diamond geezer

 Saturday, June 05, 2004

Last Routemaster to Bow (Friday 4th June, 2315-0025)

Typical, you wait decades for the final number 8 Routemaster and then five come along at once. Late last night these five fine vehicles were lined up alongside Victoria station - three red buses, a green one and a white one. A surprisingly large crowd of enthusiasts had gathered to say their farewells and to take one last ride home (so it was just as well there were five buses available). The very last bus in the queue was RML 2760 (the very last Routemaster to be built), chugging away proudly with a Union Jack draped over the bonnet. This was the bus everyone wanted to be aboard, and the conductress had to hold the waiting mob of travellers at bay as if they were eager teenagers waiting to board a coach on a school trip.

I grabbed a window seat on the upper deck as the bus filled up with 'people who ride buses'. The bloke who sat next to me had NHS specs and the faint whiff of body odour, but I'd hate you to think everyone on board was like that. There were serial bus addicts who spent the journey testing each other out on which route ran where, there were friends who only seem to meet up on 'last runs', there were a couple of wives enjoying a double decker Friday night out with their menfolk and there were a few of the shy silent type who just sat and watched. Average age about 40, I would reckon, which is younger than I was expecting. Two blokes regaled us with bawdy songs and the odd lewd comment, a bit like being aboard a rugby club tour bus. One young afro-coiffed lad had even brought along a giant corkboard on which he had written 'Farewell No 8 Routemasters', but alas it was too big to hold up to the windows.

Ding ding. The last journey began. We set off through the illuminated streets of nighttime London, round Hyde Park Corner, up Piccadilly and through the backstreets of Mayfair. A man walked up the stairs carrying a film camera complete with giant furry microphone - the BBC were on board! He took a shot of the giant corkboard (so it wasn't entirely wasted) and pointed his camera in various people's faces (thankfully not mine). A journalist interviewed a few of the travellers, except they seemed more intent on discussing technical operational niceties rather than uttering the magic words "they're a London icon aren't they, we'll miss 'em".

Along Oxford Street the Friday night crowds waiting for their transport home were a bit cheesed off when our packed double decker sailed by without stopping. The bus was three-quarters of an hour late already and some of the on-board enthusiasts were grumbling that they were going to miss their last train home. "I wish they'd finished earlier," said one, oblivious to the irony of his statement. Some succumbed and alighted early to grab a final tube connection, allowing space for a handful of surprised Friday night revellers to take their seat aboard history. We sped past Centre Point, St Paul's and the Bank of England on this final express service to Bow. Just after midnight we passed Liverpool Street, the very last Routemaster to exit the City of London on a scheduled service. Some of us enjoyed the view, others enjoyed the upper deck social club and the BBC crew just slouched on the stairs. Bethnal Green, Roman Road, Bow Church, my house. End of the line.

Nobody wanted to be the first off the bus, mainly because the BBC cameraman was training his lens at all those filing down the stairs. The previous four buses had already disgorged their passengers and a crowd had gathered at the bottom of Fairfield Road to fire flashbulbs at the final double decker. There were still the last few yards into Bow Garage to be negotiated, and a traffic jam of vintage vehicles, current services, taxis and Smart cars had to be cleared from the narrow roadway before this could happen. The driver paused before turning into the garage so that the 200-strong crowd could attempt one last photograph. Only the crew and the BBC team were still on board as he finally disappeared inside the garage (moral: if you want to be part of history, get a job reporting it). The massed multitudes were eventually permitted a five minute photocall inside the garage - a giant shed filled by buses packed tight like loaves of bread in a baker's tray. The BBC were busy interviewing the driver and conductress, and grabbing more shots of us. I managed to capture one last decent photo, and then we were all sent back outside. Some of the old Routemasters were already heading out of the building on the way to their new owners. Slowly the crowd dispersed, ready to meet again in West London when the 7s lose their Routemasters next month.

This morning there are no crowds in Fairfield Road because there are no buses worth seeing. A steady stream of red boxy Tridents trickles out of Bow Garage every 7 minutes, and nobody's interested in the number 8 any more. It's just one more anonymous bus route traversing the capital, 40 years of historic Routemaster service lost overnight. It's hard to imagine anyone ever getting quite so worked up over these new buses. Having said that, the red boxy Tridents that go past my house on route 25 are due to be replaced by huge long bendy buses before the end of this month, and I shall certainly miss them when the only alternative is standing inside a characterless wheelchair-accessible box on wheels, packed in like cattle. But it's the Routemaster that will forever hold a special place in the heart of London. Ever had the feeling that progress is moving relentlessly in the wrong direction?


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