In recent years, TfL have made sterling efforts to encourage visitors to London onto the tube, the river, hire bikes and (especially) the cablecar. But only rarely have they gone out of their way to suggest that tourists take the bus, leaving the market clear for the high-priced open top sightseeing brigade. So you may be interested to hear of a new initiative on the TfL website, under the Experience London umbrella, introducing a series of 'bus leisure routes' for tourists.
These aren't special extra buses, there'd be no money for that. Instead these are five existing routes, rebranded 'bus leisure routes', each backed up by a downloadable pdf telling tourists how to ride. Take your pick.
Bus leisure route 9, for example, starts at Somerset House and heads to Holland Park, ticking off three palaces and six museums along the way. Bus leisure route 17 whisks you from King's Cross to London Bridge via four historic hostelries. Bus leisure route 22 covers Fulham Palace to Piccadilly, featuring the King's Road and Royal Academy. Bus leisure route 139 skips from Waterloo to Abbey Road via Hamleys, Selfridges and Lord's Cricket Ground. But I picked at random, which is why I'm now going to tell you of my experiences on bus leisure route 35, from Brixton Market to Columbia Road.
Bus leisure route 35: London's Markets
Brixton Market Bus stop T: Brixton Station
We're off to a cracking start. Brixton Market is just the kind of non-central gem a visitor to London could easily miss. The online blurb confirms that the local speciality is African and Caribbean produce, and contains a hint that change is afoot, noting that Granville Arcade has recently rebranded as ‘Brixton Village’. Faultless so far.
Borough Market Bus stop G: Union Street
Bus stop M: London Bridge
Next stop Borough Market. But what the linear map completely fails to mention is quite how far this is from Brixton on a number 35 bus. The 133 does the journey more directly, and gets there faster. Most Londoners would surely take the tube instead. But this is bus leisure route 35, so we're taking the 35, even if that means crawling via Camberwell for 40 minutes. If you're a temporary visitor to London, I'm unconvinced that sitting pointlessly on a busy double decker is the optimal use of your time. I can't say I enjoyed the experience. Bus leisure route 35 does pass two well known markets along the way, namely East Street Market in Walworth (birthplace of Charlie Chaplin) and the Elephant & Castle shopping centre (while stocks last), but I guess they're not sufficiently iconic to get a mention. And even when you do finally reach Borough Market, it turns out that one of the suggested bus stops (Union Street) is a bit of a hike, whereas the other (London Bridge) is almost outside. After an unproductive four mile journey, thank goodness the food offering is tip top.
Leadenhall Market Bus stop M: Fenchurch Street
Bus Stops L/N: Threadneedle Street
Here's a very different kind of market, more a collection of upmarket shops, but under a fabulously decorated roof, and of course it's been in Harry Potter. Leadenhall Market is easily reached by bus leisure route 35, three stops across the Thames, and the onboard display even announces the correct stop as 'Fenchurch Street for Leadenhall Market'. There's just one catch at present, which is that long-term roadworks are forcing a diversion via Bank so the 35 no longer stops outside. Will Old Broad Street do? It's not clear, but expect a walk.
Lloyd's of London Bus stop M: Fenchurch Street
Bus Stops L/N: Threadneedle Street
After a four mile hiatus earlier in the route, markets three and four turn out to be in the same place. The trail map's good, because it suggests you should walk from one to the other rather than take the bus, estimated walking time 2 minutes. But the linear map's misleading, because it shows the two attractions at different stops, rather than the same one. Also, see how creatively our trail curators are interpreting 'market' here, Lloyd's being a building with a distinctly financial flavour. It is an amazing architectural confection, but there's not really very much to do here apart from briefly look at it.
Spitalfields Market Bus Stop L: Liverpool Street Station
Bus stop H Primrose Street
Again the map offers two bus stops to get off at, but the second one is closer. The first stop is actually announced as 'Liverpool Street Station for Petticoat Lane Market', but alas Petticoat Lane's Sunday revels haven't been deemed worthy of inclusion. Thankfully Spitalfields is another excellent London market, or at least one an international visitor would consider as such, with its focus on designer goods rather than cheap kitchen scourers. Bus leisure route 35 has again hit the spot.
Brick Lane Bus stop H: Primrose Street
But here the trail loses it somewhat. Brick Lane is only five minutes walk from the far side of Spitalfields Market, as the text on the map carefully points out. But bus leisure route 35 goes nowhere near Brick Lane - the 67 and 205 go closer, and the 8 would be a better bet. This is the point on the trail where wishful thinking disconnects with reality, because bus routes don't magically link specific categories of tourist attraction. It's all got a bit contrived... and then it gets contriveder.
Columbia Road Flower Market Bus Stop X: Shoreditch Town Hall
Shoreditch Town Hall is the stop where the bus terminates, so you have to alight here and walk for 10 minutes to reach Columbia Road. The alternative is to carry on walking from Brick Lane, which is 15 minutes, depending on which end of Brick Lane you start. Visitors would have been better off catching the 26 or 48 from Liverpool Street, but the map isn't allowed to tell you that because it has to maintain the bus leisure route 35 mystique. What the text does correctly warn is that Columbia Road Flower Market only operates on Sundays, as does Brick Lane Market... except Sunday's the only day Borough Market isn't open, so it turns out there isn't a day of the week you can tick off the whole list in one go.
I did not enjoy my journey on bus leisure route 35. One outlier in Brixton and everything else on the eastern border of the City does not make for a happy ride. If I'd taken you on bus leisure route 22 instead, I'd have been moaning about how the last seven places all occur after the point marked "Get off the bus here and walk to the remaining locations". If I'd taken you on bus leisure route 9, I'd have been more positive, but less happy that the bus stopped at the wrong end of Exhibition Road for all the museums. If I'd taken you on bus leisure route 17, I'd have been raving about the pubs, but pointing out that the listed "Heritage" felt a bit random. And if I'd taken you on bus leisure route 139, I'd have groaned at how lowest common denominator touristy it all was, but actually I suspect that means it's the most successful of the lot.
It's great to see buses getting a bit of promotional love from TfL for a change. But the contrived nature of these bus leisure route journeys leads me to suspect that they could end up wasting tourists' time as much as opening their eyes to some proper treats. I'm also disappointed that the quintet doesn't include TfL's most obvious slamdunk tourist bus, the heritage Routemaster service which shuttles between Trafalgar Square and Tower Hill, passing St Paul's Cathedral along the way. Bus leisure route 15 should be getting far more attention from TfL than it currently affords, and I eagerly await its appearance in this peculiar portfolio.