THE NORTH CIRCULAR BY BUS(epilogue)
Route 101: Wanstead - North Woolwich Length of journey: 8 miles, 50 minutes [map]
My North Circular bus journey left the North Circular in Woodford, where a very modern road careers down the Roding valley towards Beckton. But before that elevated highway was opened, specifically before 1987, the North Circular followed much more ordinary streets. Specifically it left the current route at WaterworksCorner and then followed what's now the A104, A114, A116 and A117. To save you checking, that's past Whipps Cross, across Wanstead Flats, through the heart of East Ham and down to the ferry at North Woolwich. And there's a bus that does pretty much exactly that (apart from the first couple of miles and a tiny bit at the end), so that's my last ride... down the old North Circular on the 101. And it only takes only half an hour, apparently, according to some laughable piece of fiction called the timetable.
If you're the commemorative type, the 101 celebrates its centenary this year. You've missed that, because it was in March, but a century's a long time for what sounds like such a peripheral service. Not so, indeed the 101 was once London's most frequent bus service with more than 60 vehicles an hour serving the southern section at peak times. That's a measure of how integrally important the Royal Docks at Woolwich used to be, and my considerably quieter ride will hint at how far the mighty have fallen.
Wanstead is one of East London's more chichi hideaways, as its run of boutiques and restaurants makes clear. That's partly because the government went to extraordinary lengths to hide the arterial road that ought to have destroyed the place, hiding the A12 beneath a thin layer of village green that doubles as a tunnel roof. The 101 shadows this rumbling canyon before breaking across the first bridge to follow Blake Hall Road. Watch out for the big white gateposts on the left, a) because they used to be the entrance to Wanstead House, and b) because they mark the point where the old North Circular joins the route. It's remarkably green out here, with a southern outpost of Epping Forest to one side and a sports ground and golf course to the other.
The City of London have made sure that the ancient expanse of Wanstead Flats remains very well preserved, bar some occasional pockets of residential development. One of these is Aldersbrook, a splendid and secluded Edwardian development of leafy avenues, where one suspects only people in the know have ever thought to live. The 101 skirts the northern edge of the heath, the less gorse-y bit, with a glorious view across major dog-walking space towards Docklands, the City and Stratford's first skyscraper. We stop by the fish and chip shop opposite the lake, where a man gets on and sprawls himself across the other top front seat. Within a minute he has sneezed with an unshielded whoosh that I can only hope is hayfever, particularly when I feel the weight of one tiny droplet of something landing on my arm. As we pass the entrance to the City of London Cemetery, I wish him gone.
Outside Manor Park station a bus numbered 474 is parked up. This too will be following the old North Circular for the next few miles, indeed all the way to the end, because the route was introduced in 1999 to shadow the 101 and ease its load. I could jump horses here, but it seems more proper to remain on the original for the long run down through Newham. By now it's late afternoon, and most of the shops along Station Road are either shuttered, shutting or shut. Ahead is East Ham's considerable high street, which is so long that it's had to be split into a mile of High Street North and a mile of High Street South. This top end's a Lebara and Lycamobile kind of place, lined by little shops that dispense sarees and halal, money transfers and gold, grilled chicken and bowls of fruit. My favourite sign reads PLEASE DO NOT PRESS THE MANGO THANKYOU, but I suspect at street level there are many more.
Only beyond the tube station do the national chains begin, kicking off with a glut of betting shops and a Lidl. Marks and Spencer abandoned the area five years ago, correctly, because I suspect most of those heading home are much happier to have a Poundland and a Poundworld than the old Penny Bazaar. Looking down from my bubble on the top deck, where I'm somehow now the only passenger, I try hard to imaginea time when the scene below was both a thriving retail centre and the main road to the docks. The street now seems too narrow, at least compared to the multi-lane highways I've ridden earlier, but time was when traffic simply crawled through town and we put up with it. As if to reinforce the point all southbound traffic is suddenly shifted off onto a parallel road, a modern bypass running along the back of Primark and the tenaciously independent East Ham Market Hall.
Attempting to filter right out of the Barking Road takes ages, and hence we pull up beneath the brick clocktower of East Ham Town Hall as the bell within dings five. And here we wait, initially I assume because potential passengers are being awkward, but then I realise because we're changing drivers. This is a shame, because the new bloke turns out to have a decidedly reticent driving style, soon demonstrating behaviour which makes me assume he's trying desperately hard not to get to the end of the route too quickly. He's the type who'll pull off deliberately just before the lights ahead turn red, or drive at 10mph in a 20mph zone, or pull over at a stop where nobody's waiting purely to flap the doors open for a few impotent seconds. He'll not be getting a "thanks" from me when I alight.
High Street South has more of a residential vibe, and a proper cultural mix... exemplified by the occasional pub surviving and thriving, and draped with numerous St George's flags. The old North Circular runs down the side of Central Park, more Victorian in feel than its New York namesake, and on past tree-lined avenues of terraced townhouses. Whoever built the pebbledashed quadrant apartment block opposite the fire station needs a good telling off, but the rest of the surrounding housing stock isn't bad, and 12th century St Mary Magdalene's at the far end (said to be the oldest surviving parish church in London) is an unexpected treat.
If you want a proper road, the A13 Newham Way is it. The new North Circular terminates at a roundabout half a mile to the east, whereas the old queues apologetically to cross the stream of traffic in fits and starts beneath a concrete viaduct. Everything ahead used to be undeveloped marshland leading up to the Royal Docks, that is until the LDDC came along in the 1980s and built its first large housing estate at Beckton. The 101 now serves this residential influx, although every house has space for a car so most locals prefer to drive everywhere instead. We pass the slagheap heights of BecktonAlps, alas no longer a dry ski slope, and pull into the new bus station outside the not-very-nice Asda. Our last fresh contingent of passengers are clearly heading for the far better retail offer at Gallions Reach, but I'm alighting a few stops early because the old North Circular heads instead to the river.
A few minutes on the 474 are required, past a corner of Beckton as yet undeveloped and then across the uplifting Sir Steve Redgrave Bridge. Theview from here down the full length of the Royal Albert Dock is one of the best in London, with Docklands and the City perfectly aligned at the far end, and maybe an aeroplane touching down at City Airport alongside. And so we approach the old North Circular's last hurrah, past the peaceful green of Royal Victoria Gardens and left into PierRoad, at the end of which the Woolwich Ferry departs. Alas it wasn't running on Saturday afternoon because of mechanical problems, which was a shame because it meant any drivers who'd got this far down the North Circular had essentially wasted their journeys. As they turned back and demanded a satnav detour, I stared across the Thames to the opposite pier where the A205South Circular begins. One day I'll travel the length of that too, but that's a dozen buses (at least) all the way to Gunnersbury, so I think I'd best spare you the detail.