Bus 43: London Bridge - Friern Barnet Location: London north Length of journey: 9 miles, 70 minutes
Last year I rode the 42 to Dulwich. So this year, for my birthday, I thought I'd ride the 43 to Barnet. I wondered if, perhaps, its lengthy journey to the north London suburbs would provide a metaphor for life. And, you know what, maybe it does.
Life kicks off with a long wait: The 43 must have the scariest bus queue in London. Fifty metres of pavement adjacent to bus stop C have been marked out for a narrow doublebacked queue, with painted lanes arrowed up and down and back up again, as if this were some over-popular Disneyland attraction. Every weekday morning hundreds of Kentish commuters pour out of London Bridge station and wait here patiently, politely, for their cross-river transport to the City. But at the weekend getting aboard was rather easier. There were only four of us waiting, and we ignored the arrows on the ground altogether.
Life can get lonely: The City of London is an unnervingly quiet place on a Saturday afternoon. The financiers stay at home, the shops are firmly closed, and crews of workmen take the opportunity to lug giant cranes up medieval lanes to shift the skyline while nobody's looking. And so we sped through EC2 while absolutely nobody whatsoever boarded our bus, not until we passed Moorgate's rampant griffin and entered downtown Islington. And even then not one soul dared to climb the stairs to join me on the top deck. The girl with the guitar; the pair of mums with bag-filled pushchair; the lady jabbering in a foreign language consisting entirely of vowels; the screaming kid emitting "I'm being kidnapped" yelps - they all crammed in downstairs and left me sitting in peace above their heads. I expected my solitude to end in Upper Street, packed with trendy trinket shoppers, but almost everybody lined up at its chain of bus stops turned out to be waiting for other services to take them somewhere rather nicer instead.
Life begins at Highbury: Well, Highbury Corner at least. The long trek up the Holloway Road, past the off licences and chicken cottages, was where the 43's journey finally got busier. I listened in on the witterings of my fellow passengers. "If I wasn't going to the estate agent I'd definitely be going to your house to see the mannequins." I never did get to the bottom of that mystery. "I'm not five Daddy, I'm five and a half. How old are you, are you 43?" Honest, the flaxen-haired angel sat behind me really asked that, and Daddy really was. "Goodbye darling, hugs and kisses, and love to Jemima." Hmm, leafy Tufnell Park ahead.
Life is an uphill struggle: Virtually the whole of the 43's journey from the Thames to the suburbs was slowly, relentlessly, uphill. Onward we crawled, up the A1, through ringroad-scarred Archway, beneath Suicide Bridge, and ascending the organic slopes of Highgate. No burger'n'kebab joints were evident here - the residents appeared to dine out in cantinas and brunch daily on Eggs Benedict. The bus then queued behind a traffic jam of Ocado vans before turning right, past Peter Sellers' cottage and woodland daffodils, to the giddy heights of Muswell Hill. Here in this highbrow middle-class enclave, looking down across an ocean of lesser rooftops, our journey peaked. Very tasteful, very much like a Home Counties market town. Along the Broadway I spotted several proper independent shops, and the odd boutique, and even a pub discreetly tucked inside a huge Victorian church. Blue-rinsed ladies lined up to board the bus with their trolley of M&S comestibles to ride the few stops home.
Life gets you down: And finally back down into the valley, past the first bog standard suburban streets of the entire journey. On and on, across the streaming North Circular and out into unexplored ColneyHatch. The penultimate passenger alighted at the old Friern Barnet Town Hall, now converted into luxury apartmentettes. And only I stayed on until the occasionally-open library, where this bus terminates. At this lonely outpost the driver had only a man with a clipboard for company, and a tiny lockable portakabin for officially sanctioned bladder-emptying. It was a very different spot to go-ahead London Bridge, three score minutes and ten ago.
Life ends up in hospital: But blimey, what was that enormous building just up the road? I mean, like, truly enormous (in terms of length rather than height, that is). Look, a 500m-long residential block with central dome and various perpendicular wings, looking every inch a college or important administrative bastion. Except no, this grand Italianate building was once the largest mental hospital in London. Forget Bedlam, this was the pinnacle of Victorian lunatic provision, tucked away on the leafy outskirts of town where everybody could forget about it. ColneyHatchAsylum boasted the longest corridor in Britain, perfect for wheeling patients down, and up to 3500 inmates were crammed and strait-jacketed inside. As its infamy spread, so Londoners started using the words "Colney Hatch" as a term of abuse, and pretty soon the local station had to change its name to "New Southgate" to avoid any unwanted stigma. It's not a mental hospital any more, of course, it's been reborn as the rather exclusive Princess Park Manor development. There's only one vehicular entrance, guarded by fearsome security guards who check off every visitor against an approved list. The rest of the perimeter is securely fenced, no longer to lock the inmates inside but to keep undesirable elements out. Now jogging bankers exercise on the landscaped lawns, and a gated elite live out their days in rooms which were once anything but desirable. But I'm not convinced many of them ever commute aboard the 43 to the City - they'd have to be insane to sit on a bus for that long.