Route 387: Little Heath - Barking Reach
outer London east; 8 miles, 40 minutes
Welcome aboard the bus you can no longer ride. The 387 used to exist until yesterday, or more accurately until the last vehicle rolled into Barking Reach just after midnight. As of five o'clock this morning the bus is now known as the EL3 - and the former route number exists in limbo until some other bus route one day wants it.
A quick geography: We're out east, in Redbridge and Barking and Dagenham. The 387's route runs almost due south, from almost the A12 to almost the Thames, via Barking. A quick history: The 387 first ran in 1993 to replace the B1, part of a short-lived Barking-centred local network. At its southern end it serves the Thames View Estate, with peak hour extensions round the industrial estate at Creekmouth cut back in 2013. A quick rationale: EL stands for East London Transit, a bus upgrade scheme introduced in 2010 to better serve an isolated community with considerable potential for growth. Until yesterday there were two routes - EL1 and EL2. Today there are three. A quick future: Apart from one tweak in central Barking, the EL3's route is identical to that of the 387, but will extend this autumn to an as-yet unbuilt secondary school on the Barking Riverside development.
Little Heath is a little known residential corner one mile east of Newbury Park, once a tiny hamlet, now conveniently bypassed by a busy dual carriageway. The 387 starts its journey outside a closed pub, formerly The Hawbush, facing out across a decent-sized triangular green. But you wouldn't have known. When I made my journey earlier this week the timetable at the first bus stop had been changed over prematurely to that of the EL3, and the tile above gleamed freshly white. There was no danger here of being late for Saturday's rebrand, just unnecessarily early.
A number of buses visit Little Heath because it has a hospital, in fact it has two, one with a lofty Victorian water tower visible from some distance. The bus's first stop involves driving into the grounds of the King George's Hospital and negotiating the central turning circle, avoiding the cars of visitors too hurried to park where they're supposed to. By starting near a hospital the 387 already has a decent number of passengers, a state which increases because this is the only route heading south along Barley Lane. The houses to either side aren't the council homes found further out in B&D, but smarter villas from a time when this was the edge of the London conurbation, with Avenues, Drives and Gardens behind.
In the recreation ground by the High Road, a row of pigeons lines up along the top of a mucky bench, holding court over a large congregation of their fellows. Here the bus crosses into a bustling parade, past a giant Tesco that hasn't yet sucked out all the street's life. Many of the shops have fairly generic names, like Pharmacy, News or Food Store, perhaps enhanced by flags to suggest a more specialist offering within. This is Goodmayes, where a stacked blue portakabin outside the station heralds the not-yet imminent arrival of step-free Crossrail. Thousands live hereabouts but somehow I've never dropped in before, which is one of the serendipitous effects of taking a near-extinct bus journey.
Across Green Lane, past the millennial clocktower, another string of housing awaits. Older terraces merge into low-slung bungalows and then council pebbledash, with a sign up one sideroad pointing to the local Temple should fresh worshippers need to find their way. At Goodmayes Park we turn right onto the main road, now one of a number of buses on this key route. One of these is the EL2, providing an unnecessarily good combined frequency to the Thames View Estate, as the freshly minted EL3 tile makes clear. Just past the bus garage the turreted Royal Oak pub signals its preferred clientele with a surfeit of St George's Cross bunting, and a bus lane then speeds us towards the place most passengers actually want to go, which is Barking.
Along with every other numbered bus route, the 387 isn't allowed through the centre of Barking town centre so has to negotiate its way round slower peripheral streets. That's why most people get off outside the station, because it's at least a couple of minutes to the stop more convenient for the shops. The bus meanders past pre-redevelopment rubble, the edge of the market and a medieval abbey, because this town's mixed like that. And I note that somebody's already removed (and not replaced) the 387's tile and timetable, again unhelpfully prematurely, because it won't be coming this way soon. Once promoted to the title EL3 it'll be allowed through Barking's streamlined central shortcut along with the EL1 and EL2, because these are bus route royalty round here, and now there are three.
That's the only tweak to the 387's route this weekend, and past Lidl we're back on the direct line down Ripple Road. On the first bend another pub lies as rubble, now covered in withered buddleia, knocked down before plans for its rebirth were fully thought through. All the EL buses turn right into Movers Lane and queue to cross the busy A13, sometimes queueing for quite a while. It's this which makes the Thames View Estate feel quite so far away, despite the flood of high frequency buses that stream towards it. "Motorway!" exclaims the young child sitting with his mother on the top deck, then (rightly) queries why on earth the next miserable-looking stop is called something 'Gardens'.
We've reached the netherworld beyond the A13, originally marshland, then somewhere to hide a cluster of mucky estuarine industries. Homes came later, and the EL1 and EL2 swing off to service those, while the 387 continues down increasingly ill-kept roads past cash and carries, timberyards, metalworks and waste transfer stations. At Keirbeck Wharf I'm amazed to spot 'The Men Who Change The Bus Tiles Over', their white van parked up by the next stop, doors flapped open revealing a host of bus stop-related equipment inside. Every bus stop tile up to this point has read EL3, and every tile from this point on will read 387, which is correct but imminently endangered.
For its last hurrah the 387 turns back to serve Thames Road, a dated chain of warehouses and depots on some of the cheapest land in London. UPS, TNT and DHL have delivery centres here, alongside charismatic churches, skip hire firms, builders merchants, cheap fry-up cafes, haulage concerns, white van depots, frozen food wholesalers, forklift traders and the Lithuanian Beer company. Later in the year the EL3 will skip this section, prioritising newly-built homes on the Barking Riverside estate instead, but a new bridge has to be built first and that's not ready, so for now Thames Road is fully served.
Two peak time services in the 387's timetable used to be extended round the most miserable streets in east London to serve Creekmouth, where Barking's original power station once stood, and on which site this enormous housing development is being built. Londonist's Will Noble visited a couple of weeks ago with a camera, and his detailed report will give you an appropriate flavour of this unnervingly downbeat location. But with most of the local industry defunct, those peak time journeys ceased in 2013, and the 387 nudged into the estate instead, terminating on a loop by a lake beneath some pylons. Here residents queue to escape, which this morning they'll be doing by EL3, and they might even have some New Routemasters to ride in too.