Monday, December 22, 2014
I'm riding an A-Z of London buses. That's complicated by there not being a Z, or a Y, so in fact I'm riding an A-X, and even that'll have eight further letters missing. I'm not riding every single prefixed bus, just one starting with each letter (The Ladies Who Bus did the whole lot, if you're a completist). And I'm doing it in alphabetical order, which means an A bus first, then a B, then a C and so on. My A has to be the A10, but then comes the element of choice in this project as I have to pick from one of the six Bs.
Here's part two, from N to X.
Though not officially lettered bus routes, London has almost more Ns than all the other A to Xs put together. Approximately fifty of the capital's nightbuses need an N prefix because they don't run the same route as a daytime bus, in general running rather further. I had to pick one of these Ns to ride, which wasn't a simple choice. I decided I wanted a night bus running out of central London at the weekend, ideally Trafalgar Square, to get the most genuine after-dark experience. I decided I wanted a bus running east, because none of my other lettered journeys are taking me beyond Newham. And I also wanted to be able to get home at 2am without getting straight back onto the bus I'd just got off. Which meant, oh boy, the N15... Night bus to Romford.
An A-Z of LONDON BUSES
Route N15: Trafalgar Square - Romford
Length of journey: 18 miles, 95 minutes
I check the list with some incredulity. Yes, the N15 has 85 stops on its way from central to outer London, and I'm going all the way. Sooner me than you. I'm in Trafalgar Square on a Saturday night, technically Sunday morning, as the first nightbuses start to swirl out from sideroads to start their intrepid journeys. The square is both busier and bussier than I was expecting, as the evening's drinkers continue their partying or choose to head home. Ground zero appears to be the 24 hour Co-Op food store at the end of the Strand, from which a steady stream of 20-somethings emerge clutching nibbles, fags, bottles, whatever. And the N15's journey begins immediately outside, which is convenient, or more likely the recipe for a blocked pavement.
Normally I rush for the top deck but when the bus arrives I settle in downstairs, behind the doors, to better get a feel for all the interior action that lies ahead. The bus takes a couple of minutes to fill up, and with mostly non-drunken folk, indeed it's the first hint that this might not be a journey characterised by jostling banter. Someone asks the driver how to get to Moorgate - it seems there are many options - and eventually we pull off. We're heading through the heart of the West End, but only for the next few minutes, so this is our best opportunity to fill up before heading to the suburbs. On Aldwych an ambulance has pulled up beside a girl leaning over and nodding semi-consciously into her hands, which is what passes for a Saturday night out for many in these parts. Within a couple of stops every seat downstairs has been taken. The tally includes a pair of tourists clutching yellow M&M's Store bags, more fool them, and a bloke in a leather jacket perusing Ferraris on his phone, but the bus is by no means packed yet.
The City isn't Party Central, but a few quieter couples swell our number. St Paul's is beautifully illuminated after dark, as are various building sites along the way, and umpteen office receptions where a security guard is attempting not to fall asleep. Every minute or so an electronic voice announces where we're stopping next, plus "Alight here for..." some station or attraction that isn't open and won't be for hours. It takes until Monument until the first 'ding' signals someone wants to get off, because normal loading patterns don't apply at one in the morning. The last train to Romford is leaving Liverpool Street around now, so any residents with any sense would surely be on that, or more likely have stayed out drinking rather closer to home.
It's Aldgate and Aldgate East that turn out to be the most heaving, as the East End piles aboard. Some are wearing highly ill-advised thin dresses, while others do that thing where they go upstairs and poke their head above the rail, note there are no seats and come back down. I thought it might never happen, but the driver finally has cause to push the "No standing on the upper deck or stairs" button, thereby legitimising the night bus experience. This means there are several stops between Stepney and Limehouse that our driver sails past, resulting in frustrated rapping on the window and a collective need to wait for the next bus. On the N15 that's not too far away, but on less frequent night services the "bloody hell, he didn't stop" moment causes genuine inconvenience.
My latest neighbour is a rather posh young lady, at least by Tower Hamlets standards, attempting to maintain a conversation at crotch level with her bow-tied other half. Another upmarket pair are clutching theatre programmes - they alight at Westferry into a less civilised crowd of chicken eaters and cola swillers. After too long a wait at the Blackwall traffic lights we rise up and over the Lea on the only elevated section of the journey, for a glimpse of the increasingly upstanding lights of downtown Stratford. An older couple seem agitated when we turn off at the roundabout, but it's so we can stop off at Canning Town bus station for a profitable haul of passengers. It's now half past one and I'm extremely surprised to see a non-night-bus setting out on a backstreets journey to Mile End... but then London's bus network is often bloody marvellous like this even if you're not awake to see it.
We're now into the less glamorous half of the journey and about to hit Plaistow. At stop number 42 Emma Highnett's electronic voice announces "Balham Leisure Centre", and at least two locals can be heard to yell out "BAY-LAM!", because the poor girl never gets this right. I note it's still possible to buy fruit and veg on the Barking Road even at this time of the morning, or indeed a round of McShakes, which an entire posse of girls are clutching as they board. They get off fairly soon afterwards in Upton Park and dash straight into Papa's Fried Chicken, as their evidently classy night continues. It's here that the worst behaviour of the evening occurs - a slightly surly bloke sticks his head in through the middle doors and stops us heading off for, ooh, at least ten seconds. It's no riot, the Saturday night bus to Barking, or at least it definitely isn't on this occasion.
We pass a seemingly endless run of greasy food joints and metal shuttered shopfronts, broken by the occasional cluster of minicab drivers awaiting the opportunity of a swift fare. The glow ends suddenly at the Barking Flyover, where I'm surprised to see a large electronic clock reading 1219... until I realise that's the price of diesel. The people of Barking appear to have had a good night, with several spilling out of the King's Lounge onto the pavement. And it's at the bus stop outside the station that most of the passengers aboard suddenly pile off, dispersing swiftly into the night. Indeed it looks like the remainder of the ride, a mere five miles now, could be a relative anti-climax. Five more miles, sheesh.
Once out of the town centre we pass the bus garage where a fleet of red cuboids is packed tightly into the depot and forecourt. Our windows are no longer steaming up, which is good, except there's far less to see out here in the proper suburbs. We're running a lot faster too, and stopping far less frequently, but then it's almost two o'clock and nowhere much is open. In Becontree three giggling gents bundle down the stairs, Red Bull in hand, one suspects with the intention of continuing their evening indoors. My onboard entertainment now involves little more than watching the security camera action on-screen, intermittently cutting from the the silent few downstairs to the six sleepyheads on the upper deck. And then, to my narrative delight, one wobbles up to the driver and asks where Faircross is, only to be told that we passed it a while back and he'll have to get out and catch a bus back the other way. Bad luck mate.
"You are now entering Romford." Hang on a cotton-picking minute, when did buses start announcing generalities like that? But here we are, on the outskirts of town at first, where a t-shirted lad with a bandaged fist bounds aboard, smelling of a skinful. There can only be a dozen of us left, our glowing box parading past groups of twenty-somethings in Essex-style evening dress awaiting their minicab home. The police are out in force in South Street, it now being Saturday night chucking-out time in Romford's premier nightclub zone. Cigarettes are being smoked and taxis are being tipped into, but there's no sign of the brouhaha I might have been expecting, and indeed you might have been hoping for, sorry.
I'm the only passenger to linger to the very last stop round the back of the market. It's remarkably quiet on the ring road, which suits me because I feared I might have a long wait for my next bus and didn't fancy being in the thick of post-clubbing shenanigans. I'm still shivering in the bus shelter fifteen minutes later when the next N15 turns up and a young lad with a big bag steps out. I watch as he crosses the carriageway and goes and waits on the other side of the road for exactly the same bus to turn up for its return journey. If he gets his head down on the top deck he could get an hour and a half's uninterrupted sleep, and still have time to get back to Romford before the N15 gives up for the night. My own bed may still be an hour away, but I feel incredibly fortunate to have one that doesn't shift eighteen miles a night.
» route N15 - route map
» route N15 - timetable
» route N15 - live bus map
» route N15 - route history
The P4 started life in 1973 as an experimental flat fare minibus, one of three routes that brought "Hail and Ride" to the capital for the first time. Initially it ran from Brixton to Brockley Rise, via Dulwich Village, but was extended in 1983 to Lewisham. At no time has the P4 ever gone anywhere near Peckham, after which it was named. And I hoped I'd enjoy the ride more.
An A-Z of LONDON BUSES
Route P4: Brixton - Lewisham
Length of journey: 7 miles, 45 minutes
The centre of Brixton, on a Saturday afternoon, is awash with people and buses. The traffic is a curse for shoppers, much of it double decker, though I'm waiting for something humbler to arrive. And I've been waiting a long time, thanks to a hideous jam that's brought everything to an effective standstill. I can see the next P4 in the queue, but it won't be here for some time, and so the crowds amass. Across the road a steel band are playing on the pavement outside Iceland, which keeps us entertained, as does the patter of the salesman attempting to flog phone credit from the doorway behind. And here it is at last, and damn it's only going to Brockley Rise, and I want all the way.
I stand back to let the hordes on, it's quite a stampede, and then go back to people-watching as the bus departs. Just as I reckon the traffic's clearing a blue light approaches, and an ambulance duly parks up in the inside lane immediately behind the bus stop. That's half the carriageway blocked, hence the next P4 is going to be considerably more than the timetabled twelve minutes away, and the slow drip of other buses continues. Thankfully most of the other waiting passengers want the other buses, so they're averaging a three minute wait, whereas I've already racked up longer than the entire journey's about to take.
Eventually P4 number two arrives. This bus has Lewisham on the front, and isn't so packed, which is a relief because my visibility would have been heavily curtailed on the previous steamy service. Instead my close-up view consists of a woolly hat and headphones combo, from which the sound of tinny hiphop is already leaking. Our first stop invites us to "alight here for the Brixton Academy", which in 2014 sounds like it ought to be a school, but thankfully isn't. And then we're off round the backroads to reach Coldharbour Lane, the market end of Brixton being awkwardly impenetrable, by which point all the seats aboard have gone. Loughborough Junction is essentially a collection of railway bridges, of which we negotiate three, and then at last the P4-only section of the route begins.
Herne Hill Road boasts some rather tasteful Victorian terraces and a splendid Carnegie Library, on our gradual climb past one end of Ruskin Park. It's here that Bus Stereotype Number 15 gets up from his seat and moves to close the window, because it's all about what he wants and stuff the rest of us. We break the rise at the top of Denmark Hill, and then continue into the Sunray Estate and the marvellously-monikered bus stop at Casino Avenue. The name commemorates Casino House, a Palladian mansion designed by John Nash at the turn of the 19th century. Today only the ornamental lake survives, the remainder having been turned into the Sunray Estate after the Great War. I doubt that the two residents who nip off here know any of this, but you never know.
Things turn fractionally more rural around North Dulwich station, which is appropriate because Dulwich Village lies ahead. This is the poshest spot in inner south London, by far, and the P4 was its first bus - the residents wouldn't have appreciated anything bigger. It's like hitting Surrey, all cottagey and Georgian with chain fences and even a village signpost. You can see why Margaret Thatcher moved out here after her time at Number 10, admittedly to a Barratt home in a gated enclave... and blimey, she only paid £400,000 at the time. We pass all things Dulwich - the Park, the College, the Common, the Art Gallery - with a film crew busy doing their thing outside the latter. And the exclusivity goes on for minutes longer than expected, so much green, and so much money.
And bam, it's back to normality on Lordship Lane. A council estate, a boarded-up pub with sealed-off car park, and Lewisham's finest museum, the Horniman. Most of those on board disembark here, which is either good news for the capital's cultural future or because they don't want to ride into the hills beyond. Right on cue we veer off up Honor Oak Road onto the ridge, somewhere no larger bus would venture. Houses block most of the view, but there is a brief glorious panorama down Dunoon Road towards distant southeast hills. Honor Oak's shops turn out to be much like any other quite nice shops but with the words 'Honor Oak' shoehorned in front of their name. Change here for the Overground, which several do, or stay on until the bottom and Brockley Rise.
Hurrah, this P4's going further. To the Brockley Jack, which is a vibrant pub/theatre combination, and onto Brockley Grove, which is a road. Aspirationally parallel Victorian streets lead off, seven of these named after the offspring and relatives of the estate's developer, consecutively Elsiemaud, Henryson, Amyruth, Gordonbrock, Arthurdon, Francemary and Phoebeth. I worry for any dyslexic children brought up within. We've now entered Ladywell, a pleasant suburb with rough edges, as can be detected from the local combination of patisserie and nail salon. Those still aboard are restless, and our new companions looking as if they'll not be settling in for long, as we cross the Ravensbourne and enter Lewisham proper.
Many alight at the Fire Station, this because there are shops here and not for want of smoke alarm advice. I'm surprised because the main shopping centre is further on, but maybe they're trying to get off before the jams start. We've finally hit somewhere as buzzing as Brixton, a hub with all the delights of a Primark, Iceland and proper outdoor market. Our penultimate stop is behind a dustcart stickered 'Justice For Lewisham Hospital', close to The Sausage Man, before the Clock Tower. And then I was expecting the station, but we're summarily chucked off before that thanks to the all-transforming Lewisham Gateway project. This has dropped a massive building site between the shopping mall and the station, which'll one day be new roads and bland flats, but is currently a miserable wasteland of pedestrian diversions that makes me want to escape from Lewisham as soon as possible. And not by bus.
» route P4 - route map
» route P4 - timetable
» route P4 - live bus map
» route P4 - route history
» route P4 - route history
» route P4 - The Ladies Who Bus
» route P4 - four pubs
This next bus is proper unusual.
a) The R10 is one of eleven R-prefixed buses that operate out of Orpington, the last town heading out of southeast London. What's peculiar is that this corner of the capital extends far beyond the edge of the built-up area into open countryside, so TfL has a duty to run services along narrow lanes to connect remote communities. In this case that's the hamlets of Cudham and Pratt's Bottom, as well as the Kentish villages of Knockholt and Halstead, all linked around a ten mile rural loop. This might just be as pastoral as London's bus routes ever get.
b) Normally buses run in both directions, but the R10 runs only anti-clockwise. All journeys in a clockwise direction are numbered R5, this to prevent residents of certain villages accidentally riding the wrong way round the loop and taking an extra half hour to get home. The distinction was introduced in 2008, prior to which all journeys were designated R5.
c) Only one vehicle is assigned to the R5/R10 combo. It runs the R5 from Orpington back to Orpington, changes its driver, flips its blind and then runs the other way as the R10. And this means that intervals between buses are the longest of any buses on the TfL network. The gap used to be two hours until a consultation last year extended it to two and a half, this because individual buses weren't managing to get back to the start in the scheduled hour and the service was becoming wholly unreliable. Local people aren't happy, and said so, but TfL told them a more reliable service is better than a more regular service, so 150 minute gaps it is. If you ever try heading out this way, make sure you check the timetable carefully first.
An A-Z of LONDON BUSES
Route R10: Orpington - Orpington (via Knockholt)
Length of journey: 17 miles, 65 minutes
I checked the timetable carefully before I left home, which was fortunate because there isn't one at Orpington bus station. The R1, R4, R8 and clockwise R5 each have a timetable at the stop, but nobody's been bothered to make sure the anti-clockwise R10 is included too, which is a miserable state of affairs when it runs so infrequently. Thankfully I'd arrived just before my R10 was due to leave, revving up in the parking bay at the far end before driving across to my side. Another passenger was ready to board too, which seemed exciting until I realised he only wanted to go to the High Street and was simply nipping aboard the first bus that turned up.
There's more to Orpington, apparently, according to the sign on Station Road just before the War Memorial. There's certainly more Orpington on this route than you might expect, starting with a run up the High Street... and back again. I'm riding on a Saturday morning, too early for anyone to have finished shopping and be heading home, so we pick up nobody outside Londis on the way up, nobody outside the huge Sainsbury's where we turn round, and only one lady outside McDonalds on our return. Things'll no doubt be rather different in two and a half hours time. Within a few minutes we're passing the War Memorial again, this time straight on, and leaving the muted Christmas lights behind.
A mile of desirable semis lines the Sevenoaks Road on the journey south, broken by a splendid Metroland-style parade with 'Frigidaire Equipped' launderette. Our first destination is Green Street Green, a pleasant village-turned-suburb, somehow deemed important enough to have its own Waitrose. By now we're running slightly ahead of schedule so our driver finds a bus stop labelled "buses must not stand here" and does precisely that. Our other passenger wants the next stop, lugging her shopping off towards Old Hill, whereas we're taking a country lane with the warning sign IGNORE SATNAV AND RE-ROUTE. If I was surprised earlier to discover that the R10 isn't a minibus, I'm even more surprised when I see where we're going next.
Cudham Lane North is two miles of not-quite single track road with either front gardens, or high hedges, to either side. Two cars can pass OK but a bus is another matter, so there are several occasions where we pull in sharply to the side and a vehicle going the other way attempts to edge through. A Tivo van (they're still going, who knew?) finds the going too narrow and is forced to reverse a considerable distance, which slows us down somewhat. It's the obstructiveness of this stretch that baffled R10 users during last year's consultation. They wondered why the route couldn't be run with a smaller vehicle, keeping better to time and retaining a two hour service. TfL disagreed, citing worries that a minibus might fill with short-distance travellers in town, plus they were determined to change the timetable anyway... and so the larger bus squeezes on.
Detached houses and bungalows come and go, but the high hedges and fields beyond carry on. As Cudham approaches a deep green valley opens up on the right hand side, most unexpected for any bus user more used to crawling bumper to bumper down Oxford Street. The village has a lovely setting, if not a green wellies and labradors vibe, plus a plaque to Little Tich the music hall entertainer at the Blacksmith's Arms. Here too is the only bus stop on this long southbound leg - presumably the rest of the journey has been Hail and Ride, but the onboard electronic display has singularly failed to mention this. It fails again by then announcing the Three Horseshoes in Knockholt as the next stop, despite this being four further miles of Hail and Ride down the road.
Horns Green is the last hamlet in London, a string of homes heralded by a tiny village sign on a tree. And after a few more cautious corners and general woody remoteness, we finally turn left into Kent. So, this is Knockholt, is it? I've always meant to visit but never come, so I'm almost tempted to get off for a look, until I remember that the next bus in this direction is two and a half hours away. Plus Knockholt's really long, the same distance as from Marble Arch to St Paul's, so it doesn't pay to alight too early. At this far-western end the majority of buildings really are farms and stables, plus an attractive-looking pub, then the big-drived houses kick in. A road sign warns of toads for the next half-mile, which is mostly fields again, and I'm grinning that my Oyster card allows me on such an adventure.
When we finally reach a proper bus stop on the village green at Knockholt Pound, hurrah, another passenger is waiting. Technically it's here that the return half of the R10's journey begins, so it's no real surprise to have been the only person aboard on the outbound. More surprising is that TfL run a bus out this far at all, as it's the taxpayers of Kent who really benefit, and they fund the 402 which runs through Knockholt hourly. Ditto the village of Halstead, to which we're turning off next. A fairly standard residential estate feels quite out of place compared to where we've just been, but The Cock Inn (established 1718) quickly restores more rural credentials. The R10 uses Halstead's one non-cul-de-sac to loop back round and return the way it came, indeed this extended Halstead loop is one reason the bus can't quite keep to an hour's running time. But we get some elderly custom out of it, and then it's back to Knockholt again, now on the home run.
Our return to London comes at the top of Rushmore Hill, a relentlessly wooded gradient above, and then descending into, a narrow notched valley. At the bottom is a beautifully-positioned primary school, one of Bromley's most isolated, serving the populace of (snigger) Pratt's Bottom. It's well-named, geographically speaking, with rolling fields rising up on all sides, indeed the view from the R10 is briefly overwhelmingly pastoral. We've arrived during the brief window of the village's Christmas Fair, but again I daren't risk getting off to explore. Abruptly we hit a petrol station, a red route and the main A21, bringing our rustic safari to an end, although there's still one last expanse of farmland to savour before we return to Green Street Green.
And you already know this bit, because I rode it on the way down. What's different this time is that we have passengers, because thousands of people live nearby and we're now just another bus to the shops. At peak crowding there are ten of us, a handful from Pratt's Bottom and beyond, the rest, well, it wouldn't have hurt them to walk. Apparently the R5/R10 gets an average of 200 passengers a day, that's about fifteen people per bus, so today we've been running a fraction below par. Oh look it's the War Memorial again, and our third visit to Orpington High Street, this time emptying out and with a lot more queueing traffic. Thankfully this time we escape via a backstreet... and pass the War Memorial a fourth time... does any other London bus pass the same spot quite so often?
And look, I've actually ridden the whole 17 mile circuit back to Orpington station without the driver once eyeing me suspiciously and asking why I didn't get off. Presumably they're used to sightseers on this journey - it's the perfect route for it, should you ever be tempted to take a £1.45 coach trip to London's proper countryside. Blind flipped, the bus is almost ready to go back round again. Any takers?
» route R10 - route map
» route R10 - timetable
» route R10 - live bus map
» route R10 - route history
» route R10 - The Ladies Who Bus
The first three S-prefixed buses circled Stratford in the early Seventies. This S1 is not one of these, but part of a Nineties foursome serving Sutton. The rest run infrequently or have been cancelled, but the S1 proved its worth and is now the backbone of suburbia. It also runs via several parts of London I'd never previously visited, which when you've lived here 13 years and 'get about' a lot, was most unexpected.
An A-Z of LONDON BUSES
Route S1: Lavender Fields - Banstead
Length of journey: 9 miles, 70 minutes
When I heard that the S1 was being extended to Lavender Fields, earlier this year, I assumed this was somewhere scenic. The Sutton area was once famed for its lavender, and Mayfield Lavender is still a (gorgeous) commercial concern. Alas that's near the southern end of the route, and the S1's Lavender Fields is a bog-standard housing estate close to Colliers Wood. The new terminus gleams, in that way fledgling bus shelters do, close to the mini-roundabout that allows the slightly-mini buses to turn around. When I arrive it's just starting to rain, so the driver gets off his phone and allows we two waiting passengers to board early. They're nice like that, bus drivers, sometimes.
My fellow passenger isn't going far, two stops in all. That's the entire extent of the S1's extension into unserved territory, indeed he could easily have walked to the main road in the five minutes we were waiting. But instead he used TfL's red taxi to hide from the rain, or avoid traipsing past the cemetery, or because he's a lazy sod, one of the three. And then he's off, and over the road, and straight onto a much more useful bus to Tooting Broadway. Down Figge's Marsh we gain another lazy sod, female this time, who lasts on board for only one stop. I'm starting to wonder if Merton residents are compulsively idle, or else the S1 has a magnetic attraction.
Pebbledash leads to parade leads to, oh, hang on, this is quite nice. Mitcham is one of the places en route I've inexplicably never been to before, and I'm quite impressed. The greenspace by the shops has an independent panini hut at one end, and further on an unmistakeably villagey vibe. The cricket ground remains at the heart of Mitcham life, a whirl of listed buildings around the perimeter, each discoverable via an information panel near the boundary. At the next stop a blind man is waiting, alone, so has to ask the driver which service this is... and then lets us go without boarding. It strikes me that all these iBus route announcements ("S1... to... Banstead") are no use when trying to work out whether to get on, only to confirm you're on the right bus after it's left.
Our exit from the town centre becomes increasingly green, then positively undeveloped along the edge of Mitcham Common. How fortunate the residents of Mitcham Garden Village, tucked into a snail-like whorl between the railway and the woods. So this is Mitcham Junction station, is it? It's about a mile out of town surrounded by golf course and industrial estate, hence not as useful as local commuters would like it to be, and therefore bus links to the middle of nowhere are much appreciated. Three of our latest complement are only going as far as Mill Green, the next common down, which used to be where the S1 started (and would have saved you from having to read the previous three paragraphs).
Beyond the dead pub and the River Wandle, the S1 starts its backstreets tour of St Helier. Our route round the LCC estates traces out the pattern of two crooked teeth, ticking off streets just to say that a bus runs nearby. But our presence is much appreciated, the bus is starting to fill up now, as we edge past parked cars, yet more open space and various pushchair posses. Green Wrythe Lane scores points for a streetname with an endearing heritage, if not a particularly picturesque present, running through The Circle shopping parade, home to Fudge Cakes Circle Bakery. One particularly narrow diversion takes us past armies of Saturday morning footballers, and their doting parents, playing in the Carshalton Little League. And there across the goalposts rises the Thirties Metropolis fortress of St Helier Hospital.
Several passengers are waiting here, including a rotund mum with the flabbiest neck I've seen in years, which wobbles like a turkey as she pushes down the bus behind her not-yet obese daughter. Three teenagers are holding court by the central doors, one wondering whose idea it was to catch the slow bus, another twiddling a cigarette in anticipation of getting off. As we double back again, avoiding Carshalton, we thread through a very typical slice of outer London - a bit hilly, a bit pleasant, a lot residential, and a Seventies pub for a lager on a Friday night. Then at the foot of the hill Teenager Number Two reaches up as if to press the emergency release button, waits for the look of shocked embarrassment on his companions' faces and grins broadly before retracting, and getting off with everyone else.
So, this is Sutton proper. I've walked down the pedestrianised High Street, but never experienced the parallel one-way system that closely encircles it. Four times we pull over into an odd layby to swap will-be-shoppers for just-been-shoppers, gradually exchanging the entire complement of passengers other than me. The bus is now packed, sufficient to steam up the windows so that the word 'dirty' magically appears scrawled in the mist. We're not seeing the town's best side, indeed we're barely seeing it at all, as we bend round what I think is B&Q towards the station. With another top-up here I count sixteen people standing, which makes this the most crowded lettered bus I've yet ridden.
Most are on board for the next deviation away from a straight line, a detour serving some quite nice houses to the southeast of town. One man goes to the aid of a mother trying to lug her pushchair off the bus, then returns to find his seat taken by someone else, who fails to move. Up next is Belmont, a borderline settlement that again I've never been to, and doesn't instantly impress. Missing two hospitals and a prison we instead make a break for Surrey across the Downs, where one stop appears to serve no-one but ramblers. And hey presto, Banstead, which looks and feels different to London with its verges, old pubs, and long Tudor-style shopping parade. M&S is as far as we're going, which is quite far enough, but well worth the trip.
» route S1 - route map
» route S1 - timetable
» route S1 - live bus map
» route S1 - route history
» route S1 - The Ladies Who Bus
London's T-prefix buses serve the residential outpost of New Addington. All three were introduced in 2000 to feed the new trams to Croydon, with passengers able to transfer from bus to tram without paying an additional fare - a convenience that still works today. The T32 is a dinky little route, a three mile tour of the estate, while the T33 shadows the tram all the way to Croydon. I went for the happy medium, the T31, which is essentially two short feeder routes bolted together in the middle. And only just in time.
Bus routes in New Addington are currently under review, with a consultation period that ends on Friday likely to lead to big (big) changes in the new year. The T33 will be renumbered, the T31 and T32 will be discontinued, and the existing non-lettered routes will be twisted round additional roads within the estate to make up the difference. It means longer journeys for most, and much longer for some, with direct buses between New Addington and Addington Village almost eliminated. But it also links better to streets where people actually live, and saves TfL quarter of a million pounds a year through a "significant reduction in overcapacity". The statistical background behind the proposed metamorphosis fills a 30 page document and is fascinating, if you like that sort of thing, although I doubt that most bus users in New Addington realise what's about to hit them. If you want to make your voice heard, you have two days.
An A-Z of LONDON BUSES
Route T31: New Addington - Forestdale
Length of journey: 6 miles, 30 minutes
The T31 starts at the top of Milne Park, a recreation ground at the top of New Addington. The whole estate is on a gentle slope, and entirely surrounded by open countryside which it's easy to see but surprisingly difficult to get to. The T31 starts by the adventure playground on Homestead Way, at a bus stand that'll be made redundant next year once the consultation's changes are confirmed. I waited for almost the full eight minutes while an England flag flapped above the gatepost of a house across the road, and a boy walked past eating albino chips from the JFC fried chicken shop on the adjacent parade. And if you're already thinking "ugh, New Addington", rest assured that the top half's not that bad, indeed it's almost desirably affordable, if somewhat remote. Hence the bus.
First aboard are a mum and her two kids, one in a pushchair. She gets out her phone and fires up a video of a family member in an outdoor setting, which the eldest daughter watches intently. So engrossed are they that when we round the first corner they totally miss the house completely covered in Christmas decorations. A star tops the chimney on which a plastic angel has been affixed, while Santa is being pulled by nine reindeer across a white sheet on the roof that convincingly resembles snow. Icicles hang from the porch above a front garden populated by a job lot of illuminated carol singers, while the car port is covered by a frame wrapped in multi-coloured tinsel. A nativity scene takes pride of place outside the lounge window, beside an enlarged photograph of a grey haired man I can only assume is "Grandad", whose annual festive tradition this once was. The rest of the family are standing by the front gate, where Mum is attaching one more shiny bauble to a pole while her son (in a Christmas jumper) looks on. It's a splendidly ebullient scene, just the right side of naff, of the kind to be found on estates the country over. I'm tempted to shout "oi, look at this!" but presumably the smartphone video is much more interesting.
I've turned up on the day that New Addington switches on its official Christmas lights. These are the big guns, along Central Parade, being celebrated later with a funfair on the parking spaces outside Iceland. Two men are putting the finishing touches to a teacup ride, two more to the waltzers, while an up-in-the-air-and-gyrating thing looks almost ready to take its first passengers. Our passengers seem much more interested in the extensive line-up of shops (from Captain Cash down to Quality Fish via Meat Express and Priceless Carpets). We've only been going for four stops, but we've already picked up a dozen folk including a lady in a chair and her friend called Winston, and they all get off here or at the tramstop, without exception. The T31's status as a feeder service is becoming apparent, with our next batch of clientele heading exclusively from the tram or shops to home.
They start to drip off along King Henry's Drive, the outermost of a quadrant of curving avenues, which kicks off with a Lidl and ends at a valley-side vista. It's a lot more scenic than I was expecting on a council estate, with the occasional view across the trees to Croydon and the City, and a sign pointing down the dip to an unseen and unlikely 'GOLF'. We pause for a young couple with a pushchair who really aren't hurrying - our driver waits politely - and then their Oyster beeps empty. Hurrah for contactless, otherwise we'd have waited in vain. A couple more stops takes us up and over a bump of suburbia, then sharply the homes we're passing change from houses to flats and the character of the estate shifts. Right on cue the latest bloke to sit behind me smells like he's had a skinful already, which is impressive considering it's barely noon.
Our next target is Fieldway, a long S-shaped road driven through a landscape of over a hundred apartment blocks with no alternative means of escape. Maps of the estate by the side of the road depict a layout of colourful blocks, but the reality is a little greyer. In one case the parallel blocks remind me of an army garrison, lifted visually only by their location on the edge of thick woodland. Further ahead the former fields are occupied by a lowly sports centre that's home to the local boxing club and the Pandemic Steel Orchestra. We pass the foot of New Addington's two proper tower blocks, one named Birch, the other Cedar, by some over-optimistic postwar planner. Our bus is a popular lifeline for Fieldwayites, both for those coming from the shops and those boarding to catch the tram ahead. But if TfL are truly intent on consigning both the 64 and 130 to this meandering detour in future, residents further up the estate are in for a long haul.
At last we're back on Lodge Lane, only two stops further down the hill than we were two paragraphs ago but over ten minutes later. Our driver has to stop the traffic to nudge out from Fieldway, then it's a long run down to the Addington Village Interchange. This is the bus station tram stop combo created at the turn of the century to simplify transfer from one mode to the other, ingenious in every way except for the contorted way buses get in and out. We have to circle the roundabout by the Harvester before entering, then circle the bus station again before pulling up. Here every single other person gets off, that's all twenty passengers and the driver who's off for relief in the mess room. Nobody who's come from New Addington wants to ride the next bit, we merely pick up three people who've got off the latest tram. And then we're off, on a more-than-360 degree spin around the bus station, again, and the outer roundabout, again, with a fresh captain at the helm.
He's a bit sweary, our new bloke. "Ah for God's sake!" he cries at the traffic on Kent Gate Way, as a horse rolls over in the field alongside. But he's also a kindly soul too. We veer off imminently to serve an unusual estate to the south of Selsdon, an blanket of postwar flats nestling in a wooded valley called, appropriately, Forestdale. The T33 takes on the main bulk of the estate while the T31 banks up a halfmile dead end flanked by terraced flats. At the foot of the hill, only two stops from the end of the route, a young mother with an empty Oyster stands waiting. Her card beeps plaintively, twice, at which point our driver invites her and her buggy on board for nothing. His kindness saves her a considerable climb, but not all, because the T31's last stop comes one stop below the top of the hill. There's no room for a bus stand at the top so passengers get chucked off lower down before the vehicle squeezes ahead to the turning circle at the summit. She's still pushing her buggy up to the highest cul-de-sac when the bus overtakes, and swings round to collect a more fortunate mum at the first stop going the other way.
When the T31 is scrapped, this Forestdale leg is going to be taken over by the 353 which currently runs from Orpington to Addington. This runs half as frequently as the eight minutely T31, hence residents of Courtwood Lane are about to lose their turn-up-and-go service. It's also a double decker, which seems entirely inappropriate for this backwater climb between awkwardly placed parked cars to a remote turning circle and back, but presumably drivers will cope. Instead we should praise TfL for their commitment to serve this single residential road in the first place. In any business-driven bus network outside London residents would be expected to catch the T33 to the foot of the hill and walk the rest. Instead they get an almost door-to-door service, this despite the fact that Surrey begins immediately behind the hedge at the summit, beyond which is a muddy bridleway, thick woodland and a golf course. Hurrah for public services that serve the public, even way out here on the outskirts.
» route T31 - route map
» route T31 - timetable
» route T31 - live bus map
» route T31 - route history
» route T31 - route history
» route T31 - The Ladies Who Bus
» route T31 - extinction consultation
Whilst out riding lettered buses, I've been trying hard not to visit the same part of London twice. Here's where I finally double back on myself. All eight U-prefixed buses serve the town of Uxbridge, which is precisely where my odyssey began several weeks ago on the A10, so here I am back again. And, having mulled over all the options, it had to be the rural fast-track to Harefield.
An A-Z of LONDON BUSES
Route U9: Uxbridge - Harefield
Length of journey: 6 miles, 20 minutes
Buses pour out of Uxbridge bus station on a very regular basis, this being the railhead for a significant portion of north Hillingdon. Punters for Harefield have a choice of routes, the U9 being the quicker, then a lot of dilly-dallying at the far end. Our bus is one of the smaller single deckers, and is filled with one of the smaller complements of passengers to match. A couple more board outside the funeral directors in the High Street, the driver's job for the next ten minutes being to disperse these homebound souls to the outer reaches of London. The lady behind the driver has been to Wilko for a bag full of pre-Christmas provisions, and is busying herself reading a TV mag that fell out of her tabloid. And she's as interesting a passenger as it gets, sorry.
The roundabout to the north of town is as blandly office-provincial as it comes, surrounded by steel and glass workplaces. It turns out we're only circling it because the one-way system wouldn't let us turn right earlier, hence we're soon back at the High Street and continuing onto the Harefield Road. It is a very long way to our second stop, which must be annoying to anyone who lives part-way along this residential street, but at least the town centre's not too far to walk. We're shadowing the Fray's River, a man-made channel dug to serve Uxbridge's water mills, best accessed down the path beside yet another boarded up pub.
Our driver puts his foot down to climb out of the valley and up to the summit on Uxbridge Common, prior to an assault on the biggest road around here, the A40 Western Avenue. We cross via an elevated ring, with foliage dripping down into a central well above the traffic (or the Swakeleys Roundabout, as any street map calls it). Beyond the dual carriageway is officially Ickenham, this side of which has newer-build houses with luxury apartment infill, and lacks the character of streets nearer the heart of the village. Some Mackem road builder got away with calling a cul-de-sac Roker Park Avenue, a home win which TfL compounded by applying the name to the neighbouring bus stop. And we're off.
Harvil Road is the country lane to Harefield, a mile and a half along which almost nobody lives, which is cue for a 50mph speed limit and a considerable increase in the bus's pace. A lot of switchback up and down is involved, but the view's unexpectedly good, with ploughed fields gradually dropping away to the east to reveal the rooftops of Ruislip and beyond. The only intrusion is the Chiltern mainline, this the very point where a tube station would have been built had the Central line ever have been extended from West Ruislip. But plans fell through for the usual reasons (WW2, Green Belt, etc) and today the only activity in the vicinity is a recycling hub up Skip Road. More background here, if you're interested.
The next stretch of fields and woodland is equally undeveloped, but won't be forever because this is precisely where HS2 will break off from the existing railway and carve its own furrow through the Chilterns. The Colne Valley lakes beyond Dews Farm get a particularly raw deal from HS2's arrival, unless you're onboard the train in which case the panorama from the concrete viaduct will no doubt be quite pretty. Back on the bus we pass the Dogs Trust Rehoming Centre (and tearooms), a council recycling outpost and the end of the lane up to Newyears Green, one of a tiny handful of London settlements that TfL doesn't serve.
Ratrun complete, it's time to start the slower climb into Harefield. First up is South Harefield, a modern invention of half a dozen residential avenues and little to write home about, overlooked by St Mary's, the parish's medieval church. A couple of minutes later we hit Harefield proper, on a ridge above the Colne, dropping off most of our passengers along the way. The village centre is an attractive mix of old and new, with the occasional gallery and antique shop suggesting there's money settled nearby. The village sign of course features a hare, though less predictably it's scampering within a giant globe, this in remembrance of Anzac soldiers treated at Harefield Hospital during the war. We'll get there eventually, it's immediately ahead... but first a diversion.
The outbound U9 branches out west at The King's Arms on a particularly scenic detour to connect with the frontier settlement of Mount Pleasant. A precipitous drop leads down past open fields to a handful of streets and a commercial estate on the banks of the River Colne. The view across paddocks and the wooded valley towards the M25 is excellent, and best seen from the bus. The driver negotiates a short stretch of 10% gradient before reaching a turning circle, picking up a fare and returning the way he came. One of our long-term passengers then surprises me by alighting halfway up the return climb, which I swiftly spot is because there are no stops on the way down because nobody want to get off into a hedge.
Within a couple of minutes we're back at the village green, and only one stop from what's technically our destination. Harefield Hospital looks like a very typical postwar NHS campus, but is in fact the site of the world's first successful combined heart and lung transplant. Our driver negotiates his way around the Hamsters sculpture outside the main entrance, and pulls up instead outside the hospital's Refreshment Pavilion and Concert Hall. The place could hardly be more mid 20th century if it tried. And although I alight here for further adventures on foot, at least three of our current passengers are staying on. The U9's not going back to Mount Pleasant on its return journey, so Uxbridge-bound travellers get to sit patiently while the driver flips the blind and departure time ticks round. Enjoy the ride.
» route U9 - route map
» route U9 - timetable
» route U9 - live bus map
» route U9 - route history
» route U9 - The Ladies Who Bus
I had fifteen W-prefixed bus routes to choose from, and you recommended eleven of them. Most run to the north of London, based round Wood Green, while the rest run to the northeast around Walthamstow and Woodford. Overall you preferred the former, as did I, so I ended up plumping for the longest of the Wood Greeners. The W3 was one of the capital's first lettered buses, introduced as a Flat Fare service in 1968. A renumbering of the 233, it still follows the same dog-leg of a route today, running up from Finsbury Park to the heights of Alexandra Palace, then turning east to run the full length of Haringey.
An A-Z of LONDON BUSES
Route W3: Finsbury Park - Northumberland Park
Length of journey: 9 miles, 45 minutes
Oh there's another Finsbury Park bus station, is there? Round the back of the station, on the non-Park side, discovered by following the signs to Wells Terrace. All three buses that head northwest from Finsbury Park start here, on the right side of a low railway bridge (3.8m, 12'9") that appears to preclude through traffic. It's a bustling location, where residents of Crouch End and Muswell Hill gather to ride home, and various small shops and fruit-traders attempt to flog them stuff while they wait. The W3 takes the central bay, stopping a few metres short of the bus stop while the driver has a rest, then nudging forward to admit the merry throng. A party of five looks on anxiously as the seats start to fill - Graham went off for some coffees a while back and hasn't returned yet. We leave without them.
Most of the retail outlets on Stroud Green Road specialise in world foods, it seems, although as many as half a dozen sell wigs for those in need of a hairpiece. I'm no longer surprised when someone requests to alight at the very first stop, merely disappointed, although perhaps their interest was pique by the twin displays of suitcases and Christmas trees outside the adjacent shops. We stalk a W7 to the end of the street, where a boy in a Santa hat pedals furiously past, and then we turn sharply right past a 60s era Welcome to Haringey sign. The arch ahead is dripping with foliage and looks suspiciously overgrown, which'd be because it carries a disused railway (now the Parkland Walk) over our heads. And slowly our bus picks up and sets down, ever so nicely, because it's that sort of part of town.
Ferme Park Road is a perfectly straight residential street lined by late Victorian villas, its peculiarity being that it rises right up and then right back down again in a typically San Franciscan manner. At the summit I can see the Olympic Park clear as day, some five miles distant, but only briefly before we're heading down the far side of the ridge for Hornsey Vale. We've missed the heart of Crouch End by running this way, but land on one of its main roads beside the bijou Arthouse cinema and the less bourgeois YMCA. Behind me, a father and his son are discussing their dog's toilet habits in slightly too much detail, an anecdote which they continue throughout our entire wait at some temporary traffic lights. There follows a leafy avenue, and a thin common, and a fire station, and it's OK, they've finally stopped.
The most scenic section of the route begins at the foot of Muswell Hill, although we're not heading that way. Instead we turn right at the menorah and start to climb the meandering heights of Alexandra Palace Way. A farmers market is underway in the car park to one side - there is a lot of parking - beneath some of the particularly well-kept allotments. We pass two particularly close bus stops, one specifically for the garden centre, the other beneath the entrance to the Palm Court restaurant. And yes, we're running right across the front of lovely Ally Pally, but who has time to look at that. Instead what may be the finest bus-ride panorama in the capital is playing out on the other side, a proper-wow spread across the whole of central London.
We have almost a minute to soak in the delights - there's the Orbit, and the BT Tower, and clear as day there's Ferme Park Road again with another W3 descending. Alas a large family boards at the Ice Rink end and mum insists on hovering in the aisle on the top deck and obscuring the vista with her inane blathering. It's at this point that dinging begins. Someone somewhere has found a red button and is pressing it, in triplicate, repeatedly, for no readily obvious reason. Our driver stops each time and opens the doors, for nobody, and still the dinging continues like some kind of Morse code... until we descend as far as central Wood Green, and suddenly pretty much everyone gets off.
It's OK, a fresh complement of passengers take their place, but they're a very different crowd. Gone are the middle classes of Muswell Hill, off to take the Piccadilly line into town, and instead a less advantaged demographic are taking their purchases home from the shops. We pass a bingo hall and a rather splendid Victorian Crown Court with a modern fortress-like annexe plonked on top. Somewhere to the right is the garden suburb of Noel Park, alas invisible behind lesser housing stock. A one-legged man walks past, determinedly. The allotments hereabouts are most definitely less well tended. Someone's headphones are leaking loud bland guitar music - two ladies turn round and stare.
We pass from Lordship Lane to White Hart Lane, both lengthy meandering reminders of the Middlesex landscape before the houses came. The first football club on White Hart Lane isn't Spurs, it's Haringey Borough FC, whose ground (with its tiny grandstand) has been taken over by a fast-emptying car boot sale. The housing stock's more mixed now, more councilly and flattier, as we pull up towards the lights on the Great Cambridge Road. Beyond that lies Tottenham Cemetery, which I note is rammed with gravestones but entirely empty of people, and looking round the bus I wonder if that's because the children and grandchildren of those buried here have long since moved far away.
If anything can drag this area back up it's the regeneration of White Hart Lane at the end of White Hart Lane. Part boarded-up terraces await their fate, presumably as towers of flats, while the existing stadium plays out its last seasons beside a demolished zone where its replacement will eventually arise. First blood in the 'Northumberland Development Project' has gone to Sainsburys, whose bland two-storey megastore is a jolt of modernity hereabouts, and whose main entrance the bus passes on its final riverward leg. We're heading down to Northumberland Park, with its shabbier flats and the occasional discarded mattress, our gradual descent from the moneyed heights of Haringey complete. Turfed out at a busy bus stand beside a tyre centre, I suspect riding the W3 in the opposite direction would have been more uplifting.
» route W3 - route map
» route W3 - timetable
» route W3 - live bus map
» route W3 - route history
» route W3 - route history
» route W3 - The Ladies Who Bus
And finally, just in time for Xmas, the X68. This express service makes a fitting finale to my alphabetical series, being London's only peak hour one-way limited stop bus. Commuters living between West Croydon and West Norwood can hop aboard the X68 before nine in the morning and speed to Waterloo or Holborn, then head back home again sometime between between four and seven. The big advantage is that it's much cheaper than the train, the penalty that it takes much longer. But how much longer? I got up ridiculously early and headed down to Croydon to find out.
An A-Z of LONDON BUSES
Route X68: West Croydon - Russell Square (limited stop)
Length of journey: 13 miles, 70 minutes
It's not yet dawn when I arrive at West Croydon station, questioning why I ever signed up to this series of blogposts in the first place. The bus station outside is undergoing a lengthy transformation and is closed until 2016, so it takes me a few minutes to track down the temporary location of my chosen route's first stop. During these few minutes an X68 appears, rounds the block and departs, which leaves me no choice but to stand beside Wellesley Road in the dark and drizzle for fifteen minutes. I get a chance to admire the anodyne towers of central Croydon, and to meet the town's early morning commuters beneath hats, hoods and umbrellas. Some want the 468, the southern end of what used to be the 68 until it was lopped off twenty years ago. But a nucleus of longer distance travellers slowly musters, and eventually our chariot arrives.
Damn. It's midwinter, so the bus's misty windows shouldn't be a surprise, but if they're semi-opaque already I'm in danger of seeing very little. In mitigation I grab the front seat, to optimise my chances, and a little smear opens up the outside world to view. The first stripe of sunrise is visible across the rooftops, or penthousetops in some cases, illuminating the twin TV masts on the northern horizon. Meanwhile the last-day-of-term school run is underway, and mums and children are wrapped up in black against the weather heading to one of the brightly lit assembly halls we pass along the way. Our passage along Whitehorse Road is somewhat unpleasant, jolting over regularly spaced notches in the damaged tarmac. And all the way we barely stop, because very few round here are going the full distance, and the X68 doesn't allow anyone to alight before Waterloo.
Rather than take the direct route we divert east to pass Selhurst Park, home of Crystal Palace Football Club and their associated Sainsburys. A steady climb ensues, past attractive Victorian villas, one of which has both a palm tree and a fridge in its front garden. The first of the journey's excellent views transpires, from South Norwood down to Bromley and beyond, but requires a reticent wipe to see completely. Two consecutive bus stops are labelled 'Not in use', which two potential passengers have ignored, and thankfully our driver does too. And eventually we reach the foot of one of those TV masts, the less well known Croydon transmitter on Beulah Hill, no longer broadcasting but primed to kick in with BBC Breakfast should Crystal Palace fail.
The X68 is the kind of bus people run for. A stereotypically moustached businessman makes a dash for it, his suit in a bag over his arm, then pants upstairs to claim his prize. There must be ten of us up here by now, rather fewer than I was expecting on a premium service, but at least there'll still be seats when we finally reach West Norwood. I was also expecting us to be slower, but whether it's pre-Christmas torpor or luck, we've barely had to queue in traffic at all. Further along Beulah Hill one large house has a front garden full of Buddhas, laid out as you'd expect in the ornaments department at a garden centre. There's also a tantalising glimpse of the City in the gaps between the houses, the largest skyscrapers lined up perfectly without overlapping in front of a glowing morning sky.
Before the pond we hit our first and only jam, this of cars queueing to get through the lights at Crown Point on the watershed of the Effra valley. A couple of minutes sees us through to the stop outside Jerk Donalds, where a young couple board and mutter disdainfully about the lack of a spare double seat on the half-full top deck. A third wipe of the window prepares me for the spectacular view down Knight's Hill, the Shard-Gherkin line-up perfectly framed at its foot. But not for long, they soon disappear behind West Norwood, into which we now descend. The normal 68 route starts from here, from the bus garage by the station, hence there's little more here for us to do. But there's still time to pack them in at our final few stops, and we do.
A coffee-clutching lady in a pink jacket squeezes into the seat beside me, and we're off on the non-stop section of journey. She turns out to be another window-wiper, which is just as well given that several dozen lungs are now steaming up the windows, and there's nothing worse than a totally obscured express journey. At the very next bus stop an optimist puts her arm out, anticipating a ride, and then again at the next stop after that, but no. The electronic display above us has changed to show the next stop as Waterloo, more than three miles distant, and all of us are trapped on board for the long haul. Somebody on the top deck has annoyingly leaky headphones, but rather than it being the usual tinny rap, I'm amazed to identify the tune as Glenn Miller's In The Mood! Another noise polluter is sending and receiving copious texts with his Samsung whistle at full volume, and merits several hard stares as we progress.
A bus lane speeds our progress towards Tulse Hill - it's all going swimmingly thus far. And as we skirt the foot of Brockwell Park I hold my breath as the X68's bifurcation point draws near. Sometimes the bus follows the 68's normal route through Camberwell, but at other times it diverts via Brixton to avoid getting held up in traffic. We're taking... aha, the eastern Camberwell fork, which requires a climb up Herne Hill to Denmark Hill. And rightly so, the traffic turns out to be embarrassingly thin, more like it's Sunday than the rush hour, so we're through to the crossroads in a matter of minutes.
Up Camberwell Road the driver plays a trump card by ignoring the bus lane and following the main carriageway, leapfrogging at least a dozen slow-stopping buses in the process. The narrower Walworth Road, where the shopkeepers are only just laying out their fruit and vegetables for the day's trading, proves more impermeable. But we're soon up to the top, where I'm saddened to see the entire Heygate Estate has now been replaced by a field of rubble behind a security fence. The Elephant and Castle statuette outside the shopping centre raises more of a smile, its crenellations wrapped in festive fairy lights. And then we take the bus lane up to St George's Circus, which ought to be fast but no, we have to crawl along at the speed of the cyclist in front, who looks as intimidated by us as we are exasperated by him.
And finally, after twenty silent minutes, the onboard voice announces Waterloo as our next stop, and here we are. About half of those on board alight, this being the first time the driver's been allowed to open the middle doors since we started... and we gain one new passenger too, because now we're just a normal bus. We get three more on Waterloo Bridge, where further window-wiping exposes that the tide is high, and the skyscrapers I saw earlier reveal themselves not to be arranged in a tightly-packed cluster after all. My travelling companion then puts down her coffee and starts to do her make up, at length, as the rest of our passenger complement gradually filter off. A few in Aldwych, several more at Holborn, and another batch at the last proper stop on Southampton Row.
To finish, our driver negotiates his way to a backstreet stand just off Russell Square and turfs the rest of us off. Our loud texter is still going strong, and as three more whistles sound I swap a pair of raised eyebrows with my neighbour, hers now noticeably more immaculate than mine. And as the last dozen of us scatter to our various workplaces, it still not yet being nine o'clock, the driver whips round the blind to 'Not in service' and steps out onto the pavement for a rest. There are no X68s going the other way until late afternoon, so this vehicle can head back to the depot, or transform into something else, I don't hang around to find out. Achievement unlocked.
» route X68 - route map
» route X68 - timetable
» route X68 - live bus map
» route X68 - The Ladies Who Bus (their final route)