Thursday, March 13, 2014

It's time to return to the final quadrant of my orbital London bus journey. I had hoped it would be possible to make the next jump from Chingford to Hainault in one bus, but alas not (quite), so I need to take two. To straddle the London border I've decided to go via Woodford, not via Loughton, which means neither ride will be very long (nor, alas, very interesting).

>> 179 >> 275 >> 247 >> 499 >>347 >> 370 >> X80 >>

Map of my complete journey

 Route 179: Chingford - Woodford Green

 Length of journey: 2 miles, 8 minutes

It gets a pretty decent bus service, Station Road in Chingford, courtesy of the bus station at the far end. The shops aren't bad either - not too mainstream, not too cheap - and I think Norman Tebbit would still approve. My departure point is opposite the parish church and village green, but more precisely outside the Co-op, and the waiting demographic reflect the latter. When the 179 eventually arrives two of them want to pay by cash, which is already one more than Andrew Adonis claims to have seen in 100 bus journeys across London last week. I'm late in getting upstairs so have to surrender the front seat to a family of four. They want the grandstand view for their four year-old, but he turns out to be less than keen so it's Mum and Auntie who end up hogging the prime location instead.

We're journeying down the Kings Road, Chingford version, so fashions here are more TOWIE than Made In Chelsea. What we pass instead are the dodgily-named Pimp Hill Allotments, plus Churchill Curtain Cleaning Services, which is a nod to what's coming up later. Green spaces range from a kickabout square where boys are playing keepy-uppy to the actual proper Epping Forest, threading through briefly along the 'valley' of the River Ching. An elderly couple board here and do something unusual - they climb upstairs. Normally nobody over the age of about 50 comes up here, so it's good to see more adventurous Freedom Pass holders deftly negotiating the stairs.

A sign alerts drivers "To Avoid Low Emission Zone Turn Left", but we turn right instead along the High Road Woodford Green. Some fine houses are set back across the grass, although the road down the centre is a bit more arterial that I think the owners would like. I spot Sylvia Pankhurst's anti-bomb memorial on the left, and even a brief view of the Lea Valley down one particular descending sidestreet. We track the edge of Woodford Green, a linear ridgetop common, and a lovely place to stroll. Winston Churchill's statue is down the far end - he used to be the local MP - but I'm not going quite that far. An unexpectedly middle class parade of shops intrudes, the kind that has a fireplace shop and a family butchers and a choice of Italian restaurants. I've just ridden from Chingford's Prezzo to Woodford Green's Prezzo in less than ten minutes. Sorry, that wasn't a very exciting trip, but needs must.

» route 179 - timetable
» route 179 - live bus map
» route 179 - route history
» route 179 - The Ladies Who Bus

Should you ever need to ride from Walthamstow to Barkingside via almost-Chingford, you need the 275 bus. Other than that, probably not. I'm starting to think I should have taken the alternative route via Chigwell instead.

 Route 275: Woodford Green - Fulwell Cross

 Length of journey: 4 miles, 15 minutes

Shoots and buds in front gardens suggest that spring has already taken hold along The Terrace, a row of cottages across the top of Woodford Green. Winston Churchill looks down from the 'village' sign as I wait for a double decker 275 to arrive. When finally it does, it's not busy. Only two of us have colonised the upper deck - me and a teenage boy sporting a lived-in but borderline-smart hoodie. We follow Broadmead Road down gentle slopes from the ridgetop, past a huddle of Post Office vans, and with unexpected views right across to Havering... where I'll be heading later. A bridge over the Central line takes us inside the Hainault Loop, before we turn up a Tudorbethan avenue to Woodford station. If that's your cafe opposite with the name Lunch 4 u written in giant-sized Comic Sans, I hope you are so very ashamed.

The railway divides Snakes Lane into West and East, with no road linking one to the other, so our bus is routed only down the latter. First comes Jubilee Parade, which from its brickwork I'd guess 1935, and much later than expected the Railway Tavern. We're descending to the River Roding, whose valley is exploited, some would say despoiled, by the M11 motorway exiting London. Sensibly nobody's built any houses right up close on the flood plain, so the Highways Agency have set up a depot filled to the brim with dormant roadsigns. The residential cluster ahead is Woodford Bridge, so close to Chigwell that its shops have an air of chiselled blonde about them. Coffee culture and deli sensibility have settled in, while the pub on the corner was (until recently) Deuce's nightclub where the TOWIE clan frolicked. Two competing canine establishments face off on Manor Road, one for training police dogs, the other for training guide dogs. Throw in a sloping green with a pond, bookended by an old church and a proper pub, and it's proper nice hereabouts.

It's time to dip outside London for a mere half mile. The Essex border nudges inwards at the entrance to what used to be Claybury Asylum, now several blocks of exclusive private housing. We may be here some time thanks to temporary 4-way control traffic lights ahead, which leaves me too long to inspect an ugly pink bungalow with a view towards Buckhurst Hill over its roof. Only the well-off have homes on Tomswood Road, whose gardens are an alternating collection of Mercs, Audis, Jags and BMWs, usually two at a time. Our red bus feels an interloper here, until we regain the border at a tiny stream and the housing instantly switches back to normal. On our gentle descent of Tomswood Hill I spot Docklands and the O2's spikes in the distance, which is an unexpected surprise, plus the less iconic upthrust of the Halo on Stratford High Street. With each passing bus stop the ambience gets less Essexy and more Redbridge, the interior of the Hainault Loop being essentially relentlessly residential. And finally down to my favourite London library, architecturewise, by the roundabout at Fulwell Cross, where I alight for the opportunity to stare.

» route 275 - timetable
» route 275 - live bus map
» route 275 - route history
» route 275 - The Ladies Who Bus

I'm heading by bus into northeast London's unsung suburbs. You've heard of Hainault, but no railways reach further out so Marks Gate and Collier Row are mysteries to most. Less so, hopefully, after the following.

 Route 247: Fulwell Cross - Romford

 Length of journey: 7 miles, 30 minutes

A lot of people are waiting to escape from the top of Barkingside High Street, most I'd say at the lower end of the London earnings spectrum. And most don't want to go far, merely to lug their cheap shopping home to the estates located around and inside the Hainault Loop. Various other bus services arrive to spirit them away, before a 247 eventually appears and there is a polite bundle for the front door. One passenger who's forgotten their Oyster needs to pay by cash - a simple privilege they'll be denied on the buses come the summer. I'm the last to climb aboard, so am surprised to discover the top front seat is clear until I spot the two empty boxes of chicken nuggets I'll need to shift aside.

The streets of outer Redbridge are not dripping with history, save that of farms turned over to housing in the mid 20th century. A couple of pubs - the New Fairlop Oak and the Old Maypole - hint at rural scenes lost and replaced. Near the latter a gaggle of girls throng aboard, splitting into two groups as they briefly take over the top deck. "She said we were embarrassing," says one, "how are we embarrassing?" It's a question I'll easily be able to answer, with evidence, before the end of my journey. A lot more people board at Hainault station, because we are the bus that provides the crucial last link from the end of the tube to home. Hainault proper is more residential than most, a maze of bungalows and LCC semis, plus a central shopping parade. We don't touch the shops but pass by up a wide-verged avenue, where building companies are keen to buy up any spare gap between homes to cram in another.

At Yellowpine Way a boyband boards, or rather three over-gelled over-dyed teenagers ascend to the upper deck. The girls further back are agog, but the objects of their infatuation instead spend the rest of the trip lusting after every sports car that drives by. Hainault Forest Country Park marks the edge of the Green Belt, with the grass covered by London 2012's temporary military camp still fenced off to recover. Where the dual carriageway ends is another 2012-related venue - the road cycling circuit displaced by the Velodrome, now a permanent addition to Redbridge's leisure offering. It's being fairly well used as we pass, though more by families with children to tire than by serious lycra-clad racers. Then descending Hog Hill comes an unexpectedly long-range view to the unhilly east, across the low rooftops of Havering towards my ultimate destination, the QE2 Bridge.

It's time for a whizz down Whalebone Lane (North). Acres of soggy fields stretch off to either side - I know of no other part of London as arable as this. Now there are distant views to the west, from Docklands round to the BT Tower, rising far across a broad expanse of ploughed mud. A different City Pavilion stands here, on the tip of Marks Gate, beside a roundabout pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Within its warehouse walls are five bars, two restaurants and a bowling centre, the latter the source of passengers rolling home to Romford. By now the three metrosexual lads are fixated on Mazda-spotting, debating whether that last red sports car was an RX8 or not, while the girls behind them giggle immaturely. And then we're bouncing back to the outskirts, our tenpin detour complete, to enter Havering, my final London borough.

Across the River Rom lies Collier Row, a sprawling suburb built across lands once inhabited only by charcoal burners. Growth came fast between the wars, so swiftly that the place even merited its own cinema, but that's now a Tesco Metro because such is the future. A fair proportion of the population moved out here from the East End, hence the existence of a seafood stall in the car park of the Bell and Gate - The Jolly Cockle. Two-bedroom homes still sell for under 200K out here, if you're looking for affordable London and don't mind taking the bus everywhere.

I'd appreciate it if we continued straight ahead at the Colliers Row roundabout because my next bus passes barely half a mile away. But no, this is where the 247 turns right and heads for Romford, and I'm not allowed to get off and walk the intermediate gap. We thunder unhelpfully south towards the busy A12, past the entirely underwhelming Havering Guest House. It's a long hike, with houses gradually making way for borderline lowbrow retail. A lengthy pause is taken outside the Romford Bus Garage, where our driver stops to chat to friends in uniform, but is not replaced. I'm now having to endure Top-Gear-level chatter from the three automotive addicts, who are discussing the ideal turquoise shade of their dream car and what kind of tyres it'd have. So when Romford's ring road finally appears it's a pleasure to join everyone else alighting for the shops, two stops before the end of the route.

» route 247 - timetable
» route 247 - live bus map
» route 247 - The Ladies Who Bus

The next three buses on my orbital journey all depart from Romford's Mercury Gardens. I could get to Lakeside in one hop, or I could get there in two, but I've decided on three. That's mainly because I want to hug the edge of London as I go, but also because this next bus has the ultimate route number. Sure there are express 500s and school-based 600s, but the normal run of London bus numbers ends at 499. This tours the far northeastern corner of the capital, as do its near neighbours the 496 and 498, serving below-the-radar estates in outer Havering. Top of the shop - it's got to be done.

 Route 499: Romford - Gallows Corner

 Length of journey: 7 miles, 25 minutes

Romford boasts an excellent and plentiful retail offering, but its inner ring road holds insufficient space to contain the lot. Thus the Mercury mall and cinema sticks out beyond, linked to The Liberty beneath the dual carriageway via an arcade of minor shops. Folk throng through, then throng back, but only a few find the back stairs and rise up to the bus stop opposite Asda. From here depart several services to Gallows Corner, the others direct, but the 499 runs round the houses. A dozen passengers have chosen the single decker, most carrying bags, the youngest engrossed in tippy tappy on their phones. The lady in front of me is gorging herself on a packet of nuts. The label reads "only recommended for people with strong healthy teeth", to which I'd like to add "and neighbours with limited hearing".

We exit the ring road at Romford Library, before passing the town hall, two courts and a police station in quick succession. The 499 is then to be the sole service along Pettits Lane, a lane no more, now a line of mock Tudor homesteads. This section's Hail and Ride, but you'd never know from sitting on the bus because the electronic display keeps schtum. Indeed this is something I've noticed more than once on my trip around London - TfL appear to have stopped announcing Hail and Ride on buses and now merely display the name of the next normal stop for much longer than usual. I'd like to thank the executive who introduced this baffling policy for the additional hike I endured on an earlier route when I misguidedly pressed the button one mile early. Cheers mate.

Part way up we Pettits Lane cross the arterial A12, relatively swiftly, beside a sinuous footbridge for less fortunate pedestrians. These are London's spacious suburbs, with gardens and car parking spaces for all, along Drives and Mews and Avenues and Closes. Then at Chase Cross we tangle with one of London's ten least frequent bus routes, the 375, which heads out to the delightful almost-Essex village of Havering-atte-Bower. Instead we're cutting across semi-open, then open country, the fields to the left part of the nature reserve at Bedfords Park. Should you want to walk in rather than drive then sorry, there's no bus stop for an entire green mile, though the driver might stop if you dinged repeatedly enough. The views through the window look proper verdant as we climb towards London's next, and final, suburb.

This is Harold Hill, a giant postwar estate sandwiched between (and presumably named after) Harold Wood and Noak Hill. Even on its outskirts developers are seeking to replace yet another field to add to the fifteen thousand homes already hereabouts. Outside one bungalow on Noak Hill Road I'm surprised to see life-size statues of Laurel and Hardy guarding either side of the front door... and if I'm bemused, I wonder what the neighbours think. The 499 turns off this borderline road before the heart of the old village of Noak Hill, to head down to the roundabout at the heart of the estate. One 1950s park and one 1950s shopping parade have been provided, the latter a lengthy double-pronged affair (which saves the locals too many bus rides back into Romford). A boulder-based war memorial remembers "those who gave their lives for freedom", rather than specific deaths, because barely anyone was living around here during the World Wars.

We've doubled-back by now to a point only a couple of hundred metres from the start of the previous paragraph. Buses in the high 400s often do this, their routes designed to join the dots rather than travel direct. In this case we're about to head around an estate within an estate, a narrow looping road passing avenues and tower blocks named optimistically after poets. It soon becomes clear that this four minute loop is the 499's raison d'etre, the street that many of those on board have been waiting for. We're on another unsignalled Hail and Ride section, and the dings come thick and fast as those with bags from Romford choose to alight. When Nutcracker Woman heads for the door I catch the smell of peanut breath, thankfully only briefly. And by the time we return to Straight Road I am the only punter remaining on board.

Criminals in the Liberty of Havering were once hanged at Gallows Corner. The scaffold disappeared centuries ago and in its place, near enough, is a key roundabout on the A12 Eastern Avenue. A very amateur-looking flyover lifts Southend traffic above the melee, although many drivers are here solely for the mega retail park located along the Brentwood Road. Argos, Halfords and Next are amongst the purveyors of warehouse-ware closest to the roundabout, behind an unusual fivefold statue of a Roman spear carrier on horseback. Across the road was The Plough pub, I imagine once busy from passing trade, now a burnt-out shell behind dark hoardings. Our 499 queues for a few minutes to turn off the main road, an ordeal faced by every driver seeking Tesco. They fill the rear car park while we stop short by the petrol station where this bus terminates. Our driver goes for a rest inside a black taxi hired by the bus company, while I stand and wait, not too long, for the rarest bus in London.

» route 499 - timetable
» route 499 - live bus map
» route 499 - The Ladies Who Bus

It's time to ride the least frequent bus in London. Not counting school journeys or mobility services, no TfL bus runs less often than the 347. It runs only four times a day, Sundays naturally excluded, no earlier than nine in the morning and no later than five in the afternoon. One single vehicle shuttles to and forth during that period, and with buses running two hours apart it's really important to arrive on time.

 Route 347: Gallows Corner - South Ockendon

 Length of journey: 10 miles, 35 minutes

I arrive in good time. Not right at the start of the route in Romford but a mile or so up the road at Gallows Corner, round the back of Tesco's car park. As many as seven passengers have made the journey thus far, two of whom alight to shop and two more board with bags in hand. The bloke behind the sunglasses is probably the 347's regular driver - an infrequent service affords such familiarity - but he doesn't greet any of the passengers like old friends. They sit up front in the accessible seats while I perch alone behind, the sole farepayer aboard the Retirement Express. One particular lady hovers by the door to prevent her basket on wheels from skidding across the floor on the next bend. She stays aboard for only one stop, admittedly fair walking distance, but anything to avoid having to cross the busy arterial A12.

We're on the main road to Essex, which begins at the foot of the long broad slope laid out before us. But only the 498 goes there, because we're filtering right to Harold Wood, and speeding past lengthy queues waiting to go the other way. At the station our numbers increase, because we're about to head along roads no other service serves. One of our fresh boarders gets out her phone and starts a conversation the rest of us must share. "I can't hear you," she begins, then proceeds to enquire at great length as to the precise location of the station in Upminster. Most of the ladies sitting around her could have answered, had they been asked, or simply pointed to the electronic display in ten minutes time and said "here, love".

At the exit from suburbia we cross Cockabourne Bridge, a short span across the Ingrebourne, then edge out along more of a lane lined by less identikit homes. When one lady flags down the bus and greets a fellow passenger with a hello, I suspect this may be evidence of habitual 347 cameraderie. But no, her friend alights at the very next stop, they were merely near neighbours, except one chose to go shopping in the town behind and the other in the town ahead. I hope she doesn't live in the ugly bungalow with two giant lamps outside and a twee wishing well surrounded by cherubs.

There follows a mile with no bus stops, this time because there are virtually no homes. I was hoping that these remote lanes would be fresh ground, but it turns I've been this way before while walking the London Loop. Section 22 exits Pages Wood, a sprawling area of proto-forest planted barely a decade ago, and then follows the 347's route south. Sights include a big junction on the A127, several ponies and pigs, and rolling arable countryside stretching across the valley towards Hornchurch. We've entered the top end of Upminster, along a ridge with long views in opposite directions. One bus stop has the excellent name of "Upminster Tithe Barn Museum", an attraction which opens even less frequently than the bus that runs past.

We queue to reach Upminster station, as if to make the point to our loud phonecaller than she needn't have worried. Two taxis are waiting outside the ticket hall to spirit away those who'd rather not wait for the bus. Beyond the railway bridge is one of London's nicer shopping streets, a nucleus of respectability, including the independent two-site Roomes furniture store. A Waitrose, a deli and two Costas? Upminster's more cosmopolitan than you might think. We lose passengers but also gain a couple, a little younger than before. Some have hopped on because we're the first bus to the nearest streets, others because we're the only bus to a little further away.

Cranham's Millenium sign is where we make our break for independence - the 346 turns left and the 347 hurtles on. There follow a few streets of big semis and some sturdy-looking pubs, plus a boating shop that must be miles from the nearest navigable waterway. It's here, where real countryside begins, that my last fellow passenger alights and it's just me aboard for the next three and a half miles. One glance at the names of the next few bus stops might suggest why.

>> Franks Cottages >> East View Kennels >> Clay Tye Farm >> White Post Farm >> Fen Lane >> Home Farm Cottage >> Groves Farm Cottages >> Grove Farm >>

There follows the remotest stretch of London's least frequent bus route. And yet we are still somehow within the capital, a small bump of which pokes unnecessarily outside the M25 to encompass a landscape of fields that ought to be in Thurrock. The lane south undulates rather alongside scrubby fen and the occasional nursing home. Yes, a few folk do live along Tye Road, but they never moved here to have to rely on a two-hourly 347 so cars are their thing. Even so they still have a far better bus service than most similarly rural locations across the rest of the country, because to be a Londoner is an astonishingly privileged thing, transportation-wise.

North Ockendon is barely a hamlet but it boasts two bus services - the 370 has just rolled in from the west. Down Fen Lane is the easternmost point in London, you may remember, but we thunder south along a wiggly narrow lane. To either side are churned-up muddy fields, into which (on one bend) we splash the contents of a particularly broad puddle. Our driver's clearly enjoying the ride, and trying to reach his imminent destination as quickly as possible to maximise the length of his break. Various hold-ups earlier mean we're running late, cutting a fifteen minute turnaround down to barely five. I alight just before the end, on South Ockendon's village green, to await my penultimate bus. A wait just long enough to see the 347 dashing back the other way, bang on time, in case there's anybody out there.

» route 347 - timetable
» route 347 - live bus map
» route 347 - The Ladies Who Bus

I could have caught this bus all the way from Romford, but no, I'd have missed out on the edge of London doing that. Instead I'm boarding the 370 towards the end of its route, shortly after exiting London for the delights of Thurrock. And there'll be no going back.

 Route 370: South Ockendon - Lakeside

 Length of journey: 3 miles, 15 minutes

South Ockendon doesn't initially look like it deserves a double decker, with its small village green, old church and minor parade of shops. But there is a considerable amount of postwar housing estate parked off to the south, plus it's on the way to somewhere greater... the mall at Lakeside. Hence when the bus arrives, even after its ride through the back of beyond, it's rather full. I climb upstairs to an unfamiliar sight. For a start almost everyone on the top deck is female, and for another thing they're almost all fairly young. If my last bus was the Retirement Express, this is very obviously The Bus To The Mall.

A lot of chattering is going on. Up front the schoolgirl section is rather gossipy, further back the talk is more of evening plans and potential purchases. A few houses along South Road have been here for some time - there's one set of villas datemarked 1903. But the great majority of housing is modern infill, and various roads lead off to sprawling postwar estates on either side. A lot more people board as we pass through, the 370 acting as a weekend escape route for the young. The houses break for a flooded meadow and a large garden centre, which I get to stare at for a while because it's here that the jams start. I then get to stare at some window-height blossom for a while, as pre-Lakeside traffic conspires to extend my brief journey by several minutes.

When an electronic voice announces that the next stop is Stifford Road the three girls in front of me burst into a prolonged fit of giggles. They cackle more when a branch scraping down the site of the bus sounds like a fart, then go back to checking their phones and showing each other stuff. Stifford Road is later revealed as the source of all this congestion, being one of only two ways for residents to cross the c2c railway hereabouts. We then curve downhill to cross the Mardyke, the slopes below almost scenic, past a thatched cottage no less. But that's the only brief nice bit as we return to the estuarine plain and enter Thurrock's built-up retail wonderland.

A big Sainsbury's, several pylons, warehouse sprawl - there's little here than Betjeman would have eulogised about. That's Chafford Hundred ahead, a modern maze of drives and cul-de-sacs set around a set of chalk quarries. The largest is now home to Lakeside, or intu Lakeside as the site's owners would now like us to call it, despite the bland weediness of their brand name. This is the seventh largest shopping centre in the country, as is readily apparent looking down from above across the domed mall and vast car parks. So so many cars glint in the spring sunlight, but we avoid the majority of the traffic by entering the site via the bus-friendly back road. There is much queueing to alight - I let the ladies off first - and then I have one bus to go.

» route 370 - timetable
» route 370 - live bus map
» route 370 - route history
» route 370 - The Ladies Who Bus

For the final bus on my round-London journey I need to ride a non-TfL service back to Kent. And what a route. It links two of the largest shopping malls in the country, that's Lakeside and Bluewater. It doesn't appear on the London bus map because it doesn't enter London. It's the only scheduled bus to cross the Thames downstream of Greenwich. It (inexplicably) doesn't run on Sundays. It's run using bright blue double deckers. And if you go in the right direction there are some whoa-yeah views across miles of estuary. I'm definitely going in the right direction... indeed that's the reason why I chose to orbit London clockwise in the first place.

 Route X80: Lakeside - Bluewater

 Length of journey: 8 miles, 25 minutes

Lakeside's architects didn't make it easy to find the bus station. It looks obvious enough on the map - two long blue shelters running parallel to the quarry's edge - but once inside the mall the lack of helpful signs is plain. Indirect access can be found up a side arm, past a tiny McDonalds and up a drab path beside a car park. The most direct route involves zigzagging through the ladies department at Debenhams, dodging perfume vendors and swish dresses, towards a barely-marked rear door. Never mind. We car-less folk know when we're not wanted, plus of course we all worked out where the bus station was when we arrived.

You'd think "the only bus across the Thames for miles" would run more often but no, just once an hour. Queues are building to board long before the bus arrives, lengthening down the shelter as the timetabled departure times ticks round. Across the way is what looks like a small house but is actually a hideaway for Ensign Buses staff, somewhere to coordinate movements or for drivers to grab a cuppa between scheduled services. This particular afternoon two young policemen are hovering outside, their short-sleeved uniform revealing one tattooed elbow and one entirely inked forearm. They offer a friendly "hello" to the boy in the wheelchair further back down the queue, then wander through the swing doors to summer fashions on their none-too-taxing beat.

Boarding the big blue bus takes several minutes. An additional member of staff comes over to help the driver, waving through anyone who already has a ticket while the rest of us queue to pay. Oyster's useless on this service, we're a couple of miles outside the capital, so I have to stump up £2.80 for a single. The lower deck is rammed but the upper deck not so - that's heavy shopping for you - so I'm pleased to grab a vacant front seat just before we depart. All the better to enjoy the view later, oh yes.

We set off along the edge of the former chalk quarry, then rise up to the arterial road on the rim. Adjacent is a major leisure option, Arena Essex, a stock car and speedway racing track that predates Lakeside. But it's the view across the mall's vented roof that attracts the eye. First shops and lakes, then the industrial band along the Thames, and on the far side of the river the hazy green hills of north Kent. There's plenty of time to admire, because traffic is very slow ahead. The problem is two streams of traffic crossing at the next roundabout, one in, one out, and the draw of Costco, Tesco et al is too strong.

We eventually reach the point where the M25 terminates, because this motorway's not a loop, but has a brief deregulated section for the Dartford Crossing. A road sign directs us towards A282 THE SOUTH, and then we're up onto the approach road to the QE2 Bridge (opened 1991). And this is why it's important that I'm orbiting clockwise, because every scrap of northbound traffic is directed underground instead through a parallel tunnel. It's fast and efficient, taking barely a minute to pass through, but you miss out on oh so many elevated glories. Ride south, however, especially from the top deck of a double decker bus, and whoa-yeah!

What a vista. There are pylons and power stations, factories and silos, chimneys and conveyor belts, great piles of sand... but most of all there's the Thames, here almost a kilometre wide. A broad ribbon of water snakes off in both directions, past long piers where huge ships are moored, and docks where thousands of cars are offloaded. Upriver are the Erith Marshes, and Bexley's (seemingly tiny) incinerator, and maybe the Thames Barrier, and possibly the skyscrapers of Docklands if you look hard enough. The estuary is truly vast, and relentlessly flat, and it's only from up here on the bridge that you truly get that sense of scale. Seriously, who'd be downstairs?

But it's all so brief. We're speeding across at 50mph, so all too quickly we're coming into land over Kent. Come on a busier day, however, and you'd more likely stall over the water. That's because lined up immediately ahead are toll booths 15 to 27, which still require the chucking of coins unless your vehicle's equipped with the crossing's smartcard. Our bus heads deliberately towards the left-most lane, where it stops at the barrier like everyone else, but only a nod and a smile are exchanged.

At the Littlebrook roundabout we double back in the direction of Essex, alongside the edge of the bridge we've just driven down. The bus now passes through the Crossways Business Park, a major collection of squat blocks laid out along so-called boulevards, occupied by up-and-comers. A typical outfit would have a name like called Micron Technologies, creating something nebulously service-based, and ideally located for road transport purposes. A few animal sculptures have been imported to give the place some sense of identity, alongside some lawns around big ponds where employees can lounge with a packed lunch, assuming anybody still does that.

Twenty minutes into the journey we spy our first actual houses, the backs of a row of terraces in the village of Stone. Competing for residents' attention are its 13th century church and an enormous Asda (and you can probably guess which wins on a Sunday). We stop outside Greenhithe station, freshly rebuilt as the gateway to Bluewater, although (unlike Lakeside's nearest halt) it's not really close enough to walk. Shoppers can catch one of the area's special air-conditioned Fastrack buses, introduced to improve accessibility across the Thames Gateway area, but trains are more likely to disgorge passengers into the clutches of waiting car drivers.

Hang on, I recognise the next junction by The Bull - my very first bus passed this way just over two months ago. But there's no shared bus stop, indeed no more stops at all for the next mile as we head down into a familiar quarry to enter Bluewater proper. I note that the giant silver reindeer has been removed since New Year, along with posters for the skating rink, but cars continue to pour in all the same. We're heading for the bus station round the back of Marks & Spencer's food hall - an exit almost as well shielded as by Debenhams at Lakeside. My journey of over 150 miles is almost at an end.

As we pull in, one grandma downstairs makes a "wait!!" gesture through the window at the driver in the next bay. If he hangs on for a few more seconds she (and the boy in the wheelchair) can avoid a half hour wait for the next bus. And yes, of course they bundle off in time, and yes, of course the next bus waits, because bus drivers are inherently a damned reasonable breed. I know this because I've been all the way round the edge of London by bus, and I've met 25 of them. And that's why I'm not rushing to climb aboard another bus, not rushing at all. Instead I head for the shops and walk a circuit of the mall, a very much simpler orbital experience. London encircled by bus, achievement unlocked.

» route X80 - timetable
» route X80 - route map
» route X80 - Ensign buses leaflet

Map of my complete journey

 Friday, February 07, 2014

Today I'm returning to my orbital London bus ride. It's my tenth bus, and already the second I've blogged about before, way back in 2003 as part of my Cube Routes project. But I've tried very hard not to re-read that post, and entirely different things happened on my 2014 trip anyway, so what follows should be original.

>> 216 >> 441 >> U3 >> 331 >> 8 >> 142 >>107 >> 84 >> 313 >>

 Route 216: Kingston - Ashford

 Length of journey: 11 miles, 55 minutes

The 216 is one of those London buses that heads for the border and then keeps on going. It runs roughly along the edge of Surrey, so is ideal for my purposes, although I'll be alighting before the final destination in Staines. The first stop is at the larger of Kingston's two bus stations, a busy well-laid out place where buses of all sizes and colours arrive and depart. The 216 gets its own bay so an incoming driver can rest, with three seats out front for waiting passengers. Our driver let us on early, which was kind, or rather he took pity on two cold ladies who'd been shopping, and the rest of us bundled politely behind. The bus kicked off by turning right below an overhanging cinema (headroom 15'9"), then took the concrete ring road before picking up a full complement of shoppers outside Bentalls. It being a weekday morning most were retired, including some in full hat and gloves combinations, although alas I got the uber-sniffling youngster sat in front of me.

The 216 exits south London across Kingston Bridge, with a fine view over the Thames (which may or may not be almost overflowing when you pass). This is a very green way out of town, sandwiched between a royal park and the grounds of Hampton Court Palace, both part-hidden behind a low brick wall. Slowly the umpteen chimneypots of the palace draw nearer, with one stop optimal for the maze and the next for the main visitor entrance. Former owner Cardinal Wolsey has a pub named after him on Hampton Court Green, appropriately enough complete with banqueting and conferencing annexe, while Christopher Wren is commemorated by a blue plaque on the row of houses nextdoor. Traffic was busy on Thames Street, so when the speed sensor flashed up "9mph" I wasn't surprised to see an electronic smiley face light up alongside. A Heal's delivery lorry escaped to cross a narrow bridge to an island in the Thames, here smothered with houseboats and expensive cottages where sailor types might live. Nobody considered boarding, or alighting, our bus.

Just beyond the end of Bushy Park is Garrick's Villa, with its riverside temple, and the edge of the suburb of Hampton. Their residents don't get to live by the river, because that strip's taken up by a set of reservoirs and water treatment works. We plied the main shopping street, the sort of place that sells fireplaces and where the local caff is fully licensed, and where several of our older passengers alighted. The road beyond Waitrose was then London's last hurrah. The 216 turned back to the river at the border with Surrey, just before Kempton Park racecourse, to enter the village of Lower Sunbury-on-Thames. It still had that village feel too, with quaint terraced cottages along a narrow riverside high street where you really wouldn't want to meet another 216 coming the other way. Each bend brought sight of another flood meadow, one with a properly flooded bench, another with ducks, and another beside an 18th century walled garden (plus Millennium Embroidery). How swiftly our semi-rural idyll then changed.

At The Three Fishes we turned inland to enter more ordinary suburbia, a landscape of retirement avenues and recreation grounds. A pair of life-and-soul pensioners boarded the bus, she gossiping broadly, he with a folder under his arm that no doubt contained the minutes of some community meeting. We passed over the railway and under the M3 to enter Sunbury Cross, and its uninspiring high street of Mary, Mungo and Midge architectural vintage. It was here that the buggy wars began. A small pushchair had boarded earlier, but now a megabuggy entered, bags hanging from every extremity, forcing its smaller cousin to shift. Maternal glares were exchanged. When we diverted to Tesco shortly afterwards, and an old man settled into a front seat with his shopping trolley blocking the aisle, negotiating around the bus suddenly became extremely difficult.

We followed an arterial ribbon, a world away from Ye Olde Thameside, past a water treatment works with a peculiarly repetitive roof. London was still only a couple of streets away, but we were officially in Spelthorne, one of those local council districts with an eminently forgettable name. On Feltham Hill Road another pushchair entered, this time leaving mum trapped at the front of the bus while twins Luke and Robert squeezed through to grab a seat further back. Both were dressed in Thomas the Tank Engine garb, topped off with blue stripey woolly hats, and both had the most disarmingly cute smile. The bus collectively melted as they toddled by.

Somebody's failed to maintain the roads on the approach to Ashford, so we jolted over a set of potholes on the way in. A larger jolt came in the high street as a set of traffic lights changed and our driver braked fast, sending the twins' mother almost tumbling. "Sorry about that, you all ok?" asked the driver, and the entire bus mumbled back an apologetic affirmation. Ashford's shops were good enough for several passengers to alight, including the twins who maintained their cute quotient to the bitter end. Ahead at the station one man disappeared fast out of the front of the bus to catch a 555. That's one of those high-numbered Surrey buses that runs into the Home Counties hinterland, of the kind that most Londoners never need to explore. I'd be taking one next. I stepped off by the Harvester and awaited my fate.

» route 216 - timetable
» route 216 - live bus map
» route 216 - route history & RF heritage
» route 216 - RF photos from the 1970s
» route 216 - The Ladies Who Bus

Only one bus runs along the western side of Heathrow Airport without terminating at Terminal 5, so that's the bus I'm taking. It's also my first venture onto a non-TfL bus during this orbital journey, hence a very different experience lies ahead. The 441 runs from Englefield Green, the other side of Egham, through Staines to Heathrow Airport. It's branded the 441 Flyer, with the 1 and the F run together in a way designers thought clever. And a ticket costs how much?

 Route 441: Ashford - Heathrow

 Length of journey: 7 miles, 25 minutes

I'm standing at a bus stop on the A30 London Road on the northern outskirts of Ashford. Across the road is a carpet fitters workshop, on the corner a suburban-friendly Harvester restaurant, and behind me a green bank leading up to the massive Staines Reservoirs. It's a cold morning, and the bus shelter isn't doing a great job of keeping out the wind. I watch the dual carriageway for sight of a bus of unknown colour approaching from Staines - the 441 only runs every half hour so I'd hate to miss one. After ten chilly minutes a white single decker appears, and I think the electronic display on the front reads 441, ah yes it does. But it's not pulling into the bus stop. The driver pauses in the inside lane and stares at me for quite some time in what I eventually deduce is a 'come hither' manner. He doesn't want to lose his place in the queue for the traffic lights ahead, so I wander out (and back down the road a bit) to climb aboard.

Many things about this bus are different. For a start there isn't a sheet of protective glass between me and the driver - they must trust the passengers out here in Surrey, or else management have health and safety a little lower down its agenda. And then there isn't an Oyster reader, so I have to hand over actual cash in what feels like a quaint 20th century way, but is of course perfectly normal for buses outside the capital. My ticket costs £3.50 (yes driver, that's single), which is one pound more than the equivalent cash fare in London, or two pounds more than with Oyster. Maybe the price helps to explain why half of all bus journeys in England are made in London, or maybe the causal link is the other way round. I head for my seat, which has a number a bit like being on coach, and slightly comfier material than I'm used to. I'm sat where there'd normally be a door, were this a London bus, and I'm still cold, a fact I put down to the inbuilt air-conditioning. Plus, oh, there's no electronic "next bus stop" display to tell me where I am, so I hope I get off in the right place.

The first stop is supposedly Ashford Hospital, although the enormous Tesco across the car park seems a greater draw for alighting passengers. We head along the edge of the reservoir, below millions of tons of water, to enter the urban village of Stanwell. Although dating back to the Domesday Book it's hard to spot much that looks old, bar the fine 12th century church with its tall spire and flinty walls. Instead the bus passes postwar residential overspill, no doubt built to house employees at very-nearby Heathrow Airport. There's a hint of hardship along the main shopping parade, not least a shop called simply "Affordable Shoes", whose unbranded frontage tells it like it is. When the 441 turns off the route of the 203 the bus stops change from roundels to provincial white rectangles, further evidence that TfL's influence has faded away. One of these is near the entrance to Stanwell's 17th century manor house, alas long demolished, and two caravans now fill the space between once grand gateposts.

The 441 continues to a sheep-infested T-junction sandwiched between reservoirs and gravel pits, then turns towards Stanwell Moor. This is the northernmost settlement in Surrey, and will probably remain so after recent proposals for the extension of Heathrow ruled out a southwestern extension to the airport. Planes still fly very close, with the line of the southern runway crossing the north end of the village. The 441 gains access to Stanwell Moor via the London Borough of Hillingdon, at a roundabout beyond which the grand swoop of Terminal 5 is clearly visible. The bus rolls off Airport Way and back into Surrey to give villagers without cars a half-hourly escape route. It turns left at The Anchor pub, then stops outside the post office and 'T5 Stores' before heading back out past the village hall. The Heathrow control tower can be clearly seen beyond the village sports ground, with flights to the Mediterranean somewhat closer.

The 441's local one way system means we've driven the next stretch of Stanwell Moor Road before. The lampposts ahead are shorter than usual, a sure sign of adjacent airport, as we veer off to follow the Western Perimeter Road. The grey bunker by the side of the road claims to be a "biodiversity site", which doesn't sound convincing until you realise that the emerging concrete channel is what's left of the Duke of Northumberland's River. One glance through the security fence reveals a large flock of blue, red and white tailfins parked up, this being BA's corner of Heathrow, and then the row of lights that marks the end of Runway 27L/09R. The bus is now approaching Terminal 5 but can only enter from the north, requiring a long run-in via the roundabout that welcomes traffic from the M25. There are a lot of taxis about, many joining the long queue to pick up a fare, as the world stands waiting to climb aboard ahead. One bus stop back we were outside a village shop, and now we're entering a global hub.

Terminal 5's bus station sits beneath the elevated departures deck. It's a dark and cavernous place, with more bus stops than you'd think any place needs, but then several of the waiting services are heading to individual car parks, crew stop-offs or hotels. We negotiate several belisha-ed crossings, stopping near arrivals to collect only two new passengers, who look like they do manual handling nearby. The 441 now runs through the Heathrow Freeflow Free Fare Zone, a little known concession covering all sides of the airport where you don't need a bus ticket to ride. Nobody takes advantage. Instead we ride round the Western Perimeter Road again - the 441's very loopy round here - and pass another set of runway lights on 27R/09L. Nipping across the DoN's River allows us to escape the airport proper and join the hangers-on on the Colnbrook Bypass. Amongst the essential services hereabouts are hotels, a McDonalds, an Immigration Removal Centre and more hotels for good measure, perfect for that 6am getaway. And here I alight, at the first stop on the Bath Road, my £3.50 perhaps well spent.

» route 441 - timetable
» route 441 - route map
» route 441 - heritage day 2011

Some fairly unglamorous bus routes hug the edge of the capital. Today's bus is one of these. A local service plying the outermost estates, linking to hospital, university and the shops. It's also the busiest bus I've ridden so far, because Uxbridge is where the action is.

 Route U3: Heathrow - Uxbridge

 Length of journey: 8 miles, 45 minutes

The northern edge of Heathrow Airport is a strange place, and feels like it exists solely for economic reasons. Amongst the big bland buildings are Chinese restaurants solely for visitors bored with hotel food, domestic airline hubs and business centres for gents in suits to discuss freight deals. My first bus stop overlooks a parade of shops featuring a massage centre and an off licence, for the benefit of a handful of local residents and many more passing through. A huge car park lies opposite, from which cabin crew and ground staff occasionally emerge to break out from their current roster. And yes there are planes to watch beyond, not far away, either taking off or landing parallel to the Bath Road. There's plenty to watch while you wait for the U3 to arrive.

Pinglestone Close is the penultimate stop in the Heathrow Freeflow Free Fare Zone. A scrolling message rolls by - "Please ensure you have a valid ticket" - for the benefit of anyone who's been on board for nothing since the central bus station. They'd have to be off by Skyport Drive, which sounds the most fantastically futuristic name for a bus stop, but the adjacent reality looks more 1990s. Ahead, across paddocks and farmland, is the one of the most threatened landscapes in London. The U3 serves the village of Harmondsworth, or the ex-village of Harmondsworth if one of three possible airport expansion plans is selected. The entire village would disappear under the north-west runway plan, including the 12th century church and the medieval tithe barn. The latter is the largest timber-framed building in England - Betjeman called it the Cathedral of Middlesex - and would be reassembled elsewhere to make way for hangars and tarmac. Think on that as you ride between the fields on Holloway Lane.

Across the protective barrier of the M4, suburbia is secure. The U3 has been specially selected to deviate round an estate on the outskirts of West Drayton, where Laurel Lane and Wise Lane have been augmented by more modern residential avenues. These homes are the natural habitat of "people who take buses" so the seats slowly fill as our circuit completes. You can see their point. The only retail offering at the far end is a parade of seven shops seemingly selected for their mundanity. A pharmacy, a convenience store, a Chinese takeaway, a dry cleaners... everything you could possibly need, and yet nothing. A few hundred yards ahead is the River Colne, and the boundary with Buckinghamshire, but the U3 pulls back to serve Londoners in London. In amongst the postwar ordinariness is a bungalow with chickens and a small piglet running loose in the front garden, before we advance to an older nucleus of housing around a church green. There are 30 on board our single decker now - it's been a justifiable loop off the main drag.

The lady texting beside me is one of those infuriating souls who's never worked out how to turn off the beep every time she presses her phone, or else never realised how annoying this can be. The sound effects continue into West Drayton proper, and a high street retaining Metroland-style character. A sign of the times is the pound shop called "One Pound Plus", while Granny Satchwell's bakery looks slightly more appealing. We pull into the station forecourt - every bus hereabouts does - which involves negotiating a narrow teardrop turn outside the main entrance, then pulling up to a) collect rail passengers b) almost block the road. Beyond the canal the high street switches suddenly to become Yiewsley, London's last suburb, alphabetically. Its fine parish church was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, best known for his Gothic St Pancras, but the real attractions hereabouts are the shops. Almost every passenger disembarks at Morrisons, or else the combined Aldi/Iceland, or hangs on for the mega Tesco.

And that's it for the near-border of London. I should have switched at this point to the 222, but instead I stayed aboard the U3 as it veered into Hillingdon. Ahead a very 1930s estate, with roads tweely named after trees that blossom. On Apple Tree Avenue our U3 driver stops to chat with the driver of a passing U1, and for slightly too long, causing a cacophany of car horns to erupt from behind. A map in a shelter on Violet Avenue is entitled Buses from Colham Green, which I realise is another London place name I've never heard of before. More well known is Hillingdon Hospital, revealed from alongside as a hideous tall block of stacked wards with further lower blocks dumped all around. I bet the view from the eighth floor is great, but the amount of parking space down below is clearly inadequate, hence those that alight from the bus here are doing the place a favour.

Cowley's next, across the River Pinn, with a lovely listed church and the most expensive houses along the route. Many are probably owned by lecturers at nearby Brunel University, outside whose modern campus the U3 next pulls up. We're the only bus that serves, so a mass of students who'd rather not walk three quarters of a mile to Uxbridge town centre are waiting. Almost 20 climb aboard and spend the rest of the journey chattering about debt, essays and the unfair allocation of college car parking permits. On The Greenway a mother and daughter board, or try to because mum's Oyster card has no money on it. She fumbles in her handbag for change, in a way she'll be denied this summer when the buses go cashless, but never mind eh, the next U3 is 20 minutes behind. Her daughter Daisy's a real live wire, announcing "I don't like Chinese" and "look at the old women" as we enter Uxbridge High Street. Anyone with any sense - that's all the students - bundles off here rather than slowly touring the one-way system to end up on the other side of the pedestrianised bit. Daisy dings the button prematurely and too frequently, to earn a smiling reprimand, before we're all chucked off before the bus station.

So that's me, finally, halfway around London by bus. Last time I crossed town from Bluewater to Uxbridge it took four buses to cover 42 miles in just over four hours. Round the edge it's taken 12 buses to cover 80 miles in six and a half hours. Plus stops, of course, and there have been rather a lot of those. When I return I'll be taking a bus I've ridden before, but only part of the way. I wonder how long it'll take to get back?

» route U3 - timetable
» route U3 - live bus map
» route U3 - The Ladies Who Bus

The 331 runs in a giant horseshoe from Uxbridge round to Ruislip - only three miles direct, but 14 miles on the bus. It nips in out out of London twice, linking communities along the northwestern rim of Hillingdon. And yes I've blogged about it before, but only the first two stops, so prepare for pastures new.

 Route 331: Uxbridge - Northwood

 Length of journey: 9 miles, 35 minutes

Red buses stream like clockwork out of a dark hole round the back of Uxbridge station. The bus station is a busy hub for shoppers and folk alighting from the Underground, patiently waiting for the correct-numbered service to take them home. If you wanted to get to Ruislip quickly you'd take the U1, so it's a fair bet nobody climbing onto the 331 is going all the way. Today's cargo includes a pushchair loaded up with Pampers, while presumably Junior is elsewhere, plus a teenage girl carrying a box of pristine size 3 Converse trainers. Several more passengers board in the High Street, and most get a spare seat alongside for their shopping or else for their spouse. The bus heads north out of town, past several boxy office blocks towards the bridge over the canal. The 17th century Swan and Bottle pub is London's last hurrah, before we're across the River Colne and beyond the capital's border. But that's the bit I told you last time.

We've entered Buckinghamshire, "County of the Paralympics", and also home of Denham Ladies Football Club. The broad road ahead shifts swiftly from urban to rural. Amid the fields is junction 1 on the M40, where a loop of mini-roundabouts create the greater Denham Roundabout, which our driver negotiates with ease. If I've counted correctly the next road is seven lanes wide, overlooked by the glasshouses at Shanes Nursery and a "Stop HS2" banner. Some of the nicest streets in Denham are off to the right, in the Village, whereas Cilla Black plumped for Denham Green just beyond the railway bridge. I remember a restaurant on the corner here based in an old railway carriage, but that's long gone, and the boarded-up pub alongside is currently transforming into a set of "later living apartments". We lose a couple of passengers here, including the job-lot nappy buyers, plus a bloke whose hairy beard is the only facial feature visible beneath a trackie hood. Not one of Cilla's neighbours, I suspect.

Our first dalliance with the Home Counties is complete, returning to Greater London at the line of the River Colne, or where the edge of the Colne ought to be if it wasn't rather higher than usual. A strip of lakes mark the gap from here to the Grand Union, an uninhabited strip which HS2 will be exploiting via viaduct. The Horse and Barge sits in prime flood risk territory, a 1937 replacement for a bargee's stopover called The Halfway House. The hamlet ahead is South Harefield, essentially a few streets of quite big semis, at the foot of the long residential climb into Harefield proper. This is a rare London village, unswallowed by suburbia, still with a part-medieval church and a half-timbered pub at the crossroads by the pond on the green. The village sign is a hare, of course, inside a metal globe. I also spot a well-pinned community notice board, and a garden with a St George's flag on a pole nearby, as if perhaps this proves something.

The bus is running a couple of minutes ahead of schedule so pauses outside the drycleaners, where one lone soul is ironing beneath a hotchpotch of hangers. Across the street the Harefield Discount Store has closed down, as has the organic sorbet shop, the latter for more readily discernible reasons. As the 331 heads out of the village we pass Harefield Academy, swish filming location for BBC3's Tough Young Teachers, where I watch for chaos erupting inside Meryl's English classroom. There's none of that, but one of their music teachers boards carrying a black case of a size which completely disguises the instrument inside. We're on the Northwood Road, which is the most rural my journey has been since six buses back near Banstead. Any houses along the way tend to have stables attached, or a car with a personalised numberplate parked outside, or both. We splash through huge puddles between high hedges, not that anyone's out walking, but a 4×4 gets it broadside.

A few slight hills later we drive fractionally outside London again, this time nudging Hertfordshire and the concealed entrance to Moor Park Golf Club, beloved by Betjeman. Our raison d'être for being out this far is a London hospital, that's Mount Vernon, with public transport access only on the far side. Four buses serve this borderline outpost, one of which I'm taking next, but a storm has whipped up so I resist disembarking early to join two windswept souls beneath a brolly. One patient, one porter and one nurse climb aboard - at an educated guess - before we head on down the hill into proper Metroland. One of the avenues off to the left, Kewferry Road, is so stereotypical that it's where they filmed The Good Life. Our bus passes a cricket club and a college of theology on the run-in to the chic centre of Northwood, plus a poster on a lamppost advertising "found body of dead black and white cat". We pull in at the tube station, where the music teacher et al alight, because nobody really wants to double back to Ruislip. Best hide from the downpour, perhaps inside the ticket hall, perhaps with a spin round Waitrose, before continuing.

I've agonised long and hard about which way to go next. I need to get beyond Stanmore, that much is obvious, but there are at least a couple of ways to get there. Decisions decisions. [NW bus map]

» route 331 - timetable
» route 331 - live bus map
» route 331 - route history
» route 331 - The Ladies Who Bus

What I should have done next on my orbital bus tour of London is to ride the edge of Harrow. The H12 runs from Pinner to Stanmore pretty much along the edge of the capital, so taking it should have been a no-brainer. Two problems. To reach the H12 from Northwood would require a brief bus hop via H11, and I'm trying to save you from excess bloggage. More importantly, the H12 terminates at Stanmore station, two stops before the next bus I need to catch, and my journey doesn't allow me to walk. So instead I'm going to divert out toward Watford and then back in again, because that's the only peripheral way to get beyond Stanmore in two buses.

Today's bus is therefore another non-red non-Oyster service. It's the only single digit bus in London not to be run by TfL, sharing its route number with my local bus from Bow. This 8 runs from Mount Vernon Hospital to Abbots Langley via the centre of Watford, not that I need to go quite that far to catch my next bus back in. And it didn't always used to be the 8. Go back forty years and this was the 347A, a London Country service running all the way down to Uxbridge. Here's a 347A timetable from May 1975.

I'm assuming we do all have forty year-old bus timetables stashed away in our spare room? I know I do. This is an actual timetable that might have been posted under glass at a bus stop, almost two feet long, and double-sided with 'to Uxbridge' on one side and 'to Hemel' on the other. I've got another 347A timetable from February 1971, this with the original London Country logo at the bottom before the National Bus Company's double arrow subsumed it. I can't quite remember how I got hold of them. I think my Dad brought a stash home one day sourced via someone at work - blimey, actual bus timetables - and I was of course extremely excited. I do however remember being not quite so excited by the 347s, not when there were 319s, 385s and even 803s in the pile, buses that actually served our village. But hey, after all these years it's the 347/347A which turns out to be the more relevant sheet of paper.

A bus every half hour between Hemel Hempstead and Uxbridge? You wouldn't run that today! The entire journey took the length of a football match, plus stoppage time, because the bus took the back lanes rather than anything direct. The 347 and 347A ran an almost identical route except in Oxhey, where the more occasional 347A looped more lengthily via Carpenders Park station. In 1978 the lettered variant was renumbered 348, because that fitted on the blinds better. In 1995 the 348 was cut back from Uxbridge to Northwood, with London Buses introducing the new 331 to fill the gap. At the same time the poor old 347 was killed off. Then in 2000 Arriva buggered about with route numbers in Watford and beheaded the 348 to just 8. And that's the bus I'm about to catch in Green Lane, Northwood. I assume there are a few of you still reading.

 Route 8: Northwood - Bushey

 Length of journey: 5 miles, 30 minutes

While you're waiting for a late-running 8 in Northwood, there's plenty you could do. Buy pansies and Avo's from the fruit stall by the station. Nip into Taylor Made for a sandwich, or Shandy's for Pick'n'Mix. Meet Jean Page for flowers or Julie Holliday for hair. Gawp at the flapping glass in the bus shelter, burst open in the winter gales. Or watch everyone else at the stop boarding one of the more regular TfL services, like the H11 to Harrow or the 282 to Ealing. Not many of us are heading for Watford. But there is a wheelchair already on board, proving TfL don't have a monopoly on accessibility, plus a few other souls whose pallor strongly suggests they boarded at Mount Vernon. The driver charges me £3.20 for my ticket, but struggles when I offer £3.50 instead, then forces me to play mathematical swapping games with small coinage to meet my fare.

We are the only bus along the Watford Road. For two stops before the Hertfordshire border, the roundel-topped posts proclaim the passing of the 8, like this was Bow or something. There is no obvious changeover point amidst the big houses and woody gardens to greet Three Rivers, no "welcome" sign, just the sudden switch of bus stop design to provincial style. A high metal fence is the first sign of something nasty in the forest. This is Northwood Headquarters, Britain's premier military HQ, from which campaigns near and far are plotted. Growing up nearby in the 1970s I knew that this was Soviet target number one, hence my passive participation in any nuclear war would be mercifully brief. Its concrete buildings still have an air of menace even today, toned down slightly by two fluttering flags near the main entrance. We turn off just before, wiggling through the green and pleasant heart of Oxhey Woods to reach the council slopes of South Oxhey.

This postwar estate was built for London overspill, and the terraced semis repeat in blatantly municipal style. We're going the long way round the southern perimeter, past drives and avenues I've previously only seen in bus timetables. The verge along Prestwick Road has been sacrificed to chequered concrete as hardstanding for cars, or else is riven by muddy tyre-track trenches made deeper by the rain. We stop a lot, at one point inviting aboard a bloke on crutches, a bloke with a basket on wheels, and a woman who takes ages to pay. I spot a couple of institutional-sized pubs, the Grapevine and the Dick Whittington, the latter no doubt named to make South Oxhey's first residents feel at home. The main shopping centre's OK for small stuff, but a little bleaker than the planners intended, and the mini jungle animals in the centre of the main precinct don't necessarily help. Up the road is one of the Home Counties' cheaper golf courses, only £5 on Fridays, with a local market in mind.

And then suddenly we're into Oxhey Hall, with close-packed detached houses, paved gardens and folk out jogging. This whole mixed-bag area reminds me of where I grew up, which is perhaps not surprising given that I grew up about two miles away. Our driver spots a gap in the traffic and turns right into the borough of Watford, where our progress is suddenly stalled by a queue of vehicles. "Localised flooding - please drive with care" hints an electronic sign more used to warning of jams near the football. We creep ahead to the next set of lights, blocking them temporarily, then stop/start slowly along the edge of Oxhey Park. Across the grass (and an emerging line of daffs) is a surprisingly clear view of Retail Watford on the other side of the Colne valley. The river is some way below us, until we descend with no hint of urgency down the hill past St Matthew's Church. I could have got off at Bushey station, indeed it would have been much quicker to walk the next bit rather than wait to filter into traffic at the Bushey Arches roundabout. It's only when I alight by the river that I finally understand what's been causing the delay, and why my next bus might not be coming at all.

» route 8 - timetable
» route 8 - route map
» route 8 - route history

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cockney translator
greenwich meridian
tower hamlets history
the real albert square
docklands development

ten london transport links
future transport projects
clive's tube line guides
london underground
abandoned stations
various tube maps
london bus routes
london bus maps
disused stations
london walks