Square Routes: Day 9 x 9 Bus 81: Hounslow - Slough
Location: London west, outer
Length of journey: 12 miles, 55 minutes
The 81 heads west out of west London and keeps going, and keeps going, right off the edge of the map. I think (and Matt will undoubtedly tell me if I'm wrong) that the 81 is the London bus route that terminates the furthest away from the centre of the capital. About 25 miles away, in this case. And, as for that final distant destination, I had hoped I'd seen the last of this particular town earlier this year when my bosses sanely decided not to relocate my workplace in this far-flung hellhole. But no, here I was destined to return. Bloody square numbers.
Hounslow felt far west enough, but this was merely where my journey on the 81 began. The bus station here has seen better days, just eight featureless bus bays beneath an ancient roof, and thankfully due to be rebuilt before the end of the decade. I could have bought a halal burger for just £1.50 nextdoor in the Hounslow Snack Bar but I chose not to. The town centre was thronging with red and white buses, while jet planes droned overhead on their final approach into Heathrow. I didn't think the shopping centre was too bad actually, but then I'm used to East London and almost anywhere else's shops are better than that.
In the High Street our bus was boarded by a teenage single mother in a bright pink coat with white fur trim. At first glance her hair appeared blond, but closer inspection showed that her roots were as black as her eyeliner. She carefully manoeuvred a giant pink three-wheeler pram (with leopardskin trim) into the wheelchair space, then settled down to flick through something important on her mobile phone. The pram was full of cuddly toys, its interior completely sealed off from the outside world by a protective plastic covering. Of the baby itself I neither saw nor heard any trace for the entire journey.
We followed the old Bath Road out of Hounslow, then took the A4 along the northern perimeter of Heathrow Airport. I ducked instinctively as an Air China jumbo screamed unexpectedly low above our heads. The airport stretched out beside us for a good three miles, a mass of towers and tailfins and terminals. On the opposite side of the road stood an endless succession of anonymous shoeboxes, or 'hotels', where weary business travellers prepared to spend yet another lonely night emptying the minibar. Near the motorway slip road the bus was boarded by a swarm of off-duty cleaners and service staff, heading west away from their menial jobs towards where the cheaper housing is. Some town planning joker had named a nearby cul-de-sac 'Heathrow Close', which was an understatement.
Suddenly we were crossing over six lanes of snarled-up traffic on the M25 and making a clean break out of London. Grey gave way to green. The winding village of Colnbrook looked like it had been successfully saved from the ravages of 75 years of motor damage thanks to the building of one of Britain's first bypasses. Langley was more suburban, one of its lampposts transformed into a shrine by the addition of several bouquets of flowers. The bloke beside me began to fall asleep, as if in anticipation of our final destination, gradually lowering his weary head onto my shoulder. As we swung round the M4 roundabout he woke with a start, apologised profusely to cover his embarrassment and then promptly fell asleep on my shoulder again.
And then Slough was upon us. Home of the Mars Bar, birthplace of Thunderbirds and an inspiration to John Betjeman. Or, as far as I could tell through the bus window, a fairly typical modern town with a huge shopping centre, lot of cars and no character. My apologies to those who live and work here, but I'm glad that I do neither. We made a full circuit of 'that roundabout you see in the opening titles of The Office' before pulling up just outside the equally legendary Brunel Bus Station. It's a grim building, dark and filthy and forgotten. My photo shows the westernmost bus stop on the entire London Transport bus network, where a line of Slough residents waited to board escape vehicle 81 back to civilisation. I had the choice of a dingy subway leading south towards the delights of the town centre or a short walk to the railway station and a fast exit. I'm sure you can guess which route I chose.