Bus 45: St Pancras - Clapham Park Location: London south Length of journey: 13 miles, 70 minutes
Another birthday, another numerically significant bus journey. Three years ago I took the 42 to Dulwich, two years ago the 43 to Barnet, and last year the 44 to Tooting. So this year I thought I'd ride the 45 to Clapham Park. Who said middle-age wasn't exciting?
There are many glamorous destinations to which a man can travel from St Pancras International. Paris, Brussels, even Margate, to name but a few. But instead I took the bus to Elephant & Castle, Camberwell, Brixton and beyond. Given that I was staying on board until the very last stop, it was the "and beyond" bit which unnerved me.
Only handful of buses pull up St Pancras's central concourse on Midland Road. Most travellers exiting the station here are in search of a taxi, a interminable string of which snaked off into the middle distance along the edge of the building. But my chosen driver wouldn't have turned up his nose at "south of the river, mate?", because that was his job, so with a beep I was aboard and up to the top deck. I had one front seat, and a crusty couple with matching multiple nose piercings took the other. Once appropriately huddled, the green-scarfed woman picked up a discarded Daily Mirror from the ledge in front of her. "I don't want to read any of this crap!" she exclaimed, then proceeded to read the paper from cover to cover all the way to Walworth.
From the bustle of King's Cross my 45 then hurtled down the less familiar Gray's Inn Road. Never quite fashionable, this retail backwater was lined by a variety of independent outlets which felt oddly understated for somewhere so close to the City boundaries. We paused at a bus stop near the junction with Guilford Street, allowing us to peer down into Christos Antoniou's tiny tailor's shop. A bespoke fitting was underway between the window display and a cramped workshop out back, clearly revealing the gentleman customer's sprawling shoulder-tattoo to all those on the top deck. On via Holborn to the Lower Fleet Valley, passing demolished and undemolished chunks of Smithfield Market and with a golden glimpse of the dome of St Paul's as we crossed Ludgate Circus.
Twenty minutes into our journey it was Blackfriars Bridge, currently more building site than elegant span, which marked our passage into London South. The chatter on the bus grew louder with each passing stop, my ears especially assaulted by half a mobile conversation a few rows behind. By the time we reached St George's Circus I'd heard everything there was to know about Carol's wedding plans, and by Elephant and Castle the full rundown on current redundancy terms for unwanted architects. Here a local nutter suddenly appeared in the road, failing first to gain entry to a passing bendy bus, then beating on our driver's door in a vain attempt to gain entry. His curses were accompanied by the sweet sound of a band of gospel singers, grinning and swaying as they attempted to save souls in the shadow of the Elephant's new Philishave-shaped skyscraper.
We entered the Walworth Road bus queue - there are no stations at all for the next couple of miles so everybody relies on a steady stream of red four-wheelers. The apartments to either side ranged from dour grey lumps to primary-coloured shoeboxes, before giving way to a High Street no Chelsea shopper would ever frequent. And yet with shoes from the market costing just £5 a pair, and an entire windowful of wigs at Julia Know's Beauty, not to mention the delights of the Mixed Blessings Bakery, it was no wonder so many passengers alighted here. I was joined on the top deck by a West Indian mother and her two children, one tot happily wrapped and gurgling, the elder boy bedecked in bobblehat and dropping Mentos mints on the floor.
Changeover at Camberwell Green, and the opportunity (while we waited) to watch four karate kids kicking and stretching beside an empty playground. Then crowds piled on for the cross-border journey to Lambeth, down Coldharbour Lane (currently closed for roadworks, but I made this journey before those kicked in to avoid a diversion - I plan ahead like that). At last an actual residential street with flats and faded terraces, with even the occasional glimpse of 'cottage'. At Loughborough Junction a plastic bag packed with toilet rolls arrived on board, carried by a lad in a hoodie/beanie/puffa combination. And so the bus twisted on, increasingly packed, to Brixton.
An hour ago we were in the supposed safety of the City, now a plastic bin chained to the police station invited passers-by to "bin your blades here". Past seething shops, street preachers and the freshly-scrubbed expanse of Windrush Square. And then out of the fray, up the gentle incline of Brixton Hill - a broad thoroughfare edged by a grassy strip on one side and a big prison on the other. Those still aboard craned their necks to watch a barely pubescent copper taking down notes from the driver of a stopped car. Then a sharp right turn and we began our final descent into ClaphamPark, amidst whose inter-war council blocks our driver turfed us out. Not living round here, there seemed very little reason not to cross the road and wait for him to rest, reverse and pick me up again.