Thursday, March 13, 2014
It's time to return to the final quadrant of my orbital London bus journey. I had hoped it would be possible to make the next jump from Chingford to Hainault in one bus, but alas not (quite), so I need to take two. To straddle the London border I've decided to go via Woodford, not via Loughton, which means neither ride will be very long (nor, alas, very interesting).
>> 179 >> 275 >> 247 >> 499 >>347 >> 370 >> X80 >>
Map of my complete journey
ROUND LONDON BY BUS (xix)
Route 179: Chingford - Woodford Green
Length of journey: 2 miles, 8 minutes
It gets a pretty decent bus service, Station Road in Chingford, courtesy of the bus station at the far end. The shops aren't bad either - not too mainstream, not too cheap - and I think Norman Tebbit would still approve. My departure point is opposite the parish church and village green, but more precisely outside the Co-op, and the waiting demographic reflect the latter. When the 179 eventually arrives two of them want to pay by cash, which is already one more than Andrew Adonis claims to have seen in 100 bus journeys across London last week. I'm late in getting upstairs so have to surrender the front seat to a family of four. They want the grandstand view for their four year-old, but he turns out to be less than keen so it's Mum and Auntie who end up hogging the prime location instead.
We're journeying down the Kings Road, Chingford version, so fashions here are more TOWIE than Made In Chelsea. What we pass instead are the dodgily-named Pimp Hill Allotments, plus Churchill Curtain Cleaning Services, which is a nod to what's coming up later. Green spaces range from a kickabout square where boys are playing keepy-uppy to the actual proper Epping Forest, threading through briefly along the 'valley' of the River Ching. An elderly couple board here and do something unusual - they climb upstairs. Normally nobody over the age of about 50 comes up here, so it's good to see more adventurous Freedom Pass holders deftly negotiating the stairs.
A sign alerts drivers "To Avoid Low Emission Zone Turn Left", but we turn right instead along the High Road Woodford Green. Some fine houses are set back across the grass, although the road down the centre is a bit more arterial that I think the owners would like. I spot Sylvia Pankhurst's anti-bomb memorial on the left, and even a brief view of the Lea Valley down one particular descending sidestreet. We track the edge of Woodford Green, a linear ridgetop common, and a lovely place to stroll. Winston Churchill's statue is down the far end - he used to be the local MP - but I'm not going quite that far. An unexpectedly middle class parade of shops intrudes, the kind that has a fireplace shop and a family butchers and a choice of Italian restaurants. I've just ridden from Chingford's Prezzo to Woodford Green's Prezzo in less than ten minutes. Sorry, that wasn't a very exciting trip, but needs must.
» route 179 - timetable
» route 179 - live bus map
» route 179 - route history
» route 179 - The Ladies Who Bus
Should you ever need to ride from Walthamstow to Barkingside via almost-Chingford, you need the 275 bus. Other than that, probably not. I'm starting to think I should have taken the alternative route via Chigwell instead.
ROUND LONDON BY BUS (xx)
Route 275: Woodford Green - Fulwell Cross
Length of journey: 4 miles, 15 minutes
Shoots and buds in front gardens suggest that spring has already taken hold along The Terrace, a row of cottages across the top of Woodford Green. Winston Churchill looks down from the 'village' sign as I wait for a double decker 275 to arrive. When finally it does, it's not busy. Only two of us have colonised the upper deck - me and a teenage boy sporting a lived-in but borderline-smart hoodie. We follow Broadmead Road down gentle slopes from the ridgetop, past a huddle of Post Office vans, and with unexpected views right across to Havering... where I'll be heading later. A bridge over the Central line takes us inside the Hainault Loop, before we turn up a Tudorbethan avenue to Woodford station. If that's your cafe opposite with the name Lunch 4 u written in giant-sized Comic Sans, I hope you are so very ashamed.
The railway divides Snakes Lane into West and East, with no road linking one to the other, so our bus is routed only down the latter. First comes Jubilee Parade, which from its brickwork I'd guess 1935, and much later than expected the Railway Tavern. We're descending to the River Roding, whose valley is exploited, some would say despoiled, by the M11 motorway exiting London. Sensibly nobody's built any houses right up close on the flood plain, so the Highways Agency have set up a depot filled to the brim with dormant roadsigns. The residential cluster ahead is Woodford Bridge, so close to Chigwell that its shops have an air of chiselled blonde about them. Coffee culture and deli sensibility have settled in, while the pub on the corner was (until recently) Deuce's nightclub where the TOWIE clan frolicked. Two competing canine establishments face off on Manor Road, one for training police dogs, the other for training guide dogs. Throw in a sloping green with a pond, bookended by an old church and a proper pub, and it's proper nice hereabouts.
It's time to dip outside London for a mere half mile. The Essex border nudges inwards at the entrance to what used to be Claybury Asylum, now several blocks of exclusive private housing. We may be here some time thanks to temporary 4-way control traffic lights ahead, which leaves me too long to inspect an ugly pink bungalow with a view towards Buckhurst Hill over its roof. Only the well-off have homes on Tomswood Road, whose gardens are an alternating collection of Mercs, Audis, Jags and BMWs, usually two at a time. Our red bus feels an interloper here, until we regain the border at a tiny stream and the housing instantly switches back to normal. On our gentle descent of Tomswood Hill I spot Docklands and the O2's spikes in the distance, which is an unexpected surprise, plus the less iconic upthrust of the Halo on Stratford High Street. With each passing bus stop the ambience gets less Essexy and more Redbridge, the interior of the Hainault Loop being essentially relentlessly residential. And finally down to my favourite London library, architecturewise, by the roundabout at Fulwell Cross, where I alight for the opportunity to stare.
» route 275 - timetable
» route 275 - live bus map
» route 275 - route history
» route 275 - The Ladies Who Bus
I'm heading by bus into northeast London's unsung suburbs. You've heard of Hainault, but no railways reach further out so Marks Gate and Collier Row are mysteries to most. Less so, hopefully, after the following.
ROUND LONDON BY BUS (xxi)
Route 247: Fulwell Cross - Romford
Length of journey: 7 miles, 30 minutes
A lot of people are waiting to escape from the top of Barkingside High Street, most I'd say at the lower end of the London earnings spectrum. And most don't want to go far, merely to lug their cheap shopping home to the estates located around and inside the Hainault Loop. Various other bus services arrive to spirit them away, before a 247 eventually appears and there is a polite bundle for the front door. One passenger who's forgotten their Oyster needs to pay by cash - a simple privilege they'll be denied on the buses come the summer. I'm the last to climb aboard, so am surprised to discover the top front seat is clear until I spot the two empty boxes of chicken nuggets I'll need to shift aside.
The streets of outer Redbridge are not dripping with history, save that of farms turned over to housing in the mid 20th century. A couple of pubs - the New Fairlop Oak and the Old Maypole - hint at rural scenes lost and replaced. Near the latter a gaggle of girls throng aboard, splitting into two groups as they briefly take over the top deck. "She said we were embarrassing," says one, "how are we embarrassing?" It's a question I'll easily be able to answer, with evidence, before the end of my journey. A lot more people board at Hainault station, because we are the bus that provides the crucial last link from the end of the tube to home. Hainault proper is more residential than most, a maze of bungalows and LCC semis, plus a central shopping parade. We don't touch the shops but pass by up a wide-verged avenue, where building companies are keen to buy up any spare gap between homes to cram in another.
At Yellowpine Way a boyband boards, or rather three over-gelled over-dyed teenagers ascend to the upper deck. The girls further back are agog, but the objects of their infatuation instead spend the rest of the trip lusting after every sports car that drives by. Hainault Forest Country Park marks the edge of the Green Belt, with the grass covered by London 2012's temporary military camp still fenced off to recover. Where the dual carriageway ends is another 2012-related venue - the road cycling circuit displaced by the Velodrome, now a permanent addition to Redbridge's leisure offering. It's being fairly well used as we pass, though more by families with children to tire than by serious lycra-clad racers. Then descending Hog Hill comes an unexpectedly long-range view to the unhilly east, across the low rooftops of Havering towards my ultimate destination, the QE2 Bridge.
It's time for a whizz down Whalebone Lane (North). Acres of soggy fields stretch off to either side - I know of no other part of London as arable as this. Now there are distant views to the west, from Docklands round to the BT Tower, rising far across a broad expanse of ploughed mud. A different City Pavilion stands here, on the tip of Marks Gate, beside a roundabout pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Within its warehouse walls are five bars, two restaurants and a bowling centre, the latter the source of passengers rolling home to Romford. By now the three metrosexual lads are fixated on Mazda-spotting, debating whether that last red sports car was an RX8 or not, while the girls behind them giggle immaturely. And then we're bouncing back to the outskirts, our tenpin detour complete, to enter Havering, my final London borough.
Across the River Rom lies Collier Row, a sprawling suburb built across lands once inhabited only by charcoal burners. Growth came fast between the wars, so swiftly that the place even merited its own cinema, but that's now a Tesco Metro because such is the future. A fair proportion of the population moved out here from the East End, hence the existence of a seafood stall in the car park of the Bell and Gate - The Jolly Cockle. Two-bedroom homes still sell for under 200K out here, if you're looking for affordable London and don't mind taking the bus everywhere.
I'd appreciate it if we continued straight ahead at the Colliers Row roundabout because my next bus passes barely half a mile away. But no, this is where the 247 turns right and heads for Romford, and I'm not allowed to get off and walk the intermediate gap. We thunder unhelpfully south towards the busy A12, past the entirely underwhelming Havering Guest House. It's a long hike, with houses gradually making way for borderline lowbrow retail. A lengthy pause is taken outside the Romford Bus Garage, where our driver stops to chat to friends in uniform, but is not replaced. I'm now having to endure Top-Gear-level chatter from the three automotive addicts, who are discussing the ideal turquoise shade of their dream car and what kind of tyres it'd have. So when Romford's ring road finally appears it's a pleasure to join everyone else alighting for the shops, two stops before the end of the route.
» route 247 - timetable
» route 247 - live bus map
» route 247 - The Ladies Who Bus
The next three buses on my orbital journey all depart from Romford's Mercury Gardens. I could get to Lakeside in one hop, or I could get there in two, but I've decided on three. That's mainly because I want to hug the edge of London as I go, but also because this next bus has the ultimate route number. Sure there are express 500s and school-based 600s, but the normal run of London bus numbers ends at 499. This tours the far northeastern corner of the capital, as do its near neighbours the 496 and 498, serving below-the-radar estates in outer Havering. Top of the shop - it's got to be done.
ROUND LONDON BY BUS (xxii)
Route 499: Romford - Gallows Corner
Length of journey: 7 miles, 25 minutes
Romford boasts an excellent and plentiful retail offering, but its inner ring road holds insufficient space to contain the lot. Thus the Mercury mall and cinema sticks out beyond, linked to The Liberty beneath the dual carriageway via an arcade of minor shops. Folk throng through, then throng back, but only a few find the back stairs and rise up to the bus stop opposite Asda. From here depart several services to Gallows Corner, the others direct, but the 499 runs round the houses. A dozen passengers have chosen the single decker, most carrying bags, the youngest engrossed in tippy tappy on their phones. The lady in front of me is gorging herself on a packet of nuts. The label reads "only recommended for people with strong healthy teeth", to which I'd like to add "and neighbours with limited hearing".
We exit the ring road at Romford Library, before passing the town hall, two courts and a police station in quick succession. The 499 is then to be the sole service along Pettits Lane, a lane no more, now a line of mock Tudor homesteads. This section's Hail and Ride, but you'd never know from sitting on the bus because the electronic display keeps schtum. Indeed this is something I've noticed more than once on my trip around London - TfL appear to have stopped announcing Hail and Ride on buses and now merely display the name of the next normal stop for much longer than usual. I'd like to thank the executive who introduced this baffling policy for the additional hike I endured on an earlier route when I misguidedly pressed the button one mile early. Cheers mate.
Part way up we Pettits Lane cross the arterial A12, relatively swiftly, beside a sinuous footbridge for less fortunate pedestrians. These are London's spacious suburbs, with gardens and car parking spaces for all, along Drives and Mews and Avenues and Closes. Then at Chase Cross we tangle with one of London's ten least frequent bus routes, the 375, which heads out to the delightful almost-Essex village of Havering-atte-Bower. Instead we're cutting across semi-open, then open country, the fields to the left part of the nature reserve at Bedfords Park. Should you want to walk in rather than drive then sorry, there's no bus stop for an entire green mile, though the driver might stop if you dinged repeatedly enough. The views through the window look proper verdant as we climb towards London's next, and final, suburb.
This is Harold Hill, a giant postwar estate sandwiched between (and presumably named after) Harold Wood and Noak Hill. Even on its outskirts developers are seeking to replace yet another field to add to the fifteen thousand homes already hereabouts. Outside one bungalow on Noak Hill Road I'm surprised to see life-size statues of Laurel and Hardy guarding either side of the front door... and if I'm bemused, I wonder what the neighbours think. The 499 turns off this borderline road before the heart of the old village of Noak Hill, to head down to the roundabout at the heart of the estate. One 1950s park and one 1950s shopping parade have been provided, the latter a lengthy double-pronged affair (which saves the locals too many bus rides back into Romford). A boulder-based war memorial remembers "those who gave their lives for freedom", rather than specific deaths, because barely anyone was living around here during the World Wars.
We've doubled-back by now to a point only a couple of hundred metres from the start of the previous paragraph. Buses in the high 400s often do this, their routes designed to join the dots rather than travel direct. In this case we're about to head around an estate within an estate, a narrow looping road passing avenues and tower blocks named optimistically after poets. It soon becomes clear that this four minute loop is the 499's raison d'etre, the street that many of those on board have been waiting for. We're on another unsignalled Hail and Ride section, and the dings come thick and fast as those with bags from Romford choose to alight. When Nutcracker Woman heads for the door I catch the smell of peanut breath, thankfully only briefly. And by the time we return to Straight Road I am the only punter remaining on board.
Criminals in the Liberty of Havering were once hanged at Gallows Corner. The scaffold disappeared centuries ago and in its place, near enough, is a key roundabout on the A12 Eastern Avenue. A very amateur-looking flyover lifts Southend traffic above the melee, although many drivers are here solely for the mega retail park located along the Brentwood Road. Argos, Halfords and Next are amongst the purveyors of warehouse-ware closest to the roundabout, behind an unusual fivefold statue of a Roman spear carrier on horseback. Across the road was The Plough pub, I imagine once busy from passing trade, now a burnt-out shell behind dark hoardings. Our 499 queues for a few minutes to turn off the main road, an ordeal faced by every driver seeking Tesco. They fill the rear car park while we stop short by the petrol station where this bus terminates. Our driver goes for a rest inside a black taxi hired by the bus company, while I stand and wait, not too long, for the rarest bus in London.
» route 499 - timetable
» route 499 - live bus map
» route 499 - The Ladies Who Bus
It's time to ride the least frequent bus in London. Not counting school journeys or mobility services, no TfL bus runs less often than the 347. It runs only four times a day, Sundays naturally excluded, no earlier than nine in the morning and no later than five in the afternoon. One single vehicle shuttles to and forth during that period, and with buses running two hours apart it's really important to arrive on time.
ROUND LONDON BY BUS (xxiii)
Route 347: Gallows Corner - South Ockendon
Length of journey: 10 miles, 35 minutes
I arrive in good time. Not right at the start of the route in Romford but a mile or so up the road at Gallows Corner, round the back of Tesco's car park. As many as seven passengers have made the journey thus far, two of whom alight to shop and two more board with bags in hand. The bloke behind the sunglasses is probably the 347's regular driver - an infrequent service affords such familiarity - but he doesn't greet any of the passengers like old friends. They sit up front in the accessible seats while I perch alone behind, the sole farepayer aboard the Retirement Express. One particular lady hovers by the door to prevent her basket on wheels from skidding across the floor on the next bend. She stays aboard for only one stop, admittedly fair walking distance, but anything to avoid having to cross the busy arterial A12.
We're on the main road to Essex, which begins at the foot of the long broad slope laid out before us. But only the 498 goes there, because we're filtering right to Harold Wood, and speeding past lengthy queues waiting to go the other way. At the station our numbers increase, because we're about to head along roads no other service serves. One of our fresh boarders gets out her phone and starts a conversation the rest of us must share. "I can't hear you," she begins, then proceeds to enquire at great length as to the precise location of the station in Upminster. Most of the ladies sitting around her could have answered, had they been asked, or simply pointed to the electronic display in ten minutes time and said "here, love".
At the exit from suburbia we cross Cockabourne Bridge, a short span across the Ingrebourne, then edge out along more of a lane lined by less identikit homes. When one lady flags down the bus and greets a fellow passenger with a hello, I suspect this may be evidence of habitual 347 cameraderie. But no, her friend alights at the very next stop, they were merely near neighbours, except one chose to go shopping in the town behind and the other in the town ahead. I hope she doesn't live in the ugly bungalow with two giant lamps outside and a twee wishing well surrounded by cherubs.
There follows a mile with no bus stops, this time because there are virtually no homes. I was hoping that these remote lanes would be fresh ground, but it turns I've been this way before while walking the London Loop. Section 22 exits Pages Wood, a sprawling area of proto-forest planted barely a decade ago, and then follows the 347's route south. Sights include a big junction on the A127, several ponies and pigs, and rolling arable countryside stretching across the valley towards Hornchurch. We've entered the top end of Upminster, along a ridge with long views in opposite directions. One bus stop has the excellent name of "Upminster Tithe Barn Museum", an attraction which opens even less frequently than the bus that runs past.
We queue to reach Upminster station, as if to make the point to our loud phonecaller than she needn't have worried. Two taxis are waiting outside the ticket hall to spirit away those who'd rather not wait for the bus. Beyond the railway bridge is one of London's nicer shopping streets, a nucleus of respectability, including the independent two-site Roomes furniture store. A Waitrose, a deli and two Costas? Upminster's more cosmopolitan than you might think. We lose passengers but also gain a couple, a little younger than before. Some have hopped on because we're the first bus to the nearest streets, others because we're the only bus to a little further away.
Cranham's Millenium sign is where we make our break for independence - the 346 turns left and the 347 hurtles on. There follow a few streets of big semis and some sturdy-looking pubs, plus a boating shop that must be miles from the nearest navigable waterway. It's here, where real countryside begins, that my last fellow passenger alights and it's just me aboard for the next three and a half miles. One glance at the names of the next few bus stops might suggest why.
>> Franks Cottages >> East View Kennels >> Clay Tye Farm >> White Post Farm >> Fen Lane >> Home Farm Cottage >> Groves Farm Cottages >> Grove Farm >>
There follows the remotest stretch of London's least frequent bus route. And yet we are still somehow within the capital, a small bump of which pokes unnecessarily outside the M25 to encompass a landscape of fields that ought to be in Thurrock. The lane south undulates rather alongside scrubby fen and the occasional nursing home. Yes, a few folk do live along Tye Road, but they never moved here to have to rely on a two-hourly 347 so cars are their thing. Even so they still have a far better bus service than most similarly rural locations across the rest of the country, because to be a Londoner is an astonishingly privileged thing, transportation-wise.
North Ockendon is barely a hamlet but it boasts two bus services - the 370 has just rolled in from the west. Down Fen Lane is the easternmost point in London, you may remember, but we thunder south along a wiggly narrow lane. To either side are churned-up muddy fields, into which (on one bend) we splash the contents of a particularly broad puddle. Our driver's clearly enjoying the ride, and trying to reach his imminent destination as quickly as possible to maximise the length of his break. Various hold-ups earlier mean we're running late, cutting a fifteen minute turnaround down to barely five. I alight just before the end, on South Ockendon's village green, to await my penultimate bus. A wait just long enough to see the 347 dashing back the other way, bang on time, in case there's anybody out there.
» route 347 - timetable
» route 347 - live bus map
» route 347 - The Ladies Who Bus
I could have caught this bus all the way from Romford, but no, I'd have missed out on the edge of London doing that. Instead I'm boarding the 370 towards the end of its route, shortly after exiting London for the delights of Thurrock. And there'll be no going back.
ROUND LONDON BY BUS (xxiv)
Route 370: South Ockendon - Lakeside
Length of journey: 3 miles, 15 minutes
South Ockendon doesn't initially look like it deserves a double decker, with its small village green, old church and minor parade of shops. But there is a considerable amount of postwar housing estate parked off to the south, plus it's on the way to somewhere greater... the mall at Lakeside. Hence when the bus arrives, even after its ride through the back of beyond, it's rather full. I climb upstairs to an unfamiliar sight. For a start almost everyone on the top deck is female, and for another thing they're almost all fairly young. If my last bus was the Retirement Express, this is very obviously The Bus To The Mall.
A lot of chattering is going on. Up front the schoolgirl section is rather gossipy, further back the talk is more of evening plans and potential purchases. A few houses along South Road have been here for some time - there's one set of villas datemarked 1903. But the great majority of housing is modern infill, and various roads lead off to sprawling postwar estates on either side. A lot more people board as we pass through, the 370 acting as a weekend escape route for the young. The houses break for a flooded meadow and a large garden centre, which I get to stare at for a while because it's here that the jams start. I then get to stare at some window-height blossom for a while, as pre-Lakeside traffic conspires to extend my brief journey by several minutes.
When an electronic voice announces that the next stop is Stifford Road the three girls in front of me burst into a prolonged fit of giggles. They cackle more when a branch scraping down the site of the bus sounds like a fart, then go back to checking their phones and showing each other stuff. Stifford Road is later revealed as the source of all this congestion, being one of only two ways for residents to cross the c2c railway hereabouts. We then curve downhill to cross the Mardyke, the slopes below almost scenic, past a thatched cottage no less. But that's the only brief nice bit as we return to the estuarine plain and enter Thurrock's built-up retail wonderland.
A big Sainsbury's, several pylons, warehouse sprawl - there's little here than Betjeman would have eulogised about. That's Chafford Hundred ahead, a modern maze of drives and cul-de-sacs set around a set of chalk quarries. The largest is now home to Lakeside, or intu Lakeside as the site's owners would now like us to call it, despite the bland weediness of their brand name. This is the seventh largest shopping centre in the country, as is readily apparent looking down from above across the domed mall and vast car parks. So so many cars glint in the spring sunlight, but we avoid the majority of the traffic by entering the site via the bus-friendly back road. There is much queueing to alight - I let the ladies off first - and then I have one bus to go.
» route 370 - timetable
» route 370 - live bus map
» route 370 - route history
» route 370 - The Ladies Who Bus
For the final bus on my round-London journey I need to ride a non-TfL service back to Kent. And what a route. It links two of the largest shopping malls in the country, that's Lakeside and Bluewater. It doesn't appear on the London bus map because it doesn't enter London. It's the only scheduled bus to cross the Thames downstream of Greenwich. It (inexplicably) doesn't run on Sundays. It's run using bright blue double deckers. And if you go in the right direction there are some whoa-yeah views across miles of estuary. I'm definitely going in the right direction... indeed that's the reason why I chose to orbit London clockwise in the first place.
ROUND LONDON BY BUS (xxv)
Route X80: Lakeside - Bluewater
Length of journey: 8 miles, 25 minutes
Lakeside's architects didn't make it easy to find the bus station. It looks obvious enough on the map - two long blue shelters running parallel to the quarry's edge - but once inside the mall the lack of helpful signs is plain. Indirect access can be found up a side arm, past a tiny McDonalds and up a drab path beside a car park. The most direct route involves zigzagging through the ladies department at Debenhams, dodging perfume vendors and swish dresses, towards a barely-marked rear door. Never mind. We car-less folk know when we're not wanted, plus of course we all worked out where the bus station was when we arrived.
You'd think "the only bus across the Thames for miles" would run more often but no, just once an hour. Queues are building to board long before the bus arrives, lengthening down the shelter as the timetabled departure times ticks round. Across the way is what looks like a small house but is actually a hideaway for Ensign Buses staff, somewhere to coordinate movements or for drivers to grab a cuppa between scheduled services. This particular afternoon two young policemen are hovering outside, their short-sleeved uniform revealing one tattooed elbow and one entirely inked forearm. They offer a friendly "hello" to the boy in the wheelchair further back down the queue, then wander through the swing doors to summer fashions on their none-too-taxing beat.
Boarding the big blue bus takes several minutes. An additional member of staff comes over to help the driver, waving through anyone who already has a ticket while the rest of us queue to pay. Oyster's useless on this service, we're a couple of miles outside the capital, so I have to stump up £2.80 for a single. The lower deck is rammed but the upper deck not so - that's heavy shopping for you - so I'm pleased to grab a vacant front seat just before we depart. All the better to enjoy the view later, oh yes.
We set off along the edge of the former chalk quarry, then rise up to the arterial road on the rim. Adjacent is a major leisure option, Arena Essex, a stock car and speedway racing track that predates Lakeside. But it's the view across the mall's vented roof that attracts the eye. First shops and lakes, then the industrial band along the Thames, and on the far side of the river the hazy green hills of north Kent. There's plenty of time to admire, because traffic is very slow ahead. The problem is two streams of traffic crossing at the next roundabout, one in, one out, and the draw of Costco, Tesco et al is too strong.
We eventually reach the point where the M25 terminates, because this motorway's not a loop, but has a brief deregulated section for the Dartford Crossing. A road sign directs us towards A282 THE SOUTH, and then we're up onto the approach road to the QE2 Bridge (opened 1991). And this is why it's important that I'm orbiting clockwise, because every scrap of northbound traffic is directed underground instead through a parallel tunnel. It's fast and efficient, taking barely a minute to pass through, but you miss out on oh so many elevated glories. Ride south, however, especially from the top deck of a double decker bus, and whoa-yeah!
What a vista. There are pylons and power stations, factories and silos, chimneys and conveyor belts, great piles of sand... but most of all there's the Thames, here almost a kilometre wide. A broad ribbon of water snakes off in both directions, past long piers where huge ships are moored, and docks where thousands of cars are offloaded. Upriver are the Erith Marshes, and Bexley's (seemingly tiny) incinerator, and maybe the Thames Barrier, and possibly the skyscrapers of Docklands if you look hard enough. The estuary is truly vast, and relentlessly flat, and it's only from up here on the bridge that you truly get that sense of scale. Seriously, who'd be downstairs?
But it's all so brief. We're speeding across at 50mph, so all too quickly we're coming into land over Kent. Come on a busier day, however, and you'd more likely stall over the water. That's because lined up immediately ahead are toll booths 15 to 27, which still require the chucking of coins unless your vehicle's equipped with the crossing's smartcard. Our bus heads deliberately towards the left-most lane, where it stops at the barrier like everyone else, but only a nod and a smile are exchanged.
At the Littlebrook roundabout we double back in the direction of Essex, alongside the edge of the bridge we've just driven down. The bus now passes through the Crossways Business Park, a major collection of squat blocks laid out along so-called boulevards, occupied by up-and-comers. A typical outfit would have a name like called Micron Technologies, creating something nebulously service-based, and ideally located for road transport purposes. A few animal sculptures have been imported to give the place some sense of identity, alongside some lawns around big ponds where employees can lounge with a packed lunch, assuming anybody still does that.
Twenty minutes into the journey we spy our first actual houses, the backs of a row of terraces in the village of Stone. Competing for residents' attention are its 13th century church and an enormous Asda (and you can probably guess which wins on a Sunday). We stop outside Greenhithe station, freshly rebuilt as the gateway to Bluewater, although (unlike Lakeside's nearest halt) it's not really close enough to walk. Shoppers can catch one of the area's special air-conditioned Fastrack buses, introduced to improve accessibility across the Thames Gateway area, but trains are more likely to disgorge passengers into the clutches of waiting car drivers.
Hang on, I recognise the next junction by The Bull - my very first bus passed this way just over two months ago. But there's no shared bus stop, indeed no more stops at all for the next mile as we head down into a familiar quarry to enter Bluewater proper. I note that the giant silver reindeer has been removed since New Year, along with posters for the skating rink, but cars continue to pour in all the same. We're heading for the bus station round the back of Marks & Spencer's food hall - an exit almost as well shielded as by Debenhams at Lakeside. My journey of over 150 miles is almost at an end.
As we pull in, one grandma downstairs makes a "wait!!" gesture through the window at the driver in the next bay. If he hangs on for a few more seconds she (and the boy in the wheelchair) can avoid a half hour wait for the next bus. And yes, of course they bundle off in time, and yes, of course the next bus waits, because bus drivers are inherently a damned reasonable breed. I know this because I've been all the way round the edge of London by bus, and I've met 25 of them. And that's why I'm not rushing to climb aboard another bus, not rushing at all. Instead I head for the shops and walk a circuit of the mall, a very much simpler orbital experience. London encircled by bus, achievement unlocked.
» route X80 - timetable
» route X80 - route map
» route X80 - Ensign buses leaflet
Map of my complete journey