August is Local History Month on diamond geezer. Over the years I've explored the length of the River Fleet, walked around the edge of Tower Hamlets and crossed the capital on a line of latitude, to name but a few of my exciting quests. This year I thought I'd ride all the double decker London bus routes which run outside the capital and write you a running commentary, in a series I'm calling Upperdeckers.
Tourists often spend a fortune riding sightseeing buses around central London but rarely explore the outskirts. And yet top deck front seat tours are available at an exceptionally reasonable price... if only there was a commentary to accompany them. So I've set myself the task of writing real-time commentaries for bus journeys beyond the London border in an attempt to stimulate peripheral travel. Simply reset your screen reader to audio mode and the spoken text will automatically synchronise with your bus journey, no matter how bad the traffic. Let's start in Hertfordshire and ride the red double decker that runs past the place where I was born, because it doesn't get more local than that.
Bushey Heath → Watford Junction
(I'm riding the 142, but you can also ride the 258)
Our upperdecker journey begins at the crossroads where Stanmore Common merges into Bushey Heath. Today this marks the boundary between London and Hertfordshire, although prior to 1st April 1993 the dividing line crossed the road a short distance ahead. The next pair of bus stops are still operated by Transport for London, not Hertfordshire County Council. When you reach the Harvester restaurant look out for the boundary stone on the pavement opposite. It has Herts carved on on side and Middx on the other. This used to be the highest point in Middlesex. You are now 505 feet above sea level.
On the right hand side is Windmill Lane which once led to a smock mill used for grinding corn. The shopping parade at Bushey Heath is relatively modern, and in sunny weather attracts a certain silver-haired cafe culture. Note the pair of semi-detached cottages on the right, one named Alpha and the other Omega. St Peter's parish church is unmissable ahead. It was founded as a small chapel in 1836, extended in 1891 and mostly rebuilt in 1911. The foundation stone in the Chapel of St George was laid by General Edmund Phipps Hornby, who earned his Victoria Cross in the Boer War.
The Three Crowns is Bushey's oldest public house, in continuous service since 1749. This would have been the first building 18th century travellers reached after crossing open heathland from Stanmore, providing welcome respite from the threat of highwaymen. Bushey Heath is said to have been a favoured haunt of Dick Turpin, because this is said about virtually every heath everywhere. A short distance up the Elstree Road, on Little Bushey Lane, is the scout hut in which George Michael performed his first gig as a teenager. You cannot see this from the bus because it is around a different corner.
The road ahead is Sparrows Herne, a former turnpike opened in 1762 to carry traffic between here and Aylesbury. The land drops away steadily from this high point, but from the top deck there are excellent views across the entire Colne Valley towards the distant ridge of the Chilterns. Note the iron sign outside the cottage-style public library depicting two readers sitting back to back. Bushey used to lie within the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police, and the tall villa on the left with the high chimneys operated as a police station between 1884 and 2011. It is now flats, a fate which may soon befall the RoyalOak public house.
The bus now descends between some properly villagey housing, the oldest of which is Fern Cottage on the right hand side. A plaque outside says 1518, but its listing details reckon it's only early 17th century. Look back up School Lane to see Bushey's war memorial, designed by Sir William Reid Dick, depicting a mournful female figure with her head bowed. St Hilda's School celebrated its centenary last year. Across the hillside to the left is Bushey Golf Course, a municipal nine-holer which closed last year. Bushey Country Club closed at the same time because Hertsmere council found operations financially unsustainable.
On the corner of Melbourne Road is the entrance to Bushey Rose Garden, a beautiful public space with sunken fountain, pergola and summerhouse. It used to be the front garden of Lululaund, an amazing Romanesque home built for the acclaimed artist Hubert von Herkomer in 1894. Alas after he and his wife died the council only wanted the gardens, so everything other than Lululaund's front porch was demolished. Across the road a notionally similar block of flats called Herkomer House is almost complete. Herkomer's story is well told at Bushey Museum and Art Gallery, a welcoming collection of paintings and antiquities up Rudolph Road. Why not pause the audio description at this point, hop off and explore?
Ahead is the historic heart of Bushey (the name derives from the Old English ‘bysce’ meaning ‘place covered with wood’). St James's church has a 13th century chancel, 14th century timbered roof and 15th century tower, but the majority of the building is late Victorian. The original Red Lion pub dates back to 1648. Mavis has been selling wool and craft materials on the corner of Cow Lane since 1935. The wisteria-covered cottage opposite the village green was for many years occupied by Lucy Kemp-Welch, the artist who illustrated the 1915 edition of Black Beauty. The huge scary effigy on the tower of the Catholic church was carved by John Green.
At the top of Chalk Hill, by the Baptist church with the fluted octagonal spire, we pass from Hertsmere into Watford. Because of the one-way system we need to divert past Bushey station, its main building designed in characterful redbrick style. Two of the arms on its weathervane are somewhat bent. Can you see which two? Ahead is Bushey Arches - a very early brick railway viaduct carrying the London to Birmingham railway over the valley of the River Colne, and built by Robert Stephenson. The arches look a lot more impressive from the other side. A further viaduct, just beyond B&Q, carries the Overground to Watford High Street.
The Lower High Street appears to be mostly car showrooms, because these are quite easy to evacuate if the river ever floods. Jaguars, Mercedes, Suzukis, Seats and Saabs are locally available. Tesco's hypermarket beside the Colne was the first in the UK to open a Giraffe restaurant. The yellow-painted Pump House Theatre has been alternatively cultural since the 1970s. On the left are the offices of the Benskins Brewery, repurposed in 1994 as Watford Museum, an unexpectedly gloomy warren that's not worth getting off the bus for. Watford High Street station is closed this week so that its main staircase can be repaired.
Watford's town centre was encircled by an inner ring road in the 1970s, but buses continue to enter the foot of the old high street. Half-timbered buildings include The One Crown on the left and Pizza Express on the right. Look out for the Hornet statue outside McDonalds, formerly Woolworths, and note that Littlewoods has been reborn as a Primark. Returning to the ring road, the modern houses on the far side cover the site of King Street Maternity Hospital where thousands took their first breath between 1930 and 1969. Lovers of Modernist architecture will adore the spiral ramp of the Church Street multi-storey.
Hold tight as the ring road unexpectedly leaps over the middle of the high street on a brief flyover. Intu Watford is the former Harlequin shopping centre, recently extended to include a cinema and an ill-advised Debenhams. Clarendon Road has become a magnet for ugly office blocks, including the current European HQ of TK Maxx and also the larger HQ they're building for themselves opposite Watford Junction station. Before alighting at the bus station look out for the decorated buses taking Harry Potter fans to the Studio Tour in Leavesden. Do not join their queue - the commentary is distinctly poor.
Update: Except that most of the double deckers venturing outside London follow far less interesting routes. You might well enjoy the 107 through Borehamwood but the 403 to Warlingham is nothing special, the 467 to Epsom underwhelms and the 279 to Waltham Cross is ridiculously brief, so essentially I don't think this feature can be completed.