Saturday, December 31, 2005

10 ways to celebrate New Year's Eve in London (despite today's tube strike)
1) Leave for your chosen destination early. Get there by noon and the tubes will still be running. You'll have to suffer a 12 hour wait, but that's not necessarily a bad thing if you're spending New Year drinking.
2) All Londoners live within walking distance of a pub, even if it isn't a West End mega-boozer. Go there instead. It'll still cost you an arm and a leg to get in, but you can stumble home in the early hours with relative ease.
3) There are plenty of nightbuses you could catch instead of taking the tube, even if that means slumming it with common drunkards, babbling cokeheads and students gobbling down smelly kebabs.
4) Take a taxi. Except that you should have booked it about three weeks ago because you've not got a hope in hell of flagging one down on the streets tonight.
5) Stay in. They're showing those London Eye fireworks on BBC1, you know. Saves going out to stand in the cold for a mere ten minutes of colourful explosions.
6) Wait and go to London's New Year Parade at noon tomorrow instead. Except, damn, the tubes still won't be running even then.
7) Move south of the river where there are so few tube stations that most residents probably won't notice the difference.
8) Pull yourself together. London survives every other Saturday night without overnight tube trains. Honestly, you're all a bunch of once-a-year pubbing/clubbing wimps.
9) Imagine RMT boss Bob Crow under the wheels of a train. It won't help you get home from your NYE celebrations any quicker, but it might make you feel better.
10) It could be worse - you could be a London Underground worker. Not only can they not get into town either, but they're not being paid today.

 Friday, December 30, 2005

London 2005

You can tell the story of London's year in a single week. You know which one.

Saturday 2nd July: Live 8
Short term importance: ****   Long term importance: *****
20 years on, time for another Geldof-driven publicity bandwagon to engage in global hype on behalf of the world's poor, this time from a mega-stage in Hyde Park. I stood in Park Lane to watch the crowds queuing (and queueing) to gain admittance, no doubt waiting so long that they missed Sir Paul open the event and several subsequent acts too. I sat at home to watch the middle of the concert on TV, sickened by the gaping chasm so clearly visible behind the VIP enclosure and in front of the 'standard' audience. I stood drinking in a bar in Soho while Madonna strutted her stuff, one of the few highlights of an unexpectedly lacklustre line-up. And I fast forwarded through much of the remainder on video once I got home, pausing only to note how well Pink Floyd were reinventing themselves for a new generation. The event itself may have been somewhat underwhelming but its impact helped to encourage 8 old men to cancel the debts of 18 of the very poorest countries in the world a few days later, and that rocked.

Wednesday 6th July: Olympics 2012
Short term importance: **   Long term importance: ****
Thousands of us stood packed into Trafalgar Square on that damp grey lunchtime, all expecting the capital's protracted Olympic bid to end in a valiant but ultimately irrelevant second place. We waited patiently in front of the stage beneath Nelson's Column until, finally, IOC president Jacques Rogge attempted the world record for the slowest ever opening of an envelope. 200 miles apart, two capital cities stood in expectant silence. And then, as the wholly unexpected word 'London' dripped from his lips, the crowd around me erupted in jubilant celebration. People gasped, and cheered, and leapt, and hugged, and waved flags in the air, and generally grinned in elated disbelief as a shower of multi-coloured tickertape rained down from the sky. The five-ring circus was coming to town, and there was no better place in the world to be. Later that same afternoon I took a stroll around the riverside industrial estate which the 2012 Olympics will soon wipe from the map. The centre of the main stadium was much quieter than Trafalgar Square had been a few hours before, but in seven years' time the full glare of the world's media spotlight will shine down right here, just up from the Bow Flyover, in my manor. No doubt about it, East London will never be the same again.
Flickr photoset: London's Olympic Zone 2012

Thursday 7th July: Bombings
Short term importance: *****   Long term importance: ***
I travelled into work early on that fateful Thursday. My ticket was one of the million or so lucky ones. But for the unfortunate few, on the wrong bus or in the wrong place in the wrong carriage in the wrong train at the wrong time, this was to be the last journey they ever made. Hundreds more would be scarred for life by the experience, both physically and emotionally, and all because four misguided zealots had a posthumous political point to prove. Perhaps even scarier was the climate of fear that followed, complete with false-alarm copycat bombers and one single act of trigger-happy incompetence which instantly lost the Metropolitan Police all public support. But now, several months later, most Londoners are perfectly happy to travel again by tube without giving their potential dismemberment a second thought. I remain strangely comforted that, despite repeated warnings and the continued erosion of our civil liberties, no plot so abominable has played out in the capital since that bleak July morning. But let's hope that we Londoners don't have to play the lottery of death again, because we can't all be lucky all of the time.

 Monday, December 19, 2005

Olympic train

Platform 12 at Stratford station is a lonely place. Not quite as lonely, admittedly, as the tumbledown boarded-up buildings on platform 11 opposite, but pretty bleak all the same. It lies tucked away out of sight to the north of the station at the end of a twisting whitewashed subway, up which almost nobody ever ventures, and a world away from the station's busy mainline and Underground platforms. Earlier in the year this forgotten platform saw just two trains a day - one inbound from Cheshunt at about 8am and the other outbound just before 6pm. This was one of Network Rail's ghost services, of absolutely no use whatsoever to regular travellers but still sufficient to keep the line open. But as of last week, with the introduction of the new winter timetable, platform 12 is now host to a full regular rail service to Stansted Airport. It's only one train every hour, which is a bit feeble for a cross London service, but it's still a great improvement on one single journey in each direction each day. Between Stratford and Tottenham Hale the new service runs along three miles of track last used for regular passenger services in 1992. This part of the route meanders along the more remote stretches of the Lea Valley, including the edge of the proposed Olympic site, with no intermediate stations or major centres of population for nearly five miles along the way. Not surprisingly the trains aren't exactly packed at the moment, but there's still plenty to see out of the window... as I discovered when I rode the ghost train at the weekend.

Stratford International: Peer north through the buddleia as the train pulls out of Stratford station and all you can see is a vast expanse of flattened building site. In the near distance surrounded by mud is a giant glass box, its windows covered by a swirling Olympic ribbon. In 18 months time this giant glass box will be Stratford International station, sparkling jewel of the East London rail network and gateway to the continent via the new Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Look carefully as the train heads north and you can see down into the new station box, a vast cavern carved deep out of the earth, and maybe catch a glimpse of several parallel rail tracks and one of the new platforms. Give it a few more years and the surrounding wasteland will be transformed into a Stratford City, a major regional development centre complete with shops, businesses and housing. It's hard to believe, rumbling past, that this nowhere will soon be a really important somewhere.
Eastway Cycle Circuit: Just before the railway plunges beneath the A12, look up to the left and you might catch sight of a silhouetted mountain biker zipping across an artificial hillock. Beyond this embankment lies East London's finest cross country cycling circuit, now doomed to be demolished and replaced by the Olympic Village and a hockey stadium. Perversely a new velodrome will then be built a few hundred yards away on land to the north of the A12, although this cycling facility ought to be permanent once the Olympics have finished.
New Spitalfields Market: Most Londoners know Spitalfields Market as that quaint building in Shoreditch where they sell stripy knitwear, mystic tat and veggie noodly-type snacks. But for three centuries Spitalfields was London's main fruit and vegetable market, until in 1991 all business moved out to new custom-built warehouses in Leyton. The new Lea valley rail service chugs right alongside, allowing you to view the exterior of this vast market building (pictured) and maybe peer in through aluminium shutters to see where London's barrowboys now ply their trade.
Hackney Marshes: A curving meander brings the wooded banks of the River Lea right up beside the train. The extensive marshes to the west were only reclaimed from the river sixty years ago, filled in by lorryloads of Second World War rubble. Nowadays Hackney Marshes are most famous for their record-breaking set of 87 football pitches, packed out each week with a succession of amateur Sunday league matches. A real East London institution (but, alas, partially threatened by future Olympic plans).
Walthamstow Marshes: An almost-untouched swathe of common grassland, used by local people for the grazing of cattle since at least medieval times. Only the railway intrudes across the marshes, leaving the remainder of the area as a refuge for wildlife, walkers and cyclists. A blue plaque on one of the railway arches commemorates a British aviation first - "Under these arches Alliott Verdon Roe assembled his Avro No1 triplane. In July 1909 he made the first all-British powered flight from Walthamstow Marsh". Unfortunately I got to experience the silent desolation of the marshes for a full 50 minutes thanks to an unexpected points breakdown at the junction ahead (where the Stratford line joins the existing line out of Liverpool Street). Our driver may have been helpful, informative and even sociable as we waited for signalmen to shift the rails to let us pass, but I suspect I could have reached Stansted considerably faster by coach.

 Saturday, December 17, 2005

Christmas in E15

Stratford Shopping Centre is littered with cheap baubles and artificial garlands
The tinny sound of Slade echoes through a shop doorway
Deck the malls with plastic holly

This year's must-have bargains are box-shaped (batteries are not included)
Bulky bags dangle low from sovereign-ringed hands
Everybody's buying dreams for Christmas

Toddlers queue to see Santa's hideaway beneath a magic fibreglass windmill
A council clown twists balloon headgear in pink and yellow
Wide eyes gaze in awe and wonder

Market traders hawk two quid towels, loose satsumas and stacks of pirate DVDs
Shuffling pensioners queue for a gossip and a warm mince pie
Fat fleeces fill the aisles

Mum tries to keep her brood occupied while Dad sneaks unnoticed into Argos
Hoodied couples squander their dole money on one another, with love
Everybody's in a shopping daze

Local residents may not believe in Christ, but they believe in Christmas
Poor families are afflicted with consumption
Stratford's stocking up

 Tuesday, December 13, 2005

REUTERS Docklands HQ Tuesday 11:00 GMT
Went to Canary Wharf this morning STOP Was only going to buy a birthday card STOP Noticed police mysteriously setting out traffic cones STOP Spotted mini-crowd of City types gathering behind barriers STOP Discovered Queen to arrive shortly STOP HM coming to open Reuters' new Docklands HQ STOP Took up position behind semi-populated crash barrier STOP Policewoman raised finger to signal one minute to go STOP Motorcycle outrider swept round corner STOP Cavalcade of three royal vehicles followed STOP Big car with droopy flag pulled up outside Reuters STOP Well-dressed man popped out of front of car to open rear door STOP Her Majesty alighted resplendent in red hat and dark red coat STOP Liz guided rapidly up steps at front of building STOP Probably smiled but was too far away to see STOP Queen led inside to officially open building and do corporate things STOP Crowd dispersed STOP FILE REPORT

It's not every day you unexpectedly bump into a member of the Royal Family. When I was ten I happened to be on one of the Channel Islands at the same time as the Queen Mother, and discovered one morning that her royal tour was due to pass the guest house where my family was staying. I was very excited, at least until her official car swept straight past offering no view whatsoever, at which point I became really quite distraught. Later that day whilst waiting at the airport I think I caught sight of her royal legs stood behind the royal helicopter, a minor glimpse which almost made up for my previous disappointment. But not quite. Yesterday's royal encounter was, at long last, rather more tangible.

I'd like to apologise for not being able to describe the Queen's outfit in more detail. As a man, "red hat and dark red coat" is the best description that I can manage. I know that the sole purpose of royal journalism is to describe the monarch's wardrobe in glowing language ("a frothy veil of Torchon lace", "radiant in yellow taffeta and silk", "a dazzling chic tangerine ensemble") but sorry, I can't do it. Maybe her hat was a bit furry (or was it feathery), and that coat was definitely thick and warm but I couldn't tell you whether it was tweed, woollen or velvet. Nobody ever got a job working for the Daily Mail or Evening Standard with an underdeveloped haute couture gene like mine, that's for sure.

It was, however, instructional to watch what happened when the Queen finally appeared. For some of the office workers stood shivering by the kerbside this was clearly a very special event, a unique chance to glimpse the woman whose genes have been ruling this country for centuries. These people stood eagerly, expectantly, craning their necks to make the most of every last second of this rare experience. Many of the police officers present also turned from facing the crowd at the crucial moment to catch their own glimpse of Her Majesty. Presumably this was rather more fun than being stuck in an office with their usual paperwork even if, stood facing in the wrong direction, their chance of foiling any potential terrorist outrage was slight.

But a large proportion of the crowd appeared to be present simply because this was an event, not because this was a royal event. They just happened to be in the area, and they just happened to have their multi-function mobile in their pocket, and this was too good an opportunity to miss. As Her Majesty made the short walk up the steps from her car these amateur photographers stood with cameras aloft and snapped blindly, more interested in their tiny viewscreen than in looking at the real Queen stood before them. They weren't there to see Her Majesty for themselves, they were just there to capture a digital image of the day's events which would prove to friends and acquaintances their close proximity to a genuine celebrity. "Look, here's a grainy digital image of the Queen. I know it's tiny but please be impressed." It's a shame, but sometimes I think we spend so long attempting to record important events that we never actually experience them. You'd never catch me doing that <cough>

 Thursday, December 01, 2005

Prime Movers - December 2005

It's time once again for diamond geezer to spend a few days exploring London by bus. 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 tell you all about what I saw, just like I did this time last year, and again the year before. I've already written about buses whose route numbers are cube numbers and square numbers, so this year I've switched my mathematical allegiance to prime numbers (2, 3, 5, 7, 11, etc). Don't worry, I'm only going up as far as 19, and I'll attempt to write up my journeys in a variety of different ways just to keep it all vaguely interesting. Expect plenty of gratuitous Routemaster references, because London's dear old RM is finally withdrawn from proper service next week. Hold very tight please - this bus terminates here.

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

Prime Movers
Route 2: Baker Street - West Norwood
Location: London south, inner
Length of journey: 8 miles, 65 minutes

According to Travis Elborough's fine new book, The Bus We Loved, London's very first Routemaster journey was on Route 2. On 8th February 1956, very nearly fifty years ago, passengers travelling from Golders Green to Crystal Palace were surprised by the appearance of a strange-looking new prototype bus with a rear platform and chugging engine. Little did they know, that cold snowy morning, that they were the first passengers to board a future London icon. History does not record whether any old men in wheelchairs or young mothers with perambulators stood cursing at the kerbside as this new inaccessible omnibus pulled up. But the story that ends next Friday began here, with bus RM1, on route 2.

Route 2 no longer runs all the way from Golders Green, starting instead outside Transport for London's Lost Property Centre on Baker Street. Just across the road from the very first stop is one of the most famous non-existent addresses in London - 221B Baker Street. Tourists attempting to visit the site of Sherlock Holmes' London residence have been disappointed in the past to find nothing more than a feeble window display in an Abbey building society window. Now they're probably even more disappointed to discover no building at all, because the whole of Abbey House has been demolished (except for the very top tower) and is awaiting rebuilding. Never mind, enterprising entrepreneurs have set up a Sherlock Holmes museum-cum-shop just up the road, complete with 221B plaque, although the fact that the shop is located between '237 Baker Street' and '241 Baker Street' should suggest that the whole emporium is a bit of a fiddle.

To be honest, the 2 doesn't take the most scenic route across town. Baker Street itself is a bland one-way rat run lined by offices, restaurants and insignificant shops. Along Orchard Street you can peer down from the top deck into Selfridges' food hall, but only a very tiny sliver. Park Lane may be historic, but the hotels and posh car showrooms are less than attractive. Past Hyde Park Corner there's a bus stop called 'Buckingham Palace', but it's a long way from the Queen's house (and rather closer to the retail outlet of bravalingerie.com). Heaven knows what sports they play in the Queen Mother Sports Centre, but I don't remember gin drinking and corgi racing in the last Olympics. Vauxhall Bridge ought to be charming, but MI6's ugly HQ and the owl-headed apartments of St George's Wharf detract from the glorious view along the Thames. The 2's not for tourists.

South London kicks off with the startlingly modern Vauxhall bus station, hovering in midair like a giant silver tuning fork. And then, after the rail bridge, the real world begins. We're entering Stockwell - onionbagblog territory, and an area which appears poorer, leftier and more emotional than previous northern neighbourhoods. You may know Stockwell only as the site of 'that shooting', but the brightly coloured murals painted around the Deep Level Shelter in the Stockwell Memorial Gardens tell a much fuller story (which onionbagblogger tells in full here). Alas the latest painted memorial to Jean Charles De Menezes has been painted over by an over-zealous 'knobber', and a succession of Brazilian flags removed because, apparently, this is not the sort of thing that Londoners should be remembering - an argument which deserves to be shot down.

Next up is bustling Brixton, a high street thronging with bargain hunters busy buying nothing expensive. The distinctive tower-topped Town Hall is very nearly 100 years old, in sharp contrast to both the grim bleak expanse of Windrush Square and the bold bright glass frontage of the newly-renovated tube station. Route 2 climbs southward and upward, past vast brick council estates and leafier suburban homesteads, before descending the crazy-paved slopes of Tulse Hill. And finally to West Norwood, past a Woolies and a Wimpy, and the gates to one of London's premier Victorian cemeteries (last resting place of Mrs Beeton and Sir Henry Doulton). Well worth a look round, just so long as you get off the bus in time and don't end up getting trapped inside the garage instead, sheepishly waiting to be let out of the terminated vehicle by a sarcastic driver. Oops.

2 links
Route 2: anorak-level route information
Route 2: timetable
Route 2: anorak-level bus information

 Friday, December 02, 2005

Prime Movers
Route 3: Crystal Palace - Oxford Circus
Location: London south, inner
Length of journey: 9 miles, 65 minutes

There's nowhere in London quite like Penge Crystal Palace [links: ]. For a start you don't need a TV aerial on your roof because the biggest transmitter tower in the capital looms down over the area, visible from far away across the Thames basin [links: ]. Then there's the site of the magnificent Crystal Palace itself, a glass exhibition pavilion moved here from Hyde Park 150 years ago but burnt to the ground in 1936 [links: ]. Let's not forget the slightly downtrodden National Sports Centre, home to UK Athletics meetings until the new Olympic Stadium snaffles all its custom [links: ]. Here was the unassuming pitch where the FA Cup Final was played every year from 1895 to 1914 [links: ]. And Crystal Palace was also the site of the world's first fatal road accident in 1896 when mother Bridget Driscoll was hit by a demonstration vehicle roaring down on her at 4mph [links: ]. I spent a fascinating hour wandering the 200 acre park, and even then I still didn't find the famous fibreglass dinosaurs [links: ]. It's a place that deserves more than a passing paragraph, so I'm sure I'll be back one day to report in more depth. [links: ]. But, for the time being, there was a bus to catch.

Crystal Palace bus station is less a transport hub and more a couple of sheds beside a car park. Route 3 heads north through the back streets of Gipsy Hill and West Dulwich. It's all very leafy and affluent around here, with a majority of paved-over front gardens hinting that local residents aren't the type to abandon their 4x4s to ride on public transport. The view from the 3's top deck is all florists, traditional toyshops and freshly creosoted fences. Nip beneath the railway bridge into Herne Hill and you're still the right side of upmarket (they don't have fish and chip shops, oh no, they have Olley's Fish Experience). And then there's (a rear view of) Brockwell Park Lido, which (presumably, because it's closed for the winter) still maintains its classic Thirties elegance (in spite of several aborted attempts to shut the place down). Charming. You'd never guess what was coming next.

Brixton's next. Slip down Brixton Hill, between the Fridge and the (astonishingly ostentatious) Budd Memorial, and the view is very different. Brixton High Street is choked with traffic, much of it red and double-deckered, and the pavements are choked with shoppers (and the odd campaigning activist). Tempting retail treats include the Reliance Arcade, the 'God Is Able Unisex Salon' and the street market down Electric Avenue (and then we'll take it higher). The 3 trundles northward towards Kennington Park Road, where there's a brief but perfectly framed view of the Gherkin at the end of the street, then skirts the Imperial War Museum and Lambeth Palace on the outer fringes of London's tourist hinterland.

Suddenly your £1.20 bus ticket beats any open-topped over-priced sightseeing bus. On Lambeth Bridge the view from the top deck across the Thames is world-beating (ooh, the winter sunshine beating down through the London Eye, and aah, the private riverside terraces behind the Palace of Westminster). Next comes a close up view of the Houses of Parliament (although, to be honest, even Big Ben doesn't attract the eye quite as much as Brian Haw's long-term Parliament Square protest). You then ride the full length of Whitehall, peering down Tony's private street and into various Government departments. Nelson's Column may be only a quarter the height of the Crystal Palace TV transmitter, but it has considerably greater stature. And finally, on the home stretch, there's an ever-so slow crawl round the elegant curve of Regent Street before pulling up a few yards short of Oxford Street, just round the corner from the legendary Golf Sale. Par for the course, if you took 3 to get here.

3 links
Route 3: anorak-level route information
Route 3: timetable

 Saturday, December 03, 2005

Prime Movers
Route 5: Canning Town - Becontree Heath
Location: London east, outer
Length of journey: 8 miles, 65 minutes

Every bus with a route number below 20 runs through central London... except for 5. This wasn't always the case. Route 5 used to run from Bloomsbury to Barking, inaugurated as part of the great Trolleybus Replacement Programme of 1959. But the West End terminus was cut back to the East End in 1990 and now the 5 is a very ordinary suburban bus, its route divided between two very different boroughs and two very different East Londons.

First half: Things to see in the London Borough of Newham
Canning Town: a big shiny bus station (pictured), the start of the new DLR City Airport extension (opened 5pm yesterday), poor people, very poor people, very poor people smoking, barely a white face, wrinkled grannies pulling baskets on wheels, two girls with giant hoop earrings wearing pink anoraks with furry hoods, Rathbone Market (a nasty 60s construction of lowbrow tack-stalls and minging pound shops).
Plaistow: a pre-teen posse bounding loudly onto the top deck, shops selling colourful plastic sink drainers for £1 or less, a growling thug taking his muzzled pitbull for a walk, 6 Carlings for £5, a yellow Police board propped up against a lamppost ("Can You Help?" "Murder" "...fatally stabbed in a red Nissan"), deprived housing, traffic jams, A Spittle (Florist, now boarded up).
Upton Park: bookies, kebabs, shops painted in claret and blue, two boys in Santa hats covering the base of the Bobby Moore World Cup statue with spray string, Nathan's Pie & Eel shop, a 3 screen cinema (1 Hollywood, 2 Bollywood), inconsiderate drivers blocking bus lanes, claret and blue plastic seats in the West Ham grandstand.
East Ham: net curtains behind condensation-soaked window panes, hoodies, a very ordinary-looking mosque ("all visitors are politely requested not to congregate outside the vicinity of the mosque. Asslamu Alaykum!!"), East Ham Market Hall, flats with pink doors, local residents all clothed by market and discount warehouse, Newham Town Hall, brown, grey, black.

the North Circular
the River Roding

Second half: Things to see in the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham
Barking: green, a giant roundabout, Wickes, Abbey Green, Barking Abbey (ruins), Barking Town Centre, two thirds of the passengers alighting, a bustling street market, non-Persian carpets for sale, a bandstand, old ladies admiring artistic icing in the window of Cake Express, poor people, poor people reading the Daily Star, a shrivelled bloke hobbling home.
Fair Cross: a big park, giant ornate villas, a whelk stall, Barking bus garage, a giant shaven-headed hulk in a vest (almost certainly on steroids), leafy avenues, the University of East London, redbrick, displaced Cockneys, publessness, row after row of identikit semis.
Becontree: row after row of identikit council semis, families lugging big boxes home from the shops, cars, parked cars, old cars sunk into unmowed front lawns, barely a black face, barely a brown face, pebbledash, stonecladding, superstores, teenage cliques in navy and grey sportswear, bleached blondes, the chav cliché lives.
Becontree Heath: a tiny desolate bus station centred round a brick shed beneath a pair of tower blocks (pictured), a London Transport roundel on a spike, Barking and Dagenham Civic Centre, flat grass, "dreary, depressing, miserable, unlovely, intimidating, grey, windswept, bleak, bland, decaying, unloved and thoroughly nasty".

5 links
Route 5: anorak-level route information
Route 5: timetable
Route 5: anorak-level bus information

 Sunday, December 04, 2005

Prime Movers
Bus 7: East Acton - Russell Square
Location: London northwest, inner
Length of journey: 7 miles, 70 minutes

Seven tourist hotspots along route 7
1) East Acton: OK, I'm lying. No respectable tourist would venture out this far, especially not to a redbrick 30s industrial estate. The low misty expanse of Old Oak Common is as good as it gets, but that's more the haunt of local dogwalkers.
2) Wormwood Scrubs: A prison more notorious than famous, and probably not the sort of place you'd want to visit of your own accord. The 7 makes a good escape route.
3) Portobello Road: The 7 drives straight through the middle of Portobello Road Market (not literally through the stalls, you understand, but sufficient for the throng of passing pedestrians to slow down the journey considerably).
4) Chepstow Road: 363 days of the year this is just another West London street, but over the August Bank Holiday weekend it's the very heart of the Notting Hill Carnival. Caramba!
5) Paddington: I never thought there was anything very special about the Paddington area, but it seems that tourists disagree because they stay in shady hotels around here in their thousands.
6) Oxford Street: [more about this shopping Mecca below]
7) British Museum: One of the finest museums to be found anywhere in the world, including several unique priceless artefacts brazenly stolen from their rightful overseas owners.

Oxford Street - the route of a problem
As my 7 turned past Marble Arch and crept into Oxford Street, it became clear that the epicentre of Britain's retail trade has a major traffic problem. The jams aren't being caused by cars (because they were banned from Oxford Street several years ago) neither are they being caused by taxis (because there still aren't enough of them). No, the problem here is nose-to-tail queues of red London buses lining up at a succession of traffic lights, filling the road space and completely clogging up the traffic. Just one broken down vehicle is all it takes to bring traffic flow on Oxford Street to a halt, or at least to a crawl - which is precisely what happened on my route 7 journey. Frustrated shoppers aboard my bus therefore found themselves trapped just a few yards from the next stop and potential escape (ahh, this would never have happened when all the 7s were Routemasters). In fact my bus took an astonishing 20 minutes to wend its way all the way along Oxford Street (total length 1¼miles) at an average speed of just over 3mph. I could have walked faster. I checked on a map when I got home and discovered the reason for these excessive jams, and here it is...
Buses serving central Oxford Street: 6, 7, 8, 10, 13, 15, 23, 25, 55, 73, 94, 98, 113, 137, 139, 159, 176, 189, 390
That's an astonishing 19 different bus routes all serving the same section of shopping street, and all contributing to utter traffic chaos. The fact that two of these routes are served by double-length bendy buses only makes things worse, but the jams would be bad enough even without them. Oxford Street's buses definitely need a good culling. For a start we could truncate those buses which either start or finish somewhere along the street and so run mostly empty, like the 25, 113 or 189. Even the 7, which dribbles on half a mile to Russell Square, could safely be terminated at Marble Arch instead. The GLA's Liberal Democrats have gone one step further and proposed that all buses be banned from Oxford Street, a detailed plan which involves several curtailments, multiple diversions and a replacement tram route. That tram is essential though because, as my journey on the 7 revealed, hordes of lazy shoppers depend on public transport to ferry them and their heavy purchases from one Oxford Street store to another. How long before somebody bites the bullet and pedestrianises the whole area?

7 links
Route 7: anorak-level route information
Route 7: timetable
Route 7: last day of Routemaster service (July 2004)

 Monday, December 05, 2005

Prime Movers
11 Routes: Fulham Broadway - Liverpool Street
Location: London southwest, inner
Length of journey: 7 miles, 11 buses

I rode the entire length of route 11 without ever travelling on a number 11 bus. Instead I took 11 different buses which just happened to follow the same route. Just to be different. And just to get a snapshot of the variety of different vehicles being used to transport people around the capital.

Busvehicle type builtcomment
28TN 33050double decker2001an insipid purple interior
22WVL 168double decker2005ugly glass-fronted cuboid
49VE 4double decker2004an exercise in mediocrity
319DWL 9single decker2001dull suburban people carrier
211TA 119double decker2002nothing out of the ordinary
24VP 316double decker2002almost slightly comfortable
12MAL 75bendy bus2004artificial smelly nightmare
9RM 1776Routemaster1962charming old workhorse
15RM 1933 Routemaster1964enchanting London icon
76VLW 136double decker2003disappointing blandness
23TNA 33379double decker2003polluted by on-screen ads

That's seven double deckers, one articulated bendy bus, one single decker and two Routemasters (courtesy of TfL's new heritage routes), all ridden in the space of less than two hours. I was expecting to be able to compare and contrast eleven rather different types of vehicle, but the cross section of London's bus fleet I observed turned out to be rather more homogeneous than I had anticipated.

Conclusion 1) London's buses are all very new: Look at those years in my table. Every single bus I travelled on was of 21st century vintage, except for the Routemasters which were a full 40 years older and still going strong. Once the RMs disappear there'll be nothing even slightly old remaining, no heritage and, most importantly, absolutely no character.

Conclusion 2) London's buses increasingly have standing room only: More space for pushchairs and wheelchairs means fewer places to sit. The lower decks of the new double deckers could seat only about 20 people, while the single decker catered for about 30 (but without a top deck to take surplus passengers). But the evil bendy bus was by far the worst, proportionally speaking, with less than half of its crush capacity accounted for by its 48 seats. If you want to sit down, take a Routemaster.

Conclusion 3) London's modern double decker buses are all incredibly same-y: By the end of my 11-route journey it became apparent that London has a double decker design masterplan. On each of the modern vehicles there was always a rear set of nine seats, four of which faced backwards. In front there were always a few more seats facing forward, then an accessible area for pushchairs and wheelchairs opposite the exit doors. Next to the entrance doors was a luggage space, and then behind the driver's seat was the foot of the stairs, leading up to an identikit top deck. Every deck had little hemispherical cameras plastered across the ceiling, and dustbinlid mirrors above the exit doors, and plastic grab poles liberally sprinkled with 'let me off at the next stop' buttons. Each bus's character, if indeed it had any, came from minor tweaks and subtle differences in decor:
a) Different coloured seat covers: The 28's seats were sort of purple and turquoise, the 22 more speckled blue, the 49 dotty and green, and the 24 mauve with red stripes. In most cases the designs were so eye-watering that a previous passenger could have been sick all over the upholstery and nobody would have noticed.
b) Different seat cushion thickness: There's not much fabric to support you on a 28, whereas the 24's cushion thickness could be measured in inches. And I was lucky on my journey - several other new buses provide nothing more than a nasty plastic seat, rather like you'd find in a school dining room.
c) Different coloured floors: The 49's all-weather floor surface was light blue, the 22 was a darker shade of navy, the 219 was definitely grey, while the 23 and 28 boasted a faint purple. All also had speckly splattery bits in a variety of colours, like the gravel at the bottom of a fishtank or an accident in a glitter factory.
d) Different coloured plastic poles: Most buses had vertical grab poles in custard yellow, but those on the 23 and 28 were distinctly aquamarine. Sorry, maybe I'd better stop there.

Conclusion 4) Bendy buses smell: You just don't get that artificial stink on any of the other vehicles, do you?

11 links
Route 11: anorak-level route information
Route 11: timetable
Route 11: last day of Routemaster service (October 2003)

 Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Prime Movers
Route 13: Aldwych - Golders Green
Location: London northwest, inner
Length of journey: 7 miles, 40 minutes

The 13 was one of the very last routes to convert from two- to one-man operation, falling victim to new accessible vehicles just a couple of months ago. But I believe in forward planning so I made my particular journey back in the summer, back when route 13 was still run by Routemasters. In the interests of true up-to-date accuracy, however, I've greyed out any part of my report which no longer holds true today. Why not read it twice?

The graceful Routemaster buses of route 13 emerge at regular intervals from an Aldwych sideroad in the shadow of historic St Mary le Strand church. You can't board until the bus reaches the Strand, not unless you try leaping onto the rear platform while the bus is stopped at the Aldwych traffic lights. From here, so long as the road is jam-free, you can hurtle past the Savoy towards Trafalgar Square with the bus rattling, humming, shuddering and rocking as it goes. The driver then has to jockey for position to manouevre into the correct lane for Piccadilly Circus, before crawling slowly up Regent Street at the speed of the cyclist in front. Take a moment to admire this Georgian street and the absence of tacky commercialised illuminated decorations strung above the roadway. Then maybe you'll catch sight of a 159, not yet the only remaining Routemaster serving Oxford Street, as you take part in the usual snail's pace procession of bumper-to-bumper buses.

See the white-clad athletes out exercising their racquet skills on the tennis courts in the middle of Portman Square, and then it's all three-lane and one-way up Gloucester Place. Mind that unreliable modern bus broken down by the side of the road with its front engine door gaping open. Watch out for the squeegee spivs massing at the junction with Marylebone Road, and try to take comfort that the driver is high enough up in his cab to avoid a mucky sponge on the windscreen. The passing residential terraces become taller and grander as you approach the Regent's Park Mosque and canal. And look down from your prime top deck seat as you pass Lord's and there's a perfect view of the rear of the Nursery End grandstand where large crowds have gathered to watch Hampshire beat Warwickshire in the C&G Trophy final.

The leafy streets of St John's Wood are lined by elegant eight storey residential blocks, although architectural standards slide downhill as you pass from Westminster into Camden. Swiss Cottage turns out to be a disappointing theme pub, not a luxury Alpine chalet, while Frognal is merely a subdivision of West Hampstead and not a French enclave. Don't forget to show your ticket to the friendly conductor who's now finally found time to inspect the upper deck - that's one job less to do. For the next mile your years-old bus ascends the gentle slopes of Finchley Road, with the summit of Child's Hill offering extensive views westward over London's inner suburbs. And finally, at the end of a long and characterful journey, just wait for the security barrier to rise and then park up in front of Golders Green station. Here the driver and conductor can pause in companionship for a friendly chat to stave off the boredom before preparing for the return journey aboard this same magnificent vehicle. Who ever said 13 was unlucky?

13 links
Route 13: anorak-level route information
Route 13: timetable
Route 13: last day of Routemaster service (October 2005)

 Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Prime Movers
Route 17: London Bridge - Archway
Location: London north, inner
Length of journey: 6 miles, 50 minutes

A Wednesday morning journey in five stops and four passengers

Bus stop 1 - Joiner Street: Scores of commuters swarm out of London Bridge mainline station. A few linger in the bus shelter outside Fitness First, but most stride on into the sidestreets of Southwark. A stream of black cabs crawls slowly by. The tip of the Gherkin rises above the bus station's spiky skylights. She waits.

Passenger 1 - 40ish female: She boards quickly, teetering towards the rear of the bus on high black heels. An understated scarf is twisted fashionably around her neck. She places her chunky black handbag on the seat beside her and shuts down. Her mind is on auto-pilot, oblivious of the passing sights and the low mist hanging above the Thames. A display of sparkly silver handbags in a Cannon Street window is the only City spectacle to catch her distant eye. She presses the button to escape, but slow-crawling traffic beside St Paul's delays her exit by several minutes. She's bored, she's unfulfilled, she's resigned to going to work. She alights.

Bus stop 2 - Ludgate Hill: City Thameslink station is in mid-morning hibernation. WH Smith is bolted shut as the trains arrive empty. Nobody stops off at the tiny International Cheese Centre, for Emmental, Edam or otherwise. Traffic queues patiently to cross the Farringdon Road. A bloke with a big fluffy microphone wanders by, cameraman in tow. Starbucks is doing a roaring trade. The first edition Evening Standards have yet to arrive. He waits.

Passenger 2 - 50ish male: He sports a gold bracelet and close-cropped grey hair. The badge on his big blue jacket reveals he's a postal worker, probably already heading home after a taxing early shift. He moves swiftly to take control of the rear cluster of seats. He opens his tabloid, whips out his reading glasses and flicks through the hyped headlines, blotting out the chatter and noise all around. Two miles and 72 pages later he re-folds his paper and rests his big black boots on the upholstery opposite. A rasping cough suggests he's missing his nicotine. Getting off can't come a moment too soon. He alights.

Bus stop 3 - Caledonian Road (Story Street): A long low-key parade of shops attracts midweek truants and old ladies pushing baskets on wheels. A speed camera nods its head at the stripy tarmac. A crocodile of schoolchildren troops up the road past a discarded fridge, their teacher resplendent in pink trainers and a slightly too bright multi-coloured scarf. Wind whips through the open-ended bus shelter. Across the road, the Tibetan Buddhist Centre lies respectfully silent. He waits.

Passenger 3 - 20ish male: Sportswear in grey and blue is the order of the day. His hoodie is mostly navy and his trackies mostly slate. A white badge on his sleeve proclaims allegiance to the Adidas tribe. His messy hair looks like it was cut to be gelled, except he's not been bothered to spike it up this morning. It's only a short trip, a couple of stops past the prison, but it saves wearing out the soles of his white trainers. He alights.

Bus stop 4 - Caledonian Road station: This is not so much a community as a building site. "Always wear your eye protection." Major renovation is underway at the tube station, concealing the Leslie Green frontage behind poles and sheeting. The buzzer beside the site office door isn't working, so workmen rap ever more impatiently to gain entry. Across the road a tall crane looms above a mountain of scaffolding and several storeys of half-built walls. One day, maybe soon, social housing and yuppie flats will coexist here. She waits.

Passenger 4 - 50ish female: She throws her cigarette to the pavement and climbs to the upper deck. Her coat is warm and blue with a fleecy collar. Her jeans are stonewashed and flared below the knee, and a cheap foldaway brolly hangs from her wrist. On almost anybody else a lumpy pink cap, big specs and gold earrings just wouldn't work, but somehow she carries the look. She digs deep into her pocket to dig out a delicate handkerchief, then fills it. Her journey is quiet and lonely, with only the view for company. She alights, and lights up.

Bus stop 5 - Archway: Ugly office blocks dominate the choked roadway at the foot of Highgate Hill. The pub across the road is adorned with cartoon characters from old Guinness ads. A newspaper seller huddles inside his kiosk for warmth, waiting to earn a few more pennies from passing purchasers. People scatter as a streetsweeping van clears the pavement. The entrance to the tube station is camouflaged at the foot of some concrete steps. I depart.

17 links
Route 17: anorak-level route information
Route 17: timetable
Route 17: Exceptionally rare Routemaster sighting (June 2004)

 Thursday, December 08, 2005

Prime Movers
Route 19: Battersea Bridge - Finsbury Park
Location: London southwest/northeast, inner
Length of journey: 8 miles, 85 minutes

Routemaster operation ceased on Route 19 on April 1st this year. No joke. I took one last ride on the old 19 the week before, just so that I didn't miss out. I headed down to Thames-side Battersea one wet weekday afternoon, waiting in the light drizzle beside an upmarket reed-backed florist's kiosk. The changeover was already underway so I had to wait for 15 minutes while a couple of dull modern double deckers emerged from the tumbledown old shed that doubles as Battersea bus garage. But I successfully grabbed the top-deck front-seat view on the next vintage vehicle for a snail's pace crawl across Central London, and suddenly the wait was worthwhile. The pair of Japanese tourists sat beside me clearly agreed, and snapped away towards Chelsea Wharf and that power station as the bus queued across the river.

The best thing about riding a bus all the way along the King's Road is that you can't get off and buy anything. Instead you can look down on the ladies who lunch, lugging their haute couture carrier bags from boutique to boutique as they try to decide which designer pashmina to slap on the platinum card next. Inbetween the label-obsessed shops it's all posh terraces and garden squares, and crocodiles of blazered schoolkids trotting meekly off to prep. My bus then got stuck in Knightsbridge gridlock for a miserable 20 minutes, but (unlike now) those Japanese tourists were still able to hop off the open platform and escape with ease. We chugged round Hyde Park Corner, we transported some Chelsea nobs to the art galleries up Piccadilly and we paraded proudly up Shaftesbury Avenue (at the time the only road in Central London where every bus was still a Routemaster).

I've always been impressed by the memory skills of the conductors aboard crew-operated buses. The first time they tour the bus they pinpoint you with an arresting stare and ask to see your ticket or to cough up the relevant fare. The second time they come round they seem to remember that your presence has already been vaildated and so concentrate their friendly glare on other, more recently boarded passengers instead. It's a tough mental task to perform on an ever-changing sea of transient faces, which may be why somewhere up Charing Cross Road the conductor on my particular bus failed and asked to check my Oystercard for a second time. I blame the excessive sluggishness of our journey, or maybe the fact that he was probably preoccupied by his imminent redundancy.

It was at about this time, a full hour into the journey, that I got to share my top deck view with a genuine minor celebrity and his friend the bus fanatic. The minor celeb was BBC London 94.9FM presenter Simon Lederman. You've probably never heard of him, and neither had I, but his name was written on an envelope and Google is a wonderful thing. Simon's on-board rendezvous was to check the Radio London advert in the Cobham Bus Museum Open Day programme, and to collect some prize tickets to give away on air. An almost fascinating half hour discussion ensued, which I couldn't help but overhear, sorry gents. I learnt that introducing the new fleet of buses on Route 19 would greatly increase passenger loading time, that one of the best places to photograph doomed Routemasters was up Rosebery Avenue opposite Sadlers Wells Theatre (no shadows, apparently), and that the Open Day advertising leaflet should perhaps have been proofread more carefully before being printed.

And then, without warning, our bus terminated a mile and a half early, just outside Highbury & Islington station. No excuse was given but I suspect (very) late running was to blame. There were no other 19 Routemasters in sight so, purely for comparative purposes, I rode the rest of the route on the following (very) ordinary double decker. The replacement boxy 19 had that fresh-out-of-the-garage smell that 40-year-old buses don't have, as well as fairly lurid green upholstery and zero character. The journey was mundane and ordinary, enlivened only by the sight of Highbury Stadium up a sideroad as the bus approached its destination at Finsbury Park. Arsenal's old ground may be doomed to residential obsolescence within the next six months, but that's still six months longer than its fellow London design classic, the Routemaster bus. Thirty hours and counting.

19 links
Route 19: anorak-level route information
Route 19: timetable
Route 19: last day of Routemaster service (April 2005)

That's it for prime numbered bus journeys across London. Obviously I could have blogged on a lot further than 19 (like route 73 or Route 79) but life's too short, and I don't want to haemorrhage too many readers. And anyway, tomorrow there's a different bus route I need to blog about instead, and it's a multiple of 3. If you're out and about in London today, keep an eye open for some very special vintage Routemaster vehicles on route 159 (timetable here [pdf], further details here). London's bus service is in its prime for just one more day.

 Friday, December 09, 2005

The Last Routemaster
Route 159: Marble Arch - Oblivion
Location: the heart of London
Length of journey: millions of miles, 49¾ years

Around noon today, London's last (genuine, scheduled, non-tourist) Routemaster bus will set out from Marble Arch on one last journey. There'll be an enormous press presence of course, and a great clamour from bus enthusiasts attempting to grab a seat on the final vehicle. Just after one o'clock this afternoon, assuming the photographers and wellwishers don't delay its southward progress, the RM will reach Brixton Bus Garage and the end of the road. And then by teatime time Mayor Ken will be able to tick the box in his transport policy which reads ' Fully accessible bus network'. The romantic era of bus travel in London fades away at lunchtime today. Welcome to the plastic age.
10:57 - the last RM north from from Streatham
11:54 - the last (normal) RM departs Marble Arch
12:10 - the last of five specials departs Marble Arch
12:15ish - dg stands in Piccadilly Circus and waves
13:15ish - the last (ever) Routemaster arrives Brixton Bus Garage
13:16ish - the 100% accessible future (damn, sniff)
In memoriaRM
Full operational details of the last day
Routemaster goodies on (limited) sale at the LT Museum Shop
Routemaster Night (tomorrow night, BBC4, from 7:30pm)
BBC Routemaster TV clips (see Lesley Judd as a 70s clippie)
Inspector Sands was out with his camera yesterday
Farewell from the London Bus Page
Fancy buying your own Routemaster? (£6500-£10000)
Routemasters - Last Stop! (and turn off the music)
Bob Stanley will be glad to see the back of them
My Routemaster portfolio: The 38 Stops
My journey on the very last Routemaster on Route 8
Save the Routemaster (you'd better hurry, lads)

The Last Routemaster
Route 159: Marble Arch - Streatham
Location: London south, inner
Length of journey: 9 miles, 65 minutes

I made my last journey on the last Routemaster route a few weeks ago, back when the extraordinary was still ordinary. I was hoping to grab one of the top deck front seats but, even on a quiet Saturday at the far western end of Oxford Street, I was beaten to this prime location by a family of 4 and a bloke in a grey anorak. The bloke in the grey anorak conformed to every stereotype you might expect of a serial bus spotter. His anorak was weatherproof and toggled, his spectacles were thick and functional, his rucksack was that special Milletts shade of beigey-grey and his camera was the size of a small child. I carried out a quick subconscious check to make sure that I was wearing nothing similar. The family of 4, meanwhile, had evidently been dragged on board because Dad wanted to make one final journey on a Routemaster before time ran out. He allowed his two teenage children to sit in the front seat while he and his mute wife took up position immediately behind. Daughter was desperately unimpressed - "But I've been on this bus so many times Daddy oh look Selfridges!" - and preoccupied herself instead by shovelling seaweed and sushi into her mouth. Son was less obviously bored, but spent most of his time discussing Hollywood special effects - "Cor, Ice Age lights!!" - and the squash shoes he hoped to get for Christmas - "Mummy do not buy him new trainers he won't use them!".

A bittersweet mix of ancient and modern was visible from the top deck as we drove along. An old lady gestured wildly from the pavement as our driver sailed past without stopping, while a younger braver soul leapt confidently onto the rear platform. In Regent Street our progress along the bus lane was blocked by a gaggle of fragile rickshaws parked up outside Hamleys, poaching custom from glowering cabbies. Down Haymarket a retired couple sat glumly in a plush red booth in the window of an Angus Steak House, while just down the road some brighter young things sat on full display on Starbucks stools, nibbling paninis and sipping mochas. In Trafalgar Square a lone pigeon perched high atop Nelson's stone hat, her species almost extinct across the pedestrianised plaza below. And we earnt sideways smiles from our fellow passengers aboard every 159 passing by in the opposite direction, whilst looking down contemptuously on every over-long bendy bus stuck blocking the roadway.

The conductor unwisely moved forward to check our tickets while our bus was cornering hard round the edge of Parliament Square. Centrifugal force caused him to lose his footing and he nearly (but not quite) fell on top of Family Dad. No harsh words were spoken, indeed there were broad smiles as if it were almost a privilege to be nearly flattened by an endangered species. We sped past the foot of Big Ben and crossed the Thames, the very last Routemaster route to penetrate south London. The ghastly squat concrete building in the centre of the roundabout on the east side of Westminster Bridge was finally being demolished - that's one 60s extinction that won't be missed. Dad pointed out the plaque on Charlie Chaplin's house, just up from Kennington Cross, although Son's silver screen knowledge didn't seem to stretch that far back.

A full hour after leaving Marble Arch we were queuing to enter Brixton. I could see that Daughter was less than excited by the retail opportunities available down this particular high street. Maybe she was put off by the police sign warning of rampant mobile phone thefts, or the old man in a wheelchair sat alone and mumbling outside KFC, or the Chinese lady singing Amazing Grace backed by a support team in 'Praise God' puffa jackets. Dad was more impressed by the sight of the old brick tramshed - "I really like trams, I do" - which, back in 1870, formed the southern terminus of London's very first tramway. Perhaps appropriately, today's final journeys on Route 159 will follow an identical route.

We continued to climb Brixton Hill, zipping past another yet empty bus stop with every double-ding of the bell. A brace of Routemasters stuck their shiny red noses out of Brixton Bus Garage on the top of Streatham Hill. Come lunchtime today, as each 159 crew calls in here for its regular meal break, their brave old vehicles will be withdrawn from service one by one, forever. But we still had one last mile to travel down the Streatham High Road, past a panoply of shops, nightclubs and bowling alleys, accompanied part of the way by an elegaic Air on a G String ringtone. And finally, very finally, absolutely finally, to a bleak bus stop beside a graffitied phonebox on a dual carriageway opposite the Streatham Ice Arena. Time for us all, reluctantly, to disembark. I watched as the bus turned across the High Road and pulled up in front of the small satellite garage here, waiting patiently to make its return journey. I watched as Dad led his family across the street to take some final photographs of this transport of delight, purring quietly at the kerbside. And I watched as even 'unimpressed' Daughter whipped out her phone to snap one last close-up shot of the front of this iconic vehicle. That's Routemaster magic. Missing you already.

159 links
Route 159: anorak-level route information
Route 159: timetable
Route 159: last day of Routemaster service (December 2005)
Route 159: yet more photos

The Last Routemaster

(large version here)

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