I'm heading by bus into northeast London's unsung suburbs. You've heard of Hainault, but no railways reach further out so Marks Gate and Collier Row are mysteries to most. Less so, hopefully, after the following.
ROUND LONDON BY BUS(xxi)
Route 247: Fulwell Cross - Romford Length of journey: 7 miles, 30 minutes
A lot of people are waiting to escape from the top of Barkingside High Street, most I'd say at the lower end of the London earnings spectrum. And most don't want to go far, merely to lug their cheap shopping home to the estates located around and inside the Hainault Loop. Various other bus services arrive to spirit them away, before a 247 eventually appears and there is a polite bundle for the front door. One passenger who's forgotten their Oyster needs to pay by cash - a simple privilege they'll be denied on the buses come the summer. I'm the last to climb aboard, so am surprised to discover the top front seat is clear until I spot the two empty boxes of chicken nuggets I'll need to shift aside.
The streets of outer Redbridge are not dripping with history, save that of farms turned over to housing in the mid 20th century. A couple of pubs - the New Fairlop Oak and the Old Maypole - hint at rural scenes lost and replaced. Near the latter a gaggle of girls throng aboard, splitting into two groups as they briefly take over the top deck. "She said we were embarrassing," says one, "how are we embarrassing?" It's a question I'll easily be able to answer, with evidence, before the end of my journey. A lot more people board at Hainault station, because we are the bus that provides the crucial last link from the end of the tube to home. Hainault proper is more residential than most, a maze of bungalows and LCC semis, plus a central shopping parade. We don't touch the shops but pass by up a wide-verged avenue, where building companies are keen to buy up any spare gap between homes to cram in another.
At Yellowpine Way a boyband boards, or rather three over-gelled over-dyed teenagers ascend to the upper deck. The girls further back are agog, but the objects of their infatuation instead spend the rest of the trip lusting after every sports car that drives by. Hainault Forest Country Park marks the edge of the Green Belt, with the grass covered by London 2012's temporary military camp still fenced off to recover. Where the dual carriageway ends is another 2012-related venue - the road cycling circuit displaced by the Velodrome, now a permanent addition to Redbridge's leisure offering. It's being fairly well used as we pass, though more by families with children to tire than by serious lycra-clad racers. Then descending Hog Hill comes an unexpectedly long-range view to the unhilly east, across the low rooftops of Havering towards my ultimate destination, the QE2 Bridge.
It's time for a whizz down Whalebone Lane (North). Acres of soggy fields stretch off to either side - I know of no other part of London as arable as this. Now there are distant views to the west, from Docklands round to the BT Tower, rising far across a broad expanse of ploughed mud. A different City Pavilion stands here, on the tip of Marks Gate, beside a roundabout pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Within its warehouse walls are five bars, two restaurants and a bowling centre, the latter the source of passengers rolling home to Romford. By now the three metrosexual lads are fixated on Mazda-spotting, debating whether that last red sports car was an RX8 or not, while the girls behind them giggle immaturely. And then we're bouncing back to the outskirts, our tenpin detour complete, to enter Havering, my final London borough.
Across the River Rom lies Collier Row, a sprawling suburb built across lands once inhabited only by charcoal burners. Growth came fast between the wars, so swiftly that theplace even merited its own cinema, but that's now a Tesco Metro because such is the future. A fair proportion of the population moved out here from the East End, hence the existence of a seafood stall in the car park of the Bell and Gate - The Jolly Cockle. Two-bedroom homes still sell for under 200K out here, if you're looking for affordable London and don't mind taking the bus everywhere.
I'd appreciate it if we continued straight ahead at the Colliers Row roundabout because my next bus passes barely half a mile away. But no, this is where the 247 turns right and heads for Romford, and I'm not allowed to get off and walk the intermediate gap. We thunder unhelpfully south towards the busy A12, past the entirely underwhelming Havering Guest House. It's a long hike, with houses gradually making way for borderline lowbrow retail. A lengthy pause is taken outside the Romford Bus Garage, where our driver stops to chat to friends in uniform, but is not replaced. I'm now having to endure Top-Gear-level chatter from the three automotive addicts, who are discussing the ideal turquoise shade of their dream car and what kind of tyres it'd have. So when Romford's ringroad finally appears it's a pleasure to join everyone else alighting for the shops, two stops before the end of the route. 499>>