9♦ Romford The Municipal Boroughof Romford, long part of Essex, was gobbled up by Greater London in 1965. The original intention had been to go it alone, but instead it coupled up with Hornchurch to form the London Borough of Havering, the outereasternmost part of the capital. To best explore Romford's suburban hinterland I decided to follow not-quite-the-highest-numbered bus route in London, the 499. For good measure I rode it in one direction and then, because I'm mad, I walked all 10 miles back again. Do not try either of these things.
Some buses go direct, and other go all round the houses linking roads which otherwise would have no bus service. The 499 is definitely the latter, like someone highlighted all the gaps in the local bus network and drew a meandering line to link them together. It kicks off round the back of the big Tesco at Gallows Corner, weaves its way through the Harold Hill estate, nips through open country to Chase Cross, veers south through the heart of Romford, ticks off a hospital, then finishes with a one-way loop round Becontree Heath. Time Out rarely comments on anything hereabouts.
I remember when the shiny new KFC at Gallows Corner was apub, not so many years ago. The 499 circles the roundabout past a banner wishing Shane a Happy 30th, then follows Straight Road - the only lane up the hill before the LCC arrived in 1948. Now 7000 homes sprawl ahead, mostly of a decent size with gardens, but never the most desirable places to live. The 499 makes a special diversion up Heaton Avenue, climbing past typical postwar semis and some bungalows to a pair of isolated tower blocks named Kipling and Dryden. Highrise living was never popular in Havering. Every so often a short parade of shops intrudes, their newsagents always sponsored by The Sun, and just one offering Flowers By Tracy. A small girl in a pink coat makes a special point to say thankyou to the driver as she alights with Mum.
Hilldene Avenue is named after the farm whose arable land this once was. It's best known now as the name of the shopping parade at the heart of the development, two stark L-shapes with flats on top, and everything the community needs stashed below. Hilldene's retail offering includes actual butchers (English Offal £1.79 a lb), proper bakers (Filled Rolls a speciality) and family-run non-chain coffee. The prime corner slot is taken by a pound shop, its window proudly introducing "non-£1 products at great discount prices!!!", as inflation bites. Outside Nat West two lads in top-to-toe grey share a fag, while an old lady inches past with stick and basket carrying tonight's ingredients home. Most of the serious shoppers arrive by car, queueing patiently for the next available space, while the 499 offers an economically dangerous direct link to Tesco.
North Hill Drive winds up to the top of the estate, past pavements liberally scattered with smashed conker cases. Only one of the houses along the way has a St George's flag drooping in the front garden, and only one of the white vans has last year's plastic poppy on the bonnet. At Noak Hill Road the green belt abruptly kicks in, and we turn left along its rim. A blond teenager attempts to board the bus cardless, and our driver sends him packing. At the next stop another young lad, resplendent in pristine white hoodie, makes a special point to say thankyou to the driver as he alights, successfully disproving any stereotype you might have formed during the previous sentence. He's off to the £3.5m sports hub with the multi-coloured walls, not yet a year old, but boasting only one car in the car park on a Saturday afternoon.
It's time for the 499's proper rural section, a mile-long ratrun lane alongside a park which was formerly a Georgian manor estate. Bedfords Park is quite the hidden treasure, a large green expanse with grazing cattle and enclosed deer, although somewhat unwelcoming from the road. It's on my list to come back to and explore properly. On the other side of the road is a scrappy tumble of land with an extensive view, which feels like it ought to be either housing or another park, but is neither thanks to a large reservoir concealed beneath its surface. Eventually a few scattered residences intrude, one large enough to have a quad bike and a woodpile, another no more than a dishevelled static caravan at the centre of a grim padlocked corral. The bus doesn't stop in these old school Essex borderlands.
At Chase Cross, at the foot of the hill down from Havering-atte-Bower, we rejoin suburbia proper. This whopping housing estate was built just before World War 2 so has a more aspirational feel than Harold Hill, indeed many Londoners might be tempted to to live in Rise Park if only they weren't put off by its location. Broad avenues with tree-lined verges and decent-sized gardens - tick. Chain pub offering pints of IPA and glasses of rosé for £2.29 - tick. Shopping parade featuring Deb's Launderette and Alan's Fish Bar - tick. One of the things I've been most struck by on this bus route is discovering (at regular intervals) that 'traditional' shopping parades still exist, mostly fried-chicken- and spice-free, unlike almost any other corner of the capital.
A downside to living out here is the multi-lane A12 carving through. Notionally this trunk road's great news if you own a car, but the queues to access it can be extreme, and the traffic lights change so infrequently that I managed to cross the lofty footbridge faster than the bus crept over. Pettits Lane is another residential road which skipped having a bus service until 2002 when the 499 turned up. The quality of the housing is improving as we approach Romford, even if several front porches have been decorated with a nameplate seemingly sourced from a Sunday supplement. At one end of the lane is a large redbrick school, and at the other is Victoria Hospital, which clearly started out as a tiny clinic and has had motley annexes and extensions bolted on since. Deep breath, town centre ahead.
"The driver has been instructed to wait at this bus stop for a short time to even out the service." Yeah, no thanks for that, given that we're only one stop from the shopping malls where the majority of passengers want to alight. A wholesale turnover of clientele eventually occurs, the older ladies making a special point to say thankyou to the driver as they alight. The new crowd includes gossipy girls with fur hoods, two white-haired women sharing a bouquet of sunflowers and a lady who gives a lampstand a seat of its own. It's very busy around here now, with Romford's retail Saturday in full flow. Vaping teens dangling carrier bags mix with bellied blokes in West Ham tops, the occasional mobility scooter whirrs by, and the nightclubs on South Street are in full afternoon refreshment mode.
We've now reached the section of the route the 499 served when it was first introduced, a runty loop west from the shops and the station, anti-clockwise only. Destination 1 is Queen's Hospital, a modern PFI affair, and the terminus of two other four hundred and ninety-something buses. It was built to replace Oldchurch Hospital across the road, whose site is now a glaringly modern housing estate with an eerily empty central playground. All the other buses turn off at the roundabout, so only the 499 continues past Romford Sorting Office and a nest of squat orange gasholders. Across the road is Romford Cemetery, where a few graves are smothered in affection, while others mark the resting place of a family member long forgotten.
The next mile follows Crow Lane, one of the original roads hereabouts, in a part of town known as Rush Green. It's a peculiar thoroughfare, hemmed in between the railway and a golf course, hence feels somewhat cut off. Several businesses have made their home here, of the kind that beat metal or tweak cars, and who buy their jacket potatoes from a trailer called Sylvia's Lunch Box. But mixed within are gated newbuild detached homes in modern Essex style, tiny empires with pert topiary in buckets either side of the porch, and a personalised numberplate on the crazy paving. Beyond Tipples Off Licence the housing gets a bit more ordinary, with only the occasional stone eagle on the gatepost, until finally the road becomes one-way only to prevent this becoming a serious ratrun.
The 499 goes further, but that's where I'm stopping, at what's still the boundary between Havering and Barking and Dagenham. The bus'll follow a lengthy loop round the Heath Park Estate and pass the Civic Centre before eventually reaching the hospital and the shops, which I'd guess is why very few residents of Crow Lane ever flag it down to climb aboard. I'll say again that you need never ride it either, but I'm glad I did, and walked its lengthy sinuous route. To understand the corner of London that often wishes it wasn't in London, and votes differently, and is different, nothing beats a direct first-hand experience.