diamond geezer

 Saturday, February 08, 2014

Only one bus runs along the western side of Heathrow Airport without terminating at Terminal 5, so that's the bus I'm taking. It's also my first venture onto a non-TfL bus during this orbital journey, hence a very different experience lies ahead. The 441 runs from Englefield Green, the other side of Egham, through Staines to Heathrow Airport. It's branded the 441 Flyer, with the 1 and the F run together in a way designers thought clever. And a ticket costs how much?

 Route 441: Ashford - Heathrow

 Length of journey: 7 miles, 25 minutes

I'm standing at a bus stop on the A30 London Road on the northern outskirts of Ashford. Across the road is a carpet fitters workshop, on the corner a suburban-friendly Harvester restaurant, and behind me a green bank leading up to the massive Staines Reservoirs. It's a cold morning, and the bus shelter isn't doing a great job of keeping out the wind. I watch the dual carriageway for sight of a bus of unknown colour approaching from Staines - the 441 only runs every half hour so I'd hate to miss one. After ten chilly minutes a white single decker appears, and I think the electronic display on the front reads 441, ah yes it does. But it's not pulling into the bus stop. The driver pauses in the inside lane and stares at me for quite some time in what I eventually deduce is a 'come hither' manner. He doesn't want to lose his place in the queue for the traffic lights ahead, so I wander out (and back down the road a bit) to climb aboard.

Many things about this bus are different. For a start there isn't a sheet of protective glass between me and the driver - they must trust the passengers out here in Surrey, or else management have health and safety a little lower down its agenda. And then there isn't an Oyster reader, so I have to hand over actual cash in what feels like a quaint 20th century way, but is of course perfectly normal for buses outside the capital. My ticket costs £3.50 (yes driver, that's single), which is one pound more than the equivalent cash fare in London, or two pounds more than with Oyster. Maybe the price helps to explain why half of all bus journeys in England are made in London, or maybe the causal link is the other way round. I head for my seat, which has a number a bit like being on coach, and slightly comfier material than I'm used to. I'm sat where there'd normally be a door, were this a London bus, and I'm still cold, a fact I put down to the inbuilt air-conditioning. Plus, oh, there's no electronic "next bus stop" display to tell me where I am, so I hope I get off in the right place.

The first stop is supposedly Ashford Hospital, although the enormous Tesco across the car park seems a greater draw for alighting passengers. We head along the edge of the reservoir, below millions of tons of water, to enter the urban village of Stanwell. Although dating back to the Domesday Book it's hard to spot much that looks old, bar the fine 12th century church with its tall spire and flinty walls. Instead the bus passes postwar residential overspill, no doubt built to house employees at very-nearby Heathrow Airport. There's a hint of hardship along the main shopping parade, not least a shop called simply "Affordable Shoes", whose unbranded frontage tells it like it is. When the 441 turns off the route of the 203 the bus stops change from roundels to provincial white rectangles, further evidence that TfL's influence has faded away. One of these is near the entrance to Stanwell's 17th century manor house, alas long demolished, and two caravans now fill the space between once grand gateposts.

The 441 continues to a sheep-infested T-junction sandwiched between reservoirs and gravel pits, then turns towards Stanwell Moor. This is the northernmost settlement in Surrey, and will probably remain so after recent proposals for the extension of Heathrow ruled out a southwestern extension to the airport. Planes still fly very close, with the line of the southern runway crossing the north end of the village. The 441 gains access to Stanwell Moor via the London Borough of Hillingdon, at a roundabout beyond which the grand swoop of Terminal 5 is clearly visible. The bus rolls off Airport Way and back into Surrey to give villagers without cars a half-hourly escape route. It turns left at The Anchor pub, then stops outside the post office and 'T5 Stores' before heading back out past the village hall. The Heathrow control tower can be clearly seen beyond the village sports ground, with flights to the Mediterranean somewhat closer.

The 441's local one way system means we've driven the next stretch of Stanwell Moor Road before. The lampposts ahead are shorter than usual, a sure sign of adjacent airport, as we veer off to follow the Western Perimeter Road. The grey bunker by the side of the road claims to be a "biodiversity site", which doesn't sound convincing until you realise that the emerging concrete channel is what's left of the Duke of Northumberland's River. One glance through the security fence reveals a large flock of blue, red and white tailfins parked up, this being BA's corner of Heathrow, and then the row of lights that marks the end of Runway 27L/09R. The bus is now approaching Terminal 5 but can only enter from the north, requiring a long run-in via the roundabout that welcomes traffic from the M25. There are a lot of taxis about, many joining the long queue to pick up a fare, as the world stands waiting to climb aboard ahead. One bus stop back we were outside a village shop, and now we're entering a global hub.

Terminal 5's bus station sits beneath the elevated departures deck. It's a dark and cavernous place, with more bus stops than you'd think any place needs, but then several of the waiting services are heading to individual car parks, crew stop-offs or hotels. We negotiate several belisha-ed crossings, stopping near arrivals to collect only two new passengers, who look like they do manual handling nearby. The 441 now runs through the Heathrow Freeflow Free Fare Zone, a little known concession covering all sides of the airport where you don't need a bus ticket to ride. Nobody takes advantage. Instead we ride round the Western Perimeter Road again - the 441's very loopy round here - and pass another set of runway lights on 27R/09L. Nipping across the DoN's River allows us to escape the airport proper and join the hangers-on on the Colnbrook Bypass. Amongst the essential services hereabouts are hotels, a McDonalds, an Immigration Removal Centre and more hotels for good measure, perfect for that 6am getaway. And here I alight, at the first stop on the Bath Road, my £3.50 perhaps well spent. U3>>

» route 441 - timetable
» route 441 - route map
» route 441 - heritage day 2011
» map of my journey so far

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