Thoughts on Bus Travel


Buses, those means of conveyance and annoyance, convenient or inconvenient, that take us places. Chauffeur- driven, public transport for all, regardless of race; creed or colour. Anyone can see the world from the top of a double-decker as long as they have the fare. Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Nelson’s Column and St Paul’s cathedral – you can see them all from the top of a number 11 bus. Why would I want to travel to the ends of the earth to see seven wonders when I can just hop on a bus and see the wonders of my own city? The heady social, cultural, ethnic and, architectural diversity that is London. You don’t need to go to the end of the World, when you can climb on board a number 11 and go to World’s End.

A long London bus journey, is the last true and affordable adventure. Yes! An adventure, with all the intricate planning, anxiety and risks that real adventures involve.

Unless we consciously travel somewhere dangerous (i.e. a place where there might be an element of danger, be it a terrorist attack or a scorpion in your sleeping bag) then, we do not suffer the anxiety of travel. Our holiday package takes care of everything. Despite the risk of flight cancellations, the threat of strikes or perhaps an act of God, there is minimal risk. We know our destination and we know at our destination, there will be somewhere safe to stay (cleanliness is another issue) there will be food and drink and if we have any complaints or problems, then the long-suffering tour guide is on hand. This is hardly a voyage into the true unknown. On a bus journey though, things are different. You are venturing unassisted into the unknown.

The anxiety of travel that is prevalent on bus journeys.

We must head to those parts of the city we have never been and are never likely to go. Far-off places, with familiar names: Wood Green, Brixton, New Cross, Deptford, The Old Kent Road, Whitechapel, Hackney, Dalston, Stoke Newington… All edgy, insecure, inner-city places. In the leafy suburban mind the inner-city is thick with thieves, teeming with terrorist types and awash with the general dregs of society. The inner city is traditionally a poor place, a working class place. Those more-open minded and more culturally benevolent might qualify such areas as “popular.

You might not think twice about flying to Bombay or Bali and unless you leave the safe havens and head off the well trodden tourist track in search of authenticity, very little is likely to happen to you. On the humble London bus though, you are mixing with the locals, and though there is little risk of anything dangerous happening, you are nevertheless, anxious and perhaps a little on your guard as you head through Catford or Lewsiham or Lambeth. Then you hit the West End – familiar territory. Your anxiety level drops, only to rise sharply when you venture into the unknown world beyond.

Bus travel also has other anxiety factors – the simple fact of finding the right stop – not always easy around London’s vast main line railway stations. Then there is journey time itself. You can pretty much rely on a train timetable, but bus timetables are nothing more than a general idea of when the bus is likely to arrive. When the bus gets there is heavily dependent on the traffic factor. There you are on the top deck, staring frantically at your watch – you’ve only got five minutes left to get somewhere that you should have been ten minutes ago and the London traffic is at gridlock, and then, when finally the bus lurches into movement, it stop ten seconds later as the lights go red. In the good old days of the hop-on, hop-off Routemaster, you could just jump off the bus, however the guardians of our health and safety have had their way. The footplate is a thing of the past, and you can’t get off the bus until the doors open, even if you are a matter of yards from your stop.

Traffic is of course the great leveller, you can be in a limousine, a black cab or on a bus – no matter your chosen form of transport, you will only ever be going slightly faster than the vehicle behind and slightly slower than the vehicle in front. On the bus though, you know that the price of your journey is cheaper than a black cab.

And so to bus numbers. Who makes up the numbers? Who decides what number goes where? What about symbolic numbers? Is there a bus N°1 or N°100? Where does the 99 go?

Well -research reveals that … the N°1will take you from Canada Water in docklands up to New Oxford Street. The 100 goes from Elephant and Castle to Shadwell. The 99, from Bexleyheath Clocktower, to Woolich Arsenal station. For some reason, London bus numbers seem stop with the 399, that goes from the Spires to Hadley Wood Station

Where we go on the buses and the reasons we might take one – to get to work, to get to school, to visit someone in hospital, to get to the undertaker’s or simply to escape. Bus routes are those lines along which life runs, however they can also be lifelines. In life, we all have one common shared and inevitable destiny, though our lives are not predestined. The bus route is pure predestination. The terminus is written on the front and despite traffic snarl-ups, breakdowns and road-works, the bus will, eventually, get there – a bit like us I suppose. No matter where we are going we will eventually get there. Of course if we get on the wrong bus we’ll end up somewhere else, but we will have a final destination. I suppose that is why I like the random nature of leisurely bus travel. Hopping on a bus for the sheer thrill (or disappointment) of seeing where it goes, with the luxury of knowing that I can get the next bus out. Not destined to stay where the bus is predestined to go. But what if my destiny was at the end of a long London bus route? I could alight from the 36 at Queen’s Park after the long haul from New Cross and get run over or perhaps meet the woman of my dreams, or pick up a lottery ticket that someone had accidently dropped on the pavement and find it is a winner.

* A NOTE FOR THE OLDIES – I am old enough to remember the early 70’s British TV sitcom, “On the Buses,” starring Reg Varney as Stan Butler, the happy-go-lucky bus driver and his cheeky chain-smoking conductor and sidekick, Jack Harper, played by Bob Grant. Certainly saucy, but never smutty, “On the Buses” was taboo TV viewing in our house. Mum and dad deemed it too working class, too rude, crude and unsuitable for their innocent young sons. It wasn’t until my early 40’s, in a burst of mid-life, ex-pat nostalgia that I bought the DVDs of the TV show’s three spin-off films; the eponymous “On the Buses”, “Mutiny on the Buses” and “Holiday on the Buses” – with the last being by far the crudest and funniest – For sure, the films are totally out of synch with modern values. Blatantly sexist, homophobic and occasionally racist by today’s standard’s, back in the early 70’s this was what was served up on TV to make the nation laugh – and we did. “On the buses” was hugely popular, running for 7 series from 1969 to 1973, chalking up 74 episodes.