Before the Routemaster came the RT, London's omnibus workhorse of the 1950s. The first prototype hit the streets in 1939, which makes this the 75th anniversary, which is as good an excuse to celebrate as any. The body celebrating were the London Bus Museum, who yesterday organised a special service on route 22 with dozens of heritage vehicles. That's the eastern half of old route 22, from Piccadilly Circus through the City, Shoreditch and Dalston to Homerton. A fine day was had by all, not least the volunteers who maintain and crew the buses, but also the massed ranks of The Men Who Bus. Here's what you missed.
Chatsworth Road, Homerton It's coming up in the world, is ChatsworthRoad. I remember the street at the turn of the century as a scrawny backwater, a laundrette and betting shop type place, most definitely off the beaten track. When I returned in 2011 it seemed much the same, but with the addition of a fledgling Sunday market to try to appeal to incomers. Today the laundrettes and betting shops remain, but infilled with creperies, delicatessens and coffee shops, as Hackney opens up to the thick-bearded and the stilettoed. Whatever, the residents and shoppers of Chatsworth Road weren't expecting the nostalgiafest that hit them on Saturday, indeed many failed to blink at all. When a 60 year old bus rounded the corner and rattled past the shops, most carried on as normal, despite the fact this was never likely to happen again. All the proper clues were at the foot of the hill, where The Men Who Bus were lurking with cameras. They're always on the lookout for the perfect vantage shot during these events, the opportunity to catch the lesser spotted red bus in what used to be its natural habitat. They perched on the corner by the park, watched by hipsters with lattes and Guardian-reading dads with prams, awaiting the oldest of the species, the venerable RT1.
Eventually her white-topped frame appeared and rumbled hesitantly over the speed bumps. Ads for Alka Seltzer and Brymay matches decorated her side, and the passengers inside looked down as if on some kind of regal tour. They'd be alighting at the bus stand by the park, where the London Bus Museum had parked another RT to act as a base for the afternoon. This particular vehicle had been around the world to promote the Festival of Britain, hence the plug for BOAC along the side and "Greetings from Britain to the USA" on the rollerblind. A museum volunteer patrolled the crowd, asking Would you like a leaflet, and Can I interest you in this book, and Had you thought of going to our Spring Gathering tomorrow? The Men Who Bus milled and chatted, and rushed across the road to take more shots of RT1 without any other annoying Men Who Bus standing in front. She wasn't full when she departed, this being the non-central extremity of her route, and there then followed a lengthy hiatus during which no other heritage service appeared. A stream of ordinary 242s passed through, opening their doors to waiting souls who had no interest in boarding, while in the adjacent park the Hackney Playbus held court to entertain the younger generation. Eventually an RT arrived and the polite scramble for the top deck began, game on.
Piccadilly Circus, Westminster
At the sharp end of the operation, there was a queue. Many folk had lined up on Shaftesbury Avenue, opposite the tourist hole where the caricaturists lurk and the food joints offering burger and chips. The pavement become more semi-blocked with every passing minute no RT came, although true to form three came along at once in the opposite direction. At last a Shoreditch-bound vehicle came round the Circus past Eros, and the waiting phalanx of amateur photographers leapt into action to capture the event. Umpteen passengers poured off, or rather dribbled off, many of them being older than the bus. As we waited, a woman strode up to the driver in his cab and asked, repeatedly, if the bus really was going to Dalston. She did this in a thick non-Dalston accent, which was nothing the poor guy understood even by the tenth attempt, and all he could do was shrug. She eventually nipped happily onto a number 38, having presumably been unable to deduce that this 22 wasn't in any way normal. And we boarded the special, grinning more broadly, for a jaunt to Shoreditch through the City.
The back seat on the top deck is highly prized, and had been grabbed by a young mum and her hyperactive offspring. He'd been pushing his luck in the queue, so Mum threatened him with all sorts of sanctions if he misbehaved, then failed to follow through when he sat there kicking the seat repeatedly. Normally small children gravitate to the front seat, but that was already occupied by The Men Who Bus, in large numbers, many with bulging camera bags on their laps. I made sure to sit two seats behind, but the unfortunate pair who sat in front of me got to endure a full outburst from the balding gentleman in front. He regaled them with his thoughts on the New Bus for London's double staircase, on the perils of buses going cashless and the merits or otherwise of Abellio Surrey's current franchise. When finally he shut up the pair in front rolled their eyes and stared out of the window, attempting to say nothing more that might cause the expert to turn round and put them right. And on we rolled, admired by many onlookers along the way, in our bubble of transport history.
Ash Grove Bus Garage, Hackney
As part of the day's celebrations, a cavalcade of old buses was on show in the yard outside the bus garage off Mare Street. They don't normally allow the public in, but yesterday you'd have been welcomed beneath the railway bridge and past the temporary bus stop. Which buses you saw depended on when you arrived. Early enough and they were all here, lined up in nostalgic perfection, whereas later there were gaps where vehicles were out on the road. Ah, the joy of seeing proper old buses, polished and scrubbed to within an inch of their lives, and with long gone route details on their blinds. The 10 no longer goes to Abridge, the 716 no longer ventures to Hatfield House, and (interesting interloper here) the 317 no longer runs to Knotty Ash. The old adverts too were marvellously evocative, be they for seven shilling Green Rovers, Battersea Fun Fair or Saturday's (Saturday's!) Evening Standard. Some owners allowed you aboard, others preferred it if you cooed and admired from outside.
A couple of stalls were selling stuff that The Men Who Bus really like, notably photos and books and mugs and things with logos you can stick on the fridge. And intermingled with the old were the new, namely the New Bus For London, stashed away waiting for the weekday run on route 38. Their curves contrasted well with the RTs, but few gave them a second glance with the older generation around. Over at the temporary bus stop a queue of people waited patiently for the next service into town. They'd been waiting for some time, as by this point in the day the planned timetable had been shot to pieces. Some vehicles had broken down, others had got lost in the backstreets of Hackney, and nothing seemed to be turning up at its scheduled time. When the relevant vehicle finally pulled forward it drove straight out of the garage without stopping, leaving those waiting bereft... and with a 45 minute gap before the next certain departure. Don't expect reliability on days such as these, that's not what the old school experience is about. Instead simply enjoy the rare opportunity to ride what was once commonplace, and remember to thank the organisers who made it happen.