London Orbital

In which The Author has an adventure for sixty pence

Our student halls at Brunel University were in a village called Cowley, just about a mile or so from Uxbridge itself. Cowley is as far west in Greater London as you can go without falling in the Grand Union Canal. Even though it meant nothing to any of us at the time, it’s a stone’s throw from a place called Little Britain. (Please feel free to read the rest of this in Tom Baker’s voice, if you like.) It placed us very firmly in the Outer Zone of the London Transport network. As you can imagine, it didn’t take long before I started exploring the place.
We were about a minute’s walk from one main road, the A408 between Uxbridge and Heathrow Airport. By cutting across the campus for a few minutes you could get to the A4020, the road into Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush. In those days, bus travel was cheap – a ‘short hop’ of up to a mile cost the huge sum of 20p, and a longer journey in the Outer Zone was capped at 30p. At the time (1984-5), Ken Livingstone and the Greater London Council were operating their controversial ‘Fares Fair’ policy. It meant that you could get around London even if you were on a pretty tight budget.
As well as the cost, the service level was something I simply couldn’t get my head around. Buses ran every few minutes in either direction during the daytime, fairly frequently in the evenings, and throughout the weekends. Remember that I’d come from a small town in Wales where a half-hourly bus service was a luxury, and seeing anything before mid-afternoon on a Sunday counted as a miracle. London Transport was a whole new experience!
It didn’t take me long to pick up some leaflets from one of the LT information desks scattered throughout the city centre. One of them was a fold-out map showing the bus routes and interchanges throughout the entire county. I was studying it one wet autumn afternoon, with my trusty copy of the London A-Z Street Atlas and Index [Edition 11(E)] at my side, when a plan started to form in my mind.
I rummaged through my leaflets and found one advertising the One-Day Outer Zone Ticket. This was a relatively recent innovation by LT. You could buy it in advance from tube stations, bus stations, and an enormous number of shops and Post Offices throughout the county. It was about the same size as a standard ticket, but looked more like a lottery scratchcard, with little foil squares all over it. You simply removed some of the foil to reveal the day and month when you wanted to travel, got on the first bus that came along, and showed it to the driver or conductor.
‘Conductor?’ I hear you youngsters ask.
That was another phenomenon I had to get used to. This was the time when the LT fleet included a huge number of Routemasters. They’re the quintessential London buses, the ones on postcards and in classic films – red double-deckers with rounded corners, a recess next to the driver’s cab, and an open corner at the rear.
Everyone loved the Routemasters. If the bus was held up in a queue behind a red light, or waiting at a busy junction, it was possible to jump on at the back. If you were lucky, you could find a seat downstairs. If not, you could walk up the curved wooden stairs to the upper deck, which was usually quieter and afforded a much better view of your surroundings. After a few minutes, a uniformed man or woman with a peaked cap, a shoulder bag and a bulky ticket machine would come along the aisle. If you held a Travelcard, or a ticket like mine, you just showed it to the conductor and he or she moved on. If not, you bought your ticket there and then. In the meantime, of course, the bus was proceeding along its route. The driver could get on with driving, letting the conductor take care of the ticketing.
It was a sensible division of labour which was phased out on the grounds of cost. In addition, the vehicles themselves had been on the road for a good many years and were well past their drive-by dates. With new regulations governing exhaust emissions and more efficient vehicles coming onto the market, the Routemaster had had its day. I suppose that nowadays, in the era of Oyster Cards and pre-purchased tickets from machines at the roadside, the bus spends about as much time at the stop as it did three decades ago. However, the transition period between the Routemaster and the Oyster Card, with the driver having to issue or check tickets, must have been a nightmare.
My first adventure with the 60p ticket was one Wednesday afternoon. I don’t know why, but I fancied exploring some of the area south of the University. On the way up from Wales I’d seen the planes near Heathrow Airport, so I was curious to see more. I bought my ticket from the Londis store around the corner and made my way to the stop. A few minutes a bus from Uxbridge came along, heading to Heathrow. I hopped on it and had a whistle-stop tour of the airport before changing at the airport terminus. From there I caught a bus to Hounslow and did some food shopping before going back home on a different service, which also ran past our Halls of Residence.
Now that I knew how easy it was to get around, I decided to put my grand plan into action. I armed myself with my A-Z and the handy fold-out bus map. I waited until a dry Saturday morning and set off for the bus stop at about 9.30. I jumped on the first Hounslow bus that came along, found a seat upstairs, and sat back to enjoy the view.
In hindsight, it’s easy to say that I should have made some notes, or even taken the camera with me. In fact, I can only remember a few of the things which caught my attention on the day. For some odd reason, I remember passing a pub called the Paddington Packet Boat at one point. The name had amused me at the time. I found out afterwards that it referred to the little vessels which used to ply their trade on this stretch of canal through the Middlesex countryside.
Hounslow Bus Station offered a bewildering choice of buses heading to mysterious suburbs, so I opted for a place I recognised by name if nothing else – Twickenham. There I changed bus again, and shortly afterwards crossed the river at Kingston Upon Thames. I was conscious of the fact that I had to stay in the Outer Zone. I didn’t want to accidentally cross into the next fare zone and end up paying up a penalty fare. Thus it was that I spent Saturday lunchtime zigzagging my way through homogeneous South London suburbs, with no real target in mind, until I arrived at Wimbledon.
By now I was peckish, so I bought pie and chips from an old-fashioned chippy and ate it on a bench in the high street. While I was walking back to the bus interchange, near the tube station, I spotted a branch of Our Price. I called in for a quick look around and came across a cassette of Untitled, the début LP by Marc and the Mambas. It was Marc Almond’s post-Soft Cell venture. I’d seen him a few weeks before at Hammersmith Palais, so I treated myself to the tape before returning to my exploration of the mysterious transpontine realm.
My next journey was only a short hop, to Morden. Maybe it reminded me of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, or the Morlocks in The Time Machine, but the sound of the name had always made me slightly uneasy. It was also the point at which the Northern Line ended, so it was the last thing you heard during platform announcements. It sounds stupid, but I was glad to head away from the place and head towards Croydon. From there I started heading north, first to Crystal Palace and thence to Blackheath.
In Blackheath I had a choice: I could change to another bus and head for Greenwich, crossing the river there; I could press onto Woolwich and cross the river there; or I could walk 200 yards or so to another bus stop and cross further east. I weighed up the alternatives and decided to go with Option 3. I was glad I did.
I found my way to the stop, around a corner from a rough-looking pub, and studied my map for a few minutes. The bus came along and I got on, heading north again. Before long we entered the Blackwall Tunnel and very soon emerged at the northern point of the Isle of Dogs. It had once been the powerhouse of London’s commercial empire, but times had changed. The regeneration of what became ‘Docklands’ was only just getting under way at the time, and the whole area was run-down and depressing. I think my brief tour gave me a sneak preview of what would befall the valleys only a few years later.
I had another look around when the bus stopped at Stratford. There wasn’t much to see, but I needed to stretch my legs. I walked around for about twenty minutes. I think this strange hinterland of trading estates, lock-ups, tower blocks, elevated railway lines, cavernous street-corner pubs, and indistinguishable terraces somehow provided some of the backdrop of my recent dream journeys.
I proceeded further north, through Leyton and into Walthamstow. There are a couple of odd coincidences here. I had no idea at the time that my aunt, uncle and cousins would end up living a stone’s throw from Walthamstow Bus Garage a decade or so later. From there I made good progress through Edmonton and skirted Palmers Green on the way to Finchley. I also had no idea a few years later another cousin (this time on Dad’s side of the family) would be living in Palmers Green. I certainly didn’t imagine that a decade or so later, I’d be spending quite a bit of time in Palmers Green, as a result of Sam’s moving there. It’s funny how things turn out, isn’t it?
Another couple of hops across North London (I can’t remember the details) took me to Stanmore. By now it was dark, and I started to feel the first qualms that the journey back to Square One might not be as easy as I’d thought. As I noted earlier, on Saturday evenings the bus services in Wales tended to taper off to almost nothing. The thought kept nagging in the back of my mind that London buses might do the same.
They didn’t, of course, and I was soon on the way to Harrow. I think that was my first real experience of bus station youth culture, which doesn’t seem to have changed much in the last thirty years. There was a gang of boys with skateboards trying to impress a gaggle of giggling girls, while cigarettes and illicit cans of cider were passed around. The ordinary passengers kept checking their watches, wondering how long they’d have to listen to the foul-mouthed antisocial youngsters in those heady pre-ASBO days.
Eventually the Ruislip bus arrived – it was to be my antepenultimate journey of the day. It was too dark to see anything interesting, of course, but the thought that I’d soon be home was reassuring. I knew that buses ran regularly from Uxbridge to Ruislip in the daytime. It was good to find that they did the same in the evenings, and before very long I was on the home stretch. When I finally arrived at Uxbridge I jumped on a bus which was heading east along the A4020. But don’t worry, I knew exactly where I was heading this time! I jumped off at the University and made my way straight to the Students’ Union for a well-earned pint or three.
A couple of months later I repeated the expedition, varying the route slightly across South London and crossing the river at Woolwich instead. This time, I travelled on the free ferry, which shuttles from bank to bank carrying vehicles and foot passengers, passing its opposite number halfway across. The subsequent bus journey took me right through the docks, so that I could get a better look at what Thatcher’s economic policies were about to do to South Wales.
The third and final time I did it, I travelled clockwise instead, so that I could see the North London suburbs in their full mundanity. On my arrival at Woolwich, I followed the information signs to a circular brick tower near the riverbank. Once inside, I descended a spiral metal staircase and emerged into a white-tiled tunnel. It was brightly lit and occupied by people walking alone, in pairs, or in small groups, crossing the river the old-fashioned way. I once read the total number of tiles used in the tunnel’s construction, and it seemed staggeringly huge. I also read that the river bed is uncomfortably close to the top of the tunnel. I don’t think I’d have been so keen to walk through it if I’d known that beforehand.
When you think about it, I’d managed to have three all-day adventures for 60p each, and seen more of London than most of my uni mates had imagined possible. I invited two of the boys to join me for the third circumnavigation, but they thought I was mad. Maybe they were right. But I was eighteen and up for fun. It was the cheapest fun you could have, after all. The oddest thing about the whole story is that I didn’t feel threatened at any point. Even when gangs of teenagers invaded the buses (I was travelling on Saturdays, remember), I felt comfortable in my new environment and paid them little heed. Travelling through ‘rough’ areas of the city like the docks and parts of East London didn’t bother me at all. There was a pub in Woolwich where I half-expected the pianist to stop playing, but apart from that I didn’t encounter anyone who made me feel ill at ease. I can’t say even that about the pubs or the bus station in Aberdare these days. Was I lucky, foolhardy, brave, or just naïve? I honestly don’t know.
I do know that my parents would have gone mental if I’d told them how I used to spend an occasional Saturday. I still don’t think Mother knows about my aperiodic orbits of the Great Wen. After all, in her eyes no-one gets out of the place alive. She even rang me on the morning of the July 7 2005 bombings to make sure I hadn’t just gone up there for the day. I hadn’t, of course. I was in work at the time, trying to get to the truth buried beneath the fictitious London Underground ‘power surges’ and ‘blackouts’ on the Radio 2 travel bulletins. (A friend of mine, who was nursing in North London at the time, texted me to say that they were on Major Incident Alert, but she didn’t know the details.) Finally a bus exploded in Tavistock Square, taking the story out of the hands of the news management teams, and the truth was out there after all.
After I finished in Waterstone’s, in the summer of 2009, I went to London for a gig with some friends of mine. I found myself walking down the main drag in Brixton at 9 p.m. on a Saturday night, and feeling ten times safer than I would have in Cardiff at the same time. I felt a hell of a lot safer than I would have felt walking around Aberdare. Maybe my travels have immunised me in some way to the danger that seems endemic in London.
It would probably be a lot more difficult to do the same journey today for much under £5, even if the connections were still in place. With so many different operators running services in Greater London, it would difficult enough to find out where the interchanges were. You’d probably end up on the useless Transport for London website and going up your own orifice trying to find out about the interchanges. Even so, the fares have been more inflation-proof than most things in London. Dad had a copy of the International Police Association London guide dating from about 1972. (Britain had only recently adopted the decimal currency system at the time.) An adult ticket to the Tower of London was 10p. Last time I was in that neck of the woods, an adult ticket cost £18.70! I wonder if I should try it next time I’m in London, just to find out how much things have changed – or not, as the case may be.
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