In 2012 I undertook a red bus journey from one side of London to the other, riding four consecutive buses from Dartford to Uxbridge, and tracking a complete cross section of the capital along the way. In 2018 I've decided to cross London by bus again, but this time riding north to south rather east to west. Again I've managed to find a route requiring only four bus journeys, which wasn't easy, starting just beyond the M25 in Hertfordshire and ending up at the Surrey border. Even better, every time I got off one bus I caught the next from the very same stop, so it was an absolute doddle of a trip. Keep your eyes peeled, and here we go.
ACROSS LONDON BY BUS(i)
Route 279: Waltham Cross - Tottenham Length of journey: 7½ miles, 60 minutes
My top deck parade across the capital kicks off in Waltham Cross aboard the stalwart 279, the Lea Valley's uncontested spine route. A squat austere bus station was shoehorned off the high street in 2001, opened by a Mayor, an MP, the council chairs of Herts and Essex and not-yet-Sir Peter Hendy, back when he was merely Director of Bus and River Services. A row of red, turquoise and orangey-black buses are parked up on the far side of the tarmac, and every six minutes a driver on route 279 puts down their phone, revs up and manoeuvres their way towards Stand B. The game is afoot.
Joining me at the front of the top deck are a mum and her two young children - from their height I'd say twins. They're about four years old, and chatty, and quite excited to be making this one-off trip to Nan's. The boy's already demanded to know why they couldn't ride the orange bus, and is now pointing at a drive-thru KFC which he describes as "Chicken Lidl". Mum warns the girl not to lick the bar across the front window "because it's really dirty", then tells the boy that the door underneath is "where the numbers are". This family is narrative gold, and sadly nobody else on the entire journey will come close, meaning I've peaked too early.
After a spin round the bypass, missing the busker playing tunes to Queen Eleanor in the High Street, we swing round onto the historic Hertford Road. The 279'll be following this all the way down to Tottenham, a good seven miles hence, as did marching Romans (on a somewhat straighter alignment) many centuries before. Our first stop is immediately above the M25, not that you'd guess. The motorway passes beneath this peripheral urban landscape in a cut and cover tunnel, and is visible from the top deck only as a long green recreation ground scattered with seagulls. This is also precisely where London begins, and it'll be four hours (and twenty-five miles) before I finally reach the other side.
"Why aren't we going faster?" asks the small boy, and Mum has to explain it's because we're stopped at traffic lights. A grubby green sign welcomes us to the Freezywater and Enfield Wash Shopping Centre, which must be a council term for some intermittent shops strung out along a road. A Polish cash and carry, a nailbar, a carwash, a scout hut, several betting shops and a proper Lidl are but a few of the outer suburban treats. A line of cones marks the journey's first set of roadworks, and has also closed the adjacent bus stop, not that the two ladies waiting have noticed the yellow cover on the flag, and they wave their arms in vain as we sail by.
My excitable neighbours are alighting at Ingersoll Road, just past the Squirrel House Chinese takeaway and the Blessed Laundrette. Each child gets a turn to ding the bell, the girl attempting several times before Mum warns her, paradoxically, that it should only be rung once. My replacement top deck companion immediately digs into his lunch of wrapped croissant and bottle of orange juice, both components of which he will leave neatly on the seat when he departs. Our next green-signed shopping centre is Enfield Highway, which is a little more substantial, and boasts a herringbone brick parade at its heart. Sorry we've closed down, says the sign in the window of the former KFC, but if you can't be bothered to drive to Chingford you always can order on Just Eat instead.
We're still in suburban semis territory, interrupted by the occasional park and kebabbery. A screen of rampantly sexist posters for the local timber merchant disfigures the approach to Ponders End, presumably because the target audience respond positively to well endowed ladies wielding chainsaws. We pull up outside what used to be the White Hart, fenced-off in the heart of a redevelopment zone, leaving The Goat as the last pub standing... until that (very soon) goes the same way. Ponders End High Street has been dramatically repaved as a shared space with low kerbs and different patterns of slab to represent roundabouts and crossings. Cycle lanes ramp up in front of bus stops, presumably to encourage everyone to occupy the space more cooperatively, but are easily blocked by a single badly parked car.
Next to join me at the front of the bus is an old man wearing a yellow hat, who shuffles across to grab the other seat as soon as it becomes vacant. His party trick is to shout "Hello?" repeatedly into his phone, and then to thump the bar in front of him whenever the conversation restarts. A brief Georgian terrace hints that Edmonton might once have been a bit swish, but we're not going to get the chance to see the town centre today because the road ahead is closed and we're off on diversion. This means skipping the bus station and heading round the back of the shopping centre, which is definitely not its best side, unless you like ventilation units, delivery access and cardboard-baling machines.
We return to the main road opposite Küçük Ev, a Turkish restaurant which impressively features three consecutive accented characters, and also serves kebabs. Other eateries nearby include Hot Nuts, Oriental Chef and Lobo Fisheries, because the cuisine along this bus's route is uncommonly diverse. It may or may not be a sign of the times that the former HQ of the Edmonton Labour Party now sells cheap water filters instead, but hasn't yet got round to covering up the sign. Angel Place is the misleadingly delightful name for the grade-separated junction with the North Circular, beyond which the locale is rebranded Upper Edmonton and suddenly there are 'proper' shops, assuming a Peacocks and Superdrug count.
It's taken three quarters of an hour but we have finally reached the other side of Enfield, which is still only borough number one. The transfer point to Borough Two is marked by an arch across the road bearing a small mythical beast in profile, or in a southerly direction simply by a dull sign saying Welcome to Haringey. The gradual appearance of pubs with cockerels in the window is a big clue to what's coming up ahead, as is a lofty silver rim above the rooftops. This is Tottenham's new stadium, utterly dominant on the local skyline, and apparently still due to open for play next month. We pass, sequentially, a hi-vis army taking a break on the pavement for a smoke, an unfinished flight of steps, two cranes, several diggers, a massive glass wall featuring a central sticky-outy-swooshy bit, and a single heritage building miraculously unconsumed.
Next up is Tottenham proper, a considerable linear retail opportunity sourced from a global diaspora, which makes Dewhursts the Butchers look curiously out of place. At Bruce Grove the A10 trunk road swings in from the right, under a blue-painted railway bridge, and for the first time the High Road feels like a proper High Street. It's not giving too much away to reveal that when my journey hits the other side of the capital, south London won't look anything like this. The Tottenham High Cross memorial lies somewhat adrift amid a major road junction, and is also my cue to alight before the 279 diverts off towards Manor House, because I need to keep going straight ahead. 76>>