Having grown up in London I am familiar with many of the traditional red bus routes and have seen both the routes and the vehicles change over the years. One evening earlier this week I took a bus that didn’t exist 20 years ago, the number 70, a single-decker which follows a meandering route from South Kensington to Chiswick Business Park (which also didn’t exist 20 years ago). If a cab driver followed the same route you could justifiably expect to pay him or her less than half of the fare. Usually I would take the tube, and stand all the way home, and the door-to-door journey would take less than 30 minutes. This time I didn’t want to stand, and wanted to read for a while, and having seen the route mapped out I was fascinated at just how circuitous it was.
The most direct routes from South Kensington to our corner of West London comprise the Fulham Road, the A4 (Talgarth Road), Kensington High Street or the Bayswater Road, and head, broadly, west. The number 70 bus rejects all of these in favour of a non-linear journey through many postcodes and all four points of the compass. It heads north towards the Royal Albert Hall, west to Kensington High Street, then north again to Notting Hill Gate. At this point it heads east, all the way to Queensway, then north up Queensway (slowly), past Whiteley’s, west back towards Westbourne Grove, ends up at Ladbroke Grove and heads all the way north, to the Sainsbury’s at the top end of the Grove. Then it turns around completely, and heads south again, going back on itself, before heading west along Barlby Road towards the old North Pole and Pavilion pubs, south along Scrubs Lane, west again past Hammersmith Hospital and Wormwood Scrubs, then south, west and south again to get to Acton Park. At this point I got out and walked home (which took a further 20 minutes), having had an hour on an almost empty bus, at rush-hour, to read my book in peace.
When we were children the bus that took us to town was the 88, a Route Master, open at the back, with a conductor to issue tickets and ring the bell to indicate to the driver that it was safe to move on from the bus stop. We boarded these buses whenever they were stationary, at traffic lights or stuck in traffic, not just at officially designated stops. It was part of being a Londoner. One of my “1000 Memories” deals with the 88. You can read that memory here, and can download the whole book from Amazon (UK site here, US site here).
The route was simple. It started at Acton Green and followed pretty much the same road all the way to Oxford Street, heading east. The road names changed (Bath Road, Goldhawk Road, Holland Park Avenue, Bayswater Road) to indicate its progress through Chiswick, Shepherds Bush, Holland Park, Notting Hill Gate and Bayswater, along the north side of Hyde Park and on to Marble Arch and Oxford Street. That was where we usually got off but the 88 continued on, down Regent Street to Piccadilly Circus and on to Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, past the Houses of Parliament and the Tate Gallery before crossing the river and progressing through places we had never been, to end its journey in Dulwich or Penge.
On his “Desert Island Discs” appearance in 1989 (which you can hear or download here) Tony Benn talked about the importance of the 88 bus in his life. He had lived and worked on its route for most of his life. He was born near the Tate Gallery, lived in Stamford Court on Goldhawk Road early in his married life, then moved to Notting Hill Gate, and of course he was an MP at Westminster for many years. He said:
“If ever I write my autobiography I think I shall call it 88. Because that bus has flown … you remember how lady Eden said the Suez Canal flowed through her living-room … the 88 bus has flowed through my life.”
At some point in the 1980s or 90s the routes and numbers of various buses were changed. The 88 was shortened, and began at Oxford Circus to follow its original route southwards, towards Penge and Dulwich. The western part of the route, the route of my childhood and which flowed through Tony Benn’s life, was renamed as the 94. It still starts at Acton Green but now it ends at Piccadilly Circus. The re-routing and renaming took away part of my childhood. It seemed to happen overnight. I recall no period of consultation, and tried to find some sort of rationalization for it myself. The original route had been long. I guess it made sense (considering London traffic) to cut it in two, and rather than have two completely different routes for the 88 they renamed one part of it. Maybe “they” (London Transport, or whoever) tossed a coin to decide whether the western end or the southern end of the route kept the original number. We lost. Assuming that this was the reason for the change I feel aggrieved every time I see that the 88 now goes beyond Oxford Circus, on to Camden Town, which was never part of the original route. It adds insult to injury.
This piece is titled “A meandering bus route article”. “Meandering” was originally intended to describe the number 70 bus route but I see that article itself has meandered away from where it began, and it’s time to get off.