The Year of the Bus isn't over yet, oh no. From this week until December, three bus sculpture walking trails have been laid out across central London. That's a peculiar statement, so let me clarify. Someone's made 60 identicalblank bus shapes, 2½m long and 1m high, out of plastic or fibreglass or something. The bus in question is the New Bus For London, or whatever TfL are calling it this year. An equivalent number of artists have designed something bus- or London-related to paint or otherwise cover the surface of each sculpture. At the end of the process they'll all be auctioned for charity, one of which is Camila Batmanghelidjh's Kids Company, and another of which is TfL's very own London Transport Museum. A fourth walking trail is lined up for central Croydon in the run-up to Christmas. And the other three are up and running now should you wish to traipse around the capital and take a look.
I found it on Monday morning outside Stratford International station, glinting in the sunlight and being generally inspected by passers-by. I rather liked it, and its playful reference to the seat covers of the Routemasters of old, plus it looked like artist Beth Quinton had painted it herself so there was a proper realness to it. I found another bus sculpture outside Mothercare at Westfield, but that was rubbish, as if the designers knocked off an idea without considering the visual impact it wouldn't have.
Anyway, I thought I'd traipse around the capital and take a look at some more of the buses. I plumped for the River trail, rather than the Westminster or QEOP trails, for no especially good reason, and printed out the official YOTB Sculpture Trail map off the TfL website. I completely failed to notice that there was an app I could have downloaded with background and a location for each bus, plus the chance to tick them all off as I visited. There again, given that the app thinks one of the trails is in "Westiminster" and the Christmas trail is in "Crydon", perhaps I didn't miss out too badly.
I missed out quite badly at the first stop on the River trail, which was London Bridge City Pier. Bus number 1 was missing, definitely absent, no matter whether I checked on the riverbank or down on the pier itself. Again the app would have told me that "Dazzle Bus hasn't arrived on location yet", but I wasn't aware and so kicked off my walk unnecessarily. Thankfully none of the other dozen buses on my particular trail were missing. I eventually found brightly-coloured bus 2 almost under London Bridge, having walked round the wrong way because the line on the official map is a little over-simplified. Thankfully buses 3 and 4 were more obvious, these just past Borough Market, then bus 5 some way further on at one end of the Millennium Bridge.
I was surprised how little interest some of the sculptures were getting, despite their location on the busy South Bank tourist trail. Everyone has a camera in their pocket these days, but few stopped to share despite the undoubted novelty value and artistic merit of a painted bus. One family paused by bus 4 so that daughter could pose for a snap, but Mum seemed unimpressed. "It's not something you'd expect them to waste money on," she said, unaware that each of the buses has an official sponsor and so cost the travelling public nothing. Had she bothered to read the plaque on the plinth underneath, all this was spelt out, but in this case the good news about the charity auction went entirely unnoticed.
Buses 6 and 7 aren't on the official trail because they're too far away. If you're feeling completist you'll need to follow the orange lampposts from Tate Modern to Southwark station, which is also where TfL has its main London offices. The two outlier buses are located just outside the main entrance, in the immediate zone where employees come outside for a smoke. One has a Legible London design and is quite frankly a bit dull, while the other is pretty much a faithful copy of what a real New Bus For London looks like, so hardly an original work of art at all.
The official trail continues across the Millennium Bridge on the north bank of the Thames. The City of London Visitor Centre has a punk-themed bus parked outside, painted safety pins and all, while bus 9 (in another office doorway) has a children's storytime vibe. But rather more appealing was number 10 on Cheapside, adorned very simply with the original Routemaster red button - Push Once - repeated across both sides. A good idea followed through with panache is what the best of these buses boasts - either high concept or painted with highly skilled technique, preferably both.
If you've brought a small child with you, I doubt you'll have got this far. The second half of the River trail is quite contorted, and from this point on offers little excitement in return for number of additional steps walked. Having said that, bus 11 on Threadneedle Street hit all the right buttons for me. It's entitled 'All Aboard the Number 8' and depicts numerous street signs to be found along a number 8 bus journey. Maybe it's because one of the artists lives in E3 but most of these are from the Bow end of the route and, even better, are properly accurate representations of the actual signs. Anna and Jennifer, respect.
If you can be bothered, buses 12 and 13 are some walk away back down by the Thames. Bus 12 offers the opportunity to photograph a bus with Tower Bridge on it with the real Tower Bridge in the background, which one family were actually doing, which was nice. Bus 13 is quartered into night and day, which works, but includes some route diversions and changes of vehicle that proper bus geeks may be slightly peeved by. And the trail ends with a line on a map drawn to Tower Hill station, which is interesting because they might have assumed you'd catch the bus home instead, but seemingly not. [4 photos]
So anyway, I'd not recommend you spend an hour or two tracking down the Bus Sculptures on the River trail, it's too long for not enough payback. The Westminster trail looks more time-efficient, and is almost linear, so long as you ignore the hyperleap to an office block on the Edgware Road at the very end. Or if you have a small child in tow, do the Olympic Parktrail instead because it's more compact, plus the autumn leaves will be more impressive. Or wait for Crydon.