diamond geezer

 Wednesday, July 14, 2010

coach stopIf modern London has a forgotten means of public transport, it's probably the coach. Not that they're unpopular, far from it, but this is one form of transport that Londoners themselves rarely use. Instead the coach brings commuters into the city, and out-of-towners in from the provinces, and European tourists in from abroad. London's not quite big enough to support a network of comfortable coach journeys within its borders, a function long since taken over by the railways. Instead the coach functions best over longer distances where no trains run, or where tickets are far too expensive. If you don't mind how long it takes, you just want to get there, then the coach is for you.

And yet it's surprisingly difficult to gain an overview of where the capital's coach routes run. The coach section of TfL's website is aimed more at coach operators than passengers. There's no central resource showing precisely where the coaches run, nor any map detailing the distribution of the multitude of coach stops where you can pick one up. But coaches have long been the battleground of private enterprise, where competition rather than cooperation is the norm. They form a network of necessity, forever parallel to the all-inclusive public world of Oyster. Coaches run through a non-Londoner's London, with a cluster of buildings in Victoria as its hub.

Should you ever need to visit, you'll find Victoria Coach Station tucked just far enough out of sight behind the main railway terminus. A netherworld of bureaux de change and tourist tat, where incomers are dumped, and where escapees wait for release. On one side of Elizabeth Street is the smaller 'arrivals' zone. Desks here have patient lines for booking minicabs or hotel rooms, the latter heavily patronised by those who haven't planned ahead. But the main meat of VCS fills a three acre block to the south, because departing takes far longer than turning up.

Victoria Coach StationVictoria Coach Station was built in the early 1930s, hence its Art Deco façade which could easily be mistaken for a period cinema. Step within, and the entrance hall is a little more authoritarian. A few timetables, some payphones (remember them), and an information kiosk to point you on your way. For those without a ticket the queue snakes out of sight into a gloomy alcove, so making your way to Birmingham or Berlin could take longer than you think. Then better sit down, and wait, for your coach to be called. The seats are nothing luxurious, and at busy times you can probably expect to stand. But at least the waiting areas retain a little 30s style, not least thanks to the tapering turquoise columns and a recent sympathetic rebrand. [photo]

The coaches themselves are holed up within a central courtyard, screened off from their imminent passengers through a curve of barriered glass. Images from the olden days have been stickered to the windows, including black and white photos of parked-up motorbuses and the colourful logos of such coach companies as Grey Green and Yorkshire Traction. A central driveway divides the waiting area into two hermetically sealed halves, linked via a bleak pedestrian crossing, so watch carefully for the Sheffield Express as you nip across.

The whole place has an air of limbo about it, like a cramped backwoods airport terminal. Victoria Coach Station is somewhere that travellers put up with rather than enjoy - an acclimatisation zone for the lengthy journey that lies ahead. But while air and long-distance rail travel continue to cost so much, expect VCS to thrive. Out of sight, but never out of favour.

Shunned from Victoria, and forced to pull up at lesser stabling points across Buckingham Palace Road, are the remnants of one of London's classic coach companies. Green Line Coaches was formed in July 1930, and ran its very first service 80 years ago this coming Saturday. 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. And until Saturday expect this blog to be filled with a selection of Green Line related posts, because I fancy a nostalgic run out to the Home Counties too.

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