Route 54: Woolwich to Elmers End Location: London southeast, outer Length of journey: 10 miles, 75 minutes
It's traditional around every birthday that I take a numerically significant bus journey, so here I go again. Twelve years ago I took the 42 to Dulwich, eleven years ago the 43 to Barnet, ten years ago the 44 to Tooting, nine years ago the 45 to Clapham, eight years ago the 46 to Farringdon, seven years ago the 47 to Bellingham, six years ago the 48 to Walthamstow, five years ago the 49 to Battersea, four years ago the 50 to Croydon, three years ago the 51 to Orpington, two years ago the 52 to Willesden and last year the 53 to Whitehall. This year, less climactically, it's the 54 to Elmers End.
Route 54 is a southeast London stalwart, conveying residents between Woolwich, Lewisham, Bromley and Croydon since time immemorial. But when the trams arrived in 2000, TfL decided people should use those instead, so chopped off the Croydon end of the route and cut it back to Elmers End. Here's a fuller history, if you like that kind of thing. But for birthday bus route purposes, what's more important is that the 54 exactly matches last year's route 53 for the first three miles and precisely parallels the 47 for another two miles later on. Rather than being annoyed by the overlap I've decided to cut and paste several sentences from those reports into this one, as a useful precedent for repeated reports of the Lea Bridge Road over the next couple of years.
The 54 cranks up opposite the boxy towers surrounding Woolwich's Crossrail station. This ought to have opened between my 53rd and 54th birthdays, but remains embarrassingly underfinished, much to the distress of certain local businesses. One of these is the food court in the former Public Market, whose streetfeast has proven unsustainable and this year the front doors are firmly locked. A young man with a clipboard is busy accosting passers-by with a survey about vocational courses. He looks at me but rushes straight by, twice, which I deduce is because I'm too old for what he's flogging, thereby instilling a downbeat demeanour even before I've boarded my birthday bus.
A 53 arrives first, taking the majority of the passengers, so when my 54 turns up the prized top deck front left seat is easily mine. Other passengers include ladies with copious groceries and a family concealing a big pink helium balloon inside a carrier bag, the recipient of which turns out to be half a century younger than I am. The first couple of stops are busy, one outside the DLR station and the other in the main square. Newcomers to the top deck include a woman who insists on reading out loud to her partner, loudly, a personal email about a recent job application. Much of central Woolwich is in flux, as peculiar glassy carbuncles erupt and bland flats erupt amid older brick-faced stock.
We soon reach the Royal Artillery Barracks, essentially a housing estate for the military, edged with barbed wire that's seen better days. On the opposite side of Wellington Street the railings are bedecked with floral tributes, union flags and (new since last year) plastic poppies, in commemoration of Lee Rigby. Our next destination is Charlton, passing first a closed pub, then a closed corner shop, then a pub closed but reopened as a corner shop. The 53 in front continues to pick up most of the passengers, but always manages to be indicating to pull out every time we catch up, so I'm repeatedly forced to stare at a reminder than I'm a year older than the last time I was here.
Just before Charlton Village we pick up a father and son in matching knitted woolly hats, who take the seat immediately behind mine and engage in awkward conversation. Son is about six, and obsessed with going to "the superstores" to buy some Mighty Beanz, repeatedly reassuring Dad that they only cost £3. Then he slips seamlessly into "Dad I just kicked somebody up the head and I splattered him." Dad stays silent. "I throwed him all the way up on the climbing frame, do you like it when I hit people and I smack them in the face?" Dad tells him to stop biting his nails, and goes back to his phone. The top deck smells of chips.
Just before we cross the deep gash of the A2 dual carriageway our 54 finally overtakes the 53 it's been trailing, and the underlying metaphor is not lost on me. At the Royal Standard the six year-old behind me spots a police car, and tells Dad he hopes they shoot his friend Joshua because he's a 'bad boy'. Dad continues to stay silent. "I'm only joking! I'm only joking!" he adds, then confounds things with "I'm not joking, it's for real." Dad gives him a video game to play, so I get to endure its plinky plonky music all the way across Blackheath. Lines of traffic mark out criss-crossing roads, dividing up the common into recreational segments.
Blackheath village is looking lovely, but is also a bottleneck so we get to spend a long time passing through. I spot a microbrewery, several boutiques, an acupuncture clinic and a cafe serving "toast with hand-shaped heritage whey butter". The Greggs in Tranquil Vale looks somewhat out of place. We follow a single decker 108 along Lee Terrace, where the Georgian villas are splendid and the spring blossom weeks ahead of time, as if my birthday has suddenly shifted into April. All hint of gentility is lost at the foot of Belmont Hill where we pass Bucketmouth - a kebab shop - then plough on towards what's left of Lewisham Market. Six year-old announces proudly that he's now hit 7000 points, but Dad tells him to shush because it's time to alight, and off they head in search of Magic Beanz.
The bus is considerably emptier now, its chief objective reached. Considerably fewer people are trying to travel away from the Lewisham Centre, but this may because tons of buses head south towards Catford so we're now one of many. A queue of double deckers feeds through a gap between Primark and an ambulance, initially aiming for Ladywell. One block of pastel-framed flats stands out, knocked up during the brief period when lemon, lime and Olympic pink were in vogue. Even at the weekend, the bus lane helps speed us on our way. Adverts on bus shelters advise all good citizens to check out gov.uk/euexit to help ensure that the end of the month goes more smoothly. Downstairs a baby relentlessly screams. The top deck smells of pancakes.
Rushey Green is wide enough to support a thin strip of lawn, holding back the tide of grocery shops, beauty salons and eateries. I spot a fine J Sainsbury ghostsign painted on the side wall of what's now a pawnbroker. Catford Shopping Centre's giant fibreglass feline waits to pounce as we head the wrong way round the gyratory, delivered via a bus lane located in the centre of the road. The Post Office apologises for being closed for two days due to a power upgrade. Catford's final retail outlet is a meze bar, beyond which we're back into desirable detached country on the long run down to Bellingham bus garage. This bus will wait here while the drivers change over. Of course it will.
On Bromley Road a birthday celebration is underway, with Dad tying balloons to the tree in the front garden while Mum pays the Uber Eats rider who's delivered their daughter's favourite meal in umpteen plastic tubs. All the neighbouring streets appear to boast smart semis, whereas we're running amid a stream of undistinguished flats. This part of town is called Southend (the swallowed Kent village, not the Essex resort), its tiny chapel and the adjacent millpond the only trace of a rural past. And at Peter Pan's Park (don't rush, it's no Neverneverland), we turn right and finally achieve singularity... the 54 is the only bus route along Beckenham Hill Road.
We've hit proper suburbia; whitewashed semis, Tudorbethan piles, a minor railway station to ferry commuters, a circular Catholic church resembling a crown, several sports pitches, shrubbery, a country park. Beckenham Place Park occupies a lengthy stretch on the left hand side of the road, its wall intermittently broken by welcoming notices. At the top of the climb the heights of Crystal Palace are visible in the gaps between some flats. A white magnolia tree fills one particular front garden with spring. A young woman is transferring her worldly middle class goods into the back of a Pickfords van. All this place is lacking is a golf course - they closed the local one in 2016.
A sudden Waitrose confirms we've reached Beckenham, a proper little town with surplus spending money. Anyone scanning its main streets would assume all its residents do is eat or drink. be that at the cafe bistro, brasserie or takeaway. Its former police station now serves cocktails, the ex fire station does hot towel shaves and the half-timbered Three Tuns pub has become a Zizzi. Six Nations, beer and pasta, anyone? I spot the famous milestone which declares London Bridge to be X miles away, a set of new raised beds sponsored by a shutter company, and blimey look, the churchyard at St George's has actual primroses actually in bloom.
We're nearly there. Our spin down the Croydon Road is enlivened by gas main repairs, temporary traffic lights and full-on cherry blossom sidestreets. The latest young child on the top deck is using her imagination to spot mice, lions and tigers on the pavement and point them out to Mummy. That shiny tin helmet displayed outside the This 'N' That bric-a-brac shop could prove useful. One final 1930s shopping parade draws us into Elmers End, where the pub looks like a Swiss chalet, and then we pull off into the so-called Interchange beside the tram stop. It's all a bit bleak, dwarfed by the unforgiving maelstrom of a doubledecker Tesco car park alongside. Only two of us remain to disembark, the tram connection having proved unpopular, and that's another year done and dusted.