London's T-prefix buses serve the residential outpost of New Addington. All three were introduced in 2000 to feed the new trams to Croydon, with passengers able to transfer from bus to tram without paying an additional fare - a convenience that still works today. The T32 is a dinky little route, a three mile tour of the estate, while the T33 shadows the tram all the way to Croydon. I went for the happy medium, the T31, which is essentially two short feeder routes bolted together in the middle. And only just in time.
Bus routes in New Addington are currently under review, with a consultation period that ends on Friday likely to lead to big (big) changes in the new year. The T33 will be renumbered, the T31 and T32 will be discontinued, and the existing non-lettered routes will be twisted round additional roads within the estate to make up the difference. It means longer journeys for most, and much longer for some, with direct buses between New Addington and Addington Village almost eliminated. But it also links better to streets where people actually live, and saves TfL quarter of a million pounds a year through a "significant reduction in overcapacity". The statistical background behind the proposed metamorphosis fills a 30 page document and is fascinating, if you like that sort of thing, although I doubt that most bus users in New Addington realise what's about to hit them. If you want to make your voice heard, you have two days.
An A-Z of LONDON BUSES
Route T31: New Addington - Forestdale Length of journey: 6 miles, 30 minutes
The T31 starts at the top of Milne Park, a recreation ground at the top of New Addington. The whole estate is on a gentle slope, and entirely surrounded by open countryside which it's easy to see but surprisingly difficult to get to. The T31 starts by the adventure playground on Homestead Way, at a bus stand that'll be made redundant next year once the consultation's changes are confirmed. I waited for almost the full eight minutes while an England flag flapped above the gatepost of a house across the road, and a boy walked past eating albino chips from the JFC fried chicken shop on the adjacent parade. And if you're already thinking "ugh, New Addington", rest assured that the top half's not that bad, indeed it's almost desirably affordable, if somewhat remote. Hence the bus.
First aboard are a mum and her two kids, one in a pushchair. She gets out her phone and fires up a video of a family member in an outdoor setting, which the eldest daughter watches intently. So engrossed are they that when we round the first corner they totally miss the house completely covered in Christmas decorations. A star tops the chimney on which a plastic angel has been affixed, while Santa is being pulled by nine reindeer across a white sheet on the roof that convincingly resembles snow. Icicles hang from the porch above a front garden populated by a job lot of illuminated carol singers, while the car port is covered by a frame wrapped in multi-coloured tinsel. A nativity scene takes pride of place outside the lounge window, beside an enlarged photograph of a grey haired man I can only assume is "Grandad", whose annual festive tradition this once was. The rest of the family are standing by the front gate, where Mum is attaching one more shiny bauble to a pole while her son (in a Christmas jumper) looks on. It's a splendidly ebullient scene, just the right side of naff, of the kind to be found on estates the country over. I'm tempted to shout "oi, look at this!" but presumably the smartphone video is much more interesting.
I've turned up on the day that New Addington switches on its official Christmas lights. These are the big guns, along Central Parade, being celebrated later with a funfair on the parking spaces outside Iceland. Two men are putting the finishing touches to a teacup ride, two more to the waltzers, while an up-in-the-air-and-gyrating thing looks almost ready to take its first passengers. Our passengers seem much more interested in the extensive line-up of shops (from Captain Cash down to Quality Fish via Meat Express and Priceless Carpets). We've only been going for four stops, but we've already picked up a dozen folk including a lady in a chair and her friend called Winston, and they all get off here or at the tramstop, without exception. The T31's status as a feeder service is becoming apparent, with our next batch of clientele heading exclusively from the tram or shops to home.
They start to drip off along King Henry's Drive, the outermost of a quadrant of curving avenues, which kicks off with a Lidl and ends at a valley-side vista. It's a lot more scenic than I was expecting on a council estate, with the occasional view across the trees to Croydon and the City, and a sign pointing down the dip to an unseen and unlikely 'GOLF'. We pause for a young couple with a pushchair who really aren't hurrying - our driver waits politely - and then their Oyster beeps empty. Hurrah for contactless, otherwise we'd have waited in vain. A couple more stops takes us up and over a bump of suburbia, then sharply the homes we're passing change from houses to flats and the character of the estate shifts. Right on cue the latest bloke to sit behind me smells like he's had a skinful already, which is impressive considering it's barely noon.
Our next target is Fieldway, a long S-shaped road driven through a landscape of over a hundred apartment blocks with no alternative means of escape. Maps of the estate by the side of the road depict a layout of colourful blocks, but thereality is a little greyer. In one case the parallel blocks remind me of an army garrison, lifted visually only by their location on the edge of thick woodland. Further ahead the former fields are occupied by a lowly sports centre that's home to the local boxing club and the Pandemic Steel Orchestra. We pass the foot of New Addington's two proper towerblocks, one named Birch, the other Cedar, by some over-optimistic postwar planner. Our bus is a popular lifeline for Fieldwayites, both for those coming from the shops and those boarding to catch the tram ahead. But if TfL are truly intent on consigning both the 64 and 130 to this meandering detour in future, residents further up the estate are in for a long haul.
At last we're back on Lodge Lane, only two stops further down the hill than we were two paragraphs ago but over ten minutes later. Our driver has to stop the traffic to nudge out from Fieldway, then it's a long run down to the AddingtonVillage Interchange. This is the bus station tram stop combo created at the turn of the century to simplify transfer from one mode to the other, ingenious in every way except for the contorted way buses get in and out. We have to circle the roundabout by the Harvester before entering, then circle the bus station again before pulling up. Here every single other person gets off, that's all twenty passengers and the driver who's off for relief in the mess room. Nobody who's come from New Addington wants to ride the next bit, we merely pick up three people who've got off the latest tram. And then we're off, on a more-than-360 degree spin around the bus station, again, and the outer roundabout, again, with a fresh captain at the helm.
He's a bit sweary, our new bloke. "Ah for God's sake!" he cries at the traffic on Kent Gate Way, as a horse rolls over in the field alongside. But he's also a kindly soul too. We veer off imminently to serve an unusual estate to the south of Selsdon, an blanket of postwar flats nestling in a wooded valley called, appropriately, Forestdale. The T33 takes on the main bulk of the estate while the T31 banks up a halfmile dead end flanked by terraced flats. At the foot of the hill, only two stops from the end of the route, a young mother with an empty Oyster stands waiting. Her card beeps plaintively, twice, at which point our driver invites her and her buggy on board for nothing. His kindness saves her a considerable climb, but not all, because the T31's last stop comes one stop below the top of the hill. There's no room for a bus stand at the top so passengers get chucked off lower down before the vehicle squeezes ahead to the turning circle at the summit. She's still pushing her buggy up to the highest cul-de-sac when the bus overtakes, and swings round to collect a more fortunate mum at the first stop going the other way.
When the T31 is scrapped, this Forestdale leg is going to be taken over by the 353 which currently runs from Orpington to Addington. This runs half as frequently as the eight minutely T31, hence residents of Courtwood Lane are about to lose their turn-up-and-go service. It's also a double decker, which seems entirely inappropriate for this backwater climb between awkwardly placed parked cars to a remote turning circle and back, but presumably drivers will cope. Instead we should praise TfL for their commitment to serve this single residential road in the first place. In any business-driven bus network outside London residents would be expected to catch the T33 to the foot of the hill and walk the rest. Instead they get an almost door-to-door service, this despite the fact that Surrey begins immediately behind the hedge at the summit, beyond which is a muddy bridleway, thick woodland and a golf course. Hurrah for public services that serve the public, even way out here on the outskirts.