Route 55: Walthamstow to Oxford Circus Location: London northeast, inner Length of journey: 9 miles, 1 hour 40 minutes
It's traditional around every birthday that I take a numerically significant bus journey, so here I go again. Thirteen years ago I took the 42 to Dulwich, twelve years ago the 43 to Barnet, eleven years ago the 44 to Tooting, ten years ago the 45 to Clapham, nine years ago the 46 to Farringdon, eight years ago the 47 to Bellingham, seven years ago the 48 to Walthamstow, six years ago the 49 to Battersea, five years ago the 50 to Croydon, four years ago the 51 to Orpington, three years ago the 52 to Willesden, two years ago the 53 to Whitehall and last year the 54 to Elmers End. This year, finally hitting the bigtime, it's the 55 to Oxford Circus.
My apologies for any déjà vu, because the first six miles of route 55 are a direct repeat of my journey on route 48 seven years ago. The severe overlap is one of the reasons why TfL withdrew route 48 last October, then extended the 55 from Leyton to Walthamstow to maintain connections. To make things worse my next birthday bus, the 56, directly shadows the 55 for two miles along Lea Bridge Road, so try not to sound too surprised next year.
Walthamstow bus station is a shining node of connectivity, a veritable whirl of activity alongside the town square. It's also linked by subway to the Victoria line, a far more sensible way of reaching my ultimate destination (in 20 minutes rather than 100), except tradition dictates otherwise. The 55 departs from Stop A, the closest to the exit, which should also be my departure point in 2034 (and, notionally, in 2222). A quirk of cyclic frequencies conspires to deliver buses on all three routes at the same time, with my 55 stuck at the back behind a never-ending stream of shoppers on the pedestrian crossing.
Oh joy it's a Boris Bus. Since January passengers have been forbidden from entering via the middle and rear doors, where large stickers now urge everyone to 'board at front door'. At this first stop the fact that the driver no longer opens the other doors also assures compliance. I've picked a weekday lunchtime for my journey, partly so that later road works will be less severe but mainly to reduce the chances of coughers, sneezers and splutterers on the upper deck. My companion on the adjacent front seat is none of these, stretching out after a tough morning on a building site and swigging from a bottle of Premium Aloe Vera Juice Drink.
I see the roadworks above the railway bridge still aren't quite finished. Time for a wiggle down Hoe Street, which was also the start of my blogged journey on route 20 back in January so I can only apologise again. Back then the windows at Special Occasions bobbed with silver '2020' balloons, whereas today a full inflatable St Patrick's Day set are in position. across the road a dead sheep is being delivered, its stripped carcass manhandled out of the back of a refrigerated truck driven here from Cornwall. I can't tell how many of the other shops are empty because at this time of day the abundance of evening takeaways are firmly shuttered.
We've only been going five minutes but suddenly pull over for the dreaded "This bus will wait here for a short time while the drivers change over". Route 55 might have been extended from Bakers Arms to Walthamstow five months ago but, operationally speaking, it still starts here. We wait an extra minute while the new driver presses a button to check the ramp works. Somewhere downstairs a child is relentlessly kicking. Outside the bus a mother with a pushchair spots that the buggy space already contains three other families and retreats to await something emptier.
Now comes the long run down the Lea Bridge Road, starting at Bakers Arms (which is no longer a pub but a Paddy Power). The name nods to the London Master Bakers Benevolent Institution, an Italianate quadrangle of almshouses behind an ornate set of gates, whose flats were transferred to council control in the 1960s. The rest of the street is an amalgam of small shops and residential terraces, including a poundshop variant called 98p Plus Extra, the Diamond Ladder Factory and a 'raw' gym that specialises in serving 'dirty' chicken. I see bakery chain Percy Ingle is rebranding as ingles, all in capitals on a bland emerald green background.
The entire street has a segregated cycle lane on each side, which works well most of the time but is occasionally forced to thread between a bus stop and the kerb. At Manor Road a cyclist arrives just as we pull up and decides to weave through the crowd moving forward to board the bus, narrowly missing a one-legged man. A sign by the roadside confirms that Lea Bridge Gateway, 'an area of urban generation', was paid for using EU funding. A large mosque has been built on the corner of Rochdale Road, while further down what used to be a cinema has morphed into an evangelical church. Simply The Best Salon has closed, so clearly wasn't. The Dagenham Brook is liberally scattered with litter.
Three large blocks of flats have arisen beside Lea Bridge station, officially called Motion but somehow resembling stacks of layer cake. Signs at the adjacent road junction advise cyclists that C26 heads off to the left while C23 and C27 run straight ahead, should anyone have any idea what these actually are. What they don't mention is that C27 only runs as far as the boundary with Hackney, at which point an apologetic tarmac strip wiggles off into a park before giving up completely. This is a sign that we've crossed the Lea, the change in borough also confirmed by sight of a skateboarder with a foot-long beard careering along the pavement.
At the Lea Bridge Roundabout we're overtaken by a bus on route 56, which is considerably emptier, before it launches off on an entirely different course. We get to continue past Clapton Pond, whose environs are currently brightened by daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths and flowering cherry. Since my birthday ride seven years ago the shops along Lower Clapton Road have nudged upmarket somewhat, and now include creperies as well as discount furniture stores and wine bars as well as dry cleaners. It's taken half an hour, but somewhere at the back of the bus the first cough of the journey is heard, and several other passengers instinctively flinch.
Another change since 2013 is that buses no longer run down the shoppy bit of Mare Street. Its pedestrianisation is good news for anyone wanting something from Primark or M&S, or lunch from one of the food stalls in the former roadway, but we now face a five minute dogleg via Dalston Lane. Here historic terraces face off against shiny modern flats, and numerous banners promoting 'Hackney Recycling Rewards' adorn the lampposts. The Pembury Tavern has seen better days. Nothing says 21st century inner London better than a Costa slotted underneath a Travelodge. The Hackney Empire doesn't seem to have anything special on at the moment.
Despite the 48's passing a shedload of buses still run down Mare Street, and we play leapfrog with a pair of 106s most of the way down. Our 55 remains convincingly busy. Somewhere on the lower deck a hacking cough rings out, and shortly afterwards another ricochets a few seats behind me. Never fear, fingers crossed. Our surroundings are now relentlessly urban, brightened only infrequently by beds of pansies and colourful murals. The Stansted Express shoots by on a parallel viaduct. The Regent's Canal approaches, its pair of gasholders still holding out against encroaching development. I am sick of hearing an audio message telling me which doors not to board through.
At the first stop on Hackney Road an old lady with a tartan muffler waves repeatedly to flag us down. She sounds flustered and asks the driver if he's going past some specific studio somewhere, look it's here on this map I've printed out, but he isn't certain, but she gets on anyway. Boris Bags has closed down since I was last here in October, but several other handbag, shoe and luggage merchandisers still trade a little further down. Mecca Bingo (2013) has become unaffordable flats. It's here that we join the rear of our first traffic jam of the journey, caused by temporary traffic lights at the rainbow crossing. It will alas not be our last.
At Shoreditch Church our tartan lady alights, having been reassured studio-wise by a helpful passenger. We have finally hit the city fringe, if not the City, as confirmed by an increase in the number of bars, restaurants and hipster barbers. A significant building site has opened up at the top of Great Eastern Road, where a pretentious 27-storey Art'otel is about to arise. My fellow passenger at the front of the bus suddenly develops what I hope is a smoker's cough, but then follows this up with a full-on sniffle. And here's our second traffic jam, so significant that TfL have reduced bus frequencies on route 55 because of it.
What used to be the Old Street Roundabout is not yet a non-looping road junction, but extensive roadworks continue to make it so. It'd be useful to read the direction sign explaining how the temporary lanes work but a banner advertising expensive flats has been hung in front of it. We inch forward slowly, only a few vehicles slipping through each green light phase, as builders shovel, pour and smooth concrete over the central island. Several passengers are waiting patiently on the other side, including one who deftly flicks his cigarette into the gutter while firing up the contactless card on his phone. The man who plonks down next to me is a sniffly hanky-wielder, but thankfully swaps seats at the earliest opportunity.
That's one hour down, and only two and a half miles to go. As we nudge into Clerkenwell the interior of the bus ratchets up from busy to packed. This results in a pair of suited businessmen slotting themselves onto the spare seats up front, either side of the aisle, and engaging in confidential conversation. They discuss £42m refurbishment deals, the difficulty they have finding time for a skiing break and the unlikelihood that they'll ever be able to take early retirement. My heart bleeds. One definitely has a cold, and proceeds to wipe his nose and then his beard. The Hat and Feathers pub is now a shell on the corner of a development site. Turnmills has become an office block. We're going nowhere fast.
Resurfacing ahead as part of the West End Project has resulted in a choking web of roadworks and diversions evolving over several months. This has turned most of Theobalds Road into a traffic jam, far better attacked on a bike than in a bus. Office workers slip off into Lincoln's Inn Fields holding a variety of lunches. The Fryer's Delight chippie is doing minimal trade compared to the Pret and Subway to either side. Eventually we reach the front of the queue and veer off course at a snail's pace towards High Holborn. On the bright side this encourages my business companions to alight and complete their journey by tube instead.
Banners on Procter Street proclaim 'Help make Midtown plastic free', despite looking like they're made from some kind of plastic themselves. 'Always carry a water flask' says another, encouraging the purchase of unnecessary canisters. Progress beyond Kingsway proves no quicker as we join a Camden bin lorry and several displaced buses along High Holborn because New Oxford Street is also out of action. The old Royal Mail depot on our right has entered its fourth year of refitting as The Post Building. With further queues to squeeze into St Giles, and more to return to line of route at Centre Point, it's no wonder fewer passengers are choosing to travel by inner London bus.
Oxford Street, when it finally arrives, is mercifully quick. We start beside a big hole where Soho Place is only fractionally built, then pass Kingdom of Souvenirs and a succession of luggage'n'gift shops. Shoppers mill inbetween, and spill out into the road regardless. The new Crossrail station at the top of Dean Street is a featureless black box in deep hibernation, its roundel wrapped and sealed. Our final jam comprises more taxis than buses, because they haven't been culled yet, which encourages our 55 driver to kick us off just short of JD Sports. An hour and forty minutes is a damned long time to spend aboard a bus, but needs must.