Bexley earned its B routes in 1988 as part of the Bexleybus scheme, a deliberately low-cost operation which introduced smaller buses to the borough's backstreets. The Bexley Hoppa ran with blue and white minibuses, at least until industrial unrest and unreliable service contributed to the operator losing their franchise three years later. But Bs Eleven to Sixteen survive, along mostly extended routes, reaching out from Bexleyheath to a variety of far flung spots.
The B12 I've already ridden, so that was off the table, and the thirteen, fourteen and fifteen didn't appeal. So I headed for Bexleyheath bus garage where both of the othertwo routes begin and decided to catch the first that turned up. One slight catch, for which I apologise. I intended to ride three alphabetical buses at the weekend, including an A and a B and one other route inbetween. But dashing all over London delayed me so much that by the time I reached Bexley it was already after four and I realised I'd be doing most of this journey after dark. But which outer reaches wouldn't I be seeing, and so won't you be reading about - Kidbrooke or Thamesmead? The answer soon turned up.
An A-Z of LONDON BUSES
Route B11: Bexleyheath - Thamesmead Length of journey: 9 miles, 40 minutes
The last shop on the parade adjacent to Bexleyheath Bus Garage is an off licence sponsored by The Sun. I merely mention this, it may or may not be a coincidence, but I did spot one driver nipping in while I waited. The B11 kicks off from here with a short run into the town centre, along which stretch I imagine passenger loadings are generally featherlight. But things pick up considerably at the Clock Tower, where the shoppers of Bexleyheath are lining up in their off-the-peg winter jackets to lug the afternoon's purchases home. Most don't want our bus, we're heading for the backwaters, plus there are quicker routes to Thamesmead if that's your goal. By the time we reach the non-pedestrianised bit of the Broadway we've turned left or right more than half a dozen times, and thus the meandering nature of our journey is set.
It's not quite dusk but already the lights are coming on, illuminating the smokers sat shivering outside the wine bar and a row of treadmillers pumping at the gym. Turning right towards the station we pass three successive semis where Sky Sports is blazing a green rectangle across the TV screen, and nobody's yet got round to closing the curtains. A slim slice of pinky blue is visible across the rooftops to the west... and that was probably the last over-florid sentence I'll be able to write about the view before it disappears.
Bexleyheath station is situated annoyingly far from the town centre, just too far to be an easy stroll, but just too close to make waiting for a bus worthwhile. Here we gain the journey's most interesting passenger, a golden retriever called Bryn. He's straining on the end of a pink lead held by his owner, similarly blonde and with a too-thick ribbon in her hair. Poor Bryn is evidently not well, and is whining and whimpering as he boards. He's also intent on exploring every seat within lead-range, so his owner reins him into the wheelchair space and reassures him with a cuddle. "We're going to the doctors to make you better," she says, and hopes that the journey won't be too long. Wrong bus for that, alas.
They're rather nice suburbs outside, I think, but it's becoming increasingly hard to tell. Before long there's a moment where we turn left, and Bryn's owner is surprised because she thought we were going right to Abbey Wood. A fellow passenger has to reassure her that we will indeed be going there, just not yet. Instead we're taking the Lodge Hill Loop, which used to be as far as the B11 went, but when they extended it in 1991 they retained this mile and a half circuit. It's also Hail and Ride along here, which the onboard iBus screen struggles to explain by displaying "Okehampton Crescent/Hail and Ride ends here" for the best part of five minutes. Various shoppers alight, while a bloke with a Lidl bag boards and shovels repeated handfuls of crisps from the depths into his mouth.
They're rather nice suburbs outside, I think, but it's become increasingly hard to tell. Before long there's a moment where we turn right, and Bryn's owner is relieved because the loop is finally closed and we are heading for the PDSA after all. Unfortunately a genuine pushchair has arrived, so Bryn's whimpering has to continue from a nearby seat, from now for as long as it takes. Suddenly a rotating wand emerges from the pushchair, flashing Hallowe'en colours, or whatever it takes to keep a two year old occupied these days. Some ear-piercing yelling also emerges, making Bryn's complaints sound positively stoic.
There is a direct route down the hill ahead but we don't take it, instead taking a parallel route quarter of a mile to the east. The road cuts deep through Lesnes Abbey Woods as it descends, which annoys me because I'd like to have enjoyed its autumn splendour, but get to endure a midnight ambience instead. At the foot of the long slope is Abbey Wood, named after what I haven't just seen, where we pass beneath the flyover and pause to drop off passengers near the station. Until 1999 the B11 went no further, but now Thamesmead beckons, with the leap over the railway marking a very distinct sociological boundary from semi-detached territory to closely-packed flats. Head up, Bryn, we're nearly there.
Except we're not. The PDSA is only 200 metres straight ahead, the way the other four buses go, but the B11 is about to take another lengthy detour round the estate. I swear the bus map I saw way back at the start of the route gave no hint this route was going to be quite so tortuous, but that's topological distortion for you. Thankfully the driver is alert to Bryn's distress and nudges his owner to alight before the detour. It means walking the last bit, and Bryn won't be enjoying that in the rain, but it'll be quicker than the extra half dozen stops we now face. Fingers crossed the Freda Powell Centre sorted him out.
The type, dare I say class, of passenger has definitely changed. Four unaccompanied primary-aged children hop on for our run down Alsike Way, two of them alone (although one hops off shortly afterwards to greet someone who could be his sister, his girlfriend or his mother, it's impossible to tell). We're riding now beneath a run of sixteen tower blocks, one of Thamesmead'squestionablegifts toarchitecture, although all I can see from my window seat is the occasional lit rectangle in the sky. Darkness has focused our passenger experience almost entirely on the lit interior of the bus, and its reflections, reducing the outside environment to naught.
The next bit of the should have been relatively spectacular, up and over the Crossness sewer with views across Southmere, famous for waterside antics in A Clockwork Orange and (more recently) Misfits. I get none of that, just some pretty coloured lights along the underside of the viaduct before... no, again we're not quite going the quick way. One last bobble-hatted boy boards, and a post-match musky footballer alights, and I am by now becoming fairly desperate for this mystery tour to end.
My wish is finally granted at a bus stand beside a glowing Aldi, just shutting down for the night and barring belated shoppers from entering. I'm cast out from the bus into heavy rain, where my options appear to be McDonalds, a scarily SE28 pub or a long wet wait for the next bus out of here. The B11 has delivered me to darkness and misery - if not the quintessential Thamesmead experience, then exquisitely stereotypical all the same.