One of the best ways to experience London, I thought, would be to take a red bus journey from one side of London to the other. It can't be done on one bus, not all thirty miles across, but judicious selection of routes reduces the number to a mere handful. I kicked off beyond Bexley in the far east, then headed via the centre of town to the far west. Please join me for a top deck parade through the capital... because it'll save you from ever wasting a Saturday trying the same.
ACROSS LONDON BY BUS(i) Route 96: Bluewater - Woolwich Length of journey: 13 miles, 70 minutes
Not content with crossing London, I'm actually starting several miles beyond the border, beyond Dartford, at a bus station beside a shopping mall in a chalk quarry. Bluewater is a melting pot for various bus companies - some serving inner Kent, others outer London, and one even crossing the Thames from Lakeside. Three red buses head for Bexley, all of them Oyster-friendly, including my chosen 96. Not all of the Kentish locals are familiar with swipe and go, and we wait for a minute while a father struggles to find £2.30 in coins from deep in his pocket. An elderly couple ascend the stairs to the top deck, just in time for the driver to hurl us around a bend outside Marks and Spencers. They consider the front seat, but the legroom's much too narrow for grandpa's legs so they retire behind. Our bus climbs through a gap in the white cliffs, Thank You For Visiting Bluewater, Please Come Again.
The 96 runs non-stop to Dartford, speeding past a dozen bus stops where local residents must wait for lesser services. Patronage is not brisk. From my top deck vantage point, beyond a hilltop field of grazing horses, the Queen Elizabeth Bridge is unmistakeable. We pause outside the Rumpy Cafe in MarketStreet to take on fresh passengers, and then the driver announces something unintelligible about the bus being on diversion. An extensive tour of the south Dartford suburbs ensues, out to the ring road and back again, before returning to a straight course along what used to be Watling Street. It takes a total of twenty minutes to reach the second stop of the journey, which (without jams) must be some sort of record.
At last, at a mini-roundabout on the edge of Crayford, the 96 finally enters London. The difference is entirely imperceptible, architecturally speaking, bar the sign beside the road welcoming us to Bexley. A seven-year-old boy in trackies and red wellingtons leads his mother up the stairs and points excitedly at the empty front seat. "Can we sit here?" he asks. "Do we have to?" replies Mum, but she knows the battle is already lost. Her son has as yet no control over his inner monologue, which pours forth unabated for the next fifteen minutes. "A giant would be way taller than we are!" "That white van in Sainsbury's car park looks just like Dad's!" "Why do they have toilets on coaches?" Mum answers patiently and informatively, then spots an advert for Alvin and the Chipmunks on the side of a passing bus and promises Junior a trip to the cinema midweek.
The road up to Bexleyheath is probably the most desirable residential street on my entire journey across London, at least for anyone who likes a big house with a garden. The shops in the town centre aren't bad either, relatively speaking. Our 96 pulls up by the clocktower, near the spinning cups kiddie ride, for a flush-out and refresh of the passengers on board. Those with staying power are continuing up the extended high street (think bathroom centres and dry cleaners, not kebaberies and tat) past the entrance to Danson Park. We pull up briefly outside Welling United's home ground, which has grandstands on only two sides so provides a top-deck-perfect view of the pitch. If only it were 3pm we could have watched a few seconds of the home team's five one thrashing of Truro City. Instead we trundle on to Welling Corner, home to the Giggling Sausage and a whopping new under-flats Tesco, and turn right.
If you watch carefully on a cross-London journey such as this, you can observe how the type of passenger changes subtly to reflect the area the bus is driving through. Up until Bexleyheath it was all a bit outer-London-white, but now a more diverse clientele is aboard, until by the end of the journey a complete demographic transformation will have taken place. Upper Wickham Lane is noticeably more ordinary than than roads past travelled, until it suddenly descends into Royal Greenwich past some distinctly middle class stables. The terraces beneath Bostall Heath are rather fine, but estate agents must have more difficulty disposing of properties the further up Plumstead High Street we progress. Flats here are conveniently situated for Tee's Afro Euro Cosmetics, the Ghandi Tandoori and the cells at the local police station.
In the 96's final mile it becomes just another shuttle on the Plumstead to Woolwich arterial road. The proximity of a major bus garage helps to explain the frequency, plus this is an escape route that many residents are keen to embrace. On our right, nearing town, the Woolwich Arsenal site continues to undergo major transformation. New flats are slowly appearing, of a less heritage style than the old magazines nearer the Thames, but probably a better match to the Crossrail station that has yet to rise. On board, our first foreign language mobile-shouted rant begins, thankfully brief, because the end of the route is nigh. As punters start to pour off the bus, either by the old Market Hall or outside the DLR entrance, the contrast to far distant Bluewater could hardly be greater. 53>>
Woolwich, General Gordon Square: It used to be an unloved expanse, somewhere to shuffle through or more likely avoid, in the centre of downtown Woolwich. Not even the hand and pawprints of Simon Groom and Goldie could save the place, so a few million pounds were spent and the entire piazza was upgraded. This is my first visit post-re-opening, and I was expecting to be more impressed. One of the BBC's Big Screens looms near the station - weatherproof, sturdy and vandal resistant - screening a series of news reports, weather updates and community videos. The remainder of the square, much like your living room at home, has been arranged in total deference to the TV in the corner. The ground slopes screenward in a series of grassy terraces with stone edging. It's ideal for those rare occasions when the entire square will be full of citizens watching an event, such as for the Olympics in the summer, but there are few reasons to pause here otherwise. Local councillors areaghast that the skateboarding community have adopted the steps and gradients for their own, scraping away the surface and supposedly frightening away other users. Their own fault for building such a wheel-friendly slope in the first place, I'd say, and for assuming that a single screen could somehow fill the empty space.