diamond geezer

 Sunday, December 15, 2013

Route 388: Blackfriars - Stratford City
Location: London east
Length of journey: 7 miles, 45 minutes

When last I left you, we'd reached Blackfriars station after a saunter along the Embankment. Now here we are again, but this time waiting for the new bus to the Olympic Park. I'd like to claim that this overlap is carefully planned, whereas in fact it's just a glorious coincidence.

A quick bit of omnibus history. The 388 bus route was born ten years ago, linking Mansion House to Hackney Wick. The City end was later extended to Blackfriars, and briefly to Embankment station while Blackfriars tube was closed for rebuilding. Yesterday the eastern end of the route was tweaked (in line with long-standing plans) to extend the route to Stratford City [map]. Ignore the fact that nobody in their right mind would want to take a bus from Blackfriars to Westfield via Bethnal Green and Hackney, because this is all about local linkage, not long-distance travel. And join me for a top deck ride, why don't you, with the bonus of an Olympic viewpoint at the end.

The 388 kicks off opposite the old exit from Blackfriars station. More particularly that's outside the front door of an American banking company, whose employees muster on the pavement by the bus stop to puff smoke and gossip. The bus pauses a few yards down the road to give the driver a chance to rest his feet on the steering wheel, then pulls up and swallows up any waiting passengers. They're old buses these, for London at least, with unusually narrow text on the front which makes destination-squinting hard. On setting off, the Walkie Talkie building is clearly framed between the sides of Queen Victoria Street, distracting from the not entirely lovely architecture along here. The Church of Scientology has its offices on the left and would love to invite you inside for a "Personality Test", but thankfully you're on a bus so can't oblige.

Watch out for the stream of tourists trotting between St Paul's and the Millennium Bridge, they'll probably halt the bus at the pedestrian crossing. Sit tight through the City of London security chicane. Then beyond Mansion House station is a huge hole, formerly Bucklersbury House, where Bloomberg's European headquarters is being constructed. So far only a few cranes and a lift shaft rise from the four-storey basement, but in two years' time this'll be a fully clad media monster. Then there's a long wait to enter the multi-road junction at Bank, already the third underground station the 388 has passed along its way. A few festive shoppers have come to the Royal Exchange for luxury gifts, forgetting it's closed at weekends, while a couple of not-yet-drunk twenty-something Santas wait at a bus stop. Threadneedle Street is a tight squeeze.

This next stretch of the route, i.e. Bishopsgate, is one I repeatedly find myself on when blogging about buses. Indeed of the 13 buses that pass Liverpool Steet station I've somehow blogged about more than half of them, so I'm almost running out of things to say. Nevertheless this gives me the opportunity for a regular check on the Pinnacle, planned to be the City's tallest skyscraper (still nothing doing on site for the last two years). A check too on the decay of Norton Folgate, where the Savoy 'restaurant' somehow survives but every building to the south is boarded up and bereft. We have actual passengers on board now, not just me, including three European gentlemen who bound up to the top deck and are silently annoyed to find one of the front seats taken. I understand nothing of what they're saying apart from the word "Westfield", which means the 388 has hit the passenger jackpot on day one.

This being Shoreditch, or at least the edge of it, the yellow woolly hats and Adidas shoulder bags are out in force. At Boxpark, where we turn right, almost half the container boutiques appear to have shoppers inside. But the hipster vibe gently slips away as we head east, with a particular dip after crossing Brick Lane. Here the independent bars and restaurants become garment shops and takeaways, and the frivolous switches to the useful. A market runs in front of the shops down Bethnal Green Road, selling mostly fruit and vegetables, cheaper than at the major Tesco across the street. Those boarding the 388 here don't want to go to Westfield, they're more likely to be heading home dangling an unbranded carrier bag. One pub on the left promises roast lunches with the best Yorkshires outside Yorkshire, which I doubt. Another shop on the right sells "toys, gifts and stationery's", where the aberrant apostrophe is such a shame after they actually managed to spell the last word correctly.

The 388's zigzag continues with a left hook up Cambridge Heath Road. The Museum of Childhood is the main cultural outpost, swiftly passed. A string of motor repair shops fill the railway arches, and the fashions being worn are (sorry Hackney) somewhat drabber. Travelling Stratford-ward means driving further up Mare Street than is the case in the opposite direction, thanks to one way traffic along Victoria Park Road, which is a shame because I could write uplifting things about the village feel on Lauriston Road. Instead the bus turns right at Iceland, opposite the umpteenth betting shop, and enters the most residential section of its route. Cassland Crescent is the highlight, a half-moon of pristine lawn surrounded by Victorian terraces. Later council blocks on the Gascoyne Estate are less inspiring, although Vaine House is currently being renovated under the "Decent Homes Programme" and may emerge bolder and brighter.

At the foot of the hill we enter the valley of the Hackney Brook, now a stream of traffic heading towards, or underneath, the A12. We've reached Hackney Wick, where the 388 used to terminate between the dual carriageway viaduct and some new flats. The church here is undergoing serious upheaval - specifically being surrounded by "26 luxury new build and loft-style apartments sensitively redeveloped" - and it's hard to reconcile the vicar's mission statement with the pig-ugly blocks arising on each side.

And then a major surprise. For the last five months the 588 bus has connected Hackney Wick to Stratford via a temporary round-the-houses route. Its last day was always meant to be Friday, with the 388's extension its permanent replacement. So I was shocked to see it still running on Saturday, just as it had been since July, transporting mostly air through the Olympic Park. Has there been mess up with dates on contracts, or is one bus company simply unwilling to let go? Whatever, there are currently two buses linking Hackney Wick to Stratford City, the 588 entirely unnecessarily, and TfL are throwing funding money down the drain.

Ahead, at the bridge over the River Lea Navigation, is the reason the 388's extension has been delayed. The roadway was only wide enough for one way traffic, so contractors have been busy all year remodelling the bridge. They still haven't finished, there are still orange barriers along one side of the parapet, but the contraflow bus lane is ready enough to allow a bus route to pass. It's there for bikes and taxis too, although it's not much fun heading west on two wheels weaving in and out of jammed traffic queueing at the Eastway lights. Looming alongside, in the top right corner of the Olympic Park is the multi-storey car park for 2012's International Broadcast Centre. It's being modified to become the iCITY development, Hackney's greatest gift from the Games, and already home to BT Sport's football output. Just don't expect to find a bus stop anywhere near - the 388 runs for almost a mile here without stopping.

At the end of the Eastway is a massively complicated road junction which I've watched evolving over the last couple of years, now seemingly complete. A spider's web of lanes and slip roads helps guide traffic on and off the A12 and funnel it down towards the shops at Westfield. Good luck if you're a pedestrian, this part of town isn't really for you. Waterden Road runs round the back of what used to be the pink and blue hockey pitches, and is now a fenced-off unconvincing lawn. There's a good view of the Velodrome and the rest of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park from the top deck, and of the Olympic rings that have just been re-erected in pride of place on the toppermost mound. The park was astonishingly empty on Saturday morning, with visitors outnumbered by four security guards, so the 388 isn't yet doing its job of bringing in the punters.

We sped by the bus stop at the Copper Box, the first since Hackney Wick, and over the Lea chasm at the heart of the Olympic Park. Stratford City rises ahead, now firmly embedded in East London as an island of rampant commercialism. Pick the wrong time of the week and you can be stuck in long queues on the approach, pick another and these perimeter roads are silent as country lanes. My three European travelling companions decided to alight at the penultimate stop, the first with Westfield in its title, which was a relief because I was tired of their babbling. Only two of us made it to the bus station, dropped amid the chaos of a pre-Christmas Saturday. And there was a 588 parked up, and another 388 ready to leave, as the pointless double timetabling of buses through QEOP continues. But for how long?

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