ACROSS LONDON BY BUS(ii) Route 53: Woolwich - Whitehall Length of journey: 10 miles, 60 minutes
If you want the front seat on the top deck, best board the bus at the very first stop, not wait for a mid-Woolwich bundle. My 53's already picked up round the back of Plumstead Common, and the streetsmart brothers occupying the prime seats have no intention of surrendering their advantage. I sit a little further back for the architecturally disjoint journey up Wellington Street, passing boarded-up pubs and a gleaming new library. We pass close-ish to the first of threeOlympicvenues along this bus's route, this the shooting range at the Royal Artillery Barracks, but not close enough to see. The ensuing streets on the approach to Charlton are pleasantly residential, with a surfeit of local parkland. We pause to let a single decker nip in from a sideroad, then back out again, but our 53 only ever drives forward along the hillside. There are occasional fine views down perpendicular terraces, to the Thames estuary below and far beyond. Given that we can see the red-coiled Orbit observation tower from here, presumably future visitors there may be able to spy the distant heights of Charlton.
Blackheath creeps up upon us, heralded by the triangular green at the Royal Standard. We wait long enough outside Gambardella's cafe (High Class... Refreshments) for a privileged overview of late breakfast, retro decor and assembled condiments. Another culinary legend awaits on Blackheath proper - the TeaHut near the Ranger's House. Our 53 takes a deliberate diversion through the middle of this historic greenspace, seemingly only so that passengers can alight for a bacon roll and a mug of tea, but nobody does. The villas around the distant edge of the heath add class to what might otherwise be a plain common, while over the old brick wall is Greenwich Park, site of our journey's second Olympic event. And that's quite enough loveliness for the time being.
The descent from outer to inner London takes quarter of a mile, down Blackheath Hill. It's a different world from Deptford Bridge onwards, across the Ravensbourne, where we properly enter the borough of Lewisham. The area is a hotchpotch of boarded-up brick and shiny newbuild - not the loveliest combination in any era. The 453 begins here, the 53's parallel twin, no longer bendy, not since September. Their top decks are empty, but ours has now reached half-load with nigh every double seat singly occupied. The bloke in front of me has a woolly hat and a toothless grin, while my view through the front window is blocked by the man in front of him reading an oversized Chinese newspaper. We twist through New Cross, past Goldsmiths, past various music venues, past Uncle Wrinkle's Chinese Takeaway. You don't get this level of visual stimuli on a train.
There's a proper hint of Central London ahead as we catch sight of the Gherkin and the Shard. We're now at the furthest extremity of the Monopoly board, at the far end of the Old Kent Road. There are no hotels anywhere along here, or at least none than I saw, and there aren't that many houses either. This is a two mile run of mostly shops and businesses, from Aldi at one end to Lidl at the other. Halfway up is Burgess Park, the entrance to which is currently a pile of landscaped mud, opposite a fully functioning fire station with firemen practising up their ladders. From the back of the bus comes the depressing sound of micro drumbeats, as an inconsiderate soul decides we all want to listen to some R&B. Their broadcast songs merge into one another - some bloke rapping, some girls singing, and repeat, and bloody repeat again. When most of the passengers troop off at Elephant & Castle I watch to see which of the many possible miscreants it could be, and realise I've assumed triply wrong when it turns out to be the only twenty-something white female on board.
Maybe it's the edge of the Underground network that attracts them off the bus, but we're only lightly loaded for the final run into town. St George's is my first cathedral of the day (with one more to follow), and the Imperial War is my first museum. I could alight here to catch my next bus, but decide against because I want to see my 53 through to its almost-end. That's not far off now, we're on Westminster Bridge Road already, nipping beneath the railway arches supporting the lines out of Waterloo. The hotels here range from cheapo shoeboxes to grandswirlycylinders, the latter rising from the heart of a formerly gruesome roundabout. And then a glorious finale across Westminster Bridge, the Thames lapping below (high tide, I reckon), and Big Ben standing proud directly ahead. As we pull into Parliament Square it's striking noon, and a phalanx of tourists have whipped out their phones and cameras to record the dozen-bong spectacle. South London complete, North London ahead. 148>>
Parliament Square: There's been a peace camp opposite the Houses of Parliament for over a decade now, ever since Brian Haw set up his one-man tented crusade against Iraqi sanctions. Brian's sadly no longer with us, he died of cancer last summer, but his protesting legacy lives on. The camp's been bigger, and noisier, but is now reduced to however many tents can fit along a perimeter of pavement. Police have tried many tactics to move everybody on, including more than one set of not entirely rigorous legislation. Their latest wheeze is to fence off the centre of the square with crowd control barriers, meaning noisy protestors can't get inside, but creating an additional unnecessary eyesore of their own. The Met are also keenly watching for tents left unattended, according to a laminated sign hanging from the railings. These are deemed "a security risk" and may be removed, then later sold or destroyed unless you ring 020 7161 9637 to claim them back. One of the structures facing Parliament looks more Tardis than tent ("to end war the people must go on strike"). The remainder of the camp looks more like a sale at Milletts than an angry citzens army, to be frank, as if the current incumbents aren't really trying. But Brian Haw's radical legacy lives on, to challenge Westminster in a way the politicians really wish it wouldn't, and I for one am pleased by that.