London's quintet of K buses run through and from Kingston-upon-Thames. They originated in the late 1980s, at one point as many as ten in number, and branded as Kingston Hoppas. Disappointingly the K9 is long gone, otherwise that would have been my ride of choice. Instead I chose to ride the bus that runs least frequently, the bus whose route you described as "the most quirky", the bus nearly scrapped in 2006. And, well, blimey.
An A-Z of LONDON BUSES
Route K5: Ham - Morden Length of journey: 12 miles, 85 minutes
You'd never sit down and invent the K5 today. It's far too long a route, linking outposts that nobody needs to travel between, as if some child scribbled a line on a map and asked the driver to oblige. The fact it runs only once an hour is a hint that TfL's accountants wouldn't be sorry to see it go, but when they threatened to cancel it various residents' groups sent in a volley of support and hence the little bus survived. Waiting at the Ham terminus I wonder whether that faith might perhaps have been misplaced. A single-door minibus is parked up on a road faced only by back gardens, hazard lights flashing, matched by a simultaneous beep. Everyone else waiting - a footballer, a smoking Dad, and a schoolgirl off to take her 11+ - board the regular 371 when it arrives instead. Only I wave my Oyster when the K5 driver revs up. On the grass verge opposite, a crow caws four times.
It's only a minibuswith 21 seats but it has grand pretensions, not least the stack of Epsom Coaches Holiday brochures in a rack up front. But the size of vehicle proves crucial two stops later, on Tudor Drive, as we take an unexpected right turn down something narrow. Parked cars on either side of the road leave space for only one vehicle to squeeze between, and hopefully that's us, otherwise the oncoming driver is going to have to find a gap along the side and nip in sharpish. There's no genuine need for our bus to be heading this way - two other buses run within 400m of this Tudorbethan avenue, that being the requisite distance for TfL to hit their targets. But our presence on this Hail and Ride section is greatly appreciated, as I can tell by the number of pensioners standing poised by the side of the road with shopping baskets waiting to flag us down. Many greet their friends as they board on the morning trip to town, mostly in couples, until we have at least a dozen aboard.
We take another wtf narrow turn and give a white van driver pause for thought. Then it's our turn for trouble approaching Canbury Park. A Warburton's driver has somehow manoeuvred his lorry through this maze of narrow backstreets and is out of the cab delivering a tray of bread to the adjacent Co-op. Unfortunately his rear is poked out into the street, and another driver's parked his car slap bang on the T-junction, so not even our driver's skill can ease us through. A honk and a reverse eventually create just enough space, and we proceed, hinting further that this rather tasteful enclave is damned fortunate to have a bus service at all. Further diversionary tactics lead us along smart Victorian streets and round a trading estate before finally emerging round the back of Kingston station.
It looks like rain, and the ladies of North Kingston are already adjusting their plastic bonnets in anticipation of hitting the shops. We're about to do something highly unusual, for a bus, which is to serve the same stop twice ten minutes apart. Kingston's rigid one-waysystem is to blame, forcing us to drive one and a half times around the ring road (past both bus stations) in order to reach the main shopping streets. Most of our pensioner cargo alights near the tumbledown phoneboxes, or outside Heal's, where we pick up replacements for the next bags-home run. And Cromwell Road Bus Station is the lucky stop that gets two hits, the second after a spell at the driver changeover point which delays our progress even longer. As we head off with a feeling of deja vu, I genuinely think the half hour I've just experienced was mad, but all the constrictions and contortions must suit some.
Things get a bit more sensible from here on, but not by much. Ks two to five all head down the London Road towards Norbiton, the station and the hospital, where we dive off again down some under-served back road. There's another "what, seriously, are we going down there?" moment, then we're off over the speed bumps to serve Kingsmeadow, the home ground of Division Two youngsters AFC Wimbledon. This next stretch is almost normal, enlivened by roadside banners reading "Dee Watts Is The Big 5 0" and "Dee Watts Nifty Fifty". But it doesn't last. Someone in the 1980s route planning department spotted a loop of estate roads backing down to the Hogsmill River so we deviate that way, much to the delight of an old lady wearing entirely unnecessary ear muffs and her patient-looking husband.
We're ticking off the backwaters of New Malden, seemingly all of them, and picking up a fair few Hail and Riders on the way. Most are heading for the shopping centre, deemed important enough that Nando's are about to open a branch by the Fountain roundabout, where we lose half a dozen and gain a sobbing toddler in a pushchair. She must know what's coming. A whopping diversion through Motspur Park awaits, meaning that in fifteen minutes time we'll have circled right round to within three stops of where we are now. I'm glad I can't see this on a map as we continue, it would all be terribly depressing.
But we end-to-end tourists aren't the target audience, indeed it was vociferous cries from Motspur Park where the K5 is the only bus that helped keep this service alive. We run past some rather desirable semis, broad-fronted and with gardens best described as ample. It's Hail and Ride again, a long stretch this time broken by a single bus stop halfway, immediately after the level crossing by the herringbone parade. Here the quirkiest passenger I've seen in many a day boards and sits behind me. This forty-something man is dressed exclusively in autumn colours, and in his mind's eye must believe he's a genuinely dapper gent. His bright mustard trousers create the greatest visual impact, followed by his cocked brown trilby and the beige waistcoat beneath his tweed jacket. Closer observation reveals a partridge emblazoned on his tie, and a two-tone umbrella that's copper on the outside and khaki within, the complete ensemble topped off with a lingering bouquet of lavender. It's not how the average Motspur Parker dresses, I can assure you.
An hour into the K5's meandering we hit a second level crossing and then head deliberately in the wrong direction - west - to negotiate the A3. All is suddenly a bit out-of-town arterial, with B&Q sheds and takeaway drive-ins beneath a thundering concrete flyover. Up we go alongside the main body of traffic on the Kingston Bypass, but only to take the flyover and end up one stop away from that last level crossing, but one level higher. We're not seeing the nicest side of Raynes Park, especially when we divert off again to serve the station, indeed it's the first time southwest London has looked anything other than desirable. This is as far as Autumnal Man is going, which clears the air a little, and only a few of us continue.
We're still somehow keeping to timetable, which is important when a bus runs only hourly, but our driver's now making no real attempt to stop because nobody's interested in joining us. Up next is Wimbledon Chase, the houses increasingly aspirational, even mainstream, which is the cue for the K5 to make one last break for freedom. I'm quite excited to discover that these splendid leafy avenues form MertonPark, home to 70s mod band The Merton Parkas, and now (for architectural rather than musical reasons) a conservation area. The final Hail and Ride section seems to exist solely for people who can't be bothered to walk down the street to Morden, of whom today there are none. And it's here, at the foot of the Northern line, that the driver finally chucks us out before joining the throng of red buses on the station forecourt, and leaving me to wonder if that journey was actually for real.