Route 56: Whipps Cross to St Bart's Hospital Location: London northeast, inner Length of bus journey: 8 miles, 1 hour
It's traditional around every birthday that I take a numerically significant bus journey. Fourteen years ago I took the 42 to Dulwich, thirteen years ago the 43 to Barnet, twelve years ago the 44 to Tooting, eleven years ago the 45 to Clapham, ten years ago the 46 to Farringdon, nine years ago the 47 to Bellingham, eight years ago the 48 to Walthamstow, seven years ago the 49 to Battersea, six years ago the 50 to Croydon, five years ago the 51 to Orpington, four years ago the 52 to Willesden, three years ago the 53 to Whitehall, two years ago the 54 to Elmers End and last year the 55 to Oxford Circus. This year, closely paralleling last year's journey, it's the 56 to Smithfield.
Except there's a problem, a big one, which is that I haven't been on a bus in almost a year. I last hopped on a double decker five days after my 55th birthday and I have no intention of breaching travel restrictions to maintain an annual tradition. I have therefore been extraordinarily fortunate that the entirety of route 56 lies within the envelope I can walk from home. Both termini are four miles distant and even the closest point isn't close, so it's a tough ask but it was doable. Thank goodness Streatham to Kingston is next year.
Rather than walk the whole route in one go I tackled it in three stages, one day for the Waltham Forest bit, one day for the Hackney/Islington bit and one day to finish it off. The weather was similarly dull each day so hopefully you won't spot the join in the photos. And because I was on foot I had more time to spot things and take notes which means my report is going to drag on a bit, so maybe put the kettle on before you start reading.
The 56 begins its journey at an ex-roundabout on the edge of Leyton Flats. The Whipps Cross Interchange was reimagined as a T-junction two years ago, leaving plenty of spare space what for could have been a bus station but ambition was low so we got a glorified layby instead. It's even been given a name, Phyppe Way, to commemorate John Phyppe who erected a wayside cross here in medieval times. Two flanks of bus stops face off across a tarmac chasm with no safe way to cross from one side to the other, which seems a serious omission, especially this close to a hospital. None of the bus shelters feature a spider map, despite one beingavailable, so good luck deciding which side of the divide you need to be. A few trees have been planted and a few boulders strewn around for landscaping purposes, but nothing that'd make you linger.
One passenger, appropriately masked, waits patiently for the double decker to open its doors. Eventually he steps aboard, waves a card at a reader covered by a sheet of clear plastic and walks back to one of the seats that's not been taped off. I'm not joining him because taking notes aboard a birthday bus ride does not constitute an essential journey, but in what follows pretend I'm sat in the front seat on the top deck looking down.
Off we go, westward and downhill past the uncatchily named City of London and North East Sector Army Cadet Force Headquarters. In its courtyard is someone tinkering with a landrover painted in camouflage colours, not that this'd help disguise it on the streets of E17. For the first three miles the 56 will be following the Lea Bridge Road, a thoroughfare so long that the houses at this end are in the high 800s. It's also been significantly upgraded to promote safe cycling, with a proper segregated lane all the way down to the Lea... which pedestrians have to be very careful not to accidentally stand in.
A hovis sign above the Prestige Pizza Academy confirms much about the evolution of food retail hereabouts. Outside Papa Johns I spy a row of seven parked mopeds, their rear wheels slightly elevated and silently rotating. One shopfront features the title SPY SHOP in enormous letters, a brazen reveal which makes me suspect it's not frequented by the genuinely undercover. Ahead is the crossroads better known as Bakers Arms, named after the former pub, and thankfully not after the Paddy Power betting shop which now occupies the building. The ex-Barclays on the opposite corner is up for let so could easily turn into something similar.
It's at this point that the 55 bus route joins us from Walthamstow which means the next two miles are a direct repeat of last year's birthday travelogue. The 48 also journeyed this way before TfL withdrew it, so I apologise for any excessive déjà vu in what follows.
On our right is 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 queue for the Halifax stretches out of the door and around the corner. Pigeons peer down from the Overground bridge before a rumbling freight train displaces them. The prevailing smell, even though it's well before lunchtime, reminds me of suboptimal chips. The phone box at the end of Shrubland Road still displays an advert for a Gregg's Festive Bake.
A 56 double decker pulls up and disgorges two passengers while taking on one more. The lower deck is empty other than three friends sat on the back seat. This is the busiest I've seen any of the passing buses and suggests that continuing operations must be haemorrhaging money.
This section of the street is an amalgam of small shops and residential terraces, mostly the former, selling everything from grilled fish to bath fittings and basmati rice to electric gates (but no longer fireplaces because that shop's being gutted). One notable building is half mosque, the remainder Tesco with a gym-stroke-sauna stacked on top. Lea Bridge Library is closed, "a difficult decision" apparently, to spare resources during the pandemic. I don't for one moment believe that either Royal Burgers or Crown Pizza have the Queen's patronage.
Further apologies are required at the junction with Church Road because this is the point where route 58 crosses our path so I'll be back to mention the millennium clocktower again in 2023.
Here Lea Bridge Road dips more convincingly downhill, aiming towards an anomalous trio of white towers in the middle distance. Within a very short stretch of road the advertised food offering embraces German, Turkish, African, Polish, Italian, Romanian and English. The Dagenham Brook is easier to spot from the upper deck than at ground level. The Hare and Hounds pub says it misses you all and that the building is fully alarmed. The big Aldi is missing nobody, judging by the state of its car park. Those white towers turn out to be a hideous residential development called Motion, but I already knew that because I came this way last year.
Before we cross the first strand of the Lea we pass Lea Bridge station, barely five years old but with a new entrance already in the pipeline. Two police officers are having a chat with a driver parked up in the entrance to the nature reserve. A woman with a trolleyful of scrap takes one item over to the roadside, smashes its glass panel to smithereens and returns the metal frame to her stash. Over at the Lea Valley Ice Centre, which has all the allure of an oversized Nissen hut, a dozen picnic tables have been upended against the corrugated exterior. A passing 56 boasts perfectly distanced passengers - one upstairs, one downstairs.
The Princess of Wales pub changed sex in 1995, having previously been a Prince. I can't work out why a cyclist is careering towards me along the pavement when there's a perfectly decent cycle lane, except I've just passed from Waltham Forest into Hackney which means there abruptly isn't. Instead the 55 and 56 have their own bus lane, a faded once-red strip, and cars and bikes can go hang. The road rises slowly past greenspace dotted with daffs, plus a granny peeling off a scratchcard, until Lea Bridge Road finally comes to a halt at a big roundabout.
Finally the 56 gets a road to itself, a unique stretch that'll never crop up on any other route. Make the most of the next paragraph and a half.
At Clapton Pond we turn off the high street between the dry cleaners and the chemist, bearing off down the evocatively-named Cricketfield Road. Alas there hasn't been a grass oval nearby for yonks, and even The Cricketers pub on the corner has been renamed the Mermaid. A black cat pads across the road and then follows us down the street by leaping walls between front gardens. These belong to fine 3- and 4-storey villas which'd be much more pleasant places to live if only they didn't face constant cut-through traffic.
We pass the southeast corner of Hackney Downs, the last decent-sized open space en route, and a Victorian church now occupied by a denomination so evangelical their minister is apparently a Bishop. Here the local housing changes abruptly to bulky interwar LCC blocks, each behind railings so that nothing runs amok on their lawns. A man wearing a red beanie hat careers down the pavement desperate to catch a 56 stuck at the lights, and succeeds because the driver's a) alert b) good at her job c) not exactly overwhelmed with other passengers.
At the foot of the slope is Pembury Corner, a complex five-way junction where traffic waits patiently on all arms but one. A substantial proportion of that traffic is red buses dillydallying round the centre of Hackney, because this is what happens after a main shopping street gets pedestrianised. Three police cars zip through on a red light, sirens blaring, followed by an ambulance heading somewhere altogether different. Most of those waiting at the bus stop outside Hackney Downs station want the 30, not the 56. The gloomy undercroft beneath the platforms is seemingly a good place to grab a coffee or a cab.
This is Dalston Lane, some of whose villas have survived from Georgian times when this was a rural idyll on the up. NavarinoMansions are instead Edwardian, a substantial quartet of Art Nouveau blocks built to accommodate 300 Jewish artisans. Ironwork letters on a wall at the end of Wayland Avenue announce that this was once Margett's Corner, named after the long-gone Margett's jam factory which lay behind. The road ahead is very mixed... newbuild, oldbuild, builders yard, freehouse... not to mention Beryl's Bikes who appear to be doing a roaring trade in London's most cycle friendly borough.
The foothills of gentrification arise as we dogleg our way into Dalston. Shops have names like Silk Stocking, Wondrous Theatre and The Picklery, and are stocked with nice-to-owns rather than need-to-haves. Through one window I spot an artisan operative packing six vegan brownies into a fancy cardboard box ready for posting, delivery price £18. Opposite the Overground station one shop hopes to sell packs of three colourful face coverings as part of a Back To School offer. But any illusion of affluence is shattered by the crowd lingering at the bus stop, their cheap black masks tucked beneath their scruffy beards as they neck another Red Bull.
The 56 continues to nudge west before it heads south, in deliberate contrast to the 55 which does the opposite. This means following the Balls Pond Road, once a laughably downbeat thoroughfare but no longer so. It now boasts a deli flogging beetroot lattes, a cafe with a window stacked full of oatmilk and a taproom with a mural depicting a bear clutching a glass of red wine. Some houses look run down, others perfect enough to appear in a Sunday supplement. The lady who works in the costume studio has stepped out today in matching floral headscarf and wellies.
Essex Road is a broader thoroughfare and also where we start the social climb towards Islington. It's longer than I remember and takes its time to develop a consistent character. For every hipster barber there's a fruit-fronted minimart, for every elegant crescent a bank of flats, and for every gastropub a catering-sized bag of burger buns dumped on the pavement. The Canonbury Vets practice is proud to offer 'weekly dog socialisation parties'. An electric scooter whips down the bus lane.
Beyond the station the middle classes come shopping. I spy fishmongers, furnishers and florists, not to mention holistic day spas, yoga studios and a butcher selling prime cuts via a table placed in his doorway. It's here that the very first spider map of the journey appears - Islington Angel edition - ending five miles of shelters with empty frames where it looks like spider maps used to be. London Buses' cartographic decline is alas well underway.
Sir Hugh Myddleton's statue is currently surrounded by a ring of winter pansies as it stands guard over the junction with Upper Street. I'm pleased to say that the raised paving slab over which I tripped flat on my face has been lowered back to pavement level. The pavements are busy here, or at least busy for 2021, with shoppers, joggers, smokers, builders, chatters, chewers, pushers and striders. A double decker 56 attempts to pull in outside the tube station as half a dozen passengers cluster by the middle door, impatient to alight. Only one passenger stays on board because the Northern line's by far the better way out.
The Angel Islington public house still exists but only as a Wetherspoons, not the Monopoly-friendly original. Here the 56 turns sharp left down City Road but only because the one-way system doesn't allow it to fork left instead. We pass the J Smith and Son clocktower and the finest houses on the journey, then triangulate down a mundane sidestreet where the Dogs Trust has its HQ. London is a city of close contrasts, as Goswell Road is about to exemplify. Broad but minor, a place of work but also somewhere to call home, it's a lot quieter than you'd expect for the southern end of the A1.
Music is blaring out from a balcony at Turnpike House, inexplicably not St Etienne but something indeterminately urban. At Kennedy's the £4.95 British Pie Week special comes with mash and onion gravy. The Zaha Hadid Gallery is based in a building with no architectural oomph. Anyone needing an Indian visa needs to queue here or queue in Hounslow. The former Hat and Feathers pub is being used as a heritage sticking plaster on the nose of a tediously newbuild hotel.
Oh look it's the 55 again, crossing our path as it heads somewhere considerably more central. None of the 56s on Goswell Road have a single passenger on board.
At last the edge of the City appears, heralded by the crescent facade of the Golden Lane estate. At ground level two staff from Barbican Fruiters and Greengrocers are laying out crates of fruit and veg outside the window of Cliffords Hairdressing For Men. The concrete towers of the Barbican rise up from a concrete plaza above a concrete podium. It's here that I stumble upon a fake bus stop complete with fake bus shelter, a feature so unexpected that it deserves its own post on the blog tomorrow. We're nearly at our destination, so best not extend today's verbose reportage unnecessarily.
We wiggle through a checkpoint on the edge of the Ring of Steel and circle past the current entrance to the Museum of London. Ooh look that's St Paul's Cathedral, the first building en route an international tourist would have recognised. Our final task is to head up Newgate Street to the Old Bailey, then turn off up Giltspur Street where this bus terminates. My hospital to hospital journey is complete.
Any straggling passengers are chucked off bang opposite the entrance to St Bart's, although if they've come to visit Prince Philip they're a week too late. Other local sights in this quiet City backwater include an ambulance station, a Premier Inn and Smithfield Market. And although I'm glad I walked here it would have been three hours quicker on the 56, and I'd hate to make a habit of this every year.