Route 724 was introduced in 1967, as a North London orbital service linking Romford with High Wycombe. It linked together most of the major centres of population in Hertfordshire, venturing into the capital only at its far eastern end. The route was tweaked in 1972 to terminate via Heathrow rather High Wycombe, which made far greater financial sense. A single ticket from one end to the other cost all of 60 pence, which wasn't bad for a full three and a half hours spent on a bus. This was my family's local Green Line coach, the one that stopped at the bottom of our road, and we'd often nip aboard if we were going to St Albans or Hertford or somewhere equally glamorous. The Romford end was later lopped off, leaving the 724 to run between Harlow and Heathrow. It's a journey no sane 21st century traveller would think of making. So I did.
Harlowbusstation might once have been impossibly glamorous, but these days it's a run-down dump. Once an hour a big green bus arrives to whisk passengers away, which is too good an offer to refuse, even for seven quid. The bus is nearly half full (which when there are only 39 seats isn't difficult. Nobody else looks like they're going to the airport - the oversized baggage racks remain empty. Instead there are several senior citizens taking advantage of their free travel pass, and a few paying customers going not quite as far as fifty miles. We zip along a bus lane and immediately exit Essex into Hertfordshire - "County of opportunity". Our route first takes us parallel to the Stort, then over the Lea, then immediately alongside the top end of the New River. The roads are good and we roll into Hertford only a few minutes behind schedule.
Route 724 makes a special effort to pass Hertford North station, where a young woman is waiting with a small piece of hand luggage. She expects the bus to stop, then raises her arm when it looks like it might not, then raises both in despair when our driver fails to brake and sails straight past. The official message is "signal clearly for bus to stop", but this drive-by looks very much like a jobsworth attempt to abandon a potential passenger. With the next coach at least an hour away, on a notoriously unreliable service, the penalty for this woman's brief inattention is depressingly severe.
Welwyn Garden City fails to live up to its middle name, at least along the roads our bus follows. Out on one of the eastern estates a loudmouth family of five gets on, and proceeds to shatter our previous calm. The youngest, Connor, is denied permission to sit up front beside the driver, so rushes to the back to grab a set of four "for me, you, Rachel and Liam". Young Rachel rounds off one particular conversation with a loud "oh Mum you evil bitch", which makes Mum grin but the rest of us grimace. At Hatfield station the driver cuts off the engine and alights to drop off the contents of the fare-box. Our stationary vehicle is blocking the progress of another bus behind, so Connor promptly volunteers Liam to drive the coach out of the way. Liam sounds more than willing. Liam might almost be 15. Thankfully our driver returns before any underage hotwiring is required. Even more thankfully, the brood abandons ship at the Galleria.
We endure slow moving jams on the approach to St Albans, so that by the time we reach the station we're more than fifteen minutes late. A dear old lady stands up ready to get off at the next stop in the town centre, but it's further than she thinks and our driver sensibly advises her to sit down and wait. She's then terribly unsure where to board the bus for the return journey, so the driver spends several minutes explaining where to go... and how the timetable works... and waiting for her to hobble off onto the pavement. Now that's customer service for you. And twenty-five minutes late.
The next section through Watford and Rickmansworth is my home patch, so I amuse myself by looking out of the window and spotting the changes. The former YHA HQ on St Stephen's Hill has been turned into flats. The Noke Hotel, if not its associated roundabout, has been rebranded a charmless Thistle. Odhams Printers in North Watford, former home of TV Times and Woman's Weekly, has metamorphosed into an Asda. WatfordJunction, where lots of potential rail passengers alight, is a completely different station. The Watford Observer's former HQ is another housing estate, as is Miss Cooper's infant school classroom where I learnt to do hard sums. And the driving test centre on Moneyhill Parade, where I finally passed on the third attempt, is now a nondescript care home. Everything's changed, except the 724.
We should be at Heathrow by now, but instead we've only just reached the western edge of Hertfordshire. The roads are faster now as we speed into Denham - unexpectedly "Twinned with Shark Bay, Australia". At long last the coach crosses into London and heads for the centre of Uxbridge where half the remaining passengers disembark. The rest of us stay on board for a final tour of dual carriageways and reservoirs, until the increasing density of major hotels hints heavily that the airport is imminent. A segregated bus lane guides us under the northern runway into the heart of the beast, rolling up at Heathrow's bus station a full half hour late. Inconvenient, but nothing calamitous for those with a plane to catch. As the last of us climbs down to the pavement the driver smiles. Nobody wants to ride the last three miles to Terminal 5, so she gets to park up and start her break early. And then it's three hours back to Harlow, should anyone be mad enough to join her.
A reminder that the very first Green Line coach ran 80 years ago tomorrow. To celebrate the anniversary, a commemorative Green Line Road Run is taking place along former route 715 between London and Guildford [details][more details][timetable], should you fancy a nostalgic run out to the Home Counties.