Route 346: Upminster to Upminster Park Estate London's 9th shortest bus route Length of journey: 2.70 miles (10 minutes)
Several of London's shortest bus routes lurk on the very edge of the capital to keep one particular housing estate connected to the wider network. In this case it's one side of one particular housing estate, the 248 doing a perfectly good job of linking the rest, across fields sequentially swallowed up to the north of Cranham. The 346 has been running (not very far) since 1988, with a couple of vehicles shuttling back and forth every day except Sunday. For a handful of peripheral streets it's a damned good service.
The outbound route kicks off from the high street beyond the Upminster branch of Wimpy, which is mildly frustrating because the inbound'll drop you off on the sliproad immediately outside the station. A slew of homebound shoppers board, one with a bouquet of New Season tulips in her Sainsbury's bag, another with a copy of the Daily Mail poking out of her M&S reusable. Several bobble-hatted families potter by, as well as a stream of merry scarf-wearing West Ham supporters. Outside the card shop a woman is stuffing bags of silver and blue helium balloons into the back of her Range Rover, and loses a couple, which drift helplessly into the sky.
At the official Upminster Christmas tree we turn left past a further parade of small shops and a mighty Waitrose. These make way for a run of sturdy semis, a few infill cottages and a secondary school which once escaped from Mile End. Nobody's taken down the poppy decorations at the Royal British Legion, perhaps they never do. The other bus route which plies this road is the 347, London's least frequent service, whose consecutive numbering can't be a coincidence. It ploughs ahead for North Ockendon after the railway bridge, whereas we turn left again past Cranham's millennial village sign.
The two drivers on route 346 never meet, except for halfway through the run, where our driver makes a point of winding down his window and reaching out to bump hands with his colleague. Up next is the District line's eastern depot, its sidings rammed with laid-up stock thanks to engineering works, and by far Cranham's largest centre of employment. A shopping parade has grown up at the junction where two country lanes once met, including a pie and mash shop and a hair salon called Nigel's. We take Moor Lane.
One final pair of passengers have boarded, the wife with a walking stick, the husband swiping both their cards while she makes for a seat. The 346 has saved them getting their car out, and will save her a half-mile struggle up the hill, as a fine example of the social good that the London bus network performs daily. We pass a string of semis and several large bungalows, whose front gardens are generally big enough to hold a double parking space, some shrubbery and the occasional ornamental lamppost. The trio of streets to our right run down to the edge of the Green Belt and stop dead. By the time we reach the last of them, everyone bar me has alighted.
To finish we weave through a more recent part of the estate, now with flats amidst the family homes, and taxis and white vans amongst the vehicles parked outside. The driver is about to embark on a big loop to turn the bus round and return, so parks up by the playground to change the blind. I'm deposited beside a hump of muddy lawn, a chain of pylons framing the view, and the screen of a huge telly clearly visible in one of the flats opposite. Four pre-teenage cyclists parade by, repeatedly lifting their front wheels off the ground because they think it makes them look ten years older. Some seagulls circle. The other 346 driver will be back here soon to whisk me away.