Route 404: Caterham-on-the Hill to Cane Hill, Coulsdon Location: London south, outer Length of journey: 8 miles, 40 minutes
The 404 is a minor bus route scaling the foothills of Croydon. Infrequent, twisty and little used, it is nevertheless a lifeline to locals... and yesterday received a big boost. Its route was diverted in the middle and extended at one end, its frequency was doubled to half-hourly, and it gained a Sunday service for the first time. Unlucky timing, but a contract is a contract and there are still key workers to serve.
I had been planning to go for a ride, but this would have been the very definition of 'unnecessary travel' so instead I'm going to attempt to recreate a journey from home. I'm hamstrung by never having been to either terminus, only ever riding a bit of the route once and not having any specific photos in my archive. But let's give the virtual 404 a try anyway...
Our starting point is just outside London, in Surrey, specifically Caterham-on-the-Hill. I've never been, so this is a photo of Caterham which I presume is similarly affluent but lower down. The 404 kicks off its journey in the middle of Westway Common, a recreational greensward, not far from the library. Only proper Surrey buses are allowed in the High Street. Previously only one vehicle was needed to operate the route, half an hour there and half an hour back, but now it's two miles longer it needs three. This means our imaginary driver has a little longer to rest before flipping open the doors and welcoming her only passenger.
We start with a spin round the common, part of a big triangular loop that gets the bus back on a northbound track. This delivers the delights of the Caterham Community Recycling Centre and a run of sturdy terraces that could easily be in London, but aren't. At the Clifton Arms we turn from Chaldon Road into Coulsdon Road, and I note that this route seems unduly concerned with places that start with the letter C. To prove the point the next pub (and timing point) is the Caterham Arms, where Google Streetview suddenly switches from June 2019 to April 2018, plunging us into fog.
This is where Caterham hides its big Tesco, which makes the meandering 404 ideal for the car-less to pick up provisions by bus. Our surroundings remain built-up until the boundary of Greater London where, in a reversal of what you might expect, development stops dead and thick woodland takes over. This is Coulsdon Common, home to the southernmost pub in London, The Fox, where I had a particularly nice ham and cheddar melt last Easter. If you've ever walked London Loop section 5, which by my reckoning is the finest section of the lot, you'll have crossed our bus's path on your way to the delights of Happy Valley.
So far our route has been identical to the double decker 466, which takes a more direct route to Croydon, and more often. But at Lacey Drive the 404 embarks on its public service remit and veers off to tour the backstreets, part of TfL's commitment to keep as much of London's population as possible within 400m of a bus stop. You'd never send a bus into these hilly avenues otherwise, and the size of our single-door single-decker reflects this. Initially it's all bungalows, white-walled and high-gabled, then more substantial semis nudge in. Nobody is waiting at any of the bus stops - some of these only see five passengers a day.
Here we come to what should be the first of this weekend's tweaks to our route. Previously buses climbed Waddington Avenue direct, but the new plan is to deviate up even hillier Shirley Avenue to better serve the houses there. But the road's narrower and needs new bus stops squeezed in, and the London Borough of Croydon haven't finished the necessary works yet, so this deviation is on hold. Possibly indefinitely. If you've walked Loop 5 and remember walking down from Kenley Observatory, that was round here. But our bus can't get round here yet, so we skip ahead to serve the newer-builds at the foot of Dollypers Hill instead.
The other proposed diversion of route 404 is much longer, and is ready, so we cross Coulsdon Road and start trawling the backroads on the other side. TfL try not to do double-running (i.e. following the same streets in both directions) but here it's the only sensible way to reach the Tollers Lane Estate. I've never realised it was up there, hidden behind a shield of trees, whenever I've been hiking through Happy Valley. What a blissful spot to have at the bottom of your road, and what an odd place to have wedged an unglamorous postwar estate. Our bus is destined to run a clockwise circuit of this distant tongue of flats and social housing, bringing 250 properties within 400m of a bus stop for the first time. For local residents it's a gamechanger, and for anyone else on board the bus an extra eight minute detour.
Back on line of route we finally reach the shopping parade in Old Coulsdon. This feels very much like a village centre, based round St John's church and the Tudor Rose pub, with the added benefit of Danny's award winning fish and chips. It's also a good place to switch to a quicker bus, be that the 60 or the 466, because the 404 has one last big twiddle to complete. All looks promising as we aim direct down Marlpit Lane, but then we veer right up Stoneyfield Road to serve the big semis on the hill. I can almost hear the other passengers who ought to be on the bus with me sighing at the inconvenience.
If you've ever stood on the ridge at Farthing Downs and been gobsmacked by the view, that steep bank of white houses to the east is where we are now. First we ply to the top, where the biggest houses are, then we sweep back down the unlikely switchback of Rutherwick Rise. At one point we're only a few metres away from the rim of a quarry - a quarry which now contains a Waitrose distribution centre and the Ullswater Industrial Estate. Although the street is lined by parked cars it's very much the place potential bus passengers might live, the 404 cementing its social credentials as a needle threading through the community.
Finally we reach the valley bottom, rounding the recreational treasure of Coulsdon Memorial Ground. Again, ramblers who've tackled Loop 5 will remember this as the end of the section, the final few yards after walking down Ditches Lane from the top of Farthing Downs. 404 passengers who've been aiming for Coulsdon South station need to alight here, and those who aren't might be expecting one more stop to the town centre. No longer! The new extension at the end of the route requires the bus to be passing southwards down the high street, so we're about to do something no other bus does and wheedle round the by-pass.
The Coulsdon Reilef Road was slotted in beside the railway in 2006 to extract through traffic on the A23, which has made shopping in Coulsdon far more pleasant. Amusingly the dual carriageway was built with a northbound bus lane as far as Coulsdon Town station, and the 404 is the first TfL bus to use it, fourteen years later. Brighton Road has the best shops this side of Croydon, including a proper Waitrose, and also a pretty decent selection of bus and train connections. But what it's never had until this weekend is a direct bus to the mental asylum on Cane Hill, which is where the 404's extension goes.
Cane Hill Hospital opened in 1883 as the Surrey County Pauper Lunatic Asylum, then the largest in Britain, evolving only slowly as its patient numbers increased. It finally closed in 1991 and was left to decay, a decision to demolish most of it being taken in 2008. The land would be used for an estate of 700 Barratt homes, retaining only the water tower, chapel and (burnt out) administration building from the original layout. Construction's not quite finished yet, but enough families have moved in for TfL to deem them worthy of a bus route. It's only a fifteen minute walk from the shops, but not everybody can walk, or has two cars, and being uphill doesn't help either.
So the 404 now heads up that hill, starting from the roundabout on the relief road which we drove round five minutes ago. Very few passengers are expected to ride through all the way, this is very much a short hop extra. Buses stop four times on the ascent of Cane Hill Drive, where it seems each street has been named after an author or a poet, like some stereotypical Reggie Perrin commute. The terminus is high on Crawford Crescent, between the chapel and the water tower, an enclave so fresh the Streetview car hasn't got here yet. I am the only virtual passenger to alight, indeed the new improved 404 may be carrying virtual passengers for months. But it's good to see the network in outer London is improving, or at least I hope to see it one day.