ACROSS LONDON BY BUS(iii) Route 148: Westminster - White City Length of journey: 6 miles, 40 minutes
For my third bus journey across London, I'm starting somewhere instantly recognisable. So world famous in fact that everyone around me is a tourist. My bus stop is halfway between the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey, so simply by waiting here I'm impeding the general flow of humanity. A lady with a bag full of gospel leaflets stands nearby, arm outstretched, silently pleading with passers-by to swipe her tract. Most ignore her, but the occasional hit brings a broader grin, then a dig in the bag, and a replacement leaflet springs into place. When my 148 finally arrives it's mostly full and I have to grab one of the last double seats at the back of the top deck. A group of German tourists boarding at the next stop are less fortunate and have to split five ways, each sitting next to a different lone traveller, then all turning round and taking photos of each other.
The road to Victoria starts with a variety of government departments and ends with big shops. Here's where civil servants come for lunch - most likely a snatched sandwich to take back to their desk, and maybe something useful from the chemist. Here too is my second cathedral of the day, a Neo-Byzantine colossus set back from the roadway... one quick gawp and it's gone. Outside Victoria station one of the bus stops is "out of use", replaced by a temporary stop no more than two metres up the road, which presumably made sense to the rule-following pedant who installed it. I'm more interested in trying to peer through the trees into the Queen's back garden - only possible at this time of year, although alas this isn't the season to spot royals playing tennis.
There's a certain touristi-ness to this section of the bus route, most likely because everyone in neighbouring Belgravia has their own car and wouldn't be seen dead in anything lower than a taxi. We pick up more tourists at HydeParkCorner, and lose a few along ParkLane, presumably back to their hotels for a rest, refreshment or packing. A post-retirement couple settle in behind me, relatively quietly until his phone goes off, and the next five minutes are spent relating their travel plans (via Croydon) in tedious detail. The older gentleman in front seems keener to cough up the contents of his lungs, repeatedly, although thankfully it doesn't sound contagious.
At Marble Arch, now home to a family of jelly babies, we turn left. The 148 runs along the entire top edge of Hyde Park, between white stucco terraces and glorious grassland. We appear to be following the slowest cyclist in London, resplendent in poncho, scarf and grey woolly hat, whose demeanour wrongly suggests she's cycling uphill into a fierce headwind. Every time we stop she sneaks slightly ahead, then we catch up and are stuck behind again, unable to overtake, and repeat. The front seat empties, and a small child drags his father up from behind to claim the best view. Dad points out things of interest, even takes a few SLR photos of some, while the youngster holds tight to the handrail in fearful excitement.
The 148's front seat nursery gains new customers at Notting Hill Gate, this time a face-painted boy returning from a birthday party with his mother. He's carrying a red helium balloon with a 6 on it, while she's scrutinising his bulging party bag to ensure that the contents are appropriate. I can't quite tell whether the green smear on the boy's face is supposed to be an off-colour tiger or a curly lettuce leaf, but the artist has achieved a remarkable resemblance if it's the latter. "Why do buses not have seatbelts?" asks Ollie, intelligently, then blows it by asking why they do have windows. Mum replies with an impromptu physics lesson, some two-way learning takes place, and then both troop off politely down the stairs. As I watch them walking away towards the grand terraces of Holland Park, I reassess the couple as au pair and child, and maybe real Mum will ask Ollie about his salad-face later.
The illusion of wealth fades fast at the Holland Park Roundabout, beyond which lies Shepherd's Bush and all points west. The bus all but empties opposite the station, where shoppers alight for the long walk to Westfield. We'll be driving a lot closer shortly, but most of those aboard can't wait that long. Slow progress around Shepherd's Bush Green encourages an unseen passenger to engage in angry repeated buzzing, but our driver's having none of it and the doors stay firmly closed until the next stop. A final ride up Wood Lane, for the few of us still on board, ends with a ridiculously convoluted spiral into the White City bus station. Three hours ago I left the largest retail centre in Kent, and here I am at the largest in West London. What is it about buses and shopping malls? 607>>
White City bus station: When Westfield opened its doors to excitable shoppers back in 2008, a important part of the construction was the bus station to the north. Numerous routes would converge here, either diverted or extended, creating the need for a new on-site bus depot. Two grade II listed Victorian brick buildings were duly restored and repurposed for the storage of vehicles. Originally used as generating stations for the forerunner of the Central Line, they'd later become machine tool shops for a construction company called Dimco. Their survival adds greatly to the ambience hereabouts, but also forces buses to drive a round-about route to pass by. What with traffic lights and filter lanes and one-way bendy curves, getting in or out of here is never fast. And maybe that's why this bus station appears to be woefully underused. Ten different bus routes start or finish here, and yet in ten minutes on Saturday afternoon there were never more than ten people waiting for a service to arrive, usually far less. The seating areas are nigh empty, even during peak shopping hours, and the member of staff sitting patiently in the information booth at the far end must have one of the most undisturbed jobs in the area. So where is everybody? Walking straight past to get to the tube, that's where, or more likely exiting Westfield via the Shepherd's Bush entrance and queueing like crazy for buses there. White City's a fine bus station, all canopiedand modern, but sometimes it seems you build and nobody comes.