diamond geezer

 Friday, June 14, 2024

Bus Route Of The Day
146: Bromley North to Downe

Location: Outer London south
Length of journey: 6 miles, 25 minutes


Because it's 14th June I've been out riding the 146, because that's the Bus Route Of The Day.

The 146 is one of TfL's handful of hourly buses, and by far the lowest route number to run this infrequently. It starts in bustling Bromley and rapidly heads out into the countryside, indeed has done since the 1930s when it was a weekend only service. It exists to serve the village of Downe at the southern end, whose residents would otherwise have to rely on the even less frequent R8, and along the way zips through off-piste slices of Hayes and Keston.

It's also one of a dozen TfL bus routes to be operated by a single vehicle (in techspeak it has a PVR of 1). This is because each run is timetabled to take less than 30 minutes so a full hourly service only needs one bus. At peak times Bromley's roads are more choked with traffic so the schedule stretches somewhat, the interval occasionally extending to 70 minutes, but generally speaking a 146 leaves the village on the hour and heads back around half past. However this tight timetable also means the 146 is exceptionally susceptible to disruption, as I was about to discover when I tried to go for a ride...




Given it runs so infrequently I thought I'd best be early so turned up outside Bromley North station with five minutes to spare. This ridiculously busy interchange is served by as many as 15 different bus routes spread across two adjacent stops. These include 6th January, 26th January, 12th June, 22nd July, 13th August, 11th September and 26th September, plus several others that don't translate including the frustratingly marginal 31st April. All these were showing on the Countdown displays apart from 14th June, which didn't initially worry me because some older vehicles don't always register. I stayed put and waited, and the bus didn't turn up.

I checked one of my apps which wasn't helpful one way or the other, until I finally thought to switch direction and see where the incoming bus was. It was just outside Downe, i.e. at totally the wrong end of the route, so there was no chance of it being here any time soon. Such are the perils of a one vehicle route - when it screws up it totally screws up - so I went off and looked round the shops for a bit. I came back when the bus did and was excited to see 14th June was top of the Countdown display because it was now 'due'. I stayed put and waited, and the bus didn't turn up.

The 146 remained top of the Countdown display for a full 30 minutes, 29 of them a lie. I didn't dare go anywhere in case the bus came and went, because it would be a very long time before it came back, but instead I was being entirely misled. None of this was made easier by the large pile of sick inside the shelter, a lumpy sprawl which looked like a bowlful of porridge hadn't stayed down. Part of it was covered by a few flappy pages from a copy of City AM, but the remainder was visibly congealing on the pavement causing large numbers of arriving passengers to give it a wide berth. Sometimes travelling by bus is anything but glamorous.

Shortly before the timetabled departure time a cleaner from the council turned up, noticed the mess and halted his trolley. I expected him to clean it up, but instead he spotted a spare copy of City AM behind the shelter and used it to cover over the exposed half of the sickpool, then stamped the paper down. This camouflaging measure proved successful in that passengers no longer dodged the shelter, even sitting on its bench with their feet dangerously close to concealed beige sludge. I presume someone cleared it up properly later but I don't know for sure because thankfully at that point the 146 turned up, either bang on time or one hour late depending.



The bus wasn't busy, even after an exceptional wait, just me and a schoolboy and later three more passengers picked up by the shops. The weaving wiggle through central Bromley always seems to take an age, this the inevitable consequence of high street pedestrianisation. The driver nudged in by its bus stops, not really expecting much interest and generally being proved correct. Almost everywhere we were heading was alternatively served by more frequent routes so why wait for the intermittent single decker?

By the time we crept past Bromley South station we were already two minutes behind schedule. I soon spotted what the inbound traffic problem might have been - Thames Water digging up a road the 146 didn't follow but which had sent a lot of diverted vehicles into its path and clogged up the traffic lights. Heading south thankfully we skipped through. Hayes Road is lined by smart suburban villas and larger than average semi-detached houses, ditto Hayes Lane, the backroad through the original village of Hayes some distance from the station. I wasn't expecting anyone else to be getting on, not in a non-shopping direction, so was exceptionally surprised when an entire class of Year 6 schoolchildren piled on.

They'd been swimming in the Nuffield pool by the football ground and were now heading back to their village primary before lunch. They were also exceptionally polite and well-behaved, filing in quietly and filling every seat, the remainder standing near their supervisory adults and holding tight. The bus became so full that the driver triggered an announcement which inexplicably was 'Seats are available upstairs', which on a single decker shouldn't even be in the digital repertoire. And off we all went, the children chattering softly about how the lesson had gone and which was the best car in Sweden.

It strikes me as inherently risky to base your weekly swimming lessons around a two mile ride on an hourly bus operated by a single vehicle. I'd been caught out by a missing service and had to wait for ages, something which might have swallowed an hour of learning time and which was entirely outside the school's control. I guess it's hugely cheaper than hiring a coach, and I also suspect they got lucky this time because the class weren't anywhere near as restless as you'd expect if they'd been waiting for the cancellation.



On we sped past the civic bits of Hayes - the church and library and village hall, plus a rather nice village sign. At the secondary school the older boy who'd been aboard since the start of the journey attempted to alight, and the teacher had to nudge her pupils to part the ways and let him through. Swiftly we entered the wilds of Hayes Common, the road continuing past thick woods and ferny clearings without even a footpath to either side. After a brief breath to cross Croydon Road we plunged back into the greenery - nothing that'd generate any passengers - and eventually one small car park where the dogwalkers accumulate.

On the far side was Keston village green with its two pubs, one embracing the Euros with gusto and one remaining resolutely above the fray. This is one of the largest settlements in London to be entirely surrounded by Green Belt, although nearby New Addington and Biggin Hill comfortably trump it. At the bus stop by the Post Office the school party finally alighted, the teacher counting very carefully lest anyone be left hiding behind a back seat. One thing I'll say is that whichever company is making 'Leavers 24' sweatshirts must be making a fortune because I've seen them being worn by Y6 and Y11 children across London recently, and the other is that local parents must be chuffed to have such a good school to send their offspring to.

Now considerably emptier we ploughed on towards the windmill and ah, damn, a set of temporary 3-way traffic lights. This must have been another contributory factor to slowing down the previous journey, especially with people still heading into work. We stopped for what felt like ages beside thick nettles while the gas board took their turn to drill a massive inconvenient trench. No alternative timetable kicks in when this kind of disruption happens, nor can a second vehicle step in to ease the service, making the 146 extremely susceptible to falling over entirely.

At the woody roundabout by the parish church we finally bore off to serve a trio of bus stops no other route serves. None are ever busy, indeed this is where the 146 gets fully rural and rattles down narrow country lanes with awkwardly high hedges. The first stop was by a farm shop and mobile home park, a quiet corner familiar to those approaching the Wilberforce Oak on London Loop section 3. The second was at Downe Riding Centre, which I speculated last week might be one of the very least used bus stops in London. The third was at one end of Farthing Street, a brief row of houses which the Ordnance Survey lists as one of London's eight hamlets. Nobody else had come this far, just me. I can't say I was surprised.



On the final approach to Downe the bus passed proper cottages and an orchard, and our driver hoped not to pass any other vehicles coming the other way. According to the timetable we arrived at the top of Downe High Street five minutes late, and not beside the proper terminus because that was occupied by a huge red coach. Normally the bus turns round here by circling a central tree but the driver had to do an awkward reversing manoeuvre instead, first past one pub then the other, before picking up absolutely nobody and ferrying them back to Bromley. I'd alighted by this point and was busy exploring London's highest High Street, which is Downe. How fortuitous that the Bus of the Day had delivered me here, and you can expect to hear more about that tomorrow.


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