Route 53: Plumstead to Whitehall Location: London southeast, inner Length of journey: 13 miles, 90 minutes
It's traditional around every birthday that I take a numerically significant bus journey, so here I go again. Eleven years ago I took the 42 to Dulwich, ten years ago the 43 to Barnet, nine years ago the 44 to Tooting, eight years ago the 45 to Clapham, seven years ago the 46 to Farringdon, six years ago the 47 to Bellingham, five years ago the 48 to Walthamstow, four years ago the 49 to Battersea, three years ago the 50 to Croydon, two years ago the 51 to Orpington and last year the 52 to Willesden. This year, with the most high profile destination yet, it's the 53 to Whitehall.
Route 53 is a southeast London stalwart, conveying residents of the borough of Greenwich into the heart of Westminster since time immemorial. Specifically that's since 22nd October 1952, before anyone pops up in the comments and tells us that, plus yes I did know it used to run all the way to Camden. These days it begins near Plumstead station, conveniently close to the bus garage, which is useful because it'll avoid us having to wait around somewhere en route for a change of drivers, despite the journey being an hour and a half long. In bad traffic it's more like two, I'm told, which is bad news for those using the 53 to commute into town to save on train fares.
Orchard Road isn't Plumstead's finest, a dogleg backroad where tyres get fixed, and men with cars park up and shout at other men with cars. The local restaurant is Cafe Deluxe, which looks like a scout hut bedecked with garden centre trellis, so must have pretty amazing interior design to live up to its name. The first man to join me at the bus shelter is very old, and doddery enough that he has trouble stepping up onto the kerb. He takes out a large gold crucifix and clutches it to his chest as if desperately attempting to ward off evil, and maintains this position as he waits for the bus to arrive. Mum and Nan have checked on their phones and don't think it is coming, so fill the time discussing how direct debits have made them broke, while in her buggy little Liana (Leah-Anna?) slurps on a very pink drink.
And we're off, for what's initially a slow meander round the heights of Plumstead. Griffin Road is a straight ascent lined by late Victorian terraced houses (which might have been a little better looked after had they been elsewhere). Normally I tut inwardly if anyone dings the bell at the first stop, but in this case they're pregnant, and we have already climbed a fair distance up the hill, so she's allowed. Crucifix Man waits until we're nearly at the summit, by the Baptist Church, before continuing his pilgrimage falteringly on foot. Plumstead Common is a hidden treasure, a long elevated swathe of green with deep gullies to explore, a former windmill (which is now a pub) and a clocktowered building (which now flogs carpets). A lot of people are queuing to board our bus, the local minimarts and chippies being insufficient for their needs, and we are to be their direct connection to the delights of Woolwich.
I suddenly realise why all this looks familiar, and that's because my birthday bus ride two years ago followed the same route. This time, thankfully, there are no schoolgirls organising dates on the top deck. It's not long before we head back down, with our descent providing a good view of central Woolwich's multi-coloured newbuilds, as well as lowrise Dagenham across the river. We splash through evidence of a leaking water pipe, pass the ends of the platforms at Woolwich Arsenal and reach the boxy towers around the Crossrail site. The town's been evolving fast since my passage on the 51, with a fresh flank of incomer housing facing off against lowly nailbars and takeaways the new inhabitants won't be frequenting. That said, I'm sure they'll be delighted that the former Public Market is now a food court, with Caribbean no longer a speciality.
Finally we've reached Woolwich town centre - had I taken a direct bus I could have got here in four minutes, but our detour through the hillside suburbs has taken twenty. As we pull up outside the DLR I'm jolted by the number on the back of the bus in front - a big white 54. It turns out next year's birthday bus starts here, and worse, follows exactly the same route as our bus from here to Blackheath. I'm going to be reminded of the relentless turn of the years for the next three miles, as our driver keeps trying to overtake the 54 in front, but never quite succeeds. Forgive me if you get a sense of déjà vu when you read next year's report.
Much of central Woolwich is in flux, as peculiar glassy carbuncles erupt amid older brick-faced stock. It's good to escape. I've been joined at the front of the top deck by a woman keen to munch from a bag of caramel crisps, which I'm OK with until her phone goes and a half-hour conversation begins. We reach the Royal Artillery Barracks, essentially a housing estate for the military, edged with barbed wire that's seen better days. On the opposite side of Wellington Street the railings have been cleared of banners commemorating Lee Rigby, but a few floral tributes have reappeared on a junction box, and a film crew are shooting some (probably disapproving) video footage on the pavement.
Our next destination is Charlton, passing first a closed pub, then a closed corner shop, then a pub closed but reopened as a supermarket. At long last our driver is able to pick up the pace a bit, partly thanks to the 54 in front picking up most of the passengers, but it always manages to be indicating to pull out every time we catch up. Charlton Village is rather livelier, dotted with places you might still want to eat or drink, with a shoal of cars parked by the lawns outside Charlton House. The towers of Docklands can be seen between the tower blocks along the top of the ridge, while a single red weatherboarded cottage hints at simpler more rural times.
We cross the deep gash of the A2 dual carriageway before nudging into Blackheath, the traffic island near the Royal Standard bubbling with colourful crocuses. The last time I rode the 53, six years ago, the bus stopped outside a genuine formica-enabled refreshment room called Gambardella, whose regular customers perched on moulded plywood chairs. Today I can only gaze down into another branch of Boulangerie Jade, an "artisan French patisserie" whose tables are resolutely ketchup-free. Best we drive on, we're already seven paragraphs in and there's still half the journey to go.
The finest part of the route is probably the dash across Blackheath proper, where even bus stops in the middle of the heath have passengers waiting to board. The 54 we've been trailing finally makes a break for it and heads south, while we continue relentlessly west round the back of Greenwich Park. I'm pleased to see the legendary Tea Hut is open, with two gentlemen staring reverently into its glowing portal while another stuffs something bread-based down his throat. And then it's time to prepare for our descent into Deptford, with the villas at the top of Blackheath Hill in sharp contrast to the rough and tumble at the bottom. I think D'Luxx is an African restaurant. I am less certain about the G Bless Jerk Centre.
We exit Greenwich for Lewisham at Deptford Bridge DLR, with the River Ravensbourne flowing silently beneath. This borderline is where the 453 begins, a route introduced in 2003 to parallel the remainder of the 53, and to cut back its northern terminus. We're busy enough on board as it is, which means I now have a gentleman sharing my front seat for the first time. I note with a smile that Deptford's anchor is back in place at the foot of the High Street, and with less of a smile how many of the retail units hereabouts are shuttered and To Let. The bus lane through New Cross does its job well, allowing us to queue-jump a considerable line of traffic towards, and then around, the one-way system.
It's strike day at Goldsmiths College, and the lecturers (and students) are out in force with banners strung up outside the main entrance. Our Pension Axed, reads one, Against The Slow Cancellation Of Our Future another, plus The University Is A Factory. Nobody honks their horn, as requested, but then again none of the passengers can. New Cross Bus Garage proves the most popular stop en route for passengers to disembark, with several of these clearly just about to sign in for a shift driving buses of their own. We continue through what used to be Hatcham, with its winding parade of one-storey shops, plus a faded Nestlé's Milk ghostsign painted on a side wall.
Here begins the long ride up the Old Kent Road, well served by several bus routes in the total absence of any stations. This end of the lowliest thoroughfare on the Monopoly board seems to be mostly flats, retail warehouses, evangelical churches and places that fix cars. Some idea of the locale can be ascertained by the fact that Lidl have pasted up a big advertising poster outside Aldi. The large car park outside Toys R Us is almost empty, which may help explain why the business has slipped into administration, and may also make it easier for TfL to demolish (eventually) to build a new station on the Bakerloo line. One hour down, half an hour to go.
You can almost see the planners' pencil hovering over the central stretch of the OKR, whose big sheds and shabby parades would be ideal for rebirth as stacked flats. For now, and probably for a fair while hence, cheap burgers, dry cleaning and Union Jack toilet seats can still be easily sourced. Burgess Park provides a brief glimpse of green, and then it's back into a more concentrated sequence of foods from many nations - be that Lebanon, Poland, Cyprus or Nigeria. The Old Kent Road is bustling, at a low-key commercial level, as passengers dripfeed onto our bus to lug their shopping home. Tesco is by far the biggest draw, but never underestimate the Lidl just before the Bricklayers Arms.
Next weekend 53s travelling in the opposite direction will be rerouted over the flyover, in an attempt to permanently speed up the outbound journey. But we're still heading round the squareabout, then bearing left up the New Kent Road past the site of South London's greatest housing debacle. Where the Heygate Estate once stood, its residents long since decanted, the shell of Elephant Park now rises. On our side it's mostly diggers, piles of earth and the beginnings of foundations, but further across are the first apartments, flogged abroad at prices way above the "market price" those kicked out were paid, and marketed with weasel words about community and heritage. I'm pleased we don't linger long.
Elephant and Castle now has a non-gyratory system, traversed by sweeping tarmac curves, with pedestrians scuttling across the void as signals allow. Another tower seems to have shot up close by every time I pass. We lose several more passengers here, but some of us stay on past the Imperial War Museum, taking advantage of another well-sited bus lane. If you've ever wanted to look down into the Bakerloo line's secret southern depot, the top deck of a passing bus is the place to be. The COI's drab office block opposite Lambeth North station has been recently replaced by a Park Plaza Hotel. Duck beneath the Waterloo platforms and another Park Plaza fills the centre of the roundabout, with yet another immediately across the road. There's money in beds.
The female crisp muncher who joined me an hour ago finally disembarks here - perhaps she's been commuting to St Thomas's Hospital. I hope she minded the new cycle lane as she stepped across to the pavement. Half a dozen of us are still aboard the 53, about to cross the Thames on what's normally the glorious span of Westminster Bridge, but lacks its usual wow with Big Ben shrouded in scaffolding. That said, numerous tourists are still busy taking photos of each other with the sheeted tower in the background, and it's no hardship waiting here above the Thames for the lights ahead to change.
The bus from lowly Plumstead now terminates on Whitehall, just past the Cenotaph, at the very heart of the nation. I spy a medium-sized group of demonstrators with EU flags massing at the end of Downing Street, some in blue top hats with yellow ribbons, others in blue berets with yellow stars sewn erratically round the rim. The requisite number of policemen are keeping an eye. Civil servants rush by with lunch. International tourists stand around nearby trying to work out which hotspot icon to visit next. None of them seem too keen to go to Deptford, Woolwich or Plumstead, which for anyone living there may not be a bad thing.