The Ultimate journey of life, the universe and everything
Bus 42: Liverpool Street - Denmark Hill Location: London south, inner Length of journey: 4 miles, 50 minutes
London's ultimate bus journey of life, the universe and everything begins in Worship Street, just to the north of Liverpool Street station. This lowly sideroad marks the precise boundary between the wealthy City of London and the rather needier borough of Hackney. On the rich side is one of London's biggest building sites, upon which the 35 storey BroadgateTower is being constructed. At the moment all you can see is a giant concrete shell surrounded by cranes, looming down over the railway tracks buried beneath, but when finished next year it'll be the third tallest building in the City, visible for miles around as a shiny glassy spike. The first number 42 bus stop is sited, more appropriately, on the poor side of the street. Here, outside a walled-off 5-a-side-football centre, stands a lonely bus shelter where almost nobody ever waits. I was the exception. The driver gave me a very strange look as I boarded, as if somehow unprepared for company so early in the route. And so we set off somewhat uncomfortably, across the girder-topped rail bridge, turning right into prosperity.
The 42 is an ugly bus, both inside and outside - a boxy single decker with almost no character whatsoever. The seat covers are a nasty combination of blue, pink and purple, and far too many of them face backwards. This proved unfortunate when a particularly large woman in a woolly hat climbed aboard and wedged herself in beside me, ignoring at least 6 empty rear-facing double seats. I breathed in and prayed for rapid deliverance. The bus creaked and rattled its way along the eastern edge of the City, all of its plastic fixtures vibrating as we orbited the oversized roundabout at Aldgate.
And then what should be the true highlight of the journey - the crossing of Tower Bridge. Unfortunately the worst place to view the bridge is from a passing single decker bus. You get a decent side view of the Tower itself as you go by, but alas the gothic towers of the Victorian bridge are completely hidden behind the vehicle's broad red roof. Your only hope of seeing Tower Bridge properly is if the central piers have been raised to let through some tall ship, in which case the 42 is diverted over neighbouring London Bridge from where the riverside panorama is rather more impressive.
And so down Tower Bridge Road into Bermondsey, the affluence of the City instantly forgotten. A photocopied sign in the window of a new yellow-striped building reveals that its grand opening by Jade Goody has been unceremoniously cancelled. An unassuming plaque on a very ordinary brick wall reveals that a block of council estate flats has been erected on the site of 11th century Bermondsey Abbey. The famous New CaledonianAntiques Market breathes commercial life into the area, but only on Friday mornings. And there was worse to come. As we entered the Old Kent Road our driver suddenly bolted from his cab and escaped onto the pavement rather than continue any further. It took several minutes for his replacement to emerge, shut the doors and continue our journey southward.
The AylesburyEstate is one of the largest housing estates in Europe, and also one of the poorest. The 42 heads straight through the middle, down a bleak concrete canyon lined by long narrow blocks of flats. A decade ago Tony Blair came to this run-down social backwater to make his first speech as Prime Minister. He pledged to fight for a brighter future, for Britain as a whole and the Aylesbury in particular. But that fresh start is hard to spot today. A few colourful backlit signs have been erected bearing uplifting messages ("Do Magic!" "Nobody Is Not Loved!" "Yeah Yeah Yippee Yippee Yeah!") but very few of the original blocks and walkways have yet been torn down to be replaced by something better. The area is very badly connected, shunned by every railway line in south London, and the 42 provides one of the few lifelines for escape.
The daffodils are blooming in Burgess Park, along the concreted canal and behind the boarded-up pub. Further down the road Camberwell Green is even less welcoming, once a village green, now a meeting place for yobs and massed pigeons. But things pick up a little, past the shops and a pair of hospitals, as the bus slowly empties and climbs the gentle slopes of Denmark Hill. Here at last is recognisable suburbia, complete with tree-lined avenues and a giant Wetherspoons.
The 42 turns left and drops down into a valley of slightly twee cottages. This is Sunray Avenue, at the junction with Casino Avenue, where this service terminates. I was ejected into an environment unlike any other along the journey, if only for its wholesome ordinariness. Three lads alighting in front of me decided to ride down the street in a discarded supermarket trolley before abandoning it in the gutter, blocking the path of the departing bus. A pit bull with a large stick in its mouth padded slowly home along the pavement in front of its ageing owner. It started raining, quite heavily. As I headed rapidly for the nearest bus shelter I wondered what my ride on the 42 had taught me about life, the universe and everything. Nothing special, I guess. Mostly harmless.