Route R9: Ramsden Estate to Orpington London's 7th shortest bus route Length of journey: 2.65 miles (15 minutes)
Orpington's bus network is a breed apart, with eleven R-prefixed routes spreading out into the town's suburbs and rural hinterland. The R9 was a late addition in1996, looping round the Ramsden Estate on the eastern side of town to connect it to the shops and the station. Buses tour the loop in a clockwise direction, breaking off at the fire station to pick up assorted residents on the mile and a half circuit. I decided to start at the first stop on the loop, where a bus was just about to pull off so I decided to wait for the next. And this is my big mistake.
When the next R9 comes round the corner I enact the generally accepted gesture of emerging from the bus shelter and standing beside the bus stop, looking semi-expectantly at the approaching vehicle. No other bus routes stop here during the day, so my actions ought to be unambiguous. The approaching vehicle slows down, but overshoots and stops on the other side of the bus shelter. "It's a request stop, mate," says the driver. "You have to put your arm out." This is not an instruction I've heard for many a year, but perhaps they do things differently in Orpington.
For my next blunder, I fail to touch in. When I boarded the bus the dot on the card reader was red, which means it isn't working, and that usually means a free ride. Unfortunately while I've been distracted by the request stop debacle the dot has turned back to orange. The driver looks at me like I'm an idiot and asks me to wave my card, and then I have to go and sit down amidst the passengers who've been watching my performance. It's been my least successful attempt to board a bus in years.
We set off up Tintagel Road (with Eldred and Avalon coming later in the journey), first past private semis, then council stock. The lady sitting in the wheelchair space dings the bell and we stop again. "Can I have the ramp, please?" she asks. "Yes I know," says the driver, as if peeved to be asked because she should have known he was going to lower it anyway. At the next stop a woman with two sticks walks slowly towards the bus, and our driver waits. After she's boarded another potential passenger dashes over, but the doors close just before he arrives and we depart without him. There's something about this driver's attitude I can't quite put my finger on.
The top of the Ramsden Estate is where the borough of Bromley hides a couple of its tower blocks, half-surrounded by densely-packed maisonettes. The other side of the road is Green Belt, extending all the way to Rochester. At the request stop are a local mother and her son, who don't put their arms out but the bus stops anyway, and they are not admonished. In a flash we're back into more estate-agent-friendly territory along Chelsfield Lane, then climbing back up the hill past bungalows with concrete fishponds and signs saying "Please do NOT leave parcels with our neighbours." Our driver spots that the lights ahead onto the A224 are green and speeds up a little to make sure we get through.
On Spur Road, which is splendidly Thirties, I spy our final request stop. A young schoolboy is waiting and promptly sticks out his arm and the bus stops. We'd have been 15 seconds faster if he hadn't done that. A further delay comes at the foot of Orpington High Street where a zebra crossing, rather than a pelican, repeatedly stalls the surrounding traffic. Most of the passengers alight here, at the start of the mini-loop round the shops that so many R buses endure. "I'm going back to the station," says our driver to a fellow employee waiting at the stop, before adding "Just thought I'd tell you." She hops on. Our driver now has an audience, and a lot to say.
"I'm due back on the stand in ten minutes," he says. "Look at those two crossing the road rather than waiting," he complains. "What is that geezer doing?" he asks, which momentarily worries me but refers to another miscreant outside the bus. We drive along Gravel Pit Way noticeably faster than the average bus driver would. Rounding the war memorial, a can rolls backwards down the bus. We arrive at Orpington station post haste, where it's time for the last few passengers to alight. As the empty bus pulls off its passage is briefly blocked by an emerging car, which the driver loudly honks. And he's into the bus stand, and climbing into the bus company's private car, and driving back to the bus depot to clock off, all five minutes before the bus was scheduled to arrive. Job done.
It only struck me later why the dot on the bus's Oyster card reader was red. The stop where I boarded is officially the first stop on the return half of the route, the so-called 'Hesitation point' where the driver is supposed to pause to switch the blind from Ramsden Estate to Orpington Station. This also involves resetting the system, which is how the orange dot turned briefly red and then reappeared, which is why I looked like a total plonker. Crucially it also meant that the driver was due to stop anyway, so all that spiel about putting your arm out at a request stop must have been entirely unnecessary. I'm no longer entirely sure who the plonker was. I shan't be rushing back to ride the R9 again.