diamond geezer

 Sunday, July 14, 2019

Route 301: Bexleyheath to Woolwich
Location: London southeast
Length of journey: 8 miles, 38 minutes

It's been a while since TfL introduced a permanent bus route rather than scrapping one, but yesterday a new route launched in southeast London as part of the advance guard of Crossrail-ready connections. If a week of Scandinavian travelogue was getting too much for you, maybe a bus ride through Thamesmead will provide the antidote.

Here's a pdf map showing the route. Here's a online map (which, impressively, TfL's digital bods switched on for the first time in the early hours of yesterday morning). If you can't be bothered to look at a map, just know that we're going north from Bexleyheath to Abbey Wood and Thamesmead, then west to Plumstead and Woolwich. Expect a dull but worthy ride.

The Clock Tower beside the shopping centre in Bexleyheath is a Total Bus Nexus. Sixteen different routes pulse through to ferry the borough's shoppers home, and this morning one of them is new. It has its own tile, brighter than the rest, and its own timetable, suggesting it'll take 38 minutes to Woolwich. No spider maps have been updated. Instead some enterprising citizen has created a poster, printed it out in colour and stuck it to the bus shelter with sellotape as encouragement to northbound shoppers to give the 301 a punt. You may not know where East Wickham and Long Lane are, but the target audience do. I love that whoever designed the poster thought to include purple roundels for Crossrail connections that won't be operational for well over a year, suggesting a level of optimism verging on the miraculous.

Around ten passengers board, which isn't bad for a first morning. TfL have confidence in this route because they've double-decked it, even if we'd easily have got away with a single today. We join the red queue to exit the inner ring road, then continue straight ahead towards the railway, carelessly crossing halfway between neighbouring stations. Only one other bus goes this way, the 401, but that goes all round the houses before reaching Thamesmead whereas our 301 is the first route to head direct. On entering Long Lane a third tile appears on the bus stops creating a pleasing |301|401|601| triptych. We'll be on Long Lane for a while, because it's well named.

We've entered what I like to think is London's largest block of featureless suburbia, a whorl of interwar avenues interrupted only by the occasional church, school and minor shopping parade. Front gardens feature crazy paving, shrubberies, stone lions and beloved motor vehicles. A pub survives, but only because it serves more meals than beer. The local bakery is pleased to be celebrating its 25th anniversary. Red-chested roofers hike a hod of tiles up onto the roof of a bungalow. A tiny roundabout boasts a flowerbed that seems to be mostly dandelions. It's all very Bexley. When the 401 skedaddles and the B12 takes its place we suddenly switch to Hail and Ride mode, which is almost unheard of for a double decker, but it seems TfL's generosity in adding the new route didn't stretch as far as fresh bus stops.

Hardly anybody flags us down or alights so we're making good time, but thankfully the driver never once pauses "to regulate the gaps in the service". At St Thomas More Church a West Indian christening is underway. A few doors down, a St George's flag sticker peels off a bin. This stretch of road was formerly B11 only, another route which already connects Bexleyheath to Thamesmead, but we've got here quicker because we headed direct and haven't diverted via the main road and the long queue past the station. Even the 422 has crossed our path twice, such are the complex meanderings of this labyrinthine estate, but that'll be in Woolwich before us because we're Abbey Wood-bound first.

I recognise the junction ahead because it marks the outermost point of inner London and I was here a few months ago. One last flank of semi-detacheds faces off against a wedge of scrubby heath... and we're doing Hail & Ride again, not that you'd want to get off in the bushes or along the can-strewn verge. Originally the intention was that the 301 would continue straight ahead down Knee Hill, but a route test proved unsatisfactory ("The bus frequently had to stop to allow other vehicles to pass and as such, speed was very slow") so that was canned. Instead the route diverts fractionally to plunge through Lesnes Abbey Woods down New Road, which is no hardship and provides the best scenery of the ride.

Here's Abbey Wood station, which is the chief reason the new route exists. One day it'll help deliver Bexleyites and Thamesmeaders to Crossrail, potentially quite fast. I'm pleased to see that the two bus stops outside the station are finally (finally) finished, although one's so fresh it has no ads, no maps and no timetables, just a queue. They don't want our bus because it doesn't say Thamesmead on the front. They'll learn. Much of the rest of the Manorway is being significantly re-carriageway-ed, so we switch to the opposite side of the road and that means yet another bus stop we can't call at. It's unsettling to see so many of Thamesmead's iconic flats sealed off and undergoing sequential demolition, with bland but liveable towers rising in their place.

When TfL's initial southeast London consultation was launched two years ago, additional plans were made to cut back the B11 to terminate here and extend the 472 to Abbey Wood. These changes haven't yet happened - presumably they're waiting for Crossrail - but the 301 ploughs on regardless. Beyond Eastern Way it enters Thamesmead's leafier quarter, because there is one, crossing waterways where lager cans float and swans glide through a sheen of algae. Here waiting passengers are more willing to flag the bus down, and often pleasantly surprised when the driver confirms where he's going... or else step back off and wait for something they're more familiar with. Further shoppers board opposite the Morrisons/Iceland/Aldi combo that serves this neighbourhood well.

It's interesting that four bus routes already connect Thamesmead to Plumstead and TfL are now providing a fifth, in complete contrast to their policy of removing excess capacity in inner London. It's also interesting that they've chosen to follow the 472's corridor, which passes the fewest houses but is the quickest route. Sightseeing options include a Victorian sewer, a council tip, scrap metal yards, MOT garages and a high security prison. For some reason all the stops down Nathan Way are bereft of tiles, announcing neither 472 nor 301, so our unexpected presence baffles everybody. And on hitting the Plumstead gyratory, we are Very Nearly There.

Plumstead Road is massively overbussed, which is what happens when there's a bus garage at one end and a major town centre at the other. Our 301 joins the red throng and ticks down the stops into central Woolwich, pausing for nobody. Alas it doesn't stop outside the Market Hall, which would be most convenient, but overshoots to terminate beyond the entrance to the Arsenal. It turns out we've gathered quite a passenger complement, downstairs at least, suggesting the route is already a success. My journey has also taken the promised 38 minutes, precisely.

Our driver then heads off to the stand for his rest, before joining ridiculous pre-ferry queues and spinning back to run the gauntlet of Men Who Like Buses And Own Very Big Cameras. They'll be gone by tomorrow, but the 301 is here to stay.

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