The first three S-prefixed buses circled Stratford in the early Seventies. This S1 is not one of these, but part of a Nineties foursome serving Sutton. The rest run infrequently or have been cancelled, but the S1 proved its worth and is now the backbone of suburbia. It also runs via several parts of London I'd never previously visited, which when you've lived here 13 years and 'get about' a lot, was most unexpected.
An A-Z of LONDON BUSES
Route S1: Lavender Fields - Banstead Length of journey: 9 miles, 70 minutes
When I heard that the S1 was being extendedto Lavender Fields, earlier this year, I assumed this was somewhere scenic. The Sutton area was once famed for its lavender, and Mayfield Lavender is still a (gorgeous) commercial concern. Alas that's near the southern end of the route, and the S1's Lavender Fields is a bog-standard housing estate close to Colliers Wood. The new terminus gleams, in that way fledgling bus shelters do, close to the mini-roundabout that allows the slightly-minibuses to turn around. When I arrive it's just starting to rain, so the driver gets off his phone and allows we two waiting passengers to board early. They're nice like that, bus drivers, sometimes.
My fellow passenger isn't going far, two stops in all. That's the entire extent of the S1's extension into unserved territory, indeed he could easily have walked to the main road in the five minutes we were waiting. But instead he used TfL's red taxi to hide from the rain, or avoid traipsing past the cemetery, or because he's a lazy sod, one of the three. And then he's off, and over the road, and straight onto a much more useful bus to Tooting Broadway. Down Figge's Marsh we gain another lazy sod, female this time, who lasts on board for only one stop. I'm starting to wonder if Merton residents are compulsively idle, or else the S1 has a magnetic attraction.
Pebbledash leads to parade leads to, oh, hang on, this is quite nice. Mitcham is one of the places en route I've inexplicably never been to before, and I'm quite impressed. The greenspace by the shops has an independent panini hut at one end, and further on an unmistakeably villagey vibe. The cricket ground remains at the heart of Mitcham life, a whirl of listed buildings around the perimeter, each discoverable via an information panel near the boundary. At the next stop a blind man is waiting, alone, so has to ask the driver which service this is... and then lets us go without boarding. It strikes me that all these iBus route announcements ("S1... to... Banstead") are no use when trying to work out whether to get on, only to confirm you're on the right bus after it's left.
Our exit from the town centre becomes increasingly green, then positively undeveloped along the edge of Mitcham Common. How fortunate the residents of Mitcham Garden Village, tucked into a snail-like whorl between the railway and the woods. So this is Mitcham Junction station, is it? It's about a mile out of town surrounded by golf course and industrial estate, hence not as useful as local commuters would like it to be, and therefore bus links to the middle of nowhere are much appreciated. Three of our latest complement are only going as far as Mill Green, the next common down, which used to be where the S1 started (and would have saved you from having to read the previous three paragraphs).
Beyond the dead pub and the River Wandle, the S1 starts its backstreets tour of St Helier. Our route round the LCC estates traces out the pattern of two crooked teeth, ticking off streets just to say that a bus runs nearby. But our presence is much appreciated, the bus is starting to fill up now, as we edge past parked cars, yet more open space and various pushchair posses. Green Wrythe Lane scores points for a streetname with an endearing heritage, if not a particularly picturesque present, running through The Circle shopping parade, home to Fudge Cakes Circle Bakery. One particularly narrow diversion takes us past armies of Saturday morning footballers, and their doting parents, playing in the Carshalton Little League. And there across the goalposts rises the Thirties Metropolis fortress of StHelierHospital.
Several passengers are waiting here, including a rotund mum with the flabbiest neck I've seen in years, which wobbles like a turkey as she pushes down the bus behind her not-yet obese daughter. Three teenagers are holding court by the central doors, one wondering whose idea it was to catch the slow bus, another twiddling a cigarette in anticipation of getting off. As we double back again, avoiding Carshalton, we thread through a very typical slice of outer London - a bit hilly, a bit pleasant, a lot residential, and a Seventies pub for a lager on a Friday night. Then at the foot of the hill Teenager Number Two reaches up as if to press the emergency release button, waits for the look of shocked embarrassment on his companions' faces and grins broadly before retracting, and getting off with everyone else.
So, this is Sutton proper. I've walked down the pedestrianised High Street, but never experienced the parallel one-way system that closely encircles it. Four times we pull over into an odd layby to swap will-be-shoppers for just-been-shoppers, gradually exchanging the entire complement of passengers other than me. The bus is now packed, sufficient to steam up the windows so that the word 'dirty' magically appears scrawled in the mist. We're not seeing the town's best side, indeed we're barely seeing it at all, as we bend round what I think is B&Q towards the station. With another top-up here I count sixteen people standing, which makes this the most crowded lettered bus I've yet ridden.
Most are on board for the next deviation away from a straight line, a detour serving some quite nice houses to the southeast of town. One man goes to the aid of a mother trying to lug her pushchair off the bus, then returns to find his seat taken by someone else, who fails to move. Up next is Belmont, a borderline settlement that again I've never been to, and doesn't instantly impress. Missing two hospitals and a prison we instead make a break for Surrey across the Downs, where one stop appears to serve no-one but ramblers. And hey presto, Banstead, which looks and feels different to London with its verges, old pubs, and long Tudor-style shoppingparade. M&S is as far as we're going, which is quite far enough, but well worth the trip.