Today I'm completing my bus journey across the capital, riding four routes from the northern edge of the capital to the south. There may be more than one way to complete the feat, but my choice of route was fixed as soon as I spotted that the sequence 279, 76, 77, 280 consists of two pairs of consecutive numbers, lightly shuffled. Now all I have to do is see quite how close to the Surrey border I can get on my final bus...
ACROSS LONDON BY BUS(iv)
Route 280: Tooting - Belmont Length of journey: 6½ miles, 45 minutes
I reckon most passengers waiting for the 280 outside Shoe Zone in Tooting don't even know where Belmont is, let alone have any intention of going there. While I wait I have to listen to several of them collectively shrieking, because that's what they do in the school holidays, or moaning about the awfulness of an acquaintance into their phone. As I board and dash upstairs, I spy a policewoman resting with her eyes closed at the back of the lower deck. We set off past a couple of restaurants which last year inspired Lonely Planet to describe Tooting as one of the world's ten coolest neighbourhoods, but also several dozen minor outlets which suggest they called it wrong.
At Amen Corner a man walks out into the traffic immediately in front of us, then smiles and waves in gratitude after our driver manages not to run him over. The parched strip of grass stretching off beyond the station is Figges Marsh, on which a minor kickabout has just completed as its protagonists disperse. One lad in a Man U jersey boards the bus and climbs to the upper deck, reeking of some pungent aftershave he shouldn't yet be old enough to need. A parked Volkswagen Polo blocks the bus lane ahead, because technically it isn't a bus lane for another hour and a half, so that's alright. Self-descriptive local businesses include Food World, which sells world foods, and The Shed Centre, which sells sheds.
Mitcham town centre has recently been realigned to give buses and bicycles priority, sending other traffic on a less than magical detour. The chief beneficiary is a short semi-pedestrianised shopping street boasting nothing much more exciting than a Poundland, a mural and a couple of pubs. The bus ahead of us appears to be a 280, which it can't be unless the previous service was phenomenally delayed, and turns out to be a 270 with the wrong number displayed in the rear window. A small child drags his family upstairs and is disconsolate to find the front seat taken, and isn't satisfied with the second row so ends up with his parents at the very back. Mitcham Market is not open. The Tag Elezz cafe is very popular.
Mitcham's historic Cricket Green is not currently well named, apart that is from the central square, its outfield looking particularly dry and jaundiced. The two pubs beyond the boundary remain just as empty and boarded-up as they were last August. If you've ever wondered where London's Number 1 Family Sash Window Manufacturer is based, a ride through Mitcham on the 280 means you need wonder no more. At the other end of London Road we pause at traffic lights immediately above the tram tracks, allowing a Wimbledon service to pass directly underneath. The surrounding residential area has become positively semi-detached, with a splash of unprepossessing flats.
Across the River Wandle we enter the St Helier 'cottage estate', a massive out-of-town overspill built in the 1930s by the LCC. The bins on the right-hand side of the road display the Merton waterwheel, whilst those on the left are branded with the Sutton apple tree. Calling a block of flats 'Grosslea' seems an unusual choice. In a cluttered front garden, a topless long-haired pensioner stands with hands on hips and his potbelly drooping, beneath a big sign which reads 'Beware Dogs Running Free'. I bet his neighbours love him. An older man with an even longer grey ponytail overtakes us sat astride a modified Harley Davidson, whose personalised numberplate is attempting to spell BIG GUV.
The shopping parade at the Rose Hill roundabout has an Art Deco vibe, and a barbers shop which brands itself simply as 'Hairdressing For Men' rather than any of this modern grooming rubbish. Here we pass the 7th and final Lidl of my cross-London journey (for comparison, we've only passed two Aldis). Our next road splits Rosehill Park into East and West, with both halves looking conspicuously underused given it's the school holidays (other than a small seated cluster around the car park). Rosehill's bowls club seems overkeen to attract new members, its giant banner urging passers-by to "come in and try for free". And then we dip unexpectedly into cutting, as a faded sign on a footbridge welcomes us to Sutton Town Centre.
Tudorbethan semis make way for the edge of the CBD, and two modern block of flats which'd look normal in inner London but here seem jarringly out of place. Ah, here are the local children, splashing in the sunken fountains in a small piazza outside Sainsburys. The 280 is allowed to follow some of the High Street, at the fish'n'chip and Polish deli end, but is whisked away outside the former Red Lion to follow a north-south access road instead. This has a separate bus slalom lane, which occasionally swings in behind the back of the shops to allow access to the main pedestrianised core. By the fourth swing, almost every passenger has alighted. The final bus shelter contains a long row of ladies in floral blouses.
Even by outer London standards, Sutton often feels like a welcome throwback to simpler times. But a major mixed use development project by the station is bringing an injection of highrise modernity, namely Sutton Point, whose hoarding-blurb describes the rising towers as "Sutton's latest landmark". Well, obviously. We dawdle outside the station for a while because, even though the journey's nearly finished, we're running a few minutes ahead of schedule. Most of the adjacent shops serve sit-down food or drink, but it looks like Beds To Go has already gone. The green-faced clock on a pole slowly ticks round towards quarter past three. And eventually we begin the final climb up the Brighton Road.
The contrast to Hertford Road at the start of my journey is stark indeed, my final mile being along a leafy avenue dotted with private nurseries, dental clinics and retirement flats. Everyone has ample space to live, and shrubbery, and most likely a car rather than relying on an outer London bus. Even here, stubbled youth are sporting topknots with sharply shaved sides, a hairstyle which future historians will use to date photos to the year 2018. A brand new secondary school is being squeezed in on land below the hospital. And dammit, here comes the bus's final stop immediately outside The California gastropub, which is still 100m from the boundary of London I'm trying to reach.
I sit tight, and the bus pulls off, and only then does the driver play the "This bus terminates here" message. Hurrah, I have a legitimate reason to have stayed aboard, as only a regular passenger would have known they were supposed to alight before. It's a very short ride to the bus stand, a sweeping red-tinted apron (plus a toilet for driver relief), where I'm allowed off with a reluctant opening of the doors. And a dozen steps across the tarmac brings me to the edge of Banstead Common, accessed via a short wasp-infested footpath, which means I've just enteredSurrey and my journey is complete. Four buses is all it takes to cross Greater London, if you choose them carefully enough, and oh the contrasts you'll see along the way.