Deep in the heart of Hackney lies one of London's least visited water features. Smaller than the Serpentine, greyer than the Thames, shallower than West India Dock, this is Clapton Pond.
Looks almost glamorous here, doesn't it, but my photograph is oh-so carefully framed. Imagine a concrete puddle surrounded by tarmac surrounded by iron surrounded by brick. That's Clapton Pond. Most Londoners have at least heard of the place, if only as an exotic destination spied on the front of a passing Routemaster, because it's here at Clapton Pond that every northbound number 38 bus comes to rest. A succession of chugging double deckers queue here along a leafy sideroad, between the pond and some old almshouses, each patiently waiting its turn to return southward to civilisation. I came early one morning, by bus, to see this legendary terminus for myself.
Clapton Pond lies quiet and disregarded behind a cloak of iron railings. It's not a particularly big pond, but there's probably sufficient space to drown approximately eight bendy buses inside so it's not particularly small either. In the centre of the pond is an inaccessible concrete island camouflaged by a mini-forest of trees and verdant undergrowth. Blue plastic bags and crisp packets bob imperceptibly in the algae-strewn waters, and if any fish lurk in these shallow depths they choose to stay well hidden. A gang of Hackney pigeons lines up on the bank, as if preparing to dive in en masse, while stale crusts of bread litter the tarmac path around the perimeter. A second pigeon posse patrols beneath the trees beside the southern entrance, dining on scraps from the overflowing litter bins. Dogs are not welcome, but squirrels are tolerated. A decorative wooden bridge crosses the northern part of the pond, each end recently sealed by green-painted board so as not to contravene health and safety legislation. A willow silently weeps. The pages of an obscure Polish newspaper flutter open on a bench, where later homeless drunkards will gather to devour cans of value lager. In the northeastern corner stands a padlocked green municipal shed, a thin chimney emerging from its black-tiled roof. Nearby a takeaway chicken carton lies upturned beside a discarded wooden chair on a leaf-flecked patch of grass. An old man wearing a black beret enters through the single unlocked gate to sit alone with his memories. Across the road the manager of the Charlie's Angels Sauna rolls up the shutters, ready for another day's steaming. Through the hedge bus conductors can be heard, but not seen, joking with their fellow drivers as they wait until it's time to climb aboard again and head back into town.
And yet, despite all of the above, Clapton Pond retains a real sense of charm. Maybe that's because (unbelievably) it's nearly four centuries old, dug originally during the reign of James I and formerly used as a small reservoir. Today's pond may be little more than a fenced off concrete bowl attracting inebriated lowlife, but the leafy trees and still waters are in sharp contrast to the bleak urban landscape all around. For the past four decades this has also been a fitting destination for a much-loved bus but, just after 1am tomorrow morning, it'll be the final destination for the final Routemaster on route 38. Hankies at the ready. And when the obese bendy replacements arrive and park up at the water's edge, I have no doubt that the elusive elegance of Clapton Pond will be considerably diminished. A golden era ends today.