diamond geezer

 Monday, June 30, 2014

Yesterday the Underground's last C stock train ran one last time.



The last public service was four weeks ago, you may remember, but six cars were kept on for a final celebratory tour. For £40 you could have spent four and a half hours covering the entirety of the C Stock network, trapped in a carriage with a few dozen other train enthusiasts.
Moorgate d0955 - a1042 Wimbledon d1055 - Baker St - a1216 Barking LUNCH d1321 - Baker St - South Kensington - Tower Hill - Baker St - a1527 Hammersmith
I'm sure being aboard was fun, if a little claustrophobic, but being aboard meant missing the opportunity to watch the train passing through any of the stations along its journey. And so a squad of photographers stalked the train, in various locations, to record its passing. [6 photos]

One end of the train was C69 stock and the other C77, the digits referring to the year of introduction. Meanwhile someone had had fun with the blinds on the front and the back, which sometimes showed a destination long since renamed or departed. Aldersgate, anyone? Kensington Addison Road?

At the very end of the journey, in Hammersmith, the blinds were switched to show "Rotherham via Northwood", this a reference to the entire train's imminent demise. It'll be driven one last time to sidings in Northwood, from which the cars will be lifted onto trucks and driven to Rotherham for scrap. A handful of carriages are being kept for heritage reasons, tucked away out of sight in TfL's Acton depot, but probably not sufficient to form a complete train.

There's general consensus that London's well rid of the old C Stock, now replaced by longer more spacious air-conditioned S Stock trains. But from today it'll exist only in photographic, film or digital form, or in our memories of journeys from days gone by.



One consequence of this is that trains on the sub-surface lines have become a lot more samey. Time was when the Metropolitan, Circle and District lines all had different rolling stock, so when a train rolled in you knew pretty much where it was going. Not any more. I thought I'd draw up a table to show you what I mean.

 2009recentlytoday2016
Liverpool St → Baker StA C CS C CS S SS S S
Baker St → HammersmithC CC CS SS S
Edgware Rd → High St Ken C CC SS SS S
Earl's Court → Wimbledon C DC DS DS S
Gloucester Rd → Tower Hill C DC DS DS S
Aldgate East → Barking C DC DS DS S

As an example, if you were anywhere between Baker Street and Liverpool Street in 2009, it was very obvious which were the Metropolitan line trains and which were for the Circle and Hammersmith and City line. Even when the Met's A Stock switched to S Stock the trains were still easily distinguished. But head down today and all the trains look the same, so you have to look at the destination displays carefully to be sure which is which.

Or take the Wimbledon branch of the District line. Trains to Edgware Road have always looked different to trains to the City, indeed still do now that all the C Stock has upgraded to S. But by the end of 2016 it's promised that every D Stock train on the District line will have been replaced, and then every Underground train out of Wimbledon will look the same. It's not a problem - travellers on the rest of the District line have always had to check carefully where their trains are going. But a useful visual shorthand is disappearing, and homogeneity is the new name of the game.

It's deliberate. Different lines used to have different trains, pretty much, but TfL are trying to bear down on costs by making as many of them the same as possible. All of the sub-surface lines are getting S Stock trains, either 7 or 8 carriages long, and within two and a half years the transformation will be complete. And then work starts on replacing old tube stock on deep lines like the Bakerloo and Piccadilly, which is where the New Tube For London comes in. Here's a prototype...



The New Tube For London will be an air-cooled train with walk-through carriages. It may even be driverless, whatever that precisely means, although that'll take a lot more investment and opens a whole new can of worms. Another benefit will be the use of a single signalling system, rather than each subterranean line working things differently. But don't get your hopes up that this is going to be quick. TfL haven't even invited companies to bid for the work yet, we're still at the pre-qualification stage.
"The design and specification phase continues, with the formal procurement process for the purchase of rolling stock having been launched on 28 February via a notice in the Official Journal of the European Union and through the issue of the pre-qualification questionnaire. The informal early contractor engagement process is proceeding in parallel and the draft technical specification has been issued to suppliers."
The Piccadilly line will be first with the new trains, then the Bakerloo, and later the Central and Waterloo and City. But not any time yet. Even if all goes to plan, which it never does, the first New Tube For London won't be rolling out until the early 2020s. This creates a lengthy gap from 2016 onwards when there'll be no replacement rolling stock on the Underground - at least five years, probably more. Lack of funding or lack of Mayoral vision? You'll have your own opinion, I'm sure.

It also means that the old tube trains will have to stay in service longer than was ever planned. Piccadilly line stock dates back to 1973, and the Bakerloo to 1972. These trains will be at least 50 years old before they're replaced, possibly rather more, hence maintenance could become an issue before retirement. By contrast the C Stock that went out of service yesterday was 'only' 44, and looked it too, I think you'll agree.

The Northern, Jubilee and Victoria lines aren't included in existing upgrade plans because their trains are more recent, the former not yet 20 and the latter barely 5. But the other eight lines could be served by only two types of train by the end of the next decade - either S Stock or the New Tube For London. Yesterday's departure brings that homogeneity one step closer... and the rest of the District line, that's next.



 Sunday, June 29, 2014

The largest bus garage in London is at West Ham, built on brownfield land beside the Jubilee line. It was completed in 2010 to solve the Olympic problem, namely how to replace two bus garages on Waterden Road wiped clean to stage the 2012 Games. The solution involved knocking down a Parcelforce depot and remediating the toxic land beneath, courtesy of a gasworks which once existed on the site. West Ham Bus Garage is now home to 350 buses and more than 700 staff, and one of the most bioefficient sustainabletastic structures in TfL's portfolio. And it was open to the public for tours yesterday, neither of which sold out. I assume you had something better to do. [25 photos]

These tours were part of the London Festival of Architecture, and also part of celebrations for the Year of the Bus. The building's been open for Open House before, but yesterday's were serious multi-faceted tours involving being on site for three hours, and therefore damned good value for money. The site's a little remote, accessed via a poorly-maintained sideroad near Star Lane DLR, but the buses trundle in and out via the neighbouring trading estate so don't suffer too much chassis trauma. Any member of the public can walk this way, because West Ham houses the lost property office for every Stagecoach bus in London. But to get any further within you need to be staff, or to be one of yesterday's fortunate fifty.

First up we were treated to a 45 minute talk from LT Museum Researcher Oliver Green, in a concrete-walled meeting room off the main suite of offices. He ran through a century of bus garage design, fully illustrated, from horse bus depots to large-span spaces such as Stockwell. Many of London Transport's bus garages in the 20s and 30s were every bit as striking as the tube stations we more usually celebrate, heights more rarely scaled of late. And then we got to listen to West Ham's architect explaining how the four-arch concept had been developed not as protection from the elements but as sound insulation. There are long-term plans to build residential blocks on the land to the north of the garage, linked to a second exit from West Ham station, but the money's not there so the housing plan's stalled.

Then for the main part of the visit we toured the garage itself. It was fascinating seeing the everyday facilities for bus drivers, from the clocking-in desk to the machine where they throw their cash at the end of a shift (that's for another week at least). You might have seen the staff canteen on Celebrity Masterchef last week, although it's clearly busier here midweek than on Saturday afternoons, which have more of a tumbleweed feel. Every route served by the garage has its own risk assessment posted up, plus a precisely timed list of shifts, now churned out by computer rather than fretted over by hand. And when it's time, the two external arches lead out to the buses, and the inner two arches to the maintenance area.

Around two dozen vehicles can be driven into the inspection pits and given a good once-over. Mechanics were stripping down engines as we passed, and a couple of Routemasters had their bonnets up to aid internal poking. West Ham is home to ten RMs used on the number 15, soon to be the only heritage route in town once the 9s are terminated next month. But most of the vehicles are more mundane, yet no less important, checked out every three weeks to ensure they run in optimum condition. From the top of the office/workshop block we could look down on the lot, and observe the pile of generic seat covers and cushions waiting patiently to be fitted and repeatedly sat on.

The yard out the back is huge, and relatively empty during the middle of the day. A few buses that weren't out servicing shoppers were parked up, along with those returning for a wash or mid-shift layover. The bus wash is down the far end of the site near the diesel tanks, where most of the driving is done by bespoke shunters in orange overalls. Close by is the 100kW wind turbine, a massive structure that contributes around 10% of the energy the garage needs to run. You can keep an eye on its performance here, constantly updated, including windspeed and current turbine power. It may be an eyesore to some, but it's a lot nicer than the pylon which stood almost precisely here before being packed off underground by the Olympics.

And they may not be based here, but Stagecoach had wheeled in a couple of New Buses For London now to be found in service on route 8. They'll more normally be garaged in Bow, but a silver bus and a red bus were lined up as a little day one treat. I was more chuffed to see the old Routemasters, those not off plying the streets of the City, what with West Ham Garage about to become the last stand for these splendid 60-year-old vehicles. But I was most chuffed to have been allowed inside this facility at all, and for so long, to get some idea of the effort it takes to make part of London's vast bus network tick. And if you never made it, I can at least share 25 photographs to give you some idea of what you missed.

My West Ham Bus Garage gallery
There are 25 photos altogether [slideshow]

 Saturday, June 28, 2014

THE NEW BUS TO BOW
Route 8: Tottenham Court Road - Bow Church

Length of journey: 7½ miles, 65 minutes

Ten years ago I rode the last, the very last, Routemaster on route 8 to Bow. Since then the route's been run by boxy Tridents, the workhorse of the London fleet, shuttling back and forth between the West End and the East End in an entirely undramatic manner. And today the number 8 converts back to the so called New Routemaster, the shiny curvaceous vehicle that's turning heads on the streets of Bow. Most local residents don't follow the media like you or I, so the alien appearance of the New Bus for London is cause to stand and stare. Its been a gradual rollout, not an overnight replacement, so I managed to ride the newborn 8 home last night during Friday evening's rush hour.


In 2004 the number 8 ran from Victoria, but no longer, this as part of TfL's plans to reduce the number of buses clogging Oxford Street. It no longer runs from Oxford Circus either, this time thanks to Crossrail buggering up local sidestreets, but begins instead from a short-term long-term terminus on Tottenham Court Road. The bus stand is opposite where Time Out's HQ used to be, beside a row of former hi-fi shops being ripped apart for a new development. It's here that I wait patiently for a couple of decade-old vehicles to depart before it's the next New Routemaster's turn. I give the black-wrap Adidas sponsored marketing-bus a miss too, and plump instead for the ordinary red version. The driver munches a chocolate digestive while his official rest break ticks over, and chats with another driver who's getting a lift back to the garage. Eventually three doors open, the Oyster readers power up, and we're off.

I'm doing something I don't normally do on a blogged bus ride, I'm sitting downstairs. I'm not here for the view, I'm here to watch how the bus functions, so the ideal seat is the raised foursome above the rear set of wheels. The New Routemaster has 22 seats downstairs, twelve facing forwards and ten facing back. Our spare driver takes the opportunity of a nigh-empty bus to nip round and try out the seating for himself... and is not impressed. "The passenger seats are so uncomfortable," he says. "There's no legroom, and every time I sit down I bash my knees." We detour slowly through Bloomsbury, past end-of-the week drinkers overspilling on to the pavement outside happy hour bars, before finally orientating east. It's going to be a long ride home.

Given the time of day I'm expecting a rush, but a rush never comes. Instead commuters file in a few at a time as we pass through the West End, at which point it becomes increasingly fascinating to watch where everyone sits. There are six passengers and six forward-facing double seats, and so far we've instinctively occupied one each. So where will the next go? One slips into a backwards seat overlooking the rear platform, but the next few entrants scan the scene and head straight up the stairs. The rear-facer near the driver is next to be half-filled, and only eventually does a bloke with a Selfridges bag deign to join me, staggered, in my booth of four. For all the new bus's increased cross-sectional area, passengers don't seem keen to use its downstairs efficiently.

Alas on route 8 the New Routemaster is in austerity mode. There's no money for a conductor, or a passenger service agent as the lingo has it, so every bus runs with driver only and the rear door closed. I dunno, you build a bus especially to permit open platform freedom, and then you sign a long-term contract for one-person operation. The rear door therefore only opens when the other two do, and on this bus it appears to close quicker too, as if the driver has a special button. One lady slow to descend the back stairs finds the rear door closed prematurely and has to ding to get it reopened. At another stop a young couple make a dash for the bus only to find the rear door closing on them, so are forced to dash further to board in the middle and at the front. Most Londoners may think the open platform is the best thing about the New Routemaster, but on route 8 that reality is non-existent.

At St Paul's an old couple are crossing the road in front of us against the lights. Our driver attempts to honk them but accidentally presses the windscreen wipers instead, which flap embarrassingly to and fro before he finds the horn. It's a rookie mistake, and all the more obvious given that the evening's threatened downpours have failed to materialise. As we pass through the City it's financial hometime, with hundreds of suits heading to the tube with gymbag in hand or stopping off at the nearest bar for a drink. Few of these moneyed folk stoop to boarding the bus to the East End, so the downstairs of our vehicle is still relatively empty. Indeed a number of passengers have draped bags across the seat next to them, partly because they can, and partly because there's not much space to squeeze them in on the floor.

The bus stop outside Liverpool Street station is closed, but we still pause alongside because of the traffic lights. This is precisely the sort of situation where the open platform ought to be a winner, except of course it's closed, so passengers have to stay on to the next stop just like this was a normal bus. Along Norton Folgate we pass TfL's special silver Routemaster, which appears to be in general service on Route 8, running in the opposite direction. And then it's Shoreditch, where I'm joined in the rear foursome by an archetypal hipster. Gelled-back hair with shaved sides ✓ Oakley sunglasses ✓ Inch-long straggly beard ✓ Wine-red trousers ✓ Trendy rucksack ✓ New Balance trainers ✓ E-book ✓. It's the first sign that the on-board clientèle is changing, from office and tourist types to 'ordinary' residents of East London.

Here they come, on Bethnal Green Road, the families and the estate dwellers. We get our first pushchair, which prompts the driver to play a message I've not heard before - "For your Childs safety please remain with your buggy". Perhaps the two grammatical errors in the third word annoy only me, but seriously, who programs this stuff? We pause while a washing machine is pushed ahead of us across the street, and finally the downstairs of the bus is becoming busy. I count 24 of us, plus the baby, which is more than the number of lower deck seats and yet several remain stubbornly empty. In particular it seems nobody wants to sit touching shoes and kneecaps with me and the hipster, nor to squeeze into the foursome on the other side, because the New Routemaster's rear-facing double seats are poison.

The hipster slips off on Roman Road, pressing the bell with a satisfyingly retro ding. On-board aural stimulation then declines somewhat as we're forced to listen in on one woman's very loud Estuary English phone conversation. "I'm on a number 8 Pauh," she says, and then asks Paul to buy her a saveloy and chips before she gets home. The takeaway theme continues as the adjacent girl on the pink iPhone rings up for a vegetarian samosa with Bombay potatoes, then uses a 25% off voucher to top up her Rogan Josh. It's as if nobody on the estates of Bow has a kitchen, or maybe this is just a Friday night state of mind. Whatever, the contrast between these streets and the heart of the City is profound.

Our vehicle is now emptying fast, and by Parnell Road very few of us remain for the long final hop. I take the opportunity to nip upstairs, partly for the view across the concrete works into the Olympic Park, and partly to see what the temperature's like. I'm pleased to report that the aircon on this new vehicle is humming away and working well, with a light chill that's a little more pleasurable than being downstairs, and not the roasting sauna some might have predicted. But top or bottom the smell of the interior isn't great - it never is aboard a New Routemaster - and always reminds me of the whiff of incontinence from an old people's home I used to visit.

Three police officers are standing on patrol as we circle the Bow Roundabout - one almost waves - and then we're on the homeward straight. I'm staying on past Bow Church to the stop before the garage, the same as I did on that final Routemaster journey ten years ago. This time there's no BBC film crew on board, no Union Jack draped across the radiator, no gaggle of Men Who Bus bemoaning the passing of an era. Instead the New Routemaster is the new status quo, taking over the whole of my local bus route as of the early hours of this morning. We'll get used to its idiosyncrasies, and live with its imperfections, and even stop staring as its unfamiliar form rumbles past. But however attractive it looks from the street, inside it's still a conductor-enabled conductor-free vehicle, its potential on route 8 unfulfilled for several years to come.



 Friday, June 27, 2014

The Hi, how are you? lady at work has another phrase. She doesn't use it every day, indeed it's rather rarer as a rule. But it does get a regular outing, and it niggles just as much.

"Have a great evening."

Now I know this doesn't sound annoying, indeed it sounds eminently polite. But it's all in the timing of when precisely she says it, and the emphasis she gives the third word.

"Have a great evening."

ought to be a lovely thing to say at that moment when you're packing up and heading out. It acknowledges that your time in the office is over and that now it's time to reclaim the night. Work no longer has a hold on you, and you're free to maximise the intervening hours before turning up again the following day.

"Have a great evening."

also suggests a level of social empathy. There's a friendliness on the part of the narrator, a recognition that you live not to work but to play, and that you do indeed have a life elsewhere to be celebrated. Or so you'd think. But it's also possible to say

"Have a great evening."

and somehow add a bitter twist. And that's what I think I'm getting, a slight but deliberate emphasis on the word 'great'. It's barely perceptible, but repeated use convinces me it's there. And I fear this is no friendly valediction, but instead a faintly barbed jibe.

"Have a great evening."

These four words are, I suspect, a twin attack. Firstly there's the inference that while I'm about to have a great evening, the speaker isn't. And secondly a hint that perhaps I shouldn't be heading off for my evening just yet, that I've left too early.

"Have a great evening."

is something I tend to hear on nights that I've stayed late, but she's staying later. It's uttered after the working day is officially over, but when circumstances have conspired to keep us all at our desks for longer. She's putting in that extra effort, while I'm clearly not properly pulling my weight and have bailed early.

"Have a great evening."

is little more than a veiled hiss of disappointment. The phrase simmers with unspoken jealousy, as if she's aghast that I'm about to claim my freedom before her. For all I know she'll be logging off and heading home five minutes after I'm out the door. But she's won tonight's prize for self-righteous commitment, because I was weak and I blinked first.

"Have a great evening."

We don't work on the same projects, she and I, so she has no idea how busy I really I am. We also have very different terms and conditions, I think, in that for legacy reasons her prescribed working week is longer than mine. So when she sees me packing up earlier than she would, indeed could, no wonder she smoulders with a sense of injustice.

"Have a great evening."

She's not the only one. One of the big bosses says it too, delivered more deadpan but still with the unmistakeable undertone of disappointment. Last week we passed on the stairs at well past home time, and they were clearly off to another meeting, and I was clearly going home.

"Have a great evening"

they said through a gritted smile, as if a great evening was something only less important people had. Never mind that working late might be a sign of understaffing and/or overwork, and thus a symptom of mismanagement at the highest levels. If you want to get anywhere, the inference was, you need to be seen to be doing more.

"Have a great evening"

jars for another reason, which is one of over-expectation. It's a weekday night, for heaven's sake, how great do you expect my evening to be? I'm not out for cocktails, cordon bleu and the theatre, I'm off home for tea, toast and some telly on the sofa. Inviting me to

"Have a great evening"

is patronising overstatement, when "Have a good evening" would be perfectly good enough. It merely reminds me that my evening won't be great, and although it'll be better than being stuck late at work, in truth it's just another six hour filler before bed and being asked Hi, how are you? in the morning.

"Have a great evening."

I'm aware that I've said the same phrase to colleagues on leaving the office, and I that meant no genuine malice by it. So perhaps it's wrong to jump to the conclusion that when others say it they're somehow less than pleased. But tone and circumstance still suggest to me an irrefutable element of passive aggression, which I must learn to brush off and ignore.

"Have a great evening."

So tonight I think I'll aim to leave the office on time for once, which to my nemesis will look uncomfortably early, and see if I can provoke the dreaded phrase. But this time I'll be ready with a proper rejoinder, which I'll make sure to deliver with just the right degree of emphasis to make my point.

"You know what, I think I will."

 Thursday, June 26, 2014

Should I die unexpectedly before downsizing, I'd like to apologise to whoever gets the job of clearing out my spare room. You're probably reading. One obvious solution would be to chuck the whole lot in a skip - I'll never know, and a lot of the stuff has little meaning other than to me. But some of it will be worth keeping or passing on, I'm sure, whether for sentimental or practical reasons.

So to help you out, I've started an audit. I thought I'd begin with the stack of cardboard boxes alongside the bookcase on the far wall. Don't worry, it's not as bad it sounds.

Bottom cardboard box
• Pocket Scrabble (as used on many a long distance car journey)
• My grandmother's autograph book (To Kitty, with best wishes 5/3/18)
• The top of a bottle of Bart Simpson bubble bath
• A seahorse mobile my Dad made for my brother and I when we were little, except two of the threads have snapped
• A luminous yo-yo
• A luminous magnetic calendar
• Semi-complete set of Weetabix Dr Who stand-up cardboard figures (1975)
Tamagotchi (battery expired)
• Various front door keys to properties the family no longer owns
• Badge for the One Day In The Life of Television project (1989)
• I'm Too Sexy badge (from the Right Said Fred album, Up)
• Operation manual for a Casio fx-81 scientific calculator
• Wrapper from a McVities United chocolate biscuit bar (normal, and orange)
• Set of quiz questions from a seriously-out of date quiz
• Two boxes of letters and postcards from the 1980s, a time when people sent letters and postcards because nobody had yet invented email or WhatsApp, some of which are from people long departed, others from people I've long lost touch with, and only one from someone whose Dad was Bob Hoskins
• A sheet of Letraset (Pluto font, red/yellow, I've used up all the As)
• 'Turn off unwanted lights' poster (Central Office of Information, 1979)
• University of Hull Welcome Pack (1986) (includes leaflets for Bridlington - a Golden Rail resort, Hull and the Humber Bridge, and Cleethorpes - Smiles More Fun)
• Two brittle Comic Relief balloons inside a transparent plastic egg
• My Bedford Central Library card (ditto Hertfordshire)
• The ticket from my first pair of Levi's 501s (W32 L32)

Second cardboard box
This one's empty.

Third cardboard box
This one's also empty. See, I told you not to worry.

Fourth cardboard box
This one contains all my old bus timetables. You may have laughed at the time, but some of these are proper heritage now. I mean, where else is anyone going to find timetables for the Isle of Wight (1970), London nightbuses (1972) or Scottish Postbuses (1973)? Don't bin this one, I bet there's are blog readers who'd be happy to take the whole box off your hands.

Top cardboard box
• First Day Cover for the 25th anniversary of the Coronation (31st May 1978)
• Leaflet celebrating the opening of the Harlequin Centre, Watford (1992)
• Hex (paper games for travel and leisure, pad of 50 sheets, 1974)
• Four complete books of Brooke Bond tea cards (The Race Into Space, Adventurers and Explorers, The Sea - Our Other World, History of Aviation)
• A stack of spares and swaps for the above
• Illustrated Collins Bible I was given for my baptism (Leatheroid, gold edges, in original box, 17/6)
• Silver napkin ring given to me for my baptism (in original box from Andrew McCulloch, High Road, Beeston)
• My primary school hymnbook - With Cheerful Voice
• Ordnance Survey One-inch map sheet 160 London N.W. (1970)
• London Transport Souvenir Guide map of the Royal Wedding Route (29th July 1981)
• Box of two dozen 7" singles bought from Oldies Unlimited (includes Beat the Beat by Mari Wilson, Yellow Pearl by Phil Lynott and You Gotta Be A Hustler If You Want To Get On by Sue Wilkinson
• Five free cover discs given away with Record Mirror
• Road map of the M25 (newly opened, 1986)
• A selection of Old Moore's Almanacks (most years, 1978-1991)
• A whole pile of old London Transport and British Rail timetables and maps and leaflets, including A Day At Hampton Court (1974), Changing the Guard (1975), Green Line Coaches map (1975), the Marks and Spencer map of Jubilee Britain (1977), Watford Junction & Croxley Green rail timetable (12 May 1980 until further notice), Central London Bus Map (1981, the radical redesign with the circles), Fares Fair leaflet (starts Oct 4th 1981), Christmas and New Year Travel by Bus and Underground (1982, includes Christmas day trains), East London Line timetable (new improved GLC-funded, 1984), London Underground Large Print map (1985), Inter City timetables from London (all lines, 29th September 1986), Humberlink (1987), Your Scotrail Express Guide (1989), Network SouthEast Fundays Leisure map (1990)... blimey I'd forgotten I had this stuff, there's a veritable treasure chest of hoarded transport ephemera here! I should probably scan some of this lot and post it online somewhere, you'd love it, except if I'd scanned them then technically I wouldn't need to keep them, and that would be wrong, so back into the box they go...

 Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A most unusual exhibition is taking place underneath the fountains at Somerset House. You've probably seen the ornamental gushers, maybe even run through them trying not to get wet. But you may not have been down below, to the Deadhouse beneath the paving slabs, where the run-off from the fountains drips though. And if you get down there by Sunday you can visit a highly appropriate subterranean collection, the Museum of Water.

As one of the most plentiful substances on the planet, we don't normally give water a second thought. But curator Amy Sharrocks is encouraging punters to see water differently, with a display of over 400 samples with an added dimension. She's asked anyone and everyone to donate a container of water that means something to them, perhaps because of where it came from, perhaps because of an emotion stirred. Each is categorised and labelled, ideally with an audio description from its donor. And the entire collection is on display for three weeks only, on makeshift shelves in a gloomy undercroft.

You reach the Deadhouse via the Embankment entrance at Somerset House. I suspect many visitors never realise this exists, spending their time in the main courtyard or on the riverside terrace without ever discovering the lift or staircase down. There follows a wander through the Lightwells, a deep narrow passageway around the perimeter of the fountain court. This looks like characters from a 17th century costume drama might pop out at any minute, apart from the security cameras, and the umbrellas that Amy's stashed in an alcove, and a small hole into a temporary tank full of murky brown Thames water.

The Museum of Water is dark within, so best acclimatise your eyes. Some minor stage-setting lurks to each side, but rest assured the buckets catching drips from the ceiling are real. The first proper exhibit is in the white chiller cabinet at the end of the corridor, inside which is a refrigerated glass cylinder. This is a slice of the Antarctic ice sheet, more specifically from the Dyer Plateau, collected in 1989 but originally laid down 200 years ago. Or at least it might once have been that, but I understand there's been a single unfortunate power supply interruption during the exhibition's tenure, so those feathery crystals may no longer be the genuine article.

The main body of the collection appears on a series of stacked shelves ahead in an assemblage of motley containers. On each are displayed bottles, jars, tubs and other containers filled or part-filled with water, some samples clear, others rather less so. Each has a handwritten label describing the contents, ranging from the practical to the prosaic. Pond water, water from a lost river, leftovers from the cat's bowl, swirly toothpaste spit, there's anything and everything. Several people appear to have raided their bird bath, and a lot have donated holy water from shrines across the world, and yes that darker orange stuff is quite possibly urine.

Explore the shelves, which are very loosely categorised, and several more personal tales are told. There's someone's breath from a walk across London, there's water from a temporary stand-pipe, there's water from a vase of Mothers' Day flowers, and there's "rainwater from the day we said goodbye to my brother". One particularly touching story comes from a lady whose doctor advised her never to swim again, so she went for one last swim across the bay and collected her bottleful from halfway, the point of no return. But that story's too long to fit on the label, you'll have to get one of the custodians to tell you.

There's always somebody on hand to collect fresh exhibits off visiting members of the public, and on a weekday that may be Amy herself. They'll get you to write a brief description, and also hopefully entice you into their recording booth to tell all into a microphone. If you've not brought something there's a separate room entitled "The Water We Would Have Brought" where you can make textual amends. I have an intriguing water sample from the 1980s I'd like to have left, only it is perhaps a bit dangerous for public display, and anyway I just had a dig through my spare room and I can't currently locate it.

Amy's collecting precious water over a two year period, and we're just over halfway through, so there may still be a chance to find her at some later Donation Day to hand yours in. But Somerset House is apparently the only place you'll ever see the whole lot together in one place, because after this week the Museum goes on intermittent tour in smaller chunks. Sorry to have left it so late before mentioning it, but you do still have time.
"I am aware that the Museum is a Sisyphan attempt to hold onto something that is going, a hoarding of objects and liquid in a century already filled with a crush of objects. The shape of the bottles on a shelf figures forth a graph of our water experience, encapsulated in bottles, mapping our feeling for water. I make no attempt to conserve the water. And relatively soon the collection will disappear (5 years, 10?), and become a collection of bottles, of ways we used to use water, of what it used to offer us." (Amy Sharrocks)
The Museum of Water
6-29 June 2014, 10am-6pm daily
Somerset House, London WC2R 1LA
Website/Catalogue/Events/Flickr

Also: The National Trust’s ‘Roman Bath’ at 5 Strand Lane will be open to the public every day during the run of Museum of Water (free guided tours at 11.30, 12.45 and 14.00)

 Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Around this time of year, as Wimbledon begins, it becomes harder and harder to find an empty tennis court. Fairweather players slip out to parks and recreation grounds to indulge their part-time hobby, before swiftly discovering they're not as talented as they thought by the time Finals day comes round. So it's good news for all of us that a brand new suite of tennis courts opened this weekend, and they've got plenty of space. I speak of course of the final piece in the jigsaw of London's Olympic sporting legacy, the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre. And if you missed hearing about its launch, I fear you're not alone. [12 photos]

The Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre is located at Eton Manor, at the very northern end of the Olympic Park beyond the Velodrome. No sports were based here during the Olympics, the bridge across the A12 was blocked off - instead the site came into its own during the Paralympics. Eton Manor was the bespoke venue for wheelchair tennis, an amazing sport where the only concession is that the ball's allowed to bounce twice. A few courts were set up, the largest surrounded by temporary grandstands, and a fully accessible clubhouse building plonked in the middle. It didn't get much use in 2012, but that's OK because the architects were planning ahead and applying the "build it once" philosophy. The main Paralympic tennis court has been replaced by an outdoor hockey pitch, with six tennis courts and another hockey pitch created on the remainder of the site. Throw in four indoor tennis courts and you have a venue that's thinking big, if not shouting loud.

The Centre was officially opened last Thursday, but threw open its doors to the public for the first time on Saturday with a free Family Fun Day. A few families turned up. I wandered in from Leyton, through the echoingly large car park, and woke up the ice cream man by requesting a 99. Tennis was underway on the outside courts, be that full size or distinctly mini (utilising giant blue inflatables). The emphasis was very much on participation, on getting kids involved in sport, and the sight would no doubt have warmed Seb Coe's heart. A camera crew wandered round taking shots that'd make the place look active, but there was plenty of room on the outside courts had you and yours turned up.

One admirable feature is the reinstatement of the Eton Manor war memorials in the plaza between the courts and the main entrance. This site originally belonged to the Eton Manor Boys' Club, established in the 1920s to provide sporting facilities for underprivileged local youth. Several met their deaths in World War II, and were proudly remembered in stone, one monolith carved with the words of Churchill beneath a two-finger salute. The memorial and its plaques were safely stashed during the Olympic upgrade, and now stand in a respectfully quiet corner where they can't be missed. Meanwhile Carol Ann Duffy has written a poem to remember the hope the original establishment brought to the area, and her words appear in gold on silver on three panels opposite the A12 bridge.

I'm not sure quite how open Saturday's Open Day was meant to be, but it felt like the staff were geared up to expect racket-bearing and stick-happy kids, not wandering adults. I pushed one door open to find myself in the corridor past the changing rooms, which I nipped past rapidly to peer into the indoor tennis hall. This is a huge space, easily divided into quarters, eighths and even sixteenths depending on the size of the players. The roof is supported by the largest single span glulam beams in Europe, each 40 metres long - a fact I know because the architects had left a pile of colour-stapled press releases on a table for Thursday's press launch, and nobody had thought to collect the leftovers. I'll quote their words without comment, I suspect there's no need.
"A series of intersecting blocks define the building, allowing various component units to be easily identified, whilst also emphasizing their interconnectedness to one other and to the place. The mass of the tennis hall, for example, sails above the horizontal roofline of the multifunctional room, whilst the new canopy assists in creating a sense of unity between the pitch, seating and building. The use of timber rainscreen for the tennis hall, moreover, connects its greater bulk with the landscaping beyond."
The proper public route inside the building is up the stairs to the hockey viewing area. Blimey that pitch is blue, much as appeared nearby during the Olympics but without the bright magenta surround. The rebranded pitch has Union Jack stripes in the corners, which is either a very smart touch or a means of upsetting international teams when they come to play. And there are several international hockey matches planned, including the European Hockey Championships next summer and the Women's World Cup in 2018. More pressingly the Investec Cup arrives in three weeks time, with ticket prices rising to £35 on the Sunday for a day of four consecutive finals.

Nothing so technically thrilling was taking place on Saturday. A game-and-a-half of something less than hockey was underway when I turned up, possibly Quicksticks which is a junior version designed to attract the under 11s and keep them fit. Again the centre's motives are laudable, and I suspect local schools are going to lap up the sporting opportunities that have suddenly appeared on their doorstep. But the crowds in the grandstands for the Open Day numbered barely twenty, mostly parents watching their offspring wearing themselves out. A pair of food vendors brought in to dispense Mom's Fabulous Hot Dogs to spectators went almost entirely untroubled, and the hospitality terrace overlooking Hackney Marshes was entirely vacant.

The marshes are looking good again, by the way, with the East Marsh almost restored from coach park to grass. This is fenced off at present to support final growth before the football season kicks in again, and a brand new elevated bank of terracing should provide spectators with an impressive overview. A connection has finally been made between the northern half of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and the surrounding roads, including the vibrantly orange footbridge and a long awaited path down to street level. I'm pleased to report that the wildflower mix is returning to Olympic levels of dazzle, not just here but in several other corners of the entire park. And blimey, doesn't the mountain bike course round these northern extremities look fun? Vegetation on the trails is still bedding in, but the strip north of Ruckholt Way is already striking. I watched two cyclists bump through the undergrowth, the first exclaiming "Wooo! Wooo! Wooo!" like some kind of saddled orgasm, until he reached the far end of the embankment and couldn't work out where the hell the circuit went next. Does anyone actually pay the official £6 for a mountain bike wristband, by the way? The VeloPark provides zero supervision in the more remote parts of the five mile circuit, which is the majority of it, so who'd not turn up and enjoy the thrills for nothing?

Anyway, as I said, the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre is now open, and offering taster sessions over the next week or so to attract punters in. Once properly up and running hockey sessions will cost about £4, while tennis court hire will cost rather more. The outdoor courts are priced at £10 an hour on summer weekends, or £8 off-peak, while the indoor courts rise to £20-£25 in the winter. A number of coaching sessions are available, for adults as well as for children, because the focus at LVHTC is rightly on improving talent. And disability tennis is a priority too, extending the Paralympic legacy in the hope of boosting our medal hopes in future Games. I think the venue will be a hard sell, because the Velodrome and Aquatic Centre have a much higher profile, and tennis and especially hockey are more easily overlooked. But hopefully the place will be a success, not just this summer but for decades to come.

 Monday, June 23, 2014



Yesterday, to celebrate the Year of the Bus, TfL laid on a cavalcade of buses in Regent Street. I didn't set out with the intention of photographing them all, but when I got home I realised I almost had. I missed one, and a few buses only appear in the background of another shot, but I had the vast majority up front and obstruction-free. So here they are, in order from 1 to 48, plus a few extra pictures (taken on Saturday) of the Lego Bus Stop outside Hamleys. If you couldn't get along on the day, I hope these give a flavour of this unique event.

My Regent Street Bus Cavalcade gallery
There are 52 photos altogether [slideshow]

I imagine the conversation to set up the event went something like this...
The Crown Estate: We'd like to close Regent Street to traffic every Sunday in July.
TfL: Only if we can close it on a Sunday in June and fill it with buses.
The Crown Estate: Deal.

Certainly a phenomenal amount of organisation went into making the day a success. 48 vehicles were selected to cover the ongoing evolution of the London bus. Several of the older buses had to be borrowed from museums or private collections elsewhere, although some of the newer lot were merely whisked out of service and given a damned good clean. A lot of them were stored overnight at Stockwell Bus Garage, where some of us had clambered over them the day before when the queues weren't quite so long. And one alas didn't turn up, that's bus number 39, the Optare City Pacer, one of the tiny minibuses that used to shuttle round the lanes outside Orpington in the 1980s. But that left four dozen vehicles to be manoeuvred carefully into precisely the right place outside the shops, and then the public were invited in to gawp.

Some, I'd say most, had come deliberately to see the buses. The usual contingent of Men Who Like Buses were here, a few clutching notebooks and walking up the line to cross them off. Although many of the MWLB were older, one suspects single, gentlemen, all age ranges were represented including a couple of knots of very keen teenagers and some small children already on course to become the bus-chasers of tomorrow. What made this event different was the mix of enthusiasts, families and tourists who just happened to be shopping in Regent Street at the time. "Oh my god look at all the buses!" they exclaimed as they stumbled in, and for a while the delights of the cavalcade quite took their mind off buying some new clothes, toys, coffee capsules or whatever.



This vibrant mix of sightseers created a more extreme version than usual of the perennial MWLB problem. Men Who Like Buses like nothing better than a clear view of a bus to take a photograph. Unfortunately other members of the public don't always share the same priorities, and will insist on wandering into shot or pausing to check their phones in the most inappropriate place. In certain locations a phalanx of lenses were lined up on a particular bus awaiting that magic gap in the flow, and you could hear mutterings of abject frustration when a family dawdled into shot just as everything else cleared. Worse, several untrained visitors were interested only in taking selfies, or positioning their offspring or their other half immediately in front of the driver's cab. It may be the modern way, but much passive aggressive seething ensued.

The age range of the buses included in the cavalcade is interesting, as much for what wasn't there as for what was. Bus number 1, pulled by two rather splendid white horses, dated back to 1829, but then there was nothing for almost a century until the appearance of the first motorbus in 1908. The newly restored Battle Bus was the sole representative of the 1910s, and I think we deserve a list to show how the subsequent distribution by decade panned out.

Number of buses on show from each decade
1900s1910s1920s1930s1940s1950s1960s1970s1980s1990s2000s2010s
114668652008

The cavalcade's creators had managed to pull together about half a dozen buses per decade from the 1920s to the 1970s, with peak representation in the 1950s mainly because several types of Routemaster were chosen. But only two buses were plucked from the 1980s, and one of these you'll remember failed to turn up. And there was absolutely nothing in Regent Street from the 1990s or 2000s, this possibly because TfL weren't particularly proud of their bus stock, or maybe because they're not yet old enough to look appealingly vintage. No bendy bus was showcased, for example, but TfL were more than keen to show us all their latest cutting edge vehicles; electric hybrids, hydrogen powered single deckers, and of course the 'New Routemaster'.

Three New Routemasters were positioned at the Oxford Circus end of Regent Street. You might think that overkill, but in fact these had some of the longest queues to get aboard anywhere down the street. I put this down to the aesthetic allure of the vehicle, which is consistently admired, plus the fact they don't serve the suburbs which means that most Londoners have yet to see inside. One of the new vehicles was genuinely a bus of the future, scheduled to start next weekend on Route 8 from Bow, which provided me with a sneak preview of my new local bus service (odd smell inside, check; rather warm on the upper deck, check). I made sure to check out the metal plaque halfway up the stairs, which declares this a New Routemaster, whereas the plaque on the silver bus behind was screwed in with the original 2012 name, the New Bus For London. But the original New Routemaster could be found further back down the street, that's RM5 from 1959, proudly emblazoned with precisely this name on a panel above the rear numberplate, which must have TfL's modern branding gurus in a spin.



There was plenty more to see up and down the cavalcade, not just buses to admire. The TfL Choir popped out every hour and sang a selection of old songs, encouraging those watching to join in. Emma Hignett, the voice of modern iBus announcements, was on hand to record your choice of words into your mobile phone. The LT pop-up canteen was on hand to serve up fish burgers and raspberry doughnuts, and a rather sweaty-looking pigeon performed to keep the youngest visitors amused. Meanwhile outside Hamleys the temporary Lego Bus Stop was thronging with delighted folk, in complete contrast to Saturday when the ordinary travelling public had barely noticed it at all. Yes it really is all made of plastic blocks, even the timetable surround, and the mock Countdown display, and the seats. If you haven't seen it yet, you have four weeks.

Hidden inside the ordinariest-looking bus of all, a plain old number 12 from Dulwich, were some new bits of onboard technology which TfL boffins are testing. One set-up uses the on-board CCTV to count the precise number of empty seats on the upper deck and then displays their location on a panel downstairs to attract passengers up top. Stand up and the number rises, sit down and the number drops - it's very clever, and it almost works. Another innovation, again accompanied by its project manager, was a real-time map that shows the bus's progress towards the next three stops and estimated time of arrival. If this were funded and rolled out (and fully visible from more than just a small part of the lower deck) it might change your commute. Ian has the full details here, or just try to hunt down the prototype vehicle in south London.

It was a privilege yesterday to be able to wander forwards and backwards along the London bus timeline, and to experience how the capital's public transport workhorse has developed and evolved over the years. It was also a joy to share the enthusiasm of those involved in running the day, from the vehicles' owners and smiling stewards to the lowliest volunteers handing out leaflets and stickers. And best of all, on a personal note, was the opportunity to step inside a 1953 vintage Guy Special which was my favourite bus as a child. It inspired me to decide that the job I most wanted when I grew up was to drive one, and I wrote a particularly excruciating piece in an infant school exercise book that my family still like to rib me about. Finally, more than 40 years later, I slipped into the driving seat of my dream vehicle to discover that, oh, it was all a bit basic and uncomfortable really, and probably a lot more hard work than my romantic mind had imagined. I'm happy to have left the job of bus driver to the experts, and I'm pleased to thank all the experts who helped organise such a memorable one-off experience for us all yesterday.



 Sunday, June 22, 2014

Stockwell Bus Garage is one of London's finest concrete structures. It was built on a bomb site after the war, and when it opened in 1952 it boasted the largest unsupported area under one roof in Europe. Steel was hard to come by at the time, so concrete was deemed the way to go, and it was used in an entirely cutting-edge way. The building was designed without internal pillars to create as large an parking space as possible, and 200 buses could be fitted into the space within.
The 393 ft (120 m) long roof structure is supported by ten very shallow "two-hinged" arched ribs. Each rib is 7 ft (2.1 m) deep at the centre of the arches, 10 ft 6 in (3.20 m) at the end, and spans 194 ft (59 m) Cantilevered barrel vaults between, topped by large skylights, span the 42 ft (13 m) between each pair of ribs. The vaults are crossed by smaller ribs to prevent torsion. Seen from the outside, the main arches are visible as outward-leaning buttresses, with a segmental curve to each bay forming a flowing roof line.
It's Grade II* listed, obviously, as befits such a bravura piece of architecture. And it's a working bus garage, so there's no way you'll get inside, not unless you're one of Go-Ahead London's 770 staff. Not unless there's an Open Day, that is, or you hide on the upper deck of a bus after its last stop and sneak your way in (not recommended). A very rare Open Day occurred yesterday as part of TfL's Year Of The Bus celebrations, allowing mere mortals to get inside and worship at the altar of the gods of reinforced concrete. Thousands turned up, which was good to see, although the great majority of them seemed to have no time to look up. They came for the buses, and stared at them, swarmed over them and took copious photographs of them, because this was a bus garage open day and many of the vehicles inside were heritage classics. But the loveliness of the roof probably passed most of them by, or at least that's how it seemed. [25 photos]



Parked up inside the entrance on Lansdowne Way was TfL's latest very special project, the B-type Battle Bus. They've restored this century-old stalwart specifically to take part in commemorations of the Great War. A thousand such motorbuses were sent to the front to transport troops to and from the frontline, and this bus is due to be heading back to France and Belgium later this year. It has a phenomenally steep rear staircase, especially coming back down from the top deck, and a straw-thin handrail that'd never pass a modern health and safety audit. It is a lovely vehicle, though, and I enjoyed the warning signs on the open top that read "Do Not Lean Over The Side Of The Omnibus Otherwise You May Receive Some Hurt".

A very large number of other buses were parked up beyond, several of which you'll be able to see parked up on Regent Street today as part of the one-off Bus Cavalcade. Many of those on show at Stockwell were RTs and Routemasters, as you'd expect, including special variations of the above that those in the know fussed and preened over. There were several later vehicles too, including those squared-off buses that ruled the capital in the 80s, and a Red Arrow complete with space for two turnstiles in the days before flat fares could be paid by Oyster. And the assembled collection ran right up to date with the special "New Routemaster" vehicle resprayed silver to celebrate the Year Of The Bus (which I noticed had a metal plaque bolted halfway up the stairs that read "New Bus For London 2012", so enough of your rebranding charade TfL, I believe none of it).

Some of the buses were closed off, or barricaded with tape, but others you could step inside. I walked into one and was instantly transported back to mundane journeys in the Watford area circa nineteen seventy something. One woman had slipped into the driver's seat of something older and was proudly taking a selfie to share. Small children were being shown how things used to be, although they were few in number, as indeed were the female of the species. Something about an event in a bus garage brings out the male enthusiast, often with notebook in hand, and they were well catered for around the perimeter.

If you needed a photo of a provincial bus service, or a heritage coach badge, or a boxed model omnibus, this was the place. Folk were flicking through the memorabilia for the chance to add to their home collection, some collecting bagfuls to augment their stash. One enterprising seller had even bagged up sets of the five current (free) London bus maps and was attempting to sell them for £1.50, but he was being mostly shunned. I will confess to having bought a pair of 1965 bus maps, purely for research purposes you understand, but I resisted walking off with a line diagram rescued from outgoing Metropolitan line A Stock.

As an added bonus, various buses appeared at regular intervals outside the main entrance to take passengers for a ride. One such trip was through the bus wash, for those who've always wanted to know what it's like to pass through the whirling brushes at upper deck level. And the other was a rather longer sightseeing tour into central London and back in a vintage vehicle, including the sights of Westminster Bridge and the Vauxhall gyratory. It was fun to pull up in traffic alongside tourists who'd paid a fortune to ride in a less interesting sightseeing bus, and to spin round Parliament Square just before it was clogged off by an anti-austerity demo.

Back at Stockwell Bus Garage, a happy crowd were still milling around admiring the buses. But if they didn't look up, they missed out.

My Stockwell Bus Garage gallery
There are 25 photos altogether [slideshow]

» Some other visitors' photos
» Bus Cavalcade in Regent Street (today, 11.30am-6pm) (52 photos)
» Other depot open days: Fulwell (28 June), Potters Bar (5 July), Walworth (19 July), Dartford (7 Sept)
» Routemaster 60: Finsbury Park (12-13 July)

 Saturday, June 21, 2014

THE NORTH CIRCULAR BY BUS (epilogue)
Route 101: Wanstead - North Woolwich

Length of journey: 8 miles, 50 minutes [map]

My North Circular bus journey left the North Circular in Woodford, where a very modern road careers down the Roding valley towards Beckton. But before that elevated highway was opened, specifically before 1987, the North Circular followed much more ordinary streets. Specifically it left the current route at Waterworks Corner and then followed what's now the A104, A114, A116 and A117. To save you checking, that's past Whipps Cross, across Wanstead Flats, through the heart of East Ham and down to the ferry at North Woolwich. And there's a bus that does pretty much exactly that (apart from the first couple of miles and a tiny bit at the end), so that's my last ride... down the old North Circular on the 101. And it only takes only half an hour, apparently, according to some laughable piece of fiction called the timetable.

If you're the commemorative type, the 101 celebrates its centenary this year. You've missed that, because it was in March, but a century's a long time for what sounds like such a peripheral service. Not so, indeed the 101 was once London's most frequent bus service with more than 60 vehicles an hour serving the southern section at peak times. That's a measure of how integrally important the Royal Docks at Woolwich used to be, and my considerably quieter ride will hint at how far the mighty have fallen.

Wanstead is one of East London's more chichi hideaways, as its run of boutiques and restaurants makes clear. That's partly because the government went to extraordinary lengths to hide the arterial road that ought to have destroyed the place, hiding the A12 beneath a thin layer of village green that doubles as a tunnel roof. The 101 shadows this rumbling canyon before breaking across the first bridge to follow Blake Hall Road. Watch out for the big white gateposts on the left, a) because they used to be the entrance to Wanstead House, and b) because they mark the point where the old North Circular joins the route. It's remarkably green out here, with a southern outpost of Epping Forest to one side and a sports ground and golf course to the other.

The City of London have made sure that the ancient expanse of Wanstead Flats remains very well preserved, bar some occasional pockets of residential development. One of these is Aldersbrook, a splendid and secluded Edwardian development of leafy avenues, where one suspects only people in the know have ever thought to live. The 101 skirts the northern edge of the heath, the less gorse-y bit, with a glorious view across major dog-walking space towards Docklands, the City and Stratford's first skyscraper. We stop by the fish and chip shop opposite the lake, where a man gets on and sprawls himself across the other top front seat. Within a minute he has sneezed with an unshielded whoosh that I can only hope is hayfever, particularly when I feel the weight of one tiny droplet of something landing on my arm. As we pass the entrance to the City of London Cemetery, I wish him gone.

Outside Manor Park station a bus numbered 474 is parked up. This too will be following the old North Circular for the next few miles, indeed all the way to the end, because the route was introduced in 1999 to shadow the 101 and ease its load. I could jump horses here, but it seems more proper to remain on the original for the long run down through Newham. By now it's late afternoon, and most of the shops along Station Road are either shuttered, shutting or shut. Ahead is East Ham's considerable high street, which is so long that it's had to be split into a mile of High Street North and a mile of High Street South. This top end's a Lebara and Lycamobile kind of place, lined by little shops that dispense sarees and halal, money transfers and gold, grilled chicken and bowls of fruit. My favourite sign reads PLEASE DO NOT PRESS THE MANGO THANKYOU, but I suspect at street level there are many more.

Only beyond the tube station do the national chains begin, kicking off with a glut of betting shops and a Lidl. Marks and Spencer abandoned the area five years ago, correctly, because I suspect most of those heading home are much happier to have a Poundland and a Poundworld than the old Penny Bazaar. Looking down from my bubble on the top deck, where I'm somehow now the only passenger, I try hard to imagine a time when the scene below was both a thriving retail centre and the main road to the docks. The street now seems too narrow, at least compared to the multi-lane highways I've ridden earlier, but time was when traffic simply crawled through town and we put up with it. As if to reinforce the point all southbound traffic is suddenly shifted off onto a parallel road, a modern bypass running along the back of Primark and the tenaciously independent East Ham Market Hall.

Attempting to filter right out of the Barking Road takes ages, and hence we pull up beneath the brick clocktower of East Ham Town Hall as the bell within dings five. And here we wait, initially I assume because potential passengers are being awkward, but then I realise because we're changing drivers. This is a shame, because the new bloke turns out to have a decidedly reticent driving style, soon demonstrating behaviour which makes me assume he's trying desperately hard not to get to the end of the route too quickly. He's the type who'll pull off deliberately just before the lights ahead turn red, or drive at 10mph in a 20mph zone, or pull over at a stop where nobody's waiting purely to flap the doors open for a few impotent seconds. He'll not be getting a "thanks" from me when I alight.

High Street South has more of a residential vibe, and a proper cultural mix... exemplified by the occasional pub surviving and thriving, and draped with numerous St George's flags. The old North Circular runs down the side of Central Park, more Victorian in feel than its New York namesake, and on past tree-lined avenues of terraced townhouses. Whoever built the pebbledashed quadrant apartment block opposite the fire station needs a good telling off, but the rest of the surrounding housing stock isn't bad, and 12th century St Mary Magdalene's at the far end (said to be the oldest surviving parish church in London) is an unexpected treat.

If you want a proper road, the A13 Newham Way is it. The new North Circular terminates at a roundabout half a mile to the east, whereas the old queues apologetically to cross the stream of traffic in fits and starts beneath a concrete viaduct. Everything ahead used to be undeveloped marshland leading up to the Royal Docks, that is until the LDDC came along in the 1980s and built its first large housing estate at Beckton. The 101 now serves this residential influx, although every house has space for a car so most locals prefer to drive everywhere instead. We pass the slagheap heights of Beckton Alps, alas no longer a dry ski slope, and pull into the new bus station outside the not-very-nice Asda. Our last fresh contingent of passengers are clearly heading for the far better retail offer at Gallions Reach, but I'm alighting a few stops early because the old North Circular heads instead to the river.

A few minutes on the 474 are required, past a corner of Beckton as yet undeveloped and then across the uplifting Sir Steve Redgrave Bridge. The view from here down the full length of the Royal Albert Dock is one of the best in London, with Docklands and the City perfectly aligned at the far end, and maybe an aeroplane touching down at City Airport alongside. And so we approach the old North Circular's last hurrah, past the peaceful green of Royal Victoria Gardens and left into Pier Road, at the end of which the Woolwich Ferry departs. Alas it wasn't running on Saturday afternoon because of mechanical problems, which was a shame because it meant any drivers who'd got this far down the North Circular had essentially wasted their journeys. As they turned back and demanded a satnav detour, I stared across the Thames to the opposite pier where the A205 South Circular begins. One day I'll travel the length of that too, but that's a dozen buses (at least) all the way to Gunnersbury, so I think I'd best spare you the detail.



» route 101 - timetable
» route 101 - bus map
» route 101 - live bus map
» route 101 - route history
» route 101 - The Ladies Who Bus


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