Route 183: Golders Green to Pinner Length of journey: 11 miles, 70 minutes [map]
For no particularly good reason, other than hell why not, let's take an end-to-end journey on a London bus. I've selected a long-standing trunk route that's barelychanged in 80 years (apart from being shortened at one end and diverted past the bus garage, before all the MWLB leap in and tell me how wrong I am). It also cuts across the heart of Metroland, an area more normally defined by its train connections, which might provide some intriguing contrasts. It's the 183, which runs roughly due west from Golders Green to Pinner through the boroughs of Barnet, Brent and Harrow. Set your watch for Sunday lunchtime and join me on the upper deck.
Golders Green station is the launching point for a dozen bus routes, including the century-apart pairing of 83 and 183. One goes to Alperton and one to Pinner, and for much of the way they share the same roads, so early passengers hop aboard whichever flings wide its doors first. Our 183 driver has finished his fag so flings first, and waits for the lady with the nice brooch and her husband with the walking stick to board before pulling away. They have only a short distance to go, whereas I and the driver (and I suspect nobody else) are going the whole way.
Golders Green can be busier on Sundays than on Saturdays, the day of rest being different around here. Just beyond the War Memorial three well known coffee chains co-exist almost as neighbours, their outdoor seating filled with froth-sippers and pastry-forkers. An oncoming delivery driver on a moped suddenly cuts diagonally across the traffic to pull in ahead of us, his reckless manoeuvre conveniently captured by the tiny camera mounted on his helmet. We pass shops called Kosher Kingdom and Torah Treasures, and a demolition site with all its signs in Hebrew, but also a Nigerian restaurant called Tummy Kom4fort because this is no monocultural zone.
The number 83 bus ahead of us has been swallowing up most of the waiting passengers, so we're catching up. Two girls yet to reach their mid-teens arrive on the upper deck and within ten seconds have uttered the F word three times. They settle into a back seat, turn up something they call music and start slagging off "that Tamara". Someone else is either smoking hash or, more likely, has been smoking a heck of a lot of it before boarding. At the North Circular we wait patiently, then make a break across the dual carriageway into outer suburbia.
Once upon a time the 183 turned left and the 83 took the longer diversion via Hendon Town centre, but in 1978 they swapped over (nothing to do with helping passengers, but because Hendon bus garage was on one route and not the other). That means we get to climb the no-longer-especially-high high street, past kosher delis and bagel-based cafes, and a grassy sliver of traffic island already brimming with dandelions. Boarded-up windows confirm that the Retrobloke record shop on Church Road has very much closed, its business now solely online.
The bus stop outside Middlesex Uni is quite busy. Hendon Town Hall is brightened by beds of winter pansies. Across Watford Way we hit our first stretch of typically Tudorbethan semis, and they won't be the last. An old lady with a walking stick steps defiantly off the pavement without once looking at our oncoming bus as she slowly crosses, safe in the knowledge that nobody would dare knock her down. The 83 is back with us now, for a couple of miles, as we get our first glimpse of Wembley's arch in the distance.
It's time to cross six lanes of the M1, followed immediately by six railway tracks at Hendon station, before a short jaunt up Watling Street. Almost all of the council blocks on the West Hendon estate have now been replaced by something shinier but less affordable, although Ramsey Close hasn't yet been completely devoured and stands out like a postwar sore thumb. The main road acts as a magnet for large low-rise commercial premises and their associated car parks, Sainsbury's being much more extensive than Pets at Home's.
We bear off before the highrise horrors of Colindale to climb to the heady heights of Kingsbury. Silver Jubilee Park takes one of the prime spots on the brow of the hill, the other going to the intricate meringueconfection of the Shree Swaminarayan Mandir, its glistening minarets visible to all. Queues are waiting to board at Pipers Green, opposite the shisha lounge. Roe Green Park is weekend-busy, with users gravitating to the tennis courts, multigym equipment and ping pong tables, seemingly lacking the imagination to use the grassy spaces inbetween.
Blimey, the centre of Kingsbury is properly heaving. Hundreds have come to do their Sunday shopping, the most popular stores being Aldi and Kingsbury Fruit and Veg - an enormous multi-ethnic greengrocery. One family are departing with several bagsworth, plus an entire wooden tray brimming with tomatoes. Most prefer to arrive by car, or would do were not both sides of the road ripped up and barriered off for major footway works. Kingsbury is the first tube station we've passed since setting off half an hour ago.
The 183 is the only bus along Kenton Road, a broad suburban artery with house numbers nudging into the 700s. At the first stop a large family group careers down the pavement hoping to board, with youngest daughter first and mother a long way behind. She sweeps up her bulging sari and lumbers towards us, unaware that passengers have just heard the "this bus will wait here for a short time to even out the service" message and so her exertion is unnecessary. The next bus is fifteen minutes behind us whereas it ought to be ten... and from this point on our driver is in no hurry whatsoever.
Gooseacre Parade was built in 1930, according to the numbers chiselled into its facade, so will not originally have contained Eastern European supermarkets, vegetarian restaurants and henna stylists. What was the local pub now serves contemporary Indian cuisine. One of the semi-detached homes further along is now a temple, a couple of others (unsurprisingly) are dentists and another deals in eggless cakes. Immigrant communities hereabouts, it seems, have inspired a local economy fizzing with diverse possibilities. Our driver, meanwhile, has started stopping at bus stops nobody's requested in the hope that nobody notices.
Next it's Kenton station, followed by a hole in the road bookended by temporary traffic lights, and not even this delay successfully drags us back on schedule. Before long we're rounding the Northwick Park roundabout and entering the centre of Harrow via a backstreet lined by drab flats. The 183's task is to follow the main shopping streets, where suddenly national retail chains appear with barely a nod to the broad ethnic mix we've just driven through. Harrow's still got a Debenhams and an M&S and all the main banks, and not surprisingly this is where most of our passengers alight. The driver waits another 30 seconds after they've gone.
By the time we reach the bus station our top deck complement is down from almost full to just two. And here I spot a bus inspector stood by the kerb making notes on his clipboard as we edge by. Our driver has arrived miraculously bang on his scheduled time, which means no reprimands, no targets missed and no doubt several brownie points. And there are still another couple of miles to go, this the less travelled end of the route, shadowing the Metropolitan line for a couple of stations.
One ugly ring road roundabout negotiated, we head up the less than bustling Pinner Road. The semi-detacheds are back. A small boy in a Superman hoodie stops to wave as we go by. It's not our turn to pause outside Harrow bus garage so that the drivers can change over. Instead we plough on towards North Harrow, as the old roadsign says, with its slightly more traditional parade of shops. The brick clocktower at Wealdstone Motors is a Metro-land icon, even if it's now always noon because the hands no longer move. An unparking car blocks the road by tackling a U-turn on departure, causing a gammon-faced man to curse and drive up onto the pavement rather than wait a few seconds.
The green roof tiles of Pinner Court, beside the 1930s fire station, never fail to delight. And what do you know, our driver has recently rediscovered the accelerator and is careering towards the terminus at an impressive pace. With the inspector's checkpoint behind him, every extra minute saved will be a cigarette bonus at the end of the route. One final set of temporary traffic lights outside Pinner Library spoils his game, and then we're ducking under the railway bridge to pull up at the stand outside Santander. Every London bus journey is an adventure of one kind or another.
And while I was in Pinner, obviously I dropped in at the Heath Robinson Museum. It may not be huge but it is perfectly formed, and attractively located overlooking the pond in Pinner Park. My Art Pass got me in for nothing to enjoy the permanent gallery plus the latest exhibition based on his witty illustrations of domestic inventions. Heath Robinson's Home Life ends today, switching to an Art Nouveau themed display from next weekend, and welcoming Tim Lewis's amazing automata in May. Open Thursday to Sunday, this little gem should be on your to-visit list... and there's no need to arrive by bus.