diamond geezer

 Thursday, March 13, 2014

For the final bus on my round-London journey I need to ride a non-TfL service back to Kent. And what a route. It links two of the largest shopping malls in the country, that's Lakeside and Bluewater. It doesn't appear on the London bus map because it doesn't enter London. It's the only scheduled bus to cross the Thames downstream of Greenwich. It (inexplicably) doesn't run on Sundays. It's run using bright blue double deckers. And if you go in the right direction there are some whoa-yeah views across miles of estuary. I'm definitely going in the right direction... indeed that's the reason why I chose to orbit London clockwise in the first place.

 Route X80: Lakeside - Bluewater

 Length of journey: 8 miles, 25 minutes

Lakeside's architects didn't make it easy to find the bus station. It looks obvious enough on the map - two long blue shelters running parallel to the quarry's edge - but once inside the mall the lack of helpful signs is plain. Indirect access can be found up a side arm, past a tiny McDonalds and up a drab path beside a car park. The most direct route involves zigzagging through the ladies department at Debenhams, dodging perfume vendors and swish dresses, towards a barely-marked rear door. Never mind. We car-less folk know when we're not wanted, plus of course we all worked out where the bus station was when we arrived.

You'd think "the only bus across the Thames for miles" would run more often but no, just once an hour. Queues are building to board long before the bus arrives, lengthening down the shelter as the timetabled departure times ticks round. Across the way is what looks like a small house but is actually a hideaway for Ensign Buses staff, somewhere to coordinate movements or for drivers to grab a cuppa between scheduled services. This particular afternoon two young policemen are hovering outside, their short-sleeved uniform revealing one tattooed elbow and one entirely inked forearm. They offer a friendly "hello" to the boy in the wheelchair further back down the queue, then wander through the swing doors to summer fashions on their none-too-taxing beat.

Boarding the big blue bus takes several minutes. An additional member of staff comes over to help the driver, waving through anyone who already has a ticket while the rest of us queue to pay. Oyster's useless on this service, we're a couple of miles outside the capital, so I have to stump up £2.80 for a single. The lower deck is rammed but the upper deck not so - that's heavy shopping for you - so I'm pleased to grab a vacant front seat just before we depart. All the better to enjoy the view later, oh yes.

We set off along the edge of the former chalk quarry, then rise up to the arterial road on the rim. Adjacent is a major leisure option, Arena Essex, a stock car and speedway racing track that predates Lakeside. But it's the view across the mall's vented roof that attracts the eye. First shops and lakes, then the industrial band along the Thames, and on the far side of the river the hazy green hills of north Kent. There's plenty of time to admire, because traffic is very slow ahead. The problem is two streams of traffic crossing at the next roundabout, one in, one out, and the draw of Costco, Tesco et al is too strong.

We eventually reach the point where the M25 terminates, because this motorway's not a loop, but has a brief deregulated section for the Dartford Crossing. A road sign directs us towards A282 THE SOUTH, and then we're up onto the approach road to the QE2 Bridge (opened 1991). And this is why it's important that I'm orbiting clockwise, because every scrap of northbound traffic is directed underground instead through a parallel tunnel. It's fast and efficient, taking barely a minute to pass through, but you miss out on oh so many elevated glories. Ride south, however, especially from the top deck of a double decker bus, and whoa-yeah!

What a vista. There are pylons and power stations, factories and silos, chimneys and conveyor belts, great piles of sand... but most of all there's the Thames, here almost a kilometre wide. A broad ribbon of water snakes off in both directions, past long piers where huge ships are moored, and docks where thousands of cars are offloaded. Upriver are the Erith Marshes, and Bexley's (seemingly tiny) incinerator, and maybe the Thames Barrier, and possibly the skyscrapers of Docklands if you look hard enough. The estuary is truly vast, and relentlessly flat, and it's only from up here on the bridge that you truly get that sense of scale. Seriously, who'd be downstairs?

But it's all so brief. We're speeding across at 50mph, so all too quickly we're coming into land over Kent. Come on a busier day, however, and you'd more likely stall over the water. That's because lined up immediately ahead are toll booths 15 to 27, which still require the chucking of coins unless your vehicle's equipped with the crossing's smartcard. Our bus heads deliberately towards the left-most lane, where it stops at the barrier like everyone else, but only a nod and a smile are exchanged.

At the Littlebrook roundabout we double back in the direction of Essex, alongside the edge of the bridge we've just driven down. The bus now passes through the Crossways Business Park, a major collection of squat blocks laid out along so-called boulevards, occupied by up-and-comers. A typical outfit would have a name like called Micron Technologies, creating something nebulously service-based, and ideally located for road transport purposes. A few animal sculptures have been imported to give the place some sense of identity, alongside some lawns around big ponds where employees can lounge with a packed lunch, assuming anybody still does that.

Twenty minutes into the journey we spy our first actual houses, the backs of a row of terraces in the village of Stone. Competing for residents' attention are its 13th century church and an enormous Asda (and you can probably guess which wins on a Sunday). We stop outside Greenhithe station, freshly rebuilt as the gateway to Bluewater, although (unlike Lakeside's nearest halt) it's not really close enough to walk. Shoppers can catch one of the area's special air-conditioned Fastrack buses, introduced to improve accessibility across the Thames Gateway area, but trains are more likely to disgorge passengers into the clutches of waiting car drivers.

Hang on, I recognise the next junction by The Bull - my very first bus passed this way just over two months ago. But there's no shared bus stop, indeed no more stops at all for the next mile as we head down into a familiar quarry to enter Bluewater proper. I note that the giant silver reindeer has been removed since New Year, along with posters for the skating rink, but cars continue to pour in all the same. We're heading for the bus station round the back of Marks & Spencer's food hall - an exit almost as well shielded as by Debenhams at Lakeside. My journey of over 150 miles is almost at an end.

As we pull in, one grandma downstairs makes a "wait!!" gesture through the window at the driver in the next bay. If he hangs on for a few more seconds she (and the boy in the wheelchair) can avoid a half hour wait for the next bus. And yes, of course they bundle off in time, and yes, of course the next bus waits, because bus drivers are inherently a damned reasonable breed. I know this because I've been all the way round the edge of London by bus, and I've met 25 of them. And that's why I'm not rushing to climb aboard another bus, not rushing at all. Instead I head for the shops and walk a circuit of the mall, a very much simpler orbital experience. London encircled by bus, achievement unlocked. 492>>

» route X80 - timetable
» route X80 - route map
» route X80 - Ensign buses leaflet
» map of my complete journey

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