On Sunday, walking the last stretch of route 56 past the Barbican, I spotted a bus stop that shouldn't have been there.
Two things made me suspicious.
• I'd just walked past a normal bus stop and this one was unnecessarily close.
• The bus route numbers were written on the flag rather than on separate tiles.
I looked a bit closer and grew more suspicious still.
• The bus route numbers were listed in the wrong order.
• The bus stop's name on the end of the shelter was too small.
• The spider maps in the shelter were of an unfamiliar design.
• The bus timetables didn't look right either.
Someone had decided to install a fake bus stop with a fake bus shelter on the public highway. What's more the overall appearance was convincing enough to withstand broad scrutiny from a distance. You might think that as a devoted bus aficionado you'd definitely have twigged, but this Fake Bus Stop was actually the first photo in yesterday's blogpost and nobody said a word.
I only had a hunch what was going on because I'd read the yellow notice pasted up at the previous stop. 'This bus stop is closed from 0800 on Saturday to 2100 on Sunday', it said, 'for filming'. And yes there did appear to be a lot of caravan activity down the road opposite, and a couple of gentlemen in hi-vis on the other side of the road keeping a careful eye on passers-by.
I decided what I'd stumbled upon was a prop - a very big prop which at some point was needed as the backdrop for some filming. And this made me even more impressed by the effort they'd gone to.
The posters in the bus shelter included a logo for an organisation that could have been TfL, but legally definitely wasn't. Instead it envisaged a body called 'Travel In London', strapline Transport made easy, represented by an arrow pointing across a square. Not bad I thought, I could see that making it onto a longlist for a future iteration of a metropolitan travel executive. There was also a separate logo for 'Green London' with the G envisaged as a green shoot, which again is a perfectly plausible eco-friendly sub-brand. Full marks so far.
The bus timetables on the post were superficially OK but very much not in the usual format. Too colourful by half, no alternative listing for a Sunday service and in a somewhat dated layout. More importantly, once I peered closer, the 56's timetable supposedly ran from Archway to Blackfriars which is actually what route 4 does, because a lot of identical cut-and-pasting had been going on.
The spider maps were amazing because someone had gone to an awful lot of effort to pack them full of data while ensuring they were demonstrably not of TfL's usual design. The background was too grey, the bus stop blobs too large and there wouldn't normally be a separate 'Nightbuses from Aldersgate Street' version. But the coloured lines radiating from a central map appeared to be geographically similar, proper names had been used for bus stops elsewhere and the map had a lengthy list of destinations underneath. Someone had spent hours making this.
It all went wrong if you looked too closely. The designer had accidentally switched the 56 and the 76 on the map so that the coloured lines went to the wrong destinations. None of the lettered bus stops in the Route Finder appeared on the map. Cheekily the entire Destination finder had been populated by places you can reach by bus from Stratford rather than Barbican, so was full of 25s, 69s, 158s and 473s. The underlying information was very flawed indeed, but as a backdrop to two characters chatting in a bus shelter it'd look entirely convincing.
By this point one of the gentlemen in hi-vis had wandered across the road to find out why I was taking such an interest in the bus shelter. He was perfectly amenable, I suspect because all the action was now taking place around Charterhouse Square, and confirmed that yes it was a film shoot and the bus shelter was a prop. "They're very good these art studio people", he said, and given the level of effort expended I could only agree. It was only now that I noticed the bus stop post was being supported by five metal weights with 'props' scrawled on them, and that a strip of fabric had been laid across the pavement to cover up something written underneath.
Pushed further the security guard told me that all of this was for the benefit of an Apple TV series called Embankment, not that he expected I'd be able to watch it because hardly anyone subscribes. I sadly concurred.
When I got home I used Google to uncover what 'Embankment' was all about, and discovered it was actually a code name being used by the production team, not the show's title. What's really being filmed is Slow Horses, the first novel in a spy thriller series by Mick Herron, with Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas in the leading roles. The books focus on disgraced operatives relegated to work out of a separate office called Slough House which is located on Aldersgate Street near Barbican station, hence the filming here at the weekend.
My thanks to Jeff and his aggregated webpage keeping tabs on all things Slow Horses for revealing what the hell was going on, and for including additional photos. Had I been more familiar with the area I might also have noticed that a cluster of shopfronts on Aldersgate Street had been given a makeover, becoming an off licence and a fictional Chinese restaurant, but I'm afraid I only spotted the bus stop across the road. It's probably gone back to being a dockless bike parking space since Sunday.
One moral of this story is always to keep your eyes open, like Mick's spies, because you never know what clues you might uncover in an unassuming place. The other is that global multinational companies are happy to splash the cash on making bus spider maps nobody will ever use purely for artistic reasons, whereas TfL increasingly cannot be bothered to create the real thing despite the fact the maps have a genuine purpose. Bring on the Travel In London makeover, I say, and Transport made easy.