Route 58: East Ham to Walthamstow Location: London east, outer Length of bus journey: 8 miles, 65 minutes
It's traditional around every birthday that I take a numerically significant bus journey. Sixteen years ago I took the 42 to Dulwich, then subsequently the 43 to Barnet, the 44 to Tooting, the 45 to Clapham, the 46 to Farringdon, the 47 to Bellingham, the 48 to Walthamstow, the 49 to Battersea, the 50 to Croydon, the 51 to Orpington, the 52 to Willesden, the 53 to Whitehall, the 54 to Elmers End, the 55 to Oxford Circus, the 56 to Smithfield and most recently the 57 to Kingston. This year it's back to east London for a northbound safari aboard the 58 to Walthamstow.
This is the first time my birthday bus has taken me to Newham. In bad news it's the fourth time it's taken me to Walthamstow, indeed there's one road junction coming up that I've birthday-blogged three times in the last decade so my apologies because here we go again.
The 58 kicks off from the corner of Central Park - not the famous NY stunner but the municipal quadrilateral in East Ham. Its daffodils, crocuses and fruit trees are already in bloom. Just beyond the war memorial is a large space for the parking-over of buses where the 115 also terminates (which is worth remembering if I ever reach record-breaking age, although I suspect Aldgate Minories will remain unvisited). The 58's first stop is by the sidegate on High Street South, and not so busy that my favourite top deck front seat gets pre-grabbed. Almost immediately we pass an excitable pub which due to signage irregularities is seemingly offering Sourdough Saloon Pizza [Red Lion 1].
I thought it might be instructive to count the pubs along the route because it's eight miles long and there'd once have been dozens, but I fear that's very much no longer the case and I doubt we'll reach 12.
Route 58 does a lot of zigzagging during what lies ahead, with the first zig coming at Newham Town Hall. This gothic pile is ostentatiously dated 1913 and currently displays the flags of the UK, Ukraine and the local borough out front. Boarders at this second stop include a man with all his washing displayed inside a transparent case and a facemasked youth clutching a bottle of Lucozade who naturally goes to sit on the back seat. Already I suspect I should be counting barbershops rather than pubs, but here's a second anyway [Denmark Arms 2]. Other retail opportunities include Cost Saver and Pound City, to help you judge the local demographic, plus The Who Shop where you can buy a Dalek waste paper bin or visit their museum by stepping into a Tardis.
Our first zag swiftly follows, at the street corner where West Ham's 1966 cupwinners still raise their statuesque trophy in triumph. The classic boozer where claret-and-blue fans used to down their sorrows also survives, suitably spruced up [The Boleyn 3], but pretty much everything else Hammers-related has long been shifted to E20. The former Upton Park is now a sea of closely-packed vernacular flats, somehow still incomplete, and the decrepit Boleyn Cinema is about to join them as a separate development called Boleyn Heights. I've just been joined at the front of the bus by a man in full JD-Sportswear, but he merely mutters quietly into his phone and he will not interrupt our narrative again.
It's time for us to ride the length of multicultural Green Street. Its southern lynchpin is QueensMarket, a cavernous bazaar that's hung on by pivoting from traditional East End to multi-ethnic wares, so expect to find fried plantain, discounted haberdashery and halal flesh [The Queens 4]. But from the tube station onwards it's all about the shops, some inordinately lowly and others brimming with gold jewellery, dazzling saris and rainbow confectionery. The pavement bustles with ladies dragging bags and trollies, the Fish Bazaar claims to be London's largest and certain traders are splashing half-price mega-sales to boost trade pre-Ramadan. A Tesco Express and a Lidl briefly interrupt the subcontinental illusion, but this popular alternative high street just goes on and on.
Let's zig again, just briefly, along the Romford Road. What's astonishing along this stretch is how many hotels there are, at least three, hang on four, of the kind you'd be disappointed to arrive at after a long journey (but at least it'd be cheap). Places of worship on the southside of the road include a mosque, an evangelical church and a McDonalds drive-through. Things get much bustlier when we zag into Woodgrange Road, where had you been sitting next to me I could have pointed out the former Woolworths, the blue plaque to Jimi Hendrix and another pub [Fox & Hounds 5]. Alight here for stations with roundels in purple and orange, that's Forest Gate and Wanstead Park respectively. Almost all the shops aim low but I spy a small eco-friendly grocers called Cups & Jars planting a first seed of gentrification.
I've always liked the fact that Dames Road has two cul-de-sacs named Vera Lynn Close and Anna Neagle Close, both of them local titled ladies. I also like the fact that our next pub [The Holly Tree 6] has a fully functioning miniature railway in its front garden. The bus has just entered the borough of Waltham Forest and it's time for the only properly green bit of the journey, a brief graze along the edge of Wanstead Flats. The broadest view is from the upper deck and yes that's Ilford in the distance. Look down instead and the Jubilee Pond appears to be the site of an uneasy truce between geese and gulls with the former seriously outnumbered. Meanwhile Walthamstow is definitely straight ahead so of course we turn left.
Cann Hall Road is named after a medieval manor and farmstead, most of whose estate was sold off in... (I'm guessing from the dates on various terraces) ...the mid 1880s. It starts off with a school, a skatepark and a well-spruced pub [The Rookwood 7], which maintains the 58's steady record of one hostelry per paragraph. The next bus stop is closed because of road works ahead, but the lady waiting has failed to notice the yellow cover on the flag and extends her arm with a smile as the driver slows down. But he's only pausing for the lights and glides straight past without stopping... so her arm goes down and her smile rapidly disappears. If you've got your stopwatch out we're now halfway through the journey.
The next crossroads is known as Thatched House after the pub on the corner, although that's been a betting shop for quite some time. Opposite is a newbuild block of flats, a relative rarity along the 58's route because Victorian terraces don't tend to get replaced. Crownfield Road is low on excitement but if you know where to look (outside number 153) a grooved stone in the pavement marks our crossing of the Greenwich Meridian. Eventually, just before we might have nudged into the edge of Stratford, we zag for the penultimate time and from here it's approximately north all the way to our destination. The bus is fairly busy now, but mostly downstairs and not in an especially blogworthy way.
Drapers Field was upgraded for the locals post-Olympics, hence the long parallel bumps that liven up the playground. The mosque on the right looks to be merely a shops-width but gets much broader out back, and the local pub confirms the name of the suburb we've just entered [The Leyton Star 8]. By the tube station the road rises up to cross the railway and the A12, with a clear view beyond of the City's pinnacles. The bus stop outside TK Maxx is always busy, plus this week you can nip off and buy yourself a red nose. And here are the High Road's first set of painted shops, these a pastel combo and the next a bold geometric burst, which artistically put the local ASDA in the shade.
Never let it be said that bus drivers are heartless sods. Ours spots a gangly lad in a blue suit waving by the library and slows down enough to allow him to board after a 100m sprint. Also never let it be said that young people are ungrateful because he'll wave and smile and thank the driver as he disembarks. Local attractions here include Leyton Orient FC, a hedge maze and another pub [Coach And Horses 9], but it's probably best to stay aboard. In this direction we negotiate Leyton's one-way system the quick way, hurrah, and then veer off up Church Road where the Victorian terraces finally give way to postwar flats.
We now have a blabbermouth on the top deck, knee-deep in a work conversation on her phone and oblivious to everyone else listening in. She's a tenancy officer, I swiftly learn, and being very defensive about her inability to allocate a contract, perhaps because being on a bus doesn't help. Exterior distractions include the local fire station and some flinty almshouses, but not The Oliver Twist (closed 2005) nor The Antelope (closed 2014). If you've ever wondered where the first Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster lived it was here at Etloe House. It's starting to get a bit industrial on the left-hand side, and hang on, that clocktower looks familiar...
Birthday buses 48, 55 and 56 all passed down Lea Bridge Road and here at Markhouse Corner we cross their path. I'd like to report that the clocktower is historic but in fact it's part of a job lot sourced by Waltham Forest for the millennium. In their latest consultation they have plans to fill the surrounding space with planters, trees and lit benches, plus cycle parking and a spill-out space for the neighbouring Clock cafe. That grand building with the Renaissance facade which now welcomes evangelical worshippers was once the Savoy Cinema, which closed exactly 44 years ago today after a screening of Damien: Omen II. In good news the only other bus to pass this junction is the 158 so I'll not be becoming back.
We've been joined on the top deck by the distinct smell of weed, which given nobody's smoking means someone's a regular user and reeks. The terraces are smarter now we've entered E17, although a couple of streets have been wiped away to make way for a school, a leisure centre and a rainbow-painted daycare fortress. The parish church looks typically gothic but hosts a Filipino Tagalog mass on the last Sunday of the month. As the road slowly climbs we've become the bus nobody else wants, we're not going far enough, so that speeds up our progress. And I hope you've noticed the lack of hostelries for the last few paragraphs because it looks like we're not going to reach double figures - after a strong start we've stalled at nine pubs.
It's time for the final crawl up to Walthamstow Central, taking the market-dodging roads round the back of the high street. South Grove brands itself as a contemporary designer development but is just the usual clustrous mass of bricks. It is at least nicer than the rears of Sainsbury and Asda, neither of which were designed with great architecture in mind. Meanwhile what used to be half of The Mall is currently a giant hole in the ground pierced by diggers, and will be re-emerging one day with replacement shops, a new tube entrance and 538 homes on top. They'll call it 17 and Central and maybe it'll be open the next time I return to the bus station aboard the 69, indeed rest assured I'm not coming back to any of these streets for ages, you're getting the next decade off.