Route 49: White City - Clapham Junction Location: London inner, west Length of journey: 6 miles, 65 minutes
Sorry, but it's traditional that every birthday I take a numerically significant bus journey. I know you're sick of buses by now, but rules are rules, and at least this one goes to places with which you're familiar. Seven years ago I took the 42 to Dulwich, six years ago the 43 to Barnet, five years ago the 44 to Tooting, four years ago the 45 to Clapham, three years ago the 46 to Farringdon, two years ago the 47 to Bellingham, and last year the 48 to Walthamstow. This year I get to be the man on the Clapham omnibus, again. It being my birthday I'm afraid there will be rather more introspection than normal.
♦ I'm either too old or too unsophisticated for Westfield. The White City version is a notch posher than my local Stratford model, and I don't quite feel comfortable walking its malls. Were I younger, better dressed or more consumer-oriented I'd fit right in, but instead I am an almost-50 year-old man sporting not-this-decade's fashion, so I'll give the perkier shops a miss.
It's just me boarding at the bus station. This seems to be typical at the underused White City, with shoppers preferring to board at the next stop opposite Shepherd's Bush station instead. Along this first stretch I listen in on the conversation two drivers are having downstairs, discussing sick pay, stress and the merits of skiving, before one nips off to drive some other bus from Shepherd's Bush Green. Departing Westfield requires a considerable number of twists and turns, before a fuller bus escapes onto the roundabout beneath giant electronic ads for lager, cars and rugby.
♦ The houses are big round here. We're passing through the borders of Holland Park, an especially wealthy enclave where several of the stucco townhouses aren't yet subdivided into flats. Had I followed a different path through life I could have afforded one of these, I tell myself, although that's an aspirational dream I've been fed, and in fact this life was never for me.
A pair of (proper) Routemasters are parked up at the far end of Kensington High Street. Route 9H now terminates here, rather than round the back of the Royal Albert Hall, but soon it'll be terminated altogether when TfL scraps this heritage service for good. Further change is afoot at what used to be the Commonwealth Institute, reopening next year as the new Design Museum. Alas the iconic 60s building has almost disappeared behind three new blocks of flats, but 61 non-affordableapartments is how redevelopment projects get their funding these days.
♦ Shoppers on Kensington High Street are better scrubbed up than most. Two men in duffle coats and trainers walk past - shaved bald and immaculately groomed in defiance of their age. I reckon both must be 49-ish trying to look 29, but who are they kidding? Me, I'm letting my first wrinkles show and offering a foundation-free face to the world, and I bet I get out of the bathroom a lot quicker in the morning.
Past the Palace a right turn leads us into the heart of Kensington, and along a parade of shops pandering to cash-rich locals. One such resident has pulled up in his BMW outside Starbucks and set his hazard lights flashing. Our bus waits patiently behind, until he saunters back out with a single coffee in his hand, strokes his gelled hair and climbs back into the car. I'm disappointed to watch him driving off up the nearest mews - barely 15 seconds home - because that's what lazy self-absorbed consumption does for you.
♦ Gloucester Road is a lovely tube station, the second of three consecutive Circle line stations we'll be serving. Along the street two winter-tanned Sloanes are slouched in a doorway smoking, then at South Ken the queue for Ben's Cookies is out the door. I have a sudden crisis of conscience as I wonder what on earth I'm doing sat on a bus noting all this down for online narrative purposes. And then I pull myself together, because what else would I do of an afternoon?
Our driver is offering a masterclass in the art of travelling very slowly. By Onslow Square he pulls up at a bus stop where nobody is waiting, then pauses for an unnecessary minute before pulling off just in time to get stopped by the traffic lights turning red immediately ahead. Ahead on Sydney Street he tries a different but similar trick, allowing a van to pull out in front of us just before the lights change. I would applaud his skill, but I'd rather reach my destination.
♦ A private hire Routemaster is parked on the Kings Road, its blind offering wedding day congratulations to Rob and Sarah. Of bride and groom there is no sign, but my guess is that everybody's onto the reception by now. I haven't been to a wedding in years, let alone ever considered the logistics of hiring an old bus to transport guests to my own. But there'd be a private hire Routemaster, obviously.
I'm struck by the ethnic mix, or lack of it, on the King's Road. Almost everybody's white, or perhaps Far East Asian, enjoying the eclectic mix of boutiques and eateries provided hereabouts. Things change considerably after we've crossed the Thames - a graceful arc over the rippling Thames via Battersea Bridge. For the first time on this journey there are suddenly council blocks, a Costcutter and a Betfred, plus a more diverse range of passengers, with the privileged streets of Kensington and Chelsea now firmly behind us.
♦ With a deft swish of his hand, a silver-haired gent in a fedora waves his Freedom Pass holder to flag down our bus. I'm still seventeen years away from mine - my Freedom Pass, that is, not a fedora - which reassures me that "old age" remains a ridiculous number of days ahead. My 60+ London Oyster photocard is now barely a decade away, however, assuming no Mayor's scrapped it by the time I get that far.
The real Battersea lies some distance west of the Power Station, and Boris's much vaunted Northern line extension won't help the residents our bus is now passing. It should be a short ride from the gentrifying high street to Clapham Junction, but we're stuck in traffic and our driver's earlier attempts to dawdle now look unwise. Things aren't helped by a cyclist on Superhighway 8, which is too narrow to allow us to overtake, so we pootle slowly and meekly behind to reach Falcon Road.
♦ One particularly boring passenger on the upper deck is droning instructions down the phone regarding a party he's been invited to. Apparently a "Father Ted costume" will do, which simply involves finding something black to wear, and apparently "everyone has that in their wardrobe". It sounds to me like a ghastly evening lies ahead. I'm having a wholly unsociable birthday thanks, with no plans to meet up, dine out or go beering, let alone throw a party.
Most of the remaining passengers alight at the station, or outside the mega-Lidl, or at the post-riot shops in St John's Road. But the 49 dribbles on one step further, past the baby buggies of Northcote Road, to a turning circle up Battersea Rise. My driver is so convinced there's nobody left aboard that he almost sails past the final stop, but I manage to ding in time and he lets me escape.
♦ I can't help noticing that the 49 terminates immediately alongside a cemetery. I'm treating my birthday bus journey introspectively so I take this as a sign, and walk round through the gate to investigate further. In particular I check out the gravestone closest to the bus stop, which belongs to Cornelius Constant Sand who died aged 39. And I realise I've actually done pretty well out of life already, and if I can match the 90 year-old in the plot nearby, all the better.