diamond geezer

 Sunday, November 02, 2008

Bus 16: Victoria - Cricklewood (Bus Garage)
Location: London northwest
Length of journey: 6 miles, 40 minutes

Our capital's first coherent system of bus route numbering was introduced on Monday 2nd November 1908. Only one London bus still plies the same route as it did 100 years ago, and that's the 16. Its route has been stretched and tweaked and contracted over the years, but the current journey from central London to the suburbs is identical (one-way-systems excepted) to the Edwardian omnibus original. I've been for a centenary ride on its modern double decker equivalent, just to see if anything else about the journey is still the same. Destination Cricklewood.

16... to... Cricklewood Bus GarageNobody queues for buses any more. Not in the street outside Victoria anyway. The 16's not allowed in the shiny bus station, there's no room, so each service kicks off in gridlocked Wilton Road beneath a picture of a musical witch. Passengers attempt to guess precisely where the driver will stop, then charge willy nilly for the door in an attempt to grab the least worst seat for the journey ahead. I wanted upper deck front left - alas no longer an open-topped pleasure, but at least now glassed in to protect me from passing branches. And off through the one-way streets of Belgravia, peering down through autumnal leaves into the Queen's back garden (I bet Edward VII never had a tennis court). Hyde Park Corner was well named in 1908, not a four-lane gyratory, and there was still space around the Wellington Arch for memorials to wars as yet unimagined. "16 to Cricklewood Bus Garage". "Marble Arch."

I'd been fortunate to catch a bus running a few minutes behind the previous service, so we sailed past most of the early bus stops without pausing. My top deck solitude was only broken as we started up the Edgware Road. Most of the pensioners and pushchairs and veiled ladies stayed downstairs, but one gentleman ascended to claim the other front seat where he proceeded to read his exotic newspaper. It's a bit of Arabian bazaar up this stretch of road, full of shisha caf├ęs and Maroush restaurants, and even 1908 travellers would have noted Middle Eastern migrants settled in the area. They'd probably not have recognised the casino or the multi-storey drum-like primary school, however, and they'd have been surprised at the scale of the Waitrose supermarket preparing to open here later in the month.

16, upper deck, front seatMore passengers. A young boy scampered up the stairs, closely followed by his Dad, and noted with visible disappointment that both of the front seats were taken. The pair of them tucked into the seat immediately behind me, and I felt warm breath on my ear as the youngster leaned forward to peer out of the front window. Fat mum squeezed in beside me shortly afterwards, chewing relentlessly beneath her pink headscarf and keeping firm hold on a plump leather clutch bag. I tried hard to cut out the chatter, knowing full well that all three of them wished I wasn't here. And at the next stop, they were gone.

There are some mighty high route numbers these days. A century ago anything above 20 would have been unheard of, and here I was sandwiched between a 332 and 414. My 16 chugged on into more residential territory, beneath a red-piped tower block and into the leafy suburb of Maida Vale. They've championed apartment living here for decades, and the wealthy eight-storey brick courts are far more desirable than any Thames Gateway newbuild. But the upmarket ambience didn't last long. Kilburn High Road was up next, a much more characterful mix of cultures and classes. Some of the buildings alongside have survived the century - the Cock Tavern declared itself 1900 vintage, while the Black Lion proudly displayed 1635 (ah no, hang on, that's the phone number). But the majority of the retail infill is newer and blockier and uglier. Even the lampposts were strange - thin and curved inwards like an intermittent ribcage. Kilburn's somewhere to sightsee, but more than attractive enough to local shoppers.

Kilburn Metropolitan line viaductThe traffic in the opposite direction was horrendous, backed up as far as the eye could see, with much of the congestion created by single cars attempting in vain to turn right. An illegally parked vehicle narrowed the road outside Stephens Menswear. As we attempted to pass, the car driver emerged from the sports shop nextdoor and strode out in the road to unlock her door. Fumble, key, fumble, poke, fail. With an apologetic stare she retreated to the pavement, no doubt reacting to an appropriately stern glare from our driver. He gave the brush off to another old woman lugging her basket on wheels slowly behind her down the middle of the bus lane. We couldn't move until her minute-long procession was over, and because she didn't reach the bus stop in time she was left behind.

On past a variety of Kilburn stations and the odd theatre, to ascend Shoot Up Hill. I was joined on the top deck by Gary Salisbury and his wife, easily identified from the name, address and telephone number written for all to see on a luggage tag hanging from his rucksack. If you ever meet Gary, please do try hard not to giggle at his fedora. The happy couple were heading for Cricklewood Broadway, a long shopping parade which would have been new when the first route 16 passed this way. It's now showing its age. Here cheap furniture shops sell piled-up sofas to cost-cutting landlords, and the Quick Clean Coin Operated Laundry still boasts of its featured Frigidaire Washers. The Crown Hotel still maintains a certain Victorian grandeur, if you like giant pubs with Irish hospitality and don't mind the ultra-modern extension attached nextdoor. Not for me thanks. By the time we reached Cricklewood Lane, two stops from the end of the ride, I was the only passenger left aboard.

Cricklewood Bus GarageThe 16 terminates beneath a railway bridge, virtually the only local feature which might be familiar to Edwardian travellers. The rest of the area's ugly and modern, from two vast Wickes and Matalan warehouses across the car park to the bland premises of newly-relocated Saxon College plonked beside a Lidl shed. Even the bus garage isn't what it was. The old buildings have been knocked down and replaced by a four-storey office block, which manages to be simultaneously eco-sustainable and architecturally vacuous. It's not quite finished yet, and neither is replacement parking for 200 buses, so all terminating services currently park up across the road on floodlit wasteland beside the Midland mainline.

100 years on, route 16's changed out of all recognition. The buses have a roof and talk to you. The streets are full of competing private transport. Shops sell barely-imagined goods at vastly-inflated prices. Children ride alone and shout rude words from the back seat. But there's still only one sensible way to get from central London to Cricklewood, and that's straight up Watling Street. The 16 follows in Roman footsteps, and its long history continues with every journey.

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