diamond geezer

 Sunday, June 17, 2012

It ran first on a Sunday. A new bus route, from north east London to Victoria, one of many established around that time by the London General Omnibus Company. The date was 16th June 1912, and the bus number was 38. Of all the capital's bus routes it's probably the most famous. And it's 100 years old this weekend.

The number 38 originally ran as far as Leyton Green (that's Bakers Arms in modern terminology). Over the years it's been extended as far as Walthamstow, Chingford and even (on Sundays only) Epping Forest, with the current terminus at Clapton Pond being set only in 1990. The journey from Victoria to Hackney is a descent through the class system, from haughty Mayfair to the streets of multi-cultural Britain via Theatreland and the Balls Pond Road. In the last decade the 38's been operated by Routemasters, then bendies then double deckers, and now hosts the occasional New Bus For London. No wonder, given all this glorious baggage, that the route's centenary was ripe for celebration.

The Covent Garden piazza outside the London Transport Museum, that's where yesterday's party started. Three Routemasters were parked up, including pioneering RM5, with the chance for passers-by to have a poke around the decks and even sit in the drivers seat [photo]. Up the far end was a small marquee, courtesy of Maggie's the cancer charity, who are using the 100th birthday as the anchor for a new fund-raising campaign. Walk The 38 is an invitation to walk the entire length of the route (that's 7½ miles), committing to raise a minimum of £38 along the way. You can walk alone or in groups, and you have until 14th September to stride out and get your money in. The campaign's running in conjunction with Arriva, who are the bus company that run the 38, and several of their staff have already completed the course.

In charge of kicking off the birthday proceedings was Peter Batty, Arriva's Commercial Director. He managed to persuade the nearest busker to stop playing and hand over his mike for a bit, I think much to the chagrin of customers sat outside the nearby restaurant. And then he launched into a short speech, not a bad speech either, including reference to the Titanic (another, less successful transport project from 1912) and the previous night's Euro 2012 victory. There appeared to be a crowd watching, but on closer inspection that might have been an illusion. Several foreign tourists were standing around, taking in the Covent Garden ambience and wondering what to buy next, but they weren't really following what was going on at all. Those paying attention were mostly Maggie's volunteers in their blue t-shirts, and the occasional member of the press, and barely even a bus fanatic in sight. Nothing much altered when a man from the charity stepped up and explained the good work they do and please would everybody think about signing up for the walk. There was at least a video camera recording the entire proceedings, otherwise I fear all this good effort went greatly unseen.

Then there was cake to cut, which was a nice touch. Someone had gone to the effort of recreating a red 38, a slightly squished Routemaster, running along a wiggly road of icing. The sponge beneath was sliced up for the feeding of anybody who fancied a piece, including I noticed the geezer behind the counter in the jacket potato kiosk alongside. And then all the volunteers went back to coercing members of the public into walking 7½ miles for charity, and the busker returned to his microphone. "Here's one I wrote myself called Marianne" he said, but the look on his face said "I can't believe anybody was interested in that bus tosh". And even he was trumped a few minutes later when the whirr of four helicopters heralded the onslaught of the Queen's Birthday Flypast. This was proper head-turning transport, none of your lowly heritage bus stuff, the spectacle ending with the trail-blazing whoosh of the Red Arrows above the Strand. [photo] [photo]

Today, if you're interested, the 38's centenary celebrations continue. Those three Routemasters will be plying their way between Clapton Pond and Victoria all day - no fares payable, but donations to Maggie's very much welcomed. There'll also be a K-Type omnibus on the route, lifted from the London Transport Museum collection, not for riding but for general admiration. It may look ancient with its open upper deck and "hand signals only", but even it's not quite as old as the 38 itself. 100 years carrying umpteen millions of passengers, truly an anniversary to celebrate.

Today's timetable
Routemaster leaving Clapton Pond: 0845, 0936, 1013, 1059, 1200, 1250, 1440, 1605, 1625
Routemaster leaving Victoria: 0950, 1046, 1134, 1220, 1324, 1414, 1605, 1729
K-type leaving Victoria: 1100
K-type leaving Clapton Pond: 1300
New Bus leaving Hackney: 0546, 0731, 0915, 1005, 1047, 1135, 1226, 1316, 1411, 1520, 1555, 1650, 1800
New Bus leaving Victoria: 0634, 0819, 1017, 1116, 1200, 1249, 1340, 1430, 1525, 1634, 1709, 1804, 1914

Walk The 38: main webpage, leaflet, Facebook, Flickr, centenary events
The entire route in six minutes: Clapton Pond→Victoria, Victoria→Clapton Pond

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