Route 46: Lancaster Gate - Farringdon Street Location: inner London north Length of journey: 9 miles, 75 minutes
Another birthday, another numerically significant bus journey. Four years ago I took the 42 to Dulwich, three years ago the 43 to Barnet, two years ago the 44 to Tooting and last year the 45 to Clapham. So this year, obviously, I took the 46 to Farringdon. Who said middle-age wasn't exciting?
The 46 is London's Lost River tour bus. It starts on the banks of the Westbourne near Hyde Park, heads up the Tyburn towards Hampstead, then turns tail and runs almost the full length of the Fleet. I'd like to think this river-hugging was deliberate, but in truth it's nothing but a quirky coincidence. The number 46 follows a most unusual V-shaped path - first four miles out from central London and then five miles back in again. Take the Central line and you could travel from Lancaster Gate to Chancery Lane in ten minutes flat, whereas by this bus it takes well over an hour. You'd have to be mad to ride the entire route. So, obviously, I did.
The Westbourne The Royal Lancaster Hotel is an ugly thing - a tall white tower enlivened only by the symmetrical arrangement of curtains and lampshades in its windows. At its base, outside Lancaster Gate tube station, the 46's drivers pause and rest and wait for their allocated time of departure. Then it's out into the traffic and round the corner to pull up in front of a bus shelter full of foreign tourists, none of whom want to get on. They don't want Maida Vale and Swiss Cottage, they want the West End, its restaurants and its bright lights. There are plenty of spare seats aboard the 46, at least to begin with.
These aren't glamorous buses, they're ten-year-old single deckers which judder and whine their way through the backstreets of London. First up on my journey was Paddington - not the front of the station but lateral Eastbourne Terrace, where digging for Crossrail has reduced one entire pavement to a cable-filled chasm. Then a canal got in the way. The 46 has to nip across the water once, twice, thrice, four times... first via Bishop's Bridge, second beneath the gloomy concrete pillars of the Westway, and finally (three, four) around the eastern edge of Little Venice. Our lengthy zigzag through the white stucco villas of W9 then ground to a halt in a self-imposed traffic jam at the foot of Abbey Road. This isn't the end with the famous zebra crossing, only a set of traffic lights, so our bus caused five minutes of static honking chaos by being too big to slip down a road lined with parked cars.
The Tyburn Onward to the lofty courts of St John's Wood, past what used to be Marlborough Road tube station (more recently a Chinese restaurant, now boarded up behind a screen of blue hoardings). Any hint of suburban elegance faded as we approached Swiss Cottage, swinging off the Finchley Road and pausing outside a tiny dry cleaners to take on more passengers. The top of the Tyburn valley is long and steep, at least for London, so a number of Freedom Pass holders took advantage of our bus to save them a tiring ascent. Close to the river's source a shaven headed bloke in a grey hoodie hopped on, pit bull in tow, and bounded up to the back seat of the bus with a grin. Nobody scattered, some even cooed.
Half an hour in, and it was time for the 46 to dog-leg right and head back towards central London. Hampstead's cosmopolitan shopping streets were thronged with weekend shoppers (or at least with local folk out for a cappuccino). We edged slowly through the upmarket swarm. Two American tourists hesiatated by the bus's door to engage our driver in lengthy conversation, before eventually deciding "no, we're gonna get a cab instead thanks" and firing up their iPhone. Others were keener to climb aboard, including a shaven headed bloke in a blue hoodie tugging another pit bull on a thick gold chain. The 46 had suddenly become its own class at Crufts, as the two dog owners yelled compliments at each other down the length of the bus. "She's lovely, how old is she?" "I bought her off this bloke in Wales after my last English bull terrier died of cancer." "My sister's got one too but he's mental."
The Fleet By now the bus was rammed, with standing room (breathing in) only. Not just two dogs but a big pushchair, a man with an industrial carpet cleaner and a family with two scooters. At South EndGreen another pushchair appeared at the front door, and its owner attempted to push it forcefully towards the centre of the bus. It's amazing how many Londoners, and their possessions, can be crammed into thirty square metres. A few stops later our driver had to play the "Please move down inside the bus" message to squeeze another family on board. The obese parents struggled to keep control of their brood of toddlers ("sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down!"), then hopped off after a distance so short it explained their waistlines.
Down the Fleet we trickled. In Belsize Park I watched as an unconscious young man in sunglasses was wheeled into the back of an ambulance. On Prince of Wales Road the smelly lad in the seat behind me reached over my head to open the window, brrr. And only by Kentish Town were the passengers finally starting to thin out, step off and make room. In their place we got grey-Goth Dad (aged 50) and his two black-eyeliner daughters - all very Camden. But not for us the main drag of Camden High Street - we were heading round the back to downmarket Somers Town. London's buses go everywhere, even the less touristy inner hotspots.
By the time the 46 pulled in beside St Pancras station it had been on the road for an hour. I could have walked here quicker, in a straighter line, if only I hadn't needed to complete a senseless birthday-related bus journey. And then a certain sense of deja vu. Last year's birthday-related bus journey, the 45, followed precisely the same route for the next mile down to High Holborn. I'd seen the never-ending building works beside King's Cross station. I'd wondered how bad your teeth have to be before you're sent to the Eastman Dental. And I'd reflected, at length, on the relentless unimportance of the shops down Grays Inn Road. Different bus, same old streets. Until Holborn Circus, that is, where the 46 veered right to descend into the lower reaches of the Fleet Valley. Just one stop, then terminated dead in the backwater of Stonecutter Street. It's not the sort of place anyone would normally alight, but the handful of passengers still on board had to get off here to continue their journeys by other means. Me, I was exactly where I wanted to be, three lost rivers across.