Square Routes: Day 6 x 6
Bus 36: New Cross - Queen's Park Location: London southeast-northwest, inner Length of journey: 9 miles, 65 minutes
And now for something just a little bit special. The 36 is one of London's seven remaining Routemaster routes, or at least it is for the next couple of months. I rode it just in time because on 28th January next year all the Routemasters on route 36 are due to be whisked away and replaced by a fleet of anonymous (but accessible) buses. The accessibility argument is especially weak in this case because the 36 is shadowed along almost all of its route by bendy bus route 436. Given the choice, as far as I could tell, passengers waiting at bus stops were far more likely to board a friendly 36 than an impersonal 436 if both arrived together.
The 36 is the longest of London's remaining Routemaster routes, crossing the capital from southeast to northwest. The route used to be even longer (and there used to be a 36A and 36B too) but the original southern terminus at Hither Green was cut back to Lewisham in 1991 and shorn still further in 1994. The route now begins in New Cross, just along the road from the bus garage, and it was here that I leapt onto the open platform ready to be carried away. The bus headed off on a direct line through South Caribbean London, where fast food shops sell patties instead of burgers and where plantains are ten for a pound. We passed shabby old housing infilled with trendy new apartment blocks, we squeezed through the bustling pedestrianised main shopping street in Peckham and the engine throbbed as we queued to traverse the ancient crossroads at CamberwellGreen.
I was surprised to discover that a TV screen had been placed just above the window at the front of this old Routemaster, broadcasting a diet of adverts, news, adverts, information and more adverts to the captive audience on the upper deck. I watched Michael Palin dash through the Arctic pulled by huskies approximately every ten minutes throughout the journey and I learned that transferring money to Ghana and Cameroon needn't cost the earth with Cashmo. Most eerie of all, however, were the occasional live shots taken by a small black and white camera positioned just above the bus's rear platform. Watching people hopping on and off was like viewing an old sepia film from yesteryear, and a reminder of these buses' long and distinguished heritage.
In Kennington I was treated to a grandstand view of the Oval cricket ground (now the ghastly-named Brit Oval) and of a vast crescent of green plastic seats which next month will be opened as the redeveloped Vauxhall End. We drove on round VauxhallCross, a giant ring road which has been undergoing a radical facelift for what seems like forever. In the centre of the roundabout lay a gleaming new bus station with futuristic steel canopy, but completion was running months behind schedule and, when we passed by, the slip road remained barriered to all traffic. (Update: the bus station opened on Saturday) On our way across Vauxhall Bridge we passed the landmark owl-shaped towers of St George Wharf, while over the river in upmarket Pimlico I spotted "Noel Coward House" (you wouldn't get away with a name like that in South London).
At Victoria the bus's clientele altered - south London disembarked and north London clambered aboard. Two hoodied boys bounded up to the top deck and spent the next 15 minutes discussing PlayStation strategy in white middle-class street patois ("did ya see the boss demon on the next level, well hard he was"). Leaf fall along Grosvenor Place allowed us to see directly into the Queen's back garden (nice tennis courts you have there, Ma'am). Up at Speaker's Corner the audience numbered only six, so there was no need for one over-optimistic orator to have brought a stepladder along with him. And a volley of passengers leapt off the platform at the Royal Oak traffic lights, as if making up for the fact that they won't be able to do so in two months time.
The final leg of the journey headed northwest into inner suburbia, crossing over the main Paddington railway line, beneath the concrete pillars of the A40Westway and above the Grand Union canal. Our bus played leapfrog with another, each taking on passengers at alternate stops as we wended our way through the last few streets of terraced villas. Our destination was a quiet triangle of roads beside Queen's Park station, at which point the conductor babysat the bus for a couple of minutes while the driver popped off to the nearby corner shop. Two Routemaster fans were standing around snapping photos of the doomed buses as each pulled up. I joined them and made three.