StockwellBusGarage is one of London's finest concrete structures. It was built on a bomb site after the war, and when it opened in 1952 it boasted the largest unsupported area under one roof in Europe. Steel was hard to come by at the time, so concrete was deemed the way to go, and it was used in an entirely cutting-edge way. The building was designed without internal pillars to create as large an parking space as possible, and 200 buses could be fitted into the space within.
It's Grade II* listed, obviously, as befits such a bravura piece of architecture. And it's a working bus garage, so there's no way you'll get inside, not unless you're one of Go-Ahead London's 770 staff. Not unless there's an Open Day, that is, or you hide on the upper deck of a bus after its last stop and sneak your way in (not recommended). A very rare Open Day occurred yesterday as part of TfL's Year Of The Buscelebrations, allowing mere mortals to get inside and worship at the altar of the gods of reinforcedconcrete. Thousands turned up, which was good to see, although the great majority of them seemed to have no time to look up. They came for the buses, and stared at them, swarmed over them and took copious photographs of them, because this was a bus garage open day and many of the vehicles inside were heritage classics. But the loveliness of theroof probably passed most of them by, or at least that's how it seemed. [25 photos]
Parked up inside the entrance on Lansdowne Way was TfL's latest very special project, the B-type Battle Bus. They've restored this century-old stalwart specifically to take part in commemorations of the Great War. A thousand such motorbuses were sent to the front to transport troops to and from the frontline, and this bus is due to be heading back to France and Belgium later this year. It has a phenomenally steep rear staircase, especially coming back down from the top deck, and a straw-thin handrail that'd never pass a modern health and safety audit. It is a lovelyvehicle, though, and I enjoyed the warningsigns on the open top that read "Do Not Lean Over The Side Of The Omnibus Otherwise You May Receive Some Hurt".
A very large number of other buses were parked up beyond, several of which you'll be able to see parked up on Regent Street today as part of the one-off Bus Cavalcade. Many of those on show at Stockwell were RTs and Routemasters, as you'd expect, including special variations of the above that those in the know fussed and preened over. There were several later vehicles too, including those squared-off buses that ruled the capital in the 80s, and a Red Arrow complete with space for two turnstiles in the days before flat fares could be paid by Oyster. And the assembled collection ran right up to date with the special "New Routemaster" vehicle resprayedsilver to celebrate the Year Of The Bus (which I noticed had a metal plaque bolted halfway up the stairs that read "New Bus For London 2012", so enough of your rebranding charade TfL, I believe none of it).
Some of the buses were closed off, or barricaded with tape, but others you could step inside. I walked into one and was instantly transported back to mundane journeys in the Watford area circa nineteen seventy something. One woman had slipped into the driver's seat of something older and was proudly taking a selfie to share. Small children were being shown how things used to be, although they were few in number, as indeed were the female of the species. Something about an event in a bus garage brings out the male enthusiast, often with notebook in hand, and they were well catered for around the perimeter.
If you needed a photo of a provincial bus service, or a heritage coach badge, or a boxed model omnibus, this was the place. Folk were flicking through the memorabilia for the chance to add to their home collection, some collecting bagfuls to augment their stash. One enterprising seller had even bagged up sets of the five current (free) London bus maps and was attempting to sell them for £1.50, but he was being mostly shunned. I will confess to having bought a pair of 1965 bus maps, purely for research purposes you understand, but I resisted walking off with a line diagram rescued from outgoing Metropolitan line A Stock.
As an added bonus, variousbuses appeared at regular intervals outside the main entrance to take passengers for a ride. One such trip was through the bus wash, for those who've always wanted to know what it's like to pass through the whirling brushes at upper deck level. And the other was a rather longer sightseeing tour into central London and back in a vintage vehicle, including the sights of Westminster Bridge and the Vauxhall gyratory. It was fun to pull up in traffic alongside tourists who'd paid a fortune to ride in a less interesting sightseeing bus, and to spin round Parliament Square just before it was clogged off by an anti-austerity demo.