diamond geezer

 Thursday, February 02, 2023

London's next dead bus
271: Finsbury Square to Highgate Village

Location: inner London north
Length of journey: 5 miles, 45 minutes

The 271 has been linking the edge of the City to the heights of Highgate since 1960. It's a remarkably simple route, indeed almost a straight line, ploughing workhorselike up the Holloway Road with barely a deviation. It's well used, carrying an above average load of passengers annually. For a mile through Islington it's the only bus. But all this counts for nothing when over-capacity has been identified elsewhere along the route and so, following a consultation in 2021, the 271 will run for the very last time tomorrow. I've been for a final ride.

Finsbury Square is a large open quadrangle at the top end of Moorgate and is unusual for having a bowling green in the middle with a car park underneath. The 271 parks up round the far side where the drivers can stretch their legs and check their phones out of passengers' view. The single decker 214 parks up alongside, a service which coincidentally is also going to Highgate Village, indeed this is a rare case of two different bus routes running between identical destinations. Until tomorrow.

The 271's first stop is outside the London Metal Exchange on the west side of the square. You wouldn't know any more because The Men Who Change Tiles have already been round, indeed they came round two weeks ago so tile-wise the 271 has been dead for a fortnight. That's plainly better that turning up two weeks too late, but it does seem extraordinary that over 100 bus stops have been displaying entirely premature numbers since the middle of January. That said, anyone checking for a timetable should spot a bright yellow map confirming that the 271's being withdrawn on Saturday, and if you can decipher it then all you need to know about future arrangements is there.

We set off up the City Road, 'we' being just the driver and me so far but the bus'll be getting a lot busier later. We pass between Bunhill Fields and Wesley's Chapel, making this full-on nonconformist territory, and also pass a stack of three mattresses left incongruously by the roadside. The bus is rattling somewhat, but that won't be an issue when the route no longer runs so that's an issue solved. Ahead is the Old Street no-longer-roundabout, the first of three un-gyratoried junctions we'll be passing on our journey north. It still has temporary traffic lights, inadequate cycle lanes and a heck of a lot of ongoing works in what used to be the centre of the roundabout, but hopefully four years of messy reconstruction will be finished soon.

Ahead is the splitting point between the 214 and 271, the former continuing towards the Angel Islington and our doomed route making its one big right turn into Provost Street. Beyond the wall of glitzy skyscrapers comes a brief insulating layer of repurposed warehouses and then the flats of southwest Hackney begin with a vengeance. Whether you prefer generic postwar blocks or modern brick hutches above a Tesco Express, all options are covered. Our bus is now picking up multiple passengers at every stop, possibly because the 271 is still a popular route or possibly because there hasn't been a bus for fifteen minutes. And then the ridiculous announcement plays for the first time, and sheesh what were they thinking?
"This route will be changing from the 4th of February 2023. Please visit tfl.gov.uk/buses for more details."
Oh come on, this route won't just be changing it'll be abolished, but there's no mention of that in the recorded spiel. Instead you're expected to navigate to a website which it turns out is just an index page, where the link to 'Bus changes' is tucked underneath a big splash for another consultation which ended three weeks ago. Should you eventually make it to the right page then, because changes are listed in numerical order, you need to scroll past seven other bus routes before eventually discovering that "Route 271 will be withdrawn." I get that TfL don't want to make their announcement too complicated, or even unduly pessimistic, but this is no way to inform passengers of imminent withdrawal.

At Mintern Street the other top deck front seat is occupied by a mother and her young daughter, only one of whom is excited about being on a bus. Mum soon has her phone out while her daughter engages in happy singing and sets about investigating the contents of her pink Hello Kitty rucksack. From downstairs we hear the distinct sound of the button in the wheelchair space being pressed, followed two seconds later by a plaintive "sorry", suggesting it's got rather crowded down there. To our right is Shoreditch Park, straight ahead the Regent's Canal and beyond that the stretch of road that only the 271 covers. It's time to start talking mitigation.

Extinguishing the 271 sets off a chain of dominoes on other routes to ensure that connections are retained. The 21 is therefore being tweaked at its northern end and will now terminate at Holloway instead of Newington Green. It's been tracking us since Finsbury Square so all passengers'll need to do from Saturday is catch a 21 rather than a 271. Thus far they could also have caught a 76 or 141 as well, which is one reason TfL think this section is over-bussed, ditto the dogleg up to Newington Green. I doubt that anyone in Lewisham needs a direct bus to the Holloway Road but the 21 will now provide that opportunity.

Onwards, for now, past tiles that already say 21 instead of 271. By crossing the canal we've passed from Hackney into Islington and the housing stock has improved dramatically - now Georgian and Victorian terraces. An elderly man drops into the seat behind me and proceeds to breathe heavily because climbing the stairs has been an effort. To my right the small girl has dug into her rucksack and pulled out some imaginary cheese, but Mum is clearly not biting. We cross Essex Road alongside the throwback hellhole station of the same name and continue climbing, always climbing, into the heart of Canonbury. It's proper lovely here, assuming you like bijou pubs, art galleries and wine merchants with Latin names, thus well out of the reach of the majority of mortgages.

We're now approaching un-gyratory 2, the newly-forking junction at Highbury Corner. Our driver can't get into the bus stop because of upcoming queues and a badly parked van so misses our chance through the lights, then has to pull over into a cycle lane when the next set of lights don't change. I suspect it gets a lot messier in the rush hour. To our left is The Famous Cock and the ugly squat entrance to Highbury & Islington station, and to our right the orange shell of the original 1904 building. A bus lane now speeds our progress up Holloway Road, at least initially, and the mother/daughter combo are replaced by a woman muttering a torrent of Spanish into her phone.

Retail-wise Holloway Road peaks in the centre, but we're still at the sex shop, launderette and scooter showroom end. Islington Central Library brings a rare classical flourish, while the campus of London Met University is a jarring mix of redbrick, concrete, glass and jagged silver. Somewhere near the tube station the double decker Hogwarts Express passes us going the other way. Eventually we reach the supermarket cluster of Lidl, Morrisons and Waitrose (so something for everyone), plus Gibbo's Fruit And Veg (in a hut on the pavement), plus Selby's the independent department store (where the window displays are currently air-frier and Valentines themed). And as we reach the junction where the Nag's Head pub once stood, it's probably time to talk mitigation again.

The 21's come all the way from Lewisham so can't be extended too far, hence it'll be terminating here at the Nag's Head. Two other bus routes run the full length of Holloway Road, the 43 and 263, which TfL reckon is quite enough to cope with demand so the 271's loss may not be too keenly felt. Anyone waiting a few minutes longer from next week may beg to disagree.

Holloway Road still has some way to go and soon begins a steeper climb. The Odeon's shabby exterior does not match its 'Luxe' designation. Someone a few seats back is sneezing more often than seems entirely comfortable. Whittington Park contains a peculiar-looking topiary cat which, like many things round here, is Dick-related. At Upper Holloway station we wait for ages, which it turns out is due to changing drivers except nobody played the usual announcement apologising for the inconvenience. Our new driver does however kick things off with "This bus is ready to depart, hold onto the handrails when moving around the bus" and I really hoped we'd heard the last of that one.

Ahead is un-gyratory 3, the neutralised Archway roundabout, whose western flank is now a pedestrian precinct infested with pigeons. It was never a pleasant place to be, and given it remains overshadowed by a bunch of tall drab towers still isn't. Most through traffic climbs the Archway Road, essentially the Highgate bypass, which was built as a less steep toll road more than 200 years ago. This alas includes the 43 and 263, whereas the imminently-deceased 271 is the only route to continue straight ahead up Highgate Hill. And this means it's time to talk mitigation yet again.

To make up for the 271's withdrawal the 263 is to be diverted up Highgate Hill instead, eventually returning to line of route by the Esso garage. And this in turn leaves a section of Archway Road unbussed so the 234 is additionally going to be extended from Highgate Wood to Archway. This latter change is only a good thing, whereas the 263's deviation is going to peeve a few people who'll lose their direct connection to Highgate station. This is what happens when you start unpicking a long-established bus network, the repercussions multiply and a number of untidy tweaks are needed in addition to the underlying plan.

Near the foot of Highgate Hill is another of Dick's cats, this time life-size and in limestone, caged on the pavement outside the Whittington Hospital. What lies ahead is one of London's steeper ascents (signposted as a 10% gradient), so our driver's probably glad to avoid a hill start when he slips through the traffic lights at the end of Hornsey Lane. Unexpected buildings on the brow of the hill include Brendan The Navigator, an Irish pub with a copper turret, and the Ghana High Commission. Here the "This route will be changing..." message plays for a seventh and final time to a much depleted audience. It's exactly the same message aboard the 21, 234 and 263 too, I checked, so heaven help the passengers who haven't been paying attention and find themselves somewhere unexpected next week.

Highgate Village is proper lovely, a hilltop suburb perched around a throwback Middlesex high street. The 271 passes most of the cosy shops, like the florist, the grooming parlour and the microdistillery, before pulling off at South Grove and manoeuvring awkwardly into a bus stand. A nice touch is that an original London Transport timetable board has survived intact in the shelter alongside, although these days it only features local notices (Mari Wilson is playing Upstairs at the Gatehouse on the 24th). Come Saturday this focal point will never again by disfigured by terminating buses, which is both a grand decluttering and the end of an era. The 263 will merely head straight past... although the top deck view down Highgate Hill will still be as dazzling as before, which is why I made sure my very last ride on the 271 was straight back down.

The 271 lingers overnight because TfL know that a nightbus along this route is a beneficial thing. But it can't be called the 271 any more, it has to be renumbered N271, hence all the 271's existing stops now display an N271 tile. The route's also being extended all the way to North Finchley bringing a night service to the High Road for the first time, so that's a win. But during the daytime you'll now need to take two buses, the 21 followed by the 263, because nobody said this was about being convenient for passengers.

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