Route 20: Walthamstow to Debden Location: London northeast; Essex Length of journey: 10 miles, 55 minutes
Route 20 goes nowhere near central London, which is unusual for a low-numbered service but excellent for blogging purposes. It's even stranger because the majority of the route is outside London, and odder still because Essex County Council withdrew their funding in 2016, but I'm certainly not complaining. A top deck trip across Epping Forest makes for a fine New Year jaunt. [live map]
Walthamstow bus station is a busier hub since they removed the bus stop that used to be immediately outside the station. And today the crowd waiting for the 20 is larger than usual because there hasn't been one for a while - they ought to be every fifteen minutes. A family group kindly allow me aboard before them, then grimace when they see I've nabbed one of the top deck front seats where they planned to sit. They congregate behind me and banter all the way to Essex.
Although the 20 aims north its first half mile runs south, down Hoe Street, which I won't say too much about because I'll be back here in March. At Bakers Arms we turn onto Lea Bridge Road, along which the fruits of cycleway upgrade are clearly seen. A non-blue lane weaves along the edge of the pavement, designated C23, although at this time of day the only user is a man on a mobility scooter whirring purposefully in the wrong direction. A lot of corner shops have become corner grills or corner cafes. The former Waltham Oak pub is now a mosque. The Whipps Cross roundabout has become a pair of T-junctions and a sprawling bus stand, seemingly complete, although C23 suddenly peters out at some temporary barriers.
From here the 20 follows the main road up a thin stripe of Epping Forest, the road itself the greatest scar. Most London bus routes don't pass a sign saying 'Beware Cattle', let alone rumble over a cattle grid. St Peter in the Forest church is very well named, and spiritually balanced by the Empire Lounge restaurant nextdoor with its glitzy chandeliers and dazzling decor. At the Waterworks Corner roundabout the North Circular gouges through this tongue of Green Belt with complete disregard. Behind me one family member is jabbering merrily and chewing gum at the same time.
Ahead it's squelchy forest on the left and built-up residential on the right, the 20 being the only bus that serves both. Eventually we reach Woodford Green, at the southern tip where the statue of former MP Winston Churchill is located, and then full-on suburbia kicks in. How lovely to live facing the cricket ground or the duckpond, with easy access to a steakhouse for dining out or a butchers for eating in. Vegan alternatives are additionally available. A couple of old coaching inns survive along the high road, just past the parish church, and Twentyman Close is but a short walk away.
The road eventually forks, but the New Road through Epping Forest is uninhabited so our bus tacks right. After one more stop we cross silently from Redbridge to Essex, marked only by a sign rather than any change in type of housing. Twenty-five minutes down, still thirty to go. Settlement number one is Buckhurst Hill, the actual hill getting a better bus service than the modern focus downslope by the tube station. Residents up here on the ridgetop enjoy views in both directions, especially to the east, although I doubt most get it quite as good as top deck passengers.
Beyond the village sign the road embraces a long woody descent and lands on the edge of a proper Essex town, which is Loughton. Gardens are bigger, shrubberies are bolder and the first shop on the high street just has to be a nail bar. Even the winter jackets everyone's wearing are noticeably classier than those in Walthamstow. Our bus diverts off to the tube station, where several recent boarders alight, then returns via the big Sainsbury's, where several fresh shoppers board. These are the fortunate pensioners of Essex, ferried home for free on a regular London bus.
Loughton High Road is confirmation that some communities still have spare money. We pass kitchen showrooms, beauty salons and jewellers, plus nighttime venues where the cast of TOWIE play. I spy a boulangerie and a brasserie, plus a restaurant laid out with proper napkins. Admittedly there's also a Wimpy offering a special deal on free onion rings, and one of the final buildings is a job centre, but the overwhelming impression is of a town economically unscathed.
TfL's other local route takes the shortcut to Debden, but we're off on a quarter hour detour starting with an assault on Church Hill. The original route 20 used to run straight ahead here, destination Epping, but the current incarnation has been circling Debden's outer estates since 1976. It's a bit of a jolt to turn off into council housing, or at least postwar overspill, and the environment suddenly feels a lot more Londony. Even one or two neighbourhood pubs have survived, courtesy of the established demographic.
A lady in a wheelchair is waiting to board, grateful that she can use a TfL service rather than some occasional local coach. She stays on round the periphery of the estate, past sweeping greenspace and hundreds of cosy homes, on the approach to our final destination at Debden Broadway. This stark shopping parade - twin walls of caffs, bazaars and poundshops - is a world away from Loughton's classic drag. The 20 dispenses us round the back behind the car park, which is a poor finale but feels appropriate all the same. All this and the choice of a red bus or a tube home, because some corners of Essex enjoy the best that London has to offer.
But my New Year theme isn't 20, it's 2020, so we're one twenty short. Fortunately route 20 has a nightbus cousin which goes absolutely nowhere near anywhere we've been today, so we'll ride that tomorrow.