As a child, buses were an everyday feature of my life.
At the age of 8 or 9, I went by bus to primary school – yes, in those days, it was quite normal for children of that age to take themselves on bus journeys unaccompanied by an adult. In day time, at least. And this was not in some bucolic rural community, but in suburban Middlesex – nowadays known as Greater London.
So the 183 and the 209 and the 158 became normal companions.
Later, at secondary school, the 347 became essential for access to Watford and friends and the delights of teenage shopping at Etam’s and Martin Ford’s.
As a student, studying in London, I took the bus everyday to Kentish Town and got to know the vagaries of the 27 and the 137 extremely well. Many an hour was spent waiting at bus stops in the Marylebone Road outside Baker Street station, George Eliot or Thomas Hardy or Jane Austen et al keeping me company, preparing for the seminar or lecture that I was heading for.
Those delightfully technology free times, of course, meant that there was no way of knowing how long that wait would be. No useful App, no indication of minutes telling you how long your windswept, chilly wait would be. But no matter. I got a lot of reading done while waiting – and somehow expecting delays and the infuriating fact of no bus for 20 minutes followed by 3 arriving together was simply part of the business of getting around London.
For a while, living in South West London, the 22 and the number 9 became my favourite numbers, with terminuses at Putney Common and Mortlake respectively.
And then for years, I hardly ever took a bus journey. In London, tubes seemed easier, quicker. Walking was healthier and often quicker. And outside London, at home in Winchester, well, there’s the car. The only time buses came back briefly was some 22 years ago when, without a car for a year, my then very small son, George and I, would enjoy travelling by bus, pushchair and all.
Then I became a car owner again and lost my loyalty to buses.
But that’s all changed.
I am now a regular, proud and committed bus user again. In London, at least.
And I find that I love my bus journeys!
For a start, people talk to each other on buses. Unlike tubes on the Underground, passengers don’t seem inhibited from striking up conversations with their fellow passengers. And these conversations are so open and friendly. I’ve talked to so many people, heard snippets about their lives, their jobs, their families, since returning to bus travel. Advice is always forthcoming. People on buses seem to want to help others by sharing their knowledge of routes and opening times and closing times. And even if I don’t get into a conversation myself, eavesdropping is always a pleasure and, as a writer, an inspiration for creating characters!
I’ve picked up information on places we’re passing too. Recently, I got into conversation with a woman with a very comprehensive knowledge of gothic architecture, both medieval and Victorian gothic revival types! Another told me a great deal about the cheapest places and markets to shop for food. I’ve heard about exhibitions I wished I’d seen, forthcoming ones that I consequently plan to visit.
And, of course, there’s the joy of watching the streets of London from the top deck. Even on routes that are very familiar, there is always something new to see. Something missed or changed or simply overlooked, however many countless times I’ve travelled or walked down Fleet Street, Haymarket, Upper Street, Clerkenwell Road or Cheapside.
There is undeniably something convivial about bus journeys that is just lacking from other forms of transport.
Whereas journeys by Underground on those efficient and swift tube lines are functional, practical, bus journeys are an experience. Unpredictable. Sociable.
Even the ubiquity of the screen – mobile phones the new essential extra human limb, apparently – fails to dominate journeys by bus.
For the time being at least – take my advice and grab yourself a bus journey while that’s still the case!