The London City Gentleman: On London buses

For most of my life, I have hated buses. I don’t know why this should be so, nor can I say they really featured heavily in my existence. I was noting with some shame to an old school friend last weekend that we used to catch the bus into town when really it was no more than a 20-minute walk. To laziness, though, I will hold up my hand.

Last November, I moved to Clapham Junction, which is really Battersea, if the snobby Victorians hadn’t thought the latter too déclassé to name a station after it. My travelling habits have changed. To get into town is now an actual train followed by the Tube – how different from Chiswick! – and if you want to make progress up the Northcote Road into Clapham proper, then the choices are the bus or Shanks’s pony. So I find myself literally the man on the Clapham omnibus. If only my views were listened to with the proverbial closeness.

As a result, I find myself on buses much more often than used to be the case. Though my journeys are generally short, I have made myself revise my views of this particular mode of transport. My hatred of buses as a child was not knowing where I needed to get off. This is some while ago now, and long before there were displays advertising the next stop, or the assistance granted by a smart phone. So if you were catching a bus to a stop with which you were unfamiliar, you really were busking it. You could ask the driver to let you know when you reached your destination, but that was playing with fire. As many bus drivers as were kindly and helpful seemed to be sadistic and fired by schadenfreude, and what would you do if you did miss your stop, or, just as bad, got off too early? You’d be marooned, with no way – save street signs: don’t make me laugh! – to guide you to your destination. I remember far too many long tramps along dual carriageways with only a vague sense of my direction.

Now, I will admit freely that technology has changed all that. Most buses – in London, anyway, but I presume it is not limited to the capital – will tell you what the next stop will be, so you can prepare yourself, and, even if you get it wrong (there are two stops on my route back from the Northcote Road which have the same name), there are technological solutions available to you. I still wouldn’t rely on the bus driver, though. I have no reason to think that they, as a class of people, have changed since the 1980s.

The other reason I disliked buses was that I believed, rationally or not, that they were metal cans of infectious diseases. For some reason, which I cannot explain, this stricture never did, and still does not, apply to the Tube, but I was convinced that a bus was a rolling tuberculosis death cradle. I am sure that people do pick up minor ailments on public transport, though there is no reason to think buses are more susceptible to this than light rail or full-on trains. In addition, I am – frantically touches wood! – pretty resilient against cough, colds and the like. So I am willing to admit to a degree of hysteria on this point.

Anyway, where has my new-found exposure brought me? I still prefer the Tube. It doesn’t jar the spine the way buses seem to excel at doing, and of course you don’t (generally) have to worry about traffic (though TfL can pull off some beauties). The stations are generally well-kept and, north of the river in particular, there are very few places you can’t get to by Tube.

But. But but but. I’m mellowing on the idea of the bus. Especially as the weather improves (though no doubt by the time you read this we will be back into Arctic conditions), being above ground is a good thing. You have the breeze of fresh air (well, diesel fumes). You can see the world. And for short hops for the fat and idle like me, it is perfect.

Incidentally, if any of you was wondering why the Tube network is so much bigger north of the Thames than south, it’s because the geology of south London is much less easy to drill through, and therefore create tunnels, than that of north London.

All of this means I use buses more often than I once did, and it’s not utterly hideous. There are times when I’d rather a seat on a bus than stand on a train or Tube. There is a stop at the end of my street which will take me in one direction to the Draft House on Northcote Road (a story for another day) or in the other direction to Sloane Square and the heart of Chelsea. So I have softened. I still hope I don’t get TB, though.

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