Route N20: Trafalgar Square to Barnet Location: London north Length of journey: 13 miles, 75 minutes
Route N20 is essentially the Northern line but by bus. It's been tracking up the Charing Cross and High Barnet branches overnight since 1995, keeping Finchley and Highgate connected, because that'd be a long way in a cab. But the arrival of the Night Tube has negated its core purpose, at least at weekends, causing TfL to throttle back its frequency from six buses an hour to just two. I ventured out on the first weekend of the new year and rode it all the way. [live map]
For the second time this year I'm in Trafalgar Square just after midnight, although this time the piazza's nigh empty and entirely reveller-free. It's also that time of the morning when ordinary bus routes fade away and the N prefixes emerge, ready to carry passengers to the farthest flung corners of the capital. Alas it seems nobody other than me wants to go to Barnet, which isn't entirely surprising given that Northern line trains are still running and could get you there in less than half the time. The first N20 of the night surprises me by arriving five minutes early, a plainly deliberate act which makes a mockery of the timetable, and off we go.
The first bit is the slow bit, crawling up Charing Cross Road in a queue of buses, taxis and sleek white vehicles summonable by app. The West End is clearing out, its patrons leaving their brightly lit tables and nipping into convenience stores to buy refreshments for the ride home. Outside the new Foyles a potential passenger asks the driver if he's going to Angel, discovers not and dismounts. The old Foyles is now an enormous hole in the ground. It's taken us ten minutes to get as far as Tottenham Court Road, but at least this means we're now running to time.
Burger King's rubbish has been deposited on the pavement in dozens of red bags. A lorry has stopped to deliver tomorrow's supplies to Pret. A hooded man wearing bumble-bee coloured trainers flags us down and joins me on the upper deck. Somewhere downstairs a loud foreign conversation has kicked off, which is as raucous as this journey will ever get. The traffic lights on the Euston Road turn red to allow nobody to take advantage of green, which never happens during the day. No further passengers disturb us between Euston and Mornington Crescent so we get there early... and that's the first time the driver pauses the bus and waits.
Camden High Street is marginally busier at the top than the bottom, thanks to takeaways, pavement smokers and the occasional queue at a bouncered doorway. We gain a passenger clutching a bouquet of flowers with all the allure of a garage forecourt. The driver of an N27 pulls out suddenly to overtake a 28, and earns a honk from the driver of our N20 for his lack of trouble. From somewhere behind me the sound of light snoring can be heard. The night time economy does not extend as far as Kentish Town, unless you count men in leathers sitting in pizza joints waiting for somebody at home to submit an order. And then we are on the climb.
We climb through Tufnell Park, where a few late Christmas lights still sparkle. We climb round Archway, where a passenger claims to have left his Oyster at home and is eventually allowed to board. We join the A1 and climb that too, heading for the upper heights of Highgate where several shop windows needlessly blaze. Every so often a kebabbery appears, its meat silently rotating in case anyone local gets the munchies. And because we're not stopping much we've crept up to two minutes ahead of schedule, so the driver pulls over and flaps his doors needlessly for the second time.
At East Finchley a weary bloke in a grubby anorak heads upstairs and within seconds is spark out with his head leaning on the window. Not even the thwack of branches against the window can wake him. What the daytime bus to Barnet does is head straight on, but we need to tick off all the Northern line stations so turn left to make sure we include Finchley Central. I'm less familiar with these streets, indeed there are three consecutive stops that no other daytime bus route touches (other than those packed with schoolchildren). It's all got undeniably suburban, and gone eerily quiet.
The main shopping street through Finchley is lit with starburst decorations attached to every lamppost. Our weary napper snaps into action as his stop is announced and sleepwalks downstairs. We've now been going for a full hour, because even on trafficless streets a London bus is never fast. Too fast for the timetable, however, so the driver undertakes further delaying tactics at three consecutive bus stops so as not to reach Tally Ho Corner too early. When your bus only runs every half an hour it's important not to be premature, however much it niggles those already on board.
Barnet council appear to have bought a job lot of those starburst decorations because there are more adorning the High Road in North Finchley and yet more, in a subtly different shade, throughout Whetstone. The only nightlife in town, it being well after one o'clock, seems to be within the Maya Lounge. Excitingly we've just crossed the border into the N20 postcode, indeed I understand the N20 is the only London bus route to pass through its namesake district. This also means I'll need to come back here tomorrow afternoon for blogging purposes, but I try not to think about that as we pass through.
It's felt like most of my journey on the N20 has been uphill, indeed we'll be over 100m higher by the end of the route than we were at the start. One final delaying pause is required - I make that eight in total - to ensure our final arrival is bang on time. If only we hadn't left Trafalgar Square prematurely none of them would have been necessary. While we wait an empty double decker suddenly zips past us at speed and tilts noticeably as it swerves to avoid a traffic island, because apparently the rules of the road can be broken at night. We still need one last climb to reach High Barnet, where just two of us are left on board to alight outside the police station.
I could join the boozy cluster outside Ye Olde Mitre, but instead I take advantage of the Night Tube home... because why on earth would you take the bus?