Bus 246: Bromley North - Chartwell Location: London southeast Length of journey: 15 miles Duration: 50 minutes (timetabled), 2 hours 55 minutes (actual)
It's London's most elevated bus route. It runs through the corner of London that's furthest from a railway station. It accepts Oyster cards south of the M25. It ventures along steep, narrow, leafy country lanes. It only runs, to the end of the line, about 250 times a year. And I spent three bloody hours on it yesterday because I made an elementary scheduling error. It's the 246, and it's the bus to Winston Churchill's house.
Bromley North station in a power cut, not the best of starts. All the traffic lights were down, and the empty-ish bus stumbled slowly through the undirected traffic. And then, at Bromley South, further complications. A teenage lad tried to board without a vaild ticket, claiming power-cut-related Oyster hardship. He argued adamantly that no shop could currently top him up, but the driver (and then a passenger, and then an inspector) told him in no certain terms to get off. Eventually, with a shower of lurid cursing, he backed down and moped off down the High Street. During this time, however, an unusually large queue of passengers had gathered at the bus stop. They piled aboard, filling the seats and the aisles to overflowing, leaving one late-arriving mum and her giant twin-buggy disconsolate at the kerbside. Never mind dear, there'll be another bus along in an hour.
Off through the suburbs of Bromley, occasionally stopping to let old ladies and their shopping disembark (but not stopping to let glaring would-be passengers get on). Past the end of the line at Hayes station, then exiting suburbia and zipping briskly across the common. So far so good. But then the serious traffic jams began. An interminable queue of snaking traffic on the approach to Keston village, inching forward a few feet at a time, with no sign of escape. It was at this point that I realised how badly I'd mistimed my bus journey. The annual Biggin Hill Air Fair was getting underway, three miles down the road, and every visitor who wasn't on the bus appeared to be in a car ahead of us. My fellow passengers became agitated. They shuffled and muttered and moaned. They tried to ring friends, but found that the mobile network had collapsed. Many of those without small children decided to get off and walk (it'll only take an hour and a bit, up and down hills, on the hottest day of June so far, why not?).
Some gave up on Keston Common (hell, let's spend the afternoon in the pub instead). Some gave up a quarter of a mile down the road, half an hour later. Gradually the bus emptied to tolerable seating levels, while the exodus of sweaty walkers passing alongside increased. Those of us who remained aboard could hear jet engines and roaring fighters in the distance, and occasionally (when the canopy of trees permitted) we caught a subsonic glimpse of what we were missing. Only when the bus finally filtered onto the main road did progress eventually became slightly faster. At one point a knackered pedestrian bashed on the door of the bus and demanded to be allowed on board. Our jobsworth driver apologised that he couldn't halt between stops, at which point the would-be passenger launched into a foul-mouthed Anglo-Saxon tirade (including female body crevices) and spat contemptuously at the window. Had a police officer been watching, an arrest would have been a certainty.
Many local residents (and tired pedestrians) had stopped off at Leaves Green to sit on the grass near the pub and watch the air display for free. Rather better value than the £21 charged by the organisers for a view on the other side of the hedge. The family who'd been sitting in the seats behind me an hour earlier waved from their picnic blanket beneath a shady tree, beer in hand. A DC6 flew by, repeatedly, and a spiralling Chinook proved that even helicopters can do intricate acrobatics. And slowly, finally, we edged towards the airport perimeter. The road runs right past the end of the runway and we arrived just in time to see a Lancaster bomber preparing to soar into the sky. Scores of people were standing along the fence, in contravention of safety advice, many of them bikers for whom the jammed traffic had proved no problem at all. An ear-splitting drone signalled a four-jet flypast, and I strained to look out of the window to watch them looping sunwards. Suddenly my mistimed bus journey didn't seem quite such a trial after all.
The traffic was a breeze after the airfield, but there were only a handful of us left aboard. Through the town of Biggin Hill (it didn't look overly posh, but it boasted a Waitrose almost immediately nextdoor to an M&S Simply Food) and climbing up onto the North Weald. Immediately before crossing into Kent the bus reached Westerham Heights, not only the most southerly bus stop in the capital but also (at 245m) the highest point in Greater Londonby some considerable distance. Not entirely coincidentally, the highest point in Kent lay a few metres further up the road, atop Bestrom's Hill. And then down into a gorgeous green valley, trying to ignore the M25 carving across the landscape in an ugly cutting, and on into the quiet town of Westerham, where this bus terminates.
Except on summer Sundays, when the 246 continues from the villagegreen to Chartwell. There were only five of us left aboard, all National Trust types, waiting patiently to arrive at our final destination more than two hours late. On into wooded uplands, along lanes sufficiently narrow to cause serious manoeuvring problems when we met another bus coming in the opposite direction. There was something very odd about riding a proper red London bus deep into rural seclusion, round sharp tree-lined bends and down into a stately home car park. But how fantastic that it's possible to travel to somewhere so distant and cultured armed only with an Oystercard and an awful lot of patience. And please time your visit to Chartwell more carefully than I did - any other Sunday before November should be fine.