Route 398: Ruislip - Wood End Length of journey: 6 miles, 45 minutes [map]
The danger of riding a randomLondon bus route is that you don't always hit the jackpot. The 398 is more of a booby prize, an insignificant outer suburban route through genteel swathes of Hillingdon and Harrow. It doesn't even run on Sundays, one of a couple of dozen TfL services that share this lowly status. But it is an important community link, and has the peculiarity that it shadows one particular tube line for five consecutive stations, nearly six. If nothing else I'm hoping you're going to read to the end simply because you have no idea where 'Wood End' might be, though prepare to be disappointed.
Ruislip's rather nice, if you've never been, the quintessential Metroland suburb amid an ocean of avenues. I'm expecting the chance to explore, given that the 398 is timetabled to run only every 30 minutes and I've just missed one. But no, the next bus has been held inexplicably late at the first stop, so I'm able to hop aboard immediately before it departs and thus see nothing of the immediate area. My travelling companions include a lady in a bobble hat knitted from every leftover bright colour in the box, and a younger woman clutching a Subway cup attempting to take a selfie without getting me in shot behind. I hope she succeeded.
Our first stop is at the shopping parade by Ruislip Manor station. I don't think I've ever been here before - one of the joys of taking a random bus ride - else I suspect I'd remember the railway bridge with RUISLIP MANOR elegantly stencilled in New Johnston across its span. We've travelled barely 400m down the road since Ruislip, indeed this is one of the shortest gaps between tube stations in outer London, but I'm still surprised when half the passengers on board immediately alight. I could have walked the gap in barely five minutes, which makes waiting for a half-hourly bus seem somewhat extreme, but I need to remember that at least one of the people nipping off might be far less nimble than they appear. The departed are immediately replaced.
A bumper to bumper jam of cars is attempting to head in the opposite direction down Victoria Road, but our passage is clear, and anyway we're about to turn off. Ahead is a Betjemanesque backwater of gabled semis and allotments, of early blossom and streets named after towns in Somerset. Three bubbly girls flag us down, checking their hair as they locate a seat, while at the next stop a much older lady boards much more slowly and the driver waits perfectly patiently before pulling off. I'm struck that almost everybody on board is either under 18 or over 65, outer London's core car-free demographic, and that age-wise I am the clear odd one out.
Turning back onto a main road two increasingly familiar things happen. Firstly we pass through a shopping parade, this our third already, which means bank/dry cleaners/pizzeria/estate agent/Chinese/hair salon/etc. Secondly we pass a tube station, this being Eastcote, which is precisely the reason a shopping parade is long established here. And thirdly almost everybody gets off. The 398 is evidently optimised for short hops, skilled at delivering the local populace from home to tube or shops, and almost nobody wants to go much further. Hence at Eastcote our passenger clientèle turns over once again, before we head onwards out of Hillingdon into Harrow.
Hedges and wheelie bins, bungalows and daffs, these are the sights of the cross-border hinterland. The occasional pre-Metroland lane cuts through the residential street pattern, a spacious green grid of Drives, Avenues and Closes. And then we're up to Rayners Lane, our fourth (and finest) Piccadilly line station, which of course means another load of shops. This cluster is fairly substantial, with a choice of supermarkets and takeaways, and boasting a semi-Tudorbethan vibe. Alas the Rayners public house is boarded up awaiting apartment-isation, hopefully not into something as garish as the four storey scarlet monstrosity nextdoor, while the local Art Deco cinema thankfully survives as a Zoroastrian fire-temple.
Alexandra Avenue is a broad leafy boulevard with segregated cycle lanes, laid years before they were trendy, and lined by a series of Courts instead of individual houses. I'm surprised that the 398 is only bus that goes this way, but this fact perhaps explains the increasing numbers on board, climbing past two dozen and topping thirty as we progress. The other explanation is the fifth tube station and set of shops we're heading inexorably towards, deliberately heading out of our way to target South Harrow. This is the least demure of the high streets so far, a much more multicultural mix, into which the entire complement of those on board disgorges apart from me.
Turning round to go back the other way is now essential, and this is achieved by pulling into the "bus station" by the railway bridge and pulling straight out again - there is no scheduled stop. And as we pull in opposite the previous drop-off point, what might be the final complement of passengers waits to board. Again they're the folk who've been to town or been shopping and now seek to head home, indeed the 398 has felt like a chain of brief pick-ups and drop-offs along its entire route. Bags bulging they settle into their seats for no more than ten minutes, and the kettle'll be on in fifteen.
Northolt Park boasts the only non-tube station we'll be passing, and a miserably low frequency Chiltern service. Outside Asda a young girl wearing Dame Edna-style spectacles is eating a bag of Quavers, and bounds aboard followed later by her laden Mum. We round a large verdant roundabout at the top of Petts Hill, and then another past the fire station (and the delightfully named Sheridan Terrace). And here goes with the 398's last hurrah, an off-grid climb past gabled pebbledash semis over intermittent speed bumps. If this is Wood End Lane leading to Wood End Gardens leading to Wood End Close, we must be very close to our destination.
So, Wood End, it's sort of north of Greenford and south of Roxeth, not that this is geographically particularly helpful. And whilst much of the housing is inter-war, the final estate is very much post-, with blockier flats and suddenly no front gardens to speak of. All the streets are named after famous sportswomen and men - the ladies get the better deal, with our penultimate stop at Mary Peters Drive and our last by Tessa Sanderson Way. It's the first time our ride has looked more Sun and Mirror than Mail and Express, and perhaps therefore more affordable. The driver is circling the estate to return towards Ruislip, but that'll do me, and a walk through the woods to Sudbury Hill closes the Piccadilly line connection.