Route 224: St Raphael's to Wembley Stadium Location: London northwest Length of journey: 8 miles, 70 minutes
Some bus routes head straight for their destination, while others go all round the houses. A few 'circular' routes deliberately return to where they started. But only a handful of buses are almost-circular, taking a wilfully all-round-the-houses route to almost back where they started. Two stand out - the H13 round Ruislip Lido (which I've blogged before) and the 224 in Wembley, which is so ridiculously twiddly that it doubles back on itself no less than four times. In a fortnight's time TfL are taking action to lop off the last two miles of the route and chop out one of the twiddly bits, so it'll no longer be one of London's most sinuous buses. I've ridden the full whack while I still can.
St Raphael's is a 1970s council estate slotted in between the River Brent and the North Circular, with lowly streets named after social activists. Raheem Sterling grew up here, as did George The Poet, at least one of whom has since escaped to more exclusive climes. No buses run through the estate, they all start within and weave their way out. The 224 begins its circuitous journey at one end, beside a steel lavatory block for drivers' relief which residents in primmer parts of the capital would have complained about. I'm in luck, a bus is just about to depart, else it'd have been a tedious twenty minute wait.
We set off past a big wigwam within the St Raphael's edible garden, and a moribund shopping parade where the Desire Beauty Home Salon is on its last legs. Across a grassy mound Wembley Stadium appears, our ultimate destination, but although it's less than a mile away we're going all round the houses to reach it.
Twiddle Number One is a loop of IKEA and a double loop of Tesco. The Brent Park site has been selling flatpacks and tealights since 1988, marooned on a traffic island beside the North Circular with only three car parks to support it. Technically the bus is aiming for the supermarket, indeed that's where all the passengers who've boarded so far get out. But to get there requires following a gruelling one-way system and doing one section of perimeter road twice, which enables me to doublecheck that yes, the AA really have erected a sign pointing towards the Middlesex Meat Factory Shop. To escape we duck under the North Circular before finally joining it, past railway lands, distribution depots and pebbledash homes in need of triple glazing. Eventually we reach a point 100 metres away from where we were eight minutes ago, but on the opposite side of the central reservation. [Twiddle One: 8 mins]
Here comes the straight bit. Brentfield Road is best known as the home of BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, popularly known as Neasden Temple, a dazzling confection of marble domes and spires. It also has a massive car park across the road, because most worshippers don't come by bus. Ahead is the Stonebridge estate, the most deprived on our journey, where a mother wheels aboard a double-decker buggy after rescuing a chucked milk bottle from the pavement. We skirt Harlesden proper and head straight for the station, where a pair of decrepit 'Welcome To Harlesden' noticeboards manage to convey entirely the opposite meaning. The railway bridge offers a brief view up and down the mainline, including the fabled McVities factory (which alas isn't belching out the whiff of digestives as we go by). And then our journey goes full-on industrial.
The Park Royal trading estate is vast, a rare houseless zone one mile across and employing over thirty thousand people, all of whom need to get to work, and a lot of whom come by bus. Brent's largest hospital also just happens to have been plonked in the middle, so that's a transport magnet too. We divert round the backway to enter the realm of the Central Middlesex, past maternity, the chest clinic and lorries delivering medical supplies. Stopping outside the main entrance requires one and a quarter revolutions of the roundabout, so technically that's Twiddle Two, but let's not count that. Whoever designed the roundabout's exit lane laid too wide a pavement and forced an awkward turn single decker drivers don't enjoy, but ours struggles through.
Twiddle Number Two, proper, appears to be a courtesy trip for Park Royal Asda's shoppers. Rather than escaping immediately up Abbey Road the 224 does a full circuit of the supermarket, stopping once each on its northern, southern and eastern flanks. South is quite bleak. Buses in both directions complete this loop anti-clockwise, so one old lady waiting with her bagsful has to be told this isn't the 224 she wants, and all she can do is screech "so when is it coming?" at our extremely patient driver. Others climb aboard appropriately laden and thankfully mute. Slipping through two sets of traffic lights proves slow work. [Twiddle Two: 6 mins]
Here's where we start to head north again, because whoever designed the route in the first place thought why not. It's time to detour round further sheds, warehouses, factories and distribution depots, occasionally interspersed with hideaways where local workers can grab food and enjoy shisha-related entertainment. Cafe Royal looks like nowhere even Prince Andrew would frequent. The Abbey Point Cafe/B&B by the canal is currently adding an extension in an attempt to metamorphose into a hotel.
Twiddle Number Three is a double run up Twyford Abbey Road, introduced in 2006 to give a few residential streets hereabouts a direct bus service. The end of Iveagh Avenue is firmly blocked off so buses have to reverse around a narrow crescent where one badly parked vehicle could halt everything (and one nearly does). On the positive side, three passengers have taken advantage of our diversion and leapt aboard. [Twiddle Three: 5 mins]
A few final trading estates follow, because DHL and minor paint shops have to be based somewhere. What looks like a hill behind the Esso garage can only be an overgrown hump of landfill. And joy, we're back at the North Circular again, this time crossing its ten lane canyon from south to north. A hoarding declares that the development zone ahead, which used to be the Northfield Industrial Estate, will be A Place To Live, Work and Connect. Artist's impressions show shiny towers overshadowing the canal, in an attempt to lure 3000 incomers to the bleak badlands of Zone 3. That said, the excellent Ace Cafe is nextdoor, if under-motorcycled on a weekday lunchtime - every single black plastic chair facing the bike park is empty.
As we veer left just before Stonebridge Park station I note that the bus journey has so far lasted forty-five minutes but I could have walked here in less than fifteen, such is the warped contortion of the 224's route. The Tudorbethan homes on Beresford Avenue look very much the worse for wear, but Alperton's housing stock finally picks up along Mount Pleasant, and quite frankly it's about time. The journey thus far has rarely stepped higher than down-at-heel.
Twiddle Number Four is another double run, much longer this time, all the way down to Alperton Sainsbury's. We're going this way to pass the tube station as well as service the supermarket, with roughly the same number of passengers pouring off at each. Shops in the high street have an international flavour, but are all too easily ignored. The only two pubs we pass, The Boat and The Plough, are very closed. Some futuristic towers have already shot up by the canal, utterly incongruous but that's the way Alperton's heading these days. In two weeks' time the 224 will terminate here on the stand outside Sainsbury's, because a consultation has decided the last leg to Wembley is superfluous, and this double run will never happen again. But for now a fourth twiddle returns us past the station, and my meandering experience suggests TfL's planners have got it right. [Twiddle Four: 8 mins]
The last leg takes us north to Wembley, along a shopping street thickly lined by bazaars, cash and carries, Indian confectioners and jewellers. The number of jewellers is quite astonishing, each specialising in gold, their windows loaded with bangles, necklaces and other wearable bling. At one point our bus gets stuck behind a naan bread delivery van. Ealing Road's not entirely monocultural - at one point a Gospel Hall and a Methodist church survive to cater to other faiths - but its clear which economy is helping this street to thrive.
Footfall is higher once we turn onto the High Road, bringing betting shops and Polish supermarkets into the mix, as well as piri piri, Poundland and Primark. This is Wembley Central, another nexus of increasingly highrise living, though not yet on the same soulless scale as the boxy neighbourhood around the stadium. Our final stop is near the White Horse Bridge, opposite the Chiltern station, where the last three of us on board finally alight. We could have completed the last leg from Alperton aboard an 83 or a 483, so the 224 surely won't be missed. And then, to prove a point, I walk back to the first bus stop in St Raphael's and it takes less than 20 minutes, because that's how twisted and contrived the 224 is. Good riddance. [Total twiddles: 27 minutes]