Yesterday was a glorious day, so I decided to go on a day trip from Bow to Box Hill by bus. That's the entire journey by bus, which is almost as far as you can go on TfL services. Dorking's a little further, and so is Slough, but they weren't quite such enticing destinations. I left Bow at 7.30am and travelled 24 miles (as the crow flies) by bus. Then I hiked up Box Hill, had a cup of tea and hiked straight back down, before bussing another 24 miles in reverse. Before you read through to the end of my account, I wonder if you can guess what time I got home.
Route 25: Bow to Bishopsgate [07:30-08:00]
It's early, but I want to make the most of today's daylight. Every other passenger at my first stop bundles onto a 205, because it starts here and is empty, but I need to catch London's busiest route instead. Upstairs is full, and steamy, so I cram in downstairs in one of the reverse seats people usually try to avoid. I'm impressed that we keep moving, rather than the Mile End Road being one rush hour jam. The first great outpouring comes in Whitechapel - mostly hospital staff and schoolchildren - and by Aldgate the 25 resembles the interior of a 'normal' bus again. I have arrived in the City just in time for the start of the working day.
Route 344: Bishopsgate to Clapham Junction [08:13-09:08]
Damn, just missed one. I'm taking the 344 because it bypasses the busiest hubbub of the West End, instead crossing the river early to thread through Southwark. On the way I spy the daily surge of commuters flooding across London Bridge and the cycling peloton overpowering Southwark Bridge. Progress is good until we reach Elephant & Castle - now one hour into my journey - but things then become slower on the crawl to Vauxhall. One gentlemen insists on broadcasting his bank business from the top deck, including five minutes of hold music and a dictated list of his most recent transactions. 20 white cranes surround Battersea Power Station. The rush hour is easing by the time we reach Battersea proper.
Route 37: Clapham Junction to Putney Heath [09:18-09:45]
I need a quick loo break here, rather than trying to endure several inconvenient hours without. There are three possible buses for the next bit, and the 37 turns up first. It should be a quick hop through Wandsworth but the traffic is bad, eased a little by a conveniently-placed bus lane.
Route 85: Putney Heath to Kingston [09:47-10:42]
The top deck of the 85 is steamy, with long wiggly window-drips. I squeeze in next to an unnecessarily wide passenger and hope the view clears. Roehampton Lane is jammed solid all the way up to the A3, and we make painfully slow progress forwards, even after turning onto the dual carriageway. It turns out that a water main has burst outside Putney Vale Cemetery, and a short section of cones in one of the two lanes has caused enough rippled-back congestion to delay us by half an hour. We're so late that the driver turfs us all off outside Asda, to much grumbling, and directs us to board the next bus (thankfully only two minutes behind). A student alighting at Kingston University mutters that she's missed most of her lecture.
Route 465: Kingston to Box Hill [11:12-12:07]
Damn, just missed one, which is annoying when buses only run every 30 minutes. I spend several of these minutes battling with the appalling touchscreen "next bus" display fitted to the bus shelter by an outdoor advertising company who'd rather passengers were looking at curated content instead. The 465 is a peculiar bus route which spends as long in Surrey as it does in London. It's decently busy throughout, with pensioners, pushchairs and numerous bags of shopping, and the occasional member of staff heading to Chessington World of Adventures. We exit the capital at Malden Rushett, then cross the M25 and provide a useful service to the residents of Leatherhead. The Mole Valley proves to be mostly dual carriageway, with a single diversion through a picture postcard village. I finally hop off (after 4 hours 33 minutes) outside the Burford Bridge Hotel.
It is a glorious day to be climbing Box Hill. The path is initially breath-taking, and rapidly breathtaking, and not yet endowed with the slipperiness of winter. It's exhilarating to be looking down across the valley, above trees in shades of orange and brown, towards the harvested vineyards on the opposite slope. The gradient becomes shallower on the upper ridge, which leads to the cafe where some of the less adventurous visitors have settled. I plonk down by the trig point and look out across the vastness of the Weald, watching the planes landing and taking off at Gatwick, and enjoy a welcome thermos of tea. When a black labrador comes snaffling for my teacake it's time to move on, this time down the steep zigzag of steps towards the famous stepping stones. The descent is somewhat slippery, but I do get to grin politely at all the walkers who still have the entire climb ahead of them. By the time I reach the valley floor I've walked barely a mile since leaving the bus, but also 400 feet up and 400 feet down.
Route 465: Box Hill to Hook [13:12-13:54]
I've timed my Box Hill exit to slip quickly onto the next 465 from Westhumble. The driver's chirpy, but struggling with the door to her cab which refuses to slam shut. She tries leaving it loose and rattling, then repeatedly grabs out to hold onto it, her caution delaying our progress north. Later she spots that she can tie her scarf through the gaps in the window and fasten the door that way, although it's not ideal. "They gave me a broken bus," she tells a passenger up front. Eventually the depot advise her to give in, but only once we've reached far enough into London for an alternative bus route to be available. When we're asked to alight, the Hopper fare ensures that nobody complains.
Route 71: Hook to Kingston [13:56-14:14]
I wasn't expecting to need this extra bus, but it follows the 465's route most of the way back to Kingston, and might even have got me there slightly quicker.
Route 85: Kingston to Putney [14:17-14:56]
This bus's Oyster reader has a telltale red dot on it, so the driver waves us all aboard without swiping. This is the most pleasant ride of the day, lightly trafficked and with plenty of seats. Because we're heading east we sail past the burst water main, and the continuing queues heading the other way, and I finish another chapter of my book.
Route 337: Putney to Clapham Junction [15:07-15:25]
I could have got the tube home from East Putney, and it'd only have taken an hour, by instead my enforced bus safari must continue. Oh joy, the man behind me has opened a bag of something crackly which smells very strongly of meat. He compounds the issue a few minutes later by opening a second packet, doubling the meaty whiff, and only when he's finished crunching does he relocate to the front seat (and eat nothing).
Route 344: Clapham Junction to Bishopsgate [15:25-16:27]
Yay, that was a perfect switchover out of one bus and into the next. It's also a long slog ahead, the first time a leg of the journey has taken over an hour, but that's often the penalty when you travel by bus. An academy in Battersea is building 31 flats in its playground. The highest lift tower at the Power Station is only eight storeys high, so far. Bars in Borough are starting to fill up with the after-work crowd. I've been out so long that the surge of commuters on London Bridge is now flooding in the opposite direction.
Route 25: Bishopsgate to Bow [16:36-17:15]
I've saved the worst until last - riding London's busiest bus route at the start of the evening peak. A single empty seat has become available at the rear of the upper deck, which saves me from the miserable maelstrom downstairs. "Please move down inside the bus." The 25 is the homebound choice for those who'd rather not spend extra on the tube, including the sleepy, the headphoned and two schoolgirls forking burger and chips into their mouths. "Please move down inside the bus." It's finally dark now. "Please move down inside the bus." Progress is slow, and from my vantage point it's hard to see quite how bad the traffic is. I only just manage to squeeze out through the crush at Bus Stop M before the doors close.
So, a journey that kicked off at 7.30am finally came to an end at 5.15pm, after almost ten hours. That's five hours from Bow to the summit of Box Hill, and five hours back. Obviously it wasn't the best way of getting there, especially when only a single hour was spent doing all the fun stuff at my destination. But it is amazing how far a London bus can take you, and what sheer glories can await you at the other end.