So many H buses to choose from. Nine in Hillingdon, which I could have done. Nine in Harrow, where I could have gone. But instead I went for the pair in Hampstead, specifically the hourly minibus that plies one of the richest roads in the capital. I've had my eye on the H3 for some considerable time...
An A-Z of LONDON BUSES
Route H3: Golders Green - Hill Top Length of journey: 6 miles, 30 minutes
Step out of Golders Green station and a large bus station greets you. As many as ten different bus routes terminate here, in three separate bays, on a slice of land that could be valuable real estate if only it wasn't transportationally essential. Expect to see a large number of bus drivers standing around, passing the time between runs with a fag, a chat, or a cup of tea in the Arriva changeover wing. A finger of commuter-angled retail units points out towards the clocktower, including the formica tables and sugar shakers of Bar Linda. Step beyond, across a patch of grass, to discover a second much much smallerbusterminus from which the Optareminibuses ply their trade.
There used to be an H1, a school service running three times a day to a local girls school, but TfL ran a consultation last year and renumbered the route 631. There's still an H2, a circular which makes a two mile loop of the avenues of Hampstead Garden Suburb, and somehow still runs every twelve minutes. And then there's the H3, a very different proposition, and one of London's least frequent buses. It runs hourly, but not during the morning rush hour when it's requisitioned for the 631, and it stops running by three in the afternoon, and it doesn't run on Sundays. That's a mere 42 journeys a week, which means I had to time my arrival very carefully.
I picked a Saturday morning, which isn't necessarily the best time to visit Golders Green. Much of the population is at synagogue, indeed many of the shops hereabouts are closed, so I was wondering how busy the bus might be. As the H3 shuffled forwards to the front of the stand, I get my answer. Six of us board, which might not sound much but on a small vehicle like this uses up several of the seats, plus there'll be three more joining us at the next stop. At least two passengers exchange a "hello" with the driver, because it's a friendly bus with repeat patronage, the H3. And one less familiar soul enquires "do you go to the end of the road", which is a damned stupid thing to ask and will have awkward consequences later.
So who have we got on board? A ginger teen with a nosering, his baseball cap at the currently approved jaunty angle. A Jewish gent attempting to write a spidery address in fountain pen on a whisked-out envelope. Someone up front, of indeterminate gender, screened beneath a non-designer anorak hood. The lady who asked where the bus was going, paying no attention now she's jabbering away on her phone. Two older ladies homeward-bound with shopping, using the H3 for the purpose for which it was commissioned. And someone who smells of inadequately-dried jacket - I'm not sure who, but I genuinely don't think it's me.
A pair of Jehovah's Witnesses are poised resolutely outside HSBC waving "Is Satan real?" booklets at a demographic that totally isn't interested. We're heading 'the wrong way' at first so that we can turn right past the shops and make a run for it up Hoop Lane. Nobody wants the crematorium or the extensive Jewish cemetery, we're heading for the upmarket garden village beyond. But just when it looks like we might be entering the heart of it we veer off and aim instead for the London borough of Barnet's premier mansion tax zone.
Hampstead Way's rather nice, with big homes behind clipped hedges on one side of the road only. On the other is the Hampstead Heath extension, here more park than heathland, a rarely-visited tongue of green that locals seem to have very much to themselves. It's at this point that our jabberer spots she's not where she thought, puts down her phone and asks "Isn't this the H2?" It's not, obviously, the front of the bus was quite explicit, but it's an easy mistake to have made when the H3 runs so infrequently. A fellow passenger points out unhelpfully that if she stays on board she'll eventually end up back at Golders Green and can try again. But she doesn't understand, her English isn't good, and she sits forlornly as we thunder on.
At Wildwood Way we head around the tip of the Heath Extension and the houses get bigger. Very close by is the site of what might have been North End station, the deepest on the tube network, had the earliest residents not seen the developers off. Instead the number of homes round here remains low, the acreage high, and the number of cars per front garden higher still. We pass a series of swept-back symmetrical villas, an increasing number with electric gates, twisting in an S-shape round a small wood and a golf course. I have to keep reminding myself that this is inner London, barely two miles from Regent's Park, yet feels instead like deepest Surrey.
We pop out briefly to reality, to a bus stop notionally serving Kenwood House. And then we turn up a legendary road I've heard so much about but never seen, The Bishop's Avenue, otherwise known as Billionaires Row. It does not disappoint... wtf?! This fairytale mile boasts one of the most expensive collections of property in London, and is home to magnates, playboys, presidents and sultans. And yet it'snotpretty, indeed it feels like Metroland blinged up, mixing Arts and Crafts mansions with vulgar pillared neo-classical piles. One Kazakhstani fortress sold for fifty million a few years back, and there's an 8-bedroom newbuild on the market now for thirty-five. But look closer and several of the palaces areempty, with security notices on locked gates, a symbol of how swiftly great wealth can drain away. For this is more a trophy street than a proper community, less somewhere to live, more a series of conversation pieces to own. I love the fact that a little London bus tracks up and back a handful of times a week for the benefit of people who don't 'do' public transport, the ultimate Hail & Ride.
The top end of The Bishop's Avenue, beyond the A1, is a disappointment in comparison. We're suddenly in East Finchley, stopping by the station, having threaded from one branch of the Northern line to the other. Only five of us are left aboard, no fresh passengers having boarded since we started, which I guess is what tends to happen on rarely scheduled buses. We tick off the sights - the East Finchley archer, the pioneering Phoenix Cinema, Amazing Grates. And then we're off into suburbia again, much more ordinary this time, following a double decker 143 up East End Road. We've climbed gently to the extent that there's almost a view, but nothing significant, just undulating rooftops and sky.
The H3 has one more loop to follow, this through the northern strip of Hampstead Garden Suburb, with its white curved semis and trimmed-hedge gardens. Our destination, Hill Top, turns out to be a narrow minibus-width avenue, and isn't truly a destination at all because we carry straight on. Baseball-cap-lad has been waiting patiently for the farthest stop on Brookland Rise, and lumbers off, while three of us ride back east to the splendid interwar parade at MarketPlace. It turns out that this was where Lost Lady was trying to get to all along, so she's happy, even if the H3 has taken twice as long to get here as the H2. I take the hint and cross the street to take the quicker minibus back.