The 166 is a most peculiar busroute. It runs from Croydon out to Purley and Coulsdon before nudging beyond the edge of Greater London. It then serves villages along the Surrey border, generally only as far as Banstead, but intermittently extended all the way to Epsom. It's a proper London bus, funded by London taxpayers, but spends up to nine miles in alien territory. It serves, or very nearly serves, a dozen commuter-friendly railway stations. And it's also a jolly good ride out into the country, including one hill that's a genuine struggle for bus and driver alike. I enjoyed this one.
ROUND LONDON BY BUS(vii)
Route 166: Purley - Epsom Length of journey: 11 miles, 50 minutes
If you're heading round London by bus you have to time this one right. The 166 runs three times an hour but only one of these runs all the way to Epsom, and then not evenings or on Sundays. You may end up waiting rather longer in Purley than you expected, in which case a cup of tea and cake in the Downlands Shopping Precinct might suffice. I almost got to watch some 'healers' in the precinct entrance, but arrived just as they were rolling up their healing mat with their healing hands, and packing away all their healing bits into a healing box. Several buses to Caterham and Coulsdon pulled up before my 166 arrived, a bus which was already half full from its run from Croydon. Almost precisely half full, as it turned out, with each double seat occupied by a 'selfish' single traveller, forcing me to squeeze into the legroom-free corner of the back row.
We headed south past a run of big gabled houses, most of them dentist-sized, and past several waiting passengers who weren't interested in our bus. Ahead lay Coulsdon, London's southernmost town, located at the point where three dry valleys meet. The main Brighton Road now diverts from the town centre via a sweeping bypass, but our bus turned right down the old coast road via the shops. I kept an eye open for the Bang & Olufsen where I once spent a very dull afternoon being forced to find hi-fi interesting, but I think it's finally closed after half a century's service. We rode the Chipstead Valley Road out of town, the houses here a little more mundane, and home to the little girl sat in front of me's grandma. She stopped playing with her pink tablet just long enough for her mum to pack it away, zip up her coat and bundle the pair of them off the bus. Then just beyond Woodmansterne station, and just before the railway bridge, those of us still on board exited London and headed into Surrey. I'm sure only I noticed.
A few hundred metres beyond the border is the Midday Sun, which for many years was as far as this bus went. There was a definite sense of terminus about the place as we swung off the road to wait outside what used to be a proper pub, but is now part of the Hungry Horse chain and looked like it sold as many chips as pints. And then came the most memorable section of the journey. The most direct route ahead isn't used because the lane's too narrow, so instead the bus diverts up the residential incline of Chipstead Way. Initially I didn't think the hill looked that steep, nor was our vehicle overloaded, but the bus's engine took great exception to the contours and wheezed up really slowly. Cars parked all the way down one side of the road didn't help matters, so oncoming traffic was forced to retreat into whatever spaces it could find as our snail-like juggernaut approached. A 12% section down was followed immediately by another slow chugger up, with one brief break in the houses revealing rolling downland beyond. It wouldn't have been half as much fun riding the otherway.
At the top of the hill, 50 metres higher than we'd started, lay the centre of the village of Woodmansterne. Theflintchurch had an attractively squat wooden steeple, the post office doubled up as a Londis, and there looked to be a nice pub down the lane but we didn't go that way. Instead we continued north, past a bus stop called Merrymeet, and unexpectedly nipped back into London again. We didn't linger, staying just long enough to turn left round the edge of a nondescript field. Had this been high summer it would have been ablaze with purple, because this is London's largest lavender farm, formerly an outpost for Yardley, now very independently owned. As well as gifts your gran would love it's seemingly impossible to take a bad photo here during the months of July and August, so best pencil in a visit via the 166 for six months time.
Having skirted a bit of Sutton we ploughed back into Surrey, along a winding lane lined by the occasional farm, several bungalows and somewhere to buy your kindling. Before long we reached the town of Banstead, a veritable cluster of middle class niceness complete with Waitrose and M&S Simply Food. They've still got a Bang & Olufsen, I noted, and a proper family butchers called Bettameats. As I said earlier, most 166s terminate here and head back to Croydon, but I was on the extension version and we still had several miles to go. I was particularly excited to see a gentleman in a wheelchair waiting to board with his young granddaughter in tow. Firstly, this proved that London's accessible bus fleet was doing good things even on the fringes of Surrey. But mostly I hoped I'd be able to get at least a paragraph out of the pair's exploits, and so it proved as the journey continued.
Grandpa sat backwards in the wheelchair space, a pink ballet bag draped over the arm of his vehicle, while Lizzie (not her real name) sat on an adjacent seat playing with his phone. Conversation proved difficult. She was engrossed playing Shoemaker, a game which I later discovered involved sticking jewels and lacy bits on a pair of digital high heels. "Can I have the phone when you've finished?" asked Grandpa. "It just made a noise, which means I've got a message." Lizzie played on. "Music's boring isn't it?" he tried. No reaction. Every opening gambit was batted back with a muted grunt, until eventually Grandpa insisted and was allowed to check his text. "It's from Nanny," he said. "Hello We Need An Onion For Our Cottage Pie." Suddenly the pair's journey had a purpose, which made Grandpa very happy, and one-sidedly more talkative, and then suddenly conspiratorial. "Don't tell Nanny about the Creme Eggs!" he said, three times, as if she didn't know her husband was a soft touch. And then the conversation faltered, as smartphone absorption kicked back in, and Grandpa returned to looking suspiciously at the bloke sat by the window writing notes.
During all this we'd progressed some considerable distance - past the outpost of Banstead station, up a brief detour to Drift Bridge (which sounded exciting, but proved to be a used VW dealer), and round the edge of Nork. This is surely one of the best place names in the London area, although alas Nork Way lies fractionally outside the border, and the 166 merely passes a sign to "Nork Village". It was around here that a small child called Ollie alighted, silver scooter in hand, and padded off. On any normal journey his earlier remonstrations with mum demanding to sit on the front seat would have been a narrative highlight, but Lizzie's mute defiance had stolen that crown.
A five-way roundabout heralded entrance to the Downs, and to the "Borough of Epsom and Ewell, Home of the Derby". I was surprised to see a roadsign pointing to the village of Grandstand half a mile away, then realised this was a feature of the local terribly well-known race course, its upper levels now visible across the grass. We headed nowhere near, veering right to pass close to Epsom Downs station, the not very accessible terminus of a minor commuter branch line from Sutton. And then we started the run-in to the town centre, past the college and a "Sorry driver, it's the next one!" wrong stop. I had, somehow, never been to Epsom before, but my first impressions were coloured by the major jam in the high street where everything queued to negotiate a single crossroads. I alighted here, followed closely by Grandpa and Lizzie on their onion quest, leaving the long distance 166 to complete its epic journey a little further on at the hospital. 467>>