Route 48: London Bridge - Walthamstow Location: London northeast Length of journey: 8 miles, 60 minutes
Another birthday, another numerically significant bus journey. Six years ago I took the 42 to Dulwich, five years ago the 43 to Barnet, four years ago the 44 to Tooting, three years ago the 45 to Clapham, two years ago the 46 to Farringdon and last year the 47 to Bellingham. So this year, obviously, I rode the 48 to Walthamstow. Who said middle-age wasn't exciting?
There is a certain sense of deja vu about the mid forties. My journey on the 43 also kicked off at London Bridge, and the 47 passed this way last year. So, to ensure a bit of variety, a sewer has collapsed and all buses are being diverted. The 48 (and a number of other routes) currently kick off from a makeshift bus stand on a long derelict site on Southwark Street. The first stop is outside the Hop Exchange, a massive building formerly used to trade brewery inputs, now a less exciting mishmash of brewery outputs. My bus pulls up in the shadow of the Shard, or it would have done had the sun been in the right place, and if thick cloud hadn't been in the way. I'm the only boarder, as befits an out-of-the-way location, so I grab the prime observation seat at the front of the top deck and hunker down until Walthamstow.
Beneath the railway viaduct, Borough Market's redevelopment looks unfamiliarly modern. Some of its clientèle join us on London Bridge, along with mainline passengers making their escape from south London. I'm joined up front by a loud businessman, rail ticket in hand, who blares into his phone as we cross the Thames. Every twentieth word is frigging, every tenth word alludes to excrement, as he explains to whoever that he's "working from home now" and is "gagging for it". I take the opportunity to stare at Tower Bridge and the Tower - the last decent view the 48 will afford - and we rumble into EC4.
Because it's a weekday afternoon the City is buzzing, and not the usual ghost town I see at weekends. Traders fill Leadenhall Market, bankers fill late-serving restaurants, and nobody fills the Pinnacle because its backers have run out of money. Outside Liverpool Street station the last of this morning's papers are being sold, and nobody in a suit seems keen to hop aboard our bus when we pull up. Since I passed this way on last year's bus I see, with some sadness, that what's left of Norton Folgate has been boarded up. Even the narrow caff at Savoy Quality Sandwiches has closed, as have its neighbouring ex-businesses alongside, ready for their joint transformation into open plan offices.
Things have looked pretty damned prosperous through the City, but the buildings get noticeably less shiny as we cross its northern boundary - the line where highrise becomes lowrise. We've entered pre-buzz Shoreditch, too early for the High Street to have come alive. The drapes outside a Lebanese pop-up flap forlornly in the wind, awaiting custom, and Boxpark looks quite dead, for now. At the big church we turn right into Hackney Road. The street is unexpectedly dotted with boutiques selling blingy handbags and glittery clutch purses, considerably more than the local population could possibly require. I looked at a flat down here when I first moved to London, a dingy garret round the back of a parade of non-bag-related shops, whereas now the street boasts boutique apartments amongst the mews and terraces. But hipsterdom only spreads so far. Meals at the Mecca Bingo are two for £5.99, and no pints have been pulled at the British Lion any time recently.
A long hike up Mare Street beckons. This broad highway is at the heart of Hackney, from where it crosses the canal to the civic square by the Empire. The bus lane is busy with red double deckers, leapfrogging one another from one stop to the next. I'm surprised to see a number 675 bus ahead, and even more surprised later when I discover that this school service is several miles off course. My new companions on the front seats are a red-haired mum wielding a bottle of Evian and her lively-looking daughter. My dream on these blogged bus journeys is to be joined by anecdote-worthy companions, but these two never live up to their initial promise and sit in relative silence all the way to E17.
Travelling north we avoid Hackney's main shopping street, passing instead the retail classic that is The Pet Shop (Doreen's). Banners hung from every lamppost remind Hackney's citizens that "Green sacks are coming", that's from 1st March, so it's old news by now. It takes an age to turn right at the Pembury Tavern, at a roundabout slowed by five-way traffic lights. Here old flats are becoming new flats in an attempt to attract gentrified incomers, but the local economic outlook is still dominated by pawnbrokers and Paddy Power. On Lower Clapton Road a discarded skirt and a pair of shoes lie rotting on top of a bus shelter. Clapton Pond, by contrast, is the prettiest thing we've passed in ages, its fountain bursting forth encircled by pigeons.
It's time to veer off at the Lea Bridge Roundabout and head for the river. The road ahead has a noticeable downward slope, which is what passes for topographically exciting in much of East London. Schools are starting to turn out, but the kids hereabouts stay resolutely on the pavement rather than overtaking our top deck. Likewise there's no interest from passengers at the Lea Valley Ice Centre nor the Lea Valley Riding Centre next up, two neighbouring stops on the marshes that beckon us into Waltham Forest. Lettering on the front of an old electricity substation reminds us that this used to be the Borough of Leyton, chiselled into a classical façade concealing a more ordinary brick building behind. And there on the right is the Hare and Hounds pub, from whose comfy benches millions heard me talking about the Olympics last summer (but if you weren't listening to the World Service at the time, bad luck).
On and on and on ploughs the Lea Bridge Road. Retail highlights include The Millionaire's Hair Salon, which I suspect is inaccurately named, and Dial-Halal, "the home of dial-a-chicken", which I hope is a butchery service. Our 48 keeps catching up with a 55 ahead, and I realise that I'm going to have to come back to this underwhelming street on my birthday bus journey in seven years time. And eight, because the 56 travels this way too, which doesn't feel like much to look forward to. But beyond the railway line I'm wowed by the Bakers Almshouses, a set of beautiful yellow brick residences arranged round three sides of a quadrangle, built 150 years ago for those in the bread trade fallen into poverty. They gave their name to the pub on the corner, which later gave its name to the crossroads and surrounding area - Bakers Arms. Alas that regenerated into a bookmakers in 2010, although with Percy Ingle nextdoor at least some vague connection to the past is maintained.
Nearly there now, there's just Hoe Street to negotiate. There's a lovely beehive dated 1915 carved above the Co-op, although they don't do groceries here any more, only something the marketing department call funeralcare. Most of the other businesses along here have a foreign flavour, indicative of an even greater change over the last century, indeed over a considerably shorter time than that. The Goose is a sign that we've finally reached Walthamstow proper, and at the bus stop outside the station the majority of passengers pour out. They might be here to admire the new canopy leading down into the ticket hall, but more likely they've worked out it's quicker to walk to the shops from here than wait interminably at the traffic lights ahead. We wait interminably at the traffic lights ahead, before pulling up into TfL's E17 pride and joy, Walthamstow bus station. You can catch a bus to almost anywhere from here, but only one bus direct to Central London, and that's back the way we came. I'll pass, thanks, and catch the tube.