Last week I spotted a vehicle which operates one of London's most unusual bus routes - the 812.
That's odd, I thought. I'm in in Dalston and the 812 doesn't go to to Dalston, it runs round the backstreets of Islington. Even odder, I'm sure route 812 was suspended last March and hasn't operated since. I decided the brandedminibus must be off doing something more useful like transporting the elderly elsewhere, but my close encounter also encouraged me to go and explore the route on foot...
Route 812: Hoxton to Old Street Location: Islington south Length of journey: 4 miles, 30 minutes
The 812 is the only inner London bus route not operated by TfL. Instead it's funded by Islington council to ferry its older and disabled residents around the southern end of the borough. Local people had their say in where it goes, which is almost entirely down streets where no other buses go, linking homes to key services, shops, surgeries and day centres. Freedom Pass holders get their spin for free, but anyone else can ride for a bargain £1 fare (Oyster not accepted). Buses run every 30 minutes but only on weekdays and only between 9am and 5pm. They're operated as a social initiative by the Hackney-based HCT Group who also run 17 'proper' red bus routes in northeast London. For more information check out their special route 812 website.
If you remember TfL bus maps, the 812 was the sole green-coloured route wiggling around central London.
Buses start their journey in the borough of Hackney, but only just, on the south side of the Regents Canal by the Rosemary Branch bridge. No bus stop is provided, nor obvious layover space, so I guess you just wander over and look willing when the minibus appears. The first stop is across the water on Southgate Road opposite Tesco Express, a rare occasion when the 812 is marked with a tile and a timetable. Almost all of the rest of the route is along otherwise unbussed streets, and Hail & Ride, so physical evidence of the 812's existence is generally minimal.
The first deep dive into the backstreets is up Downham Road, through a narrow bus gate marked buses and cycles only. Local residents with cars must curse the 812 every time they take a lengthy detour. The housing mix hereabouts is postwar flats and elegant Georgian terraces, mostly the latter, plus the occasional converted warehouse. Nobody in this otherwise unserved neighbourhood is more than 400m from a red bus route, the usual TfL threshold of concern, but the immediate elderly must welcome the opportunity to walk less far.
At New North Road the 812 briefly crosses the path of the 271, then plunges back into residential solitude. The City of London runs a retirement home down one side of Prebend Street, liberally decorated with 'No Junk Mail' signs on individual front doors. If Sunday mornings are the judge then Pophams Bakery is by far the most popular business along the entire route, the queue outside inexplicably over twenty strong. Either local people really like coffee or they're entirely unable to bake Marmite, Schlossberger, spring onion & sesame seed pastries at home.
The 812's next task is to thread from Essex Road across to Upper Street. On the outward journey it diverts via the boutiques of Cross Street (and a community centre), whereas coming back the other way is quicker thanks to inner Islington's one-way system. Drivers then turn right at HotblackDesiato, the infamous hard rock estate agents, to enter the elegance of Theberton Street. This is an unusually broad thoroughfare, but also now blocked halfway down by a bus-only slalom, which must annoy cabbies ending up here after following the first ride in 'The Knowledge'.
The 812 cunningly avoids passing any of Islington's tube or railway stations because it's that kind of route, so skips the main drag by the Angel. Instead it nips round the back of the Angel Central shopping mall, then stops at a proper bus shelter outside the giant Sainsburys. But I like to think that most of those aboard the minibus instead alight at the far end of Chapel Market and do their grocery shopping properly there. The fruit and veg stalls were doing a roaring trade on Sunday morning ('Shop quickly, Shop Alone').
Across Pentonville Road the 812 again strikes out alone as it descends past the reservoir (and the triple point where the N, W and E postcodes meet). This odd route's oddest moment comes when it bears off down Cruikshank Street for a down-and-uphill doubleback. It first skirts Bevin Court, the modernist block which contains Lubetkin's most stunning staircase, then loops round the sloping 'roundabout' of Percy Circus. It's hard to imagine any of the local populace needing a bus, merely cursing another recently-installed bus gate, but who's to say who really lives behind these elegant front doors?
After that diversion the 812 continues past New River Head and across Rosebery Avenue into the heart of Finsbury proper. Here passengers can ding the bell, or whatever they do, to alight at the launderette end of trendy Exmouth Market. Next it skirts Spa Fields and passes beneath the first tower block on the journey, because the southeast corner of the borough is densely residential. And then it's time to set off on the mile-long anti-clockwise loop at the end of the route which serves the backstreets to either side of Old Street.
St John Street is historic and has the last of the proper bus stops. Compton Street has a chicane that only a minibus could tackle. Golden Lane scrapes the edge of the City of London, because that's how far south we've ventured. Bunhill Row serves a historic nonconformist burial ground but also a lot more bog-standard flats than you'd expect to exist this close to a global financial centre. Ironmonger Row is where the very splendid Baths are, plus Finsbury Leisure Centre if that's your preferred destination. Lever Street is much broader than modern usage suggests it needs to be... and then the loop is closed and the 812 continues back towards Hoxton.
I started out wondering why on earth the 812 was needed and ended up realising quite how many elderly and disabled people might live close to its meandering path. Islington is the most densely-populated borough in the UK, so if you can't make a bespoke minibus service work here then what hope do you have? And even though the 812's not running at the moment, tracing its route is still a great way to explore some fascinating corners of inner London that aren't quite on the beaten track. Well worth a pound of your money should the opportunity ever return.