It's Day Three of my bus journey across the capital, riding four consecutive routes from the northern edge of the capital to the south. In a particularly nice arithmetical touch, the bus which follows my ride on the 76 is the 77, which'll take me just far enough south for the the Surrey border to be one ride away.
ACROSS LONDON BY BUS(iii)
Route 77: Waterloo - Tooting Length of journey: 7½ miles, 60 minutes
The halfway point in my cross-London journey is a bus stop named County Hall, a building once full of politicians, now home to sharks. After a short wait my 77 arrives, uncluttered by passengers, although that's not particularly surprising at what is only its third stop. Everyone else boarding has suitcases, so sits downstairs, which means I get the top deck to myself and an uninterrupted view of Waterloo's hotel quarter. It's by no means picturesque. Heading south means missing Westminster Bridge and the queue of sightseeing buses feeding off it, and avoiding the gloomy underpass beneath two dozen terminating tracks. But St Thomas's Hospital brings a welcome splash of colour - notably staff in uniform green and ambulances in dazzling yellow.
The 77 is the only bus to complete a full run down the Albert Embankment. The old brick wall on the left-hand side conceals Lambeth Palace's back garden, the archbishop's resplendent residence eventually emerging, topped off by Tudor chimneys. I remember to look back across the Thames for a fine view of the Palace of Westminster - the last building on this trip that a foreign tourist might recognise. Rather less familiar are the stark Thirties facade of the London Fire Brigade Headquarters, three particularly repellent 'landmark towers' packed with multi-million pound apartments, and ssssh, I think that's MI6.
Everybody loves Vauxhall's twin-pronged bus station, so it is of course to be demolished to make way for a dense commercial redevelopment with a line of bus stops at its heart. The current bus station is not designed to be entered from our angle, so we're required to follow a ridiculous loop round the one way system, passing underneath the railway twice, then all the way back to the pronged end before finally returning to the direction of travel. A snaking line of passengers awaits, impeccable in its diversity, as if the route has finally discovered its purpose. And still, it seems, nobody wants to sit upstairs with me.
We're not going to Battersea Power Station, we're taking the Wandsworth Road, past a gaping hole filled with diggers which will soonarise as 2300 high-end flats and a luxury hotel. The main driver behind Nine Elms' transformation is soon visible on the right hand side - a Sainsbury's car park dug up to create a new tube station, the line of its tunnels clearly visible in the concrete beams exposed across the construction site. The Northern line will be swinging in the long way from Waterloo, all around the Kenningtons, whereas the 77's route has been rather more direct (Vauxhall bus station excepted).
How rapidly the neighbourhood flips. In less than a minute we go from designer towers to municipal estates, and from letting agents to betting shops and pizza takeaways. This is the Nine Elms which existed long before the tube extension was mooted, and whose residents will live alongside richer neighbours they may never see. We park up for a couple of minutes opposite a halal butcher and an Ethiopian restaurant, apparently while the drivers change over, although no announcement is made to confirm. One stop ahead at Larkhall Park, a bereft-looking woman sobs and clutches her head, and is then comforted by a random waiting passenger. Of everything I'll see along the entire journey, I think this scene will stay with me the longest.
Foreign tourists who've booked into the Chelsea Guest House must be somewhat underwhelmed to discover it's a) a house, b) alongside a McDonalds, c) not in Chelsea. The council estate past the Overground station is even less upstanding, but soon the smarter villas of Clapham and Battersea nudge up closer, and we start to ascend Lavender Hill. A couple of pubs on opposite sides of the road have been boarded up and are being used only by 'Guardians in Occupation', but it's not long before the retail offering is heading upmarket again, with shops selling organic jars, cult furniture and parlour drapes. The very concept of a Social Pantry Cafe makes me queasy, but the avocado crowd appear to be enjoying it.
After riding solo for twenty-five minutes, a passenger finally deigns to join me on the upper deck, alas moaning loudly into his phone about a so-called friend. Thankfully he sits up the back. By now we've climbed up quite high, relatively speaking, with intermittent views down immaculate Victorian streets towards the other side of the Thames. Ahead lies the Clapham Junction crossroads, where the level of collective spending power is such that Arding & Hobbs, now Debenhams, still hasn't succumbed and gone under. To prove the point, St John's Road doesn't have barbers, it does grooming, The phalanx of pushchairs heading for Northcote Road is much in evidence.
As the top deck becomes more popular, a mother and her two daughters (lower infants, upper primary) shuffle into the front row. While the younger one pretends to drive the bus, the elder mimics the announcements ("77... to... Tooting") and is sparky enough to point out that the route numbers of the two buses ahead are precisely 100 apart. Our next hill is Battersea Rise, which is technically the A3, although the pubs remain genteel enough to festoon their entire frontage with hanging baskets. We cross over two railway lines, then turn left to follow the tracks southwest, past the memorial stone for the Clapham Rail Disaster.
The 77 is the only bus to serve Spencer Park, the local millionaires row. As it continues it becomes the sole route on Windmill Road, which has an actual (sail-less) windmill at the halfway point. And then it provides exclusive service along Earlsfield Road, a charming street lined with smart villas whose front gardens are large enough for multiple cars and a bit of shrubbery. I think this is the longest we've gone on this journey without seeing a shop, a sequence eventually broken by a single Chinese restaurant, because needs must. Half of the road outside this takeaway is coned off, so we wait at temporary traffic lights while the man in the digger rests his feet on the control panel and takes an early afternoon nap.
Earlsfield's main drag is a jolly place, plied by angelic kids on scooters, and appears ethnically mixed but not especially diverse. The launderette still has an 0181 phone number, and does do duvets. Food options include DeRosier (for chocolate and coffee), Kruger's deli (for whom biltong is a speciality) and hallowed belly (a defiantly lower case eaterie). The road we're following is Garratt Lane, a former rural track so long that the house beside the Summerstown bus stop is numbered 777. The local housing's a lot more terrace-y out here, unless you happen to live in the almshouses, or have a detached plot in Streatham Cemetery.
Our bus is a lot busier now as it feeds folk towards the joys of Tooting, with headphones advisable for blocking out the yelling baby, the jabbering teenager and the ranting man. The A1 Dry Cleaners near the leisure centre makes a particular effort to announce that it does wedding dresses, suggesting a high proportion of second hand or second marriage clientele. As we approach Tooting Broadway an announcement I've not heard before urges those intending to change for the tube to check the TfL website for potential disruption, presumably because the onboard system isn't capable. I hold on until the first stop beyond the station, where the next bus I want to catch is just (dammit!) pulling away. So near, but Surrey remains so far. 280>>