Bus 44: Victoria - Tooting Location: London south Length of journey: 7 miles, 55 minutes
Another birthday, another numerically significant bus journey. Two years ago I took the 42 to Dulwich, and last year the 43 to Barnet. So this year I thought I'd ride the 44 to Tooting. That's an hour of my life I'll never get back...
A heck of a lot of buses start their journeys from Victoria station, or thereabouts. But the 44 doesn't start from anywhere obvious, like the bus station or the pavement immediately outside the mainline station. Instead I had to thread north to Victoria Street, outside the least busy Underground entrance, and wait patiently in front of a parade of rundown shops. Joining me at bus stop G were a trio of Chelsea pensioners, each with a telltale RH insignia on their cap and a bright red pinstripe down their immaculate trousers. I hoped that they might be joining me on my journey but no, they were off to Chelsea and I was off on a guided tour of the London borough of Wandsworth. I think they got the better deal.
When my bus finally emerged from beyond a barrier of roadworks, I nipped up to the top deck in order to enjoy the best possible view. We drove off down Buckingham Palace Road, towards the end the Queen definitely wouldn't live at. The bus sped past Victoria Coach Station, beyond which a herd of parked-up police cars filled the central reservation. A pile of rubble alongside Ebury Bridge Road marked the site of Chelsea Barracks, sold off last year and destined to re-emerge as Britain's most expensive residential development. The owners hope to create "the 21st century equivalent of the great estates of Mayfair and Belgravia", but they'll more likely create a pile of bog-standard towers with zero character.
Highlight of the journey was the Thames-top panorama viewed from Chelsea Bridge, alas over too swiftly. There followed a cliff-face of upmarket apartments opposite Battersea Park, and the Lego-block cathedral of QVC's TV studios. By this point I had the entire top deck of the bus to myself, as if nobody else felt the need to venture any further into deepest Battersea. Three old ladies wearing woollen hats and headscarves waited to board outside the Eagle Tavern, then thought better of it and stayed to chat on the pavement. On we chugged past non-glam non-clone shops, plus the rather more alluring sight of Battersea High Street market. For some reason the 44 seemed to be stopping at different bus stops to all the other routes, perhaps experiencing some form of segregated apartheid.
As Wandsworth approached, the sky to the north grew thicker with tall glassy riverside apartments. A futuristic nuclearsculpture hung above the centre of the main roundabout, its artistic integrity considerably weakened by four advertising hoardings hung at its centre. It came as no surprise to discover that the bleak concrete underpass beneath the roadway was the location of the opening beat-em-up scene in Kubrick's classic A Clockwork Orange. Rather more charming was the narrow street of shops past the railway bridge, all independent fish bars and artisan outlets - a rare outpost of class amid what was to come.
Just past the Town Hall, the traffic jams began. I had rather too long to look down at what used to be the Ram Brewery (closed) and what used to be the Wandsworth Museum (closed) and what is still the Southside mall (very open). Here the top deck refreshed, with Battersea residents flooding down to spend their time and money shopping, and a fresh collection of passengers climbing the stairs to journey into residential suburbia. I ended up sharing the front seats with a Polish dad and his daughter, jabbering away in k's and z's and w's. We negotiated Garrett Lane in slow mode, running parallel to the River Wandle down to Earlsfield and beyond. A brief upmarket patch was marked by a cluster of antique shops and delicatessens, but otherwise it was launderettes and tiny front gardens all the way.
And finally Tooting, home to the first tube station we'd passed since Victoria, and therefore another very popular destination. Only a short distance to go now, so none of the crowds waiting along Mitcham Road wanted to board the 44. I still had much to see. That Gala Bingo Hall, the one with the towering Italianate columns, used to be one of the most spectacularcinemas in Britain and is Grade I listed. There's Smith Brothers department store, a traditional family-owned outlet (alas with no connection to local renegade Citizen Wolfie Smith). And that West Indian bakery used to be a recording studio, where one of my favourite 80s bands produced their very finest work.
A last turn round Amen Corner (it's nothing spiritual, just a set of traffic lights where a trinity of roads meet) and then my ride was at an end. The 44 terminates just before Tooting station, immediately before Wandsworth metamorphoses into Merton, in the shadow of a stark brick policestation. As the doors beeped open I was unceremoniously dumped outside an international convenience store selling pineapples, melons and butternut squash. High on its facade, moulded into the plasterwork and dated 1934, was a bright flaming sunrise labelled 'Progress'. I took a brief look round, and progressed swiftly back the way I had come.