The P4 started life in 1973 as an experimental flat fare minibus, one of three routes that brought "Hail and Ride" to the capital for the first time. Initially it ran from Brixton to Brockley Rise, via Dulwich Village, but was extended in 1983 to Lewisham. At no time has the P4 ever gone anywhere near Peckham, after which it was named. And I hoped I'd enjoy the ride more.
An A-Z of LONDON BUSES
Route P4: Brixton - Lewisham Length of journey: 7 miles, 45 minutes
The centre of Brixton, on a Saturday afternoon, is awash with people and buses. The traffic is a curse for shoppers, much of it double decker, though I'm waiting for something humbler to arrive. And I've been waiting a long time, thanks to a hideous jam that's brought everything to an effective standstill. I can see the next P4 in the queue, but it won't be here for some time, and so the crowds amass. Across the road a steel band are playing on the pavement outside Iceland, which keeps us entertained, as does the patter of the salesman attempting to flog phone credit from the doorway behind. And here it is at last, and damn it's only going to Brockley Rise, and I want all the way.
I stand back to let the hordes on, it's quite a stampede, and then go back to people-watching as the bus departs. Just as I reckon the traffic's clearing a blue light approaches, and an ambulance duly parks up in the inside lane immediately behind the bus stop. That's half the carriageway blocked, hence the next P4 is going to be considerably more than the timetabled twelve minutes away, and the slow drip of other buses continues. Thankfully most of the other waiting passengers want the other buses, so they're averaging a three minute wait, whereas I've already racked up longer than the entire journey's about to take.
Eventually P4 number two arrives. This bus has Lewisham on the front, and isn't so packed, which is a relief because my visibility would have been heavily curtailed on the previous steamy service. Instead my close-up view consists of a woolly hat and headphones combo, from which the sound of tinny hiphop is already leaking. Our first stop invites us to "alight here for the Brixton Academy", which in 2014 sounds like it ought to be a school, but thankfully isn't. And then we're off round the backroads to reach Coldharbour Lane, the market end of Brixton being awkwardly impenetrable, by which point all the seats aboard have gone. Loughborough Junction is essentially a collection of railway bridges, of which we negotiate three, and then at last the P4-only section of the route begins.
Herne Hill Road boasts some rather tasteful Victorian terraces and a splendid Carnegie Library, on our gradual climb past one end of Ruskin Park. It's here that Bus Stereotype Number 15 gets up from his seat and moves to close the window, because it's all about what he wants and stuff the rest of us. We break the rise at the top of Denmark Hill, and then continue into the Sunray Estate and the marvellously-monikered bus stop at Casino Avenue. The name commemorates Casino House, a Palladian mansion designed by John Nash at the turn of the 19th century. Today only the ornamental lake survives, the remainder having been turned into the Sunray Estate after the Great War. I doubt that the two residents who nip off here know any of this, but you never know.
Things turn fractionally more rural around North Dulwich station, which is appropriate because Dulwich Village lies ahead. This is the poshest spot in inner south London, by far, and the P4 was its first bus - the residents wouldn't have appreciated anything bigger. It's like hitting Surrey, all cottagey and Georgian with chain fences and even a village signpost. You can see why Margaret Thatcher moved out here after her time at Number 10, admittedly to a Barratt home in a gated enclave... and blimey, she only paid £400,000 at the time. We pass all things Dulwich - the Park, the College, the Common, the Art Gallery - with a film crew busy doing their thing outside the latter. And the exclusivity goes on for minutes longer than expected, so much green, and so much money.
And bam, it's back to normality on Lordship Lane. A council estate, a boarded-up pub with sealed-off car park, and Lewisham's finest museum, the Horniman. Most of those on board disembark here, which is either good news for the capital's cultural future or because they don't want to ride into the hills beyond. Right on cue we veer off up Honor Oak Road onto the ridge, somewhere no larger bus would venture. Houses block most of the view, but there is a brief glorious panorama down Dunoon Road towards distant southeast hills. Honor Oak's shops turn out to be much like any other quite nice shops but with the words 'Honor Oak' shoehorned in front of their name. Change here for the Overground, which several do, or stay on until the bottom and Brockley Rise.
Hurrah, this P4's going further. To the Brockley Jack, which is a vibrant pub/theatre combination, and onto Brockley Grove, which is a road. Aspirationally parallel Victorian streets lead off, seven of these named after the offspring and relatives of the estate's developer, consecutively Elsiemaud, Henryson, Amyruth, Gordonbrock, Arthurdon, Francemary and Phoebeth. I worry for any dyslexic children brought up within. We've now entered Ladywell, a pleasant suburb with rough edges, as can be detected from the local combination of patisserie and nail salon. Those still aboard are restless, and our new companions looking as if they'll not be settling in for long, as we cross the Ravensbourne and enter Lewisham proper.
Many alight at the Fire Station, this because there are shops here and not for want of smoke alarm advice. I'm surprised because the main shopping centre is further on, but maybe they're trying to get off before the jams start. We've finally hit somewhere as buzzing as Brixton, a hub with all the delights of a Primark, Iceland and proper outdoor market. Our penultimate stop is behind a dustcart stickered 'Justice For Lewisham Hospital', close to The Sausage Man, before the Clock Tower. And then I was expecting the station, but we're summarily chucked off before that thanks to the all-transforming Lewisham Gateway project. This has dropped a massive building site between the shopping mall and the station, which'll one day be new roads and bland flats, but is currently a miserable wasteland of pedestrian diversions that makes me want to escape from Lewisham as soon as possible. And not by bus.