diamond geezer

 Friday, December 09, 2005

The Last Routemaster
Route 159: Marble Arch - Streatham
Location: London south, inner
Length of journey: 9 miles, 65 minutes

I made my last journey on the last Routemaster route a few weeks ago, back when the extraordinary was still ordinary. I was hoping to grab one of the top deck front seats but, even on a quiet Saturday at the far western end of Oxford Street, I was beaten to this prime location by a family of 4 and a bloke in a grey anorak. The bloke in the grey anorak conformed to every stereotype you might expect of a serial bus spotter. His anorak was weatherproof and toggled, his spectacles were thick and functional, his rucksack was that special Milletts shade of beigey-grey and his camera was the size of a small child. I carried out a quick subconscious check to make sure that I was wearing nothing similar. The family of 4, meanwhile, had evidently been dragged on board because Dad wanted to make one final journey on a Routemaster before time ran out. He allowed his two teenage children to sit in the front seat while he and his mute wife took up position immediately behind. Daughter was desperately unimpressed - "But I've been on this bus so many times Daddy oh look Selfridges!" - and preoccupied herself instead by shovelling seaweed and sushi into her mouth. Son was less obviously bored, but spent most of his time discussing Hollywood special effects - "Cor, Ice Age lights!!" - and the squash shoes he hoped to get for Christmas - "Mummy do not buy him new trainers he won't use them!".

A bittersweet mix of ancient and modern was visible from the top deck as we drove along. An old lady gestured wildly from the pavement as our driver sailed past without stopping, while a younger braver soul leapt confidently onto the rear platform. In Regent Street our progress along the bus lane was blocked by a gaggle of fragile rickshaws parked up outside Hamleys, poaching custom from glowering cabbies. Down Haymarket a retired couple sat glumly in a plush red booth in the window of an Angus Steak House, while just down the road some brighter young things sat on full display on Starbucks stools, nibbling paninis and sipping mochas. In Trafalgar Square a lone pigeon perched high atop Nelson's stone hat, her species almost extinct across the pedestrianised plaza below. And we earnt sideways smiles from our fellow passengers aboard every 159 passing by in the opposite direction, whilst looking down contemptuously on every over-long bendy bus stuck blocking the roadway.

The conductor unwisely moved forward to check our tickets while our bus was cornering hard round the edge of Parliament Square. Centrifugal force caused him to lose his footing and he nearly (but not quite) fell on top of Family Dad. No harsh words were spoken, indeed there were broad smiles as if it were almost a privilege to be nearly flattened by an endangered species. We sped past the foot of Big Ben and crossed the Thames, the very last Routemaster route to penetrate south London. The ghastly squat concrete building in the centre of the roundabout on the east side of Westminster Bridge was finally being demolished - that's one 60s extinction that won't be missed. Dad pointed out the plaque on Charlie Chaplin's house, just up from Kennington Cross, although Son's silver screen knowledge didn't seem to stretch that far back.

A full hour after leaving Marble Arch we were queuing to enter Brixton. I could see that Daughter was less than excited by the retail opportunities available down this particular high street. Maybe she was put off by the police sign warning of rampant mobile phone thefts, or the old man in a wheelchair sat alone and mumbling outside KFC, or the Chinese lady singing Amazing Grace backed by a support team in 'Praise God' puffa jackets. Dad was more impressed by the sight of the old brick tramshed - "I really like trams, I do" - which, back in 1870, formed the southern terminus of London's very first tramway. Perhaps appropriately, today's final journeys on Route 159 will follow an identical route.

We continued to climb Brixton Hill, zipping past another yet empty bus stop with every double-ding of the bell. A brace of Routemasters stuck their shiny red noses out of Brixton Bus Garage on the top of Streatham Hill. Come lunchtime today, as each 159 crew calls in here for its regular meal break, their brave old vehicles will be withdrawn from service one by one, forever. But we still had one last mile to travel down the Streatham High Road, past a panoply of shops, nightclubs and bowling alleys, accompanied part of the way by an elegaic Air on a G String ringtone. And finally, very finally, absolutely finally, to a bleak bus stop beside a graffitied phonebox on a dual carriageway opposite the Streatham Ice Arena. Time for us all, reluctantly, to disembark. I watched as the bus turned across the High Road and pulled up in front of the small satellite garage here, waiting patiently to make its return journey. I watched as Dad led his family across the street to take some final photographs of this transport of delight, purring quietly at the kerbside. And I watched as even 'unimpressed' Daughter whipped out her phone to snap one last close-up shot of the front of this iconic vehicle. That's Routemaster magic. Missing you already.

159 links
Route 159: anorak-level route information
Route 159: timetable
Route 159: last day of Routemaster service (December 2005)
Route 159: yet more photos

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