Route 19: Battersea Bridge - Finsbury Park Location: London southwest/northeast, inner Length of journey: 8 miles, 85 minutes
Routemaster operation ceased on Route 19 on April 1st this year. No joke. I took one last ride on the old 19 the week before, just so that I didn't miss out. I headed down to Thames-side Battersea one wet weekday afternoon, waiting in the light drizzle beside an upmarket reed-backed florist's kiosk. The changeover was already underway so I had to wait for 15 minutes while a couple of dull modern double deckers emerged from the tumbledown old shed that doubles as Battersea bus garage. But I successfully grabbed the top-deck front-seat view on the next vintage vehicle for a snail's pace crawl across Central London, and suddenly the wait was worthwhile. The pair of Japanese tourists sat beside me clearly agreed, and snapped away towards Chelsea Wharf and that power station as the bus queued across the river.
The best thing about riding a bus all the way along the King's Road is that you can't get off and buy anything. Instead you can look down on the ladies who lunch, lugging their haute couture carrier bags from boutique to boutique as they try to decide which designer pashmina to slap on the platinum card next. Inbetween the label-obsessed shops it's all posh terraces and garden squares, and crocodiles of blazered schoolkids trotting meekly off to prep. My bus then got stuck in Knightsbridge gridlock for a miserable 20 minutes, but (unlike now) those Japanese tourists were still able to hop off the open platform and escape with ease. We chugged round Hyde Park Corner, we transported some Chelsea nobs to the art galleries up Piccadilly and we paraded proudly up Shaftesbury Avenue (at the time the only road in Central London where every bus was still a Routemaster).
I've always been impressed by the memory skills of the conductors aboard crew-operated buses. The first time they tour the bus they pinpoint you with an arresting stare and ask to see your ticket or to cough up the relevant fare. The second time they come round they seem to remember that your presence has already been vaildated and so concentrate their friendly glare on other, more recently boarded passengers instead. It's a tough mental task to perform on an ever-changing sea of transient faces, which may be why somewhere up Charing Cross Road the conductor on my particular bus failed and asked to check my Oystercard for a second time. I blame the excessive sluggishness of our journey, or maybe the fact that he was probably preoccupied by his imminent redundancy.
It was at about this time, a full hour into the journey, that I got to share my top deck view with a genuine minor celebrity and his friend the bus fanatic. The minor celeb was BBC London 94.9FM presenter Simon Lederman. You've probably never heard of him, and neither had I, but his name was written on an envelope and Google is a wonderful thing. Simon's on-board rendezvous was to check the Radio London advert in the Cobham Bus Museum Open Day programme, and to collect some prize tickets to give away on air. An almost fascinating half hour discussion ensued, which I couldn't help but overhear, sorry gents. I learnt that introducing the new fleet of buses on Route 19 would greatly increase passenger loading time, that one of the best places to photograph doomed Routemasters was up Rosebery Avenue opposite Sadlers Wells Theatre (no shadows, apparently), and that the Open Day advertising leaflet should perhaps have been proofread more carefully before being printed.
And then, without warning, our bus terminated a mile and a half early, just outside Highbury & Islington station. No excuse was given but I suspect (very) late running was to blame. There were no other 19 Routemasters in sight so, purely for comparative purposes, I rode the rest of the route on the following (very) ordinary double decker. The replacement boxy 19 had that fresh-out-of-the-garage smell that 40-year-old buses don't have, as well as fairly lurid green upholstery and zero character. The journey was mundane and ordinary, enlivened only by the sight of Highbury Stadium up a sideroad as the bus approached its destination at Finsbury Park. Arsenal's old ground may be doomed to residential obsolescence within the next six months, but that's still six months longer than its fellow London design classic, the Routemaster bus. Thirty hours and counting.
Route 19: anorak-level route information
Route 19: timetable
Route 19: last day of Routemaster service (April 2005)