The next three buses on my orbitaljourney all depart from Romford's MercuryGardens. I could get to Lakeside in one hop, or I could get there in two, but I've decided on three. That's mainly because I want to hug the edge of London as I go, but also because this next bus has the ultimate route number. Sure there are express 500s and school-based 600s, but the normal run of London bus numbers ends at 499. This tours the far northeastern corner of the capital, as do its near neighbours the 496 and 498, serving below-the-radar estates in outer Havering. Top of the shop - it's got to be done.
ROUND LONDON BY BUS(xxii)
Route 499: Romford - Gallows Corner Length of journey: 7 miles, 25 minutes
Romford boasts an excellent and plentiful retail offering, but its inner ring road holds insufficient space to contain the lot. Thus the Mercury mall and cinema sticks out beyond, linked to The Liberty beneath the dual carriageway via an arcade of minor shops. Folk throng through, then throng back, but only a few find the back stairs and rise up to the bus stop opposite Asda. From here depart several services to Gallows Corner, the others direct, but the 499 runs round the houses. A dozen passengers have chosen the single decker, most carrying bags, the youngest engrossed in tippy tappy on their phones. The lady in front of me is gorging herself on a packet of nuts. The label reads "only recommended for people with strong healthy teeth", to which I'd like to add "and neighbours with limited hearing".
We exit the ring road at Romford Library, before passing the town hall, two courts and a police station in quick succession. The 499 is then to be the sole service along Pettits Lane, a lane no more, now a line of mock Tudor homesteads. This section's Hail and Ride, but you'd never know from sitting on the bus because the electronic display keeps schtum. Indeed this is something I've noticed more than once on my trip around London - TfL appear to have stopped announcing Hail and Ride on buses and now merely display the name of the next normal stop for much longer than usual. I'd like to thank the executive who introduced this baffling policy for the additional hike I endured on an earlier route when I misguidedly pressed the button one mile early. Cheers mate.
Part way up we Pettits Lane cross the arterial A12, relatively swiftly, beside a sinuous footbridge for less fortunate pedestrians. These are London's spacious suburbs, with gardens and car parking spaces for all, along Drives and Mews and Avenues and Closes. Then at Chase Cross we tangle with one of London's ten least frequent bus routes, the 375, which heads out to the delightful almost-Essex village of Havering-atte-Bower. Instead we're cutting across semi-open, then open country, the fields to the left part of the nature reserve at BedfordsPark. Should you want to walk in rather than drive then sorry, there's no bus stop for an entire green mile, though the driver might stop if you dinged repeatedly enough. The views through the window look proper verdant as we climb towards London's next, and final, suburb.
This is Harold Hill, a giant postwar estate sandwiched between (and presumably named after) Harold Wood and Noak Hill. Even on its outskirts developers are seeking to replace yet another field to add to the fifteen thousand homes already hereabouts. Outside one bungalow on Noak Hill Road I'm surprised to see life-size statues of Laurel and Hardy guarding either side of the front door... and if I'm bemused, I wonder what the neighbours think. The 499 turns off this borderline road before the heart of the old village ofNoak Hill, to head down to the roundabout at the heart of the estate. One 1950s park and one 1950s shopping parade have been provided, the latter a lengthy double-pronged affair (which saves the locals too many bus rides back into Romford). A boulder-based war memorial remembers "those who gave their lives for freedom", rather than specific deaths, because barely anyone was living around here during the World Wars.
We've doubled-back by now to a point only a couple of hundred metres from the start of the previous paragraph. Buses in the high 400s often do this, their routes designed to join the dots rather than travel direct. In this case we're about to head around an estate within an estate, a narrow looping road passing avenues and tower blocks named optimistically after poets. It soon becomes clear that this four minute loop is the 499's raison d'etre, the street that many of those on board have been waiting for. We're on another unsignalled Hail and Ride section, and the dings come thick and fast as those with bags from Romford choose to alight. When Nutcracker Woman heads for the door I catch the smell of peanut breath, thankfully only briefly. And by the time we return to Straight Road I am the only punter remaining on board.
Criminals in the Liberty of Havering were once hanged at Gallows Corner. The scaffold disappeared centuries ago and in its place, near enough, is a key roundabout on the A12 Eastern Avenue. A very amateur-looking flyover lifts Southend traffic above the melee, although many drivers are here solely for the mega retail park located along the Brentwood Road. Argos, Halfords and Next are amongst the purveyors of warehouse-ware closest to the roundabout, behind an unusual fivefoldstatue of a Roman spear carrier on horseback. Across the road was The Plough pub, I imagine once busy from passing trade, now a burnt-out shell behind dark hoardings. Our 499 queues for a few minutes to turn off the main road, an ordeal faced by every driver seeking Tesco. They fill the rear car park while we stop short by the petrol station where this bus terminates. Our driver goes for a rest inside a black taxi hired by the bus company, while I stand and wait, not too long, for the rarest bus in London. 347>>