Saturday, June 21, 2014

Gunnersbury - Ealing Common

Length of journey: 2 miles, 40 minutes

The North Circular Road was conceived by the Greater London Arterial Roads Conferences of 1913-16, a decision-making body from which also sprang the Great West Road and Eastern Avenue. While the South Circular never really took off, being little more than some ordinary roads with a special label, the North was built mostly from scratch. Most of the new road was laid out in the 1920s, and ran from Hanger Lane to Gants Hill via Finchley and Edmonton to create a useful by-pass around the edge of Victorian London. There were plans in the 1940s for the entire A406 to be upgraded to a six-lane highway as part of the mostly-aborted Ringway scheme (of which more here). But while several sections of the North Circular are now at motorway standard, for example the eastern extension from the M11 down to Beckton, others still have a much more constricted feel.

I've decided to ride the North Circular by bus. At 25 miles it's a bit long to walk, plus parts of it aren't entirely suitable for pedestrians. Some of it isn't entirely suitable for buses either, there being nobody living alongside, so TfL don't route services that way. But they route buses directly along the rest of the North Circular, so the great majority of this arterial road can be covered in just four buses. Or maybe five, let's see how it all pans out, shall we...

Nowadays the North Circular Road begins at the Chiswick Roundabout. As evidence for this, the road sign on the approach shows five roads radiating outwards, only one of which is appropriately designated. Another points to the South Circular, which might seem unlikely given that we're north of the river, but the A205 really does start here before crossing Kew Bridge and heading round towards Woolwich. This is a seriously important road junction, it's where the M4 begins and continues hundreds of miles west to Swansea and beyond. But by this point the motorway is already in the air, soaring above the roundabout via the legendary Chiswick Flyover. For those of us at ground level the environment is a little more mundane, with walls and garages and other buildings around the not inconsiderable perimeter.

Given the roundabout's size, pedestrians are courteously offered the option of walking straight across the middle. I was pleased to see an attempt's been made to make the route more appealing by lining the path with wild flowers and small trees, plus some stumpy brushed metal lamps to light the way after dark. Someone's even tried to brighten the section beneath the flyover with the inclusion of some girder-like arboreal sculptures, but instead the concrete arches dominate, and this is still more somewhere you'd come to doss down for the night. The Chiswick Flyover was officially opened in 1959 by actress Jayne Mansfield, and her words "It's a sweet little flyover" are printed on an unlikely commemorative sign positioned so that only those on foot will see it. There are also two other giant metal towers, which at first I thought were art but turned out to be supporting electronic adverts for the benefit of passing motorway drivers. On Saturday they were blaring out news of a "Free Flag With The Sun Tomorrow", which should in fact have read "Free Flag With The Sun Today", so maybe the newspaper should ask for their money back.

But these garish signs are nothing compared to what's planned for the empty brownfield site on the northern corner of the roundabout between the motorway and the start of the North Circular. This is the proposed home of the London Octopus, an asymmetric office block that's soon to become the capital's ugliest building. Its exterior will be covered by the largest digital advertising screen in Europe, some 50m tall, with the express intention of providing "an infinite opportunity to express branding in as bold or as subliminal a fashion as can be imagined." Global marketing barons will no doubt salivate at the opportunity to directly engage with high volume traffic flows at "a strategic location with exceptional prominence". But I dare you to explore the Octopus's website without feeling queasy or watch the publicity film without being aghast.

The first two miles of the North Circular follow Gunnersbury Avenue, all the way from the Chiswick Roundabout to the Uxbridge Road. This is a major artery and a mostly-residential road, so it's surprising to find that no London buses head this way. And that meant I had to walk, starting beside the Peugeot garage and striding north past the big B&Q. Traffic going my way was flowing freely, but in the opposite direction was a long tailback of frustrated drivers and the occasional flapping England flag. The road's a four lane highway at this point as it passes the entrance to Gunnersbury Cemetery and runs along the edge of Gunnersbury Park. Should residents on the opposite side of the road choose to visit their local recreational amenity they've been afforded a lofty footbridge, the first of very many I'll be passing before East London is finally reached.

I nipped into the park and its museum at this point, as you'll remember I told you yesterday. Good timing, because the heavens opened while I was inside, and when I returned to the road it was awash with puddles. Indeed exceptionally good timing, because as I reached the junction with Gunnersbury Drive I heard a loud droning noise behind me and turned to see the half the Queen's Birthday flypast approaching. These planes had delighted crowds on The Mall two minutes earlier, and now here they were flying low over Gunnersbury on their way towards RAF Northolt. A lumbering Globemaster III took the lead, ahead of an Air Force Voyager flanked by three Typhoons and three Tornados, the procession aligned precisely overhead. The few of us walking in the right place at the right time grinned in awe, which extended when the Red Arrows appeared and sped across semi-detached rooftops, before normality swiftly returned.

Ahead lies the narrowest section of the A406, a single carriageway with only one lane in each direction. It seems barely worthy of the North Circular brand name, but there's no easy way to widen the road without swallowing up the front gardens, and maybe the homes, of those living to either side. One of those used to be comedian Sid James, he of the Carry On films, commemorated at number 35 by a blue plaque from the British Comedy Society. By now the road is edging into Ealing, and soon runs along the edge of Ealing Common, a very pleasant open expanse. And it's in the far corner, just past the Uxbridge Road, where TfL finally deigns to send a bus along the North Circular. The next seven miles will be rather quicker.

Update: A surprising inhabitant of Gunnersbury Avenue that I overlooked (thanks Daniel) is the North Korean Embassy, based in a semi-detached house at 73. Or at least I thought I'd missed it until I looked up where number 73 is, and it turns out I was standing outside when the Queen's Birthday Flypast thundered over. That's it beneath the fighter planes in one of the photos I took, and in the bottom left hand corner of the montage above... what are the chances?

Route 112: Ealing Common - Brent Cross

Length of journey: 7 miles, 35 minutes [map]

I had my doubts about riding the A406 by bus on a Saturday afternoon. I've seen sections of the North Circular jammed solid, particularly along the next stretch, so I brought a book in case things got too bad. Thankfully I hit lucky on my journey to Brent Cross, and also in getting a double decker ride because most 112s are single. I missed out on the upper front seat, so got to sit behind a woman wolfing down a filet-o-fish and black coffee. The road north from Ealing Common is Hanger Lane, long has been, but now a four lane arterial rather than obscure rural backwater. It vaults the Great Western railway, then rises to a high point on Hanger Hill from which a panorama across Brent and Harrow can be seen. It's best seen from the top deck, so truck drivers probably have the edge over car drivers, and is pleasingly lowrise bar Wembley's foreground arch.

Once a lowly crossroads, the Hanger Lane Gyratory is the squarest mega-roundabout in London. It came into being in the 1980s in response to the sheer volume of traffic interchanging between Western Avenue and the North Circular, and has been mostly overwhelmed ever since. The A40 passes beneath in a too-narrow underpass, but everything on the A406 must stop and join the multi-lane maelstrom. Our bus pauses beside a shop specialising in Eastern European accident claims, then ducks out into the melee past several outcrops of ill-advised office architecture. Our driver's clearly a pro, negotiating four lanes, then five, then six, before spinning off northeast along the Brent valley.

From this point on, the North Circular is a substantially better road than before, from a motorist's point of view that is, rather than in terms of scenery. Various commercial premises occupy the left hand side, including the underwhelming (and non-orange) HQ of EasyBus and EasyOffice, while somewhere in the trees to the right is what's left of Twyford Abbey. Immediately ahead, passing over via aqueduct, is the Grand Union Canal - damaged by bombing at the start of WW2, but a flooding calamity was thankfully averted. And if you look carefully you'll spot that the bus has slipped off the main road onto a parallel suburban feeder, this in order to better serve its neighbouring community, and not for the last time.

Here's a legendary location - the famous Ace Cafe. It opened in 1938 to cater for passing roadside trade, but very soon upgraded to the Ace Service Station. The current building's a postwar rebuild, made popular then famous, then infamous as a Mecca for bikers and rock'n'rollers. The last fried breakfast was served in 1969, that is until a 2001 reboot that saw the Ace reborn for an older generation. Our bus paused at the stop alongside for longer than seemed absolutely necessary, but that was great to get an unusual birds eye view of action on the forecourt. A variety of bikes were lined up proudly at the roadside while their owners sat inside in full leathers with a nice cup of coffee, or rested their helmets outside on a row of black plastic chairs. Others in civvies had come simply to admire, or had tagged along to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Mini Moke, three of which were parked outside. Ace indeed.

There are at least half a dozen railway bridges ahead (one still Ferodo!), these carrying a) the West Coast mainline b) tracks to sidings and c) the Bakerloo line. Our sideroad dips through a series of brick arches to pass Stonebridge Park station, and a small cluster of contrasting office blocks. Immediately to the left is the refitted 21 storey Wembley Point, a triangular-prism-ish tower whose deluded owners have deemed it "the true landmark of Wembley", ignoring the conspicuous national stadium nearby. Opposite are the Unisys Buildings, a pair of concrete curves left empty and decaying in 1996, fit only for squatters. It's destined to become "at least 5% affordable housing", but in the meantime hosts Wembley's famous Sunday Market which was forced to decamp here earlier this year.

Thus far any housing immediately alongside the North Circular has tended to be fairly Metroland in style, but as Neasden approaches comes a run of lowly council homes, roughly hewn and scrappily daubed. Somewhere behind is the Shree Swaminarayan Mandir, the largest traditionally-built Hindu temple outside India, although a far more visible place of worship is coming up on the left. That'd be the Wembley IKEA, one of the main reasons this road gets so clogged up hereabouts, as the size of the car park (and that of neighbouring Tesco) bears witness. A flatpack football stands outside the entrance this month, which I suspect might have been less underwhelming had Sweden actually qualified for the World Cup this year.

The 112 then does a brave thing and turns off the A406 at the Neasden Underpass. It does this to serve a bus stop in the mock Tudor shopping parade, but in doing so risks entering one traffic jam leading to another leading back to a third. Few urban centres have been blighted by the North Circular quite so badly as poor Neasden, but my journey escapes relatively quickly and I'm not forced to look for too long. Neither do I get the opportunity, on the next stretch, to enjoy a lengthy view over the Welsh Harp Reservoir. I catch glimpses of yachts behind the treeline, but a more protracted spell of light industrial tedium in the immediate vicinity.

One more mega-important mega-junction follows, this being Staples Corner. Yes, there is a branch of Staples office supplies on the corner, but that's not the origin of the name, which was the Staples Mattress Factory, extant here until 1986. One linked roundabout joins to the A5, formerly Watling Street, while the other more complex beast is the very first junction on the M1 motorway. It's bad enough to negotiate in a car but pedestrians are sent instead via a series of labyrinthine suspended walkways, fenced off to keep two legs and four wheels safely separate. And finally, assuming the traffic's not too heavy, the 112 delivers its cargo of shoppers to the mall at Brent Cross. There are far worse places to pause, but also far better.

» route 112 - timetable
» route 112 - bus map
» route 112 - live bus map
» route 112 - The Ladies Who Bus

Route 232: Brent Cross - Arnos Grove

Length of journey: 6 miles, 30 minutes [map]

Like the 112 before it, the 232 is a mostly North Circular bus. That's risky if you want to catch it, because you could end up in a jam anywhere and might be late for whatever at the other end. I have no such deadlines so board in good faith, and wonder how long my journey through south Barnet might take. The bus itself is busy, pulling into the Brent Cross shopping mall to disgorge one set of passengers and then pausing to welcome more. It's also the only single decker I get to ride on my entire journey, which is bad news for today's report because it restricts my view. Travel at the front on the upper deck and you really feel like you've experienced a place - travel at the back on a lower deck and you've only scratched the surface. Still, bear with me.

Welcome to Brent Cross Private Property, reads the sign we pass on the way out, which is a less than friendly welcome in my book. We take a dip through the A41 viaduct to escape, essentially following a sliproad to follow another sliproad to rejoin the A406. It's a much easier route than many other buses hereabouts get to follow, for which I am duly thankful. We are again following the river Brent, here forced into a demeaning concrete culvert lest it get in the way of the modern motor car. A run of bungalows follows, most with paved front gardens from which residents have to reverse extremely carefully to enter the traffic. One such dwelling has been painted grey and renamed Wentworth College, along with a similarly drab semi nextdoor, which probably explains why no photos of the building appear anywhere on the college's website.

I recognise the next stretch from my walks along the Capital Ring, or rather I remember walking past shady lakes while a six lane highway thundered behind the trees. Ahead is the North Circular's flatshare moment, as the A1 swings in from the left and shares carriageways for a while. Unusually there's plenty of open greenspace alongside which could be reappropriated by tarmac, but hasn't been, even after TfL's recent mega-upgrade of the junction at Henlys Corner. Instead local residents can choose to stroll along the Mutton Brook, if they don't mind inhaling exhaust fumes, past the traffic lights where we stop and start before veering off solo again.

Ever since we left Brent Cross I've been trying to work out where the voices are coming from. They're too soft to be iBus announcements, and too regular to be passengers talking. The answer comes suddenly with a doof doof... somebody in one of the front seats is streaming EastEnders! I can't see whether it's on their smartphone or tablet, but what I do know is that the brazen bastard is watching without the aid of headphones. Please God let that be it, thinks the on-board collective, but immediately after the theme tune's faded away it kicks back in again as our miscreant starts to watch the next episode. Where is the real Phil Mitchell when you need him?

The North Circular descends into cutting as it skirts the edge of Finchley, a sleek modern cutting lined by patterned brickwork, denying sight of the cemetery above. No pedestrians may pass this way, the A406 has finally gone wheels only, with only the occasional bus stop on the traffic's edge granted temporary access. The next main road we rise up and over, now more disassociated from our surroundings, past the façade of Finchley Fire Station, FFS. A curving double spur links to the A1000, formerly the A1, where the North Circular at last attains a motorway vibe. As we speed through I'm increasingly aware that I don't know this part of London at all, it's like a black hole in my decade's exploration of the capital, and I wonder if my absence is at least partly due to the North Circular scything through.

It's at this point that the A406 goes green, on both sides, with a nature reserve to the left and the vast St Pancras and Islington Cemetery to the right. I'm assuming all is set fair for the journey ahead when suddenly the next stop is brimming with passengers wanting to crowd on. Half are laden with bags from Tesco, and the rest are sweaty in sportskit after a Powerleague kickabout on the other side of the arterial stream. Somewhat appropriately the sliproad we're now on is called Bobby Moore Way, although my research has been unable to dig up any geographical reason why the great footballer is commemorated here at Colney Hatch and not, say, further round the North Circular where he lived and played.

The onboard teammates jostle, banter and swig Lucozade, like you do after a match. There is to be plenty of swigging time. Ahead is the unloved part of the North Circular where the number of eastbound lanes slims from three to two, and traffic duly queues to merge in turn. It could be worse, indeed I suspect it oftentimes is, but there's no immediate scope for any useful widening hereabouts. The immediate obstacle is the East Coast mainline, more specifically the low brick arch that threads beneath, where capacity just has to grin and bear it. On the opposite side is a huge gasometer and a BP garage, and then a set of traffic lights where the 232 does something unthinkable, it turns left.

Yes, the next quarter-mile of the A406 is entirely bus-free. I suspect that's partly to avoid its unfriendly two-lane-ness, but more likely to give the 232 the chance to serve some proper communities for a change. First up is New Southgate, the newly-proposed terminus of Crossrail 2, which'd no doubt mean the clearing out of the builders merchants decamped on a disused viaduct. Then there's Friern Barnet, easternmost of the family of Barnets, where it feels strange to be back on a single carriageway road passing chip shops and nail bars. And finally Arnos Grove station, where I decide to decamp the 232 before it continues off piste to Turnpike Road. Brief arterial respite follows, outside architectural heaven.

» route 232 - timetable
» route 232 - bus map
» route 232 - live bus map
» route 232 - The Ladies Who Bus

Route 34: Arnos Grove - Walthamstow

Length of journey: 7 miles, 35 minutes [map]

One of the joys of TfL's Live Bus Arrivals service is that you know not just when the next bus is coming, but also the bus after that. So when the first 34 turned up at Arnos Grove station, heaving, I checked ahead and let it pass. Another bus was only three minutes behind, and as it turned out almost empty, allowing me to grab the prime observation seat on the upper deck. Sometimes it pays to wait.

A proper low-numbered bus for once, the 34 only follows the North Circular for about half its length, so that's the half I'm going to ride. And sorry, but I'm starting at the rubbish bit of the A406, the narrow four lane stretch round Bounds Green that clogs and clogs and clogs. No buses traverse Telford Road, possibly the worst bit, where houses await demolition should a long-term widening scheme ever come to pass. At the next traffic lights cars actually have to turn right to stay on the main road, hence delays, and it's at this point that the 34 arrives and slips into the flow. A new curvaceous footbridge helps schoolchildren get home, beyond which Bowes Road isn't especially wide either. Various residential roads feed in on both sides, and the central reservation (where it exists) is more flowerbed than barrier.

A strip of brownfield land opens up on the left hand side, with those few houses that remain "under protection" and ready for demolition. Is road-widening planned, or will fresh flats spring forth forever constraining opportunities for future expansion? Behind suburban rooftops runs the Pymmes Brook, a minor north London waterway, but significant enough that the North Circular's engineers chose to track its gentle valley all the way down to the Lea. A wholly manmade channel cuts across at right angles just past the railway bridge, this the 400-year-old New River. Nobody seems to be out walking it today, they all seem to be driving instead.

And suddenly we have four lanes travelling east again, one of them a bus lane, this on the approach to the Clockhouse Junction. These are the last traffic lights before Barking, which can only mean the North Circular's about to get a whole lot better (or, if you're going in the opposite direction, a whole lot worse). The next section is long and straight and a textbook example of ribbon development, with a run of sturdy semis facing bravely into the traffic. Three bedroom freehold, Palmers Green fringe, £250000 ono, would suit petrolhead.

The road then widens further, and the houses step further back, on the run-up to the Great Cambridge Road. Just when it looks like our bus might descend into the underpass it banks off up the slip road to connect with a roundabout that driving instructors probably avoid negotiating with their students on a first lesson. The next stretch of the A406 is called Sterling Way, wittily named because it acts as a bypass for parallel Silver Street. And Silver Street is where the 34 is heading, to serve an arts centre, a Post Office and hundreds of houses... which must be a better transport decision than stopping off beside some allotments.

Ooh, Pymmes Park is pretty, especially at this time of year with flowerbeds ablaze, and the Brook of the same name wiggling through. Keep looking and you'll miss that the North Circular is descending into its longest subway - the Fore Street Tunnel. This was built in the late 90s to ease a terrible bottleneck through Edmonton, but has proved unexpectedly leaky, so TfL have just started closing it overnight for a mammoth series of drainage repairs due to run until late next year. Those of us at ground level get to cross Angel Corner at the Angel Edmonton, both named after a 17th century coaching inn on Fore Street long since demolished.

One of the joys of a frequent bus service is that sometimes you catch up with the bus in front. So it's a pleasure to catch up with the 34 I refrained from riding earlier, and then to overtake it. There are so many passengers aboard that at every stop someone wants to alight, whereas the handful on our bus rarely do, so we speed ahead and stay permanently in the lead. Sometimes it pays to have waited.

There's a feeling of acceleration as the North Circular careers headlong towards the Lea. It's four lanes each way now, speeding through lowrise suburbia in the shadow of a single lemon-coloured tower block. The 34 takes every opportunity to bear off onto slip roads and back again, grabbing an additional view of the viaduct's supporting concrete pillars each time. The elevated view hits a lowpoint above Angel Road, which is probably the crappiest station in London. A panorama of waste metal proliferates, and there's a terrible smell that might have something to do with the chimneys of the EcoPark Energy Centre alongside. The Mayor and the Chancellor were here last week to plug Enfield Meridian Water, a massive redevelopment plan that aims to turn the entire surrounding area into space for 5000 homes, office space and a retail park. It looks a hard sell today, but at least the road links will be good.

We cross the Lea, and its associated artificial channels, at least four times before finally touching down in the East. The first stop is outside the South Chingford Cafe, its exterior festooned with a flapping Union Jack and a pictorial menu of priced platters. The lady beside me on the bus has brought her own food, a slab of unnamed meat in a plastic tub which I fear she's going to eat, but merely prods and reseals. Nobody alights on Walthamstow Avenue, indeed there are barely any stops because crossing to the other side of the six lane highway looks like hell. In fact hell is Walthamstow Stadium, the much-loved dog track whose listed frontage still stands beside the Crooked Billet Roundabout, but the cranes behind tell a much sadder story.

And the Crooked Billet is the end of the 34's dalliance with the North Circular. No buses serve the next mile, an urban clearway that rises gently ahead to carve briefly through a bit of Epping Forest. Instead our destination is Walthamstow, a considerably less speedy prospect, down residential streets past the converted Tramway Offices. Everyone else is going to the bus station, or thereabouts, but I hop off at The Bell (which thankfully does still exist, and is looking for a junior sous chef). One more bus should do it, or maybe two.

One of the joys of a lengthy bus ride is that sometimes you catch up with the bus in front of the bus in front. As we pull in at The Bell, bingo. Sometimes he who waits wins the jackpot.

» route 34 - timetable
» route 34 - bus map
» route 34 - live bus map
» route 34 - route history
» route 34 - The Ladies Who Bus

Route 123: Walthamstow - Gants Hill

Length of journey: 5 miles, 20 minutes [map]

The 123 runs for twelve miles, all the way from Wood Green to Ilford. Only about a mile of that is along the North Circular, but that's the best I've got, so that's the bus I'm going to take. Plus it follows the original route of the A406 eastwards from the point where the North Circular branches off, all the way down Woodford Avenue to Gants Hill. Before the motorway-standard extension down to Beckton opened in 1987, this was the way to go. Easy as 123.

From the Bell in Walthamstow, very close to the William Morris Gallery, it takes a while to get back to the North Circular. Visual respite is provided by Waltham Forest Town Hall, one of the finer mid 20th century civic centres, in competition-winning Nordic Classical style. Next up is Waltham Forest College, more classically housed, and holding an Open Day on Saturday when I passed by. Not a big hit, if the half-empty suite of food and entertainment stalls outside is anything to go by - the headline appearance by Griminal clearly wasn't quite a big enough draw. I get a top deck performance of my own when a young girl travelling unaccompanied bursts into song, far sweeter than any grime performance, but equally unidentifiable.

And then a disembodied voice kicks in...
From 6th July cash is no longer accepted on buses. Find out about other ways to way at tfl.gov.uk/waystopay
The same recorded message has played on all my previous buses too, but the 123 is the first route so descriptively thin I've felt the need to mention it. I'm on the upper deck so I have no idea how many, or how few, of the passengers boarding downstairs are paying for their ride in coins. But if you're a fairly regular traveller then you should have heard this message at least once before the withdrawal date, probably several times, and had the opportunity to consider whether to use Oyster or go contactless. It's the occasional users, who are far more likely to use cash than the rest of us, who are most likely to be caught out come 6th July: "oh, really... so I can't get on the bus at all?"

On past Wood Street Library, on across the Greenwich Meridian, and up to Waterworks Corner. The North Circular used to curve south down Beacontree Avenue, but now carves straight ahead through the trees to a major roundabout. This was built in the late 1960s alongside an existing underground reservoir belonging to the Metropolitan Water Board, and the roadworks also allowed for the construction of a second larger reservoir alongside. You might spot both from the bus, or one from the main road.

The 123 only skims the North Circular, but it's picked one of the road's most brutal urban sections. What used to be the main road was scoured out, widened and sunk into a cutting ten lanes wide through the heart of Woodford. Ten. Lanes. Wide. To catch the bus at one stop requires stepping down a zigzag ramp in a brick wall to road level, which is perhaps why nobody had ventured that far on my journey. The sole road bridge carries the former A11, now innocently renumbered A1199 in the hope that no satnav will spot it.

Approaching the Central line the carriageway splits, and splits again. Bear right to follow the new North Circular on equally mega-roads down to Beckton. Keep to the centre to whoosh up the fledgling M11 into the very heart of Essex. Or bear left down to Charlie Brown's Roundabout, named after the pub the gyratory destroyed in the 1970s, from which more local options are possible. The junction was built in the immediate floodplain of the river Roding, providing space for a triangle of interlinked concrete viaducts that soar over, or scar, the landscape depending on your view.

To be clear, I'm no longer following the North Circular, because that veers down towards Redbridge and no TfL services go that way. Instead I'm travelling onwards to Gants Hill along the old arterial road, once the A406, now the less inspiring A1400.

Widthwise we're back to a more comfortable two lanes each way, running past more familiar sights like a Tesco and a Toby Carvery. We also have a fair few passengers on board, the 123 being one of the few buses to cross the residential heart of the Hainault loop. Clayhall is quintessential Forgotten London, or indeed Never Even Heard Of It Before London, which is what happens when the Central line circles but misses you out. The area is tightly packed with broad avenues, gabled homes and lush gardens - the very epitome of suburbia but too disconnected to be widely desirable.

The section of road past Clayhall Park was once a rural lane, but the final stretch of Woodford Avenue is a deliberate interwar cut-through. The age of the two churches gives the game away - both have copper spires - and the local shops are called Spurway Parade, presumably in honour of the motor car's brave new world. I like that the central reservation has a line of short trees, in sharp contrast to the impenetrable barriers found elsewhere back along the route.

And the Gants Hill roundabout is where this round London journey terminates, beside a tiny plaque unveiled by Boris Johnson in October 2010 "to celebrate the regeneration of the local area". Closer study of the smallprint reveals that the plaque refers only to the creation of a "regeneration contract", not the upgrade of the roundabout, although the subways have scrubbed up well, and the underground station is as lip-licking as ever. To drive on, join the A12 Eastern Avenue (by bus that's the legendary Route 66). And to follow the North Circular... oh hang on, that never came this far, so I'd best go back and try another way.

» route 123 - timetable
» route 123 - bus map
» route 123 - live bus map
» route 123 - The Ladies Who Bus

An aside: What is it with the low-digit-ness of buses on the North Circular? I've just ridden the 112, 232, 34 and 123, and there's not a single digit there higher than four (and only one higher than three). The 102 on the Palmers Green section fits the same pattern, and the 444 through Edmonton, and where I'm heading tomorrow is low-digit too. A coincidence, obviously, rather than anything planned, but hey.

Route 101: Wanstead - North Woolwich

Length of journey: 8 miles, 50 minutes [map]

My North Circular bus journey left the North Circular in Woodford, where a very modern road careers down the Roding valley towards Beckton. But before that elevated highway was opened, specifically before 1987, the North Circular followed much more ordinary streets. Specifically it left the current route at Waterworks Corner and then followed what's now the A104, A114, A116 and A117. To save you checking, that's past Whipps Cross, across Wanstead Flats, through the heart of East Ham and down to the ferry at North Woolwich. And there's a bus that does pretty much exactly that (apart from the first couple of miles and a tiny bit at the end), so that's my last ride... down the old North Circular on the 101. And it only takes only half an hour, apparently, according to some laughable piece of fiction called the timetable.

If you're the commemorative type, the 101 celebrates its centenary this year. You've missed that, because it was in March, but a century's a long time for what sounds like such a peripheral service. Not so, indeed the 101 was once London's most frequent bus service with more than 60 vehicles an hour serving the southern section at peak times. That's a measure of how integrally important the Royal Docks at Woolwich used to be, and my considerably quieter ride will hint at how far the mighty have fallen.

Wanstead is one of East London's more chichi hideaways, as its run of boutiques and restaurants makes clear. That's partly because the government went to extraordinary lengths to hide the arterial road that ought to have destroyed the place, hiding the A12 beneath a thin layer of village green that doubles as a tunnel roof. The 101 shadows this rumbling canyon before breaking across the first bridge to follow Blake Hall Road. Watch out for the big white gateposts on the left, a) because they used to be the entrance to Wanstead House, and b) because they mark the point where the old North Circular joins the route. It's remarkably green out here, with a southern outpost of Epping Forest to one side and a sports ground and golf course to the other.

The City of London have made sure that the ancient expanse of Wanstead Flats remains very well preserved, bar some occasional pockets of residential development. One of these is Aldersbrook, a splendid and secluded Edwardian development of leafy avenues, where one suspects only people in the know have ever thought to live. The 101 skirts the northern edge of the heath, the less gorse-y bit, with a glorious view across major dog-walking space towards Docklands, the City and Stratford's first skyscraper. We stop by the fish and chip shop opposite the lake, where a man gets on and sprawls himself across the other top front seat. Within a minute he has sneezed with an unshielded whoosh that I can only hope is hayfever, particularly when I feel the weight of one tiny droplet of something landing on my arm. As we pass the entrance to the City of London Cemetery, I wish him gone.

Outside Manor Park station a bus numbered 474 is parked up. This too will be following the old North Circular for the next few miles, indeed all the way to the end, because the route was introduced in 1999 to shadow the 101 and ease its load. I could jump horses here, but it seems more proper to remain on the original for the long run down through Newham. By now it's late afternoon, and most of the shops along Station Road are either shuttered, shutting or shut. Ahead is East Ham's considerable high street, which is so long that it's had to be split into a mile of High Street North and a mile of High Street South. This top end's a Lebara and Lycamobile kind of place, lined by little shops that dispense sarees and halal, money transfers and gold, grilled chicken and bowls of fruit. My favourite sign reads PLEASE DO NOT PRESS THE MANGO THANKYOU, but I suspect at street level there are many more.

Only beyond the tube station do the national chains begin, kicking off with a glut of betting shops and a Lidl. Marks and Spencer abandoned the area five years ago, correctly, because I suspect most of those heading home are much happier to have a Poundland and a Poundworld than the old Penny Bazaar. Looking down from my bubble on the top deck, where I'm somehow now the only passenger, I try hard to imagine a time when the scene below was both a thriving retail centre and the main road to the docks. The street now seems too narrow, at least compared to the multi-lane highways I've ridden earlier, but time was when traffic simply crawled through town and we put up with it. As if to reinforce the point all southbound traffic is suddenly shifted off onto a parallel road, a modern bypass running along the back of Primark and the tenaciously independent East Ham Market Hall.

Attempting to filter right out of the Barking Road takes ages, and hence we pull up beneath the brick clocktower of East Ham Town Hall as the bell within dings five. And here we wait, initially I assume because potential passengers are being awkward, but then I realise because we're changing drivers. This is a shame, because the new bloke turns out to have a decidedly reticent driving style, soon demonstrating behaviour which makes me assume he's trying desperately hard not to get to the end of the route too quickly. He's the type who'll pull off deliberately just before the lights ahead turn red, or drive at 10mph in a 20mph zone, or pull over at a stop where nobody's waiting purely to flap the doors open for a few impotent seconds. He'll not be getting a "thanks" from me when I alight.

High Street South has more of a residential vibe, and a proper cultural mix... exemplified by the occasional pub surviving and thriving, and draped with numerous St George's flags. The old North Circular runs down the side of Central Park, more Victorian in feel than its New York namesake, and on past tree-lined avenues of terraced townhouses. Whoever built the pebbledashed quadrant apartment block opposite the fire station needs a good telling off, but the rest of the surrounding housing stock isn't bad, and 12th century St Mary Magdalene's at the far end (said to be the oldest surviving parish church in London) is an unexpected treat.

If you want a proper road, the A13 Newham Way is it. The new North Circular terminates at a roundabout half a mile to the east, whereas the old queues apologetically to cross the stream of traffic in fits and starts beneath a concrete viaduct. Everything ahead used to be undeveloped marshland leading up to the Royal Docks, that is until the LDDC came along in the 1980s and built its first large housing estate at Beckton. The 101 now serves this residential influx, although every house has space for a car so most locals prefer to drive everywhere instead. We pass the slagheap heights of Beckton Alps, alas no longer a dry ski slope, and pull into the new bus station outside the not-very-nice Asda. Our last fresh contingent of passengers are clearly heading for the far better retail offer at Gallions Reach, but I'm alighting a few stops early because the old North Circular heads instead to the river.

A few minutes on the 474 are required, past a corner of Beckton as yet undeveloped and then across the uplifting Sir Steve Redgrave Bridge. The view from here down the full length of the Royal Albert Dock is one of the best in London, with Docklands and the City perfectly aligned at the far end, and maybe an aeroplane touching down at City Airport alongside. And so we approach the old North Circular's last hurrah, past the peaceful green of Royal Victoria Gardens and left into Pier Road, at the end of which the Woolwich Ferry departs. Alas it wasn't running on Saturday afternoon because of mechanical problems, which was a shame because it meant any drivers who'd got this far down the North Circular had essentially wasted their journeys. As they turned back and demanded a satnav detour, I stared across the Thames to the opposite pier where the A205 South Circular begins. One day I'll travel the length of that too, but that's a dozen buses (at least) all the way to Gunnersbury, so I think I'd best spare you the detail.

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