Sunday, 12 June 2011

London Loves.....Buses

by Joshua Surtees

Typical. You wait for ages, then two blogs come at once. A bit like London's buses.

This city has a strange relationship with public transport. London apparently has the best transport system in the world and the worst system in the world at the same time. And buses embody this strange dichotomy more than any other mode of travel.

On Friday night after a 3.5 hr epic Ibsen play at the National Theatre we decided, in hindsight wrongly, to get the bus back to Kings Cross rather than walk across Waterloo Bridge and get on the Piccadilly line at Covent Garden. We thought it would be fun. And, to be honest, we couldn't be arsed to walk. It was dark, raining, and windy. And there were loads of tourists huddling under the shelter looking tense and wondering if this was what is referred to as "a British Summer". The thought of a warm bus delivering us jauntily through London streets to our destination was comforting. 20 mins later, the optimism had worn off and we were huddling together for warmth. Tired, hungry, and suffering from post-Ibsen stress disorder, we cursed miserably at everything in our wake. Especially the wretched tourists. At least 10 other buses had pulled up at our stop, offering sanctuary to the lucky few. 168s to Hampstead were abundant in number. The no.4 to Archway mocked us like some kind of delinquent. Even the 243, that masterpiece of a route that terminates in God's own country of Wood Green, where the streets are paved with gold (and general litter) gave us a knowing look as it chugged onwards. The 26, 341, 188, 76, and last but not least the no.1 to Tottenham Court Road; all arrived and departed as per schedule. Later........much, much later it seemed to our tired, Ibsen-ravaged minds, the 59 finally showed up. No apology from the driver. Not even a look of guilt or shame in his eyes. In fact possibly a glint of satisfaction "I've got the worst job in the world, but I have the power to make you extremely late. And cold. And wet."

Halfway through our severely-delayed journey, a ride that had been bumpy, stop/start-y and, in truth, further marred by a loud cross-aisle conversation conducted in French by two gallic chaps, the driver informed us that the bus was terminating at Holborn and turfed us out into the damp, black night once again. Whereupon, Boris Johnson appeared out of nowhere, creeping out of the shadows, slapped me about the face with a wet fish and ran off shrieking up Chancery Lane like an albino on speed.

Ok, I made the last bit up. But every citizen of this wonderful city recognises the point I'm trying to make.

Another 'funny' incident involving waiting for a bus occured this weekend. At about 4pm on Saturday afternoon I found myself once again on the South Bank but consuming much lighter fare this time. Disney's The Aristocats at the BFI with family members including a 3 year old whose birthday we happened to be celebrating and her 4 year old brother. In short, my beloved niece and nephew.

Needing to get back to Crouch End we navigated Waterloo Bridge (this took an unprecedented 45 minutes to cross owing largely to the fascinating spectacle of boats and water and people on boats on the water all passing directly below us). On Aldwych we waited for the usually reliable 91. Half an hour later we were still waiting. "Something must be happening in Trafalgar Sqare" we muttered vaguely to each other. And something was indeed happening in Trafalgar Square as we soon discovered. Suddenly in the distance, fast approaching we saw hundreds, no thousands of naked people heading towards us. It was Naked Bike Ride day and clearly they had stopped the traffic. To be fair, if you're going to be massively delayed then this is probably the cause of delay you'd most likely choose; simultaneously entertaining and a little bit wrong.

My niece and nephew didn't think it wrong though. Just massively fun. Merrily they waved each cyclist past as if cycling naked through the city centre was the most normal thing in the world.

There are many London bus tales from my 30 years of riding on them. None quite as slapstick or bawdy as Reg Varney and co got up to but varied nonetheless.......

I've cried on buses, laughed on buses, been drunk on buses, been sick on buses. Been mugged on a bus, been mugged off on a bus, been kicked off buses and fallen off buses. Cursed bus drivers, praised bus drivers. Got lost on a bus, woken up in Tottenham Hale at 3am on a bus. Lost money on buses, found money on buses. Chatted people up on buses, been chatted up on buses. I've seen a friend (accidentally) spit in the face of a rudeboy on the bus (wind/open window/velocity is a tricky combination to master when phlegming out the window.)

Blimey, I've even driven a bus. For about a day. It was a difficult time in my early 20s. A passing phase. Not one I'd care to repeat. The experience did, however, give me a newfound respect for drivers. When I saw the work rotas including 5am starts and 2am finishes in horrendous, life-disrupting rolling shift patterns my spirit was soon broken. When I carefully considered the thought of driving a huge vehicle containing lots of moody, strange, demanding people almost non-stop for 8 hours a day on London's traffic jammed, polluted, noisy, chaotic, roadworked, traffic lighted, potholed roads. Well, let's just say it wasn't a career opportunity I embraced with open arms. I took my £100 training money at the end of the week and never went back. Even now though I can still recall the driving instructor up at the Wembley training centre screaming, literally screaming at the poor trainees as they attempted manouevres in the relative safety of the training yard, and it sends shivers up my spine.

So, essentially, have a bit of respect for the poor buggers. They may be moody, unsympathetic, rude, bad at driving and bordering on the psychotic. But there's a reason why. Any job where you think "would I do that for a living?" and the answer you come up with is "no", is a job for which a certain degree of tolerance and empathy should be directed toward those who undertake it on a day-to-day basis.

Hmmmm....where is this blog going? What's it's final destination? Is it out of service? Does it terminate here?

I wanted to wax lyrical about Routemasters. The glorious, quaint red beasts that used to prowl our streets. Ding-dinging their way from Clapton Pond to Victoria (the 38) or from Liverpool Street to Westbourne Park (the 23). I sincerely mourned the passing of these beautiful machines. They encapsulated the picture postcard image of an antiquated London clinging on to the remnants of the past. They conjured up romantic ideals of a 1950s/60s transitional period. A London recovering from the Blitz, then swingin', then roughing it through the tough economic climate of the 70s. The band I played in in the mid-noughties even wrote a love song dedicated to the subject entitled 'Death of the 73'. We couldn't understand why something so elegant, so historic, so quintessentially London would be taken away. The main claim was environmental. Which seemed incongruous in the face of how many cars clog the streets. Alas, the green march of time continues apace, and rightly so, but it's sad that allowances couldn't have been made in this instance. Instead the loathed bendy buses were launched. Nobody to this day has a nice word to say about them or can fathom why they were introduced.

The last ever routemaster bus journey took place on Friday 9th December 2005. The 159 from Paddington, passed slowly along Oxford Street with customers desperate to get a last ride, and many a tear in the eye of the old codgers who'd ridden them for years. It reached its final destination (Streatham) just before 3pm and was driven ceremonially into its permanent grave (Brixton bus garage) by Peter Hendy the Commissioner and Head of Buses at London Transport (sorry Transport for London ....I'll never get used to that one.)

I suppose I'm a sentimental old fool. I view change with suspicion. I don't like it much. The newly designed routemaster will hit the streets in 2012 in time for the Olympics. It's a lovely design, but it's ultra-modern. Not a patch on the authentic real thing.

I'll leave you with some of London's best (and worst) bus routes.

29 - Wood Green to Trafalgar Square (this bus passes through some serious ghetto-age and was famously referenced by Johnny Borell - remember him - in Razorlight's live shows.) It used to be a double-decker and I once saw somebody smoking heroin on the top deck as it rolled through Camden Town. Ah, the good old days. It's a bendy bus now. Which is an absolute travesty. A genuine contender for worst bus route in London.

210 - Finsbury Park to Brent Cross via the delights of Highgate, Hampstead and Golders Green it passes within touching distance of Karl Marx's grave. Used to be a quaint little single decker. Now it's a beast with two decks. Is nothing sacred?

88 - Camden Town to Clapham Common. Although I'm loathe to include a largely south London route, this is arguably the most picturesque, scenic route in London. From Great Portland Street onwards it's a tourist's dream taking in the busy shopping thoroughfares of Oxford Circus, Regent St and Picadilly. Next Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. Past Tate Britain then across the river and into the gritty, urban hinterlands of Vauxhall before coming to a stop in the delightful confines of Clapham Old Town with its buzzing gay bars, Surrey-born trust funders and Australians trying to buy cocaine and out-drink each other.

73 - Seven Sisters to Victoria. While it has, like many other routes, been reduced to bendy bus status it is still a classic. It takes in the extremes of London, from its downmarket starting point in Seven Sisters through trendy Stoke Newington, Essex Road, Upper Street it then chugs along Euston Road before heading through the West End to the glitz of Bond Street, round Hyde Park terminating in Victoria.


  1. 24 - Pimlico to Hampstead Heath. Classic bus that takes a lot quicker than it should considering it goes right through Trafalgar Square and past We Will Rock You...

  2. W6 - "thirty please" - those were the days!

  3. Ah, Mr Miller. It was you who spat (accidentally) in the face of a rudeboy. On the 329 I do believe. On Green Dragon Lane. It could just as easily have been the W2 though (sadly no longer in existence). Hat off to you my friend.

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  5. Walk the 38 Launch Party – Saturday 16th

    Maggie’s and Arriva London have come together this year to celebrate the centenary of the route 38 bus and we are inviting you to come to the launch party this Saturday 16th at Covent Garden from 12pm.
    You will have the opportunity to have a look round 3 original route master buses which belong to Arriva Heritage Fleet and are, on average, over 50 years old – bus types RM5, RML901 and RMC1464, you will also hear from Peter Batty, the communications director for Arriva London as well as sample the delicious ‘Walk the 38’ birthday cake!

    We are also proud to announce that you will have a chance to see some brand new ‘Walk the 38’ branded 176 scale precision die cast models of the buses RML901 and RMC1464 and to get their name on a waiting list to make sure they are one of the first to add them to their collection! When they do go on sale, all of the profit will go to Maggie’s.

    So come on down and join us in celebrating the route 38 100th birthday!

    Find out more about ‘Walk the 38’ on our website or contact