Next time you're in need of something to do, why not pick a random number between 1 and 499 and then ride that London bus route from end to end? What with getting to the first stop, making the journey and taking a look round at the far end, that's an entire afternoon sorted.
Route 194: Lower Sydenham - West Croydon Length of journey: 11 miles, 67 minutes [map]
The 194 starts off at Bell Green, which might sound charming but is in fact a retail park one mile to the south of Catford. It used to be a gasworks, as the two remaining huge circular holders attest, but in 1995 was remodelled into an out-of-town shopping centre anchored by Sainsbury's last ever SavaCentre hypermarket. All the shops on Bell Green's nearby parade promptly went bust, but hey, that's progress, and now there's B&Q, Next and Toys R Us to suck a wider area dry. I join the laden shoppers at the third of three non-standard shelters, most with carrier bags but at least one with half an office in a box, while a beady crow eyes us up for size. Eventually our bus U-turns from the stand and on we get, the lady in front of me waving her contactless card twice before giving up and rapidly switching back to Oyster instead.
The first stop is near The Bell, the pub on the gyratory that presumably gave the area its name. Here two lads in hooded anoraks board clutching tiny pizza takeout boxes, which they proceed to bring to the seat immediately behind mine and then open, adding additional smelly sauce to taste. They won't be staying long, thank god, but when they do alight they walk straight out in front of the bus to wait for a gap in the traffic, preventing us from leaving, and I realise it was indeed possible to hate them a little more.
It being a Saturday, the traffic up Sydenham's main shopping street is almost at a standstill. Our driver ignores a bus lane to wait in the queue before the lights, which delays us by three reds and two greens thanks to a particularly crowded yellow box. There's plenty of time to enjoy the shop names on the ascent, including the Carnival Emporium and The Lovely Gallery, as well as a surfeit of Caribbean eateries exemplified by Jerk Night and Jerk Garden. A few old houses and pubs break the modern homogeneity, ditto the mosaics on The Sydenham Centre, as the Crystal Palace TV mast looms above the road ahead. Fifteen minutes into the ride and we've barely gone a mile - sorry, but that's the way it is.
Thie 194 goes well out of its way on its journey to west Croydon, starting with a break for Penge. If you've not experienced this legendary suburb before you need to know it's much like Sydenham, except in Bromley rather than Lewisham. As we pass Penge East station a small boy dangling a plastic bag full of popcorn gestures wildly at the bus to encourage us to stop, as if we might perhaps leave his family behind. No chance. Soon afterwards a passenger on the top deck blares out something from his phone I've never experienced on a bus before. Normally it's some teen with tinny R&B, but in this case a pastor's sermon can be clearly heard, discussing funerals and decrying the demon drink. I note in passing that there are several enthusiastic-looking churches in Penge, at least one in a row of garages, and another in a former pub.
Penge proper merges swiftly into Beckenham, and our first encounter with a tram. By alighting here and taking light rail I could have reached my destination twice as quickly, but then the 194 is never about speed. We also pass Clock House station, or Clockhouse as the signage outside incorrectly states, before merely grazing Beckenham town centre by the Odeon. The houses are more desirable now, pairs of large semis with an oddly triangular outline, as befits a suburb which exploded in the later 1900s. The road towards Elmers End is even nicer, being rather more Edwardian, and because we turn off before we get to Tesco. The break takes place by the half-timbered shopping parade overlooking the pseudo-village green, beside a Thai restaurant that's definitely in someone's former front room.
It's time for another lively passenger, or four, as a family with two small children and a buggy manoeuvre themselves aboard. Daddy is stuck downstairs with the toddler, but Mummy brings pre-school Ollie upstairs for some quality time. "Shall we sit here?" she says loudly, hoping we two gentlemen hogging the two front seats will move, then nabs her prize seconds after the other gatecrasher departs. "Wow the roof of the bus stop is so high!" squeals Ollie. "Don't lick the seat!" Mum replies. An existential debate then ensues as Ollie queries why the electronic lady has announced a third stop called Eden Park ("Why isn't there only one?") while downstairs Daddy has to battle for space when two further buggies invade. I miss them greatly when they're gone.
West Wickham is the quintessential outer London suburb - a nicer version of Eltham - and somewhere I have somehow managed never to visit before. Its avenues and crescents were laid out in the 1930s, attracting better off middle class commuters to what was then Kent, and it's evident that their successors remain. Whether you need hat hire, independent electrical goods or M&S Food, there's no need to take the 194 anywhere else. As for the boarded-up tapas restaurant at the bottom of the High Street, the Residents Association remains up in arms at plans to transform it into a KFC drive-thru, because that's very non-West Wickham, but it is a bit more Shrublands.
The 194 deviates deliberately from the Wickham Road to serve the nether reaches of the Spring Park estate. We drive up a leafy boulevard past semi-detached castles inner Londoners can only dream of, to a turning circle just short of the postwar council estate lurking in the trees. Here we exchange a few less prosperous passengers, but it's noticeable on our return flight that nobody in the better houses stops to board or alight. Along the upper avenue I'd swear a few of the cherry trees are beginning to blossom, which is our insane winter for you, while two cars in one particular front garden appear to be completely covered in snow, which on closer inspection turns out to be merely foam.
We head back to the heart of Shirley, a suburb with a big girl's name, which boasts the Shirley Pop Inn Cafe, the Shirley Fish Bar and The Shirley Inn. Our driver appears to be desperate to make up time, and takes advantage of a brief dual carriageway for a burst of speed. Before long we're entering the edge of Croydon at Addiscombe, which means a second (and rather more prolonged) encounter with Tramlink. Past Sandilands the tramlines dominate at a particularly complex six-way junction, where there's a roadsign so chronologically complex that I'm wholly uncertain whether cars are currently allowed on the road-cum-tracks ahead, but our driver is, nipping swiftly into a bus stop partway along to allow a tram to pass.
After an hour we've finally reached Croydon, but this is East Croydon and we terminate at West. What's more the traffic lights appear to have been synchronised so heavily in favour of other streams of traffic that passing the station and entering the town centre takes a ridiculously long time. A string of buses turns right above the underpass, a tram threads through, then another chain of buses processes up the side, and oh come on, it might have been quicker to walk the last bit. Finally we hit the sub-Manhattan boulevard of Wellesley Road, where the Whitgift shoppers alight, leaving only me and a napping teen on board. Oh, and West Croydon bus station is still closed, with rebirth not due until the summer, so please get out here and find your own way to the trains. As random bus rides go, I'd say a strong contender.