Route 47: Shoreditch - Bellingham Location: inner London southeast Length of journey: 9 miles, 70 minutes
Another birthday, another numerically significant bus journey. Five years ago I took the 42 to Dulwich, four years ago the 43 to Barnet, three years ago the 44 to Tooting, two years ago the 45 to Clapham and last year the 46 to Farringdon. So this year, obviously, I took the 47 to Bellingham. Who said middle-age wasn't exciting?
I think I did this journey the wrong way round. Ending up in Shoreditch would have been hip and trendy, whereas instead I ended up just south of Catford, in a suburb most Londoners haven't even heard of. Admittedly even Shoreditch isn't that cool when your journey starts opposite a lifesize poster of Olly Murs beside a Texaco garage, at a bus stop frequented by two unkempt men wielding a bow and arrow. I was therefore really quite keen to get away. When my 47 arrived I took up position top deck front left, which is the best place to sit on an end-to-end journey, and was joined on the neighbouring seat by a beardy trendsetter in out-of-the-box black trainers. He didn't stay long.
It was only a couple of stops to the City, which appears to be creeping inexorably outwards as the fringes of Hackney are sequentially boarded up and turned into bland offices. Further down Bishopsgate was an unobstructed view of the Gherkin, courtesy of a levelled building site, followed by the concrete lift stump of the Pinnacle, which might one day be as iconic a skyscraper but only when someone gets the money together. The City will always rebuild, as evidenced by the number of cranes, cones and workmen in hard hats in evidence when you ride this way at the weekend.
I never tire of the view from LondonBridge, which is just as well because my number 43 bus came this way four years ago and my number 48 will cross the span next year. But the view ahead's already changed, and continues to change, as the top levels of the Shard rise to their inevitable sharp-pointed summit. Down below, in Tooley Street, queues of tourists waited to be scared witless by fibreglass and gore in the London Dungeon, while the Britain At War Experience summarily failed to draw similar crowds. And how delightful to see Tower Bridge up close beyond City Hall, at least until Berkeley Homes build a wallof flats beside Potters Fields so that only those with river-facing windows can boast the same.
Enough of money. Central London's wealth slipped rapidly away as the 47 hit Jamaica Road. The street was lined with boxy flats old and new, from the council blocks of the Dickens Estate to the freshly branded Bermondsey Spa. Outside the Jubilee line station traffic was being funnelled into the bus lane, slowing our progress, while workmen set about removing the guardrail down the central reservation. They were hacking it down and lifting it into the back of a truck, hundreds of yards of the stuff, opening up access to pedestrians who can now cross the road directly in front of passing vehicles. A bloke emerging from the tube caught his gym bag on one of the black metal bobbles - a couple of minutes later and the obstruction would have vanished.
Past the daffs in Southwark Park to the silver drum at Canada Water. We passed the new library twice as we encircled the bus station, then proceeded past umpteen glass balconies stickered "Sold" at Maple Quays. The ideal place to live if you're a Daily Mail printworker working at the fortress nextdoor, or want a choice of drive-in restaurants on your doorstep. It was only when the bus headed beyond Surrey Quays that passenger numbers started to pick up, collecting local-bound Oyster-flashers at every stop. Thick-set blokes in trackies, gossipping mothers, cuddling sweethearts, old ladies tugging trollies - they all joined the party aboard.
At Canal Approach I was surprised to see one of London's rarest (and oldest) street signs - a red triangle with a black circle inside labelled "Accident Black Spot". I think the intended hazard is a hump in the road, but it might as well be local youth. The last time I rode the 47 this way, at the Abinger Grove bus stop, a mischievous lad on roller skates suddenly nipped out into the road and grabbed hold of the rear bumper of the bus in front. He had to scarper when our driver noticed him and then gave chase across the shopping precinct... but nothing so thrilling happens on my journey today.
Just after Deptford High Street we turned right, bypassing Greenwich in favour of a run down the Creek towards Lewisham. We passed a number 30 bus going nowhere - now the seating area for a pizzeria/diner at one of SE London's more unusual bars. There's a right social mixture down here, from the charming terraces off Albyn Road to the metal warehouses below the railway viaduct housing wildly-named pentecostal churches. Here we hit Lewisham proper for a ring road ride around the shopping centre. A mileage sign by the Ravensbourne promised "Channel Tunnel 61", not that many folk hereabouts ever intend to drive that far. Instead passengers queued to board our bus at every stop, lugging carrier bags of quilted toilet tissue or whatever other bargain they'd picked up in the pound shops and adjacent market.
It was slow progress south, with queueing traffic belching exhaust fumes in clear contravention of "Low Carbon Lewisham Central". Our driver showed all the classic signs of time-wasting, like pulling over into bus stops where nobody was waiting, then pulling off just in time to get caught by the next red light. He paused for rather too long in Ladywell outside a shop advertising "diabetic tea bags sold here", stuck on a sign in the window in front of the biggest pile of Tate & Lyle sugar bags you ever did see. Most of the other shops down here appeared to be either fried chicken outlets or beauty salons (or, in one extra-special case, both).
The appearance of Catford Shopping Centre's giant fibreglass black cat was the signal for our driver to dawdle some more. He no doubt wished he were travelling around the gyratory in the opposite direction, where a logjam of cars and buses was going absolutely nowhere fast. The Bromley Road was lined by the first desirable detached houses I'd seen all journey, as if some unseen border into the proper suburbs had just been crossed. But we were going no further than the Bellingham bus garage, where the last few passenger remnants were ejected and the driver escaped into Stagecoach's brick shed.
I explored locally for a while, wandering the avenues of the Bellingham estate tucked neatly between the railway lines. This is classic interwar London County Council overspill, with housing that nods subtly at a Tithe barn aesthetic. Across the valley were Catford's last remaining prefabs, still packed with proud residents holding out against redevelopment. Most homes are lovingly tended, but every time someone moves out Lewisham Council board up the windows and slap a "Danger Asbestos" notice on the front door, insidiously killing off the community from within. There are more exciting parts of town, let's be frank, but Shoreditch is only a single bus ride away.