Route 51: Woolwich - Orpington Location: London southeast, outer Length of journey: 12 miles, 1 hour 50 minutes
It's traditional that every birthday I take a numerically significant bus journey, so here I go again. Nine years ago I took the 42 to Dulwich, eight years ago the 43 to Barnet, seven years ago the 44 to Tooting, six years ago the 45 to Clapham, five years ago the 46 to Farringdon, four years ago the 47 to Bellingham, three years ago the 48 to Walthamstow, two years ago the 49 to Battersea, and last year the 50 to Croydon. This year, for my tenth trip, it's the 51 to Orpington. And, sheesh, it's possibly the lengthiest London bus journey I've ever taken.
Twelve miles heading due south begin Thamesside on Woolwich High Street, near Berkeley's enormous waterfront development. Specifically that's opposite the Waterfront Leisure Centre, more specifically outside the Han Long Chinese takeaway (whose menu contains 336 different dishes, only three of which are desserts, all of them fritters). The bus takes a while to arrive, and when it does it's wildly steamed up from its previous shopper-packed journey. I make the mistake of boarding, only to discover that the view from the upper deck is a misty blur and I'm not going to be able to write a thing about the journey. Thankfully the 51 kickstarts its journey via a contorted ride around the under-redeveloped corners of Woolwich, so I'm able to nip off after a few stops, walk back to the beginning and try again.
Right, that's better, indeed the view from the second vehicle is pretty much perfect, which is just as well given how long we're going to be spending together. This time I can clearly see the unloved Victorian civic buildings and the empty M&S, before the first block of shiny flats heralds a brief visit to 21st century Woolwich. It may be drizzly, but one lost soul still appears engrossed in the BBC News report shining forth from Big Brother's giant electronic screen in the landscaped square, while others hurry by.
Dozens of passengers board at stops through the town centre, it being peak shopping hours during my journey, most with dangling plastic carriers but some with bulging gym bags instead. It doesn't take long before downstairs is rammed, not that I can see this, but I deduce it when a small child comes bounding up the stairs exclaiming "Mummy, there's space up here!" But Mummy is going nowhere, the change of level doesn't suit, so the small child swiftly retreats to standing room only.
The streets immediately ahead could at worst be called drear and rundown, at best affordable. But a slow climb leads to Plumstead Common Road and rather finer stock, because the well-to-do always gravitate towards a loftier elevation. A gaggle of out-of-schoolgirls bound upstairs and proceed to gush excitedly about their lives. Within a couple of stops they're ringing boys with brazen ultimatums - "Do you want to go out with Ellie O'Hearne, she's on the bus with me, or else she'll never speak to you again" - and getting results, a date is fixed.
We wait for ages under the Tudor clocktower at Carpet Corner, as football and tai chi break out on the common alongside. Plumstead's ice age ravine is well worth exploring if you've never been, behind which (because it's winter) an extensive panorama across the Thames can be seen through a lattice of branches. Breaking away down winding terraced streets we pass a group of a dozen smartly-dressed canvassers in full knocking-on-doors mode - perhaps they're religious, or perhaps they're Mayoral campaigners, it's impossible to be sure.
Thus far we've been making good time, but Welling is where things start going wrong. Rail services aren't especially prolific in the London borough of Bexley, hence everybody's on the roads, and the long jam ahead is the result. It takes us ten minutes to travel barely 400 metres down the main street, lined by a series of mid-Thirties shopping parades morphing into less characterful Seventies blocks. I'd bet money that none of the original retailers are still in place. McDonalds is closed for a refit, ladies in the nailbar stare straight ahead with practised tedium, and someone's chucked a bicycle tyre on top of the bus shelter.
On reaching Welling's Crimean cannon we turn right and flee up archetypal suburban avenues. Timber-gabled semis with hardstanding for gardens abound, indeed there's barely a tall building on the skyline, such is the low-density appeal of this corner of southeast London. Ahead is the A2 Rochester Way, the major arterial hereabouts, where we join another queue of traffic ducking underneath. This is Blackfen, another under-recognised locale, where a micropub rubs up against a salon offering ultimate hair, where the tattoo parlour appears to have a consulting throne, and where someone's thrown the metal rim of a bus timetable on top of the bus shelter.
One of the joys of taking an unfamiliar bus is the discovery of what certain Londoners take for granted as 'home'. I'm therefore impressed by The Oval, a crescent-shaped parade of independent shops facing an ornamental ellipse of lawn bursting with early spring flowers. Maintaining the ambience as we speed south, Willersley Avenue is lined by broad chalet-style semis and trees sprinkled with cherry blossom. Then there's Lamorbey, another uncelebrated suburban hub, whose back-history is signalled by Ye Olde Black Horse pub (est 1692, Sky Sports, Sunday Roasts, Poker Night). And, in case all seems too idyllic, there are cars.
Our latest queue is for admittance to Sidcup. "The phasing of the lights has gone crazy since they changed them," is the commentary from a couple of elderly gentlemen on the upper deck. "So much traffic pouring in from all directions." They go on to wonder whether the Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance will ever complete its halls of residence by the station, and comment on the ugliness of Marlowe House, a slab block which remains the area's sole tall building. They alight in the more attractive High Street, where a blind man boards along with TfL escort - a bus driver commendably helping out during what appears to be his time off.
The bus is emptier now, but the traffic no less severe, so on Sidcup Hill we enter our fourth significant jam of the journey. I've now been aboard for 70 minutes, which is the scheduled time to complete the entire route, although there are still almost five miles yet to go. But Bexley's residents seem on intent on collectively driving to the shops, queueing patiently to exit sideroads and join the flow, held back by a single set of impeding traffic lights in Foots Cray. A slothful teen with lowslung JD Sports gymbag makes far faster downhill progress than our bus, the case for an Outer London Weekends-only Congestion Charge duly made.
Eventually we flee (past the Dasani-stained HQ of Coca Cola Enterprises Ltd) to Critalls Corner, a large roundabout on the Sidcup bypass. Briefly we follow the very edge of London's built-up area, the Green Belt taking hold immediately across the river. Ahead are the sibling Crays - St Mary and St Paul's - and their overspill estates of working class and Traveller heritage. The 51 is the only local bus not to divert round the backroads, instead sticking faithfully to the arterial and its light commercial hinterland. Various car-related industries, rows of bungalows, a cluster of gasometers, a McDonalds that used to be an interwar pub - these are some of the delights, or otherwise, of Sevenoaks Way.
Three retail parks line the road in quick succession, the largest of which features a collection of high street stores I might have expected to see in central Orpington. But M&S, Debenhams, Next, Waterstones etc all know the benefits of an out-of-town location, specifically that parking and driving are easier here, if still relatively choked. Indeed queues five and six have soon delayed our bus for even longer, as my journey's stopwatch ticks round to an hour and a half, offering extended views of the Kingsmill bakery and a drained model boating pond.
At last we hit Orpington, whose high street is yet another slow procession of queueing vehicles, a high proportion of which are buses. Most of the few remaining passengers on board take the opportunity to alight early, heading for the still-decent collection of shops along the main drag. I'm the only one to remain aboard for the final half-mile dogleg to the station, which I could easily have walked faster, indeed the four-way traffic jam approaching the War Memorial roundabout approaches almost perfect gridlock. If I've learned something about outer suburban London from my record-breaking time on the upper deck, it's that weekend buses are borked because the car is king, and maybe the car is king because weekend buses are borked.