Some fairly unglamorous bus routes hug the edge of the capital. Today's bus is one of these. A local service plying the outermost estates, linking to hospital, university and the shops. It's also the busiest bus I've ridden so far, because Uxbridge is where the action is.
ROUND LONDON BY BUS(xii)
Route U3: Heathrow - Uxbridge Length of journey: 8 miles, 45 minutes
The northern edge of Heathrow Airport is a strange place, and feels like it exists solely for economic reasons. Amongst the big bland buildings are Chinese restaurants solely for visitors bored with hotel food, domestic airline hubs and business centres for gents in suits to discuss freight deals. My first bus stop overlooks a parade of shops featuring a massage centre and an off licence, for the benefit of a handful of local residents and many more passing through. A huge car park lies opposite, from which cabin crew and ground staff occasionally emerge to break out from their current roster. And yes there are planes to watch beyond, not far away, either taking off or landing parallel to the Bath Road. There's plenty to watch while you wait for the U3 to arrive.
Pinglestone Close is the penultimate stop in the Heathrow Freeflow Free Fare Zone. A scrolling message rolls by - "Please ensure you have a valid ticket" - for the benefit of anyone who's been on board for nothing since the central bus station. They'd have to be off by Skyport Drive, which sounds the most fantastically futuristic name for a bus stop, but the adjacent reality looks more 1990s. Ahead, across paddocks and farmland, is the one of the most threatened landscapes in London. The U3 serves the village of Harmondsworth, or the ex-village of Harmondsworth if one of three possible airport expansion plans is selected. The entire village would disappear under the north-west runway plan, including the 12th century church and the medieval tithe barn. The latter is the largest timber-framedbuilding in England - Betjeman called it the Cathedral of Middlesex - and would be reassembled elsewhere to make way for hangars and tarmac. Think on that as you ride between the fields on Holloway Lane.
Across the protective barrier of the M4, suburbia is secure. The U3 has been specially selected to deviate round an estate on the outskirts of West Drayton, where Laurel Lane and Wise Lane have been augmented by more modern residential avenues. These homes are the natural habitat of "people who take buses" so the seats slowly fill as our circuit completes. You can see their point. The only retail offering at the far end is a parade of seven shops seemingly selected for their mundanity. A pharmacy, a convenience store, a Chinese takeaway, a dry cleaners... everything you could possibly need, and yet nothing. A few hundred yards ahead is the River Colne, and the boundary with Buckinghamshire, but the U3 pulls back to serve Londoners in London. In amongst the postwar ordinariness is a bungalow with chickens and a small piglet running loose in the front garden, before we advance to an older nucleus of housing around a church green. There are 30 on board our single decker now - it's been a justifiable loop off the main drag.
The lady texting beside me is one of those infuriating souls who's never worked out how to turn off the beep every time she presses her phone, or else never realised how annoying this can be. The sound effects continue into West Drayton proper, and a high street retaining Metroland-style character. A sign of the times is the pound shop called "One Pound Plus", while Granny Satchwell's bakery looks slightly more appealing. We pull into the station forecourt - every bus hereabouts does - which involves negotiating a narrow teardrop turn outside the main entrance, then pulling up to a) collect rail passengers b) almost block the road. Beyond the canal the high street switches suddenly to become Yiewsley, London's last suburb, alphabetically. Its fine parish church was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, best known for his Gothic St Pancras, but the real attractions hereabouts are the shops. Almost every passenger disembarks at Morrisons, or else the combined Aldi/Iceland, or hangs on for the mega Tesco.
And that's it for the near-border of London. I should have switched at this point to the 222, but instead I stayed aboard the U3 as it veered into Hillingdon. Ahead a very 1930s estate, with roads tweely named after trees that blossom. On Apple Tree Avenue our U3 driver stops to chat with the driver of a passing U1, and for slightly too long, causing a cacophany of car horns to erupt from behind. A map in a shelter on Violet Avenue is entitled Buses from Colham Green, which I realise is another London place name I've never heard of before. More well known is Hillingdon Hospital, revealed from alongside as a hideous tall block of stacked wards with further lower blocks dumped all around. I bet the view from the eighthfloor is great, but the amount of parking space down below is clearly inadequate, hence those that alight from the bus here are doing the place a favour.
Cowley's next, across the River Pinn, with a lovely listed church and the most expensive houses along the route. Many are probably owned by lecturers at nearby Brunel University, outside whose modern campus the U3 next pulls up. We're the only bus that serves, so a mass of students who'd rather not walk three quarters of a mile to Uxbridge town centre are waiting. Almost 20 climb aboard and spend the rest of the journey chattering about debt, essays and the unfair allocation of college car parking permits. On The Greenway a mother and daughter board, or try to because mum's Oyster card has no money on it. She fumbles in her handbag for change, in a way she'll be denied this summer when the buses go cashless, but never mind eh, the next U3 is 20 minutes behind. Her daughter Daisy's a real live wire, announcing "I don't like Chinese" and "look at the old women" as we enter Uxbridge High Street. Anyone with any sense - that's all the students - bundles off here rather than slowly touring the one-way system to end up on the other side of the pedestrianised bit. Daisy dings the button prematurely and too frequently, to earn a smiling reprimand, before we're all chucked off before the bus station. 331>>
So that's me, finally, halfway around London by bus. Last time I crossed town from Bluewater to Uxbridge it took four buses to cover 42 miles in just over four hours. Round the edge it's taken 12 buses to cover 80 miles in six and a half hours. Plus stops, of course, and there have been rather a lot of those. When I return I'll be taking a bus I've ridden before, but only part of the way. I wonder how long it'll take to get back?