Admission time. I’m a bus geek.
Ok, I’m not the sort of person that stands on street corners noting down numbers of the buses that go by, and I couldn’t tell you much about the models that are currently in use, but it’s my favourite mode of transport for getting around London and I am a little obsessed with them and can navigate my way round large parts of London on the best bus routes.
After years of living in Brixton, at the end of the Victoria Line so therefore often guaranteed a seat, I moved to Camberwell and was worried how I would cope without the tube. I needn’t have. So many buses flow through Camberwell on a regular basis; it’s a gateway to any part of London that you want to go – north, south, east or west.
In fact until 2019, when TfL made some questionable changes to various bus routes, you could get from Camberwell to all of London’s major train stations without having to change. Unfortunately, due to the 45 route being cut short, you now have to change at Elephant and Castle for a bus to King’s Cross and St Pancras.
The lockdown effect
On 19 March 2020 I got on the bus home from Peckham after a well timed hair appointment. I really didn’t think a whole year would pass until I got on one again.
In the past year I’ve been on the tube a number of times and a train once or twice, all when lockdown rules have allowed non-essential travel, but the bus hasn’t felt like a place I’ve wanted to be. The idea of being on a bus with a lack of space for social distancing and sitting near people that don’t understand what “wear a mask” means made me feel anxious. Admittedly, people have got better with wearing masks the longer this pandemic has gone on, but I got to the point where I realised I didn’t need to rely on the bus anymore. I also wanted to challenge myself and see how long I could go without getting on a bus.
I’ve missed my trips on the bus though, whether it’s a quick trip to the shops, a journey home from a night out with friends or the start of an adventure to explore a new (to me) part of London. I’ve missed jumping on, running up the stairs in the hope of getting the best seat – front right, above the driver – and looking down on London as the bus takes its slow journey up Walworth Road and beyond. I’ve missed the people watching, wondering where people have come from and where they are going. I get pangs of sadness when I’m out walking and one of my favourite buses goes by, wishing I could go on a much needed adventure.
To celebrate my return to travelling on the bus I thought I’d go on a little journey down the bus lane with some stories about my favourite bus routes.
Routes 9 and 10
I first got into using buses as a teenager in the mid 1990s. In college summer holidays, I would stay with my aunt in west London while doing work experience placements and, encouraged by her, the bus generally became my transport mode of choice to get to where I needed to be. If I told her where I was planning on going, she would normally know the best bus route to take
It was then that I discovered these two infamous routes that take you from suburban west London into the heart of central London, via some of London’s best landmarks. From Hammersmith you can get all the way to Aldwych (on the number 9) or Kings Cross (on the number 10). Whether I wanted to go shopping on Oxford Street or into Piccadilly Circus, two of my primary destinations, one of these buses would take me where I needed to go.
These were the days of the bus conductor and paper tickets. If I remember rightly, a short journey cost 70p and a long journey £1, though I don’t think I was ever clear what constituted short. When you were coming to your stop, you’d pull the string overhead to indicate you wanted to get off at the next stop. Whilst these days I opt for the top deck, back then I normally sat downstairs on the inwards facing seats – a great place to people-watch as passengers got on and off.
I’d been to the Royal Albert Hall before, but it was on these routes I discovered where it was in relation to other parts of the city. If I was heading back to my aunt’s, I’d know when we went by that I was getting close to ‘home’.
Sadly, the number 10 was cut in 2018 to reduce the number of buses going down Oxford Street and I rarely take the number 9 nowadays, but seeing them going past always takes me back to my teenage days ‘living’ in London.
This was my favourite route from my days living in Brixton. I could jump on directly outside the building I lived in on Brixton Hill and be whizzed into the west end. On the way home, if catching it from Oxford Street, it was easy to jump on the back of a bus whilst it was waiting at the lights or stuck in slow traffic – oh the joy of the open rear door. I did nearly slip jumping on once, and the worst case scenario of what could’ve happened ran through my mind, so I understand concerns about safety, but to me it always felt like a proper London thing to do (jump on and off that is, not fall off).
The 159 was, in fact, the last route on which the traditional Routemaster buses operated before being replaced with more “modern and efficiently designed” buses. On 9 December 2005, the last service on a Routemaster was run terminating at Streatham Hill bus garage at 2.07pm.
The new Routemaster, designed by Heatherwick Studio, was introduced to London with much fanfare by then London Mayor Boris Johnson, but much criticism from users. Designed to not have windows that could be opened to maintain it’s green credentials, it would feel like sitting in a greenhouse during the summer months. Whilst the rear door and stairway still exists, the door remained closed except for when at stops, in turn taking away the ability for passengers to hop on and off as we were used to with its predecessor.
For a number of years the traditional Routemaster bus was used on two heritage routes, 9H and 15H. Sadly those days of jumping on and off the back of a Routemaster are now over. The 9H route was withdrawn in 2014 and route 15H was withdrawn last year at the end of its contract, having not run since March 2020 due to the covid lockdown.
This was the first bus route I got to know when I moved to Camberwell and it helped me work out where on the map Camberwell was. I got on the 12 at Lambeth North to go and see my first Camberwell flat and it took me through Elephant and Castle, a place that I mainly knew as being the end of the Bakerloo Line or where the night buses would always get full. I now assume these were Ministry of Sound revellers, a place I’d often heard of but had no idea of its location. I had never been to Elephant and Castle, I’d never needed to, but now I knew where it was as I lived just down the road (admittedly quite a long and slow road, the Walworth Road).
The 12 became my everyday bus. It took me to and from work in Westminster, the west end for nights out and it was the route I’d get back from Marylebone (after a short stint on the 453) after a trip out of the city to see friends and family, so many of whom lived on the Chiltern Railways line.
Back then, the number 12 was one of the infamous bendy buses introduced to London by Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London from 2000 to 2008. I was quite a fan of the bendy bus, though it was given the nickname “the free bus” as you could get on in the middle doors without the driver knowing if you had touched in or not and therefore getting a free ride. If you were lucky enough to be stuck on the bend, it was often a challenge to avoid falling over as it went round a bend.
Despite some campaigners considering them “the most accessible bus in London”, the bendy buses took their last journey on the streets of London on 9 December 2011.
The route is one of the oldest bus routes in London, albeit a shorter route these days. I remember seeing a 1922 bus at the Year of the London Bus Calvacade in Regents Street back in 2014 and was excited to see the exact same route on the front of the bus – told you I was a bus geek!
According to Wikipedia, the route has been suggested as part of a cheaper alternative to formal bus tours of London due to the fact it passes a number of tourist attractions and landmarks, including Parliament, Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus. I would tend to agree. In fact there are a few London bus routes which are worth taking to see some of the top sights of London – I’d recommend the 24 which takes you north to Hampstead, via Camden, and the 11 which takes you into the city via Fleet Street and St Paul’s Cathedral.
Much like how I loved living at the end of the Victoria Line, living near the end of the 148 route has its benefits – it’s practically empty when you get on even in the morning rush hour. Having grown up west of London, I’ve come into London many times on the Oxford Tube which follows the same route between Shepherd’s Bush and Victoria, so it feels a bit like going home. Yes, it takes forever to get from Camberwell to Shepherd’s Bush but I’d choose it any day over having to get the central line.
Unfortunately, the 148 seems to be the preferred bus for pupils at some schools in Westminster, so I had to be careful to time my morning journey in an attempt to avoid being on what felt like a school bus. Surely I’m not alone wanting to be able to wake up slowly rather than having to listen to the shouty voices of teenagers all trying to be heard over each other.
I can’t really explain why I love the 176 so much. Going from Tottenham Court Road to Penge in south east London doesn’t make it sound like the most exciting route in the world, but I think the fact it covers such a long route, with 54 stops, and a big part of the route feels so suburban, it always feels like I’m going on an adventure.
For so many people, London starts and ends where the tube exists. South east London is not well served on the tube, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth exploring. The 176 has introduced me to so many interesting areas, not least Penge – it’s final destination – which for some reason unknown to me, has become a hub for street art.
Yes, it can take over an hour to do the 5 mile journey from Camberwell, but knowing there is a pot of street art gold waiting for me at the other end makes it well worthwhile – and the journey home gives me a good amount of time to rest my feet and edit my photos after pounding the streets finding new gems.
Without a doubt, I’d say it’s my favourite bus route in London. I caveat that with the fact I am biased towards south London and know there are plenty of bus routes going north and east that I have not explored to their full potential.
Pre-lockdown, I would often get the bus just a few stops to get back from the supermarket. Now I would feel extremely lazy doing that. Getting the bus yesterday felt exciting, partly because I got my favourite seat but also because it felt like another step back towards life as we used to know it.
Not long before lockdown we started noticing buses equipped with wifi and USB ports in the back of seats. Some of them are becoming more spacious too – I don’t have a problem with legroom on a bus but I know a lot of taller people do.
Many people complain about the buses because a journey can take forever, especially if you get stuck in traffic, but I will forever prefer them to the tube. At least you can get off if needed, which is far better than sitting in a dark tunnel not knowing when you’ll get out of there. The buses have helped me navigate London better and discover places I didn’t know existed, all the while providing me a view to enjoy as I take the slower route from A to B.
I’ve been to the London Transport Museum a couple of times in recent years (can’t believe it took me so long!) and one day I hope to make it to an open day at the Acton bus depot so I can properly geek out.
Do you have a favourite bus route where you live? Let me know in the comments – I love using public transport in new places when travelling, and you may just inspire me as to where to visit when I get back into going further afield again.