And finally, just in time for Xmas, the X68. This express service makes a fitting finale to my alphabetical series, being London's only peak hour one-way limited stop bus. Commuters living between West Croydon and West Norwood can hop aboard the X68 before nine in the morning and speed to Waterloo or Holborn, then head back home again sometime between between four and seven. The big advantage is that it's much cheaper than the train, the penalty that it takes much longer. But how much longer? I got up ridiculously early and headed down to Croydon to find out.
An A-Z of LONDON BUSES
Route X68: West Croydon - Russell Square (limited stop)
Length of journey: 13 miles, 70 minutes
It's not yet dawn when I arrive at West Croydon station, questioning why I ever signed up to this series of blogposts in the first place. The bus station outside is undergoing a lengthy transformation and is closed until 2016, so it takes me a few minutes to track down the temporary location of my chosen route's first stop. During these few minutes an X68 appears, rounds the block and departs, which leaves me no choice but to stand beside Wellesley Road in the dark and drizzle for fifteen minutes. I get a chance to admire the anodyne towers of central Croydon, and to meet the town's early morning commuters beneath hats, hoods and umbrellas. Some want the 468, the southern end of what used to be the 68 until it was lopped off twenty years ago. But a nucleus of longer distance travellers slowly musters, and eventually our chariot arrives.
Damn. It's midwinter, so the bus's misty windows shouldn't be a surprise, but if they're semi-opaque already I'm in danger of seeing very little. In mitigation I grab the front seat, to optimise my chances, and a little smear opens up the outside world to view. The first stripe of sunrise is visible across the rooftops, or penthousetops in some cases, illuminating the twin TV masts on the northern horizon. Meanwhile the last-day-of-term school run is underway, and mums and children are wrapped up in black against the weather heading to one of the brightly lit assembly halls we pass along the way. Our passage along Whitehorse Road is somewhat unpleasant, jolting over regularly spaced notches in the damaged tarmac. And all the way we barely stop, because very few round here are going the full distance, and the X68 doesn't allow anyone to alight before Waterloo.
Rather than take the direct route we divert east to pass Selhurst Park, home of Crystal Palace Football Club and their associated Sainsburys. A steady climb ensues, past attractive Victorian villas, one of which has both a palm tree and a fridge in its front garden. The first of the journey's excellent views transpires, from South Norwood down to Bromley and beyond, but requires a reticent wipe to see completely. Two consecutive bus stops are labelled 'Not in use', which two potential passengers have ignored, and thankfully our driver does too. And eventually we reach the foot of one of those TV masts, the less well known Croydon transmitter on Beulah Hill, no longer broadcasting but primed to kick in with BBC Breakfast should Crystal Palace fail.
The X68 is the kind of bus people run for. A stereotypically moustached businessman makes a dash for it, his suit in a bag over his arm, then pants upstairs to claim his prize. There must be ten of us up here by now, rather fewer than I was expecting on a premium service, but at least there'll still be seats when we finally reach West Norwood. I was also expecting us to be slower, but whether it's pre-Christmas torpor or luck, we've barely had to queue in traffic at all. Further along Beulah Hill one large house has a front garden full of Buddhas, laid out as you'd expect in the ornaments department at a garden centre. There's also a tantalising glimpse of the City in the gaps between the houses, the largest skyscrapers lined up perfectly without overlapping in front of a glowing morning sky.
Before the pond we hit our first and only jam, this of cars queueing to get through the lights at Crown Point on the watershed of the Effra valley. A couple of minutes sees us through to the stop outside Jerk Donalds, where a young couple board and mutter disdainfully about the lack of a spare double seat on the half-full top deck. A third wipe of the window prepares me for the spectacular view down Knight's Hill, the Shard-Gherkin line-up perfectly framed at its foot. But not for long, they soon disappear behind West Norwood, into which we now descend. The normal 68 route starts from here, from the bus garage by the station, hence there's little more here for us to do. But there's still time to pack them in at our final few stops, and we do.
A coffee-clutching lady in a pink jacket squeezes into the seat beside me, and we're off on the non-stop section of journey. She turns out to be another window-wiper, which is just as well given that several dozen lungs are now steaming up the windows, and there's nothing worse than a totally obscured express journey. At the very next bus stop an optimist puts her arm out, anticipating a ride, and then again at the next stop after that, but no. The electronic display above us has changed to show the next stop as Waterloo, more than three miles distant, and all of us are trapped on board for the long haul. Somebody on the top deck has annoyingly leaky headphones, but rather than it being the usual tinny rap, I'm amazed to identify the tune as Glenn Miller's In The Mood! Another noise polluter is sending and receiving copious texts with his Samsung whistle at full volume, and merits several hard stares as we progress.
A bus lane speeds our progress towards Tulse Hill - it's all going swimmingly thus far. And as we skirt the foot of Brockwell Park I hold my breath as the X68's bifurcation point draws near. Sometimes the bus follows the 68's normal route through Camberwell, but at other times it diverts via Brixton to avoid getting held up in traffic. We're taking... aha, the eastern Camberwell fork, which requires a climb up Herne Hill to Denmark Hill. And rightly so, the traffic turns out to be embarrassingly thin, more like it's Sunday than the rush hour, so we're through to the crossroads in a matter of minutes.
Up Camberwell Road the driver plays a trump card by ignoring the bus lane and following the main carriageway, leapfrogging at least a dozen slow-stopping buses in the process. The narrower Walworth Road, where the shopkeepers are only just laying out their fruit and vegetables for the day's trading, proves more impermeable. But we're soon up to the top, where I'm saddened to see the entire Heygate Estate has now been replaced by a field of rubble behind a security fence. The Elephant and Castle statuette outside the shopping centre raises more of a smile, its crenellations wrapped in festive fairy lights. And then we take the bus lane up to St George's Circus, which ought to be fast but no, we have to crawl along at the speed of the cyclist in front, who looks as intimidated by us as we are exasperated by him.
And finally, after twenty silent minutes, the onboard voice announces Waterloo as our next stop, and here we are. About half of those on board alight, this being the first time the driver's been allowed to open the middle doors since we started... and we gain one new passenger too, because now we're just a normal bus. We get three more on Waterloo Bridge, where further window-wiping exposes that the tide is high, and the skyscrapers I saw earlier reveal themselves not to be arranged in a tightly-packed cluster after all. My travelling companion then puts down her coffee and starts to do her make up, at length, as the rest of our passenger complement gradually filter off. A few in Aldwych, several more at Holborn, and another batch at the last proper stop on Southampton Row.
To finish, our driver negotiates his way to a backstreet stand just off Russell Square and turfs the rest of us off. Our loud texter is still going strong, and as three more whistles sound I swap a pair of raised eyebrows with my neighbour, hers now noticeably more immaculate than mine. And as the last dozen of us scatter to our various workplaces, it still not yet being nine o'clock, the driver whips round the blind to 'Not in service' and steps out onto the pavement for a rest. There are no X68s going the other way until late afternoon, so this vehicle can head back to the depot, or transform into something else, I don't hang around to find out. Achievement unlocked.