Friday, December 01, 2000

Cube Routes - December 2003

It's time for diamond geezer to spend a week exploring London, by bus.

London's a huge place, far bigger then the central zone most tourists see. I thought I'd get out and view some more of the capital from the best vantage point of all, the top deck of a London bus. And then I'd come back and write about what I saw. (Trust me, you can do this sort of thing when you're single. Nobody looks at you with a withering stare when you walk out of the house clutching your bus pass, as if to say "But you can't do that, it's pointless... and anyway, we have a bathroom that needs redecorating.")

Seven days, seven different buses. But which seven, there being more than 500 to choose from? I decided to follow a mathematical pattern (did you really think otherwise?) and selected all the buses whose route numbers were cube numbers. Cube routes. (You remember cube numbers... 1x1x1, 2x2x2 and so on. They're one of those bits of maths you learnt at school that are of absolutely no use whatsoever when you're older. Until today of course.)

So, seven routes, sort of picked at random, and covering the capital. I made all seven bus journeys during the last month, I took my camera with me, and this map shows where I went. Outer and inner, suburbia and urbia, north and south, east and west, upmarket and downmarket, rich and poor, day and night, but all 'London'. Hold very tight please, the first bus is about to depart.

London bus route links
anorak-level route information
anorak-level historical route information
anorak-level bus information
anorak-level bus map information
anorak-level operational details
Route 73: a social study, and a collection of journeys
Route 79: a London blog

Cube Routes: Day 1 x 1 x 1
Bus 1: Centre Point - Canada Water
Location: London southeast, inner
Length of journey: 6 miles, 35 minutes

The first bus in London begins its journey, appropriately enough, at Centre Point. It's London's 20th tallest building (well, it was last time I checked), a 35-floor concrete tower dominating the eastern end of Oxford Street. At its foot, up an obscure sideroad, a queue of number 1 buses wait to begin their journey from the middle of everywhere to the middle of nowhere.

I boarded the first bus outside Argos on a busy Saturday afternoon, clambering up to the top deck where there was the unnerving smell of fish. We headed east along mostly-deserted roads straight through Holborn and south towards Aldwych. A bespectacled librarian came and sat behind me, commentating on the view throughout the journey for the benefit of his Japanese lady visitor. He was keen to tell her that London's buses are amongst the most successful in the world, with passenger numbers back up at 1969 levels thanks to Mayor Ken Livingstone's ambititious Transport Strategy. I could have hugged him for making such a pertinent comment just two paragraphs into my week-long exposé of the capital's bus network, but he was an ugly old git so I thought better of it. He went on later to point out a market stall full of plaintains, or "crooked nanas" as he called them, so I think I made the right choice.

We crossed into South London over Waterloo Bridge, with one of the best views of the Thames spread out to either side (so long as you don't look too hard at the concrete mess on the South Bank). Passenger numbers picked up outside the ghastly Elephant and Castle shopping centre (pink, what were they thinking? and the range of shops inside is poorer than poor), and then it was on towards the Old Kent Road (rightly the cheapest property on the Monopoly board). At the Bricklayers Arms (a giant traffic square-about) we headed off into deepest Bermondsey (also poorer than poor), skirting the edge of the Congestion Charge zone.

There was the sound of shouting, nay yelling, from downstairs. The driver had forgotten to stop at the last stop, or maybe these two women hadn't pressed the button in time, but clearly the whole thing was now 'the other person's fault'. The driver inched the bus forward on a go-slow as the haranguing continued, before finally letting the harpies disembark and carry their Safeway carrier bags grudgingly back up the road.

It's not a long journey this one, so just a few more railway viaducts, street markets and one-way systems for the bus to negotiate. Straight past the new Surrey Quays shopping nirvana and on to our final destination at the new Canada Water transport 'hub'. An oval glass atrium sits beside a new bus station, and atop a new tube interchange between the Jubilee and East London lines. Where once were the old Surrey Docks, this new bus station/station has made Rotherhithe an area where people actually want to live. So I'm told. And just a short bus/tube ride from where the real action is.

1 links
Route 1: anorak-level bus information
Route 1: anorak-level route information
Route 1: timetable

Cube Routes: Day 2 x 2 x 2
Bus 8: Bow Church - Victoria
Location: London east, inner
Length of journey: 9 miles, 80 minutes

Out of all the seven buses I'm riding on this week, this one's different. It's a Routemaster for a start, that much-loved old London workhorse, the bus with a conductor. These purring beauties have plied the streets of the capital since the sixties, although they're all now under threat from Mayor Ken who wants to ban pollution-guzzlers over 10 years old in Central London from 2006 onwards. The number 8 route is therefore due to be converted to dull boring one-person-operated buses sometime next year, boo hiss.

And the number 8 is also my local bus, the one that starts pretty much outside my house and heads through the East End, through the City, through the West End, through Mayfair and stops pretty much outside where I work. So, just to be different, I decided to take the bus to work one weekday morning, rather than speed there via my usual tube journey. Would it be a rush hour, or a slow coach?

I left home at the normal time and waited outside the fried grease shop for one of the number 8s that drip drip out of Bow Garage every six minutes. Hop onto the platform, climb the winding staircase and prepare for a cut-price sightseeing tour of London. We skirted the Bow Flyover, spent a minute chugging up the busy A12 dual carriageway and then threaded our way through the demolishable estates of Old Ford. By the time we reached Roman Road, only half a mile as the crow flies from our starting point, the bus was jam-packed full and sailing past the waiting queues. The conductor had no chance to check our tickets, spending all his time on the platform counting them all off and counting them all on.

London was busy waking up - kids heading to school, street markets setting up their stalls, fry-up breakfasts being wolfed down in tiny cafés, shop shutters being raised, and a bus full of EastEnders off to work. Lots of people alighted at Bethnal Green and transferred to the tube, and I could have saved a good half an hour if I'd joined them. Approaching Shoreditch we paused beside the newly-demolished Bishopsgate Goods Yard, now just a sea of rubble awaiting the northern extension of the East London Line. Our conductor was busy rushing around the bus like a restaurant waiter, guiding people to their seats and trying to find time to take their money.

It's all change as you enter the City of London. Shops become offices, poverty becomes wealth, cafés become sandwich shops, and everyone walks around with a laptop bag in one hand and a latté in the other. From one of the poorest council wards in the country to Threadneedle Street in just a couple of minutes, it's a sobering journey. At Bank Station I saw something I thought I'd never see again - a perfectly behaved queue of 20 commuters all waiting patiently to board the bus and not rushing forward in a free-for-all when it arrived. Elsewhere crowds of commuters swarmed the streets, more of them female the further west we travelled, out of the City and into Holborn.

We reached Oxford Street just before 9am, to find this one particular street still asleep. No trainers or stilettos on sale yet, not quite, so the pavements were half empty and so was the bus. Another red traffic light, and another, and another - I could have been at work so much quicker underground. We turned south into Mayfair, an area so exclusive that it merits just one bus route, which of course none of the locals would ever use. With all eight tickets on board now easily checked, our conductor finally had the chance to put his feet up. The last few passengers swung out onto Piccadilly, heading for Hyde Park Corner and Victoria. Me, I was late for work. I've learnt my lesson - buses are for short hops, not for end-to-end epic journeys. Next time, I'm tubing it.

8 links
Route 8: anorak-level route information
Route 8: timetable

Cube Routes: Day 3 x 3 x 3
Bus 27: Chalk Farm - Turnham Green
Location: London northwest, inner
Length of journey: 9 miles, 70 minutes

London loves to go shopping. Chalk Farm residents go shopping at the big Safeway superstore, a non-descript brick warehouse tucked in beside the main railway line to Euston. It's Saturday morning and the supermarket is busy, the car park is full and the air smells of hot cross buns. The infrequently-departing number 27 bus, however, is empty, bar me and the driver. Just round the corner we pass Camden Market, a hypermarket of henna and hemp, where the pavements are packed and there's a rather different sickly sweet smell in the air. On past Camden's boxy terraces, past the legendary Mornington Crescent tube station, down to the busy Euston Road. It starts to drizzle, and the top deck view blurs.

We head west, and it gets touristier. An Italian couple sit next to me, following the journey on a map, trying repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) to pronounce the word 'Marylebone'. There are queues of bored-looking tourists outside Madame Tussauds, and scores of plain-looking hotels on the approach to Paddington where all the shops sell food, postcards or currency. The bus slows to a crawl, attempting to negotiate narrow streets, taxis and endless traffic lights. Suddenly, round the corner from Whiteleys shopping centre, our driver flashes the bus's internal lights. We're not even halfway to the end of the route, but this is the signal that our bus is stopping early and we all have to get off. The Italian couple look bemused, and everyone else merely pissed off. It's a long long 20 minute wait beside a rainswept parade of shops before the following bus catches up and we can continue.

Next stop Portobello Market, at which point the packed bus nearly empties, such is the attraction of this weekly antiques-fest. Everyone's here to buy some hideous bric-a-brac and objets d'art, or to be seen doing so. It's not far to Notting Hill, where slightly posh twenty-something women are leading their reluctant boyfriends round an endless succession of boutiques. The road south to Kensington is lined by snooty antique shops, over-priced and under-patronised, but who cares when one sale pays the assistant's wages for a week. Shops, shops and more shops, right down the slightly more mainstream Kensington High Street into Hammersmith and yet another cluster of chain stores. There are more reputable places to spend money within this one square mile of West London than there are within the whole of East London.

Chiswick High Road beckons, every billboard along the way advertising the latest manufactured pop album due out just in time for Christmas. The bus speeds up, mainly because no car dare use the weekday-only bus lane, just in case they've guessed the date wrong. The futon showrooms and bistros pass by, the last few bag-laden locals climb off, and we pull up at Turnham Green in the pouring rain. The shopperbus has reached its destination, a respectable and varied high street I wouldn't mind living close to myself. But now, having watched everyone else spending their money all along the route, I sidle off home having spent nothing but my time.

27 links
Route 27: anorak-level route information
Route 27: old map of the route
Route 27: timetable

Cube Routes: Day 4 x 4 x 4
Bus 64: Thornton Heath - New Addington
Location: London south, outer
Length of journey: 8 miles, 30 minutes

There are two ways to get from Croydon to New Addington by public transport. Not that I'm quite sure why anyone would ever want to. New Addington is a giant council estate, more the sort of place you'd want to get away from. You can take the bus, as the locals used to do until 2000, or you can take the new tram. The tram is now by far the more popular route, and rightly so. Me, the rules said I had to take the bus instead.

My 64 journey started at Thornton Heath Pond, just north of Croydon. I didn't spot the pond anywhere, just a giant bus garage and a lot of big 1930s houses, but no doubt they all suffer from waterlogged foundations. It's only a few minutes down the London Road (one of 21 roads in the capital with that name), past the worryingly named Mayday Hospital, into the bustling centre of Croydon. We stopped off at the bus station so that I could be tempted into catching the tram instead (must... resist...), then skirted the enormous retail nirvana that is the Whitgift Centre. Armies of Christmas shoppers emerged, blinking, into the daylight with an armful of carrier bags and a still-warm credit card.

Outside East Croydon station the bus and the tram lined up as if for a race, competing for passengers. We lost. The tram scuttled off down what used to be a main road, heading for New Addington via the direct scenic route, while we headed for the hills. It's a bit of a shock to an East End resident like me to realise that London has contours, but the Croham Valley has them in abundance. Hills, tree-lined avenues, views, vistas, lovingly-tended rugby pitches... and above all money. Huge detached mock tudor mansions lined the roads, like little suburban empires, with the majority of front gardens paved over to accommodate the family's collection of gleaming cars. Might explain why nobody at all got on the bus, or got off for that matter.

We skimmed through Selsdon with its traditional parade of shops (one florist, no kebab shops), then on past contrasting estates of pebbledash and redbrick. Ahead of us was historic Addington Palace, which in the 19th century was home to the Archbishop of Canterbury. I once spent a day singing there, back when I was more a cherub than a geezer, so I was most disappointed to discover that this great house is now a sports club and 'perfect wedding venue'. At last the bus met up with those telltale parallel tracks again, and traffic lights suddenly switched to let the next tram glide ahead of us. A big bus/tram interchange has been built here in a field in the middle of nowhere, where local estate residents are supposed to transfer onto feeder buses. They don't, they stay on the tram and then walk home, so an army of unwanted bus drivers stands around beside the portakabin waiting for custom.

The 64 ascends its final hill before grinding to a halt beside a non-descript parade of shops, just beside the tram terminus. New Addington's not a bad council estate, as overspill estates go, but it is enormous and somewhat lacking in character. And lacking in railway stations, the nearest being a three mile drive away, which is why they brought Tramlink here in the first place. It's revitalised the area, bringing commutability to these former fields on the very outskirts of London. And yes, I returned to Croydon by tram. Faster service, comfier seats, more legroom, and a scenic switchback ride back through a rich swathe of forest. No wonder nobody takes the bus.

64 links
Route 64: anorak-level bus information
Route 64: anorak-level route information
Route 64: timetable

Tramlink links
Official tram site: from Transport for London
Unofficial Tramlink website: far far far better than the official one
Croydon Tramline album: another tramspotter's page
Tram photos: the route to New Addington

Cube Routes: Day 5 x 5 x 5
Bus 125: Finchley Central - Winchmore Hill
Location: London north, outer
Length of journey: 8 miles, 40 minutes

From Thatcher to Portillo, this is a red bus journey through a true blue world. The 125 winds its way through the lesser-known parts of Barnet and Enfield, from the constituency of the former Prime Minister to the former constituency of the man who never quite was. Margaret Thatcher once famously remarked that anyone over the age of 30 who was still using buses was a failure. I was here to prove her wrong. This whole area of North London looks like it was built in one go in the 1930s. It's comfortable suburbia, and the very essence of Betjeman's Metroland (except that the Metropolitan line is miles away). As a result all the houses are at least twice the size of the average shoebox that passes for a new home elsewhere these days, and all the better for it. They just don't build proper affluence any more.

I set off on this particular bus journey as dusk was approaching, little realising that I was about to take my life in my hands. The first bus stop looked so safe, so inviting, nestling between a nice Jewish school and a low-rise Catholic church. I took my grandstand seat at the front of the top deck - not difficult to arrange when there were only two of us on board. As we pulled away I heard the sudden sound of rapid gunfire to my left, although this turned out to be merely a low-hanging branch thwacking repeatedly down the side of the bus. A dented green Primera pulled out unexpectedly in front of the bus forcing our driver to slam hard on the brakes to avoid a collision. Dulcet tones could be heard yelling at the culprit from the driver's cabin downstairs, but alas I suspect the incompetent Nissan driver heard none of it. It was an inauspicious start to our journey.

Through North Finchley countless shoppers darted across the high street, risking their lives weaving between the semi-stationary traffic. At Tally Ho Corner two passengers boarded the bus wielding oversized curtain rods. In Whetstone a white van overtook us with both rear doors gaping open, a cargo of what looked like oil drums on show to the world, but a few honks from our driver prompted white van man to nip out at the next set of lights to slam everything shut again. In Oakleigh Park a selfish car driver parked illegally at a bus stop outside a carpet shop with her hazard lights flashing, then walked straight out into the path of our oncoming bus. We ventured deeper into suburban traffic-calmed streets, our driver now battling against countless road humps, traffic islands and mini-roundabouts, each originally designed to slow down vehicles considerably smaller than our own. Do they sell travel insurance for bus journeys? I'd gladly have signed up.

Finally we reached Winchmore Hill, somehow still in one piece. There was only me left on board by this time, which didn't seem entirely surprising given the circuitous and risk-packed route we'd taken to get here, and the fact there wasn't much to see when we finally did arrive. Our driver faced one final moment of danger when some idiot took a flash photograph of his resting bus, no doubt temporarily blinding the poor bloke. Sorry mate. It seemed safer to escape the area by rail rather than by bus. I tracked down the local overground station, only to find that this part of London merits merely two trains an hour, and so sat freezing on the platform until my deliverer arrived. Public transport's not what it was, you know. Me, I blame the local MP. Well, the old Finchley one, anyway - the residents of Enfield Southgate appear to have already Twigg-ed.

125 links
Route 125: anorak-level bus information
Route 125: anorak-level route information
Route 125: timetable

Cube Routes: Day 6 x 6 x 6
Bus 216: Kingston - Staines
Location: London west, outer; Surrey
Length of journey: 13 miles, 55 minutes

"Get out of the road you dozy fuckin' idiot!"

We were still attempting to leave Kingston bus station when our driver let rip at a bemused-looking bloke trying to board our bus after the doors had closed. He was a charmer was our driver. Thirty seconds down the road we attempted a sharp turn into the main shopping street. A mother was trying to cross the road with her three children, each of whom had been transformed into a jungle beast by some nearby council-sponsored face-painting scheme. She blundered into the path of the bus, then hurriedly dragged her little animals quickly back onto the pavement out of harm's way. Our driver burst forth again with another warcry like a big game hunter.

"Get out of the road you bleedin' dozy twats!"

Delightful. I was on safari aboard the 216, tracking the wild waters of the River Thames to the west of London. It's a long journey, and one of the few London bus routes to venture outside the boundaries of the capital, in this case penetrating deepest Surrey. Or is it Middlesex? Of all the seven bus routes I'm sampling this week, this was the only single-decker, which appeared to mean virtually no legroom for anybody over five foot six. I should have sued for possible deep vein thrombosis.

We crossed Kingston Bridge, the sun shining up from the sparkling river below, and sped through royal parkland to Hampton Court. The riverside terraced house where Christopher Wren used to live is now neighbour to the Cardinal Wolsey pub (book your Christmas party here) and a traffic-clogged roundabout. A man with a smelly dog got on board and sat rather too close to my nostrils. We drove on into Surrey, upriver and upmarket - sailing clubs, exclusive residential islands, Kempton Park racecourse and Mail-reading couples out walking labradors. Sunbury Village with its narrow lanes and arty hotchpotch of cottages could easily have been in deepest Suffolk, except that there were three buses queued in the main street.

The view shifted as we reached the giant roundabout at the start of the M3, back into featureless semi-commercial suburbia. The bus detoured off the arterial road to visit a huge new Tesco superstore, picking up a doddery old man who shuffled slowly to the nearest seat. He was carrying two barely-filled plastic carrier bags, either all he could afford or all he could carry. The bus dropped him off two stops later - I guess he's forced to travel little and often.

We sped on through deepest Ashford, all diamond-lattice windows and nail bars, before sailing past the reservoirs of West London and inching into Staines. Just before our destination (at this week's umpteenth shopping mall) we halted unexpectedly on a bleak estate. Here we were treated to a new driver, a fountain of dreadlocks sprouting from the top of her head, who took five minutes to adjust everything just the way she wanted it. Meanwhile our old driver escaped into a waiting white van and pulled out into the traffic... directly in front of a honking car - the bleedin' dozy twat.

216 link
Route 216: timetable

Cube Routes: Day 7 x 7 x 7
Bus N343: Victoria - New Cross Gate
Location: London southeast, inner
Length of journey: 11 miles, 60 minutes

London is one of the few cities in the country where you can get home by public transport any time of the day or night. The tube may stop running just after midnight, but a red army of buses trundles on through the night, jam-packed heading out of town and virtually empty heading in. Over the last two years Mayor Ken has increased the number of nightbuses in London by 25%, and one of those new routes is the N343 running half-hourly through Southwark and Lewisham. Glamorous it ain't, but at least Peckham looks nicer in the dark.

There's a brand new bus station outside Victoria station, all gleaming perspex and streamlined lanes. Alas it's rather exclusive so the N343 has to start round the corner instead, outside the Apollo Theatre (home to West End smash Bombay Dreams). Appropriately the bus first heads East. Far too many different nightbuses travel the route between Victoria and Trafalgar Square, so I found myself the only passenger on board as we sped past Westminster Abbey and an illuminated Big Ben. Below Nelson's Column there were again lengthy queues for all the other nightbuses, but not for the N343. The only nightlife heading for Peckham was one bloke carrying a steaming hot pizza.

At last, at Aldwych, the route came into its own and several sarf-londoners herded on board. We crossed Waterloo Bridge with the Oxo Tower shining to the left and the new Golden Jubilee Bridges twinkling to the right. Pure pitch black magic. We headed along Bankside towards London Bridge, lonely security guards sitting illuminated in giant glass buildings along the way. Still not one drunkard nor one kebab nor one loaded weapon was on board. The nightbus got much busier at Elephant & Castle, at which point the average salary of the passengers on board suddenly halved. The backroads of Walworth were lined by long tall council cuboids, shoeboxes for filing away the London underclass. Several windows were still brightly lit, at least one waiting for the arrival of that now-luke-warm pizza.

The most annoying public announcement cut in every time somone pressed the button to request the bus to stop. "Bus stopping at next bus stop. Please stand well clear of doors." It was impossible to fall asleep with this female nasal whine repeating every two minutes, and I'd gladly murder the engineers who installed this un-sound system.

We passed through Burgess Park, the only place in Central London (zones 1 & 2) to be more than a mile away from any form of railway station. Round here the 343 bus route is the only local lifeline, at least until 2011 when a brand new tram service is due to pass through, linking Peckham and Brixton to Waterloo and Camden. I wonder if they'll bother to run a service at night. Peckham had pulled down the shutters before we arrived, just the odd club and takeaway still open down an iron-fronted high street. Late-night revellers were queueing at the bus stop, but it was very hard to spot where they might be coming from.

By now five different people had sat in the seat next to me, all of them heavily sober. Slowly the bus emptied as we plied the well-kept terraces of Brockley and Telegraph Hill, until New Cross came into view. The driver couldn't believe there was anyone still on the bus as we reached the end of the road, but at least I got off without having to press that dreaded whining button. End of journey number seven, my Cube Routes finally completed, and so I departed into the night. By bus, of course.

N343 link
Route N343: timetable

Cube Routes: back to the depot

So, what have I learnt from a week spent aboard seven of London's buses?

Buses are better than tubes: They go everywhere, there are more of them, they cost less, they're multi-storey, the view's better, they can drop you off at your front door, they stop more often, they can climb hills, they go to the shops, they go south of the river, they run through the night, they have numbers rather than names, you can start up a new route without a public enquiry and a 10-year delay, they're a London icon.

Tubes are better than buses: They go faster, they go more often, they go faster, they go further, they go faster, they avoid traffic jams, they go faster, there's more legroom, they go faster, they hold more passengers, they go faster, they're silver, they go faster, the passengers are younger, they go faster, the network is less complicated, they go faster, the map is a design classic, they go faster, they're a London icon.

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