diamond geezer

 Monday, June 18, 2012

Route 38: Victoria - Hackney Central
New Bus For London: LT4       Date: Saturday

 Route 38: Clapton Pond - Victoria
Routemaster: RM5       Date: Sunday

Henry, the precocious five year-old, is very excited. He's persuaded his parents to take him for a ride "on the new Routemaster", but half a dozen other people have had the same idea, so now he grabs the one remaining front seat on the top deck. Mummy has to sit behind, and Daddy is left to settle for several seats further back. Henry babbles forth, eyes wide, thrilled to be finally aboard. He reads aloud the next destination on the display unit, and points out to Mummy that normally these stick out but this box doesn't. She agrees and comments back that the front window is curved and really very large, and then they have an in-depth chat about how soft or hard the grab-rail is.

There's a smell in the air like an incontinent corner of a hospital ward, but that'll be because this is the newest bus on the streets of London. Only four of these vehicles are in service so far, which is hardly a revolution, and still outnumbered by the genuine Routemasters on London's heritage routes. When a second New Bus passes in the opposite direction Henry points with glee, and almost explodes. "Is that in your bus spotters book?" asks Mummy, and the general agreement is that it's not. Henry knows that our bus terminates at Hackney and has plans for the rest of the family's day out. "Mummy we can ride the Overground," he says, correctly listing all the possible destinations.

I'd like to tell Henry that today is route 38's 100th birthday, because I think this news would make him squeal, but I keep quiet. I fear I was just as loud and precocious when I was five, merrily spouting forth a stream of comments and facts while riding a bus, without a thought as to what those sitting around me might be thinking. My long-suffering parents took it all in their stride, and Henry's Mummy is succeeding gamely too. She asks Henry how long ago the 207 lost its bendy buses, and he knows... and then goes back to sucking on his Ben 10 drinks bottle.

Henry's Daddy has finally moved up the bus, and sounds mildly pissed off that a public transport safari has hijacked his afternoon. "Don't be a grump," says Mummy, "this is quality time." She then lies about how many more minutes the bus has to go - a wilful underestimate - and puts her foot down when Daddy wants to make an early break in Dalston. Only when Henry's not listening does Mummy whisper that in truth she's not a fan of the New Bus at all because "it feels like a coach". Henry meanwhile has been distracted by a fire engine, and a Tupperware box of cucumber batons, and is beginning to find the whole experience somewhat less than stimulating. When a third New Bus sails by he fails to notice, and if anything is in danger of feeling a little travel sick.

In Hackney we all troop off, apart from the elderly gentleman who's been sitting next to Henry who fails to notice that this bus terminates here. He has to be nudged off by the conductor, or whatever the job title of the rear platform operative is, and the bus then runs empty to the Mare Street garage. By now Henry is bouncing off to the Overground station, taking his parents to the John Lewis at Westfield where they've agreed to buy him an Olympic t-shirt. Precocious, obsessed and subtly manipulative - no really, I'm sure I was never like that at all.
 Not everybody waiting beside the pond knows that the special bus is coming. When the bog-standard 38 turns up a dozen locals climb on board, but those in the know hold back, and their patience is rewarded by the arrival of a vehicle from fifty years ago. "38 to Victoria. No Oyster. Free bus today." If only they'd waited. A lady from the Maggie's charity is going around with a bucket for donations, no pressure, and there's a special sticker to wear if you contribute. Everybody contributes. And we're off.

The bus's lack of suspension is very obvious as we twist and bump our way down Mare Street. A phalanx of photographers is waiting at the bottom, outside M&S, keen to snap away as we stop to pick up passengers. Or we try to. Those waiting don't seem convinced that this is a genuine service, because it doesn't look like one, however much our conductor pleads. Along Graham Road we score a success, as a woman breaks off from her mobile conversation just long enough to be persuaded aboard. "I'm on the old 38, it's brilliant!" she tells her invisible friend, before ringing off and taking a photo of herself to prove it's all real.

There are no scrolling health and safety messages, so the conductor has to warn one passenger "If you want to get off between stops it's at your own risk." On go the top deck's lights - a series of frosted bulbs screwed into the ceiling, and a far lovelier design than anything that's followed. Down the Essex Road a man with a missing tooth smiles and waves his copy of the Sun at us as we pass. We leapfrog ahead of the normal 38 we were following, which brings us to Angel where a large queue is waiting. Here at last the message gets through, and the top deck fills with proper passengers - the bus is alive.

Our first sighting of the New Bus is followed shortly after by the day's oldest bus, the vintage K-type from 1920. Someone's gone to a lot of effort to stick the correct number on the side, above the Schweppes Lemon Squash advert, and to paint a full list of destinations on the front. The driver is wearing a white coat and peaked hat, looking suspiciously like a milkman, sat behind his tiny control panel on a raised open seat. Almost all of the passengers are upstairs - a specially invited crowd of bus company managers, TfL bigwigs and the occasional family member. They wave and smile and take photos from the open upper deck, clearly excited to be riding the streets in a vehicle that normally lives in a museum.

We ride on into central London, picking up more accidental but secretly delighted passengers. "Ooh I thought I might see you on here," says one bus addict to his friend, plonks down next to him, and they proceed to drone on and on and on about technical transport matters for the remainder of the journey. At Cambridge Circus the conductor has to announce manually that "this bus is on diversion", deviating via Trafalgar Square to avoid the aftermath of a Hare Krishna parade down Piccadilly. But for those of us still aboard, we're on for the duration, heading for Victoria bus station where yet more photographers are keenly waiting. Seven years ago every journey into Central London was aboard a Routemaster like this, but yesterday's commemorative trips on the 38 were a special, treasured rarity.

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