Though not officially lettered bus routes, London has almost more Ns than all the other A to Xs put together. Approximately fifty of the capital's nightbuses need an N prefix because they don't run the same route as a daytime bus, in general running rather further. I had to pick one of these Ns to ride, which wasn't a simple choice. I decided I wanted a night bus running out of central London at the weekend, ideally Trafalgar Square, to get the most genuine after-dark experience. I decided I wanted a bus running east, because none of my other lettered journeys are taking me beyond Newham. And I also wanted to be able to get home at 2am without getting straight back onto the bus I'd just got off. Which meant, oh boy, the N15... Night bus to Romford.
An A-Z of LONDON BUSES
Route N15: Trafalgar Square - Romford Length of journey: 18 miles, 95 minutes
I check the list with some incredulity. Yes, the N15 has 85 stops on its way from central to outer London, and I'm going all the way. Sooner me than you. I'm in Trafalgar Square on a Saturday night, technically Sunday morning, as the first nightbuses start to swirl out from sideroads to start their intrepid journeys. The square is both busier and bussier than I was expecting, as the evening's drinkers continue their partying or choose to head home. Ground zero appears to be the 24 hour Co-Op food store at the end of the Strand, from which a steady stream of 20-somethings emerge clutching nibbles, fags, bottles, whatever. And the N15's journey begins immediately outside, which is convenient, or more likely the recipe for a blocked pavement.
Normally I rush for the top deck but when the bus arrives I settle in downstairs, behind the doors, to better get a feel for all the interior action that lies ahead. The bus takes a couple of minutes to fill up, and with mostly non-drunken folk, indeed it's the first hint that this might not be a journey characterised by jostling banter. Someone asks the driver how to get to Moorgate - it seems there are many options - and eventually we pull off. We're heading through the heart of the West End, but only for the next few minutes, so this is our best opportunity to fill up before heading to the suburbs. On Aldwych an ambulance has pulled up beside a girl leaning over and nodding semi-consciously into her hands, which is what passes for a Saturday night out for many in these parts. Within a couple of stops every seat downstairs has been taken. The tally includes a pair of tourists clutching yellow M&M's Store bags, more fool them, and a bloke in a leather jacket perusing Ferraris on his phone, but the bus is by no means packed yet.
The City isn't Party Central, but a few quieter couples swell our number. St Paul's is beautifully illuminated after dark, as are various building sites along the way, and umpteen office receptions where a security guard is attempting not to fall asleep. Every minute or so an electronic voice announces where we're stopping next, plus "Alight here for..." some station or attraction that isn't open and won't be for hours. It takes until Monument until the first 'ding' signals someone wants to get off, because normal loading patterns don't apply at one in the morning. The last train to Romford is leaving Liverpool Street around now, so any residents with any sense would surely be on that, or more likely have stayed out drinking rather closer to home.
It's Aldgate and Aldgate East that turn out to be the most heaving, as the East End piles aboard. Some are wearing highly ill-advised thin dresses, while others do that thing where they go upstairs and poke their head above the rail, note there are no seats and come back down. I thought it might never happen, but the driver finally has cause to push the "No standing on the upper deck or stairs" button, thereby legitimising the night bus experience. This means there are several stops between Stepney and Limehouse that our driver sails past, resulting in frustrated rapping on the window and a collective need to wait for the next bus. On the N15 that's not too far away, but on less frequent night services the "bloody hell, he didn't stop" moment causes genuine inconvenience.
My latest neighbour is a rather posh young lady, at least by Tower Hamlets standards, attempting to maintain a conversation at crotch level with her bow-tied other half. Another upmarket pair are clutching theatre programmes - they alight at Westferry into a less civilised crowd of chicken eaters and cola swillers. After too long a wait at the Blackwall traffic lights we rise up and over the Lea on the only elevated section of the journey, for a glimpse of the increasingly upstanding lights of downtown Stratford. An older couple seem agitated when we turn off at the roundabout, but it's so we can stop off at Canning Town bus station for a profitable haul of passengers. It's now half past one and I'm extremely surprised to see a non-night-bus setting out on a backstreets journey to Mile End... but then London's bus network is often bloody marvellous like this even if you're not awake to see it.
We're now into the less glamorous half of the journey and about to hit Plaistow. At stop number 42 Emma Highnett's electronic voice announces "Balham Leisure Centre", and at least two locals can be heard to yell out "BAY-LAM!", because the poor girl never gets this right. I note it's still possible to buy fruit and veg on the Barking Road even at this time of the morning, or indeed a round of McShakes, which an entire posse of girls are clutching as they board. They get off fairly soon afterwards in Upton Park and dash straight into Papa's Fried Chicken, as their evidently classy night continues. It's here that the worst behaviour of the evening occurs - a slightly surly bloke sticks his head in through the middle doors and stops us heading off for, ooh, at least ten seconds. It's no riot, the Saturday night bus to Barking, or at least it definitely isn't on this occasion.
We pass a seemingly endless run of greasy food joints and metal shuttered shopfronts, broken by the occasional cluster of minicab drivers awaiting the opportunity of a swift fare. The glow ends suddenly at the Barking Flyover, where I'm surprised to see a large electronic clock reading 1219... until I realise that's the price of diesel. The people of Barking appear to have had a good night, with several spilling out of the King's Lounge onto the pavement. And it's at the bus stop outside the station that most of the passengers aboard suddenly pile off, dispersing swiftly into the night. Indeed it looks like the remainder of the ride, a mere five miles now, could be a relative anti-climax. Five more miles, sheesh.
Once out of the town centre we pass the bus garage where a fleet of red cuboids is packed tightly into the depot and forecourt. Our windows are no longer steaming up, which is good, except there's far less to see out here in the proper suburbs. We're running a lot faster too, and stopping far less frequently, but then it's almost two o'clock and nowhere much is open. In Becontree three giggling gents bundle down the stairs, Red Bull in hand, one suspects with the intention of continuing their evening indoors. My onboard entertainment now involves little more than watching the security camera action on-screen, intermittently cutting from the the silent few downstairs to the six sleepyheads on the upper deck. And then, to my narrative delight, one wobbles up to the driver and asks where Faircross is, only to be told that we passed it a while back and he'll have to get out and catch a bus back the other way. Bad luck mate.
"You are now entering Romford." Hang on a cotton-picking minute, when did buses start announcing generalities like that? But here we are, on the outskirts of town at first, where a t-shirted lad with a bandaged fist bounds aboard, smelling of a skinful. There can only be a dozen of us left, our glowing box parading past groups of twenty-somethings in Essex-style evening dress awaiting their minicab home. The police are out in force in South Street, it now being Saturday night chucking-out time in Romford's premier nightclub zone. Cigarettes are being smoked and taxis are being tipped into, but there's no sign of the brouhaha I might have been expecting, and indeed you might have been hoping for, sorry.
I'm the only passenger to linger to the very last stop round the back of the market. It's remarkably quiet on the ring road, which suits me because I feared I might have a long wait for my next bus and didn't fancy being in the thick of post-clubbing shenanigans. I'm still shivering in the bus shelter fifteen minutes later when the next N15 turns up and a young lad with a big bag steps out. I watch as he crosses the carriageway and goes and waits on the other side of the road for exactly the same bus to turn up for its return journey. If he gets his head down on the top deck he could get an hour and a half's uninterrupted sleep, and still have time to get back to Romford before the N15 gives up for the night. My own bed may still be an hour away, but I feel incredibly fortunate to have one that doesn't shift eighteen miles a night.