, briefly visible through the trees, now resident in someone's back garden. Only the rather rich have houses along this retirement ridge. Norman Wisdom and Humphrey Lyttleton used to live here in Arkley, Tony Blackburn still does, but alas there's no sign of anyone famous waving a Freedom Pass as we pass through.

Past Barnet Gate the run of big houses opens up to reveal a brief but broad panorama towards the centre of the City. I'm hoping for a better look, but at this precise point Fur Hat Lady leans across to take a photo of her two fellow travellers, focussing on their grinning faces rather than the vista behind. Her loss, and alas mine. Off to the right is Quinta Drive, one of the more oddly named destinations on any London bus, but we pass by. I spot geese and chickens close to Whalebone Park - there is a lot of green amid these suburbs - as we start the run-in to the centre of Barnet. I need to alight outside St John The Baptist, so prominent locally that it's simply known as Barnet Church, after what's been an especially interesting ride.

» route 107 - timetable
» route 107 - live bus map
» route 107 - route history
» route 107 - The Ladies Who Bus

The 84 is a most peculiar service, an ex-London bus sequentially surrendered to the suburbs. It runs all the way to St Albans, some considerable distance north of London, but was once operated by London Central Buses all the same. They ran the bus station in Potters Bar, a town formerly part of Middlesex not Hertfordshire, hence the 84 fell under non-Country jurisdiction. Go back even further and the 84 was an excursion service running from Cricklewood, even Walthamstow, running weekends and bank holidays only to take the masses on a cathedral city day out. The southern end was later chopped back to Golders Green, then fifty years ago to New Barnet, but the northern terminus has always been St Albans.

As for fares, they've become increasingly parochial over time. Normal London Transport fares used to be permitted along the entire length of the route, but the 84's no longer run under TfL contract so they've been cut back too. Travelcards used to get you as far as South Mimms, then in 2002 the limit was curtailed to Cranborne Road in Potters Bar. Oyster users wanting to travel further had to flash their card and then pay a cash top-up for the extra bit. Then in 2012 operators Metroline removed all pretence of being a London bus, and Oyster is no longer accepted. They do offer a £16 weekly pass for travel between Potters Bar and Barnet, but for anyone wanting a one-off journey the normal Hertfordshire fare is paid.

Another peculiarity of the route is the wide variety of vehicles used to operate the service. Sometimes a double decker is used, at others a single decker, it feels like pot luck. A separate raffle seems to be held to decide whether the bus has a static blind on the front or an electronic display. TfL insist on blinds for reasons of accessibility, so any bus an operator sometimes uses on a London route will have a roll of scrolling destinations. Digital displays are much more popular outside the capital, not least for their flexibility, and because many think pixels make for easier-to-read displays. Who can say which is really better - I guess it's all a matter of opinion.

 Route 84: Barnet - Potters Bar

 Length of journey: 3 miles, 8 minutes

I got a double decker with the black and yellow blinds. It pulled up on Barnet High Street where a handful of us were waiting, pinned up against the chemists. I wondered how much I'd be charged for my trip, which only a couple of years ago I could have made for nothing. "I don't suppose this is any use," I said, waving my Oyster (plus Travelcard) at the driver. "Afraid not," he said, and charged me £2.40 for the short run up from Barnet to Potters Bar. I baulked slightly, then remembered that this was less than I'd been charged earlier in my journey on the 8 and 441. I also spotted that it's exactly the same as the cash single fare on any London bus, which maybe is deliberate, so decided not to grumble after all.

The two pinnacles to the left used to be part of Barnet Methodist Church, and now guard the entrance to The Spires shopping centre. Developers would quite like to knock them down to improve and enlarge the mall beyond, and are currently consulting on proposals for an upgrade. They claim their replacement would have "an exciting contemporary facade clad in brass shingles with elegantly proportioned simple opening", whereas in fact they're wrong about the "elegant", and local residents have them rumbled. The rest of the High Street has a bit of class, especially as it nudges north along Hadley Green. The common's lovely, if a little waterlogged at present, with some highly desirable houses lined up along either flank. We're passing through the delightful village of Monken Hadley, site of the Battle of Barnet in 1471, which is commemorated by an obelisk at Hadley Highstone.

Where the houses stop, London turns back into Hertfordshire. Ahead is the Great North Road, originally the main turnpike plied by stagecoaches to York and Edinburgh, since downgraded from A1 to A1000. Barely anybody lives along the next section so the bus isn't stopping... past the entrance to the grand mansion at Wrotham Park, along the edge of fields and more fields, looking down over Hadley Wood across long ploughed slopes, a bit of woodland, careering on ever faster, a lane shooting in from the right, The Duke Of York, and that's a lonely garden centre, suddenly ducking darkly beneath the M25, then there are bouquets and Saracens shirts by the side of the road where a cyclist was knocked down three years ago, they don't forget, we're at the edge of Potters Bar already, past the Community Hospital, oh this is much more ordinary, a chip shop, a reptile den... and all without stopping. Eight minutes flat, the entire journey.

I'm not heading into the centre of town, so I ding the bell as we approach the first crossroads. The bus stop's called Potters Bar Lion, so I look around for the pub to check I'm in the right place. Of the old coaching inn there is alas no sign, but there is a suspicious looking restaurant called Potty Pancakes, which I later discover replaced The Lion last summer. Who needs alcohol when you can stuff your beer belly with PP's sugary batter and ice cream instead? Thankfully there is as yet no sign of anyone renaming the bus stop in their favour.

» route 84 - timetable
» route 84 - route history
» route 84 - The Ladies Who Bus

Here's another long one. I'll be riding almost all of the 313, which sweeps across the top of London from Potters Bar to Chingford. That's the equivalent of Paddington to Stratford, were this a few miles further south, only through rather greener scenery. The 313 journeys so far that I'll be missing out on a potential borderline deviation near Waltham Cross, but that's probably for the best because I ought to get to the end of my orbit sooner rather than later.

 Route 313: Potters Bar - Chingford

 Length of journey: 9 miles, 50 minutes

I have a long time to wait, outside what used to be the Potters Bar Lion, for my 313. The view's not great, with a tall office block blighting the crossroads and an abandoned business HQ behind. I'm sharing the shelter with two local wideboys, they far more geezer than I. At one point they spot a mate they know driving by and yell "Sweet!" as he winds down his window. Neither has Oyster so they pay by cash, the driver at first not noticing that one of the pair has already boarded. I take up my favourite seat on a single decker, above the rear left-hand wheel arch, affording views all around including through the front window. To begin with all I see are houses, but before very long we're out of Potters Bar, more precisely at junction 24 on the M25. From the roundabout I can look down over roadworks on the motorway - the cones are out and traffic's passing through in contraflow. Just a couple of hundred metres more and I'll be back inside London again.

The Ridgeway is an amazing road, for London at least, because it truly lives up to its name. It runs along the top of a ridge between two streams, the larger of which - the Salmon's Brook - flows unspoilt along the groove below. I enjoy what's an entirely atypical view from a London bus, all hedges and sky, as we speed onward through Enfield Chase. The landscape is astonishingly agricultural, just field after field after field, with the only buildings for the next mile a quartet of farms. Those and two independent schools, built so far from anywhere that it's fortunate Mummy can probably drive. Those and a single cottage called Windrush, an Art Deco home so remote that the adjacent bus stop has been named after it. Where the road starts to dip is the hamlet of Botany Bay, allegedly named to mirror the remoteness of Captain Cook's first Australian anchorage. The cricket club doubles up as a jazz venue, while the Robin Hood pub boasts 'great food', and judging by the busy state of their car park they might well be right.

I recognise the end of the ridge from London Loop section 17, but not the tractor we're suddenly stuck behind. Beyond the fields is Chase Farm Hospital, whose casualty department was itself a recent casualty of NHS restructuring. A big sign out front alerts parents-to-be that the Maternity unit closed in November 2013, but it was undoubtedly a PR error to illustrate this with a photo of a smiling mother. Hospitals bring custom to buses, and as a result of the influx my forward view is suddenly part-blocked by a rather large Afro. Further passengers board along the built-up end of The Ridgeway, but this lot look like they're off shopping, as we descend down Windmill Hill into Enfield proper. Meanwhile my two fellow geezers are busy bantering in the back seat about an upcoming 21st birthday and how Smithy's not been invited. There will be proper hassle later.

Because we're heading east we get to follow the one-way system up the main drag, that's Church Street. A mass changeover occurs outside McDonalds, as most of those aboard pour off and a brand new contingent pours on. The two rows behind me are now filled by a clutch of smartly-dressed teenage girls, who continue their outside gossip in this more confined space. "Pizzas are changing at school to thin," says one, to an immediate response of "Nooooo!" Another is struck by the slogan above Enfield Market - "How is that vibrant?!" she mocks. Nobody points out the site of Britain's first cashpoint on the front of Barclays, nor the New River in its artificial channel opposite the station.

Ahead is Southbury Road, a long Victorian terrace which leads gently downhill to Southbury. This suburb'll become more well-known capital-wide when its station appears on the Overground next year, but North London folk are already familiar and are queuing to visit in large numbers. A truly massive retail park has grown up alongside the Great Cambridge Road, easy to reach by car, and my God don't they? First up are all the mid-range chain restaurants a community could need - a TGI Fridays, a Harvester and a Pizza Hut - the latter the destination of choice for the six schoolgirls sat behind me. Beyond the A10 come the megasheds, including an orange B&Q and various furniture warehouses, where several more passengers alight. I'm impressed by the genuine choice of a Morrisons or a Sainsburys, both enormous, plus a huge Tesco on the other side of the railway.

We pause awhile outside Ponders End bus garage for a driver changeover - a delay I've experienced only rarely on my round London journey. An inspector can be seen hanging around outside, keeping tabs, while the sweet smell of a carwash, or maybe a launderette, wafts aboard. It's good to return at last to a street with actual houses, though not so good for the 313 stuck in a very long queue of traffic (not) heading the other way. Only seven of us remain aboard the bus, though one of the departees has left behind a crushed coke can and a Subway wrapper on the floor. Two chatty old ladies then alight at consecutive stops ("Bye Maria, bye") after what may have been a grand day out, or may just have been tea somewhere.

We're approaching the Lea, close to where Ponders End's four tower blocks rise in pastel harmony. The 313 is the only London bus to cross this far north, taking advantage of a gap between the two King George reservoirs which otherwise form a three mile barrier between east and west. The viaduct crosses four threads of the river in close succession, plus another Harvester in case somehow the Southbury branch is too far away. Beyond the sailing club is Kings Head Hill, the king in question being Henry VIII, at least according to the pub sign. It's a steady climb into Chingford, quite relentlessly so to reach the old village centre at Chingford Green. The wind is whipping the trees in the churchyard, which is annoying because I'm getting off here a smidgeon before the shelter of the bus station. Nine miles nearer my goal, and definitely getting there.

» route 313 - timetable
» route 313 - live bus map
» route 313 - route history
» route 313 - The Ladies Who Bus

» map of my journey so far

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