Route 52: Victoria to Willesden Location: London northwest, inner Length of journey: 7 miles, 60 minutes
It's traditional around every birthday that I take a numerically significant bus journey, so here I go again. Ten years ago I took the 42 to Dulwich, nine years ago the 43 to Barnet, eight years ago the 44 to Tooting, seven years ago the 45 to Clapham, six years ago the 46 to Farringdon, five years ago the 47 to Bellingham, four years ago the 48 to Walthamstow, three years ago the 49 to Battersea, two years ago the 50 to Croydon and last year the 51 to Orpington. This year, after a decade of special birthday treats, it's the 52 to Willesden.
Route 52 departs from Victoria station, but not from the bus station - only arriving 52s get to deposit their passengers there. Instead it starts up the side in Wilton Road, facing the grinning Wicked witches, along with various other westbound services. The bus stop is busy, and a genteel stampede for the door of the first 52 ensues. I'm some way back and fear my chosen throne at the front of the top deck may already be taken, but not to worry, very few passengers had the motivation to head upstairs. And I might have remained in panoramic isolation had not three last minute boarders stormed up to join me - two children on the front seat opposite, and their mother behind. Oh great, I think. But as soon as they open their mouths to reveal an American accent I rejoice, because this means my blogpost about the 52 will have a barnstorming narrative opening. About four paragraphs-worth, I reckon.
"You dream has come true, Ella," says Mom, "we actually did it guys!" The trio had been dreaming of taking a top deck front seat bus ride through the West End, and hey presto, here they are. OK, some middle aged Brit is sitting in one of the seats, and Mom chooses not to squeeze in alongside, but otherwise the perfect scene is set. Ella is a gap-toothed girl clutching a pink umbrella and a Buckingham Palace carrier bag. Her sister is older, with long wavy hair and thigh boots more suited to the catwalk, or a stable. "Is this bus taking us directly to Harrods?" she asks. Very nearly, I think, but keep this nugget to myself. They'll work it out.
We set off into a roadworks whirlwind, now lingering into its umpteenth year, as Victoria's buildings are rebuilt, carriageways are realigned and a more efficient neighbourhood emerges. "Oh mommy look, Shake Shack!" exclaims Ella, while her sister is more excited to have spotted a golden scarecrow in Grosvenor Gardens. Mom is more interested in her Fitbit's news that she's already managed 5000 steps today, seemingly because it's been a bit of a hike to watch the Changing of the Guard. More royal-watching opportunities awaits up Grosvenor Place, but the family are oblivious to the fact they can now look over a wall into the back of Buckingham Palace gardens. Instead Hyde Park Corner catches their eye. "Mommy, see how pretty that is. So pretty!"
A fresh young passenger suddenly appears on the front seat beside me, films herself on her phone for a couple of minutes, then retreats as quickly as she came. There was none of this on the 51 to Orpington, that's for sure. The Americans are not distracted. Mom is already obsessed with making sure they get off at the right stop, repeatedly urging the girls to look out for 'Brompton Road' on street signs, which she's noticed are often attached to the sides of buildings. Eldest daughter wants to know why there are buttons labelled 'Stop' on the grab poles - Mom thinks it must be an emergency evacuation thing. Meanwhile younger daughter has more pressing cultural concerns. "For lunch do we have to go to an English place or can we just go to Starbucks?"
Along Knightsbridge the latest luxury redevelopment lies shrouded behind a giant sheet while exclusivity is engineered within. Mom is still urging her girls to check the street signs when an electronic voice announces that the next stop is 'Knightsbridge Station/Harrods', and it turns out they needn't have been anxious after all. Off they charge down the stairs, far too early as it turns out, bags and brollies flailing behind them. I still don't reckon they've spotted where Harrods actually is, but I'm sure some kind passer-by will point the way, upping Mom's step count well over the six thousand threshold. The girls' place on the front seat is taken by a yawning fat man in a monochrome woolly hat, and my thread of narrative gold is abruptly terminated.
The bus continues along the edge of Hyde Park, where early spring daffs and croci have broken through and the joggers never hibernate. We pass roadworks outside the Royal Albert Hall and push into Kensington High Street, overtaking phone-bleaters, Pret-clutchers and bag-danglers. Outside the Royal Garden Hotel a group of commissionaires are kowtowing to some departing tourists less well dressed, but presumably better off, than they are. We queue to turn right into Kensington Church Street, dotted with antique shops, fine eateries and estate agents, plus one pub whose landlord has spent a small fortune enveloping it in year-round hanging baskets. Notting Hill Gate lies ahead, home to DG College, and numerous other less blogworthy establishments.
It's now time to shadow Portobello Road, running one street back through one of the most prestigious residential areas in Britain. Enchanting white stucco terraces lead off to either side, between interlocking shards of private gardens whose land value would be astronomical were they ever to be built on. Up one sidestreet several supercars have had to be parked elsewhere while a steamroller flattens relaid tarmac. One couple peering from their doorstep in Elgin Crescent look like they're posing for a Sunday magazine supplement, as a uniformed vanman delivers their latest prized purchase. And even here, people still catch buses.
My latest front seat companion on the upper deck is entirely atypical for the area, a slight old lady in a market-style anorak with blue carrier slung between her knees. But she heralds a dramatic turnaround in residential status, as the social housing of North Kensington briefly intrudes, then becomes more apparent, then takes over. By no means all the residents of Ladbroke Grove frequent chicken shops and unbranded mini-markets, but thousands do, as a reminder of just how gloriously mixed the neighbourhoods of inner London remain.
Between the railway and the canal we pull off into the car park of an enormous Sainsbury's, where the number of waiting shoppers confirms the importance of the bus network in distributing London's groceries. We pause long enough for the onboard announcements to warn us that "the next bus stop is closed" as many as four times, on each occasion followed up by the extra information "Please get off at this stop or wait for the stop after". If you've ever wondered where Innocent smoothies have their lair, you should have got off here - it's over the road in a towpathside building the chirpy japesters have christened Fruit Towers.
What comes next is rather different, it's Kensal Green. The Victorian cemetery hints strongly at the character of the neighbourhood ahead, where ornate brick villas (eventually) predominate. At Kensal Rise we pull off into a lay-by which almost has a touch of market square about it - florists, a vegan 'unbakery' and the standalone Minkie's Deli, but also phone shops and biked Chinese takeaways - so maybe not. Up Chamberlayne Road the peaked building resembling a church hall is the Lexi Cinema, allegedly the world's first "social enterprise independent boutique digital cinema", and with all its profits donated to an African charity. Eventually the semis begin, the avenues become more outer-suburban, and our descent into Willesden is imminent.
The last time I was here Willesden had an enormous library. It now has a smaller, taller library, in three variegated shades of brick, plus a long crescent of flats on the remainder of the original site - a trick that councillors can only ever pull off once. Our bus stops alongside a ground floor porthole, then slinks onto the downbeat High Road where fruit in bowls and stacks of toilet roll are easily obtained. The one bright flash is Willesden Salvage, a junkyard jam-packed with outdoor objets d'art and bric-a-brac, overlooked by a statue of Shrek I suspect they'd never agree to sell. Outside on the pavement an evangelical congregation is dispersing after Charles's memorial service, and a pensioner struggles to battle through.
The final stop for the 52 is in an unexpectedly depressing spot, emptying us out onto a narrow pavement in front of a boarded-up pub. The Crown closed in 2008, after losing its trade to the No. 8 hostel on the corner, and estate agents still haven't managed to interest anyone in the leasehold. Lurking beyond a bricked-up door labelled 'Luncheons' is Willesden Bus Garage, on a sprawling site with at least three access points onto different surrounding streets, and the reason why this bus terminates here. It's been a wildly contrasting ride, never scraping the lowest London has to offer but most definitely touching the stars. As I set off back down the High Road, Harrods feels a very very long way away.