THE NORTH CIRCULAR BY BUS(part 2)
Route 232: Brent Cross - Arnos Grove Length of journey: 6 miles, 30 minutes [map]
Like the 112 before it, the 232 is a mostly North Circular bus. That's risky if you want to catch it, because you could end up in a jam anywhere and might be late for whatever at the other end. I have no such deadlines so board in good faith, and wonder how long my journey through south Barnet might take. The bus itself is busy, pulling into the Brent Crossshopping mall to disgorge one set of passengers and then pausing to welcome more. It's also the only single decker I get to ride on my entire journey, which is bad news for today's report because it restricts my view. Travel at the front on the upper deck and you really feel like you've experienced a place - travel at the back on a lower deck and you've only scratched the surface. Still, bear with me.
Welcome to Brent Cross Private Property, reads the sign we pass on the way out, which is a less than friendly welcome in my book. We take a dip through the A41 viaduct to escape, essentially following a sliproad to follow another sliproad to rejoin the A406. It's a much easier route than many other buses hereabouts get to follow, for which I am duly thankful. We are again following the river Brent, here forced into a demeaning concrete culvert lest it get in the way of the modern motor car. A run of bungalows follows, most with paved front gardens from which residents have to reverse extremely carefully to enter the traffic. One such dwelling has been painted grey and renamed Wentworth College, along with a similarly drab semi nextdoor, which probably explains why no photos of the building appear anywhere on the college's website.
I recognise the next stretch from my walks along the Capital Ring, or rather I remember walking past shady lakes while a six lane highway thundered behind the trees. Ahead is the North Circular's flatshare moment, as the A1 swings in from the left and shares carriageways for a while. Unusually there's plenty of open greenspace alongside which could be reappropriated by tarmac, but hasn't been, even after TfL's recent mega-upgrade of the junction at Henlys Corner. Instead local residents can choose to stroll along the Mutton Brook, if they don't mind inhaling exhaust fumes, past the traffic lights where we stop and start before veering off solo again.
Ever since we left Brent Cross I've been trying to work out where the voices are coming from. They're too soft to be iBus announcements, and too regular to be passengers talking. The answer comes suddenly with a doof doof... somebody in one of the front seats is streaming EastEnders! I can't see whether it's on their smartphone or tablet, but what I do know is that the brazen bastard is watching without the aid of headphones. Please God let that be it, thinks the on-board collective, but immediately after the theme tune's faded away it kicks back in again as our miscreant starts to watch the next episode. Where is the real Phil Mitchell when you need him?
The North Circular descends into cutting as it skirts the edge of Finchley, a sleek modern cutting lined by patterned brickwork, denying sight of the cemetery above. No pedestrians may pass this way, the A406 has finally gone wheels only, with only the occasional bus stop on the traffic's edge granted temporary access. The next main road we rise up and over, now more disassociated from our surroundings, past the façade of Finchley Fire Station, FFS. A curving double spur links to the A1000, formerly the A1, where the North Circular at last attains a motorway vibe. As we speed through I'm increasingly aware that I don't know this part of London at all, it's like a black hole in my decade's exploration of the capital, and I wonder if my absence is at least partly due to the North Circular scything through.
It's at this point that the A406 goes green, on both sides, with a nature reserve to the left and the vast St Pancras and Islington Cemetery to the right. I'm assuming all is set fair for the journey ahead when suddenly the next stop is brimming with passengers wanting to crowd on. Half are laden with bags from Tesco, and the rest are sweaty in sportskit after a Powerleague kickabout on the other side of the arterial stream. Somewhat appropriately the sliproad we're now on is called Bobby Moore Way, although my research has been unable to dig up any geographical reason why the great footballer is commemorated here at Colney Hatch and not, say, further round the North Circular where he lived and played.
The onboard teammates jostle, banter and swig Lucozade, like you do after a match. There is to be plenty of swigging time. Ahead is the unloved part of the North Circular where the number of eastbound lanes slims from three to two, and traffic duly queues to merge in turn. It could be worse, indeed I suspect it oftentimes is, but there's no immediate scope for any useful widening hereabouts. The immediate obstacle is the East Coast mainline, more specifically the low brick arch that threads beneath, where capacity just has to grin and bear it. On the opposite side is a huge gasometer and a BP garage, and then a set of traffic lights where the 232 does something unthinkable, it turns left.
Yes, the next quarter-mile of the A406 is entirely bus-free. I suspect that's partly to avoid its unfriendly two-lane-ness, but more likely to give the 232 the chance to serve some proper communities for a change. First up is New Southgate, the newly-proposed terminus of Crossrail 2, which'd no doubt mean the clearing out of the builders merchants decamped on a disused viaduct. Then there's Friern Barnet, easternmost of the family of Barnets, where it feels strange to be back on a single carriageway road passing chip shops and nail bars. And finally Arnos Grove station, where I decide to decamp the 232 before it continues off piste to Turnpike Road. Brief arterial respite follows, outside architecturalheaven. 34>>