diamond geezer

 Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Security checks before entering public buildings are nothing new, even if most don't require the full pockets-emptied luggage-scanned experience. But what is the current state of play, what's 'normal' for 2019, and are procedures inexorably tightening up? To investigate I've been to visit ten of London's biggest free museums and galleries, and would like to tell you about entering four of them (and sort-of tell you about the other six).

n.b. I won't be telling you everything, for reasons of security
n.b. I visited on a weekday in January, so visitor numbers were low.
n.b. I didn't take a bag with me, because this wasn't supposed to be a test.

1) British Museum
This is the museum which sparked my enquiries, because major changes regarding entry have been afoot. This time last year you would have approached the front or back doors and walked inside, where a member of staff would have checked your bag if you had one, and then you'd be on your way. Since then a lengthier security process has been introduced involving a detour, a big portakabin and a sterner check, and it's not obvious why.

Rather than entering through either of the gates on Great Russell Street visitors can now only use the one on the left. Here you're faced by a choice of paths, and a couple of guards to nudge you down the right one if you're not sure. Members, patrons and ticket holders get to take the direct route, while the majority are directed down an adjacent chicane which wiggles left and right for up to 50m. This railing-ed zigzag makes sense if queues are long, but is an unnecessary frustration on days (like yesterday) when queues are absent. On entering the portakabin at the far end the queue splits again, where those with bags were diverted off to a table to have theirs checked and those without invited to pass straight through. And then it's all the way back to the front of the museum to climb the steps and go in... whereas visitors without bags could have been split off much earlier and all this wasteful shenanigans avoided.

Yesterday was the British Museum's 260th birthday. I'd lost a fair bit of my celebratory sparkle before I even got inside.

2) National Gallery
Here's somewhere else that's changed its entry procedures in the last year or two. Previously you could walk up the steps at the front of the building and enter that way, as has been possible for almost 200 years, or enter via the modern Sainsbury Wing in the corner of the Square. Now you can only enter via the latter. Yesterday that meant entering a holding area outside, very briefly, then walking into the building where a pair of detector arches await. No pockets were ordered to be emptied, we were simply directed to walk through and a light above flashed either red or green. All bags were then checked at a table beyond, but no specific actions were taken based on the colour of the light. There is of course no reason for security arrangements to be made clear, but it was hard to see why the arches were present.

3) Guildhall Art Gallery
This splendid cultural repository at the heart of the City has long had the most stringent security checks of any of the ten places I visited. Even ten years ago I'd have expected to empty my pockets, load up any bag onto a conveyor and walk through an arch. So I was surprised on this occasion when I turned up and this didn't happen. A couple of security guards were still watching over the entrance, and if I'd had a bag I'm certain they'd have searched it, but the scanner was sidelined by a wall and switched off, and all I got was a cheery "Just come though Sir". What a pleasant surprise to be able to gain entrance with less security theatre rather than more.

4) Museum of London
This used to be a pleasure to enter, with nothing worse than a "maybe you'd like to leave a donation" smile from staff on the way in. Then I turned up one day last year and a full-blown metal detection operation was underway, Please empty your pockets put all your keys and small change in this tray do you have a phone please put that in too and your jacket thankyou. I always reckon things have gone too far when I have to take my belt off. But when I turned up yesterday no such operation was in place, only that good old smile from staff, and absolutely nobody carrying bags was challenged. I understand the Museum of London only implements its full security clampdown on certain days of the week, so as to engender uncertainty and caution, and to save a bit of money too. But it has reached the stage where if I see the arch in operation, as is often the case, I sigh, turn around and go somewhere else.

5) Victoria and Albert Museum
6) Natural History Museum
7) Science Museum

I had to tick off a visit to these three - it's always a pleasure. The newly scrubbed up Cast Courts at the V&A are a triumph, a blue whale's skeleton doesn't have quite the same impact as a dinosaur, and it's odd seeing the Science Museum without Stephenson's Rocket. As for getting in, that was a very mixed bag. At one of the South Kensington trio everyone with a bag was being stopped and checked, at another a guard fixed their gaze on each entrant and sometimes requested that their bag be checked, and at the third no security was present and no bags were being checked whatsoever. Unpredictability is sometimes a good thing, and who knows what measures were in place I didn't see, but I was surprised how lax one museum seemed.

8) National Portrait Gallery
9) British Library
10) Tate Modern

To finish off my tour, three other esteemed institutions. One had a separate entrance for those with bags and those without, which seemed sensible and allowed me inside at least a minute quicker than might have been the case. One has fairly recently positioned a bag check at every entrance, whereas previously anyone could wander inside without hindrance. And I'm not sure about the other, because although security let a bag of shopping go unchallenged I'm not sure what they'd have done faced with a decent-sized rucksack.

A few other observations, this time without attribution. I spotted at one of the buildings that you could easily avoid the bag check by entering via one particular entrance and then diverting through the shop, which was a gaping flaw in a so-called security cordon. At a different location the guard was being firm with people and even checking handbags, but completely missed a woman rushing through carrying two large bags, so that wasn't a foolproof system either. Elsewhere a man holding a laptop sailed through without being asked to switch it on, so at least we haven't reached maximum paranoia yet. And finally, what a lot of museums and galleries placed much more of an emphasis on harvesting donations than they did on checking bags.

It's easy to assume these security checks must be needed, because anything could happen and who knows what might? But expectations change with time, and what seems normal today would have looked astonishingly draconian fifteen years ago, and might look irresponsibly lax in fifteen years time. Even if the risks don't change, minimum default precautions often do.

Overall I think I was reassured. As a non-bag-carrying punter my entrance was barely delayed, and even visitors with bags weren't being detained for long. I didn't enjoy joining queues when it turned out nobody had any intention of searching me, but that was more about poorly-thought-through processes than excessive risk-averse paranoia. I recognise that my experience might have been very different at the weekend or in the height of summer rather than at the absolute lowpoint of the tourist calendar. But I was relieved that full-on airport style crackdowns aren't yet the norm, nor do we yet seem to be travelling in that direction.

 Tuesday, January 15, 2019

4 miles from central London

I've visited the locations that lie four miles north, east, south and west from the statue of Charles I in Trafalgar Square. I suspect you'll know two of them.

[1 mile], [2 miles], [3 miles], [map]

FOUR MILES NORTH: Fairbridge Road, N19
(not far from Upper Holloway station)

Near the top of the Holloway Road, immediately beyond the railway bridge, pause at the kitchen showroom on the street corner opposite the church. Here begins Fairbridge Road, a long street of fine Victorian villas running parallel to the Overground. Come on the first Sunday of the month and this is a playstreet, as a traffic sign on a lamppost warns and some paper lanterns hanging from a tree assert. The rest of the time it's quiet-ish, a string of gabled attic windows looking down over tiny front gardens scattered with shrubbery and recycling bins. Three greyhounds are being taken for a walk by three smiling dogwalkers, and sniffing every potential treat along the pavement. "Oh I can see a baguette! No you can't have it." A woman harangues the UPS driver who's dared to park outside her house whilst delivering to a neighbour. A street sweeper pauses to check his phone. At the top of the street the bells of St John's chime the hour.

Take time to admire the Hovis advert painted on the wall of what used to be A. H. Fryer, Baker & Confectioner. Be surprised to find that Geo. F. Trumper, the esteemed Mayfair barbers, are actually based in a lowly ex-cornershop on the corner of Sussex Way. But for the four-mile point head to the junction with Ashbrook Road, amidst a flank of elegant brickwork somewhere in the vicinity of number 50. Most of the windows along here are net-curtained, but in some of the others can be seen colourful cushions, a black and white jacket, a rainbow flag and the pegs of a guitar. Officially the four-mile target is round the back of these houses, in one of their hidden gardens, therefore best seen from a passing train. Thankfully there are still some on the Goblin at the moment, not that a lengthy fence and a wall of undulating rear extensions reveal enough to make the trip worthwhile.

FOUR MILES EAST: Limehouse Reach
(River Thames, between Limehouse and Rotherhithe)

For the second time my 'Miles From' journey has led us to the middle of the River Thames (and will do so again at nine, should I ever get that far). We're right on the sharp bend where the Thames first curves to loop the Isle of Dogs, with the newest towers in Docklands climbing rapidly just to the east. To reach the actual spot would require a boat ride, and even that would likely miss, so instead I choose to visit the banks on either side (with an almost hour-long journey inbetween).

On the northern side is the most famous part of Limehouse, Narrow Street, and the early Georgian terrace where Sir Ian McKellan owns a pub. Because these buildings date back to wharfier days only the residents have riverfront access, enjoying a covetable panorama downstream to Deptford and upstream to the City. The Thames Path is forced to follow the street instead, and even the entrance through Duke Shore Wharf has been sealed off while some very slow repair works take place. Only from the windowboxed promenade round the back of Dunbar Wharf is a view of the river regained, or from the wiggly footbridge which carries several of Canary Wharf's lunchtime joggers. Cyclists are specifically not welcome. The Thames is very grey, very broad and very quiet, until a cruise boat floats by with only the hardiest sightseers on the upper deck.

Over on the southern bank the inside of the bend forms the remotest end of Rotherhithe. This used to be Pageant's Wharf, now Pageant Crescent, which was built so early in the redevelopment of the London Docks that the builders thought two-storey three-bedroom terraced houses were the best use of the land. These days the properties merit a million pound premium, with at least one Range Rover, Porsche, Merc and BMW out front, and who knows what parked in the garages underneath. The unmarked obelisk at one end of the terrace was positioned here in 1992 and aligns precisely with the axis of the Docklands estate - a kind of Canary Wharf Meridian marker, if you like. Being near enough low tide a decent-sized beach has been revealed below the river wall, dotted with silent seagulls resting on the sand, which gets a soaking half a minute after a Thames Clipper speeds by.

FOUR MILES SOUTH: Saxby Road Estate, SW2
(Streatham Hill, close to Brixton Prison)

Where precisely a geographical marker lands is a bit of a lottery. A slight nudge to either side and we'd have landed amid Victorian terraces, not always immaculately maintained... a little further and we might have hit a dense LCC estate or even prison cells. Instead welcome to the Saxby Lane Estate, an enclave of postwar council housing a couple of streets from the South Circular. A sign showing the staggered layout of these 70 homes has been planted into a low-walled lawn at one end, along with a few emerging daffodils. Lambeth's architects weren't over-keen to give most residents front gardens, so have provided communal shrubberies, raised beds and lawns instead. One such raised bed is empty other than a mattress, a broken table and chairs, plus a fridge-freezer. Rose bushes have been ferociously pruned. Dogs are forbidden from squatting. Balls must not be kicked.

I take a seat on the central bench, with its plaque in memory of Alim Uddin, son and brother. Noticing that he died aged only 17 I do a quick Google search and discover that he was stabbed quarter of a mile away after an argument over a failed bike purchase. Around the foot of the bench are numerous fag ends, scatterings of freshly-mown grass, a bottle top and a single bacon-flavour corn-based snack I still think of as a Frazzle. The phone box still works, unexpectedly, although these days functions mostly an advert for Rennie. A pasted-up sheet of paper announces that Mehret is offering holistic pain-free pilates taster sessions 25 times a week in January, which suggests she's rather short of custom. I count 22 satellite dishes on the surrounding flats and houses, plus one England flag. Saxby's tenants could be holed up somewhere far worse.

FOUR MILES WEST: Westfield London
(i.e. Shepherd's Bush, not Stratford)

Don't say this feature doesn't deliver diversity. Four miles west of Trafalgar Square delivers us to Europe's largest shopping mall, within the confines of the retail maelstrom that is Westfield London. The specific spot is along the promenade linking the central atrium to the upmarket 'Village', where the shops that would never thrive in Stratford are clustered. It's lofty, it's spacious, and because I've turned up on a Sunday afternoon it's quite busy. Those in their 20s and 30s generally have carrier bags in their hands, those in their 40s more likely small children. Triangular skylights reveal the outside world shoppers aren't meant to notice. Private security personnel keep a careful eye on proceedings.

Up on Level 1 the mall passes between Zara and a boarded up unit, new retailer (hopefully) coming soon. In the centre of the aisle is an 'outdoor' overspill for Pret, plus a sushi vendor with fewer, shabbier banquettes. Oud Milano are offering 50% off their selection of oriental beauty products, this small kiosk their only outlet this side of the Alps. A lowly operative wheels over her trolley to empty the litter bin, which is mostly full of empty cups. Wave your phone at the QR code on Zara's shop window for exclusive details of sales promotions within. The music pumping out from somewhere overhead is so mainstreamly modern that I recognise none of it.

Downstairs, or rather down-escalator, the units are smaller and more fashionable. Armani, Versace and Calvin Klein are amongst the famous names bedded in, the latter exclusively for the sale of underwear. I worry that Tory Burch might be a political faction's HQ, but instead its gold shelves are sparsely dotted with not many handbags. One young couple pause to look over the watches and Ray-Bans slotted into a mid-aisle display. A very patient-looking dad pushes his offspring forwards inside a hired red miniature sports car. Another family have hunkered down on some benches and unleashed the kids' packed lunches, spilling crisps and Haribo onto the carpet. Westfield is their day out, Sunday is no day of rest, and once more round and then we'll go home.

 Monday, January 14, 2019

If you've ever found yourself sitting on a delayed tube train while a loudspeaker on the platform booms out "There is a good service on all lines", you may have wondered what the hell a 'good service' actually means.

TfL have an official definition as part of their Service Status Criteria, a set of documents which has recently been revealed through a Freedom of Information request. As you might expect, it's complicated.

First of all, as you probably know, a sliding scale of delay and disruption exists. Suspended is the worst, then Part suspended, then Severe delays, then Minor delays, then Good service. Good service is the default if none of the others have kicked in.

An extra (secret) category exists, visible only to TfL staff, and that's Initial Service Alert. Here's the definition:
"When an incident occurs that results in the service coming to a stand for a period that is likely to be five minutes or less, an initial service alert (ISA) may be issued. Where an ISA is issued, minor delays will be declared automatically if there is no train movement after the five minutes has elapsed. The start time of an ISA is wheel-stop time or incident start time."
Sometimes the incident which caused the Initial Service Alert goes away quickly, and the public are none the wiser. But if the clock ticks past five minutes, 'Minor delays' kicks in and the new status is broadcast to the world.

The rules for what counts as a delay vary from line to line, and are usually different in peak hours to off-peak. To keep things really simple, let's start off with the Waterloo and City line. With only two stations, it all comes down to what time it is and whether trains have been cancelled or not.

Waterloo and City line - service status
 Core time
(8-9am, 5.30-6.30pm)
Other times
MINOR DELAYS1 cancellation2 cancellations
SEVERE DELAYS2 cancellations3 cancellations
SUSPENDEDNo movement for 15 minutes
Person under a train

At the height of the rush hour it only takes a single cancelled train for the W&C to exhibit Minor delays. It takes two trains to hit Severe delays, whereas at other times two cancelled trains is only enough for Minor delays. No trains at all for quarter of an hour, or an unfortunate incident, is enough to escalate the official status to Suspended.

The Circle and Hammersmith & City lines are the next simplest.

Circle and Hammersmith & City lines - service status
MINOR DELAYS2 consecutive cancellations
3× normal headway
Stoppage between 10-15 minutes
70-85% of scheduled trains in service
SEVERE DELAYS3 consecutive cancellations
4× normal headway
<70% of scheduled trains in service
SUSPENDEDNo movement of trains for 15 minutes

Four different factors are now in play to determine the status of the line - the intervals between trains, the speed of trains, the length of time trains have been stopped and the percentage of scheduled trains in service. Someone in the control room is checking all these conditions, and as soon as one is triggered the appropriate line status is declared.

Trains on the Circle and Hammersmith & City lines are generally timetabled ten minutes apart. One cancelled train triggers nothing, despite leaving a 20 minute gap on the affected line. Two cancelled trains trigger Minor delays and three cancelled trains trigger Severe delays. A gap of three times the normal headway automatically triggers Minor delays all by itself. At its most extreme, there can be a gap of 29 minutes on the Hammersmith & City line and the service status will still say Good service.

The Victoria line is the next simplest... and it's not simple.

Victoria line - service status
 Core time
(7-9.30am, 4.30-7pm)
Other times
MINOR DELAYSHeadways3× normal lasting >10 mins4× normal lasting >15 mins
Trains moving slowly>10 mins of blocking back with 3× normal headway>10 mins of blocking back with 3× normal headway
Stoppage/Sit downup to 5 minutesup to 10 minutes
Scheduled trains in service75-85%70-85%
SEVERE DELAYSHeadways4× normal lasting >15 mins5× normal lasting >20 mins
Trains moving slowly>15 mins of blocking back and/or trains terminating early>20 mins of blocking back and/or trains terminating early
Stoppage/Sit down5-10 minutes10-15 minutes
Scheduled trains in service<75%<70%
SUSPENDEDNo movement of trains for 15 minutes

Ouch. Perhaps it's easiest to consider this the other way round.

If you see Minor delays on the Victoria line off-peak, this could mean a 15 minute period with long gaps between trains, it could mean a 10 minute period with trains being turned back early, it could mean 5-10 minutes with no trains moving or it could mean only 70% of the timetabled trains are in service.

If you see Severe delays on the Victoria line during the rush hour, this could mean a 15 minute period with very long gaps between trains, it could mean a 15 minute period with trains being turned back early, it could mean 5-10 minutes of no trains moving or it could mean less than three-quarters of the timetabled trains are in service.

Service status is a catch-all headline with a myriad of possible causes.

I won't delve into the intricacies of the other tube lines because they're even more complicated. Every other line is divided into central and peripheral sections, with different rules for each as well as different rules at different times. For example on the Central line any 10 minute stoppage between White City and Leytonstone triggers Severe delays, whereas that takes 20 minutes on the rest of the line. The furthest branches of the Metropolitan line stay on Good service for longer when trains run slowly, but move to Minor delays more quickly when there are cancellations.

Night Tube services have their own rules - for example here's the Piccadilly line.

Piccadilly line (Night tube) - service status
Trains at a standover 30 minsover 45 minsover 60 mins
Gap in serviceover 30 minsover 45 minsover 60 mins
Consecutive cancellations234

One missing train, i.e. a 20 minute gap, still counts as Good service. A 30 minute gap is only Minor delays. Meanwhile it takes a full hour of stoppage for the Night Tube service on the Piccadilly line to be deemed Suspended. This might be worth knowing if you're ever trying to get home in the early hours.

If you're interested, the Freedom of Information request also includes the official Service Status Criteria for the DLR, Trams, TfL Rail and the Overground, each of which takes a slightly different approach.

As a final example, if you see Severe delays on the Overground this could mean trains at a stand on the main East London Line route for over 20 minutes, or at a stand for over 30 minutes on any of the other lines, or a gap in service over 20 minutes on the main East London Line route, or a gap of three times the line frequency on any of the other lines, or a train running over 30 minutes late or two consecutive trains cancelled or two consecutive trains turned short on any of the other lines. Basically, Severe delays on the Overground tells passengers bugger all.

The system behind these Service Status Criteria may be complex, and a blunt-edged tool, but has at least been designed to be objective based on hard data, and to avoid unnecessary escalation. And that's why you might see or hear a Good service being announced when the immediate evidence looks somewhat different. Minor delays aren't always that minor, and Severe delays can be particularly severe.

 Sunday, January 13, 2019

I'm not always very good at answering the questions you leave in the comments. So here are answers to all the questions you've left so far this year, in approximately chronological order.

» Yes, that's what they called themselves, I'm only repeating it.
» I don't think so, they're very different circumstances.
» A perfectly rational interpretation of the risks ahead.
» Quite a lot really, which is the point of them.
» I'm pretty sure it wasn't.
» No older than 1990 when the current waterwheel logo was introduced.
» It wasn't funny the first time.
» You probably can, you know everything.
» Yes, no and yes, paradoxically.
» Yes of course, because otherwise it wouldn't have said so.
» Not my best turn of phrase, sorry, but it certainly lacks a certain social cachet.
» You'd think wrong, they're too busy watching the road.
» I assume that's rhetorical.
» I have no idea what you're going on about.
» What a depressingly patronising thing to ask.
» Perhaps.
» Because it's not the correct designation.
» Yes it does matter, especially at three in the morning.
» They obviously didn't.
» Yes, I suspect they probably are (not that it's had any effect as yet).
» This makes no sense.
» I very much doubt that's their assumption.
» The Guardian (and I don't know the rest of the answer, obviously).
» Yes.
» Yes and No.
» That hadn't even been invented at the time, so no.
» An entirely fictional location, so no.
» That is indeed what I wrote.
» Trust me, I can withstand that with ease.
» It's more personal than that.
» You really hate not knowing, don't you.
» They don't count.
» Seemingly not.
» I fear you missed the post in which this list was provided.
» I enjoy the fact that you do.
» No, your presumed conclusion is incorrect.
» I don't think I could wring enough out of that.
» Because the Thames is to the south.
» Only until 1939, so your exclamation marks are unwarranted.
» I don't know, I'm not a stalker.
» That has to be a possibility.
» Those aren't questions, they're statements with question marks on the end.
» It did not.
» You were there, you tell us.
» It was, sorry, my mistake.
» Yes, I read that on Wikipedia too, but chose not to include it.
» Hang on and I'll do precisely that.
» I increasingly suspect it wasn't official until later.
» If it were possible, I'm sure they'd have done it.
» Almost certainly.
» Wait and see.
» Obviously not, they'd never come here.
» They've had ample opportunity previously.
» It's meaningless, I agree.
» I think the premise of your question is flawed.
» You shouldn't have asked that, you'll set them off.
» See, I told you.
» Because it's two routes.
» They tried that between 1994 and 1996, but haven't again since.
» I doubt it implies anything.
» A fraction of £1.35m, and it's too late for that now.
» Yes, the reason you have suggested is correct.
» I have done exactly this.
» No, this is not something such personnel normally do.
» That is a certainly a possibility (and so is that).
» By the end of the weekend I'd say the latter.
» Buses cannot breathe, so your conclusion is ludicrous.
» I should never have answered that earlier question, sorry.
» Given the final budget, presumably more.

Sometimes I don't answer because I don't know the answer.
Sometimes I don't answer because someone else already has.
Sometimes I don't answer because it'd be great if someone else did.

Sometimes I don't answer because I'm not here to answer all your questions.
Sometimes I don't answer because I was being deliberately vague in the post.
Sometimes I don't answer because there is no polite response and it's best I keep quiet.

Sometimes I don't answer because the conversation which ensued would be very tedious.
Sometimes I don't answer because the way the question was phrased was somewhat patronising.
Sometimes I don't answer because some of my more tenacious commenters would get over-excited.

Sometimes I don't answer because you weren't really looking for an answer.
Sometimes I don't answer because you've asked a question you already know the answer to.
Sometimes I don't answer because you're merely stating a point of view but adding a question mark on the end in the hope that someone else will agree with you and validate your opinion.

And if those last three are you, perhaps you could be bold enough to write a statement next time, rather than a question.

 Saturday, January 12, 2019

Waltham Forest is London's first Borough of Culture, for the whole of this year, starting this weekend.

The opening event is Welcome To The Forest, and is taking place between six and half past nine on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings. Two audiovisual installations await your presence, one in Lloyd Park and one at the Town Hall, linked by illuminated activities along Forest Road. It looks like the selection committee chose wisely.

The easiest venue to enter is the forecourt of the Town Hall, itself a magnificent building, and the ideal backdrop for one of those big screen projections that Cultural contenders like to kick off their Years with. Two specially commissioned films are being shown every half hour, one short and enjoyably musical, the other longer and a bit more worthy. I missed watching the first because I was waiting to clear security, but was in place down by the ornamental pool in time for the second.

To a soundtrack by Talvin Singh, this 'sonic triptych' explores the borough's story through the voices of its residents. This means shots of God's Own Junkyard, the Hitchcock mosaics and the occasional oxyacetylene torch, plus a varied burst of poetry/rapping by faces of all ages. Within minutes somebody has rhymed Waltham Forest with William Morris, and Borough of Culture with Like A Vulture, which at least gets all that out of the way at the start of the Year. The underlying thrust is a bit depressing to begin with, namechecking the downsides of gentrification and redevelopment, but brightens in tone towards the end which is a lengthy gallery of smiling multi-cultural residents. The visuals are sharp, the presentation's masterful, and the performance even earned a ripple of applause at the end.

Last night Forest Road was busy with visitors, but I suspect not quite as busy as the organisers were hoping. The temporary absence of traffic allows carnival bands, illuminated birds and mechanical horses to prowl up and down, enough to delight the smallest of children. There are also a lot of flaming torches, because fire always goes down well at a wintertime event, plus a circle of large whooshing flames on the lawn outside the Magistrates Court. I think some older local residents were dancing up a sideroad in front of the Disco Shed, but the surrounding crowd made it almost impossible to see. Thankfully the lady looking down from her bedroom window seemed to be enjoying it, although she may have changed her mind by Sunday evening.

But getting into Lloyd Park was a miserable experience. Every single bag entering the park had to be checked, and every single person waved over with a security wand, and the organisers had woefully misjudged how quickly people would pass through. Two enormous queues stretched off from the gates of the William Morris Gallery, one in each direction, each with a waiting time in excess of 40 minutes. I think the queue moved fastest not when the security check shuffled forward but when entire families gave up and went home. I first saw a steward 39 minutes in, and she invited me to jump forward because I didn't have a bag, only for me to be stopped by another steward who told me to go away and join the back of the queue. A brief argument thankfully solved that one, but by the time I was having my arms and legs checked I'd lost most of the goodwill earned earlier in the evening. Unsurprisingly Lloyd Park was rather emptier than it could have been.

But the final piece of work was almost worth the wait. This is 'Nest', a light sculpture by artists Marshmallow Laser Feast, comprising eighty-or-so spotlights arranged in a large overhead ring. Over the course of 20 minutes they light up sequentially and spin round the sky creating an ever-changing web accompanied by a haunting choral composition. I couldn't work out whether the best place to view was in the centre of the ring, looking up inside a whirling spirograph, or standing outside the circle watching the beams wobble like a potters wheel. It's just the kind of visual landmark experience a Year of Culture needs, suggesting Waltham Forest is indeed the place to be in 2019. Just don't travel too far to get here this weekend, unless you like queueing.

 Friday, January 11, 2019

Route 389: Barnet The Spires to Western Way
London's shortest bus route
Length of journey: 1.65 miles (<10 minutes)

Top of the heap, i.e. shortest of all, is this minor runabout in Barnet. Not only is the 389 London's shortest bus route but also the second least used (only 17000 passengers annually) and the third least frequent (only 30 buses per week). It's part of a unique bus sharing scheme which has operated hereabouts since 1996, whereby one vehicle from route 299 is used to service the entirety of routes 389 and 399 between the morning and evening rush. It operates alternately on one route and then the other, flipping its blind round the back of the Spires shopping centre every 30 minutes, with both routes all wrapped up by 3pm. Potential passengers must time their shopping trips with care.

The fortunate beneficiaries of route 389's brief service are residents of a tongue of housing squeezed in between Barnet Playing Fields, the Dollis Brook and the Northern line. No through-route is possible, so the 389 runs down to the bottom of the hill and back before returning past High Barnet tube station to the shops. I decide to start my journey at the start of the loop on Underhill, which'll maximise my time aboard and also allows me to spot this rare bus as it approaches down Barnet Hill. A faded sign by the roadside warns that "Match Day waiting restrictions" may apply, despite the fact that Barnet FC moved out six years ago.

When boarding the bus I fail to address the driver by name, which immediately marks me out as a stranger. Let's call her Rita, because we'll be hearing her name a lot later. Already on board are a lady with a recently touched-up perm, a Daily Mail reader with a tweed shopping trolley, a mother and daughter with a PDSA bag for life and two stowaways who it'll eventually turn out really want the 399 and have boarded early because it's cold outside. What used to be the Underhill football stadium, demolished last year, is now arising as a long-promised academy and is currently at the partitioning and early paintwork stage. The first year group are due to arrive in September, but won't be using the 389 as a school bus because it only operates during lesson time.

Here we go. "Thank you Rita," says our first alightee as she steps down from the front of the bus. She'll not be the last. It's bin day down Fairfield Way and the full range of coloured receptacles is arrayed along the pavement. Each of the semis on Sherrards Way is fractionally lower than its neighbour to ensure the street's housing is stepped gradually down the hill. A couple of trees have been surrounded by utility works barriers. "Hello Rita, you're back. Happy New Year to you, have you had a good holiday?" The elderly gentleman with the flat cap who's just boarded greets our driver like an old friend, indeed the bonhomie along this section of the route is exceptional.

So tailored is Rita's door-to-door service that she drives only ten metres down the road before letting off the next regular, minimising the distance she'll have to shuffle home. "Thank you Rita, see you tomorrow, bye," she says. I'm not entirely surprised, having seen this kind of behaviour when I rode the 389 last year, fortuitously on the very last day before a new operator took over the contract and the previous driver had brought a box of biscuits for all his regulars to share. It's still a heartwarming ride under the new operator, I can assure you, and provides the perfect antidote to my miserable jobsworth journey on the R9.

We've now reached Western Way, the lowest road in the estate where the return journey officially begins. So short is route 389 that we'll be parked up and finished in six minutes flat. One particular parked car on the corner of Grasvenor Avenue proves hard to negotiate, but Rita nips through and we're back on the climb again. A mother and her two kids are waiting on the pavement outside the infant school, no waving required, and our next passenger slips into immediate conversation with the driver and the gentleman in the flat cap. Perhaps most impressively, when a lady with a shopping basket waves from the pavement Rita knows she doesn't want to get on board, and earns a cheery smile in return.

Rejoining the main road at the traffic lights by the railway bridge, we're suddenly one of a dozen bus routes climbing Barnet Hill and so a total irrelevance. We overtake three buses which have stopped by the tube station, safe in the knowledge that they can carry everyone and nobody needs us. Indeed we don't stop once all the way up to Barnet Church because all anybody aboard wanted was the shops, either in the High Street or round the back of the market. The flat-capped gentleman stays aboard to have a long chat with Rita, and she has both the time and the inclination to engage before she has to drive the mutated 399 to Hadley Wood. True customer service is alive and well on the streets of Barnet, on the shortest bus route of them all.

Route 327: Waltham Cross to Elsinge Estate
London's 2nd shortest bus route
Length of journey: 1.87 miles (15 minutes)

Having toyed with the edge of London on previous journeys, this time we finally start beyond it, at the busy bus station in Waltham Cross. The 327 was introduced in 1997 as an experimental circular route to mop up shoppers from one particular estate sandwiched between the A10 and the railway. It also serves Turkey Street (which I wrote about just before Christmas so my apologies for the almost-immediate repetition). The 327 originally ran shopping hours only, but was extended into the evenings in 2008, then knocked back to 7am-7pm in 2018. Also last summer the frequency was reduced from every 30 minutes to every 40, ostensibly to improve reliability, but which has also made it much harder to remember the timetable. It's a 300-passengers-a-day kind of bus.

At Waltham Cross bus station you can tell which buses go to Hertfordshire because they still have a poppy stuck to the front, and you can tell which buses are going to Essex because they sometimes flash up Happy New Year on the dot-matrix display. Buses going to London are obviously red. Our 327 driver has been enjoying the lengthy layover the latest timetable affords, and slots in at the bus stop behind the 217 we'll be shadowing for the first mile. My fellow passengers are an old lady in a pink headscarf with a walking stick poking out of her trolley, a mother and daughter who've bought a carrierful of groceries and a middle-aged couple dangling a Vodafone bag.

Escaping from the bus station requires a spin round the bypass, so by the time we reach the first stop we've already travelled half a mile. We've also entered London, the precise boundary being the M25 which is disappearing into a tunnel directly beneath us. The advantage of being a minor bus is that our driver already knows nobody at this stop is waiting for him, so sails by and leaves the 217 to collect them instead. The crossroads by the Esso garage is a busy one, with each of the four streams of traffic afforded its own traffic light phase, so it takes a while to turn right into Bullsmoor Lane. And from this point onwards we're on our loop, so as likely to be picking someone up as dropping them off.

Lea Valley High School recently changed its motto from Achieve, Develop, Excel to Aspiration, Innovation, Respect, the three new buzzwords now proudly plastered across the front of the academy. Aylands Open Space is occupied by half a dozen goalposts, a minor game of kickabout, numerous seagulls and a pylon. Just beyond the railway we turn off into Lackmore Road, where a delivery van has shrunk the width of the road to just narrower than the bus can cope with. Thankfully its driver is at the wheel, so is soon able to nudge closer to the kerb and we squeeze through, but it would only take one badly-placed vehicle to bring the 327 entirely to a halt.

We have now entered the Elsinge Estate, a twisted ladder of streets lined by the epitome of Fifties council housing. We'll not be passing the lowly shopping parade, nor the local library, but instead threading down the eastern flank past a succession of flat-fronted brick houses. The easiest way to maintain the grass in your front garden appears to be to park two cars on it. Occasional hails bring passengers on board, and occasional dings allow them off. Our driver has to pause at Cockers Road because this is the officially designated 'Hesitation point' where blinds are changed and systems reset. Across the park I spot the 217 at a bus stop residents could easily walk to if the 327 were ever scrapped, but again social need decrees it hasn't been.

And then we turn into Turkey Street, which I've told you all about before, along which we accumulate a further drip of passengers. Two board directly outside the Overground station, one spooning pineapple chunks into her mouth from a plastic carton. UK Power Networks are digging up the pavement ahead, but two idiots have parked their cars much too close on the opposite side of the road creating a slalom course for our driver to negotiate. What follows is an absolute masterclass of manoeuvring, as the bus nudges left and then right without ever quite hitting anything. A woman in a pink spotty dressing gown pops out of her cottage to see what's going on.

The last side of the loop heads north up Hertford Road, where we are no longer the only bus route back to Waltham Cross so punters jump aboard the first that comes along. The bus stop outside Lidl still has a tile saying "327 Monday to Saturday shopping hours only", which must be more than 10 years old (and doesn't bode well for Bus Stop M ever being fixed). Four fat staffies waddle up the garden path of a narrow terraced house after their daily exercise. Freezywater's 'shopping centre' offers solutions to all your tool hire, kebab and barbering needs. And at the Bullsmoor Lane junction the 327's mile-long loop is complete, so you know the rest.

 Thursday, January 10, 2019

Route 507: Victoria to Waterloo
London's 3rd shortest bus route
Length of journey: 2.24 miles (15 minutes)

For the first time in my countdown I've hit a route I've blogged before, and fairly recently too. But that was eastbound in the rush hour, so this time to avoid undue duplication I'm riding it westbound at the weekend. The 507 isn't really a weekend kind of bus, having been introduced in 1968 as a Red Arrow service to whisk commuters from Waterloo or Victoria to their desks and back, its service designed to cope with two peak-time spikes. Over the years it's seen flat fare buses, bendies, longer-than usual-single deckers and today a fleet of cutting edge electric vehicles. It is no ordinary service.

Dougal and his mummy are waiting at the first stop on Upper Taxi Road. "It's a day for doing nice things with Mummy," she says. They've already watched Jade Thornton busking something from The Greatest Showman on the mainline concourse, and now they're catching a 507 to continue their bonding experience. Once the bus arrives they walk through the cattle class standing area and settle into one of the seats at the rear. Mummy opens up her rucksack, from which she takes out some Tupperware, from which she takes out some neatly scrunched tinfoil, from which she unwraps a healthy snack for Dougal to enjoy. "Thank you Mummy," says Dougal. "You're very welcome," says Mummy. If the zebra crossing outside the station ever clears, we should be underway.

Two tourists with luggage have settled into the view-free seats immediately behind the driver, squandering the opportunity for world-class sightseeing later on. Another woman yells "Yeah, I'm on the bus" into her phone, because it's not a ten-part series on London bus journeys unless that happens. The 507's super-duper electronic display won't tell us how long it is before we reach Victoria, but the last stop before the cut-off always seems to be seven minutes distant. "Let's stop off at a lovely bakery," says Mummy. "I love bakeries," says Dougal. "You can't get nice bread in a supermarket," says Mummy, and I wonder if this statement might be the best definition of being middle class I have ever heard.

A new family board the bus at St Thomas's, their dad savvy enough to know that they can use the middle doors. He stands near the pushchair with grandpa, and the two of them engage in blokey banter about Chelsea and Stamford Bridge and Fabregas and FA Cup prospects that's probably not stopped for the last 30 years. Mum sits further back with their daughter, whose name is never uttered, not least because this parent is too engrossed in what's happening on her phone. The Thames is a slightly darker shade of grey than the sky. A pair of pleasure boats moored upstream have nowhere to go today. A dozen red buses can be seen strung across Westminster Bridge, almost nose to tail. Daughter clutches her CBeebies magazine and stares forwards.

The cafes on Horseferry Road are silent because the civil service haven't come to work today. Former offices at 9 Millbank have become a vast hole which will become luxury flats. Channel 4's HQ looks partially boarded up, but no, they haven't redistributed to Leeds just yet. Our next fresh boarders are a bunch of middle-aged geezers, one clutching the Racing Post under his arm. "Warmer in 'ere innit?" he says. They launch into a well-rehearsed spiel about football, ending with the line "everyone hates Tottenham" at which everyone guffaws. A noisy ambulance speeds by. "Do you know what the first letter of ambulance is?" asks Mummy. Dougal knows.

With their rucksack repacked, Mummy and Dougal alight outside Westminster Cathedral to continue their adventure. A nice bakery somewhere awaits their custom. Clued-up passengers also disembark here because the final leg of the journey involves a slow crawl into the far end of the bus station, whereas there's a new tube station entrance just across the road. On the home stretch silent daughter chirps up for the first time, announcing that she needs a wee but can hold it in. In her hurry to clamber off she accidentally drops her furry lion which falls unnoticed to the pavement. I prepare to undertake my heroic deed of the day, but just in time she notices and turns round and runs back and is joyfully reunited. The weekend 507 is a breed apart.

Route 379: Yardley Lane Estate to Chingford
London's 4th shortest bus route
Length of journey: 2.26 miles (15 minutes)

The Yardley Lane estate clings to a hillside to the northwest of Chingford overlooking the Lea Valley reservoirs, not far from the Gilwell Park campsite. It earned a minibus service in the mid 1980s when the regular connection between Waltham Abbey and Chingford was lost, and this minor shuttling loop to the brink of Essex was added instead. On the face of it the 379 is extraordinarily generous - a quarter-hourly service operated by two vehicles for fewer than 1000 passengers a day, when a double decker alternative exists at the foot of the slope. But this direct link to shops and station survives because the London bus network serves a social need, not just an economic paymaster, at least for now.

The turning circle for the 379 straddles the very edge of the capital. Albion Terrace opposite is in Essex, and the fortified bungalow where all the manic barking is coming from is in Waltham Forest. The layby's on the large side because it used to be the winter terminus for route 215, but that now terminates up the road at the Lea Valley Campsite all year round. I've arrived shortly before dusk, so the homebound flow has begun and the cars streaming past have their headlamps on. Three college students have gathered and are watching the road, so I wonder if they'll be joining me, but instead a minibus drops by to take them away. I am therefore expecting my ride on the 379 to be quiet. I am very wrong.

When the 379 arrives it is packed out with schoolchildren of secondary school age, and most definitely standing room only. Their behaviour is animated but well-mannered, lest any of you be thinking worse. Thankfully several children pour off, so I'm going to get a seat, but the driver doesn't expect anyone to be boarding and nearly shuts the door in my face. Such are the potential pitfalls of a single-door vehicle. Although we're now technically on the return journey, this end of the route is a loop so the remainder won't be getting off just yet. We climb Antlers Hill to run round the back of the estate where our driver simply stops in the middle of the road to let the next two batches alight. It seems astonishing that so few homes could be the source of so many children, but this willingness to use public transport must be how the route has survived.

There's a nice twinkly view of Enfield from the crest of the hill. The road surface up here is appalling, with badly-filled-in utility trenches at closely-spaced intervals. Yardley Lane is so narrow, descending between parked cars and a wooded incline, that it's clear why buses only tour this loop one-way. One of the last schoolchildren to alight is so engrossed in her phone conversation that she forgets her scarf and has to dash back on board to retrieve it. By the time we return to the main road, then swing back into the second part of the estate, there are only three of us left on board. I am therefore expecting the remainder of my ride on the 379 to be quiet. I am again very wrong.

The local primary school has turned out, so a large cluster of kids, parents and guardians is waiting patiently at the kerbside. They too are perfectly well behaved, fear not, but any hopes of silent running have been dashed. Drysdale Avenue is the spine road for further residential backwaters with a better bus service than guidelines specify they deserve, but who's complaining? Before long we reach the almost-foot of Kings Head Hill, which climbs the flanks of Pole Hill towards Chingford Green. The 379 is no longer the only bus, so waiting passengers leap aboard whichever comes first, saving themselves a brief but steep upward hike. We gain a lady with a shopping bag and a teenage boy with shiny black cartoon-like trainers which look like they're moulded to his feet.

The traffic lights beside the cemetery are the only hindrance on an otherwise speedy ride. The chosen destination for most passengers at this time of day isn't the station but the shops, or the library, or any of the other facilities at the Co-Op end of the high street. Station Road is served by as many as eight bus routes so we are by now an irrelevance. We snake past retailers considering winding down for the evening, retailers who gave up the ghost over Christmas and one bakery window full of startling icing-covered architecture. At the station/bus station our driver doesn't even pause for a rest, he's behind schedule so needs to head straight back to the Yardley again. Short routes aren't always quiet routes.

 Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Route 15H: Trafalgar Square to Tower Hill
London's 5th shortest bus route
Length of journey: 2.36 miles (25 minutes)

Route 15 need not detain us here, being six miles long, but its heritage subset is considerably shorter. This was introduced in 2005 when Routemasters were phased out for accessibility reasons, mainly as a sop to ensure no politician could be accused of withdrawing them completely. Its fellow service on route 9H bit the dust in 2014 so the 15H soldiers on alone, now only every twenty minutes, on the tourist-friendly stretch from Trafalgar Square to the Tower. But a recent plan proposes cutting back the service to summer weekends and bank holidays only, which is basically nothing, after the new Ultra Low Emission Zone takes effect. Come ride soon, before it gets a lot lot harder.

'Heritage Routemasters operate additional journeys between 0941 and 1841', according to the timetable on the Strand, but wheelchairs cannot be carried. Other than this small red writing there are no clues that an icon of London is about to emerge round the corner from Northumberland Avenue and offer an anachronistic ride for a very reasonable fare. TfL's promotion of this very special service has always been poor. One family definitely know it's coming, and their son beams with delight as it pulls up and they grab the prized front seats. Other tourists suddenly notice, and wander over because the conductor knows to wait for a bit, and before long there are 15 of us on the top deck and a fair few more down below. Ding ding.

Some are here to remember. A retired man in a sensible jacket whips out his iPad for a photo before resting his arm lovingly on the moquette. Others are here because it's what you do in London. A Japanese girl in a bright red coat ensures the lens is trained on her, because it wouldn't be a photograph otherwise, and ends up taking a 90° selfie-panorama. Some are here because they would have caught the ordinary 15 but this turned up instead, and they'll be smiling for the next few stops. But most are here to travel religiously to the end of the route, because nowhere else would they ever get the opportunity. Another 15 passengers have boarded before we reach Aldwych, and numbers only ever rise.

The engine's definitely judderier than on a modern bus, and/or the suspension less effective, but that's part of the appeal. A family of five can't believe their luck when we pull up, the parents looking at each other as if to say shall we, and they do. We pass a row of protesters in tents outside the Royal Courts of Justice, and the net-curtained windows of the Art Deco Daily Express building, and the magnificent facade of Wren's cathedral. You get a much better view from a 1964 vehicle than the hermetically sealed red bubbles rushing the other way. Top deck seats generally fill up from the front backwards, and there are now very few of them left.

And still they come - two more on Ludgate Hill, seven at St Paul's and three on Cannon Street. Admittedly I made my journey at the weekend, but tourists come to London all year round, and I am very impressed by the loadings. I see the London Stone is back in place, and labelled. I see the House of Fraser facing London Bridge closed its doors for good on 29th December. I see security guards sitting alone in echoing receptions beneath shiny towers. And even at the penultimate stop a trio of French tourists board, their brief journey fortuitously extended by a traffic jam at Mincing Lane. On reaching the Tower they look somewhat bemused, there being no automated messages to explain what's going on, but a yell from the conductor confirms yes, this is where everyone has to get off.

By my calculations at least 60 passengers have boarded during our journey, the majority of whom stayed on to the bitter end. But, and here's the rub, AT NO POINT DID THE CONDUCTOR EVER COME UPSTAIRS AND COLLECT ANY FARES. I don't know what he did downstairs, but he never once attempted to climb the stairs and none of us paid a penny for our journeys. The 15H has longstanding issues in that no touchpads are fitted and staff have to use archaic card readers that can only cope with Oyster, not contactless. But by not even attempting to collect fares from those who could have paid, nor registering how many of us were on board, no wonder official figures show this is the 15th least-used bus route in London. Come ride before indifference turns to near-dismissal. It could be the best free ride in town.

Route W7: Muswell Hill to Finsbury Park
London's 6th shortest bus route
Length of journey: 2.48 miles (15 minutes)

Muswell Hill and Crouch End are infamously railwayless, so the W7 exists to whisk residents downhill to the nearest decent station. Previously this was the 212, renumbered in 1969 when it became a pioneering one-man-operated flat fare service. The W7 embraced experimentation again in 2001 when it was chosen to trial a cashless "Pay Before You Go" system aimed at speeding up boarding, with tickets available from roadside machines. It remains a speedy and very frequent route with a specific purpose, and recent figures confirm its crown as London's most crowded bus (in terms of number of passengers carried per mile travelled).

TfL are fortunate that the very heart of Muswell Hill, the roundabout on the Broadway where five roads meet, has been given over entirely to parking buses. W7s roll out at six minute intervals, perhaps three minutes if it's the rush hour, and spin round to pull up beside the Keith Blakelock memorial. While I wait for the next service my attention is drawn to the adjacent Broadway Hair Stylist, a very old fashioned barber shop whose front window photographs resemble a lineup from the late 1980s, as does the cluttered pomade'n'mirrors interior. The barber appears to be asleep but perks up when a regular customer arrives, and soon snippings of lank grey hair are falling onto his brown tunic, same as it ever was.

Although the interval between buses is short, at least 20 people are waiting to board by the time a W7 turns up. I grab the front seat to best enjoy the steep descent of Muswell Hill, beyond the foot of which a panorama of north and east London is arrayed. That must be Stratford directly ahead - I recognise the Orbit and that skyscraper with a notch in it. A sweep of Edwardian avenues stretch off to left and right, confirming this undulating suburb's enduring appeal. We have a clear run down to the tiny traffic island with a palm tree, where the road levels out, broadens and splits. Bus drivers attempting the journey in reverse can't have it anywhere near as easy.

The W7 is the only bus along Park Road, mopping up further passengers as it goes, although the park itself is not readily spotted behind a screen of housing. Homes along one section are enhanced by white-painted wooden balustrades in various stages of maintenance or disrepair. Hornsey's war memorial chapel sits incongruously outside the Neighbourhood Health Centre. The Princess Alexandra is proud to have been serving beer since 1896, when the first houses spread across the fields hereabouts. The shops veer increasingly upmarket as we continue - organic greengrocer, wine merchant, art gallery, chandelier boutique - and hey presto, Crouch End.

The clocktower is still draped with icicle lights, or at least it was at the weekend. A pre-Worboys sign embedded in its brickwork confirms the distance to FINSBURY PK as 1¼ miles... so, halfway there. We enter another Broadway, very much the go-to-name for high streets hereabouts, where a former bank is now a Dirtyburger and the town hall is currently destined to become an arts centre stroke hotel stroke flats (although it wouldn't surprise anybody local if that fell through). The W7 has sole ownership of the bus stop outside, because it's also the only route heading for Finsbury Park and blimey hasn't it got full on board?

A mother and daughter climb upstairs, their conversation progressing from how they always say thanks to the driver to how nobody else does to numerous examples of how bloody rude today's youth can be when on board. The bus now faces another long climb to get over the final ridge, from the top of which the Shard can be clearly seen behind the central City cluster. Finally descending to railway level we pass over the top of the Parkland Walk, mostly unseen, and then the Overground at Crouch Hill station. This is not the point of departure those aboard are seeking, it appears.

This won't take long now. The London Buses' Incident Response Team, aka a man in a van, are busy replacing a broken timetable panel on Stroud Green Road. The Old Dairy is a terracotta masterpiece with seven decorative panels across its front, which alas can't be seen if you're inside with a burger and a pint watching the football. And then, because a low railway bridge prevents buses proceeding to the useful side of Finsbury Park station, the W7 twists off to unload its passengers in an inconvenient sidestreet outside a gelateria, then limps into the bus station round the corner. Muswell Hill in fifteen, anyone?

 Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Route R9: Ramsden Estate to Orpington
London's 7th shortest bus route
Length of journey: 2.65 miles (15 minutes)

Orpington's bus network is a breed apart, with eleven R-prefixed routes spreading out into the town's suburbs and rural hinterland. The R9 was a late addition in 1996, looping round the Ramsden Estate on the eastern side of town to connect it to the shops and the station. Buses tour the loop in a clockwise direction, breaking off at the fire station to pick up assorted residents on the mile and a half circuit. I decided to start at the first stop on the loop, where a bus was just about to pull off so I decided to wait for the next. And this is my big mistake.

When the next R9 comes round the corner I enact the generally accepted gesture of emerging from the bus shelter and standing beside the bus stop, looking semi-expectantly at the approaching vehicle. No other bus routes stop here during the day, so my actions ought to be unambiguous. The approaching vehicle slows down, but overshoots and stops on the other side of the bus shelter. "It's a request stop, mate," says the driver. "You have to put your arm out." This is not an instruction I've heard for many a year, but perhaps they do things differently in Orpington.

For my next blunder, I fail to touch in. When I boarded the bus the dot on the card reader was red, which means it isn't working, and that usually means a free ride. Unfortunately while I've been distracted by the request stop debacle the dot has turned back to orange. The driver looks at me like I'm an idiot and asks me to wave my card, and then I have to go and sit down amidst the passengers who've been watching my performance. It's been my least successful attempt to board a bus in years.

We set off up Tintagel Road (with Eldred and Avalon coming later in the journey), first past private semis, then council stock. The lady sitting in the wheelchair space dings the bell and we stop again. "Can I have the ramp, please?" she asks. "Yes I know," says the driver, as if peeved to be asked because she should have known he was going to lower it anyway. At the next stop a woman with two sticks walks slowly towards the bus, and our driver waits. After she's boarded another potential passenger dashes over, but the doors close just before he arrives and we depart without him. There's something about this driver's attitude I can't quite put my finger on.

The top of the Ramsden Estate is where the borough of Bromley hides a couple of its tower blocks, half-surrounded by densely-packed maisonettes. The other side of the road is Green Belt, extending all the way to Rochester. At the request stop are a local mother and her son, who don't put their arms out but the bus stops anyway, and they are not admonished. In a flash we're back into more estate-agent-friendly territory along Chelsfield Lane, then climbing back up the hill past bungalows with concrete fishponds and signs saying "Please do NOT leave parcels with our neighbours." Our driver spots that the lights ahead onto the A224 are green and speeds up a little to make sure we get through.

On Spur Road, which is splendidly Thirties, I spy our final request stop. A young schoolboy is waiting and promptly sticks out his arm and the bus stops. We'd have been 15 seconds faster if he hadn't done that. A further delay comes at the foot of Orpington High Street where a zebra crossing, rather than a pelican, repeatedly stalls the surrounding traffic. Most of the passengers alight here, at the start of the mini-loop round the shops that so many R buses endure. "I'm going back to the station," says our driver to a fellow employee waiting at the stop, before adding "Just thought I'd tell you." She hops on. Our driver now has an audience, and a lot to say.

"I'm due back on the stand in ten minutes," he says. "Look at those two crossing the road rather than waiting," he complains. "What is that geezer doing?" he asks, which momentarily worries me but refers to another miscreant outside the bus. We drive along Gravel Pit Way noticeably faster than the average bus driver would. Rounding the war memorial, a can rolls backwards down the bus. We arrive at Orpington station post haste, where it's time for the last few passengers to alight. As the empty bus pulls off its passage is briefly blocked by an emerging car, which the driver loudly honks. And he's into the bus stand, and climbing into the bus company's private car, and driving back to the bus depot to clock off, all five minutes before the bus was scheduled to arrive. Job done.

It only struck me later why the dot on the bus's Oyster card reader was red. The stop where I boarded is officially the first stop on the return half of the route, the so-called 'Hesitation point' where the driver is supposed to pause to switch the blind from Ramsden Estate to Orpington Station. This also involves resetting the system, which is how the orange dot turned briefly red and then reappeared, which is why I looked like a total plonker. Crucially it also meant that the driver was due to stop anyway, so all that spiel about putting your arm out at a request stop must have been entirely unnecessary. I'm no longer entirely sure who the plonker was. I shan't be rushing back to ride the R9 again.

Route 209: Mortlake to Hammersmith
London's 8th shortest bus route
Length of journey: 2.70 miles (15 minutes)

I hadn't realised Mortlake had a bus station, if you can use that term to describe a turnround loop surrounding a brick hut beside the railway line serving just one route. All the facilities are for drivers only, with one door marked Mess Room and two others marked Private (F) and Private (M). Gents intending to avail themselves of the latter are urged to Pull The Door Closed because the Door Closer Is Broken. That such operational luxuries exist is because this used to be the terminus of route 9, a much more significant service, until a weight restriction on Hammersmith Bridge curtailed that and single deckers were used to covered the severed bit. Fast forward to 2019 and the minor 209 now runs more frequently than the route it replaced.

Residents of Avondale Road must be used to waiting for buses to pass them while they're trying to park. At the end of the road is Dovecote Gardens, a dove-free patch of grass which leads down to the Thames, ideal for watching the closing stages of the Boat Race. Here we turn right to enter the un-high-streety end of Mortlake High Street, and in two shakes we're in Barnes, which kicks off with a Rick Stein restaurant. For a few hundred glorious yards we follow the riverside, either side of Barnes Bridge, where a blue plaque amid a row of bijou cottages marks the residence of Gustav Holst in his pre-Planets days. Eights and fours scull on the water. None of the bus's regulars bat an eyelid.

Barnes High Street manages to be quaint and upmarket without being crass. I spot a fishmonger and two jewellers and a children's clothes boutique and a Real Cheese shop, and note that the Barnes Farmers Market is in full swing. Nowhere anywhere near where I live is anything like this. Barnes Green is a wing-shaped expanse with a large pond at its centre and an island in the centre of that, plus more than one place to eat pastries round the perimeter. There are further shops beyond St Mary's Church, including one that sells actual records, and by this point I'm praying for some interesting passengers to board so that I can write about something other than retail.

Here they are, by the turn for the Wetland Centre - a pair of young children in woolly hats off on a jolly day trip with their mother. Richie refuses to sit on her lap and settles on a separate seat, rifling through his multicoloured rucksack for an I-SPY book. Florrie demands chocolate, and gets some once she's remembered the magic word is please. This prompts Richie to demand some too, which prompts Florrie to ask for more, and both are successfully fed. This pantomime sustains me as we pass between the grand villas of Castelnau, the bus now comfortably full. Clattering over the iron span of Hammersmith Bridge, between green-painted struts, I note that the view upstream is definitely better than the view down.

Touching down in North London I spot an electric vehicle charging point that's actually being used, and a moped driver doing the knowledge with a highlighted list of destinations on her clipboard. Most of those aboard pour off at the penultimate stop beyond the flyover, which is most convenient for the shops, while a few of us ignore the exodus and stay aboard for the final spiral into the heart of the gyratory. This is what a proper bus station ought to look like, with parallel stands, stripy walkways and clocks on poles that don't work. "Can you find Bus Stop F?" mother asks of Richie, and the trio stride off into the shopping centre, perhaps wishing route 9 still went all the way.

 Monday, January 07, 2019

Route 346: Upminster to Upminster Park Estate
London's 9th shortest bus route
Length of journey: 2.70 miles (10 minutes)

Several of London's shortest bus routes lurk on the very edge of the capital to keep one particular housing estate connected to the wider network. In this case it's one side of one particular housing estate, the 248 doing a perfectly good job of linking the rest, across fields sequentially swallowed up to the north of Cranham. The 346 has been running (not very far) since 1988, with a couple of vehicles shuttling back and forth every day except Sunday. For a handful of peripheral streets it's a damned good service.

The outbound route kicks off from the high street beyond the Upminster branch of Wimpy, which is mildly frustrating because the inbound'll drop you off on the sliproad immediately outside the station. A slew of homebound shoppers board, one with a bouquet of New Season tulips in her Sainsbury's bag, another with a copy of the Daily Mail poking out of her M&S reusable. Several bobble-hatted families potter by, as well as a stream of merry scarf-wearing West Ham supporters. Outside the card shop a woman is stuffing bags of silver and blue helium balloons into the back of her Range Rover, and loses a couple, which drift helplessly into the sky.

At the official Upminster Christmas tree we turn left past a further parade of small shops and a mighty Waitrose. These make way for a run of sturdy semis, a few infill cottages and a secondary school which once escaped from Mile End. Nobody's taken down the poppy decorations at the Royal British Legion, perhaps they never do. The other bus route which plies this road is the 347, London's least frequent service, whose consecutive numbering can't be a coincidence. It ploughs ahead for North Ockendon after the railway bridge, whereas we turn left again past Cranham's millennial village sign.

The two drivers on route 346 never meet, except for halfway through the run, where our driver makes a point of winding down his window and reaching out to bump hands with his colleague. Up next is the District line's eastern depot, its sidings rammed with laid-up stock thanks to engineering works, and by far Cranham's largest centre of employment. A shopping parade has grown up at the junction where two country lanes once met, including a pie and mash shop and a hair salon called Nigel's. We take Moor Lane.

One final pair of passengers have boarded, the wife with a walking stick, the husband swiping both their cards while she makes for a seat. The 346 has saved them getting their car out, and will save her a half-mile struggle up the hill, as a fine example of the social good that the London bus network performs daily. We pass a string of semis and several large bungalows, whose front gardens are generally big enough to hold a double parking space, some shrubbery and the occasional ornamental lamppost. The trio of streets to our right run down to the edge of the Green Belt and stop dead. By the time we reach the last of them, everyone bar me has alighted.

To finish we weave through a more recent part of the estate, now with flats amidst the family homes, and taxis and white vans amongst the vehicles parked outside. The driver is about to embark on a big loop to turn the bus round and return, so parks up by the playground to change the blind. I'm deposited beside a hump of muddy lawn, a chain of pylons framing the view, and the screen of a huge telly clearly visible in one of the flats opposite. Four pre-teenage cyclists parade by, repeatedly lifting their front wheels off the ground because they think it makes them look ten years older. Some seagulls circle. The other 346 driver will be back here soon to whisk me away.

Route 129: Greenwich to North Greenwich
London's 10th shortest bus route
Length of journey: 2.85 miles (15 minutes)

The 129 is an oddly stunted bus route, always intended to go further but which as yet never has. It was introduced in 2006 to give residents of the Millennium Village a bus link to the centre of Greenwich, with an eye to extending it onwards through new developments to Peckham. But those new developments still haven't been built, and a further proposal to extend it to Lewisham has been held up by Crossrail shenanigans, so the 129 continues on its minimal trajectory unabated.

The eastbound journey starts near the Cutty Sark, at a bus stop clearly labelled "Buses must not stand here". But my 129 is definitely standing, and flashing its hazard warning lights as mitigation, because the driver got here early and there's a set departure time and basically the system doesn't work. Eventually the flashing stops and on we pour, at least three of us, and damn the other two have nicked the top deck front seats. This used to be a single decker, but recently got doubled for reasons which aren't entirely clear. That said, the 129 manages to transport more than a million passengers a year, which is pretty impressive for a sub-3-miler.

We zip off round the Old Royal Naval College, picking up tourists who think we're the quickest way to the tube, but should have caught a 188 instead. At the BP garage an old red Routemaster is queueing up to use the pumps, but is stuck behind a Routemaster in midnight-black Ghost Bus Tours livery. Trafalgar Road is a motley mix of laundrettes and takeaways, nail bars and tattooists, once-a-week wine bars and old-school boozers, thus far resisting the trickledown effect of waterside development. The largest modern intruder is Greenwich Square, a silver-clad fortress on the site of a former hospital, after which a more down-at-heel vibe returns. Quite what foreign visitors make of their tour of East Greenwich, and the concrete pillars of the Blackwall Tunnel Approach, I'm not sure.

Your Sainsbury's has moved, says the big orange sign by the petrol station. And indeed it has, the award-winning eco-building flattened so that IKEA can build a big blue shed instead. It's almost finished, and will be opening in precisely one month's time bringing who-knows-what kind of gridlock to local roads. In the meantime diggers and construction workers have taken over half of the roadway out front and we can only proceed when the man with the swivelly Go sign says so. Some passengers alight for a film at the Odeon, or a cheeky Nando's, but B&Q is proving less of a draw.

Twenty years after it was rehabilitated, the Greenwich peninsula is a curious mix of construction and abandonment. Some city blocks are fully apartmented, some have allegedly temporary use as car parks and others remain fenced-off grassy waste. The traffic light system continues to assume complete development, and so we wait on red for absolutely no cars whatsoever, negating the provision of a segregated busway. At the paradoxically named Oval Square the two front-seat-hoggers alight, heading back to their matchbox stack (and giving the local wellness facility a wide berth).

In a fit of unconnectedness, no bus stop has been provided adjacent to the Dangleway. The fountains beside the final set of traffic lights have been uprooted and a temporary wooden viewing platform plonked on top. The last patch of land before Peninsula Square is being swallowed up by a densely-packed Design District, currently a mess of soil and half a dozen diggers. Even before we reach the edge of the bus station our driver has already played the "This bus terminates here" message, and then plays it again on the final approach, and then plays it two more times after we've stopped to make sure everyone gets the message. The journey really has been that short, we really do have to alight here, and so the yo-yoing Greenwich shuttle continues.

LONDON'S SHORTEST BUS ROUTES: The vast majority of London bus routes are somewhere between 5 and 10 miles long. Longer than that and they risk getting unreliable, shorter than that and why bother? But some bus routes are really quite short, for all sorts of reasons, and this week I'm going to tell you all about the ten shortest.

TfL don't widely advertise the lengths of their bus routes, but when they write specifications for operators they generally provide stop by stop details down to the nearest hundredth of a mile. So I've used those.

» Distances in one direction aren't usually precisely the same as distances in the other, so I've taken the inbound and outbound distances and averaged the two.
» For example route E1 is 3.20 miles from Greenford to Ealing but 3.05 miles from Ealing to Greenford, averaging out at 3.125 miles, so that's in 12th place, so I won't be riding that.
» For example route 399 is only 1.9 miles in one direction, which ought to make it one of the three shortest routes on the entire network. But it's 4.1 miles in the other direction because it's a circular route and that's how TfL have decided to split it. Average out 1.9 and 4.1 and you get 3 miles precisely, so that's in 11th place, so I won't be riding that either.

You might choose to rank the routes differently, that's fine. But this is how I'm doing it.

London's 10 shortest bus routes are a diverse bunch, geographically speaking, and none of them overlaps with another. That's good news, given that I'm going to be writing about a ride on each and attempting to keep it interesting. Let's do two a day, counting down to the shortest route of all.

RankRoute OutInAverage
1389Barnet (The Spires) - Western Way1.81.51.65 miles
2327Waltham Cross - Elsinge Estate1.702.041.87 miles
3507Waterloo - Victoria2.202.272.24 miles
4379Yardley Lane Estate - Chingford2.042.472.26 miles
515HTrafalgar Square - Tower Hill2.342.382.36 miles
6W7Muswell Hill - Finsbury Park2.502.452.48 miles
7R9Orpington - Ramsden Estate1.93.42.65 miles
8209Mortlake - Hammersmith2.72.72.70 miles
9346Upminster - Upminster Park Estate2.293.112.70 miles
10129Greenwich - North Greenwich2.82.92.85 miles

The next dozen: 399, E1, 323, 521, 330, 268, 291, 100, C2, W10, 312, RV1 (all under 4 miles)

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