Route W5: Archway to Harringay Location: London north, inner Length of journey: 4 miles, 30 minutes
You should definitely ride this excellent wholly north London bus route, said a reader. So I did. And then I walked the whole thing back the other way.
It's an oddity, the W5. Not because it's stubbornly indirect - most London buses don't go direct. Not because it's operated by little 1-doorminibuses - around a dozen London bus routes have those. It's odd because the vast majority of the journey is Hail and Ride, and entirely unsigned Hail and Ride at that, weaving its way round the backroads of Haringey like a shadowy secret. Catching the W5 mid-route might be a challenge, but it's easy enough at each end, and when I boarded behind a nun carrying a packet of Wagon Wheels I knew I was in for a noteworthy ride.
What have they done to Archway? Last time I was here major roadworks were underway to remove the gyratory, and now it's gone, and in its place is a massive new pedestrian piazza with cars diverted round three sides. It makes for a nicer experience on foot, though not necessarily so in a car, and is presumably supposed to be a lot friendlier to cyclists too. Indeed pride of place in the new piazza goes to a twin-lane cycle track running straight up the centre, which I saw being used by absolutely no bicycles whatsoever, although I was only here for ten minutes which might of course be unrepresentative. It took me several of those ten minutes to try to locate the bus stop where the W5 begins, because it's hidden behind the Archway Tavern and signage from the tube station is non-existent-to-poor.
For a little bus, the W5 runs impressively frequently and is well used. About a dozen of us pile in at the first stop, including a police officer called Brian, an old lady in a brown-brimmed hat and the aforementioned nun. She's been to Poundworld and, as well as the aforementioned Wagon Wheels, her bag also contains a half-price packet of tea bags and some black plastic sacks. I suspect she's catering for a 'gathering' of some kind, and am agog to see where she gets off. One lady gets off at the very first stop up the hill, just past the statue of Dick Whittington's cat, which I charitably assume is because this is outside a hospital and not because she's inherently lazy.
By now we have passengers standing, in part because the ascent up Highgate Hill is quite daunting, but mostly because no other bus heads where we're going. That's off to the right down Hornsey Lane, after an expectedly long wait for the traffic lights to change, heading for the covered reservoir and the amazing Archway Bridge. This cast-iron Victorian span hangs high above the A1, with a blinkered view down the dual carriageway which perfectly frames the Cityskyscrapercluster. It's also an infamous suicide spot, the spiked parapet no insurmountable deterrent, the most recent loss having been mid-afternoon at the end of June. A letter from the family of the deceased is tied to the railings, thanking those who stopped to talk to him during those last fateful moments, and seeking if possible to find out more. Maybe the long-pledged anti-jump fence will be going up sooner rather than later.
The W5 rumbles on, still with actual proper bus stops, then makes a break for uncharted waters. Stanhope Road heads steeply down and then back up, with what looks like a railway bridge at the dip in the middle. In fact this is the Parkland Walk, a former railway turned nature reserve, and a fascinating green walkway to boot. I've walked across the top of the bridge several times, but never underneath. At the top of the rise is Shepherds Hill, a residential backwater blessed with 'courts' rather than flats, and some rather nice villas. Once a ridgeway bridlepath through fields, part of the northern flank was saved from development in 1893, thereby opening up a broad vista from Queens Wood to Ally Pally. With a screen of trees in the way, very little can be seen from the bus.
Our halfway point is Crouch End, one of Haringey's more bijou quarters, as the names of some of the boutiques along Park Road attest. Kiss The Sky. Niddle Noddle. Crystal Life. Rubadubdub. A lot of passengers alight on Middle Lane, the closest stop to the Clocktower, including a couple of ladies who've been droning on and on about work politics since Archway. The nun is still in her seat. After a fresh bunch of passengers have boarded the doors close, fractionally too late for one shopper who proceeds to tap on the glass for admission. Our jobsworth driver's having none of it and pulls away, only to get stuck behind a parking car while the abandoned passenger glares in vain through the window.
The route the W5 takes beyond Crouch End is very different eastbound to westbound, which I assume is to minimise the hassle of one minibus meeting another minibus coming the other way. Westbound the route passes Hornsey Library (a striking concreteandbrick confection, which I note from the plaque outside is four days older than me) and the former Hornsey Town Hall (a Modernist pioneer with tall brick tower, which may soon be converted into an out-of-reach hotel). Eastbound we merely get the Crouch End Picturehouse, Kwikfit and the YMCA, which isn't quite as great.
The W5's role is to serve the population east of Ferme Park Road by threading through a grid of streets running from ridgetop to vale. This is serious Hail & Ride territory, with not a single actual stop between here and the end of the route, and the driver picking his moments carefully to pull in to the side. All the locals seem to know precisely on which street corner to wait for maximum effect, or when to ding to hop off at exactly the right spot. I begin to suspect that several pseudo-bus-stops exist when one passenger presses the bell the instant the bus's doors have closed after a drop-off, and the driver continues a few hundred metres down the road before stopping again, at what is evidently precisely where the passenger wanted to go.
The finest view on the route is in the opposite direction only, heading down Uplands Road, from the top of which comes the sight of Alexandra Palace behind a descending chain of chimneyed roofs. And it's at the summit on Mount View Road that the nun finally alights, taking her coffee morning treats with her, destination (in this convent-free zone) alas unknown. The W5 turns again more often than Dick Whittington, and its next detour diverts it down to Harringay station, sub-optimally in one direction only. When I come to walk back the route in the opposite direction I will get repeatedly lost, unable to remember quite which way the bus went, and with absolutely no bus stops or timetable boards to help me.
Escape from the suburban labyrinth brings the bus to Endymion Road, a one-sided affair skirting the northern rim of Finsbury Park. It's also where the traffic jam starts - approximately above the New River - because the lights at the T-junction with Green Lanes are merciless. Only ten seconds of green are provided, every not very often, and the queue creeps forward only a few cars at a time. We're still officially Hail and Ride, so the driver opens the doors and allows passengers off, which is just as well because the bus spends almost 25% of its overall journey time on Endymion Road attempting to turn left. Perhaps this is why, when another green spell fades and all looks lost, the driver blatantly follows two other cars through red to escape another couple of minutes of queueing purgatory. Tut.
To finish, we turn right at McDonalds into what TfL like to call 'Harringay Superstores', although super is surely overdoing it. A Sports Direct and an Argos have been airdropped onto the site of the Harringay Stadium, plus a number of other utterly typical warehouse-sized chain stores, all bookended by a Homebase and Sainsburys. The W5 terminates round the back of the latter, ideal not just for groceries but so that the driver can dash off to use 'the facilities' at a convenience TfL hasn't had to pay for. The bus simply waits to deliver another batch of shoppers back to non-existent bus stops round a swirl of streets you'd never need to visit unless you lived there, which is fortunate, because otherwise you might never know.