THE NORTH CIRCULAR BY BUS(part 4)
Route 123: Walthamstow - Gants Hill Length of journey: 5 miles, 20 minutes [map]
The 123 runs for twelve miles, all the way from Wood Green to Ilford. Only about a mile of that is along the North Circular, but that's the best I've got, so that's the bus I'm going to take. Plus it follows the original route of the A406 eastwards from the point where the North Circular branches off, all the way down Woodford Avenue to Gants Hill. Before the motorway-standard extension down to Beckton opened in 1987, this was the way to go. Easy as 123.
From the Bell in Walthamstow, very close to the William Morris Gallery, it takes a while to get back to the North Circular. Visual respite is provided by Waltham ForestTown Hall, one of the finer mid 20th century civic centres, in competition-winning Nordic Classical style. Next up is Waltham Forest College, more classically housed, and holding an Open Day on Saturday when I passed by. Not a big hit, if the half-empty suite of food and entertainment stalls outside is anything to go by - the headline appearance by Griminal clearly wasn't quite a big enough draw. I get a top deck performance of my own when a young girl travelling unaccompanied bursts into song, far sweeter than any grime performance, but equally unidentifiable.
The same recorded message has played on all my previous buses too, but the 123 is the first route so descriptively thin I've felt the need to mention it. I'm on the upper deck so I have no idea how many, or how few, of the passengers boarding downstairs are paying for their ride in coins. But if you're a fairly regular traveller then you should have heard this message at least once before the withdrawal date, probably several times, and had the opportunity to consider whether to use Oyster or go contactless. It's the occasional users, who are far more likely to use cash than the rest of us, who are most likely to be caught out come 6th July: "oh, really... so I can't get on the bus at all?"
On past Wood Street Library, on across the Greenwich Meridian, and up to Waterworks Corner. The North Circular used to curve south down Beacontree Avenue, but now carves straight ahead through the trees to a major roundabout. This was built in the late 1960s alongside an existing underground reservoir belonging to the Metropolitan Water Board, and the roadworks also allowed for the construction of a second larger reservoir alongside. You might spot both from the bus, or one from the main road.
The 123 only skims the North Circular, but it's picked one of the road's mostbrutal urban sections. What used to be the main road was scoured out, widened and sunk into a cutting ten lanes wide through the heart of Woodford. Ten.Lanes.Wide. To catch the bus at one stop requires stepping down a zigzag ramp in a brick wall to road level, which is perhaps why nobody had ventured that far on my journey. The sole road bridge carries the former A11, now innocently renumbered A1199 in the hope that no satnav will spot it.
Approaching the Central line the carriageway splits, and splits again. Bear right to follow the new North Circular on equally mega-roads down to Beckton. Keep to the centre to whoosh up the fledgling M11 into the very heart of Essex. Or bear left down to Charlie Brown's Roundabout, named after the pub the gyratory destroyed in the 1970s, from which more local options are possible. The junction was built in the immediate floodplain of the river Roding, providing space for a triangle of interlinked concrete viaducts that soar over, or scar, the landscape depending on your view.
To be clear, I'm no longer following the North Circular, because that veers down towards Redbridge and no TfL services go that way. Instead I'm travelling onwards to Gants Hill along the old arterial road, once the A406, now the less inspiring A1400.
Widthwise we're back to a more comfortable two lanes each way, running past more familiar sights like a Tesco and a Toby Carvery. We also have a fair few passengers on board, the 123 being one of the few buses to cross the residential heart of the Hainault loop. Clayhall is quintessential Forgotten London, or indeed Never Even Heard Of It Before London, which is what happens when the Central line circles but misses you out. The area is tightly packed with broad avenues, gabled homes and lush gardens - the very epitome of suburbia but too disconnected to be widely desirable.
The section of road past Clayhall Park was once a rural lane, but the final stretch of Woodford Avenue is a deliberate interwar cut-through. The age of the two churches gives the game away - both have copper spires - and the local shops are called Spurway Parade, presumably in honour of the motor car's brave new world. I like that the central reservation has a line of short trees, in sharp contrast to the impenetrable barriers found elsewhere back along the route.
And the Gants Hill roundabout is where this round London journey terminates, beside a tiny plaque unveiled byBoris Johnson in October 2010 "to celebrate the regeneration of the local area". Closer study of the smallprint reveals that the plaque refers only to the creation of a "regeneration contract", not the upgrade of the roundabout, although the subways have scrubbed up well, and the underground station is as lip-licking as ever. To drive on, join the A12 Eastern Avenue (by bus that's the legendary Route 66). And to follow the North Circular... oh hang on, that never came this far, so I'd best go back and try another way. 101>>
An aside: What is it with the low-digit-ness of buses on the North Circular? I've just ridden the 112, 232, 34 and 123, and there's not a single digit there higher than four (and only one higher than three). The 102 on the Palmers Green section fits the same pattern, and the 444 through Edmonton, and where I'm heading tomorrow is low-digit too. A coincidence, obviously, rather than anything planned, but hey.