THE NORTH CIRCULAR BY BUS(part 3)
Route 34: Arnos Grove - Walthamstow Length of journey: 7 miles, 35 minutes [map]
One of the joys of TfL's Live Bus Arrivals service is that you know not just when the next bus is coming, but also the bus after that. So when the first 34 turned up at ArnosGrovestation, heaving, I checked ahead and let it pass. Another bus was only three minutes behind, and as it turned out almost empty, allowing me to grab the prime observation seat on the upper deck. Sometimes it pays to wait.
A proper low-numbered bus for once, the 34 only follows the North Circular for about half its length, so that's the half I'm going to ride. And sorry, but I'm starting at the rubbish bit of the A406, the narrow four lane stretch round Bounds Green that clogs and clogs and clogs. No buses traverse Telford Road, possibly the worst bit, where houses await demolition should a long-term widening scheme ever come to pass. At the next traffic lights cars actually have to turn right to stay on the main road, hence delays, and it's at this point that the 34 arrives and slips into the flow. A new curvaceous footbridge helps schoolchildren get home, beyond which Bowes Road isn't especially wide either. Various residential roads feed in on both sides, and the central reservation (where it exists) is more flowerbed than barrier.
A strip of brownfield land opens up on the left hand side, with those few houses that remain "under protection" and ready for demolition. Is road-widening planned, or will fresh flats spring forth forever constraining opportunities for future expansion? Behind suburban rooftops runs the Pymmes Brook, a minor north London waterway, but significant enough that the North Circular's engineers chose to track its gentle valley all the way down to the Lea. A wholly manmade channel cuts across at right angles just past the railway bridge, this the 400-year-old New River. Nobody seems to be out walking it today, they all seem to be driving instead.
And suddenly we have four lanes travelling east again, one of them a bus lane, this on the approach to the Clockhouse Junction. These are the last traffic lights before Barking, which can only mean the North Circular's about to get a whole lot better (or, if you're going in the opposite direction, a whole lot worse). The next section is long and straight and a textbook example of ribbon development, with a run of sturdy semis facing bravely into the traffic. Three bedroom freehold, Palmers Green fringe, £250000 ono, would suit petrolhead.
The road then widens further, and the houses step further back, on the run-up to the Great Cambridge Road. Just when it looks like our bus might descend into the underpass it banks off up the slip road to connect with a roundabout that driving instructors probably avoid negotiating with their students on a first lesson. The next stretch of the A406 is called Sterling Way, wittily named because it acts as a bypass for parallel Silver Street. And Silver Street is where the 34 is heading, to serve an arts centre, a Post Office and hundreds of houses... which must be a better transport decision than stopping off beside some allotments.
Ooh, PymmesPark is pretty, especially at this time of year with flowerbeds ablaze, and the Brook of the same name wiggling through. Keep looking and you'll miss that the North Circular is descending into its longest subway - the Fore Street Tunnel. This was built in the late 90s to ease a terrible bottleneck through Edmonton, but has proved unexpectedly leaky, so TfL have just started closing it overnight for a mammoth series of drainage repairs due to run until late next year. Those of us at ground level get to cross Angel Corner at the Angel Edmonton, both named after a 17th century coaching inn on Fore Street long since demolished.
One of the joys of a frequent bus service is that sometimes you catch up with the bus in front. So it's a pleasure to catch up with the 34 I refrained from riding earlier, and then to overtake it. There are so many passengers aboard that at every stop someone wants to alight, whereas the handful on our bus rarely do, so we speed ahead and stay permanently in the lead. Sometimes it pays to have waited.
There's a feeling of acceleration as the North Circular careers headlong towards the Lea. It's four lanes each way now, speeding through lowrise suburbia in the shadow of a single lemon-coloured tower block. The 34 takes every opportunity to bear off onto slip roads and back again, grabbing an additional view of the viaduct's supporting concrete pillars each time. The elevated view hits a lowpoint above Angel Road, which is probably the crappiest station in London. A panorama of waste metal proliferates, and there's a terrible smell that might have something to do with the chimneys of the EcoPark Energy Centre alongside. The Mayor and the Chancellor were here last week to plug Enfield Meridian Water, a massive redevelopment plan that aims to turn the entire surrounding area into space for 5000 homes, office space and a retail park. It looks a hard sell today, but at least the road links will be good.
We cross the Lea, and its associated artificial channels, at least four times before finally touching down in the East. The first stop is outside the South Chingford Cafe, its exterior festooned with a flapping Union Jack and a pictorial menu of priced platters. The lady beside me on the bus has brought her own food, a slab of unnamed meat in a plastic tub which I fear she's going to eat, but merely prods and reseals. Nobody alights on Walthamstow Avenue, indeed there are barely any stops because crossing to the other side of the six lane highway looks like hell. In fact hell is WalthamstowStadium, the much-loved dog track whose listed frontage still stands beside the Crooked Billet Roundabout, but the cranes behind tell a much sadder story.
And the Crooked Billet is the end of the 34's dalliance with the North Circular. No buses serve the next mile, an urban clearway that rises gently ahead to carve briefly through a bit of Epping Forest. Instead our destination is Walthamstow, a considerably less speedy prospect, down residential streets past the converted Tramway Offices. Everyone else is going to the bus station, or thereabouts, but I hop off at The Bell (which thankfully does still exist, and is looking for a junior sous chef). One more bus should do it, or maybe two. 123>>
One of the joys of a lengthy bus ride is that sometimes you catch up with the bus in front of the bus in front. As we pull in at The Bell, bingo. Sometimes he who waits wins the jackpot.