Whilst out riding lettered buses, I've been trying hard not to visit the same part of London twice. Here's where I finally double back on myself. All eight U-prefixed buses serve the town of Uxbridge, which is precisely where my odyssey began several weeks ago on the A10, so here I am back again. And, having mulled over all the options, it had to be the rural fast-track to Harefield.
An A-Z of LONDON BUSES
Route U9: Uxbridge - Harefield Length of journey: 6 miles, 20 minutes
Buses pour out of Uxbridge bus station on a very regular basis, this being the railhead for a significant portion of north Hillingdon. Punters for Harefield have a choice of routes, the U9 being the quicker, then a lot of dilly-dallying at the far end. Our bus is one of the smaller single deckers, and is filled with one of the smaller complements of passengers to match. A couple more board outside the funeral directors in the High Street, the driver's job for the next ten minutes being to disperse these homebound souls to the outer reaches of London. The lady behind the driver has been to Wilko for a bag full of pre-Christmas provisions, and is busying herself reading a TV mag that fell out of her tabloid. And she's as interesting a passenger as it gets, sorry.
The roundabout to the north of town is as blandly office-provincial as it comes, surrounded by steel and glass workplaces. It turns out we're only circling it because the one-way system wouldn't let us turn right earlier, hence we're soon back at the High Street and continuing onto the Harefield Road. It is a very long way to our second stop, which must be annoying to anyone who lives part-way along this residential street, but at least the town centre's not too far to walk. We're shadowing the Fray's River, a man-made channel dug to serve Uxbridge's water mills, best accessed down the path beside yet another boarded up pub.
Our driver puts his foot down to climb out of the valley and up to the summit on Uxbridge Common, prior to an assault on the biggest road around here, the A40 Western Avenue. We cross via an elevated ring, with foliage dripping down into a central well above the traffic (or the Swakeleys Roundabout, as any street map calls it). Beyond the dual carriageway is officially Ickenham, this side of which has newer-build houses with luxury apartment infill, and lacks the character of streets nearer the heart of the village. Some Mackem road builder got away with calling a cul-de-sac Roker Park Avenue, a home win which TfL compounded by applying the name to the neighbouring bus stop. And we're off.
Harvil Road is the country lane to Harefield, a mile and a half along which almost nobody lives, which is cue for a 50mph speed limit and a considerable increase in the bus's pace. A lot of switchback up and down is involved, but the view's unexpectedly good, with ploughed fields gradually dropping away to the east to reveal the rooftops of Ruislip and beyond. The only intrusion is the Chiltern mainline, this the very point where a tube station would have been built had the Central line ever have been extended from West Ruislip. But plans fell through for the usual reasons (WW2, Green Belt, etc) and today the only activity in the vicinity is a recycling hub up Skip Road. More background here, if you're interested.
The next stretch of fields and woodland is equally undeveloped, but won't be forever because this is precisely where HS2 will break off from the existing railway and carve its own furrow through the Chilterns. The Colne Valley lakes beyond Dews Farm get a particularly raw deal from HS2's arrival, unless you're onboard the train in which case the panorama from the concrete viaduct will no doubt be quite pretty. Back on the bus we pass the Dogs Trust Rehoming Centre (and tearooms), a council recycling outpost and the end of the lane up to Newyears Green, one of a tiny handful of London settlements that TfL doesn't serve.
Ratrun complete, it's time to start the slower climb into Harefield. First up is South Harefield, a modern invention of half a dozen residential avenues and little to write home about, overlooked by St Mary's, the parish's medieval church. A couple of minutes later we hit Harefield proper, on a ridge above the Colne, dropping off most of our passengers along the way. The village centre is an attractive mix of old and new, with the occasional gallery and antique shop suggesting there's money settled nearby. The village sign of course features a hare, though less predictably it's scampering within a giant globe, this in remembrance of Anzac soldiers treated at Harefield Hospital during the war. We'll get there eventually, it's immediately ahead... but first a diversion.
The outbound U9 branches out west at The King's Arms on a particularly scenic detour to connect with the frontier settlement of Mount Pleasant. A precipitous drop leads down past open fields to a handful of streets and a commercial estate on the banks of the River Colne. The view across paddocks and the wooded valley towards the M25 is excellent, and best seen from the bus. The driver negotiates a short stretch of 10% gradient before reaching a turning circle, picking up a fare and returning the way he came. One of our long-term passengers then surprises me by alighting halfway up the return climb, which I swiftly spot is because there are no stops on the way down because nobody want to get off into a hedge.
Within a couple of minutes we're back at the village green, and only one stop from what's technically our destination. Harefield Hospital looks like a very typical postwar NHS campus, but is in fact the site of the world's first successful combined heart and lung transplant. Our driver negotiates his way around the Hamsters sculpture outside the main entrance, and pulls up instead outside the hospital's Refreshment Pavilion and Concert Hall. The place could hardly be more mid 20th century if it tried. And although I alight here for further adventures on foot, at least three of our current passengers are staying on. The U9's not going back to Mount Pleasant on its return journey, so Uxbridge-bound travellers get to sit patiently while the driver flips the blind and departure time ticks round. Enjoy the ride.