a) The R10 is one of eleven R-prefixed buses that operate out of Orpington, the last town heading out of southeast London. What's peculiar is that this corner of the capital extends far beyond the edge of the built-up area into open countryside, so TfL has a duty to run services along narrow lanes to connect remote communities. In this case that's the hamlets of Cudham and Pratt's Bottom, as well as the Kentish villages of Knockholt and Halstead, all linked around a ten mile rural loop. This might just be as pastoral as London's bus routes ever get.
b) Normally buses run in both directions, but the R10 runs only anti-clockwise. All journeys in a clockwise direction are numbered R5, this to prevent residents of certain villages accidentally riding the wrong way round the loop and taking an extra half hour to get home. The distinction was introduced in 2008, prior to which all journeys were designated R5.
c) Only one vehicle is assigned to the R5/R10 combo. It runs the R5 from Orpington back to Orpington, changes its driver, flips its blind and then runs the other way as the R10. And this means that intervals between buses are the longest of any buses on the TfL network. The gap used to be two hours until a consultation last year extended it to two and a half, this because individual buses weren't managing to get back to the start in the scheduled hour and the service was becoming wholly unreliable. Local people aren't happy, and said so, but TfL told them a more reliable service is better than a more regular service, so 150 minute gaps it is. If you ever try heading out this way, make sure you check the timetable carefully first.
An A-Z of LONDON BUSES
Route R10: Orpington - Orpington (via Knockholt)
Length of journey: 17 miles, 65 minutes
I checked the timetable carefully before I left home, which was fortunate because there isn't one at Orpington bus station. The R1, R4, R8 and clockwise R5 each have a timetable at the stop, but nobody's been bothered to make sure the anti-clockwise R10 is included too, which is a miserable state of affairs when it runs so infrequently. Thankfully I'd arrived just before my R10 was due to leave, revving up in the parking bay at the far end before driving across to my side. Another passenger was ready to board too, which seemed exciting until I realised he only wanted to go to the High Street and was simply nipping aboard the first bus that turned up.
There's more to Orpington, apparently, according to the sign on Station Road just before the War Memorial. There's certainly more Orpington on this route than you might expect, starting with a run up the High Street... and back again. I'm riding on a Saturday morning, too early for anyone to have finished shopping and be heading home, so we pick up nobody outside Londis on the way up, nobody outside the huge Sainsbury's where we turn round, and only one lady outside McDonalds on our return. Things'll no doubt be rather different in two and a half hours time. Within a few minutes we're passing the War Memorial again, this time straight on, and leaving the muted Christmas lights behind.
A mile of desirable semis lines the Sevenoaks Road on the journey south, broken by a splendid Metroland-style parade with 'Frigidaire Equipped' launderette. Our first destination is Green Street Green, a pleasant village-turned-suburb, somehow deemed important enough to have its own Waitrose. By now we're running slightly ahead of schedule so our driver finds a bus stop labelled "buses must not stand here" and does precisely that. Our other passenger wants the next stop, lugging her shopping off towards Old Hill, whereas we're taking a country lane with the warning sign IGNORE SATNAV AND RE-ROUTE. If I was surprised earlier to discover that the R10 isn't a minibus, I'm even more surprised when I see where we're going next.
Cudham Lane North is two miles of not-quite single track road with either front gardens, or high hedges, to either side. Two cars can pass OK but a bus is another matter, so there are several occasions where we pull in sharply to the side and a vehicle going the other way attempts to edge through. A Tivo van (they're still going, who knew?) finds the going too narrow and is forced to reverse a considerable distance, which slows us down somewhat. It's the obstructiveness of this stretch that baffled R10 users during last year's consultation. They wondered why the route couldn't be run with a smaller vehicle, keeping better to time and retaining a two hour service. TfL disagreed, citing worries that a minibus might fill with short-distance travellers in town, plus they were determined to change the timetable anyway... and so the larger bus squeezes on.
Detached houses and bungalows come and go, but the high hedges and fields beyond carry on. As Cudham approaches a deep green valley opens up on the right hand side, most unexpected for any bus user more used to crawling bumper to bumper down Oxford Street. The village has a lovely setting, if not a green wellies and labradors vibe, plus a plaque to Little Tich the music hall entertainer at the Blacksmith's Arms. Here too is the only bus stop on this long southbound leg - presumably the rest of the journey has been Hail and Ride, but the onboard electronic display has singularly failed to mention this. It fails again by then announcing the Three Horseshoes in Knockholt as the next stop, despite this being four further miles of Hail and Ride down the road.
Horns Green is the last hamlet in London, a string of homes heralded by a tiny village sign on a tree. And after a few more cautious corners and general woody remoteness, we finally turn left into Kent. So, this is Knockholt, is it? I've always meant to visit but never come, so I'm almost tempted to get off for a look, until I remember that the next bus in this direction is two and a half hours away. Plus Knockholt's really long, the same distance as from Marble Arch to St Paul's, so it doesn't pay to alight too early. At this far-western end the majority of buildings really are farms and stables, plus an attractive-looking pub, then the big-drived houses kick in. A road sign warns of toads for the next half-mile, which is mostly fields again, and I'm grinning that my Oyster card allows me on such an adventure.
When we finally reach a proper bus stop on the village green at Knockholt Pound, hurrah, another passenger is waiting. Technically it's here that the return half of the R10's journey begins, so it's no real surprise to have been the only person aboard on the outbound. More surprising is that TfL run a bus out this far at all, as it's the taxpayers of Kent who really benefit, and they fund the 402 which runs through Knockholt hourly. Ditto the village of Halstead, to which we're turning off next. A fairly standard residential estate feels quite out of place compared to where we've just been, but The Cock Inn (established 1718) quickly restores more rural credentials. The R10 uses Halstead's one non-cul-de-sac to loop back round and return the way it came, indeed this extended Halstead loop is one reason the bus can't quite keep to an hour's running time. But we get some elderly custom out of it, and then it's back to Knockholt again, now on the home run.
Our return to London comes at the top of Rushmore Hill, a relentlessly wooded gradient above, and then descending into, a narrow notched valley. At the bottom is a beautifully-positioned primary school, one of Bromley's most isolated, serving the populace of (snigger) Pratt's Bottom. It's well-named, geographically speaking, with rolling fields rising up on all sides, indeed the view from the R10 is briefly overwhelmingly pastoral. We've arrived during the brief window of the village's Christmas Fair, but again I daren't risk getting off to explore. Abruptly we hit a petrol station, a red route and the main A21, bringing our rustic safari to an end, although there's still one last expanse of farmland to savour before we return to Green Street Green.
And you already know this bit, because I rode it on the way down. What's different this time is that we have passengers, because thousands of people live nearby and we're now just another bus to the shops. At peak crowding there are ten of us, a handful from Pratt's Bottom and beyond, the rest, well, it wouldn't have hurt them to walk. Apparently the R5/R10 gets an average of 200 passengers a day, that's about fifteen people per bus, so today we've been running a fraction below par. Oh look it's the War Memorial again, and our third visit to Orpington High Street, this time emptying out and with a lot more queueing traffic. Thankfully this time we escape via a backstreet... and pass the War Memorial a fourth time... does any other London bus pass the same spot quite so often?
And look, I've actually ridden the whole 17 mile circuit back to Orpington station without the driver once eyeing me suspiciously and asking why I didn't get off. Presumably they're used to sightseers on this journey - it's the perfect route for it, should you ever be tempted to take a £1.45 coach trip to London's proper countryside. Blind flipped, the bus is almost ready to go back round again. Any takers?