THE NORTH CIRCULAR BY BUS(part 1)
Route 112: Ealing Common - Brent Cross Length of journey: 7 miles, 35 minutes [map]
I had my doubts about riding the A406 by bus on a Saturday afternoon. I've seen sections of the North Circular jammed solid, particularly along the next stretch, so I brought a book in case things got too bad. Thankfully I hit lucky on my journey to Brent Cross, and also in getting a double decker ride because most 112s are single. I missed out on the upper front seat, so got to sit behind a woman wolfing down a filet-o-fish and black coffee. The road north from Ealing Common is Hanger Lane, long has been, but now a four lane arterial rather than obscure rural backwater. It vaults the Great Western railway, then rises to a high point on Hanger Hill from which a panorama across Brent and Harrow can be seen. It's best seen from the top deck, so truck drivers probably have the edge over car drivers, and is pleasingly lowrise bar Wembley's foreground arch.
Once a lowly crossroads, the Hanger Lane Gyratory is the squarest mega-roundabout in London. It came into being in the 1980s in response to the sheer volume of traffic interchanging between Western Avenue and the North Circular, and has been mostly overwhelmed ever since. The A40 passes beneath in a too-narrow underpass, but everything on the A406 must stop and join the multi-lane maelstrom. Our bus pauses beside a shop specialising in Eastern European accident claims, then ducks out into the melee past several outcrops of ill-advised office architecture. Our driver's clearly a pro, negotiating four lanes, then five, then six, before spinning off northeast along the Brent valley.
From this point on, the North Circular is a substantially better road than before, from a motorist's point of view that is, rather than in terms of scenery. Various commercial premises occupy the left hand side, including the underwhelming (and non-orange) HQ of EasyBus and EasyOffice, while somewhere in the trees to the right is what's left of TwyfordAbbey. Immediately ahead, passing over via aqueduct, is the Grand Union Canal - damaged by bombing at the start of WW2, but a flooding calamity was thankfully averted. And if you look carefully you'll spot that the bus has slipped off the main road onto a parallel suburban feeder, this in order to better serve its neighbouring community, and not for the last time.
Here's a legendary location - the famous Ace Cafe. It opened in 1938 to cater for passing roadside trade, but very soon upgraded to the Ace Service Station. The current building's a postwar rebuild, made popular then famous, then infamous as a Mecca for bikers and rock'n'rollers. The last fried breakfast was served in 1969, that is until a 2001 reboot that saw the Ace reborn for an older generation. Our bus paused at the stop alongside for longer than seemed absolutely necessary, but that was great to get an unusual birds eye view of action on the forecourt. A variety of bikes were lined up proudly at the roadside while their owners sat inside in full leathers with a nice cup of coffee, or rested their helmets outside on a row of black plastic chairs. Others in civvies had come simply to admire, or had tagged along to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Mini Moke, three of which were parked outside. Ace indeed.
There are at least half a dozen railway bridges ahead (one stillFerodo!), these carrying a) the West Coast mainline b) tracks to sidings and c) the Bakerloo line. Our sideroad dips through a series of brick arches to pass Stonebridge Park station, and a small cluster of contrasting office blocks. Immediately to the left is the refitted 21 storey Wembley Point, a triangular-prism-ish tower whose deluded owners have deemed it "the true landmark of Wembley", ignoring the conspicuous national stadium nearby. Opposite are the Unisys Buildings, a pair of concrete curves left empty anddecaying in 1996, fit only for squatters. It's destined to become "at least 5% affordable housing", but in the meantime hosts Wembley's famous SundayMarket which was forced to decamp here earlier this year.
Thus far any housing immediately alongside the North Circular has tended to be fairly Metroland in style, but as Neasden approaches comes a run of lowly council homes, roughly hewn and scrappily daubed. Somewhere behind is the Shree Swaminarayan Mandir, the largest traditionally-built Hindu temple outside India, although a far more visible place of worship is coming up on the left. That'd be the Wembley IKEA, one of the main reasons this road gets so clogged up hereabouts, as the size of the car park (and that of neighbouring Tesco) bears witness. A flatpack football stands outside the entrance this month, which I suspect might have been less underwhelming had Sweden actually qualified for the World Cup this year.
The 112 then does a brave thing and turns off the A406 at the Neasden Underpass. It does this to serve a bus stop in the mock Tudor shopping parade, but in doing so risks entering one traffic jam leading to another leading back to a third. Few urban centres have been blighted by the North Circular quite so badly as poor Neasden, but my journey escapes relatively quickly and I'm not forced to look for too long. Neither do I get the opportunity, on the next stretch, to enjoy a lengthy view over the Welsh Harp Reservoir. I catch glimpses of yachts behind the treeline, but a more protracted spell of light industrial tedium in the immediate vicinity.
One more mega-important mega-junction follows, this being StaplesCorner. Yes, there is a branch of Staples office supplies on the corner, but that's not the origin of the name, which was the Staples Mattress Factory, extant here until 1986. One linked roundabout joins to the A5, formerly Watling Street, while the other more complex beast is the very first junction on the M1 motorway. It's bad enough to negotiate in a car but pedestrians are sent instead via a series of labyrinthine suspendedwalkways, fenced off to keep two legs and four wheels safely separate. And finally, assuming the traffic's not too heavy, the 112 delivers its cargo of shoppers to the mall at BrentCross. There are far worse places to pause, but also far better. 232>>