Orpington's 'R' bus network is unlike that anywhere else in London. It was created in 1987, around the time of bus deregulation, as a pilot scheme creating a "midibus" network from scratch. Old routes were replaced by new, supporting a mostly rural area with smaller buses running more frequent services. The 'R' in each bus's designation has nothing to do with ORpington, it stands for Roundabout, the name of the first company charged with running this pioneering franchise (much more information here). Today's route started out as the R2, but was renumbered R8 in 2004 (much more information here). It's also run, I think, by the smallest buses in London, little minibuses barely seven metres long. My orbital journey has hit the jackpot here.
ROUND LONDON BY BUS(iii)
Route R8: Orpington - Biggin Hill Length of journey: 7 miles, 25 minutes
As many as 17 different buses pass the stop at Orpington War Memorial. Some run regularly, others spaced much further apart, so the Countdown display is particularly important. If yours isn't due you can nip into the McDonalds alongside, many do, or try your luck in the pawnbrokers nextdoor. It's a splendidly ordinary bit of High Street, this, a dual-facing parade not yet bereft of shoppers, though somewhat diminished by the enormous Tesco round the corner. With so many waiting the shelter can get a bit crowded, but numbers flush out when one of the long distance double deckers pulls up. This helps when it's chucking it down, as you might be able to squeeze in at the back in front of the margarine ad and keep dry. Is that a tiny minibus I see?
The R8 runs every 70 minutes. It used to be every hour, but the buses kept being held up round the lanes so the service became unreliable. They've been having similar issues on the joint R5/R10 route which runs out to neighbouring villages on the edge of Kent, so TfL recently held a consultation about reducing the frequency. Don't take our buses away said the locals, we rely on them to connect with the real world, any anyway the single decker you're using is too big for the narrow lanes. Thank you for your feedback, said TfL, but we're going to reduce the frequency anyway, and now the single deckers arrive every 75 minutes instead of every 60. You have to know the timetable on the edge of rural Bromley, you can't just turn up and go.
Eight of us boarded the Solo SE minibus that pulled up outside McDonalds. The vehicle could have fitted double that, plus the same again standing had it been some sort of extreme rush hour. The R8's entire fleet consists of two buses, only one of which is in service at any one time, with the other always there as backup. It's a dinky little vehicle, though still with plenty of space for a wheelchair, such is TfL's commitment to step-free access. It's also a bit dark aboard, with the whole back of the bus covered up, but a skylight acts as an emergency exit which sheds some light. Enough space on the back seat for three girls heading home from shopping, one asking their mates if they'd ever tried advocaat because "it makes this really nice drink called a snowball." I blame the parents.
For the first five minutes or so nothing geographically unusual happened. The street past the War Memorial is very ordinary, very residential, and served by rather more buses than you'd think necessary. As if to prove this one retired couple alighted after only a few stops and huddled off into the downpour towards some local Shangri-La. They could have caught any of the five services down Green Street Green High Street but merely caught the first that turned up, our miniature rarity. We passed a 'Frigidaire Equipped' launderette, and a pub called The Buff (no doubt full of drinkers making "I'm in The Buff" jokes). Our journey nearly got as far as Waitrose, then hairpinned back towards Farnborough - another London village most Londoners have never heard of. And then it got unusual.
Hang on, we've just turned left down a country lane. London buses don't tend to do this, mostly because London isn't the country, but this entire corner is. Shire Lane is a proper hedgerow wiggler, with woodland and fields stretching off to each side. That I think was the entrance to High Elms Country Park, not that there was a bus stop or anything useful, our vehicle just kept ploughing on. And then we turned left again, and that's when it got really unusual.
Hang on, we've just turned left down a single track country lane. London buses really don't tend to do this, because there might be something coming the other way, but this bus does. There are passing places every so often, if required, but thankfully there was absolutely nothing coming as we sped on. I swear my subconscious recognised one brief stretch of the lane from walking the London Loop, not that I realised I was walking 100 metres of a bus route at the time. A wholly abnormal route down an entirely atypical road in a wholly exceptional vehicle, and still more to come. Which bus driver wouldn't enjoy this switchback ride more than a bumper to bumper crawl down Oxford Street?
The village down the lane is called Downe, which at first looks like a hamlet, then reveals itself as a pretty rural hub with parish church and a couple of pubs. Again I had to pinch myself to think 'London', but this lot pay their council tax and vote for Boris just as much as the rest of us. They don't catch the bus, though. Nobody alighted, and nobody flagged us down outside the village hall, as if we needn't have bothered coming. But I was glad we had because we were about to pass one of the most important houses in London, nay the world. Down House was the home of Charles Darwin, it's where he assembled his theory of evolution, and the R8 passes right by the front gate. English Heritage only open up at weekends in the winter, but I can strongly recommend a tour (entrance in 1971 was 25p, today £10). Ding and the driver'll drop you off, it's Hail and Ride for the next couple of miles.
The next village past Darwin's back garden is Luxted. This is much more diffuse, essentially a long string of detached houses along a single track road called Single Street. Each house sprawls rather than hides, in that carefree way that rural residences do when the owners think that almost nobody's going to drive past. Nobody got off here either, most probably because they had a choice of cars to use instead. We met one of these coming the other way and had to employ the Passing Places Protocol, but other than that we kept strictly to timetable.
At Berry Green there were actual bus stops, because Jail Lane is actual civilisation. There was even actual pavement shortly after as we started the long run in to Biggin Hill. Technically this is Cudham, yet another barely-London village, or at least this is where the primary school is located. Further up the road is the secondary school, named after you-know-who the local scientist, and the R8 brings not many of its pupils to the front gate daily. Bungalows, bungalows, bungalows... this was no longer the rural idyll our half dozen passengers had enjoyed earlier. And while they stayed on board to ride to the heart of Biggin Hill proper I had no need, so alighted early by the war memorial, and dripped some more. 464>>