Two years ago I decided to take a red bus journey from one side of London to the other. It took four-and-a-bit buses altogether, from Bluewater to Uxbridge via Parliament Square, providing me with a top-deck cross-sectional view of the capital. This year I've decided to go orbital instead. I plan to ride all the way around London by bus, about 150 miles all told, sticking fairly close to the boundary as I go. I won't be taking the outermost bus every time, nor will I be sticking solely to TfL services if they're not the best way to go. In particular I'm avoiding dead ends and loops, because I'm trying to keep the number of buses to a minimum. With judicious selection of routes I reckon I can get round in about 25 buses... although don't worry, I won't be doing it all in one go. Expect about four journeys in each batch, and we'll see how long it takes me to get back to the start again. To Bluewater...
ROUND LONDON BY BUS(i)
Route 492: Bluewater - Foots Cray Length of journey: 13 miles, 65 minutes
I'm starting way out east, far beyond the London boundary, in a quarry in the Kentish borough of Dartford. TfL despatch threedifferentbuses out here, benefiting those who live along the way as well as those who want to go to the shops. There's not much reason to come to Bluewater other than shopping, although it is an excellent bus interchange for services to inner Kent. The car park was filling up fast when I arrived, because traipsing round the triangular mall counts as a day out for many, plus there was ice skating on the go somewhere within. I didn't have time to hit the sales, which did feel like a somewhat wasted visit after all the effort of trekking here in the first place, but my bus was due.
The 492 runs half-hourly to Sidcup, which is a very long way, but then most of London's longest bus routes are on the outskirts. It's also one of London's higher numbered buses, again characteristic of the outer suburbs, and I'll be riding another four hundred and ninety something further round on my orbital journey. I wasn't expecting a double decker, I didn't think the route would merit it, but I was pleased to get the opportunity to grab a top deck front seat (against minimal opposition). I'd have preferred it had the interior not smelt of fermentation, though I was unable to determine whether the cause was discarded fruit, spilt beer or worse as the journey progressed.
An intricate system of roads and roundabouts led us out of the chalk pit, past a silver reindeer installed for Yule, and up to a broad dual carriageway. Ahead the QE2 bridge was visible - this the reason that I've had to start my journey way out in Kent. Only one TfL bus crosses the Thames to the east of Tower Bridge, this the 108 through the Blackwall Tunnel, so I'm going to need a provincial service to get me back to Bluewater when this journey reaches its end. Instead the 492 turns left up London Road past The Bull (once ordinary pub, now 'Flaming Grill') and The Welcome Inn (once ordinary pub, now 'The Bridge Cafe'). We'd entered the village of Stone, where quarries and spoil have left their mark on the landscape, though often reclaimed. One extensive hillock was sealed off with notices warning "Private Land - No Grazing of Horses Allowed", blatantly flaunted by an equine herd 100 strong.
Ahead we crossed the M25, or in fact the A282 whose brief trans-Thames span creates the sole break in the orbital motorway ring. Then we were onto Watling Street, a much older roadway, lined by splendidly ordinary late Victorian terraces. East Hill leads down, fairly steeply, to the lowest point of the Darent Valley. This was the cue to enter the Dartford one-way system, which heading west enters the High Street, then swings out towards a mini bus station opposite the Rumpy Cafe. A particularly large lorry had parked on the bend outside the museum, requiring our driver to show exceptional skill to negotiate through the 'gap' which remained. And then on, past two Dartford Grammar Schools for Boys and for Girls, only one of which boasts The Mick Jagger Centre for the performing arts within its grounds.
Mick's childhood home was on Denver Road, the end of which the 492 passes just before exiting Kent for London. It was hard to spot the dividing line at the foot of Chastilian Road, but the bins were the giveaway, with Bexley's considerably thinner and less generous than those across the street in Dartford. We sped (not too fast) down the hill into Crayford, which is something of a transport bottleneck, and where the former Town Hall is rapidly being transformed into flats (all sold). A retail park has swallowed up the heart of town, while a mega-Sainsbury's has squatted on most of the land nearby. Here we waited to catch up with the timetable, giving time for a young mother to arrive with daughter in tow and contactless Barclaycard in hand. "Can we go up top?" pleaded the youngster, for whom the top deck would be an adventure, but boring Mum didn't like stairs so sank into a mundane seat by the door.
We climbed out of Crayford past the One Bell Inn to the very old parish church on the hill. There was time for one last view of the QE2 Bridge, and to pass a sports club proudly announcing Mid Kent Metal Recycling as their football team's sponsor. Hundreds of thousands of Londoners live on streets like Mayplace Road - nothing special but nice enough, with a parade of useful shops to nip to halfway down. And then suddenly we encroached on Bexleyheath, the municipal centre hereabouts, where the central streets have recently been rejigged to improve bus access. Umpteen services pull in beside the clocktower in the main shopping street, but waiting passengers rushed to catch something else, not our bus, which sat and waited some more. At least we were more fractionally more popular than the mini fairground rides sitting empty and childless on the piazza in the drizzle.
Exit from Bexleyheath was via Gravel Hill, which sweeps down to the A2 in grand curves. Here on the banks of the River Cray is Hall Place, a marvellous composite mansion with rose lawns and bestial topiary. It's one of the pleasantest attractions most Londoners have never been to, but the gardens looked mostly empty on a drizzly winter's day, so best save your visit for later in the year. Ahead lay Bexley Village, a nucleus of narrow streets with barely a chain store in sight, after which the surrounding borough is named. Only two buses turn left, ourselves and the legendary B12 to Joydens Wood, but that turns off just beyond the mill and parish church. We still had passengers, a fair few, though none were doing anything of interest. I always hope on these journeys that some onboard incident will erupt, or some conversation of note will transpire, but the 492 wasn't playing ball.
I'd never been down the next road before, a two mile dual carriageway scything along the Cray Valley (but thankfully missing the prettiest waterside bits). It starts at a roundabout that exists solely for U-turns and continues past meadows, farms, garden centres, and the occasional house. Further U-turn breaches are required in the central reservation for the benefit of very local traffic, which would be farmers and patrons of the White Cross pub. We passed a Q-reg milkfloat, and a Grade II listed care home, and a place that sells sheds, on the run-up to the less verdant North Cray estate. The final roundabout at Ruxley Corner has been sponsored by the adjacent Toyota dealer, and provides access to the A20. Instead we headed up Foots CrayHigh Street (a name which sounds more important than it is), where I did something highly unusual on a blogged bus journey, I got off before the end. 13 miles down, and so many more to go. R11>>