Route 493: Tooting - Richmond Length of journey: 13 miles, 95 minutes [map]
My next randomLondon bus route is relatively new, hence the very high number. Its single deckers started threading across southwest London as recently as 2002, during which time the 493 has been run by as many as five different companies. The route is long and indirect, in places tortuous, and there is no logical reason why anyone other than the driver would ever want to ride the entire length. So to avoid looking a bit weird I decided to get off a lot, and take a look around before boarding a later service with a different driver. That is still pretty weird, isn't it?
St George's Hospital: The 493 launches inside the grounds of Tooting's biggest hospital, between the breast clinic and the oxygen silos. It's not an uplifting spot, the interiors of the buildings perform that function, and it's best the NHS's money isn't spent on architectural flourish. High above, a new helipad serves the London Air Ambulance; down below, a girl emerges from the wards in a wheelchair so her mum can have a smoke. A Spaniard called Guillermo has taped his phone number to the pay and display machine beside the bus stand, hoping to hook up with anyone who'd like to improve their language skills. A few nurses walk by, a few vans go past, the daffodils are doing their best.
The driver seems a little surprised to see me, because anybody boarding here hasn't thought things through. The bus is about to orbit the hospital once, then orbit it again, so I'd be much better off walking a short distance down the road and catching the bus ahead. He has a danish pastry stashed away in a plastic bag on the ledge behind the steering wheel, and is revving the engine for the off. We follow the narrow service road around the medical fortress, sealed off on more sides than seems strictly necessary, (not) stopping at four further stops on the circuit. The visitors' car park is rammed full, but seemingly nobody takes the bus. Escape comes a few steps away from where I got on, emerging into streets of Tooting terraces where a traffic warden is busy eyeing up potential offenders. Our first passenger flags us down by Doris Florist, Mothers' Day a speciality, on her brief trip to the shops on Tooting Broadway. At Sainsbury's the bus suddenly gets busy, and stays that way, as we drive on down the Cycle Superhighway (which is of the original useless "totally blockable by a bus" design). Turning right yet one more time our outer circuit of the hospital is almost complete, indeed we passed within 30 metres of the next bus stop over ten minutes ago. My word Lambeth Cemetery is long, we shadow it all the way to Summerstown before actually turning left for once, where we become the only bus along Plough Lane.
Wimbledon Stadium: The 20th century lingers on, for now, in this light industrial corner of Merton. This is the last greyhound stadium in anything vaguely resembling inner London, still running the hare every Thursday and Saturday night, and hosting regular stock car and speedway racing to boot. Its exterior looks less appealing in the middle of the day, rising behind a car dealership, the main entrance concealed off-road up a tarmac expanse. The stadium's car park is vast, recalling long-gone days when size was important. The top end is now used for a Saturday car boot sale, nigh all packed away by the time I arrive, not that the gentleman with the collecting box was ever going to let me in for nothing. Expect all of this to be swept away soon. The stadium is part-owned by a housing developer, and they have plans for 600 homes to be crammed onto the site as well as a complete revamp of the stadium to allow AFC Wimbledon to move in. It'd be a true amateur triumph to bring the Dons home, but only at the expense of three sports London looks likely to see the back of.
This is the driver changeover point for route 493, a manoeuvre swiftly completed allowing a new contingent of passengers to board. One has three large bags, which is slightly optimistic in the circumstances, and makes a not exactly hilarious comment about Tooting being the other way when he hears a car horn outside. Immediately across the River Wandle we pass the site of Wimbledon FC's original stadium, now very much flats, although the six constituent blocks are at least named after former players, managers and a chairman. On the back seat of the bus a father is busy indoctrinating his five year-old son into The Football, drilling into him "the last time we were in the 4th round" and "that time we beat Cardiff". Crossing the District line we pass a long thin Waitrose (and a long thin car park) hemmed in beside the railway, because 21st century building land round here was evidently scarce. Which brings us to Wimbledon proper, and a minor tour of the one-way system whilst almost entirely avoiding the main shops.
Elys: Wimbledon's independent department store landed on St George's Road in 1876, and hasn't stumbled yet. Elys could still be 1996 inside, in a good way, if you'd ever feared that the traditional department store experience had disappeared. In prime position on the ground floor are the smellies, and the immaculate ladies who'd like to tempt you to buy a bottle, along with seasonal reductions on unfashionable hats and a selection of Spanx power panties. Those interested in children's footwear should make a beeline for the Tots To Teens Shoe Lounge, while the facially substandard may have need of the Eye Candy Brow and Lash Bar. Valentine's giftware is at half price or less on the second floor (in most cases you can see why), alongside the Pots & Pans department whose finest wares hang from the ceiling in a metallic cloud. Watch out too for the full-size Lego R2D2 at the top of the escalator, and perfectly folded piles of on-brand knitwear, and the helpful staff in smart jackets - you don't get anything like the Elys experience sat shopping online.
Back on the 493 the retail crowds are gathering, with Wimbledon Hill Road enough of an ascent that many take the bus rather than climb it on foot. One boy boards carrying a racket, because this is SW19, except it's for badminton so doesn't properly count. As the bus fills up one semi-elderly gentleman hogs his double seat by facing away from the aisle and defiantly holding the Daily Mail magazine he's reading above the vacant space. At the top of the climb is bijou Wimbledon Village, because the upmarket often live uphill, their local shopping parade packed with antiques, boutiques and everything chic. Even The Ivy is on its way, their new cafe outpost due to open near the clocktower in June, all perfectly timed for the tennis. And that's where we're heading next, veering off into the adjacent residential avenues and speeding down to the epicentre of game, set and match.
Wimbledon Tennis Club: Alighting outside the main entrance, I reckon I should have time to walk round the club before the next bus arrives. I reckon wrong, an entire circuit on foot takes half an hour, perfectly long enough to miss the next two buses and face a miserably wet wait for the third. A tale I'll save until tomorrow, because there's still well over half of the 493's journey to go, if you can bear the wait.